2015 Morris Award: An Interview with Finalist E. K. Johnston

Each year, YALSA’s Morris Award honors a debut book published by a first-time author writing for teens and celebrating impressive new voices in young adult literature. The award morris_seal_finwinner will be announced at the ALA Midwinter Meeting Youth Media (YMA) Awards on Monday, Feb. 2, 2015. Join us for a live webcast of the YMA Awards press conference or follow I Love Libraries on Twitter or Facebook to be among the first to know the 2015 winners. The official hashtag for the 2015 Youth Media Awards is  #ALAyma.

the story of owenE. K. Johnston is a 2015 Morris Award finalist for: The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim.

Owen is training to be a dragon slayer, a crucial job in a world where dragons bring death and destruction. With help from their friends and family, Owen and his bard Siobhan seek the source of a growing dragon threat.

Congratulations on being a finalist for the 2015 Morris Award! The idea behind the book – that species of dragons exist in our world because they are carbon eaters – is a different and unique take on the dragon trope in fantasy fiction. Yet it makes so much sense given our over-reliance on fossil fuels. What do you personally believe about the use and overuse of fossil fuels, and what practices do you follow, if any, in your own daily life to address this issue?

One common criticism of The Story of Owen is that human beings never developed alternative fuel sources despite the threat of dragon fire as a consequence for carbon emissions. I feel that we are dealing with something similar in the real world, though, without the dragons of course, in that we have been slow to develop the technology to efficiently use wind and solar power. Hopefully it won’t take something catastrophic to give us that final push. For my own part, I try to keep my carbon footprint as manageable as I can.

Are you a fan of alternate history books? If so, what other books would you recommend for teens?

I am a huge fan of alternate history! I couldn’t read any while I was writing my own, and that was terrible, because I missed them. I love Tessa Gratton’s UNITED STATES OF ASGARD and Holly Black’s CURSEWORKER trilogy. I am really like Maggie Stiefvater’s THE SCORPIO RACES, which shows that an alternate history can be quite small, and still super readable and relatable.

I know you’re a forensic archeologist but what is that exactly? Does your profession come into play in your writing?

Forensic [insert profession here] just means that you do your job, but with the idea of serving the law. So you can have forensic accountants and forensic dentists…and forensic archaeologists. I learned how to take archaeological principles and apply them to crime scenes (for evidence recovery and the like). It shows up in my books in strange places, but I was trained to research and account for detail, and I think that’s very helpful for writing.

EKJ high resDo you have a background in music or do you enjoy writing poetry? The ballads throughout the book reminded me of the ones that we studied in school that I loved, like Lord Randall, from the narrative verse anthology edited by Louis Untermeyer.

I play the alto saxophone and the clarinet, and I have always loved to sing. I’m not much of a poet, but I do like playing around with words. Siobhan, being a classically trained pianist, has a tendency to compose classical-sounding songs, though she is starting to become more flexible. Her lyrics, however, are always trying to tie in with Beowulf. She follows the cadence and structure of that saga as much as she possibly can. Her favourite poet is Seamus Heaney.

I know you’re Canadian and the story is very much set in Canada, yet I was struck by the fact that so many of the place names are also found in the US (or the UK). How has being Canadian shaped you as a writer? What would you like American teens to know about Canada? Are there Canadian authors that teens here should be reading? 

It only makes sense that Canadians and Americans steal place names from the UK. Being Canadian has given me an appreciation not only for my own heritage (which is predominantly Scottish and Welsh), but also the incorporation of the other cultures who have made Canada their home. I would love for American teens to know anything about Canada, even if it’s just a list of hockey players who have beat out Team USA for an Olympic gold medal. My favourite Canadian authors are RJ Anderson, Erin Bow, and Farley Mowat.

As a fan of YA books and authors I’m always fascinated by how everyone seems to know one another. I admit I look at the acknowledgements to see which authors are mentioned and if I like them, I’m more likely to read the book, especially if it’s a debut, as yours is. 

On your website you quote Sarah Rees Brennan’s explanation of the breakdown of a trilogy as “meet up, make out, take over the world” and Tessa Gratton. As a first time author do you seek out other authors you admire for advice? What’s the best advice you’ve gotten so far? Who would you like to get advice from, but are afraid to ask?

Ah, Twitter. The great equalizer. I do seek out advice from others quite frequently, including the members of my debut group as well as established authors. The best advice I’ve got so far was how to structure my career plan, and then how to share that with my agent. I’m not sure there’s anyone I’m afraid to ask advice of at the moment, which probably speaks more to the capabilities of my existing support group than my own bravery.

I tried not to read too much of your blog ahead of this interview because I didn’t want to have any preconceived ideas about you but I did peek and saw that you describe yourself as a grammarian by nature. Can you expand upon that? Are you one of those people who are always correcting others’ language? Do you read things and constantly say they should have used this or that word instead? How has that influenced your writing?

I used to play all sorts of grammar “games” with my mother when I was little, so I’m probably one of ten people on earth who think grammar is fun. I’m also a big believer in knowing the rules before you break them. I don’t correct people unless they ask me to, though I have been known to unfollow people on Twitter if they use “your” for “you’re” too often. It has influenced my writing it two ways: first, learning to break the rules (I used “slayed” exclusively in OWEN, for example), and second, I made friends with Tessa Gratton via a tweet about how she had used the word “nauseated” (which is correct), instead of “nauseous” in BLOOD MAGIC.

What author – living or dead – would you like to hang out with – and why?

I would love to meet Tamora Pierce. She is such a great example of a writer who has played the long game, and I am almost positive I wouldn’t be so nervous that I’d swallow my tongue if I tried to talk to her.


 – Sharon Rawlins, currently reading Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero