Interview: Alaya Johnson, author of Wicked City (Zephyr Hollis series)

I’m so thrilled to have the lovely Alaya Johnson on the blog today! Alaya is the author of numerous novels and short stories, and Wicked City, the 2nd book in the Zephyr Hollis series (along with Moonshine), just came out! She was kind enough to answer a few of my questions, so please give her a warm welcome to the blog, and be sure to check out her books!

Alaya, you’ve written the urban fantasy Moonshine, and the next book in the series, Wicked City, just came out! You also have a degree in East Asian Languages and Cultures and have published numerous short stories and novellas. Whew! Did you always want to be a writer? Can you tell us a bit about your journey to publication?
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I figured out what books were, honestly. My mom taught me to read when I was two–who knows why, now that I think about it, except that apparently I wanted to know how to read more than anything. I pushed my way through my first novel (The Secret Garden) a couple of years later, and that was it. I was hooked.

My dream in life was to tell stories. Of course, I first had to learn how to do it properly. I started submitting short stories in high school, but received nothing but photocopied form letters. I won a couple of school writing prizes and started writing fanfiction (I won’t tell you what fandom!) The fanfiction was actually great, because I had a built-in audience that gave me enough confidence to finish two long novels. They weren’t publishable by any stretch, but as they say, you have to write a million words of crap first. My first real break happened in college, when I sold a couple of short stories during my senior year to some high-profile Science Fiction magazines. I was writing my third novel at the time, and that got me my first agent and my first book deal. This probably sounds easier than it was–there’s a giant stack of rejection letters in my desk drawer to attest to the fact that it took quite a while and a lot of effort.

How did you celebrate when you found out your first book would be published?
I think I went out to dinner. It’s a bit of a blur because I was working at the time and felt embarrassed about telling anyone about my
second life as a novelist. But I was definitely thrilled–and scared out of my mind. What if it sucked? What if the sale was a mistake? But
I made sure I had an awesome publication party, and ever since I’ve tried to throw cool book parties. Having a party might be in my top three favorite perks of getting a book published (see: Moonshine, twenties dress party).

Can you tell us a bit about your Zephyr Hollis series?
The series takes place in an alternate 1920s New York City, where vampires (and other supernatural creatures) live side-by-side with
humans, but possess significantly fewer civil rights. Zephyr is a heart-on-her-sleeve do-gooder , and the mysteries she finds herself
embroiled in tend to involve helping people. Sadly, our heroine is not always the best judge of character. She was raised by a demon-hunting father, and used to kill vampires for a living before she realized the error of her ways. So an interesting aspect of her character, I’ve always thought, is the fact that a lot of her current actions have to do with atonement and redemption. And, in fact, I just wrote a short story that gets into this a little more–it’s a prequel story, detailing how she first came to New York City, and the moment she
starts to realize that, well, vampires are people too. (The Inconstant Moon)

What do you love most about writing fantasy/urban fantasy?
Probably my favorite aspect of fantasy in general is the ability the writer has to literalize a metaphor. A great example of this is in Buffy the Vampire Slayer: everyone thinks high school is hell, but for Buffy, high school is actually sitting on a hellmouth. The metaphor is still there, but the literalization gives you freedom to play with it in ways you just couldn’t in a more realistic setting. So for my Zephyr Hollis books, the obvious metaphor is that used by people who consider members of a social underclass to be “human parasites”–obviously untrue, but what happens when you make that more literal? Well, it’s still untrue. What you have now is more of a public health issue, but of course people don’t treat it that way.

When you started the Zephyr Hollis novels, did you have in mind how many you’d like to write in the series, or did you just decide to see where it would take you?
I had a plot, but you know, these things don’t last when you’re writing the book. I had a revelation about Amir halfway through writing Moonshine that totally changed the novel, for example. Still, the broad outlines remained the same. Wicked City was harder to plot. I had a big outline that had a giant, gaping plot hole and I refused to acknowledge this hole until I was three quarters of the way through. When I finally admitted there was almost no way I could write around something so stupid, I had to go back and re-write huge chunks
of the earlier text. Next time, I will not bow to the tyranny of the outline! I will free myself from its shackles! Or, at least, I’ll try to be more honest with myself about bad plot decisions.

What are some of your favorite authors or novels?
Since I’ve just finished a big re-read of these, the Vicky Bliss novels by Elizabeth Peters come to mind immediately. I just love these books! I read them for the first time in high school, and probably a dozen or so times over the years since (Street of the Five Moons,
Silhouette in Scarlet, Trojan Gold and Night Train to Memphis). The romance between Vicky Bliss and John (Smythe) is one of my favorite of all time. It’s so well done and funny and poignant and emotionally real. Also, I love odd couple romances. An art historian falls for the most notorious art thief in Europe? Bestill my beating heart! Also, the re-read made me realize what a debt my Zephyr Hollis books owe to Vicky Bliss. I guess that’s why they call them influences.

Other books and writers that I adore are Guy Gavriel Kay (everything), Dorothy Dunnett (the Lymond Chronicles–very complex, but features what might be my all time favorite romance), Diana Wynne Jones (everything), Robin McKinley (Sunshine, The Hero and the Crown especially), Ellen Kushner (The Privilege of the Sword, Swordspoint), and a ton of others I’m forgetting right now.

If you could read one book again for the first time, which one would it be?
Hmm, can I get a whole series? Then The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett. One book? Probably Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay. And if I can get a bonus, Night Train to Memphis by Elizabeth Peters.

What are you reading now?
I just picked up the last book of Holly Black’s utterly astonishing Curse Workers trilogy, Black Heart. The first two are White Cat and Red Glove, and may I implore you to go to your bookstore or library and get your hands on a copy? These are some of the very best YA being published right now, full stop. Miraculously twisty con games with fabulous characters. I can’t wait to read this, but I’m sad because I know then the ride will be over.

In your bio, it says you love ethnic food, especially South Indian. What is your favorite dish?
Dude, so many dishes to choose from! Probably rava dosas. Or maybe dohkla. Or maybe chili chaat? Okay, if I were on a desert island, I
guess it would be a fresh-made dosa and some sambar to dip it in, but I’d rather be in Jackson Heights and eat it all.

I also learned that you’ve lived and traveled extensively in Japan. If you had to show a first time visitor around, where would you take them first?
I would take them to Kyoto, I think. The temples are just astonishingly beautiful, and I’m a sucker for Kansai food. But if we could go somewhere after that, I’d go to southern tip of the island of Kyushu, to the city of Kagoshima. It’s right next to a smoking volcano, home to the worlds largest radishes and smallest oranges, and is one of my favorite places on earth.

Is there anywhere else in the world that you’d like to travel to?
Everywhere? At the moment, it’s a toss up between taking a road trip through Mexico to see ruins and wandering through Iceland, with
frequent stops at hot springs. But traveling is one of the great loves of my life, so there’s plenty of others on the list.

Do you have any other news you’d like to share with us?
If you want a free taste of Zephyr, I’d definitely recommend checkingout my prequel story on Tor.com
(http://www.tor.com/stories/2012/04/the-inconstant-moon). And there are excerpts of the first few chapters of the books on my website. Otherwise, thanks for reading!

Keep up with Alaya: Website | Twitter
Read the first chapter of Moonshine
Read the first two chapters of Wicked City

Purchase Moonshine: Amazon | Barnes and Noble
Purchase Wicked City: Amazon | Barnes and Noble

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