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Author interview with KV Johansen

Author interview with K.V. Johansen

Author bio:
Mostly, I write fantasy (epic fantasy ... character-driven epic fantasy ... with shapeshifters, demons, gods, and ... Moth, around whom even the gods get a bit nervous). These days, I largely write for adults, though I've written many children's and YA fantasy novels and some children's science fiction, as well as picture books, plus I've been known to perpetrate literary criticism.

2014 is going to be a busy year. Marakand, a two-volume epic fantasy set in the same world as Blackdog, comes out from Pyr, The Leopard in June and The Lady in the autumn.

My main scholarly interests are ancient and medieval history and languages, and the history of children's fantasy literature. What else can I say? My life is unexciting. I live with a wicked white husky-mix dog and aspire to an arboretum of my own.


Hi Krista, welcome over to The Book Plank and for taking your time to answer these few questions.

KVJ: Glad to be here. Thanks for the invitation!

BP: First off, could you give us a short introduction as to who K.V. Johansen is? What are your hobbies, likes and dislikes?
KVJ: K. V. Johansen is someone who dislikes parasites, parsnips, and bizspeak . . . likes trees, dogs, horizons, and running water . . . Gardening is my main hobby. I long to plant landscapes like Capability Brown and Humphry [no ‘e’] Repton, but that’s not going to happen in this lifetime. I like growing trees and old-fashioned perennials. I also crochet. That’s a dreadfully modern and unromantic hobby for a writer of epic fantasy. Where are the swords, the medieval re-enactments, the hideous bruises? I’m interested in calligraphy -- at least that’s medieval -- but my Anglo-Saxon miniscule is as illegible as my late-twentieth-century cursive, so I’m not actually any good at it. They’d send me to the garden with Brother Cadfael, not to the scriptorium. Languages, too, fascinate me, but I don’t have much time for study.

BP: You have been writing for quite a while now from young adult to adult fiction, do you still know the moment when and where you decided that you wanted to become an author?
KVJ: I don’t think there was ever a single moment. I always liked telling stories to my sisters -- long serial adventures -- and assumed from childhood that writing books would be something I did on the side of being a professor of something or other. My first book was published before I got around to working on the PhD, so that was that.

BP: In all your writing years did you gain valuable writing experience that you are able to apply to your current writing projects?
Even as a child, I always wanted the worlds to make sense, so I learnt early on that to satisfy myself, I had to pay a lot of attention to internal consistency and internal logic. I also always wanted it to be the best, so I’d write and abandon the draft and go back to the beginning and start the same story again. I suppose what I mostly learnt from that rolling-revision approach was to trust my own instinct -- to know that if it feels like it’s going wrong, that’s because it is, and it’s not the end of the world, just time to backtrack and write again. (It’s sort of a cautionary tale for my editor, though: Beware . . . doesn’t play well with outlines.)

BP: The conclusion of Marakand, The Lady, is out this December from Pyr. If you would have to sell these two books with a single sentence, how would it go?
KVJ: Undead assassin seeks coffee.  While a city rises in revolt to throw off the tyranny of a mad deity, a man tormented and betrayed by his own goddess becomes a pawn in an ancient war of devils.

BP: Where did you come up with the idea for the story of The Leopard and The Lady?
KVJ: The fact that the gods of this world are so vulnerable and fallible opened up interesting possibilities to explore. I knew that the Voice of Marakand was killing wizards, but I had several different possible reasons for it, so exploring the Voice and the Lady and how they fit into the world gave me the central idea. The nature of the Lady and her history and paranoia, her motivations, together with the idea of a people rebelling against their goddess -- in contrast to the people in Blackdog who fight to defend theirs -- lie at the heart of the story. The assassin Ahjvar, damned to a living hell of possession, is equally a contrast with the very different two-souled nature of the Blackdog in much of the earlier book. There are two stories interwoven throughout The Leopard and The Lady, that of Ahjvar and Ghu, and that of the underground resistance movement in Marakand which is sparked into a bloody uprising by Ahjvar’s actions in the city, and which draws in Holla-Sayan and Ivah, characters from Blackdog. The uprising in Marakand was the plot that grew out of seeds in Blackdog; Ahjvar’s half of the story developed from his initial role as catalyst to that action, the murder he’s sent by his goddess to commit being the spark that changes everything in the city.

BP: The Leopard, shares the world of Blackdog. Why did you choose to let The Leopard and The Lady share this world, and not creating a new world?
KVJ: The Leopard and The Lady grew out of Blackdog -- you can see intimations of what’s going on in the city of Marakand, where they’re set, already towards the end of Blackdog. There are references to the Voice of the Lady and the killing of wizards. They’re stories that are very much part of that world. If you think of the medieval Arthurian cycles, Blackdog and Marakand are a bit like that -- related stories, sharing a world and a history and some characters, but not usually a cliffhanger continuation -- except for the two halves of Marakand. The Leopard and The Lady are really one book that grew too long and is thus coming out in two volumes.

BP: Had you considered writing a new story with the characters of Blackdog before creating a new set to follow in The Leopard?
KVJ: Some of the characters from Blackdog have always had a place in the story that is developed in The Leopard, but I never intended Holla-Sayan, the hero of Blackdog, to be the central figure of The Leopard. I liked the idea of characters from one story encountering someone else’s related story and playing a part in it, but with the concentration being on the new people, shifting the focus of the history to a new place and people.

BP: Did you encounter any specific problems when you were writing The Leopard and The Lady?
KVJ: Aside from the book (originally titled Marakand) becoming so long that I had to split it in half? The first half, which became The Leopard, set a new record for me in most revisions. I start a new file for each major abandonment and change so as to be able to go back and grab whole un-messed-about-with chunks of earlier versions if I need them or in case the new major change turns out to be worse. Marakand got into the twenties. The huge problem, which it took me far too long to figure out, was that I was writing with the wrong hero. Originally the hero was a guard captain in the city, and Ahjvar and Ghu were secondary characters, catalysts who kicked off the chain of events and who played a role, but weren’t the primary focus. I had been trying to be Good and work to a sort of outline in which the assassin had a much less complex role. Outlines and I do not get along. I eventually cut that captain out entirely and gave her place to another character who also existed already, because I’d put so much into developing her by then that I wanted to save her for another book -- all her backstory was fascinating but irrelevant to the function I by then needed her for, whereas the man who replaced her was part of the city story from his birth, not an outsider bringing in other complications. Then I set Ahjvar and Ghu free to run with their story. By the time I had sorted that out, the second half of Marakand, which became The Lady, was pretty straightforward and only went through a more usual number of rolling revisions as I worked.

BP: What has been the hardest part when you were writing The Leopard and The Lady?
KVJ: Finding the right place to start the story and the right person to start it with was the hardest thing. At least by the time I figured that out, the city and all the other major characters I haven’t even mentioned above, though they carry half the story -- the secret priest of a lost goddess, his caravaneer-wizard brother-in-law, the guard captain and the other leaders of the underground loyalist movement who had been waiting for the right opportunity to act against the Lady and raise the city in revolution in the name of their old gods -- were all very well developed. The histories of the revolution and the parallel conflict in Praitan to the east were ready to unfold and were very easy to write, because they had been simmering away the whole time I was struggling my inability to recognize that Ahjvar and Ghu were the ones who should carry the other half of the story.

BP: Besides the hardest part, which scene or chapter did you enjoy writing about the most in these two books?
KVJ: It’s more of an ongoing element than a single scene. I found the Lady really interesting to write in her madness, but Ahjvar’s deteriorating psychological state through the two books is what I’ve enjoyed exploring the most, though maybe ‘enjoy’ is not the right word and sounds very sadistic. I wanted to write about someone who is realistically affected by the horrors they’ve lived, and in Ahjvar’s case that’s what he himself has done and what’s been done and is being done to him. I wanted to try to show him being broken and struggling to come through that. I only began researching historical and modern understandings of shellshock/PTSD when I was pretty much done The Lady and starting work on what I hope will be a sequel, because it’s only at that point that he hits the point of utter . . . I want to say, shatterment, which is not a word but sounds right. I was actually a bit surprised at how much of what’s going with Ahj by the end of The Lady already fits that, psychologically, because I’d only been writing what seemed poetically apt within this world of gods and devils and the possibility of possession by another soul. In The Leopard, we’re seeing only the beginning of that downward progression for him; towards the end of The Lady it becomes far more pronounced. There’s a scene close to the end of The Lady which is probably the one that I did most enjoy writing; it involves Ahjvar and Ghu after the battle at Orsamoss and is the emotional culmination of their story so far, though not of the overall plot. It also sheds light on some of the mystery around Ghu and just who (or what) he is.

BP: If you would be able to retract The Leopard from publishing and change one last thing, would you do so? If yes, which parts and why?
KVJ: I can’t think of anything right now, but I sent off panicked emails to my editor a few times right to the last minute -- “No, wait, don’t read that version of the chapter, read this one!” so maybe I got all the second thoughts out of my system then. I hope so!

BP: The Lady, the second book in the Marakand series and sequel to The Leopard is out later this year. Do you have any other projects that you wish to pursue in the near future? Can we expect more stories in the Marakand world?
KVJ: I’m hoping there will be two more stories set in this world after The Lady. One will be about Ahjvar and Ghu again, because neither Ahjvar’s story nor Ghu’s is finished. (There’s a hint for anyone who wants to say, “Oh, sidekick ...” of Ghu -- though by the end of The Lady it should be pretty clear that he is moving into a primary position.) The one after that would be bringing the Blackdog and Moth back to the centre of the action.

BP: Everyone enjoys science fiction and fantasy in their own way, what do you like most about it?
KVJ: I like the freedom to make my own worlds and tell stories that can do things a story in the primary world can’t. It frees you to look at aspects of people that would end up feeling too cramped in the real world, and it lets you have your characters sometimes succeed in making things better -- heroes are allowed and so is tragedy. You don’t have to be squashed and caged into the tight, dreary box of contemporary “lit” realism. As a reader, that’s part of what appeals as well -- stories with plot, with desperation and hope and characters who act, things that can be grander, more passionate, than the ordinary round of life.

BP: If you would have to give your top 5 favorite books, which would they be?
KVJ: The Lord of the Rings. After that it’s a bit overwhelming to narrow down. Others that deeply influenced my idea of what a book should do are The Lantern-Bearers (Sutcliff),  The Riddle-Master trilogy (McKillip),  The Black Company (Cook), Winter Holiday (Ransome), Greenmantle (Buchan), Three Cheers for Me (Jack). So that’s seven, actually. Five is . . . My reaction to that question was “Five? Only five?! Good lord, is he serious?”

BP: And just lastly, can you give us a sneak peek as to what is in store for the readers in The Leopard and The Lady?
KVJ:  The story in The Leopard and The Lady is set in the city of Marakand, where the caravan roads of east and west meet, and in the tribal kingdoms east of it. Desperate fights in storm and darkness, conspiracies, captivity, escape, possession, enslavement of body and soul, revolution, love, and loss ensue.

BP: Thank you very much for your time Krista and good luck with your future writing


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