The Big Idea: Alaya Dawn Johnson

Writers know that sometimes there is the writing you are supposed to be doing, and then there’s the writing you want to be doing. Prudence dictates doing the former over the latter. But sometimes, as Alaya Dawn Johnson found in writing The Summer Prince, there might be something to telling prudence to take a hike.

ALAYA DAWN JOHNSON:

I tend to write my novels the way other people quilt, in a somewhat-ordered patchwork of varied materials that have arrested my interest. Which means that whenever I discuss my inspiration for The Summer Prince I end up babbling about matriarchies and fame and what a non-heteronormative society might look like when projected into the future of African diaspora culture in Brazil, plus music and art and human sacrifice (I thought about including reincarnation, but that seemed like overkill).

But since this series is called “The Big Idea” and not “a dozen or so somewhat large ideas,” I’ve had a long, hard think about the one idea that really made this book work.

And I finally realized: it wasn’t any of those good ideas I babble about. The catalyzing ingredient was, in fact, a very bad idea.

Namely, writing it.

What The Summer Prince taught me is that some bad ideas are very, very good. Of course, most are very, very bad and figuring out the distinction is not for those with a surfeit of common sense (luckily I’m a writer). But The Summer Prince turned out to be the best bad idea that I’ve ever had. When I described this novel to friends, they would paper their shock with kindly smiles and tell me that they were sure I’d figure it out. My sister told me to write out the idea, then put it in a drawer and get back to it when I finished that pesky novel I had under contract. You know, the one that would give me money to pay my rent.

Rent? I said. Sure, just as soon as I buy this train ticket to Vancouver and spend three weeks running away from home with nothing but my extensive Brazilian music collection, my computer and some coffee money.

So I traveled and I wrote what sounded like my least commercial novel ever, just because the idea gripped me so ferociously I could not help but put it to paper. This, in hindsight, was actually a great idea. Because it meant that I wrote my science fiction novel about the transformative power of art in a matriarchal society. It meant that I wrote my YA novel with characters whose fluid sexuality is neither belabored nor obfuscated, and with a romance that does not, to put it mildly, end happily ever after.

I let myself go. I freed myself from what I perceived were the expectations of the market and the genre. Heck, I even freed myself from the expectations of my landlady. I wrote that book because there was nothing else for it, and despite some months of teeth-gnashing and self-despairing, writing The Summer Prince was one of the best experiences of my life.

What I didn’t expect was that publishing it would also turn out to be one. This novel got me my current agent, one of the best in the business. It put me on the radar of Arthur A. Levine (a.k.a. the editor of one J.K. Rowling) and the wonderful team at Scholastic. They gave me unicorns and sunshine–well, okay, but they did give me the best cover of my career and the sort of promotion that I had previously thought was a fantasy from a bygone era (like, the eighties).

Putting off the writing of a contracted novel for the deliberately anti-commercial novel of your heart probably isn’t fabulous writing advice. But since no one’s paying me for fabulous writing advice, here’s what I learned:

Write what you love. Whatever that is, even if it seems like an absolutely abysmal career move. Because if it doesn’t work out, at least you wrote something you’ve always wanted. If that carefully positioned market-friendly idea you only sort of like tanks, then you’ve spent years working on something that doesn’t excite you. If something you love tanks, then at least you spent that time creating art that you know, in your heart, is worthwhile.

And it turns out that agents and editors and publicists and readers can tell when your heart is in it. So my big idea was to do myself a favor, and put it there.

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The Summer Prince: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read a preview. Follow Johnson on Twitter.

17 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Alaya Dawn Johnson

  1. Yes! And when you write what you love, whether it sells or not, no one can take the writing of it away from you.

    And if it does sell, the only way to get more like it is from you, because when you write what you love your books can’t just be swapped out for someone else’s. Which is why I’ve come to believe writing what you love is actually a commercial as well as soul-filling move, at least if one is thinking for the long term.

  2. Yes, the cover is beautiful, but I just tore through the preview, and omg. Alaya – Thank you so much for writing what you loved. Everyone else – you’ve got to read this thing. Now excuse me, I have to know what happens next. [off to virtual bookstore]

  3. And I’m so glad that you did! I loved this book. I loved the characters and the true feelings and how you dealt with the complexities of multiple generations in a long-lived society while still preserving some humanity even in the oldest character in the book, unlike all the “post-human” treatments of the last decade. The art and the music thread through it all and the love stories are the best. And you even included an intelligent and thoughtful intersection of race and class issues with the matriarchy and the, the, everything!

    The complexity *does* make it a little bit hard to review without sounding like a babbling fool, so I’ve mostly been telling people this is what YA SF can and should be. If it doesn’t sweep the awards next year, something’s wrong with the world.

  4. I think this big idea is great advice no matter what you want to do–following the thing that you really want to do, even if it doesn’t promise as much money, is more likely to pay off in at least satisfaction, if not money.

  5. I loved the book, and while I was reading it, I was shocked that it had been published because there are so many non-mainstream things in it (that are sorely needed but obviously threatening to the cisgendered, white, American, WASP world of YA lit). I can’t wait to see what others think, especially people who are white, who haven’t been to Brazil, who don’t speak Portuguese, etc, because I hope they love it and it proves to publishers that other stories are possible.

  6. This book is AMAZING. I wish the world could read it, because it’s just that kind of book that crosses so many boundaries. It’s a book we need. Also, the ending killed me. Killed. Me. (In, like, the best way possible — especially when you go back to read the first page.)

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