Interview with Joshua Phillip Johnson (THE FOREVER SEA)
Joshua Johnson lives in Minnesota, in the Prairie Pothole Region of the United States (which was an inspiration for the environment of the novel) and teaches classes about writing, literature, and the environment at the University of Minnesota Morris. His work has been published in Metaphorosis Magazine, The Future Fire, and Syntax & Salt, among others.
Welcome to the Hive, Joshua. Congratulations on your debut, The Forever Sea!
Thanks so much! And thanks for having me!
Is it nerve-wracking to have your book out there in the wild? Have you been able to see your book in a bookshop yet, or take part in any virtual events to celebrate your release?
Absolutely! I haven’t been able to make it to a bookshop to see it just yet, but friends and family have shared pictures of it out there, sitting among other books on tables in shops. Thankfully I’ve been able to participate in a few online events, so that’s something at least!
Can you tell us a little bit about what readers can expect?
The Forever Sea is set in a fantasy world where ships sail a miles-high sea of prairie grasses. The novel follows Kindred, a sailor aboard a ship called The Errant, as she searches for her lost grandmother and risks everything to discover what waits beyond the horizon and below the surface of the Sea. Readers can expect wild battles on the sea, monsters from the deep, a mysterious floating pirate city, and lots of that sweet, sweet prairie imagery!
I’m absolutely in awe of both your US and UK covers, the artwork is so vivid and I personally feel they both capture your world perfectly. How involved were you during the design process? What was your reaction when you were shown the final images?
Thank you! I totally agree! I wasn’t super involved in either design process; I think I gave a few scene suggestions for one of the covers, but that’s it, which means I was totally surprised and awed by both covers! I still get all fluttery when I see them.
I’ve recently finished reading The Forever Sea and I have to say your world-building is delightfully unique. A sea of grass, monsters which lurk beneath, ships kept afloat by hearthfires. I think many readers will agree with me here, it’s all so fascinating. What inspired the various aspects of this world?
The Forever Sea itself is inspired by the tallgrass prairie that once covered much of North America, including the area where I now live. The prairie has been called the Inland Sea before, so I really just took that metaphor and made it literal! Everything else sprung from that—if the prairie really were a sea, then it’s not much of a leap to imagine monsters lurking below and boats sailing across it.
The hearthfires came from both a practical need for a mechanic to keep the ships afloat (some sort of “engine”) and from my hope to write a story that reflected how much of our world is based on consumption of scarce resources. The hearthfires burn bones for power and control over the environment, which seems quite similar to how we use fossil fuels here.
Your novel focuses a lot on environmental themes such as pollution and the negative effect we have on the natural world. Was this theme something you had planned to write about from the onset or did it naturally emerge as you began writing?
It was definitely there in the beginning, though I tried not to think too consciously about it in the first few drafts. I didn’t want a book that had no plot or characters and was just filled with lofty environmental bits. No shade to those books, of course, but it’s not the sort of thing I wanted to write. So I tried to weave my ideas about the natural world in with my very real love for crunchy battles and weird worldbuilding and magic and all the rest.
I’d say you’ve achieved a great balance there.
Are there any fantasy authors who have significantly influenced you?
Oh yes! Ursula Le Guin, Jorge Luis Borges, N.K. Jemisin, Lev Grossman, China Mieville, Lloyd Alexander, Fran Wilde, Amal El-Mohtar, C.S. Lewis, Susanna Clarke.
Tell us about a book that’s excellent, but underappreciated or obscure.
The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar. It’s a fresh and amazing take on superhero stories, told with Tidhar’s incredible style and wit, and I wish more people would read it. Maybe it’s more popular in the UK, but I haven’t met many who’ve read it here in the US, which is too bad.
Are there any writers or creators whom you’d love to collaborate with?
I’d love to write an environmental fantasy series for kids with Robert Macfarlane. Robert, if you’re reading this, give me a call.
I really appreciated seeing a female crew running The Errant ship. Was Kindred a fun protagonist to write about? Did you have any other characters which were your favourite to write?
I really like that aspect of the book, too! Kindred was wonderful to write about, but she was a challenge. Like me, she can be very passive and unaware of her own motivations, which led to moments in drafts where she seemed just along for the ride.
Little Wing was my favorite to write, and she’s still my favorite character.
Ah yes, Little Wing was such a feisty one!
As a debut author were there any stumbling blocks you came across whilst writing The Forever Sea? Were there any particular challenges you faced, such as a difficult chapter or character arc?
Is it cheating if I say “all of it”? Writing is really hard for me, and I struggled with every aspect of this book at various points, but my longest running difficulty is probably knowing when to say more and when to say less. I have a bad habit of evoking or gesturing at interesting plot or worldbuilding ideas but leaving them opaque and unclear.
Also, figuring out how a battle with a wyrm might go on the sea was damn challenging, but the fun kind of challenging!
The battle with the wyrm was one of my favourite scenes… I do love a huge monster!
I know that your book has been likened to Studio Ghibli animes, and I really did see many similarities with it and Nausicaa. Was this a conscious decision? And if you’re a fan of Studio Ghibli which are your favourite ones?
Not conscious, no, but I’ve watched the Ghibli movies so many times that anything I write will probably have a pretty clear influence.
Nausicaä is a favorite of mine. Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away, too. My daughter just turned four recently, and so we watched My Neighbor Totoro together, and it was so wonderful to experience it with her.
My Neighbour Totoro is so good, as is Howl’s Moving Castle!
How do you motivate yourself on days when you don’t want to write?
It depends on the day. Sometimes I just take the day off and read! Other days, if I’m not on deadline and don’t absolutely need to write, I try to have contact with my story in other ways. Writing letters from one of my characters to another, doing some just-for-fun worldbuilding, drawing a character or monster, etc. Even if I don’t get any new words down in the story, I still count it as a productive day if I can play in my world a bit.
That’s a really great idea.
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 would hang out and play with my partner and daughter all day! Walks, board games, movies with popcorn, reading books together—we’d do it all!
One of our favourite questions here on the Fantasy Hive: which fantastical creature would you ride into battle and why?
Oooh! Hmm, I think I’d go with Llyan, the horse-sized cat from the Chronicles of Prydain. I always thought she was so cool as a kid, and I still do as an adult!
Finally, without giving away too much can you tell us a little something about book two of The Forever Sea? Will there be more monsters? (Please say yes!)
Definitely more monsters! And all questions about what is happening below the Sea will be answered—pinky promise! Also: a language war, visitors from the other side of the Sea, and the return of a few old friends.
Ooh that all sounds very intriguing, especially a language war.
Thank you so much, Joshua!