I am honored to be part of the Morris Blog Tour and to get to interview Morris finalist, E. K. Johnston, the author of one of my favorite books of 2014, The Story of Owen. The Morris YA Debut Award celebrates new voices in teen literature each year. The 2015 winner will be announced next week at the ALA Midwinter Youth Media Awards ceremony.
The Story of Owen is entirely unique. Right from the beginning you know that the book is something special. Tell us about how you came to combine modern-day Canada and dragons.
E. K.: The Story of Owen started with a picture I had in my head of a dragon slayer standing on the Burlington Skyway, fighting a dragon while people on the bridge ran away/filmed her on their iPhones. So it’s been Canada + modern day + dragons right from the beginning. I wanted to set a book in my own country, and I thought that dragons would be fun, and then it got out of control very quickly, as these things do.
Another aspect of The Story of Owen that wowed me was that you edited the world’s history to include dragons too, reweaving it so that it supported the story you were telling. Your world building is deep and extraordinary. Tell us about your world building process.
E. K.: My world building process was actually pretty straightforward in this case. I did it in one of two ways. The least frequent method was to take a story about a dragon and make it into Actual History (as I did with St. George, for example). The most common method I used (also the most fun), was to break every piece of world building I had into four parts, and make sure the dragon was the last quarter. Thus:
- Queen Victoria selected Ottawa as Canada’s capital because it was far away from the American border.
- Queen Victoria selected Ottawa as Canada’s capital because it was far away from the American border and also a safe distance from a Hatching ground.
You’d might be surprised at how easy it was to put together. Also, it was super fun. I think it paid off the most with Lester B. Pearson, who my editor thought I had made up whole cloth until two days before my release date when I had to tell him that Lester B. Pearson was an actual person (and Prime Minister of Canada, WWI Ace, WWII “courier”, semi-pro hockey and baseball player, Nobel Prize Peace Winner, helped to found NATO and the UN, etc).
You write fight scenes so brilliantly, letting the readers see the physicality of the fight and the beauty of the skill it requires. Where did you learn so much about fighting dragons and battle in general?
E. K.: I learned it in high school, actually. From the real life version of Mr. Huffman, who had us do Offence/Defence Friday in his class. We never did the Panama Canal Crisis, but we did do a lot of castles, and look at a lot of battle plans from WWII. I was already quite interested in the ideas and concepts thanks to a lifelong love of fantasy novels, and then in university I studied archaeology, which is also a lot of fortification systems and weaponry and whatnot. Maps and movies filled in the gaps, so I guess it’s been a sort of accumulation since I was four, and my father read me The Hobbit.
Just as surprising as the dragons in Canada is a teen novel where there is a boy and a girl who spend time together, like one another and there is no romance. Tell us about Siobhan and Owen and why you crafted their relationship the way you did.
E. K.: “There Will Be No Kissing” is actually the only rule I made up for myself that I didn’t break while writing The Story of Owen. They were always going to be friends, Owen was always going to end up with Sadie, and Siobhan was always going to be totally thrilled about that (even in the first draft, where I kind of forgot that people couldn’t read my mind and see Sadie’s character progression even though I hadn’t written it down). Owen is waiting for a girl that is 100% committed to dragon slaying (actual. dragon. slaying.) to avoid inflicting any kid of his with a parental situation like his own, and Siobhan has zero interest in ever parenting a dragon slayer, and, eventually, zero interest in ever leaving Trondheim, and I can’t tell you more about that because: PRAIRIE FIRE.
The sequel to The Story of Owen is coming out this year. Tell us a little about Prairie Fire and what fans can expect!
E. K.: While OWEN was pretty localized, PRAIRIE FIRE covers Canada from coast to coast (almost, anyway). Owen and Siobhan are themselves a full year older than they were when we left them, and most of the supporting cast is older than they are. There are characters from Japan, the UK, and the US. There are several new kinds of dragons, all of which I took extreme delight in naming. And one possible culturally-appropriated recipe for pancakes that I took out of a cookbook a co-worker found, and showed to me because the computer had misspelled its name so badly in the system that we couldn’t shelve it (Vikings, man).
Huge thanks to E. K. for participating in the blog tour and giving us such a great glimpse into her process and a peek at the sequel!
For more Morris Blog Tour sites, head to Cinco Puntos Press where you can find links to all of the blogs on the tour.