Interview with Alaya Dawn Johnson

Alaya Dawn Johnson, photo by Armando VegaWe continue our Small Beer Author Interview series with Franchesca Viaud's interview with Alaya Dawn Johnson.

Johnson is the author of a collection, Reconstruction: Stories, and seven novels for adults and young adults. Her most recent novel for adults, Trouble the Saints, just came out in paperback. Her young adult novel The Summer Prince was longlisted for the National Book Award and Love Is the Drug won the Norton Award. Her short stories have appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. She lives in Mexico City where she received a master’s degree with honors in Mesoamerican Studies at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, for her thesis on pre-Columbian fermented food and its role in the religious-agricultural calendar. Find out more about her here: Alaya Dawn Johnson (@alayadj)

FV: After reading the first two stories, “A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i” and “They Shall Salt the Earth with Seeds of Glass,” “Their Changing Bodies” was an unexpected but welcome addition. With collections, I always wonder at the author’s intent behind their lineup/arrangement of stories. What was your thinking there? Do you think that sort of thing matters as much as we think it does?

ADJ: Honestly, because I wrote these stories over so many years without considering them as part of a collection, I really relied on the expertise of Kelly Link, my editor, who curated the stories and suggested their line-up. Personally, I liked the idea of surprising the reader with such a big tonal shift at that point in the collection, not to mention giving them a very different take on vampires than what I did in the far more somber “A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i.”

FV: Piggybacking off of that previous question, “Their Changing Bodies” was such a fun time. I think one of my biggest gripes when reading a story narrated from a child’s POV is the drastic tonal shift that can sometimes overpower the narrative. It can be jarring, bordering on cringe. And maybe, in part, it’s because this story is told from a third-person perspective, but I’m never taken out of it. Judy and her motley crew aren’t exactly “children” by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s definitely a shift there, especially off the back of the first two stories. Maybe that has less to do with word choice than the lightness of the content, but how did you go about achieving that shift in tone without sacrificing style?

ADJ: As I said, I wrote these pieces over the span of more than a decade, so the tonal shift is accomplished more by the genius of placement (thank you, Kelly!) than by anything I set out to achieve. In fact, I wrote “Their Changing Bodies” a few years earlier than those other two stories. That being said, I consciously set out to challenge myself with the voice and pacing of that story. I have a push-pull relationship with vampire stories, where I am at once bored and exhausted by them and completely fascinated, which explains how I ended up with two of them in my debut collection. In this story, I wanted to dig into that primal teenage fascination with dangerous boys and skewer it as only YA can. I was remembering my own teenage summer camp experiences and the way we mythologized and mocked the boys on the other side of camp, and I think all of that naturally influenced the tone of the piece.

FV: I’m always fascinated by familial relationships in stories, particularly that of mother and daughter. “Far and Deep” and “A Song to Greet the Sun” just about broke my heart, but in very different ways. We got a clearer sense of the relationship between Leilani & Pineki than that of Colqui and her mother. Can you speak a little to your decision-making there? How do you set out to portray such intimate relationships? Where are you pulling from?

ADJ: Yeah, I love familial relationships in stories as well, and more so as I get older. It’s interesting, because I consider the primary familial relationship in “A Song to Greet the Sun” as that between Colqui and her father. To me that story is very much about how patriarchal attitudes and the toxic pursuit of respectability can poison genuinely loving relationships, or relationships that have the potential for great love. In its own way, “Far and Deep” tackles similar issues now that I think about it, even though the primary relationship I’m exploring is, as you say, that of Leilani and her dead mother, Pineki.

“Far and Deep” is more about the nature of respectability, the way the weight of authority can distort our judgment of others and, in fact, a bit of an exploration about how even in a society in which women wield great power, certain patriarchal norms can still have deadly consequences. Something that both stories share, I think, is a concern with how women themselves uphold those patriarchal systems of oppression.

FV: I don’t think we, as a collective audience, will ever get tired of the vampire. I mean, their presence in popular media has absolutely ebbed and flowed over the years, but our fascination springs eternal. You depict two very different versions in Reconstruction. We want to see variations, of course, new spins on a classic, but never to the point where we can’t recognize them as the fangers we know and love. So how did you decide which characteristics to keep and which to reinvent entirely?

ADJ: Ha, so as I say, I am both sick of vampires as a writer and about every five years I get the itch to try them out again. I think there’s something about the vampiric metaphor which I find perennially fascinating, even though I also acknowledge it’s been done to death, and often in harmful ways. Those harms were part of what I was parodying in “Their Changing Bodies.” On the other hand, “A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i” isn’t a parody in any way, but a dark exploration of what it might really look like to have more-or-less Dracula-style vampires walking among us, in which Key’s adolescent sexual fascination approaches and encompasses a death wish. In their own ways, you could say that both of those stories are directly in dialogue with Twilight, a novel that alternately fascinated and repelled me. As for what characteristics I “kept”, it’s not as if (thankfully) there is a vampire handbook out there, so I basically did what any writer in this genre does: picked the aspects floating in the zeitgeist that worked for the story I wanted to tell and left out or twisted others that didn’t. Thus my vampires can “fly” (i.e. wobble in the air) in “Their Changing Bodies” but they are strictly land-bound in “A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i”, and even have trouble crossing water. I did keep the aversion to light in both stories, because that seems pretty fundamental, but in neither story are they truly dead, so much as fundamentally changed, alien.

FV: If you’re comfortable sharing it, I’d like to know what was your hardest scene to write.

ADJ: Each story in this collection presented its own unique struggle. But probably the title story, "Reconstruction," was the greatest challenge. It certainly took me longer to write! (I wrote it over the course of three years, on and off.) I had such a strong sense of that initial scene with Sally telling the story of Flip and his taxonomy of anger one winter in camp during the Civil War. Those characters were so clear in my head, but figuring out how to continue their story took me the better part of two years. I had to do a ton of research and a ton of internal soul-searching to figure out what I wanted to say and how to say it about generational trauma, war, freedom and, fundamentally, Black anger. So I’d say the second scene in "Reconstruction" was the hardest for me to write in the collection.

Reconstruction: Stories Cover Image
ISBN: 9781618731777
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Small Beer Press - January 12th, 2021

In Reconstruction, award-winning writer and musician Johnson delineates the lives of those trodden underfoot by the powerful, and how they rise up. Meet the humans who serve a coterie of vampires in Hawai'i, explore the taxonomy of anger with Black Union soldiers and the woman who travels with them during the American Civil War.