A Bowl of Questions

Chatting with the Coffeeshop Hermit, Alaya Dawn Johnson

She was once banned from a library #funfact

Alaya Dawn Johnson is a busy woman but between attending graduate school in Mexico City and writing Tremontaine, she sat down with us for an ant egg tamale and some spicy chocolate. We had questions. She had answers.

In a city that never was, sex, scandal, and swordplay combine in a melodrama of manners that returns readers to the beloved world of Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint! A Duchess whose beauty is matched only by her cunning; a passionate young Scholar with dreams beyond his reach; a Foreign spy in a playground of swordplay and secrets; and a Genius on the brink of scientific revolution—when long-buried lies threaten to come to light, the stakes are high, and more than lives may be lost. Mind your manners and enjoy the chocolate in a dance of sparkling wit and political intrigue.Released in weekly episodes, Tremontaine began October 28th and is written by Ellen Kushner, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Malinda Lo, Joel Derfner, Racheline Maltese, and Patty Bryant.Read it or learn more at Serial Box.com!

Tremontaine Episode 2

Tremontaine Episode 5

Tremontaine Episode 11

Can you describe your most recent project in one sentence?


An anti-noir novel set in NYC in the summer before Pearl Harbor, about a mob “hatchet girl”, a black woman who passes for white, who is slowly coming to realization that she doesn’t believe in killing anymore and that the lover who left her a decade ago isn’t the man she thought he was—and even so, she loves him more than ever.

Who is the author or book you will always recommend?

I love Guy Gavriel Kay’s work more than is healthy. I particularly love what he’s been doing with his recent works of historical fantasy based in Chinese history. His work is just a master class in nuanced, emotionally complex love, tragedy and political intrigue.

If your soul was manifested outside of your body in the form of an animal

(like in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series), what would it be?

This is actually kind of an awesome question, because it’s reminiscent of the Mexican legends of the nahual/nagual/wahyis (among other names), which is the animal form that a trained magician’s spirit can take, often to cause harm to others. (Not a spoiler, but this is relevant to Tremontaine!) Anyway, I think my spirit would be a monkey. It would dance in the trees and swing by its tail and eat fruit.

Where is your happy place?

Late night, with friends, eating something amazing, drinking something unusual, and dancing until my feet are sore to a live Cuban salsa band.

You now have a time machine – to where and when do you go?

To the 1920s, starting off in Harlem and from there to Left Bank Paris.

If you had a nickname for your writing persona, what would it be?

“The Coffeeshop Hermit.” Seriously, I do not want to talk to you, I don’t want to go out, I want to sit in the window of my favorite café and write. Is this café open until midnight? Even better. I can be persuaded to converse with the barista.

First Love: Book edition. What was it and when? (i.e. what book made you love reading?)

I loved reading before this, but this incident definitely solidified the intensity of my relationship with the written word. I was in sixth grade, and the librarian knew that I was a huge Diane Wynne Jones fan. So that meant that when Jones’s latest novel came out, the librarian called me over and told me that as a special treat I could read this brand-new book, so long as I did so in the library itself. Overjoyed, I decided to skip lunch and recess and get started. I figured that I would hear my classmates as they ran through the halls to their afternoon classes. I didn’t hear anything, so I kept reading. Eventually a classmate wandered into the library and asked for me. It turned out that I had been reading for at least two hours, so lost in the world of the book that I hadn’t heard my classmates coming in from recess! Well, they banned me from the library during school hours (really!) and I had to sneak reading the rest of the novel. It was Hexwood, one of Jones’s great mindfuck narratives, and it was, always and forever, worth it.

Alaya Dawn Johnson is the author of six novels for adults and young adults. Her novel The Summer Prince was longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Her most recent, Love Is the Drug, won the Andre Norton Award. Her short stories have appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including Asimov’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Interzone, Subterranean, Zombies vs. Unicorns and Welcome to Bordertown. In addition to the Norton, she has won the Cybils and Nebula Awards and been nominated for the Indies Choice Award and Locus Award. She lives in Mexico City. AlayaDawnJohnson.com. @alayadj.

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