Interview with C. S. Johnson
Tell us about your latest novel or project:
I always have several books on the docket, but my upcoming releases are in December, where the second book in my historical fiction spy series, The Order of the Crystal Daggers, is releasing on December 4th. So far, I’m happy to say the early reviews for Prince of Secrets and Shadows have been great. The second book I have coming is a steampunk fantasy romance, One Flew Through the Dragon Heart.
What got you started writing?
Cheap therapy has to be the first thing that comes to mind, but I’ve always loved writing. I was pretty shy and quiet as a kid but I still had a lot to say, and writing stories became an easier way to voice what I was thinking. I’ve always loved how words fit together to create new worlds and ideas.
What challenges did you face when you first started writing?
The first challenge is always time. Time has always been my mortal enemy. In many of my books, including One Flew Through the Dragon Heart, time is among the villains of the piece. In my Starlight Chronicles series, I have two Stars that represent Time, and it’s power over our memories. The second challenge I’ve experienced is reining in my over-perfectionism. To this day I have to talk myself down from endless rounds of editing and sitting on my work.
Do you ever get the opportunity to travel for your writing?
Either to market or to research. I’ve never traveled for researched purposes, but I have always done a lot of traveling. I enjoy seeing new places and getting to play with new ideas. My Viking fantasy series, The Legend of Eydis, is based on my honeymoon to Iceland. I would love to travel more, and I plan to, but I’ve never seen traveling as the main reason for writing research. Life is enough of writing research for me!
Who in your life is your greatest cheerleader or support in your writing?
My mom probably tops the list, but there are plenty of others. She’s the one who pushes me past my self-doubt. My husband is my financial patron, and my reader’s group is always there for lovely messages, feedback, and help through the pains.
What was the first thing you did after your first book was published?
I had to ignore it for a long time, actually. I was excited about it, but it came out right before midterms while I was teaching. I did not get much of a change to celebrate because I was prepping my classes for tons of review.
Do you read your book reviews? How do you handle the good and the bad ones?
I generally scan them; as a former teacher, I know how important feedback is, and as much as I love my regular editor and my beta readers, I like seeing how strangers take to my writing. The bad reviews are never pleasant, but I am happy to say they are getting better. Even the bad review—so far I only have one!—for my latest release, Kingdom of Ash and Soot, talks more about how the reader “wasn’t in the mood for a historical romance.” Of course, each book is a different challenge, so I am certain I will get a chance to feel the full power of crippling insecurity all over again.
It seems like everything has Easter Eggs do you have any Easter Eggs in your books?
Plenty! My whole series of The Divine Space Pirates was inspired by a student of mine who read the Starlight Chronicles and there’s a line in it where my male MC is invited to the movie where the “new space pirate flick” is running. My student wanted to know more about the movie, so I wrote the series. It’s the first book I’ve made into a movie, ha! Similarly, a lot of my works are off-shoots of themes and ideas I wanted to play with but I couldn’t do in certain stories. One Flew Through the Dragon Heart is a bit of an off-shoot from Kingdom of Ash and Soot, for example, because they are both in the alt-historical genre. I wanted to see more of London while I was working through that Kingdom (it’s set in Prague) and since there was no way to do that without severely compromising the plot, I decided to shuffle it to another series.
There are some personal Easter Eggs, too. One of my worst-kept secret Easter Eggs is in The Divine Space Pirates novels, where the Memory Tree is actually the 9/11 Memorial Tree, and there are several more Easter Eggs from my personal life in the Starlight Chronicles.
How long does it take you to write a book? Do you have any secrets to productivity?
The shortest I’ve ever written a full book was 11 days. The longest was the first book of my Starlight series, Slumbering, which took 7 years.
Where did you get the idea for your latest book?
As a general rule, most of my books at any given time are making fun of something. In One Flew, I make fun of my teaching experience quite a bit (my male protagonist is a college professor who hates his job but has a lot of debt so he can’t just quit—that is a real life experience for me).
While I also wanted to do something that was a little more just fun and romantic, I also wanted to write something for my husband (again). My husband remains one of my enduring literary inspirations and this year has been a roller coaster for us; while he has graduated with his masters and gotten a great new job, I’ve been suffering with depression and anxiety issues (my twin dragons, as I call them) and so when I thought of how to write a story to write that, I thought about how my husband and I are complementary in our values but completely different in our temperament and skills sets. Despite all our differences, he chooses to love me, and that includes loving me enough to deal with my dragons and the darker side of my mental health issues. I feel terrible that he suffers quite a lot because of it. No one grows up thinking they will marry someone who struggles with mental health issues. In many ways, he is the prince of my heart because he slays my dragons—or at least, he cleans up their poop when I let them into our life like stray animals from the street and insist that we need to take care of them as pets. So One Flew Through the Dragon Heart is sort of my tribute to him as thanks, even though I know it is quite silly and in no way makes up for the trouble I put him through.
Do you have any writing rituals?
Not anymore. I used to try to write every night, but now I give myself a little more grace. It takes 45 minutes for my favorite cake to bake, and the best stories of mine are the ones I let cook right.
What is your best experience meeting a fan?
I have several great experiences meeting fans, but the most dedicated one is when I got to meet my friend Tina. She lives in South Africa and when she came over to the States to spend time with her family here, I got to meet her and some of her kids and her mom for lunch down in Atlanta. It was really great!
If any of your books was to be made into a film, which one would you pick and who would you have play the main characters?
If I could choose any of them, I’d probably do Kingdom of Ash and Soot. I don’t actually have any idea of who would play the main characters.
How important do you think marketing is for authors today?
It’s a necessary evil.
Do you have any book you have written that won’t ever see the light of day and why?
I started a few, but I doubt I will finish some of them. There are always some stories that stay with you, that leak into the core of who you are and stay there. I’ve had many books that revolve around my own experiences, and some of them just keep coming back. Other things are just cute ideas, ideas that will spark interest and be purely entertaining but don’t reflect any real truth.
Many authors have a word or a phrase they automatically use too often. Do you have one?
“Life is not fair” pops up in more than one of my books. I don’t understand why people think life being fair is such an appealing idea, personally. Fairness is the antithesis of freedom, and we will never have the “unity in diversity” that brings such joy to my own life. My husband and I will never be the same—he goes to work and literally saves lives every day, while I sit at home killing off literary people—but we are united in our love and lives. There’s something so beautiful about that, and I like capturing snapshots of that in my work with my characters.
What quirk or trope of your genre do you like or dislike?
Since I write in a lot of genres, I tend to find character troupes tend to be the hardest for me to deal with. Love triangles make me angry. Boys or men as these shallow goofballs, characters who can’t go through high school or a storyline without getting drunk or sleeping around; men who just want to have sex all the time. I like to break stereotypes while making fun of them (Lumiere from Prince of Secrets and Shadows is one of my favorite attempts at this). Women who are so concentrated on physical strength that all compassion and softness has been forgotten.
In terms of specific genres, the main ones I struggle with are usually from fantasy genres. Dragons as tamed creatures make me angry (How to Train Your Dragon is the only exception to this). Lord of the Rings knock-offs are difficult to deal with, even if they are understandable (if you don’t do enough to make it your own though, it really shows and I really hate it). When it comes to superhero and magic stuff, I don’t think people are terrible original either. One of the reasons I liked Harry Potter as a kid was because how original I thought it was.
As a Christian, too, I absolutely hate a lot of the troupes from Christian fiction. I am not able to escape my faith, but I write books in the mainstream for good reason. I’ve never agreed with omitting some of the realities of life in literature as a blanket statement, just as I’ve never agreed with the progressive ideologies where reality is “outdated” or able to molded into a reality where reality’s rules do not apply. Both extremes are untrue, and there’s no true story that is not rooted in relevancy.
Often writers get to approach some serious subjects. Which serious subject are you most proud to have written about or was the hardest to write about?
Every topic that people struggle with is a serious topic to me. I’ve struggled with self-esteem, with issues of faith, of loss, of depression, anxiety, and fear; the questions of what is real, what is true, who do I listen to, who do I believe, how to live, how to love, and how to keep going when all hope is lost. There are so many questions that I feel are worth examining, even if some of those questions are controversial in different cultural arenas. In some of my upcoming novels, I want to talk about history and the idea of letting ideas die.
I like tackling topics with irony—it’s my favorite form of humor, and I’m happy to say I’ve been greatly entertained with the slow death of postmodernism of late.
I enjoy writing about things that even if I haven’t personally experienced, so that I might be more empathetic to people who have experienced it. If there is one thing that makes me most proud of my work, it’s that understanding is the main reason behind a lot of it.
In terms of the hardest things to write, I would say growing up tends to be the hardest one to write about. It is such a painful thing to have your childhood innocence lost and replaced by virtue, even if virtue is worth the price.
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