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A Word or Two with K.V. Johansen

The finalists have recently been announced for the 2012 Sunburst Awards, prizes given to the best of Canadian speculative fiction. Included in the adult category is Blackdog by K.V. Johansen, a sci-fi/fantasy author, journalist, editor and medieval history-phile based in New Brunswick. The Sunburst jury described Blackdog as “everything high fantasy should be: a tale of wars among gods, demons and wizards that also works as an oddly compelling social-cultural coming-of-age novel”. Arts East caught up with Johansen shortly after the shortlist announcements were made.

What was the inspiration behind Blackdog?
For me, stories usually start off with a character in a situation. The plot and even the whole world grow out of that. Blackdog began with the idea of a man in an alleyway, in a town under attack, being possessed by some sort of demonic dog-spirit. Now there’s no alleyway, and the spirit isn’t a demon (there are demons in this world but they’re nature-spirits and the Blackdog isn’t one) but the man who unwillingly becomes the host for this shapeshifting guardian dog-spirit as the town falls to an invading warlord remains at the heart of it. In part, the story is about how Holla-Sayan manages to survive possession by the Blackdog without losing himself. I’ve always liked best to write about heroes who are on the edges of humanity, and shapeshifters find their way into a lot of my work. The world itself grew out of an interest in the landscape of central Asia; the Norse sagas are an influence on the world as well. A third element in the mix was something I read about girls in Bhutan who are believed to be the incarnations of goddesses. It seemed really interesting, to have a goddess who wasn’t omnipotent or even all that powerful, and so the world became one in which gods and goddesses are very local phenomena, who have to be protected by their worshippers, rather than the other way around.

What is your first writing memory?
From the age of about nine, I told long serial stories to my sisters, and they were always fantasy adventures, swords and horses, pirates and werewolves, that sort of thing. But thinking about this question I realized that the first thing I actually remember deciding to write (as opposed to tell) was when, at the age of eight, I carefully started an illustrated book called, in a very Edwardian manner, “Animal Stories for Little Children”. I don’t think I wrote very much of it. I was reading The Lord of the Rings and Nancy Drew at the time, so I don’t know why I suddenly decided to write something like that!

Was it easier/harder/different writing Blackdog compared to your previous books?
Even though before Blackdog all my published books were literary criticism or fiction for children and teens, adult secondary world fantasy was something I’d been writing all along, and it was always what I felt most natural doing. I think that shows in the two middle books in the Warlocks series for teens; the urge to expand into an adult scope in character psychology and complexity of the world and story keeps leaking in. Blackdog was really what I had always been doing. It was easier in many ways, because I wasn’t confined to the length of a children’s book, and I could write about adult characters in all their internal complexity and intensity. It’s a much more complex plot, of course, with far more history underlying it, and more interlaced character perspectives. It was harder in that regard -- but in a very good way, the difference between going for an afternoon’s walk in the woods or setting out for a week’s hike somewhere. You have to put your full effort into writing for either audience, but for an adult book like Blackdog there are many more elements to hold balanced in the mind as you go; I suppose it’s a matter of degree. I know people don’t find my children’s and YA novels simple -- they’re for kids who are already engaged readers, and they have enough complexity that adults seem to enjoy them a lot too -- but Blackdog really felt like I was doing what I was meant to. Coming home to your own place, putting on a well-broken-in pair of boots that sort of feeling.

Who are your favourite authors?
Tolkien. And then many: Arthur Ransome, Rosemary Sutcliff, Wodehouse, Donald Jack, C.J. Cherryh, Lois McMaster Bujold, Glen Cook, Dorothy L. Sayers, C.S. Lewis, Terry Pratchett, Diana Wynne Jones, John Buchan, Scott, Kipling, Milne.

What do you do when you are not writing?
I think, “I should be writing! Why am I not writing?” No, I read a lot of history and archaeology; I read fantasy, science fiction, mysteries, and manga. I garden, especially with trees, I cook and knit and crochet. I try to think of new ways to amuse my intelligent and easily-bored dog, so that he doesn’t feel he needs to find new and wicked ways to make my life more exciting.

What are you working on now or in the near future (or is it a surprise)?
Right now I’m very nearly finished what should be a sequel to Blackdog, which takes place a little farther east on the caravan road, mostly in one city and the tribal lands east of it. There are some new characters in that, whom I’m quite enjoying exploring, and some familiar ones from Blackdog. I’m also halfway through another Torrie book, which is another one about Wren from Torrie and the Snake-Prince. I promise I’ll finish it once I’m done the adult book, as I know there are some people waiting for it. With my friend Connie Choi, I’m also working on a manga adaptation of my short story “The Storyteller” (published in The Storyteller and Other Tales), which is a prequel to Blackdog. It’s going very slowly, because we both have a lot of other things we have to be doing, but it’s going to look amazing when it’s finally done. It’s really exciting to see her evolving interpretation of the characters.

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