Jean Johnson is a 2011 Philip K. Dick Award nominee for her debut science fiction novel, A Soldier’s Duty from Ace Books and the national bestselling author of the Sons of Destiny paranormal romance series. Her Theirs Is Not To Reason Why military science fction series includes A Soldier’s Duty and An Officer’s Duty. A third book in that trilogy will follow in 2013. Her stories have appeared in anthologies like Space Battles, The Mammoth Book of Paranormal Romance, An Enchanted Season, The Mammoth Book of Time Travel, Space Grunts, and Elemental Magic. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with a middle-aged cat and no castle, but she still has the dream. She has a Ph.D. in Religions and is the great-niece of award-winning screenwriter, director and producer Nunnally Johnson. She can be found online at http://t.co/QObFljt9 or Twitter as @JeanJAuthor and Facebook.
Jean Johnson: Fantasy, Mum for reading fairy tales to me. Dad, for watching scifi with him.
SFFWRTCHT: Who are some of your favorite authors and books that inspire you?
JJ: #ohlordlonglist Alan Dean Foster, Mercedes Lackey, Robert Asprin, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Anne McCaffrey, Piers Anthony & more.
JJ: I was 8-ish, read a book I didn’t like the ending, and decided to rewrite it. I knew it was crap, but I had fun, so kept doing it.
SFFWRTCHT: Talk about an early start! How did you get started learning your craft? Study in school? Learn as you go? Workshop? Rub a genie’s lamp?
JJ: When I was 15, I wanted to be “a rockstar & a writer on the side” or “an astronaut & a writer on the side.” I wised up & put the writing first when I was 15. Took me 20 years to get good enough to be noticed after that. I enjoyed doing it, I had great English Teachers, & learned to dissect good writing.
SFFWRTCHT: When did you sell your first piece? What was your big break?
JJ: I had the usual ton of rejection notices for years, then decided to post stuff online, get feedback and include with the next story. “See? I haz a following!” type stuff. But…got sucked into writing fanfics. Got noticed after posting some of them when an editor at Berkley liked my writing…
SFFWRTCHT: Jean’s bestselling 8 book Sons of Destiny paranormal romance series from Berkley is the story of eight brothers on an island under a curse. It’s a traditional fantasy setting but with a character transported from contemporary times and having to adjust. Where’d the idea for the Sons Of Destiny come from and did you sell it as eight books?
JJ: That Berkley editor offered me a chance to submit women’s lit, and since I don’t do chick-lit, The Sword was submitted and accepted. The idea started as a What If question, what if a woman from our world ended up in a world of magic, but she herself didn’t gain any? I came up with the idea of eight brothers, a prophecy, and it took off from there. Originally I was offered a three book contract, negotiated it up to four books (no agent zomg!) and then the rest were two book contracts.
SFFWRTCHT: The Sword, Book 1 of Sons Of Destiny, is about a contemporary woman brought back to an island in Nightfall, a distant land, because of eight brothers trying to break a curse?
JJ: That’s correct, she winds up in a world of magic, but she herself doesn’t have any (unlike many similar plots). It’s a world where magic and prophecies are real, so when one suggests the eight brothers will destroy an empire, they’re exiled. But the prophecy also says they’ll gain eight brides along the way.
SFFWRTCHT: Interesting. And when did you get that first bestseller? Which book?
JJ: The first official bestseller was book 3, The Master, but then it was written five years after the first 1.5; the writing was better. Book 6, The Storm, hit the Extended NYTimes Bestseller List (at like #37, they only print to #30 in the paper, #50 online).
SFFWRTCHT: Each book is the story of a different brother’s finding his wife. Although there are throughlines. Books 5 and 6 are simultaneous through different POV characters, for example.
SFFWRTCHT: Which came first: plot or characters? Theme? World?
JJ: Um…probably in this case, What If, followed by characters, world, and theme (Destiny) last. The theme of Fate vs. Destiny does play a big part in my series writing.
SFFWRTCHT: Book 5 is not that smutty. Just near the end. I read those parts twice just to be sure. But the plot and characters are engaging. How long does a typical novel take you to write?
JJ: *cough* Book 5, The Cat, is actually quite smutty, if you count seduction, not just copulation. (Please be 18+ before reading the fantasy romances–or be able to lie convincingly–since they are indeed smutteh at points…There, butt legally covered, lol…) Oh, and books take me three to four months to write, with a month of editing on top.
SFFWRTCHT: So what’s something those of us who hadn’t read paranormal romance before should know? Perhaps something that we wouldn’t expect?
JJ: It’s a romance. Expect relationship stuff. Possibly smut. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girl gets boy back. Being a rabid eqlist at heart I tend to aim for women who have inner strength–by the end of the book if naught else. Other than that, my Romances have Happy Endings, Dammit. (If it doesn’t have a Happy Ending it’s a Tragedy, plain and simple).
SFFWRTCHT: How do you keep the exile plot device from becoming cliché?
JJ: Exile plot, yeah, can be cliché /trope-ish. In mine, *SPOILER* it turns out the prophecy was interpreted a little too vaguely.
SFFWRTCHT: What is the biggest difference between urban fantasy and PR?
JJ: Was on a panel with Kat Richardson and Jim & Shannon Butcher for that question. Urban Fantasy equals Lord Of The Rings set in Manhattan. Paranormal Romance equals Beauty & The Beast set in Manhattan. The main difference between Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance is the focus of the story. Is it the fantasy, or the romance? Urban Fantasy doesn’t have to have romance. Paranormal Romance doesn’t have to be in an urban setting.
JJ: It was Kelly from the perfectly normal USA, winding up in a world of fantasy. I’d classify all of ‘em as Fantasy Romance, but for that one bit. Marketing, Paranormal Fantasy was/is hotter, so they stayed.
SFFWRTCHT: Then you decided to do military science fiction, a bit of a switch. Where’d the idea for the Theirs Not series come from?
JJ: Theirs Not is a story I’ve been working on for decades, in a universe developed all the way back in High School. (I’m 40.) The idea started with a handful of dreams, and a curiosity about the psychology of service, willingly giving up the self for others.
SFFWRTCHT: How much research did you have to do? And did that part start and end before you write or continue as you went?
JJ: Pfff, been interviewing cousins and friends for many years. I’m always interviewing, researching, reading…always. *headdesk* I have to shoehorn new leisure reading books into my schedule.
JJ: Sticky-noter. I mark down the highlights/important moments on sticky-notes, then make up the stuff between as I go.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you read within the genres you write, or try to avoid? (or not)
JJ: Usually nothing too close to whatever I’m trying to write at that moment. I don’t want close contamination. Every writer picks up something from the things they read, of course; there’s really no single stand-alone idea out there. But I try not to read anything too close to what I’m working on. Leisure reading equals relaxation, and that’s work, not relaxing.
SFFWRTCHT: Your Protagonist Ia is a precog with some special gifts. For one, she’s half human, half Feyori. What’s that?
JJ: The Feyori are energy-based beings that can make the energy equals mass conversion at the Squared speed of light (#badmath #twitch) But the conversion is never 100% so when they equal mass and breed, they imbue psychic (energy) manipulation potential into their kids. When they go from mass is greather than energy, they *cough* have a little excess mass residue which they either carry around or dump somewhere. In Ia’s case, she ended up with massive precognitive and other abilities. Her half-twin Thorne has only the potential for ‘em.
SFFWRTCHT: And Ia’s a soldier but also a half-twin and a priest from two mothers?
JJ: Thorne shares Ia’s (Feyori) father, but they have two different mothers, so they’re half-twins.
SFFWRTCHT: Ia also earns a Marine nickname “Bloody Mary.” Tell us how it comes about. She’s not the military female stereotype.
JJ: Ia is definitely an overachiever, but she’s not perfect…And in book 3, the entire premise for the series gets shattered. Badly. One of my beta-editors read that and asked “You just destroyed the entire series premise in book 3–what are you doing in book 4??” My answer, a most evilly-delivered: “Muahahahaaa…” (As Dr. Horrible says, it’s all about standards!”)
SFFWRTCHT: In An Officer’s Duty, she goes home to visit and we learn about her family which I really enjoyed. Then joins the Naval Officer’s Academy. So it wasn’t enough challenge to learn one military branch, you wanted to learn two? More research?
JJ: Yep. Since she’s trying to prevent the Milky Way from being destroyed in 300 years, long after she’s dead and gone…Ia has to set up a legend about herself to encourage people to follow her directives after she’s dead & gone. In my futuristic military, officers gain more respect if they’re field-promoted from the ranks, so…she gets herself promoted. But she still has to learn how to be an officer, hence the Academy. The typical military stereotype female equals more male than men. In my future, women are equal to men, but still women. I’d go into great detail as to why, but just go find “The Armored Rose” by Tobi Beck and read it. Great book on female fighters. *SPOILER* Ia ends up dealing with all four Branches at some point or another…Army, Navy, Marines, Special Forces.
SFFWRTCHT: Stop making us all precogs, Jean.
JJ: Ah, but that’s the trick; Ia doesn’t see one future, she sees all futures as possibilities/probabilities/percentages. You can say that, in a cloud of butterflies, one’s wingflaps will start a hurricane…but can you pick out which one’s wingflaps? I will say–as I always have–that this series does not end how you think it ends. (Or you–or you over there…)
SFFWRTCHT: Does your process change at all when you write short stories vs. novels?
JJ: Yes, the process does change. I barely have any sticky notes at all. I hold most short story plots firmly in my head.
SFFWRTCHT: What’s your writing time look like-specific block? Write `til you reach word count? Grab it when you can?
JJ: Some days I write to the wordcount; other days it’s being held hostage by plot-bunnies (Think Monty Python bunnies.)
SFFWRTCHT: Oh come on, it’s just a bunny… What’s the best and worst writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
JJ: I honestly cannot remember one single piece of advice. I’ve received a lot over the years. A lot. Most of it good. I guess…to keep writing and believing in myself, and never ever believe my writing is 100% perfect, but never cling to it, either? By “never cling to it” I mean the Three Hardest Parts About Writing: 1. Start the Damned Book. 2. Finish the Damned Book, 3. Know When Enough Editing Is Enough (i.e. don’t edit it to death!)
SFFWRTCHT: How many books do you plan in the series? Book 2, Officer’s Duty, just arrived. When’s book 3 out?
JJ: Book 3, Theirs Not To Reason Why: Hellfire will be released early August 2013. (Don’t shoot, I don’t schedule these things!) Book 4, Theirs Not To Reason Why: Damnation will be released…um…sometime after that. Probably Aug 2014. *headdesk* Technically I’m still writing book four. I also have a new eight book fantasy romance series, Guardians of Destiny, set in the same Sons of Destiny world. Currently working on the first of that series, The Tower. We finally get to meet Kerric Vo Mos, mentioned only by name previously. First four are under contract, The Tower, The Grove, The Guild, The Temple, to be followed by the remaining four eventually…The Dragon, The Host, The Harper, The Masque.
SFFWRTCHT: The Busy Author…
JJ: Release date for The Tower will probably be autumn of 2013. May the books you read make you laugh/growl/cry/argue out loud, and not make you wanna throw ‘em away. Books–reading or writing ‘em–are a great escape…and awaaaay I go! *dashes off*
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince(2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. A sequel The Returning followed in 2012 and The Exodus will appear in 2013, completing the space opera Saga Of Davi Rhii. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Land Of Legends (forthcoming) appeared from Delabarre Publishing in 2012. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012) and is working on Beyond The Sun for Fairwood Press, headlined by Robert Silverberg, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Mike Resnick and Nancy Kress, a Ray Gun Revival Best Of Collection for Every Day Publishing and World Encounters and Space & Shadows: SpecNoir with coeditor John Helfers, all forthcoming. He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and is an affiliate member of the SFWA.