It's day 5! It's time for a Q&A with one of my favourite internet people. :) Seriously, if you haven't read her books or you're not following her on Twitter, you're doing it wrong.
E.K. Johnston is a forensic archaeologist by training, a book seller and author by trade, and a grammarian by nature. She spends a great deal of time on the internet because it is less expensive than going to Scotland. She can probably tell you, to the instant, when she fell in love with any particular song, but don't ask her, because then it will be stuck in both of your heads. Her first book, The Story of Owen (March 2014, Carolrhoda Lab), was a finalist for the William C. Morris YA Debut Award (2015), a YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults (Top Ten) (2014), and a Kirkus Prize Nominee for Young Readers' Literature (2014). Next came the sequel, Prairie Fire (March 2015, Carolrhoda Lab), and coming later this year is A Thousand Nights (October 2015, Disney*Hyperion). You can find her on her website or on Twitter at @ek_johnston.
Q: For those who've been living under a rock and haven't yet read your awesome books, what is Prairie Fire about? Because it's not just about being a dragon slayer, is it? It's so much more layered and complicated than that.
A: PRAIRIE FIRE is the sequel to THE STORY OF OWEN, so it's still about music and dragons and Canada, but I've sent them on quite a road-trip, so it's a larger scale. Basically, Owen and Siobhan have finished high school, which means Owen has to join the Oil Watch, and Siobhan isn't going to let him do it alone. It seems like a pretty straightforward decision, but everything gets complicated pretty much right away.
Q: I was surprised at the beginning of the book to find Siobhan, Owen, and Sadie actually in the military. The Oil Watch is connected to it, yes, but to see it actually portrayed, actually in print and not just glossed over, was interesting. There's a sense of order to their time there not often seen in newspapers or movies. Was that your intention, to show the honest, practical side of being in the military, the reality of it?
A: Well, the Oil Watch is the in-universe version of UN Peacekeepers, so...yes, they are the military! I talked to my friends and family members who have experience in the Canadian Armed Forces because I wanted it to read well, but the order aspect comes from needing to tie Siobhan in. She thinks of everything in terms of trumpet calls, and because of her hands, I had to break down every task she'd be assigned.
More importantly, I have tremendous respect for our servicemen and women, from the veterans to the newest recruits, and I wanted to write something that highlighted their work.
Q: I'm a huge sucker for awesome world-building, so I love all the changed made to history so the dragons could fit in and everything could make sense. Every time I hear someone talking about a chinook sweeping across the prairies now I assume it's a dragon. I imagine you had to go even further into the research hole for Prairie Fire. Was there anything you discovered that surprised you? That frustrated you?
A: The only frustration I had was that I couldn't re-name Washington "MacDonald". ;)
In truth, the hardest part was that the parts of Canadian history I needed for this book were not our best moments. I had to be very careful not to make the early Prime Ministers into paragons of historical achievement: they did some really awful things, and I wanted to address that, even if I had to sacrifice a few plot points to do it.
I didn't really discover anything while writing this book that I didn't know the bare-bones of already (my background is in history, after all, so even though it's not my primary area of study, you pick a lot of stuff up!). That said, my absolute favourite "Canadian-ism" in PRAIRIE FIRE is the Singe'n'burn gag. I get a lot of emails from Canadian readers about that!
Q: With the move away from Trondheim and towards the prairies, there's a move away from familiar faces and towards new ones. Ones like Courtney, like Peter, like Nick and Kaori, and like Porter. Where did they come from? From people? From ideas? From songs?
A: This is where I have to confess something: I am terrible at building characters. With the exception of Porter, all of the people you asked about were literally names on a page, and it wasn't until they started talking to Siobhan that they developed at all. This is particularly true of Nick and Peter, though I at least set them up to be opposites of each other. I wanted a Japanese dragon slayer for a bunch of reasons, and Courtney is a reflection of all of the best qualities possessed by my friends.
Porter is Totally Not Richard Armitage. Totally. Not.
Q: I won't ask you why the ending is the way it is, as emotional and soul-destroying as I found it to be, because I understand why that's the ending. It makes sense. What are you hoping readers take away from the ending, from both books as a whole?
A: There's a saying from F. Scott Fitzgerald, "Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy", and I respectfully disagree. Heroes can be sad, and bad things can happen to them, and reading their stories can make YOU feel sad, but I think the net gain is always positive. They all knew the risks. They did it anyway. They would do it again tomorrow. I don't think everyone has to have that kind of drive (I certainly don't), but I like the idea that there are people who do, and I think they deserve acknowledgement and support.
I had a very early editorial note talking about how Lottie's plan had failed, and I had to be all "Wait, no, I need you to tell me how to make this more clear", because they definitely succeeded. Not in the way they meant to, and much, much sooner than they intended, but: net gain positive.
Q: There are some reviews I've read that mention the desire for more books in this world. I don't blame them, it's a unique world with real characters and their real problems, their real desires and fears and struggles. But there won't ever be more, will there?
A: Probably not. I mean, never say never. But probably not.
Q: You have another book coming out later this year, A Thousand Nights, which sounds wonderful and has an amazing cover and I can't wait to read it, but what about after that? What are you working on next?
A: After A THOUSAND NIGHTS, I have a companion novel for it, and then other projects I can't talk about yet. I am certainly keeping busy.
Thanks so much to Kate for answering my questions. If you love smart, intelligent, powerful stories with compelling characters, then check out The Story of Owen and Prairie Fire. :)