Interview with J R Dawson (THE FIRST BRIGHT THING)
J. R. Dawson (she/they) is a writer and educator who has published shorter works in places such as F&SF, The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, and Lightspeed. She lives in Omaha with a loving spouse and three dogs. Having earned a BFA from The Theatre School at DePaul, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Stonecoast, Dawson works as a teaching artist. Her clients include assorted Midwestern non-profits that teach kids the power of performance and storytelling.
Welcome to the Hive, J.R. Let’s start with the basics: tell us about The First Bright Thing – what can readers expect?
A magical queer circus travels through 1926 Midwest America, trying to use their “sparks” (or powers) to change an audience member’s life one small inspiration at a time. But there is a war looming in the future, and there is a very dark rival circus stalking them from the past.
Give us an insight into your characters, who can we expect to meet? Do you have a favourite child?
Rin is our main character, and she’s the Ringmaster! She can jump through time. Her wife, Odette, is a trapeze artist and she can heal people with a touch. Their best friend is Mauve, a clairvoyant, and together they produce Windy Van Hooten’s Circus of the Fantasticals.
Our other perspective character is Edward, who we find in a trench during the first World War. He hasn’t been given a spark like the others, and he’s sour about it. Until he realizes he might be more powerful than anyone.
My favorite child has changed day to day, but I think that the character that’s just like a warm hug is Bernard DesChamps, Mauve’s father and the circus’s bodyguard. I love him so much, and I’m so grateful for him in this book.
Tell us a little something about your writing process – do you have a certain method? Do you find music helps? Give us a glimpse into your world!
I really believe in writing when it brings you joy. I also believe in hitting deadlines, so balancing my natural rhythm with the business side of things becomes a very important skill. I have to have music playing; otherwise, I’m a lost cause. My Spotify is full of character playlists, plot playlists, “vibes” playlists … most of them musical theatre and movie soundtracks. Unless it’s a super emo scene, then I break out the Fall Out Boy.
Speaking of worlds, what inspires your worldbuilding? Do you have a magic system/s? If so, can you tell us a bit about it?
The worldbuilding in TFBT is minimal but important and sturdy. The magic system is based on the real-life art I’ve seen my friends do. Thinking about the Jewish idea of Sparks and how we all have something special and beautiful to bring into the world and to others, I see my found family in real life creating gorgeous photographs, amazing cakes, brilliant plays, wonderful songs … I’m constantly blown away. So what if these Sparks were real, what if instead of the art itself, it was also something tangibly powerful? Maybe even dangerous? Something we get to decide what we do with.
If you were transported into your own fictional world, how do you think you would fare?
I believe the fictional world is a reflection of my real world, so I think I would fare alright. I live where the book takes place, I’m part of an artistic community, and the prejudice and discrimination that happens in the book is all based on real life stuff that actually exists in our world. So it would just be the same, just … in 1926 and more magical. Except the Circus King would scare the hell out of me and I think I would have massive trust issues with everyone.
We see such varying opinions from authors when it comes to the time of editing their books. How have you found the editing process? Enjoyable, stressful or satisfying?
I do actually love the editing process a lot more than the drafting process. Looking at a blank page, my brain just goes, “Uh, are we sure about this? I have plum forgotten how to write.” But the editing process is like smoothing out the paint, getting those little details and grace notes etched in there, really understanding the shape of your piece. It’s stressful but it is a good stressful. I love my job. So much so that sometimes I’m like “is this a job? Because it doesn’t feel like work, it’s what I’ve always wanted to do.”
We always appreciate a beautiful book cover! How involved in the process were you? Was there a particular aesthetic you hoped the artist would portray?
I am not a graphic artist so I didn’t really feel like I was the best person for the job to have any say. Katie Klim was fantastic, just sort of came up with this idea, and sent it over and I was like YES! My initial thoughts for a cover were like an iridescent blue and purple with sparkles but this story, turns out, is not Lisa Frank, so I think Katie made the correct decision going with the darker tones and circus colors. And she portrayed the whole book so perfectly in this one image. The time travel, the women, the threads, the circus, the era, it’s all there and gels so wonderfully.
Can you tell us anything about any upcoming projects? Or can you tell us a few teasers for your sequel?
I am currently working on another standalone with Tor, which is tentatively called “The Station at the Edge of the Lake.” Set in Chicago, Lake Michigan is the River Styx and the Ferryman and his daughter live on the edge of the city in a magical way station. But the ferryman is ready to pass on to the afterlife himself, and that means his daughter will inherit his boat, his responsibilities, and his everlasting life. This is something she’s been preparing for, but she wasn’t prepared for a living girl to find the station. She wasn’t prepared to fall in love.
Who are the most significant women in SFF who have shaped and influenced your work?
I will always say Katherine Applegate. Hands down. I also think that Ally Malinenko is doing a lot for the horror genre and advocating for younger readers. Ursula K LeGuin and Octavia Butler paved the way. There are so many … Charlie Jane Anders was one of the first speculative writers I read, and I was like, “Oh wait, SFF can be like this? It doesn’t have to be like the old turn-of-the-century classics? Well okay!”
Who is a great woman in SFF who we should be reading? Any hidden gems?
Ryka Aoki is brilliant and one of the best living writers of our time. Freya Marske’s Marvellous Light and subsequent series is amazing and I haven’t been so invested in a cast of characters like this for years. Ai Jiang was just nominated for a Nebula and she has two novellas out this year, both of which are fantastic. All three of these women are people you read and go, “Oh wow. I have so much to learn.”
Finally, what is the one thing you hope readers take away from your writing?
You are enough. You have always been enough. Please know you have your own spark inside you, and it is beautiful.
Thank you so much for joining us for Women in SFF!
The First Bright Thing is available now on Bookshop.org