An Interview with Erika Johansen

The author of The Queen of the Tearling discusses inspiration, favorite writers, and the shortsightedness of the YA label.


Explaining the inspiration for The Queen of the Tearling, you said, “One evening, I had that rare sort of dream that you remember perfectly upon waking: a single image in my head of a group of people in boats, leaving a broken land and disappearing over the horizon toward an uncertain future.” Has that happened to you before, or since?

Not in a way that impacts my writing. I rarely remember my dreams at all, particularly on the days when the writing has gone well, and no image from a dream has ever stayed with me like that one did. I wish I could remember what the dream was actually about.

Did you always envision The Queen of the Tearling as a series, or was it initially going to be a stand-alone novel?

I initially saw it as two books. But then I realized, very early into the first book, that I wanted to tell the backstory of the Tearling as an actual story, not as a big chunk of exposition. At that point, the two books expanded into three, because I knew it would take an extra book to chronicle the history of this world the way I wanted to.

Speaking of series, does the success of YA franchises like Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Divergent feel intimidating, like you’re entering an arena whose bar has been set extremely high?

Not at all, mostly because I’ve never thought of my series as YA. A lot of other people seem to have decided it’s YA simply because my heroine is 19. Kelsea goes through some teenage angst, to be certain, but the real problems she’s facing — evil, corruption, and greed — are not endemic to YA at all. I’m glad I never thought of publishing my first book until it was nearly done, because I was never forced to target the writing to any genre or age group, and it left me free to examine the ugly side of the world in any way I pleased.

I’ve read some YA I liked, but by and large I find it a limiting genre, because eventually there’s a barrier of unpleasantness that the author simply can’t cross. J.K. Rowling is so skilled that I never felt that she was limited by her audience; some of the adult evil explored in the Harry Potter books — Umbridge, for example — is so nasty that I’m still not sure how she pulled it off within the context of books that were supposed to be child-appropriate. But with the exception of Rowling, in books targeted to children and young teens, I generally find that you can always sense that barrier: Beyond this you cannot go. I began reading adult books very young, because I loved the darkness and truth I found there. I never wanted to write with the YA barrier in my way.

Why do you think far-in-the-future tales, YA or otherwise, are invariably dystopian? Is mankind’s only trajectory a downward one?

I think the reason is far more prosaic: If we were heading toward utopia rather than dystopia, no one would want to read about it. Stories need conflict, and if the world were more or less benevolent and trouble-free, it would make for a very weak tale. Dystopian stories almost always serve as cautionary tales; the author is addressing the extreme consequences of developing events in our current world. If the trajectory were upward rather than downward, the story would cease to function as a warning, and thus perhaps lose some of its heft, as well.

Why is it so easy to imagine humans regressing to our baser selves? That we’re one lengthy power outage away from returning to the Middle Ages?

I think the two questions are unrelated. The Tearling has eschewed technology, but that’s not at all the reason that humanity has regressed. Over the course of history, we always seem to regress unless someone is manning the watchtower. The need for human rights, for empathy, for consideration of those beyond ourselves…these concepts are rarely innate. Often, they must be taught — almost enshrined — from generation to generation.

If no one is teaching them, if no value is placed on the concept of community over self, then both individuals and nations will regress toward our more brutal past. The present-day Tearling is the result of nearly three centuries of failure in this respect. The phenomenon is understandable; when people are scrambling for survival, certain intangibles always get dumped overboard. But I would argue that if you survive only by compromising the principles on which your nation was founded, that’s not really survival. It’s parasitism.

Growing up, which authors did you most enjoy reading? How has your taste in literature evolved over time — or has it?

I read my first Stephen King book when I was 10 years old, and tore through the rest of his work shortly thereafter; he’s still my favorite author. He basically brought me into horror, which is still my favorite genre. After King, I found Poe and Matheson and Lovecraft and the rest of the greats in that area. As a teenager, I read plenty of YA, but those weren’t the books that stuck with me. Moving through high school, I fell in love with Faulkner and Steinbeck, and those also seem to be lifelong affairs. As I grow older, I find that I enjoy nonfiction, particularly history, more than I used to. My favorite historian is Barbara Tuchman; I feel that The March of Folly should be required reading for anyone entering government.

Getting back to the dream that inspired your books: Do you keep that story to yourself when talking to other writers who are struggling for ideas? Most authors are already pretty insecure, you know.

I guess I’ve never worried about it, mostly because I don’t talk to other writers. For me, writing has always been a very insular business, a battle between me and myself. Even when I was in writing workshops, I simply wanted to listen to the teachers and read fiction and learn, and took very little advantage of the community and discussion aspects of such programs. I’m not sure the whole dream thing is anything to envy anyway. Plotting comes far harder to me than any other aspect of writing, and most of the time it’s a tooth-and-nail business to think of ideas at all, let alone good ones. Maybe my subconscious finally decided I deserved a break.

Holly Smith is managing editor of the Independent and definitely trends dystopian. Follow her on Twitter at @HSmithWrites.

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