Erika Johansen on Censorship and Writing a Realistic Fantasy Heroine
Even before its publication, Erika Johansen’s debut high fantasy novel was optioned for a film adaption, with Emma Watson set to star. It’s no surprise, it has everything a summer blockbuster needs: a relatable and clever heroine, epic battles between light and darkness, and a destiny to be fulfilled. The Queen of the Tearling, the first in a planned trilogy, takes place in a medieval land in a distant future. Princess Kelsea has spent her life in hiding after the death of her mother, Queen Elyssa. Though as she comes of age, she must reluctantly take her place on the throne and learn how to free her people from the clutches of the powerful and dangerous Red Queen. In this interview, Johansen talks about writing a realistic heroine and the “dangerous trend” of book censorship.
Bookish: Kelsea reminded me of Daenerys, Breaker of Chains, from A Song of Fire and Ice. Who are some heroines in literature that inspire you?
Erika Johansen: I’ve never read any of George Martin’s books, [but] my favorite heroine of all time is V.I. Warshawski, from Sara Paretsky’s excellent series of novels. I’m not a big mystery reader, but V.I.—smart, tough, compassionate and resourceful, but extremely human as well—has been a role model for me since I was young. Some other favorite heroines (though not necessarily role models) include Morgaine from The Mists of Avalon; Wren Elessedil from Terry Brooks’ The Heritage of Shannara series; Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind; and Dolores Claiborne from Stephen King’s book of the same name.
Bookish: Kelsea is an excellent heroine for female readers in that she represents diversity. She doesn’t believe she’s plain while everyone else sees her true beauty, her guards think she could stand to lose a few pounds, and romance is present yet not a strong theme in the novel. Kelsea has much larger issues on her plate, and in that way, she’s refreshing. What do you think is the most important thing to consider when crafting a heroine?
EJ: It depends on whom you’re writing for. I wrote The Queen of the Tearling specifically for readers like me, readers who were tired of the heroine’s gorgeous appearance controlling her environment. Because a heroine is pretty, both men and women treat her differently, and so there is an entire set of insecurities and difficulties that she will never have to face or even consider. Now, beauty has its own difficulties, as my book points out, but a myriad of books have already been written about those difficulties.
It’s much tougher to find a book about a heroine who doesn’t make heads turn, who must convince the world of her value based on her actions, not her looks. This is a value system we should be encouraging, and a plain heroine with serious problems interests me much more than a beautiful girl whose biggest problem is having two men fighting over her. Romance constantly dominates women’s fiction, to the exclusion of other priorities, but most real women have real problems. They generally can’t, nor should they, shove everything else to one side in order to pursue true love. Since realistic heroines are hard to find on the bookshelf, I thought I would add one more.
Bookish: The book is filled with action and adventure, but it is also very political. William Tear, who lead the Crossing to the new world, was a socialist who dreamed of a utopian society that didn’t pan out. Did you use any specific moments in history as inspiration?
EJ: Not so much specific moments as ideas. Most of my political ideals have probably been shaped by one of several historians. Barbara Tuchman is nearly a god to me, and Howard Zinn is right behind her.
Bookish: The setting is reminiscent of England in the Middle Ages, making it seem as though you reverse the flow of history (we go from surfing the web to serfdom). What was the driving force behind that decision?
EJ: On a purely pragmatic writing level, the driving force was selfishness. I wanted write a fantasy novel, but I also wanted my characters to have access to Earth’s history in all of its ugliness, and to be able to use that history to shed perspective. But beyond my own wishes as a writer, I didn’t think it was unrealistic that a man trying to create a utopia would first demand that all technology be left behind. While technology is an extraordinarily useful thing, it’s also only as good as the human beings operating it. Even in our current world, that leaves a lot of room for misuse.
Bookish: It’s said that before the Crossing, electronic books “decimate” the publishing industry. What do you think of how they fit in today?
EJ: They fit in fine, but I am concerned about the use of electronic books to the exclusion of physical copies. I find my Kindle invaluable for letting me bring plenty of books when I travel, but I also have a rule that if I read a new book that I really like in electronic form, I must then buy a hard copy as well. I don’t have enough faith that technology will never fail to be comfortable knowing that someday our body of literature may rest solely in electronic hands; the presence of physical books is still a great comfort to me.
Bookish: Books are absent and rare in this world, and then there’s this quote: “Even a book can be dangerous in the wrong hands, and when that happens, you blame the hands, but you also read the book.” Instantly censorship came to mind. Is there any chance this story is, in some ways, a metaphor for the state of the world when books are kept from curious minds?
EJ: “Metaphor” is probably assigning it too much credit, but yes. In law school, I had several friends of religious and political persuasions that made my blood boil, but they were my friends because, always, they were willing to sit down and have the discussion. No matter how far apart our beliefs were, neither of us had closed our minds to looking at other viewpoints, to trying to find solutions through debate.
The dangerous trend—perhaps not so much a trend, as a cyclical recurrence, since this has happened before in America—of condemning books for content, of actively trying to keep people from reading well-written texts that espouse ideas you don’t agree with, is poison, and this poison is most venomous of all in academic environments. I consider books the safest of all environments for developing minds to experience the wider world, and for what do we send children to school, if not to learn things that they won’t learn at home?
Bookish: In the Crossing, people were only allowed to bring ten books with them. Which ten would you bring?
EJ: The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien; The March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman; Watership Down by Richard Adams; Dune by Frank Herbert; Misery by Stephen King; Billy Bathgate by E.L. Doctorow; The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald; A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole; The Moon Is Down by John Steinbeck; and As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner.
Bookish: The books at Kelsea’s disposal include staples such as Shakespeare and the Bible, and even The Lord of the Rings, a cornerstone of fantasy. And then you mention the seven volumes of Rowling. Despite the Harry Potter series’ unprecedented and continued success, many still struggle to see the series as a lasting icon. What was behind your decision in including it here?
EJ: Commercial success is certainly no guarantee of quality; several recent bestsellers can attest to that. But one of the great pleasures of constructing my own future world was that I got to decide what survived and what was valuable. I included Rowling’s series not because it was wildly successful, but because I consider it great, in every sense of the world. Great writing, great plotting, fantastic values for children (and adults!)… if I had children and was preparing to go on the Crossing, the Harry Potter books would be seven of my ten, without question.
Erika Johansen grew up and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She went to Swarthmore College, earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and eventually became an attorney, but she never stopped writing.