Alaya Dawn Johnson is an award-winning short story writer and the author of eight novels for adults and young adults. Her YA science fiction novel, The Library of Broken Worlds, was just released 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.
I’ve been writing since I was very young, and I’ve been trying to get short stories published since high school, so I’m not sure that anything propelled me into the industry besides my own misbegotten ambition! A major moment for me was when I discovered online writers’ groups in college and was able to use peer feedback to drastically improve my writing. I went through a huge burst of creativity and entering my senior year I sold my first short stories to major magazines.
I have always gravitated to Speculative Fiction, broadly defined: Science Fiction, Fantasy, genre-bending interstitial work, magical realism, etc. I love work that plays with the “reality” of the world as we know it in some way, and I love having the freedom to play with reality however feels good to me that day. That said, lately I’ve been particularly drawn to Science Fiction and the speculative literature of future technologies, because we are clearly at an inflection point in human history and it both frightens and inspires me to imagine the paths we might take from here.
I started my career focusing mostly on short stories, but I long ago started focusing 95% of my time on novels. I do still love short stories, though, and nothing is better than the short form for taking a sharp idea and honing it to a razor’s edge.
I feel that you must treat ideas like a discipline. One of the most important parts of my writing process is when I’m not writing at all. It’s when I’m reading about something completely new to me or learning a new language or taking voice lessons or experiencing a new place. Your creativity is like a garden, and it always needs good compost and good seeds to give you interesting, delicious ideas.
Writing is a thankless job so much of the time, but it is also filled with such joy and such discovery I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Probably my favorite part is that moment after I’ve worked out a tricky knot of character or plot and I’m feeling the story flow forward again. It’s a delightful rush.
Find a writers’ group! I do some freelance editing myself, but I can’t stress enough how important it is to learn to evaluate your own fiction with a group of your own peers before you ever consider dropping money on a professional editor. And don’t be afraid to take your time. Writing takes years and years to master. Rushing it will just waste your time and make you forget why you wanted to be a writer in the first place.
One of the most important lessons I ever learned was to respect writer’s block and to listen to it. Sometimes no matter how much a scene or a plot twist makes sense in your notes, when you sit down to write it some small part of you insists that it doesn’t work. For me, that small intransigent part is my writer’s block, and I had better listen, or I will have a mediocre story at best, and a non-existent one at worst. Sometimes just erasing the paragraph that came before will free up my creativity and I can move forward without any trouble at all. Writing is be a fluid process, and when something isn’t working one way, then take a deep breath, take a break, and try another.
As soon as I heard the Storiaverse pitch I knew that I wanted to get on board. I loved the aesthetics and the goals of the project to merge storytelling with the modes of consumption most common in today’s younger generations—cell phones and other smaller digital devices. I hadn’t seen anyone specifically targeting that space before, and that felt exciting to me.
As I said earlier, I’ve been drawn to Science Fiction in particularly lately because I feel as though we are all living in the barrel of several SF dystopias, and we’re just not sure what high-velocity future we’re going to rocket out into. I thought that the format had promise for me to exploit all of that energy and anxiety about the future of humanity on this planet. Audiences can expect very far-future exploration, some fun poked at our modern technological robber-barons, and some unexpected body horror (though I guess now you’re expecting it!)
For this project, because it imagines an Earth so far removed from our own, I loved the chance to merge the story with animation. It helped to give the story visual depth, with hints of our old world peeking through the new one. I think that readers will be able to engage with both formats in complementary ways.
I’m a Black writer in what has historically been a very white industry and while it has diversified in the last decade of my career, writers like me still face many challenges. It’s very important to me to include diverse characters, experiences and perspectives in my stories, and not in obvious or tokenized ways. This story, for example, follows what you might call a traditional white man as its main character, but I think readers will quickly see how his perspective actually cuts open many, many assumptions that he has about the world that he came from and the world that he lives in now.