Erika Johansen on July’s #1 Indie Next List Pick, The Queen of the Tearling

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Erika Johansen’s The Queen of the Tearling (Harper) is the #1 Indie Next List pick for July, as chosen by independent booksellers.

The first in a trilogy, The Queen of the Tearling is set in a world absent of technology, medicine, and proper leadership. Kelsea Raleigh Glynn, who was raised in exile, is journeying to the heart of the kingdom to take her throne, despite the forces against her — her uncle, the Regent, desperate to keep his power; the Red Queen in the neighboring nation of Mortmesne; and an assassin group, the Caden. Pushing her along in the adventure is the Tear sapphire, given to her at birth to signify her destiny to ascend the throne and brimming with powers unknown to its owner.

“Thus begins a rich fantasy set in a detailed medieval world filled with action and magic, intrigue and duplicity, complex characters and evil villains, and, most importantly, an intelligent, passionate heroine,” said Flannery Fitch of Bookshop Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz, California.

Johansen lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She attended Swarthmore College and earned her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, eventually becoming an attorney before sitting down to write her first novel.

Bookselling This Week: What was your inspiration for writing The Queen of the Tearling?

Photo by Victoria Webb

Erika Johansen: I wanted to write about what was possible, politically, in a fantasy world with as many problems as our own. At the time I began the book, then-Senator Obama was an enormous influence on my main character. I had never been so inspired by a politician before.

BTW: Nineteen-year-old Kelsea might be plain, but she is clearly intelligent, quick, and passionate — and, most importantly, the opposite of her mother, Elyssa, the former Queen of the Tearling. Kelsea is determined to be a good leader when she ascends the throne. How did you develop the character of Kelsea and why did you empower her with such strong qualities?

EJ: There aren’t enough strong heroines out there; I thought the shelves could definitely use an additional tough girl. But even of the successful heroines out there, I also find that an inordinate number are empowered by either being pretty or being incredibly physically tough. These two qualities surely make life easier, but I don’t think they should be the only paths to success for women in literature. I didn’t really need to develop Kelsea; she sprang into the world fully formed: a girl who finds her own strength not in beauty or physical prowess, but in intelligence, principle, and compassion. These are ennobling qualities — for all genders — and they need to be more celebrated in the protagonists of our literature.

BTW: Each society in The Queen of the Tearling has its share of challenges, including poverty, human trafficking, and corrupt rulers. What elements of the Tearling and its neighboring nations are rooted in our own country’s history or present-day struggles? Is our current time and culture reflected in the story?

EJ: Absolutely. I feel that our modern culture, as a whole, is doing very poorly at the great game of community, of recognizing that what is good for individuals is not more important than what is good for the society as a whole. Diminished value placed on civics has allowed the “I got mine” philosophy to run rampant. In the Tearling and its neighbors, entire privileged segments of the population focus only on what’s good for themselves, their relatives, and their friends. These people feel no obligation or connection to the society that has given them their good lives, nor do they feel any concern for those who have not been as lucky as themselves. There’s plenty of that going around in our society as well.

BTW: Kelsea’s foster parents, Carlin and Barty, had a vast library despite the lack of books in the Tearling, where they’ve become an undervalued commodity. Why does Kelsea see books as so important, both for herself and for the people of her nation?

EJ: Books are a safe, easy, and — usually — enjoyable way to gain experiences beyond your own. Learning about other people’s experiences and opinions forces you to integrate them into, or at least make them coexist with, your own beliefs. This is the very essence of critical thinking, and when you shut down an entire society’s ability to read, I feel that you take away the greatest tool we’ve invented yet for improving ourselves, for trying to learn how to do better. My heroine, Kelsea, has just inherited a kingdom in which most people can’t read and have never held a book, but she was raised on books as her primary source of education and experience. She knows how valuable they are.

BTW: You are traveling on a whirlwind tour of independent bookshops for The Queen of the Tearling, which indie booksellers selected as the number one Indie Next List pick for July. What does it mean to you to have the support of independent booksellers for this trilogy?

EJ: I love independent bookstores; browsing is much more enjoyable in an environment permeated by the love of books. We have received a very nice response to The Queen of the Tearling from a number of independent booksellers, and I value their praise very highly.