While some short story writers find a genre or subgenre they like and stick to it, sci-fi and speculative fiction author Alaya Dawn Johnson has, by her own admission, “…played a lot with genre over the years.” Though that’s not all she had to say in the following email interview about Reconstruction (paperback, Kindle), her first short story collection.
Photo Credit: Armando Vega
To start, is there a theme to the stories in Reconstruction?
Since the stories are a compilation of work I’ve published since my first sci-fi story back in 2004 until the present, this book doesn’t really have a theme, unless that theme is “stuff that interested Alaya for the last decade.”
That being said, they definitely have a certain cohesion in their interests and approaches to literary and moral problems. I have a longstanding interest in issues of complicity and moral responsibility in the face of great injustice, which you can see as much in the first story of the collection, the Nebula-winning “A Guide To The Fruits Of Hawai’i” as the last one, “Reconstruction.”
So what genre or genres do the stories in Reconstruction cover?
They run the gamut from weird, mind-trippy science fiction to near-future speculation to lyrical fantasy to hard sci-fi and, finally, historical. I’ve played a lot with genre over the years, and this collection is certainly a testament to that.
Do are any of the stories in Reconstruction have connections to any of the novels you’ve written?
There is one short story, “Far And Deep” which is a prequel to The Spirit Binders, my first trilogy. “Far And Deep” follows Leilani, the mother of Lana, the protagonist of the trilogy. Leilani’s story is, in fact, about her relationship with her own free spirited mother, who has been murdered.
Other than that, the only connections might be spiritual. I certainly feel that “Reconstruction” is a bit of an origin story for the magical powers that I explored in Trouble The Saints.
Speaking of your novels, are there any writers that had a big influence on the stories in Reconstruction but not on anything else you’ve written? And that can be either collectively or on an individual story.
I mentioned Susie King Taylor’s memoirs, which were a lightning bolt for me when I discovered a copy in The Strand years ago. I sat with that book and read and re-read it until I began to get an understanding of what possibilities it was opening up within me. I was really inspired by the potential of that window on the civil war to address questions that I wanted to ask in my fiction.
What about non-literary influences; were any of the stories in Reconstruction influenced by any movies or TV shows?
Neon Genesis Evangelion definitely had a huge influence on the mind-bending slightly gonzo worldbuilding aesthetic of “Third Day Lights,” that’s for sure. In a lot of ways, my first published science fiction story remains my most off-the-wall ambitious in terms of sheer weirdness of worldbuilding. And let’s be honest, my adoration of the giant weird science fictional mindfuck that is Neon Genesis Evangelion definitely influenced my idea of just what science fiction could do and how it could play with expectations.
Now, it’s been my experience that short stories are a good way to get to know a writer…but not always. Do you think Reconstruction will give people a good idea of what to expect in your novels?
Since there’s so much variety in the short fiction, certainly you can find something to match each of my novels. For Trouble The Saints, I’d say it most closely matches “A Guide To The Fruits Of Hawai’i” and, of course, “Reconstruction.” My YA novels have a bit of the twisted humor of “Their Changing Bodies” and the science fictional sensibility of “Down The Well.” But any one story is a representation of itself most of all, not any other of my work.
So if someone enjoys Reconstruction, which of your novels would you suggest they read next and why that one?
I’d definitely suggest they check out my most recent novel, Trouble The Saints, since I think it represents my most mature and cogent treatment of a lot of the themes I play with in various stories. Fraught moral choices, violence, power and power structures, individual choice vs. collective action, the role of history/the ancestors in our present circumstances, and a lot more. I wanted these stories to be thought-provoking as well as entertaining, leaving behind open questions for the reader to ponder. And Trouble The Saints is very much written in the same vein.