Nov­el­ist Erika Jo­hansen talks to Shreeja Ravin­dranathan about her de­but fan­tasy novel, its up­com­ing Hol­ly­wood adap­ta­tion, and the fact she can whole­heart­edly say dreams re­ally do come true...

Friday - - Motoring -

There aren’t many of us who can lay claim to having our as­pi­ra­tions be­come a re­al­ity. But for de­but nov­el­ist Erika Jo­hansen, af­ter the re­lease of her first novel last month – a grip­ping postapoc­a­lyp­tic ad­ven­ture fan­tasy

The Queen of the Tear­ling, the first in a tril­ogy – life is about liv­ing out her dreams. Lit­er­ally.

The 36-year-old San Fran­cis­can’s novel took form only af­ter a vivid dream she had of a ship cross­ing an ocean while im­mi­grat­ing to new lands, “very Colum­bus-like,” as she cheek­ily puts it. It has brought her more good for­tune than Christo­pher Colum­bus him­self; right from bro­ker­ing a seven-fig­ure deal for her very first novel and the up­com­ing se­ries, to be­ing ap­proached by Warner Bros for a sil­ver screen adap­ta­tion helmed by Harry Pot­ter pro­ducer David Hey­man and star­ring Emma Wat­son as Kelsea, the 19-yearold epony­mous Queen of the Tear­ling. The cover page blurb from the pub­lish­ers suc­cinctly sums up the novel as ‘ The Hunger Games meets The Game of

Thrones [GOT]’ with back-cover quotes from the likes of The New York Times best­selling au­thor Lau­ren Oliver ( Delir­ium Tril­ogy) and Bernard Corn­well ( The Pa­gan Lord).

You’d ex­pect a de­but nov­el­ist (and for­mer lawyer) to be pleased with such high-pro­file com­par­isons, but Jo­hansen isn’t im­pressed. “Yes, it’s a cross between dystopian and fan­tasy fic­tion,” she says, re­fer­ring to the cover lines. “I haven’t read any of the GOT books so I can’t com­ment on how apt it is. But I just wish there wasn’t the need to sum up a book in one sen­tence. If a book can be summed up in one sen­tence, I’d think it’s prob­a­bly not worth read­ing.” She’s not wor­ried her book will do badly though. In fact, she says The Queen of the

Tear­ling is “quite worth the read”. Jo­hansen’s trope might be as old as the hills – a young monarch in ex­ile re­turn­ing to re­claim her throne. But this is where she smartly de­ploys a win­ning gam­bit: The Tear­ling is a dystopian me­dieval king­dom bereft of elec­tric­ity, tech­nol­ogy or in­fra­struc­ture, sit­u­ated in what is, star­tlingly, 24th-cen­tury Amer­ica. Yes, it’s me­dieval by virtue of its lack of tech­nol­ogy, but with the time­line in the future.

Fol­low­ing an un­known 21st cen­tury apoc­a­lyp­tic event called the Cross­ing (in an im­i­ta­tion of her dream), a band of Bri­tish and Amer­i­can utopi­ans sail to a new con­ti­nent. Jo­hansen’s ra­tio­nale for such an out­landish set­ting? “I wanted my hero­ine to have ac­cess to hu­man­ity’s his­tory to look back on

‘If an au­thor has failed to en­ter­tain a reader they have failed at their most fun­da­men­tal path’

ac­tual events and make com­par­isons and draw per­spec­tives from that.”

On her 19th birth­day, Kelsea Raleigh, raised in ex­ile by her fos­ter par­ents, is brought back to her king­dom by the Queen’s guard to be crowned as the right­ful ruler of The Tear­ling. But the ex­pe­di­tion is fraught with ad­ven­ture, magic and dan­gers – her un­cle wants her throne; the malev­o­lent Red Queen, sorcer­ess-ruler of neigh­bour­ing na­tion Mortmesne, threat­ens in­va­sion; and her sub­jects dis­trust her, es­pe­cially the be­guil­ing Robin Hood-es­que out­law, the Fetch, who could be friend or foe.

Strik­ing a bal­ance between en­ter­tain­ment while of­fer­ing lit­er­ary com­men­tary was im­por­tant to Jo­hansen. “If an au­thor has failed to en­ter­tain a reader they have failed at their most fun­da­men­tal path,” she says. “You can write the best-writ­ten book in the world but if it’s dull it has failed.”

Step­ping out of Swarth­more Col­lege in 2009 with a law de­gree in hand, the economic down­turn killed Jo­hansen’s chances of find­ing reg­u­lar em­ploy­ment. She failed to land a job or trainee­ship in law, but took up odd jobs to keep her­self afloat and money com­ing in. “At that point, with a bunch of stu­dent loan debts, you be­gin scram­bling and take on any job you can,” the guarded au­thor re­calls, un­will­ing to di­vulge de­tails of the odd jobs she did or the ear­lier hard­ships.

“At some point I pinned most of my hopes on this book that I started writ­ing dur­ing my sec­ond year at school in 2007, and it worked out!”

Writ­ing was always Jo­hansen’s true call­ing, she be­lieves, “I was writ­ing since I was seven years old and planned to be a writer all along.”

Be­fore go­ing to col­lege she ac­quired an MFA from the Iowa Writ­ers’ Work­shop. But the pro­gramme was bi­ased to­wards lit­er­ary fic­tion – a genre Jo­hansen rarely en­joyed as a reader be­cause of its con­cen­trated fo­cus on artis­tic prose and a cere­bral tone. And she en­joyed it even less as a writer.

Her strug­gle with her first at­tempt at a novel shat­tered her con­fi­dence and saw the in­tel­li­gent stu­dent change tracks to the world of law. Why the shift? “I always had a strong sense of jus­tice and am very so­cially and po­lit­i­cally aware,” she ex­plains. “For a long time be­cause I was ter­ri­ble at writ­ing lit­er­ary fic­tion I as­sumed I was go­ing to be ter­ri­ble at all writ­ing. But I even­tu­ally got back to my first love and started writ­ing The Queen... af­ter I had the dream.”

The po­tent, lin­ger­ing dream, cou­pled with a stir­ring speech in 2007 by then sen­a­tor Barack Obama, who came across as “a ca­pa­ble and in­spir­ing leader” on tele­vi­sion, led to her eureka mo­ment of cre­at­ing Kelsea and The Tear­ling, with Barack Obama’s dy­namism and lead­er­ship as­cribed to Kelsea. “My own pol­i­tics for cer­tain do bleed on to the page via Kelsea, as I’m writ­ing about hu­man be­ings and their con­flicts.

“But it’s not that I sat down and said I’m go­ing to write a po­lit­i­cal book,” she says.

Fin­ish­ing the novel in 2011, Jo­hansen then sent it to Do­rian Karch­mar, an agent she met at the work­shop, and the rest is his­tory.

True to her pres­i­den­tial in­spi­ra­tion Jo­hansen’s plot (de­spite her as­ser­tions oth­er­wise) is rife with po­lit­i­cal in­trigue, re­flec­tive in­ter­nal de­bates on so­cioe­co­nomic poli­cies, jus­tice and hu­man­ity

and yes, magic, but her ve­hi­cle is Kelsea – a woman.

Was it im­por­tant for her to write a fe­male into the fore­front of the story? “Well, I mean I find it al­most im­pos­si­ble to write men as I don’t have any in­sight into the male mind,” she says. “So my main char­ac­ters have always pretty much been women and I doubt that will ever change.”

Kelsea is con­sciously char­ac­terised as book­ish, plain, round-faced and ro­bust in re­sponse to Jo­hansen’s frus­tra­tion at the lack of fe­male pro­tag­o­nists who bear a like­ness to real women and the re­al­ity that all women aren’t exquisitely beau­ti­ful.

“The rea­son it’s re­it­er­ated is be­cause from my own ex­pe­ri­ence when you’re a teenage girl who’s not pretty, that fact is ham­mered into you ev­ery day,” she says. “You’re never al­lowed to for­get it, par­tic­u­larly in Amer­i­can cul­ture – it’s a hard thing to deal with and as an is­sue books de­cline to ad­dress this.” Her book there­fore tack­les the ab­sur­dity of the stereo­type that princesses and plain­ness are mu­tu­ally exclusive.

It’s a point Jo­hansen clev­erly and sub­tly makes. For ex­am­ple, Kelsea’s mus­ings about her weight af­fect­ing the speed of her swords­man­ship skills isn’t the usual bur­den princesses in sto­ry­books face. That said, Kelsea’s lack of con­ven­tional beauty doesn’t con­trol her des­tiny or what she can ac­com­plish, and she as­serts im­mense strength of char­ac­ter. “That’s the mes­sage I was try­ing to get across,” says Jo­hansen.

But doesn’t this make her ac­qui­es­cence in the cast­ing of stun­ning, wil­lowy Emma Wat­son as Kelsea a lit­tle odd? The au­thor has her rea­sons. “There’s much more to Kelsea than her looks so it was an ex­pend­able as­pect,” she says, adding she took a prac­ti­cal ap­proach to her deal­ings with Hol­ly­wood.

“I knew when sign­ing the con­tract that it was never go­ing to be a plain ac­tress for a project this big. So what mat­tered most to me is that they cast an ac­tress who pro­jected Kelsea’s in­tel­li­gence and com­pas­sion and Emma does that.”

A com­ing-of-age story this novel is, but Jo­hansen is em­phatic that her tril­ogy does not fall into Young Adult ter­ri­tory. “I’ve never thought of it as YA fic­tion be­cause Kelsea’s mind is an adult mind and the prob­lems she faces are adult prob­lems. This book is in­nocu­ous com­pared to what’s com­ing be­cause I’ve never been will­ing to pull my punches in terms of [writ­ing] con­tent to sat­isfy an age group of read­ers.”

Jo­hansen has en­coun­tered a var­ied range of read­ers at book­stores and meet-and-greets, where the re­sponse has mostly been “over­whelm­ingly pos­i­tive”, and for the debu­tante nov­el­ist their good­will is half the bat­tle achieved. “I don’t care if half the world hates the book – that in it­self is suc­cess to me. A lot of them ac­tu­ally told me that Kelsea is a hero­ine they’ve been look­ing for all their life.”

And it’s not just the ladies who feel they can re­late to Kelsea. Male read­ers (men form more than 61 per cent of the fan­tasy and sci­ence fic­tion’s de­mo­graphic) have warmed up to her quan­daries and bat­tles too. It’s a fact Jo­hansen feels shouldn’t come as a sur­prise. “Women love fan­tasy fic­tion just as much as men do, but fan­tasy fic­tion isn’t serv­ing [women] as well. With an in­ter­est­ing, re­lat­able pro­tag­o­nist I don’t be­lieve the gen­der alien­ates read­ers.”

‘Women love fan­tasy fic­tion as much as men, but fan­tasy fic­tion isn’t serv­ing women as well’

Dis­robed of her fan­tasy writer cloak, Jo­hansen is a hor­ror afi­cionado. She’s non­cha­lantly frank about fan­tasy not be­ing her favourite genre to read. Hon­esty is an at­tribute Jo­hansen cher­ishes, not just in Kelsea but in her­self too, and (de­spite a no­tice­able lack of divulging de­tails on her per­sonal life), with her writ­ing this hon­esty is ev­i­dent in ev­ery­thing she says.

“I have about four fan­tasy au­thors I re­ally like and be­yond them I’ve read al­most noth­ing,” she says. Th­ese au­thors gave her the de­tails she needed to con­jure up me­dieval themes as part of the back­drop of The Queen of

the Tear­ling. “I ac­tu­ally did no re­search into me­dieval times,” she con­fesses. “Any­thing in there that feels me­dieval is me cob­bling to­gether ob­ser­va­tions from a bunch of fic­tion books I’ve read for fun.” Think Frank Hu­bert’s Dune, Mar­ion Zim­mer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon, Terry Brooks’ Her­itage of Shannara and Richard Adams’ Water­ship Down. She also adores the Harry Pot­ter and

The Lord of The Rings se­ries. But hor­ror is her favourite genre. “I love Stephen King, Richard Mathe­son and HP Love­craft,” she says. But she ad­mits she “isn’t very good at writ­ing it”.

There are mo­ments of fear in her book. Meta-nar­ra­tive scenes that de­scribe the hor­rific idea of a world de­void of books: the new world suf­fers from a short­age of books, brought on by the pop­u­lar­ity of elec­tronic pub­lish­ing and the re­sul­tant loss of hard copies.

“It’s my lit­tle hint that no mat­ter what time pe­riod we’re in, now that we’ve in­vented the print­ing press and have the abil­ity to have our words printed we should not let it die,” Jo­hansen ex­plains.

Not that eBooks are evil, she clar­i­fies quickly. “I might be a bit of Lud­dite”, she jokes. “But I’m just not con­fi­dent that elec­tric­ity in gen­eral and elec­tron­ics in gen­eral are always gonna be here for us, that they’re in­fal­li­ble. Not great for the trees, but…”

She credits her fa­ther, who like Kelsea’s fos­ter par­ents ed­u­cated her to be­come an in­tel­li­gent, po­lit­i­cally aware ci­ti­zen, for nour­ish­ing her love of writ­ing. It’s the only time the acutely pri­vate au­thor, who still lives in San Fran­cisco (where she was born and raised), discusses her fam­ily.

“He was read­ing to me long be­fore I could even crawl,” she says. “And one of the great­est things he did as a par­ent is to tell me to go ahead and learn – even if there’s no job wait­ing for me at the end. Just to learn any­way.”

Con­sid­er­ing that Jo­hansen was a down-on-luck grad­u­ate plod­ding away at a novel with no guar­an­tees, it’s no won­der she is happy her life even­tu­ally took a turn for the bet­ter.

Her voice cracks in grat­i­tude when she says, “I might have looked like a fail­ure to my fa­ther in se­cret, but he never made me feel that way.”

Things have never looked bet­ter for Jo­hansen now she’s a full-time writer, with her book be­ing sold in more than 20 coun­tries world­wide. “I get to wake up ev­ery day and all I have to do is write!” she gushes. “I no longer stay awake at night fig­ur­ing out how to pay my bills. It’s the great­est gift. It re­ally is a dream come true!”

Em­maWat­son is to play Kelsea in the movie adap­ta­tion

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