Today I am delighted to welcome KV Johansen. Author of the Gods of Caravan Road Series for an interview on my blog.
DS: Thanks for being here KV. Its a pleasure to interview you.
KV: Thanks Dan. Its a pleasure to be here.
DS: Lets begin
DS: For readers who aren’t familiar with you as a writer would you mind telling us a little about yourself and how you first got into writing?
KV: I’m a Canadian with an academic background in Medieval Studies and English Literature. I started writing as a kid because I’d always been fascinated with language and with stories. I used to tell stories to my sisters; the natural progression was to start writing them down. They were always fantasy stories; I mostly read stories that were fantasy or had an historical setting (whether by virtue of being historical fiction, like Rosemary Sutcliff, or being stories of an earlier era, like Arthur Ransome), so fantasy seemed to be how I naturally expressed the stories I wanted to tell.
DS: Your dialogue is extremely rich. Do you plan the dialogue, or does it grow organically as you go?
KV: I don’t plan the dialogue in advance. It just flows out while I’m writing. Sometimes I’ll compose quite long bits in my head while I’m walking or driving, too, though once I get back to my computer and start writing them, they’ll shift and go in different directions as the larger story demands, but that’s not exactly planning that some particular characters are going to have a conversation that’ll do X or Y. For me, it’s important to have a good ear attuned to the way that the characters are speaking. They may use certain diction in specific situations, and another mode of speech entirely in a different circumstance or with different people. Speech seems to be part of shaping the character, when I write. I don’t consciously consider how a particular person’s way of speaking will reveal them; it seems to be a fundamental thing that happens naturally as the character grows. I suppose that goes back to this lifelong fascination with language. It’s like developing an ear for music — it’s been something in my head for so long I just do it.
DS: You have wrote stories for all ages from picture books to adult novels. What different challenges did each style of writing present? How did they make you grow as a writer?
KV: I find that remembering being someone of that age taking in stories really helps in hitting the right voice for the audience. In a way, it’s a case of writing for yourself at whatever age or reading level you’re feeling that a particular story is for — telling that past you a story you would have wanted. If you have that memory, it’s a huge help in keeping the tone you need, in remembering what matters and what doesn’t. If you write for the very young you who would have been delighted by “Pippin splashed in that puddle, splish! splash! splosh! until she was muddy from her great big ears to her curly black tail ..” rather than for some imagined adult gatekeeper, you’ll hit the right tone, rather than sounding arch and condescending, which is a pitfall potentially lying in wait for picture book writers.
I suppose one challenge in the children’s novels was that the Torrie books, but most especially my YA series Warlocks of Talverdin, kept edging towards something older and darker as time went on, because I although I had been writing adult fantasy all along, I wasn’t having any luck finding an agent or a publisher at that point in the late nineties and early 2000’s, and the desire to be working on that more kept leaking into other things I was working on, so that I had to keep reining in the complexity — not because children or teens couldn’t deal with it, but because no Canadian publisher was going to let me have that kind of length. It wasn’t what the market in Canada wanted at that time. It drove me to writing Blackdog, to be doing the kind of thing I needed to do that wasn’t able to find full expression in Canadian YA.
I think that in writing the Torrie books in particular, I was reminded of what really mattered to me in a story, and thinking about that consciously became something I could take into my writing for adults. Torrie, more than any other of my children’s books, was me writing for myself.
DS: Who were your writing influences growing up? Which writers would you encourage everyone to read and why?
KV: Tolkien was by far the biggest influence on me. His use of language, and the way the language shifts to suit the mood and the mode, really affected how I expected words to work. Other writers I read who were big influences on me would be Rosemary Sutcliff, Arthur Ransome, Eleanor Farjeon, Mary Stewart (her Merlin, not her romance-thrillers), and Alan Garner. Also, as a teen, Cherryh, McKillip, LeCarré, and Deighton.
I’d encourage everyone to read Sutcliff and Diana Wynne Jones. Sutcliff wrote historical fiction for young people, more often featuring youngish adults, not children or teens, and she took her characters through some pretty dark places in their lives. At least three of her books end with the hero’s self-sacrificial suicide or outright sacrifice, though usually she ends on a note of hope and the carrying on of light into the future, even in those. She wrote with an intense feeling of landscape and of people finding a connection with their land — the one to which they’d come, not necessarily the one in which they’d been born or grown up. She wrote about characters wounded, in body or spirit, who found a way to heal and survive and carrying something onwards into the future.
Diana Wynne Jones, on the other hand, is an author I never read as a child, though finding a blurb for The Ogre Downstairs in the back of some other book in the library (Garner, maybe) I wanted to. I never found a book by her until I was an adult researching the book I was writing on the history of children’s fantasy, which was when I bought and read them all. She was an incredible, awe-inspiring writer in her mastery of story, impossible to predict. She also wrote very complex psychology with incredible lightness of touch. It’s just there, in a way children perceive and understand without consciously thinking about it, and yet by showing these things, her books open up minds a little wider, shed a little light in dark places where you can start to see and think about things you might have been desperately needing to without anyone ever offering you the words. (I’m thinking of one of her more obscure books, The Homeward Bounders, here, and Jamie’s isolation and determination to do what needs to be done to keep his world safe. Or Christopher’s behaviour in The Lives of Christopher Chant and his growing self-awareness when he’s so close to becoming a terrible and dangerous person.) But she’s also very funny and mind-bogglingly inventive. Quite chilling, too, when she wanted to be — Time of the Ghost, for instance.
DS: Are you a plotter or discovery writer or a mixture of both? Which ever you chose what are the benefits of this, and what are the drawbacks if any?
KV: I usually start with a character in a situation and figure out the story as I go along — definitely a writer who has to discover the story along the way. That said, I’ve been trying to work it out more in advance for my next project. I work by writing until I grind to a halt, which usually mean the story has gone down the wrong path, backtracking to where it was working and then writing onwards from there again, so that by the time I get about half to two-thirds through, the first parts may have gone through five, a dozen or more drafts. By half or two-thirds suddenly I can see everything, this synergy kicks in and its all there and I write the rest really quickly and have a quite polished final draft. However, there’s an awful lot of frustration along the way. I’ve hit twenty-five drafts for … I think it was Gods of Nabban. I’d have to look at my files to see; when I do a major ‘out of cheese error, redo from start’ thing (to steal a phrase from Pratchett) I renumber the file.
I’m not sure if trying to work out the general shape of it more in advance is really working for me or not. I still seem to have been writing and rewriting the start of the new project for endless months, with the variation that each time I do, I have to rewrite the outline as well. On the other hand, for my ‘lit’ project, a real world non-fantasy thing, I did have most of the story in my head before I started, and was able to write a sketchy outline of the structure and then sit down and write the book. It would be nice to take that approach into a fantasy novel, I think. But on the other hand, that was dealing with a clearly established world — Kingston in 2016. I didn’t need to invent it; I just had to make what already existed come alive. That exploration as I go way of writing is a huge part of how I make a world come alive in writing fantasy. I guess the approach that works for me is always going to be the metaphor of a path through the forest, or a tree growing, but I’d like to be able to bring a bit more outlining into it, to cut back on how many drafts I have to write to find my way to the end — to at least have a sketch map when I set out on the journey.
DS: Which characters do you enjoy writing and why?
KV: I enjoy writing almost all my characters. I think maybe the two I love best to write are Ahjvar and Ghu — the way they interact and bring each other to life for me is something special, but two I particularly enjoyed in The Last Road were Yeh-Lin and Ailan. Yeh-Lin has such a zest for life; she’s been in the series since The Leopard but in The Last Road she really gets to shine, and to show what she’s made of. It was a chance to do her justice as a central figure at last, rather than as someone peripheral to Ghu’s story. Ailan is a new character; he comes in as the young, inexperienced person falling into a story where he’s surrounded by competent hero types, and he’s trying so hard to figure things out, to figure himself out, too. His story is really only just beginning at the end of the book. He’s also someone who brings a new perspective to Ahjvar, both as a point of view observing him, and as a way for me to show some of the changes that Ahjvar has gone through.
DS: Would you mind talking about your upcoming release The Last Road? The final book of the Gods of Caravan Road Series. What can we except no spoilers please?
KV: In The Last Road you can expect things to get darker. The stakes being played for may be the very existence of the gods. There’s an army of religious fanatics advancing on Marakand from out of the west, led by an incarnate god who, in contradiction to what everyone understands of the nature of the gods of the earth, is not bound to his land, and who is destroying the gods and goddesses of the lands he conquers as he comes. You’re going to find out more about the nature of the devils and the Old Great Gods and the relationship between them, and see all the non-human heroes of the previous books come together to stand against what looks like the ending of their world as they know it. You’ll meet some new mortal human characters, too, not just Ailan, whom I mentioned above, but the cowherd turned warrior Jolanan, and Nikeh, an orphan who survived the massacre of her village to be adopted as an apprentice scholar and spy by Yeh-Lin. And you’ll finally get to see what happens when Moth is pushed too far.
DS: Finally, what is next for KV Johansen?
KV: My next project is going to involve a much smaller map, not an entire continent, and a smaller cast of characters, but it will bring the same richness of character and world to its story. I’m hoping it will have a bit of the flavour of ancient legend in the background, vast forests with mysteries in the shadows, and the protagonists, not sure whether they’re the heroes or the villains of the tale, entangled in treason.
DS: Thanks so much KV for your fantastic answers I have really enjoyed interviewing you.
KV: Thanks for your wonderful questions Dan. I have loved being on your blog. Thanks for having me.
This interview was carried out over email. Thanks to KV for doing the interview providing such brilliant answers. I encourage everyone to read her work.
If you would like to learn more about KV and her books. Then why not check out these links below.