Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Urban Fantasy Perspectives: Suzanne Johnson

I'm very excited to present today's interview with urban fantasy author, Suzanne Johnson. Check out the latest installment of her Sentinels of New Orleans series, River Road, and enter to win one of several fabulous tour prizes through the form at the end of the post.

Welcome Suzanne!

Thanks, Ella—it’s great to be here!

Tell us a little but about the heroine of your Sentinels of New Orleans series, Drusilla (DJ) Jaco.

DJ is a wizard who grew up in New Orleans. She knows she’s not the strongest wizard on the block—no one would ever describe her as kickass, but she can handle herself pretty well. She’s creative in her problem-solving, which often lands her in hot water with the wizards’ Elders, but her methods usually work. Her biggest weakness, but also her biggest strength, is that she leads with her heart rather than her head. It means she ends up in some bad situations, but she always does things for the right reasons. She’s funny and resourceful, stubborn and snarky. She’s been through a lot but came through it stronger. And did I mention she has elven blood on both sides of her family? It gives her some interesting skills.

DJ is a Green Congress wizard, while her mentor, Gerry, is a Red Congress wizard. Can you explain the difference between these two types of magic users?

In the Sentinels series, the wizards are organized into four Congresses, based on the type of magic they’re most skilled in. An org chart would show the Elders at the top, then the heads of the four congresses, then the members of the four congresses, and then the wizards whose skills aren’t strong enough for them to be congress-certified. Red Congress wizards like DJ’s mentor are good at physical magic, so they tend to be the fighters/soldiers. Green Congress wizards like DJ are good at ritual magic—potions, work done with summoning circles, etc. It’s effective magic, but takes a lot of prep time. They’re the geeks of the magic world. There’s also the Blue Congress (illusion magic) and Yellow Congress (mental magic), which we’ll see more of later in the series.

What are your favorite preternatural creatures to read or write about?

With River Road, I had great fun with the merpeople. They’re aquatic shapeshifters who are born, not made. And they’re Cajuns mainstreaming in the Louisiana fishing industry (sort of cannibalistic, right?). Currently, I’m doing final revisions on the third book and I’m really loving the Elves. I enjoy taking old mythologies and putting new spins on them. These are NOT Tolkien’s elves.

The historic undead in your novels are an interesting new twist on ghosts and zombies (not quite falling into either category). How did this idea come about?

When I was writing the first book in the series, Royal Street, I really was trying to pay homage to my beloved New Orleans, dealing with my own leftover issues from Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans has such a rich history that I wanted famous New Orleanians like the pirate Jean Lafitte and voodoo priestess Marie Laveau and jazz great Louis Armstrong to have roles in the book. I began looking for a way to bring them in as real characters and came up with the idea of the historical undead—famous humans given immortality through the magic of human memory. The more famous they are and the more people remember them or know who they are, the longer at a time they can spend time outside the otherworld, the Beyond, and in our world. They can eat, drink, and even have sex (or at least the pirate Lafitte claims this is so).

If you could summon any historical figure to hang out with for a day, who would it be?

He’d probably scare the crap out of me, but I’ve become totally fascinated with the French pirate Jean Lafitte, the last great pirate of the Gulf and Caribbean. He was a very powerful and complex man—smart, persuasive and charming, yet also ruthless and cunning. Calculating and arrogant, but also emotional and even sentimental. He ruled over a city of a thousand pirates, ruffians and their families in the wetlands south of New Orleans. I’d love to see what he was really like after reading so many biographies of him and trying to make him a three-dimensional character in my books.

I know that you've lived in New Orleans for quite some time, so it's no wonder you chose it as the setting for the Sentinels series. How important was it to you to stay true to the city's history, including the Katrina disaster, and is there anything you tweaked to suit the needs of your stories?

No tweaking—that was the rule I gave myself when I wrote Royal Street. I took some heat from reviewers for the slower pace of the book, but I was determined that if I wrote about Hurricane Katrina and what New Orleans was like immediately afterward I was not going to flinch away from it. I wasn’t going to make it better, or make it easy for my characters to live there, or change the facts to suit the story—even when everything had to grind to a halt three weeks after Katrina when Hurricane Rita pushed through and reflooded things.

Staying true to New Orleans was a promise I made to myself, and I was gratified that every New Orleanian who’s read the books comment on how they capture the post-K city so well. I moved the timeline for River Road to three years later so that my characters could come out of hurricane survival mode. It took that long for things to even begin feeling a little normal. So River Road moves faster, is funnier, and really sets the tone for the rest of the series. A chunk of the book is set in Plaquemines Parish southeast of New Orleans, so a portion of the proceeds from the book’s sale is being donated to the Greater New Orleans Foundation for their oil-spill relief fund. That area continues to suffer from the impact of the 2010 oil spill as well as from Hurricane Isaac earlier this year.

That is so wonderful and generous of you, Suzanne!

What is your favorite hometown food or drink?

New Orleans has amazing cuisine, and I don’t think I could pick one favorite! I love oysters. Baked, grilled, fried, cooked into stuffing…you name it. Crawfish bread. Jambalaya. Muffalettas. For dessert, it’s lemon or caramel doberge (or half-and-half) from Gambino’s—Google it. It’s to kill for.

You write both urban fantasy and paranormal romance (as Susannah Sandlin). How does your process differ between working with each of these genres?

The two genres are closely related from a reader’s standpoint but from a writing standpoint, they’re polar opposites. The urban fantasies are first-person from a single point of view, they focus on an external story that needs to be at least partially wrapped up by the end of each book, they have a lot more humor, and the relationships carry over from book to book. The paranormals are third-person from multiple points of view, they focus on a relationship that needs to be wrapped up by the end of each book (each book has a different hero/heroine), they are darker, and the external story needs to develop but carries over from book to book. So they are really very different types of genres to write. My writing process is the same, but my mind has to be in a completely different zone.

What types of stories or characters would you like to see more of in urban fantasy?

I’d like to see better use of settings in UF; a lot of them are set in real cities but you could pluck them up and stick them in a different city without changing the story, which seems like wasted opportunity to me. I’d really like to see more guys reading and writing urban fantasy. It bothers me that it’s seen increasingly as a “woman’s genre.” I think we’re moving away from kickass heroines who can do everything, and that’s a good thing for the genre.

You've got your fingers on the pulse of genre fiction in some pretty influential publishers. Do you have any advice for those interested in writing UF/paranormal novels, or any predictions about where the genre is heading?

It’s a really tough market right now. Really tough. The adult UF/paranormal field is crowded and because publishing is in such flux, the bigger publishers are taking fewer chances and aren’t always providing much in the way of marketing for their authors. Yet with a few exceptions, authors who jump right into self-publishing or sign with startup e-publishers are finding it hard to make themselves stand out in the marketplace and sales are really low. I sure don’t have any answers. Staying published is as hard as getting published.

Whatever route you seek to publication, I think the key to writing genre fiction is finding a fresh spin on what you love and not worrying about the market too much. Sci-fi romance and paranormal romantic suspense are rising stars right now, but by the time you write one, the market could shift and historical paranormals could be on the rise. YA paranormals have been the hot genre for the past few years, but now we’re seeing a shift toward contemporary YA. The success of Fifty Shades has everyone trying to churn out erotic romance, and that genre’s getting glutted. So I think you have to not try to second-guess the market. Take the genre you love and work to find a fresh spin on it. Then just write a good book and see where the market is once you have it ready to submit.

Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions. Best of luck with the series, I'm really enjoying it so far.

Thank you, and thanks for having me here, Ella!

River Road
Sentinels of New Orleans, Book 2
Suzanne Johnson

Genre: Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Tor Books
ISBN: 978-0765327802
ASIN: B00842H5VI
Number of pages: 336
Word Count: approx. 92,000
Cover Artist: Cliff Nielsen

Amazon Barnes & Noble

Book Depository Indiebound

Book Description:

Hurricane Katrina is long gone, but the preternatural storm rages on in New Orleans. New species from the Beyond moved into Louisiana after the hurricane destroyed the borders between worlds, and it falls to wizard sentinel Drusilla Jaco and her partner, Alex Warin, to keep the preternaturals peaceful and the humans unaware. But a war is brewing between two clans of Cajun merpeople in Plaquemines Parish, and down in the swamp, DJ learns, there’s more stirring than angry mermen and the threat of a were-gator.
Wizards are dying, and something—or someone—from the Beyond is poisoning the waters of the mighty Mississippi, threatening the humans who live and work along the river. DJ and Alex must figure out what unearthly source is contaminating the water and who—or what—is killing the wizards. Is it a malcontented merman, the naughty nymph, or some other critter altogether? After all, DJ’s undead suitor, the pirate Jean Lafitte, knows his way around a body or two. 

It’s anything but smooth sailing on the bayou as the Sentinels of New Orleans series continues.

About the Author:

Suzanne Johnson writes urban fantasy and paranormal romance from Auburn, Alabama, after a career in educational publishing that has spanned five states and six universities. She grew up halfway between the Bear Bryant Museum and Elvis' birthplace and lived in New Orleans for fifteen years, so she has a highly refined sense of the absurd and an ingrained love of SEC football and fried gator on a stick.

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Christina Kit. said...

I LOVE that DJ isn't a kick-ass heroine. I think they're much more interesting when they're brainier, go with their heart. I read in one of your interviews that she's a quirky nerdy type of wizard - that's awesome, I can relate to quirky and nerdy:)

Awesome interview:)

ccfioriole at gmail dot com

Roger said...

D.J. may not be a kick-ass heroine but she sure gets her ass-kicked in River Road. The second book in The Sentinels of New Orleans series is the best of the two. I really liked it - a lot. Buy two, one for you and one for a friend.

Suzanne Johnson said...

Thanks, Christina and Roger. I like DJ's nerdiness too. And yes, she definitely gets her ass kicked in River Road!

miki said...

I loved this book a lot and charlie was a good staff this time ^^ not too many mistakes just one big there are some improvement( Jean would tell the opposite of course^^)


Allison said...

I like that DJ isn't "kick-ass" too but she can still handle herself. I have no idea what most of those foods you mentioned even are!

Anonymous said...

I really agree with the settings comment. I think that makes your books really stand out.. I can visualize the settings and immerse myself in the culture and surroundings of LA. :)

Suzanne Johnson said...

@Miki...Yes, DJ and Charlie have bonded...but she needs some serious practice!

@Allison....New Orleans definitely has its own cuisine. Good stuff, though!

@readsalot81...I think Jim Butcher uses Chicago well, and Patricia Briggs uses the Pacific Northwest, but a lot of UF just doesn't use its setting at all. I'm glad mine make you feel like you're in South Louisiana!

SandyG265 said...

I'm enjoying the book tour

bn100 said...

Very nice interview and advice.


Catherine Lee said...

New Orleans does have great food! I never acquired a taste for muffalettas (I'm not an olive fan), but what's not to LOVE about beignets?

donnas said...

Great interview. Very good questions. Thanks for doing it.

Tanya1224 said...

Caramel doberge? hmmm...I will google that...I don't remember hearing anything about that when in New Orleans. I love me some food though and I ate a ton of oysters while I was there...way too

Suzanne Johnson said...

Thanks for all the comments, everyone!

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