Alaya Dawn Johnson was born in Washington DC, and grew up in nearby Potomac MD. She went to private school in DC and attended Columbia University in New York, graduating in 2004 with a BA in East Asian languages and culture. She has lived in New York City since moving there for college, apart from a period spent living abroad in Japan.
She began publishing fiction with ‘‘Who Ever Loved’’ in Arabella (2004), and has published several stories and poems since, notably ‘‘Shard of Glass’’ (2005) and ‘‘Far and Deep’’ (2009). First novel Racing the Dark (2007) began her Spirit Binders fantasy series, followed by The Burning City (2010). Historical vampire novel Moonshine appeared in 2010. She’s also written two ‘‘choose-your-own-adventure’’ graphic novels: The Goblin King, illustrated by Meg Gandy (2009), and forthcoming Detective Frankenstein, illustrated by Yuko Ota.
Website: Alaya Dawn Johnson
I learned to read when I was two or something, and I read The Secret Garden six times when I was around six (people think of that book as realistic, but it has a long discussion of magic). I was weaned on Diana Wynne Jones. I read Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana when I was 13, and it changed my life! I remember finishing that book and just weeping over the pages. I’ve reread the book 15 times by this point, I think. The last time I reread it, four or five years ago, when I got to the end the pages were crackling and warped. I thought, ‘What is going on?’, and then I hit some line where I started crying and I went, ‘Oh…. I’ve been crying over this book for like 15 years!’
‘‘Fantasy and childhood literature jibe with each other so well because in both, strong emotions and metaphors can merge with each other. A lot of people who dismiss fantasy think of it as a kind of adolescent genre. But I don’t think anyone ever wholly loses those feelings of being an outsider, and coming of age.
‘‘Growing up, I felt kind of distanced from a lot of science fiction. Even when women characters were around, they were relegated to very strange roles, and I was not able to connect with them the same way I did with fantasy. It felt like this boy genre. So I never read much science fiction (though I liked David Brin).
“I discovered Ursula K. Le Guin kind of late, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, this is science fiction?’ There are all these ‘strong’ science fiction covers with space ships, and the people are just little figures running around, as opposed to her brand of ‘humanist’ science fiction, and I see no inherent reason why one kind should be purer than the other.”
“Though Racing the Dark is more Polynesian than it is Japanese, I was broadly taking a look at island cultures. The magic system here and in the sequel, The Burning City, is all about sacrifice and exchange. I guess it’s rebelling against a lot of fantasy novels where magic is very easy, and the only cost is getting tired or having to learn a lot of Latin, or something. It’s a big convention in fantasy, and at a certain point it started to drive me crazy. Then I thought, ‘Imagine a magic system where anyone could do magic but almost no one wants to because it’s so horrible. The costs are so high: you’re either killing people all the time or you’re sacrificing yourself slowly.’
‘‘My main character Lana’s lover is part spirit, and in order to have this power he has to become more alien, sacrificing the ability to have human emotions. The very tangible benefits that everyone experiences – no plagues, no earthquakes, no giant volcanos – are caused by really harmful things, taking advantage of their environment in a way that cannot possibly continue as a sustainable solution, though at the moment they’re living very well.”
“I deal with political issues because that’s what I’m thinking about all the time. To me, the environment in Racing the Dark and The Burning City was something I wanted to be able to discuss. I wanted to use fantasy (that literalization of metaphor) to dramatize some of those conflicts and put it more in the forefront of the reader’s mind, since so much fantasy conflict is driven by Evil in a more didactic guise: evil empires or people. The wasteland caused by the last war is usually turning green and verdant by the end of the last novel. When the environment is used, it’s to show how Evil has acted, as opposed to the consequences of how you live.
‘‘Everyone wants somebody else to deal with environmental problems first. It’s a complicated choice, in the SF novel and for me now – trying to decide if I should use up my carbon credit so that I can fly to Australia and see the Great Barrier Reef before I die! In Le Guin’s ‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas’, this supposedly perfect society is based on the brutal suffering meted out to one child. When some people see that, they leave. We can’t walk away from Omelas – it’s the entire world! And that’s the way in which I feel environmentalism is a fundamentally moral cause: a really thorny, tricky, difficult one which we should at least pay attention to. I don’t think fantasy does that so often.”