C.S. Johnson spins stories of adventure and fantasy. With several books and series under her belt already, she seems to be a non-stop writing machine. In her Order of the Crystal Daggers series, she says she seeks to inspire people to think about truth. What is it? Is it absolute? And while her books are for everyone—young and old alike— she specifically hopes that her works will help quell the fears of young people as they face the slings and arrows that come with growing up. Also, she wishes to make heroes that are more relatable, joking that “Superman doesn’t do laundry!” In between keeping up with her antics on Twitter, I was able to speak with C.S. about her latest trilogy, just before the publication of the second book; Prince of Secrets and Shadows.
How did you get into writing?
I started writing very young. I really liked reading and writing as a kid, and because I was shy and more than a little quiet, writing provided a way for me to order my thoughts and put them down so others could read them. One of my constant complaints from teachers was that I “didn’t speak up enough,” because they always liked to hear what I was thinking when they made me. I have to laugh at this some, because when I finally started talking, people were astounded to hear exactly what I thought – and they were amazed at what I remembered, too. More than one person was caught off guard when I would talk to them and ask them about things from our elementary grades.
Writing stories became more important to me as I grew older, and I wanted to both figure out what I was experiencing, and also share it with others.
Your book is set in a particular place and time. Could you tell the readers more about where you set your book and why?
I set the story in Prague, in Bohemia, around 1870. There were—as there usually always is with me—a variety of reasons for it. My family’s heritage played a large role in the story itself since my father’s family has ties to the Czechoslovakian and Polish areas, with my mother’s family more from Western Europe, with Scottish, Irish and English bloodlines. That was part of it. The other part was largely that I love Victorian literature—who doesn’t, really? It is a very popular genre, but most of it—like almost 99% of what I have read—is set in London. I get that, because it was the home of England and it remains the place where the British Empire began. But I wanted to work in a world that had its own flavor, and while London can seem fairy-tale-esque at times, especially in the Victorian setting, I wanted a more fairy-tale appeal. Prague is actually known for this today, as it has kept a lot of the history and built around its past with modern times.
You’ve got quite a few books and trilogies under your belt already. What makes The Order of the Crystal Daggers series special?
There are a couple of unique features about the book series, for sure.
The first distinction is that the series is more of a coming of age trilogy for girls (though boys will be entertained as well). When I first started out writing, I wrote the Starlight Chronicles mostly for boys. At the time, I was teaching high school and noticed that boys had a harder time finding something they liked to read, so I wanted to write something for them, and something that would speak to them as they grew up. Some of my girl readers (because while that series is for boys, the girls are also entertained) were asking about a series for them. So, that’s part of it there. The story is written in first person, with the world being delivered to the reader through Ella’s eyes; offering her perspective and her reactions and reflections to it, and it carries a little of her unreliability—as she becomes more certain, the world around her does, too.
I specifically wanted to draw in the question of truth, since as a culture, there are so many [people] saying we live in a post-truth world. I see it as more of a chasm than a conclusion, especially because—if we live in a post-truth world, that means that statement in itself would be nullified.
So for the book, the idea of putting a girl in a position where she had to live in perpetual second-guessing and distrust means figuring out the truth becomes a survival skill for her. I like to think my readers, even if they don’t notice that sort of teaching element, will be encouraged not only to think about other people’s perspectives, but also to help them find the real truth, too.
The story draws on Cinderella. Tell me about that.
I really love the story of Cinderella. Among fairy tales, it is a favorite of mine, and I like it for personal reasons almost as much as I have problems with it for personal reasons.
When I was three, my dad (with whom I have had a complicated relationship, thanks to both his depression and my own) went out to buy it for my third birthday. He had to go to three stores just to find it, and I remember this story as my heart aches. Having my own husband now, I am so happy that my daughter sees him as a hero; I did not have that many times in my life, and this one particular instance—on so special an occasion—remains one of my favorite stories about him.
While I do like the story, I do have problems with some of it. My main problem with it is not in the story itself, but that when people think of it, they don’t realize that the majority of the story takes place over like three days, tops. Cinderella spends ten years of her life working hard, dealing with people who are supposed to be looking out for her but instead are abusing her, and suffering as a result of losing her father and mother. It is a tragic situation, and one that is glossed over for the majority of the story. Cinderella has worked, both at keeping her household clean and her heart hopeful, for a long time before her life changed in three days. That’s a lot of investment and determination to pour into three days.
So when I wanted to use the story as a fairy tale adaptation, there is no easy transition between real life and allegory. In Kingdom of Ash and Soot, Ella’s own transformation takes place over several weeks. Her character development—while it does follow more of a fairy tale arc in terms of seeing her inner-princess self come to be realized on the outside—includes the development of trust in relationships, confidence in her actions, and moral ambition to not only discover what she is made of (because she knows that) but to what degree. Her goal is not to be a literal princess—although that connection is hinted at—but to be free. I liken that to several levels, including the political, the personal, and the spiritual in the book series.
I know you have a few characters that pay homage to people you admire in real life. Would you like to tell the readers who and why?
Haha, yes! I do have quite few people that have real-world connections. While Ella’s story is not my own, a lot of those who have helped me personally be free and find love have been added to the story. When I set out to write the story, I did not write to please anyone but myself with it—most of it is an homage to my heritage, after all. I was actually pretty surprised when a publisher expressed interest.
The one connection I am most open about is Amir’s character. I absolutely loved Nabeel Qureshi, and I wrote this book partially just to have a character based on him. I started writing this while he was sick with his cancer back in 2016. I was so desperately hoping that I would be able to send him a copy and tell him how grateful I was for his work and his life. His memoir, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, remains one of my favorite books. I have the audio book and I cannot listen to it without crying. While Amir is definitely his own character, and there is only a little overlap, I wanted a mentor figure for Ella that allowed her to see there was more to fighting when it becomes a matter of fighting for truth and love. There are others, of course, whose elements have inspired different characters. I don’t consider myself a very “fun” person, so the idea of screaming, hopping up and down, and asking for autographs is largely foreign to me. But there are exceptions to this, and the other side of my personality is more than a little embarrassed about it.
If you could boil it down to one thing, what do you wish to convey to your readers through this adventure series?
Freedom is complicated. Being free means taking responsibility for your own life, and that is something I have so struggled with; it’s actually embarrassing. It’s so easy to blame the world for your troubles, and legitimately, it does lend us problems; but while life is unfair, it is unfair in the best and worst senses, and it remains up to us individually to decide whether or not we will be fair to others in return.
What would your advice be to aspiring authors who are starting out?
I have two and a half major points of advice for new writers:
1. Take courage … and take a grammar refresher (1/2). Reading as much as I do from the internet, I know that alone will not a grammar expert make.
2. Know—and I mean, really know—who your friends are. Professional jealousy is one of my more prominent emotional barriers as a writer, and it, quite frankly, sucks. The best way I have learned to deal with it is to know who your real friends are. When you have a lot of writers in your circles as I do, it can be hard to remember that not all of them are your friends, and it can be even harder to remember you don’t need their approval. Several of my best friends are writers, and I know for a fact they are my real friends because I am genuinely happy for them when they succeed, and they are happy for me when I do. In contrast to this, I know too well how it feels to find out others would prefer you fail.
When will book three be available?
Hopefully, book 3, Heart of Hope and Fear, will be out sometime in the summer of 2019. It might have a later date, but I will definitely let everyone know (if they don’t hear me screaming it from my rooftop that I am finished with the book!)
Anything new and exciting your fans can look forward to?
This year is already shaping up to have a few new books and different things out. I’m working on my first non-fiction book, and I have a couple of series I’m hoping to finish, and a couple of new series I’m hoping to start. The Princess and the Peacock is going live January 25th. The companion novella to The Order of the Crystal Daggers—where we get to see more of Amir’s relationship with Ella’s mother—will be out in late February.
This humble correspondent can’t wait!
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