Storyteller

A Tanith Lee Tribute Anthology

Interview with Storyteller author Alaya Dawn Johnson

Alaya Dawn Johnson is an award-winning short story writer and the author of eight novels for adults and young adults. Her most recent is the YA science fiction novel, The Library of Broken Worlds, published by Scholastic. Her most recent novel for adults, Trouble the Saints, won the 2021 World Fantasy Award for best novel. Her debut short story collection, Reconstruction, was an Ignyte Award and a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award finalist. Her debut YA novel The Summer Prince was longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, and the follow-up Love Is the Drug was awarded the Andre Norton Nebula Award. Her short stories have appeared in many magazines and anthologies, most notably the title story in The Memory Librarian, in collaboration with Janelle Monáe. She lives in Oaxaca, Mexico.

The highly accomplished Alaya Dawn Johnson was kind enough to answer some questions about Tanith Lee, genre, and her own fiction ahead of the publication of Storyteller. Please enjoy her thoughtful responses in this interview.

Can you describe a way Tanith Lee has influenced your approach to writing?

Tanith Lee’s writing gave me, first and foremost, permission to create with a playfulness as well as a deep seriousness. There were a few other writers treading this territory when I was an impressionable adolescent–Diana Wynne Jones comes to mind–but Tanith Lee’s work just had a certain magic all her own. She married a willingness to confront the failures of adults in her work with a kind of emotional honesty that I rarely encounter these days. 

Tanith Lee once said she didn’t see any difference between writing for children and adults, other than accommodating for appropriate censorship. Do you agree or disagree?

I absolutely agree! The differences for me are the differences inherent to writing different characters. I think it was that fundamental respect she had for the experiences of children, for good and for ill, that made me love her. So many writers for children file down the harder edges, but she never did. She never talked down to me. She knew that I knew and we weren’t going to pretend: we were going to face the truth together and go on an adventure. It is a gift to give that to a child, especially one who is dealing with abuse. It is a gift that I’ve spent my creative career trying to pay forward.

How do you approach writing for different audiences, such as your 2020 adult fantasy novel Trouble the Saints compared to your 2023 YA novel The Library of Broken Worlds?

What really changes for me between novels isn’t so much the marketing categories (YA vs. adult, SF vs. fantasy, etc.) as the characters, the shape of the story I want to tell, the themes that I’m tackling, and the truths that I want to uncover. Those are two very different novels and yet for me, they share that fundamental need to drive myself to places that scare me, both as a writer and as a human. My work, much like Tanith’s, has always been interested in how women navigate violent systems. A fundamental difference between those two novels, of course, is that in Trouble the Saints, the women are much older, and have had years of making very hard, often very bad, choices. In The Library of Broken Worlds, the protagonist is 17, just beginning to understand the corrupt systems that have given birth to her, and struggling to find a way to survive as a fully-actualized person with particular abilities. Characters change with age–no one can deny that–but the seriousness with which I approach their stories does not. I think it’s vitally important to address how young people interact with violence. They grow up in it, and I am the last person in the world to contribute to the conspiracy of silence around that fact. I am forever grateful that Tanith was another writer who never shied from it.

Do you have any news about upcoming projects you can share with me?

Right now I’m working on creative nonfiction for my newsletter, “A stranger comes home” (alayadj.substack.com), which has been an amazing creative journey for me. I spent so much of my creative life finding refuge in fiction that it was a real stretch for me to realize that I actually have the freedom and ability to write about my own life and experiences. But moving to Mexico and having my life upended in the best way here has shaken loose a lot of my old creative blocks. I have found myself able and willing to challenge myself in new ways. So we’ll see what comes of that, but for now I’m just reveling in the freedom the newsletter gives me to write what I like. I’m also working on a few new novel projects, but nothing that I can announce right now. If you subscribe to my newsletter, though, you’ll be the first to know!