Interview: Alaya Dawn Johnson

I actually met Alaya (‘rhymes with papaya’) Dawn Johnson at ALAN in Las Vegas last winter. She radiated an energy that was fresh and new to YA and I knew I wanted to interview her. Since then, she’s released The Summer Prince and, from the reviews I’ve been seeing, she’s been quite busy! Thankfully, I was recently able to connect with her for the following interview.

From GoodReads on The Summer Prince

The lush city of Palmares Três shimmers with tech and tradition, with screaming gossip casters and practiced politicians. In the midst of this vibrant metropolis, June Costa creates art that’s sure to make her legendary. But her dreams of fame become something more when she meets Enki, the bold new Summer King. The whole city falls in love with him (including June’s 221best friend, Gil). But June sees more to Enki than amber eyes and a lethal samba. She sees a fellow artist.

Together, June and Enki will stage explosive, dramatic projects that Palmares Três will never forget. They will add fuel to a growing rebellion against the government’s strict limits on new tech. And June will fall deeply, unfortunately in love with Enki. Because like all Summer Kings before him, Enki is destined to die.

Pulsing with the beat of futuristic Brazil, burning with the passions of its characters, and overflowing with ideas, this fiery novel will leave you eager for more from Alaya Dawn Johnson.

First, congratulations on the wonderful reviews you’ve been receiving!

Let’s start with a few short questions.

Where did you grow up?

Just outside of Washington, DC in Maryland.

Do you have any pets?

Not now, though I do have a lot of plants!

What do you enjoy watching on television?

I don’t watch much these days, but some of my favorite newer shows are Downton Abbey, Dance Academyalaya-johnson-c-alden-ford_custom-7df1507ada0d013149fb630635d806e238016ae9-s6-c30 (this Australian TV show about teens going to a dance academy…I have no idea why it’s so great, but it is), and a whole bunch of Korean dramas (in particular Sungkyunkwan Scandal and Scent Of A Woman).

 Meat or vegetables?

Vegetables! I was raised vegetarian, in fact, so I’ve never (deliberately) eaten meat.

Are there any books that stand out in your memory from your childhood?

Tons, but in particular I adored Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Kindred by Octavia Butler, Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay and The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett.

What book(s) are you in the middle of reading right now?

Too many! I’m reading The Passing Bells by Phillip Rock, which seems to be a proto-Downton Abbey, The Discovery And Conquest of Mexico by Bernal Diaz del Castillo (a memoir by one of the conquistadors) and Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (the writing is so good).

There is so much complexity to Summer Prince I have to wonder how long it took you to write.

Thank you! The first draft took me about a year. The funny thing is that when I started the book, I’d somehow convinced myself that I could bang out a very rough draft in a month and then return to the project I was supposed to be working on. I took three weeks off from my life, basically, and wrote as much as I could. And I did write a significant chunk of the novel, but I realized how big and complicated the project was. I realized that I had to take a deep breath and focus on it for a much longer time than I’d thought at first. But I’m always over-ambitious when it comes to my writing speed. After the first draft, I spent about another year doing revisions. The writing could get intense–I would work for hours and only get out a couple of hundred words. But even a slow writer can finish a book if she does it consistently, and thank goodness!

What was the biggest challenge in writing The Summer Prince?

 Probably the hardest aspect of writing The Summer Prince was figuring out how to create a world that was complex and nuanced and very different from our own, integrate that with strong characters, all without breaking the story up with infodumps. Figuring out how to juggle all of those elements with some sort of economy and grace took years and many rewrites. I’m pleased with how it turned out in the end, but the complexity itself sometimes daunted me.

When I look at the title, I see you as referring to Enki as ‘The Summer Prince’ and not ‘The Summer King’. Why do you see him that way?

 A few characters in the book will reference Enki as a “moon prince” or a “summer prince.” I wanted to use that as the title, instead of the more obvious “Summer King”, because I wanted something that evoked the struggles between youth and old age that are so important in the novel. Because Enki is a character who dies young, and who chooses to do so. Calling him a “prince” gives him his power in a way that calling him a “king” doesn’t.

Which character is you in this book?

No character is exactly like me, though June and I definitely share some prominent characteristics. We are both obsessed with our respective arts, and very ambitious (though June’s attitudes at the beginning of the book are more extreme than my own). But I think I share with Bebel a more holistic appreciation of competition, and I very much admire Enki for his dedication to what he believes in, though I could never do what he does.

I tuned into some of my favorite Brasilian tunes while reading Summer Prince, but I’m wonder what songs you would put into a playlist for readers?

 So many songs! But among my favorites (many of which are mentioned in the book): “Roda Viva” by Chico Buarque, “Eu Vim Da Bahia” by João Gilberto (and everything else he wrote ever), “Sonho Meu” by Maria Bethânia, “Quilombo, O El Dorado Negro” by Gilberto Gil, “Velha Infancia” by Tribalistas (that whole album is great), “The Carimbaeo” by Nação Zumbi, “Life Gods” by Marisa Monte and Gilberto Gil, “Oba, Lá Vem Ela” by Jorge Ben, “Tudo Que Voce Podia Ser” by Simone and “O Leãozinho” by Caetano Veloso.

I have that Tribalista album. Love it!

You’ve literally turned the world upside down with people no longer living on the ground, women ruling the world and the sexual identity no longer existing as a boundary. The story questions the use of technology, and treatment of the poor. And, June’s main weapon is art. Why art?

 Possibly this is because I’m an artist, but I think that art is potentially the most powerful force in human culture, and certainly one of the most important ways that cultures express and change themselves. Think about iconic posters that have recruited for wars, or convinced people to support different causes or politicians. Art can reflect the zeitgeist, but I also think that it can create it. I’ve always wanted to write a novel about art and politics, and with June’s story I finally had that chance.

I hear you’re working on another YA project! What is it about?

 It’s very different, in some ways, from The Summer Prince–it’s set in the modern US, for one. And I’m drawing a little more on my personal experiences, since it takes place in Washington, DC at a private school in the midst of a flu pandemic. But like The Summer Prince it deals with race and class and politics and family troubles and first loves.

Obrigada!  I wish you much success and, I hope to see you at ALAN again!