Recently I’d read Blackdog, the latest book released from K.V. Johansen and I loved it. Odin1Eye had reviewed it in November last year, which is where I’d heard about it.
So I thought I’d see if she’d consider making an appearance here to tell us a little about her journey as an author. I’m glad she agreed!
Because I write children’s books as well as adult fantasy, I do a fair number of school readings. Two questions children always ask (along with “Are you rich?” and “Are you famous?”) are, “When did you start writing?” and “Did you always want to be a writer?” (The answers to the other two are, “No,” and “Um … depends who you ask.”)
Did I always want to be a writer? I always liked to tell stories, is what I answer, and I was always interested in words and in language. I began by telling stories to my siblings. Some of these were serials that went on night after night. My mother claims that before I could write I used to draw pictures, dictate the stories that went with them, and get her to staple them together, declaring that someday I’d make stories in real books. I have no memory of this and any evidence is long since lost. Since at that age I wanted to be a palaeontologist, I assume the making of books was going to be something to do on holidays and sabbaticals, or perhaps they were going to be dinosaur books. Still, I suppose that means that yes, I always wanted to make books. What I do remember is the joy of telling stories and forcing my sisters to listen to them. Perhaps “forcing” is the wrong word, since no arm-twisting was involved. In fact, I got so fed up with demands for another Captain Anna story that one day when I was twelve or so I announced that she’d fallen from the mast in a hurricane, broken her leg, and was in bed with a cast. No more Anna stories. I heartlessly left her there for a couple of decades, until after my first book was published, whereupon one sister, a grown-up geneticist reverting to her inner eight-year-old, emailed me to say, “You should put Anna in the next Torrie book.”
And that is why, in Torrie and the Pirate-Queen, Anna wasn’t taken prisoner along with her father, and was able to set off on her rescue mission (dealing with marooned princes, savage sea-serpents, and a curse along the way). She was in bed with her leg in a cast when the Pirate-Queen captured the Oriole. Obviously.
When did I start writing? Storytelling spilled over into story-writing while I was still in elementary school, and the more I wrote, the more I had to write, because it wasn’t good enough. By the time I was halfway through anything I’d realize how much better it was at that point than when I began, so I’d have to go back to the beginning and start again. That, along with reading voraciously, was how I honed my art, returning again and again to the same story until it was right. Unfortunately, I still write in multiple unrolling layers, each getting further along than the last. This is probably a frustration to those who get to read my drafts, since there have been cases where halfway into the book it turns out the hero — isn’t. Not merely, “isn’t the hero”, but isn’t in the book any more at all. “But I liked her!” a friend wails by email. Maybe, like Captain Anna, she’ll show up in something else someday.
Blackdog is my first fantasy novel for adults, but it’s actually my twentieth book to be published. I’ve also written a children’s fantasy series, the Torrie books; a children’s near-future science fiction trilogy, The Cassandra Virus, The Drone War, and The Black Box; three Pippin picture books with illustrator Bernice Lum; The Warlocks of Talverdin, a four-book secondary world fantasy series for teens; a couple of short story collections, The Serpent Bride and The Storyteller); and two books on the history of children’s fantasy literature, Quests and Kingdoms and Beyond Window-Dressing. (Pause to count on fingers … yep, that’s the lot. For now.) The details on all of the above can be found on my websites: www.kvj.ca (mostly about Blackdog) and www.pippin.ca (children’s, YA, and non-fiction). It wasn’t a case of switching from writing for children and teens to writing for adults; I’d always been writing for adults, but I’d simply never hit the right configuration of circumstances, the right story, timing, and editor, until Blackdog. Bloody-minded determination to keep going got me there at last, but it’s only a waystation, not the end of the road. I certainly intend for there to be many more.
Bloody-minded persistence was also how my first book, Torrie and the Dragon, went from manuscript to book.
It was rejected thirteen times, with an interlude of having a major publisher interested, having the editor at said major publisher go on maternity leave and decide not to come back, and having no one else there interested. Part of the difficulty was that in Canada, fantasy, not a very big genre in children’s books now, was even less well-regarded then. Dragon ended up with a small children’s fiction imprint of a larger art-book publisher. (When I submitted the second book, Torrie and the Pirate-Queen, to them, they turned it down on the grounds that “Children don’t read fantasy.” Then they went out of business. This would have been 1998. Think back to what, other than Torrie and the Dragon, was published in 1997.)
Selling adult books has always been a lot harder for the unagented writer, and after a few go-rounds with … shall we say, weirdos, in order to be polite … I am still an unagented writer. However, I think this is becoming less and less feasible as time goes on; it seems to me that anyone trying to find a publisher these days almost has to have an agent, but agents are much harder to find than publishers used to be, if your book was any good, so I’m not one to ask for advice on that front. If you’re not an outgoing personality and live in an out-of-the-way place, and can’t afford to make the rounds of all the networking gatherings … I don’t know what you can do, as the business model of personal, face-to-face connection seems to be coming to dominate the publishing world. Blackdog ended up in Pyr’s slush pile when they had an experimental period of being open to unagented submissions, and fortunately, it hit a couple of people who really liked both my literary style and my kind of fantasy, the initial reader and my editor, Lou Anders. (It’s so nice to have an editor who is passionate about one’s work.)
I’m currently working on what I hope will be a sequel to Blackdog set in what I call Moth’s world, as well as another Torrie book, which has on been on hiatus for too long. (So soon as I finish the next Blackdog-world book I’ll get back to it, I keep promising the kids.) My friend Connie Choi and I are also working away, as time allows, at a manga adaptation of my short story “The Storyteller”, which is in the collection of the same title. “The Storyteller” is set at an earlier time in the Blackdog world; seeing some of the characters from that in manga style is a lot of fun. I love Connie’s interpretations of Moth and Mikki. Progress is intermittent because of the press of other things, but we post reports on our manga blog at www.mangasaga.wordpress.com from time to time. My other blog, www.thewildforest.wordpress.com is the home for irregular, but more frequent, posts about the writing life. I’m on Facebook these days, but I avoid Twitter, because it’s hard enough as it is to find the time and unbroken concentration necessary to write.