Unbound Writers Amanda Boldenow, Christie Lips and Lisa Mahoney received advance reader copies of “The Fate of the Tearling.” After reading, we discussed the wrap-up to Kelsea Raleigh Glynn’s story and had the opportunity to send the author, Erika Johansen, some questions about the trilogy, "The Queen of the Tearling." Erika responded with generous insights into her books, her philosophy, and her writing style.
Fiction Unbound Question: One of the outcomes of the recent presidential election in the U.S. is that women are much more vocal about their anger about sexism. Whether women let this anger rock and roll or keep it suppressed, and the consequences of those choices, are concepts you tackled in all three Tearling books, but perhaps most creatively in "The Fate of the Tearling." Can you talk about the evolution of that theme in the Tearling trilogy?
Erika Johansen's Answer: To be honest, I’m not sure there’s much of an evolution; most of my characters just let it rock and roll, except when there would be no point to the engagement, or – in Lily’s case – when doing so would be actively dangerous. There are times when I keep my own anger under wraps, usually when I’m speaking to someone who’s simply never going to change. I think this problem will only be solved if both women and men become a lot more willing to call out sexism when they see it in front of them. But we’ve just rewarded an overt misogynist with the White House, so I’m not hopeful.
Q: After the publication of "The Queen of the Tearling," there was a spurt of books about queens ("The Red Queen," "Three Dark Crowns," etc.). Do you sense an appetite in the reading world for books about strong women rulers? If so, why do you think that is? Could queens be the new zombies in terms of readers’ interest?
A: There was always an appetite for books about strong, ruling women. What I believe was missing was the faith from publishers. Why take a chance on a book about a tough, “unconventional” female character when you could simply continue using the same old pretty, romantic, safe mold? What’s changed, in my opinion, is publishers’ willingness to believe that readers don’t need to be marketed to in stereotypes. The more flexible and courageous the publishers, the more freedom aspiring authors can also have to write something new.
Q: Is there any character you wish you'd been able to follow or develop more deeply?
A: The Red Queen. I have a lot more story to tell.
Q: William Tear had some very strong convictions about religion and its ability to drive a wedge in society. Were you working with parallels in current and past events when you wrote the novel?
A: How could you tell? As an atheist, I find religion itself harmless enough, but oh, what happens when it infiltrates government. My problem with our current paradigm is that far too many important decisions – decisions which affect the lives of millions of people – are now being made based on religious convictions rather than demonstrable evidence. This is the very antithesis of separation of church and state, and it makes me so furious that I’m literally unable to keep the topic out of my writing.
Q: Our post about "The Invasion of the Tearling" was titled “Tearling as Moses.” How did you envision Tear as a character?
A: William Tear was meant to be a cypher; you never quite know what he’s thinking or planning, or what his motivations really are. I saw him less as Moses than as one of the early settlers in America – Roger Williams, perhaps – who left everything behind seeking to make a better world.
Q: All three books carry a timely message about the dangers of failing to learn from past mistakes, and failing to grow knowledge (along with a love of books and libraries.) It seems that this was one of William Tear’s flaws, that he kept silent when he knew religion had the potential to destroy his utopia. Can you discuss what books and knowledge mean to you?
A: Books mean everything to me. There have been periods of my life when they were my best friends. In a world where almost all information is accessible in three seconds on the internet, I worry that people are losing the ability to sit down and engage with long stories, with the complex theories and evidence you find in nonfiction, with anything that isn’t quick and easy. Instant gratification is nice, and often useful, but not to the exclusion of everything else. Then again, I guess I’m now officially old, so I might just be protecting my lawn.
Q: The Tearling began as a vision for utopia that went sour. Did you draw from history or literature when creating the story and trajectory of the people who made the crossing?
A: I read quite a bit of history on this topic, but I based these books on my own ideas of what causes utopias to fail. At rock bottom, I believe a lack of empathy is to blame. It also doesn’t help when people forget the concept of civics.
Q: Katie turned away from something awful happening in her community to maintain peace with her friend, but Kelsea always stared straight at problems, not hesitating to put herself in danger to steer her kingdom in a direction of justice and equality. I really admired her as a person and as a leader. What or who inspired you when creating Kelsea, and do you see her as a model for leaders in the real world?
A: I created Kelsea a couple of days after first seeing Barack Obama on television. But I see Kelsea less as a model for leaders than as a model for the average Joe. Brave leaders are wonderful, but in the modern world, a single leader is not enough to effect change. It has to come from the ground up as well. If the entire population were committed to fighting for justice and equality, it wouldn’t matter who the leaders are; it would happen. As it is, America is clearly failing in this respect.
Q: We have to ask, on behalf of your fans, are your readers ever going to have the chance to return to this world? There are opportunities for parallel story lines that weren't explored in the trilogy.
A: Simple answer: yes.
Q: Lastly, because we’re working on novels ourselves, we like to ask successful writers about their writing process. Are you a seat-of-the-pantster with messy first drafts, or a careful plotter? We’re guessing you’re at least partly a plotter since you wove the past story in with Kelsea’s story, each historical section’s problems mirroring Kelsea’s problems.
A: My writing process is utterly seat-of-my-pants, and it shows. I actually decided on the historical sections when I reached them and then had to fiddle Kelsea’s sections to make it all work. Every time I make a plot outline it all falls to pieces within two days. My first drafts aren’t very messy, though, mostly because I’m constantly revising as I write; at least twenty minutes every day will be spent on cleaning up something I wrote earlier. But there’s no plan or system about it. I sit down every day with a cup of chai and some sort of pastry and hope for something good to happen.
While awaiting Erika’s replies to our emailed questions, we got together and discussed several aspects of "The Fate of the Tearling" and the "The Queen of the Tearling" trilogy, both on its own and in relation to the real world:
On The U.S. Election:
Amanda Boldenow: I’m sure that Erika Johansen was following U.S. politics when she wrote "The Fate of the Tearling." Look at this prescient quote where Jonathan Tear was talking to Katie:
AB: Reminds me of the wall President-Elect Trump wants to build.
Lisa Mahoney: And when Kelsea returns to the keep she ponders her role and democracy’s end in the first Tearling Town:
On Passing the Bechdel Test:
LM: These books pass the Bechdel test. The two queens discuss power, the ethics of torture, politics, war, the influence of religion....
Christie Lips: Oh yes, in this book two strong female characters, protagonist and antagonist, had no time for the typical female trope topic--men.
LM: The two magical and powerful queens remind me of the two strong witches in “The Wizard of Oz.”
AB: “The Wizard of Oz” was ahead of its time.
CL: Yes, and the wizard isn’t really powerful at all. He turns out to be a charlatan.
LM: Kind of like William Tear, pretending to be a savior but failing his people when he might have helped them overcome the temptation of Row Finn’s twisted version of Christianity.
CL: Tear was too egalitarian when his people needed a leader to help them make decisions. They can’t know everything he knows, especially when he withholds historical information. People sense that, and they resent it.
AB: Mace, another flawed male character, had the same problem in his ambivalence about being a leader.
CL: Tear decides to go back across space/time for selfish reasons, only when he needs doctors to save his unborn child.
LM: But Black Queen Kelsea and the Red Queen are willing to put aside their rivalry and work together to save their people from a worse mutual threat, even when it means sacrificing everything.
AB: There’s even a third strong female character, Aisa, who through the three books develops the strength to stand up to her abusive Da.
The Controversial Ending of "The Fate of the Tearling":
LM: Without any spoilers, let’s talk about the ending because it has raised eyebrows.
CL: Each character must come face to face with her or his fundamental flaw. Some cave, some rise up out of their own internal muck and fight to do the honorable, valiant act. And like most of us in the unfolding narrative of real life, things don’t turn out quite like anyone expected.
LM: Endings are supposed to mirror beginnings, and this one certainly does. Some characters are damaged, lost, or simply unrecoverable, much like real people, but in the end Kelsea finds herself once again surrounded by books and those who love knowledge. We can imagine they will be of solace to her because all does not end Disney-princess-happy.
Even More Queen of the Tearling
The actress, Emma Watson, reportedly couldn't put the books down and will soon be executive producing and starring in an adaptation of "The Queen of the Tearling." If that sounds exciting, and you'd like more details, click here.
If you'd like to read an additional short story set in Johansen's world, click here.