Women in SFF Author Spotlight – Tenea D. Johnson (SMOKETOWN)
After time well spent in alphabet cities—NYC, ATL and DC—Tenea lives near the Gulf of Mexico where she writes speculative fiction, makes music, and builds an arts & empowerment enterprise. Her latest books are Blueprints for Better Worlds (May 2020) and Broken Fevers (November 2020). Her short work appears in anthologies like Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond, Sycorax’s Daughters, and Blue and Gray: Ghost Stories from the Civil War. Her musical stories were heard at venues including The Public Theater and The Knitting Factory. Tenea also wrote a poetry and prose collection, Starting Friction. Her debut novel, Smoketown, won the Parallax Award. R/evolution, the first book in the Revolution series (which includes the novel, Evolution), received an honorable mention that year as well. Her virtual home is teneadjohnson.com. Stop by anytime.
Welcome to the Hive, Tenea D. Johnson. Let’s start small: tell us about a great book you’ve read recently!
I recently reread Bloodchild and Other Stories. That one never gets old for me. Butler’s command of succinct, powerful storytelling is a master class for writers and a gift to readers.
Okay, time to escalate things: reality warps and you suddenly find yourself leading a D&D-style party through a monster-infested dungeon. What character class are you, and what’s your weapon of choice?
Artificer, so I can empower whatever’s around.
When you’re not trawling through dungeons, how do you like to work? (In silence, with music, or serenaded by the damned souls of a thousand dead shrimps? Do you prefer to type or to hand-write? Are you an architect or a gardener? A plotter or a pantser? D’you write in your underwear, or in a deep-sea diver’s suit?)
Tell us a little bit about your writing method!
My writing method varies: I tend to type for the most part, but definitely write some notes out (I get tired of having to type them later so have streamlined). I’ve dabbled with dictation software, but for me it introduces too many errors. I may start with a line, or a plot from a file I’ve accumulated over time (made up of ideas or lines that arrive but aren’t quite ready to fully reveal themselves). I write with or without music, depending on my mood. When the outside world intrudes, I’ll listen to brown noise on headphones.
First drafts are vital because often I’m pushing through to get to the editing phase. When that doesn’t happen and I hit a groove where I’m basically transcribing the story my inner voice is telling me, I tend to not have to change much. The fully formed story is rare, but does happen every now and again.
The less time I have, the more I plot—specifically because when I pick a story back up I usually start at the beginning and rewrite as I read through it, which means I may think I’ll be writing that day, but end up editing.
What (or who) are your most significant female fantasy influences? Are there any creators whom you dream of working with someday?
My work and influences often fall into speculative and science fiction categories more so than fantasy. For fantasy I’d say Ursula K. LeGuin’s cultures and political systems. There are other works I might not classify as fantasy per se but others would, like Toni Morrison’s Beloved.
What was the last thing you watched on TV and why did you choose to watch it? Alternatively, what games have you enjoyed recently?
3022. I chose it because it’s not easy to end the world and make characters go mad convincingly so I wanted to see if they could pull it off. Did they? Somewhat.
The world shifts, and you find yourself with an extra day on your hands during which you’re not allowed to write. How do you choose to spend the day?
I’d spend the day working on other projects so probably working on app development or playing music. If I’m feeling particularly ambitious I’d try to build something (with wood).
Can you tell us a little something about your current work(s) in progress?
I’m working on a couple of things right now: a fiction album about a scientific discovery that changes how people see the universe, a social good web app with a tie-in to a linked novella (Blueprints for Better Worlds), a choreography collaboration about the pandemic (wherein I’ll be leaving the actual choreography to a professional), and another multimedia project that takes the story off the page, this time to explore alternate realities.
What’s the most (and/or least) helpful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
I don’t think I’ve received any piece of advice that’s not helpful because at the very least it teaches me not to consult that source again. It’s all helpful. I’ve gotten a lot of use out of “if there’s absolutely anything you’d rather be doing, do that instead.” It’s not terribly positive, but it’s a useful reality check. Also I don’t know if anyone has said it in these terms, but good beta readers will save you time and heartache. They’re not you; so they’ll see what you don’t or can’t.
Every writer encounters stumbling blocks, be it a difficult chapter, challenging subject matter or just starting a new project. How do you motivate yourself on days when you don’t want to write?
I have enough projects that if one thing isn’t working I turn to something else. Or I acknowledge my brain is done for the moment and give it a certain amount of time to reset, no more than 48 hours for me, usually more a matter of hours or minutes.
If you could visit any country at any point in history, where/when would you go, and why?
There are a number of countries I’d like to see before colonization, chief among them the US and New Zealand.
Who are your favourite female characters in literature or pop culture? And do you have a favourite type of female character you enjoy writing?
Sarah Conner, Regina King’s Angela Abar was fun and had a couple of layers, Ripley, and Hushpuppy from Beasts of the Southern Wild are some favorite female characters in pop culture; there are many more. For literature, Celie and Nettie from The Color Purple, as well as Lindo and An-mei from The Joy Luck Club. Kind of old school, but they still resonate with me.
I like writing strong women who sometimes have surprising vulnerabilities, but I’m also a fan of an opaque badass.
Tell us about a book that’s excellent, but underappreciated or obscure.
This Bridge Called My Back, not fantasy at all, but fantastic.
Finally, would you be so kind as to dazzle us with an elevator pitch? Why should readers check out your work?
In my work you’ll find lyrical stories of folks at their own edges crossing over into becoming more. They may deal with inequality, oppression, classism, or just their own pasts haunting them. Geniuses offering genetic reparations for slavery, magical nanotech life givers, and long-lived protectors turned revolutionaries inhabit my worlds. You probably haven’t been somewhere like them before. Chances are by the time you leave you’ll have found something fresh enough to last your return to this one.
Thank you so much, Tenea!