Fairy tale retellings have always been popular. 2015 brought two delightful retellings of The Arabian Nights to YA readers. E. K. Johnston’s A Thousand Nights is a thoughtful and subversive retelling imbued with as much magic and feminism. It has quickly become one of my favorite novels and I’m thrilled to have E. K. Johnston here to answer some questions about her novel.
Miss Print (MP): Can you tell me a bit about your path as a writer? How did you get to this point?
E. K. Johnston (EKJ): I was never one of those people who always wanted to be a writer, though in hindsight I can tell you that I spent most of my childhood LARPing The Chronicles of Narnia and Star Wars in my back yard woodlot. I told myself stories, but didn’t write them down. When I went to university, I started writing fan fiction, but it wasn’t until 2009, when I was finished my Masters and didn’t have final papers due in the month of November that I first tackled an original novel. I did NaNoWrimo in 2009 and 2010, completing two manuscripts that will probably never see the light of day. Then, during NaNo 2011, I wrote The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim, and the rest is history. :)
MP: What was the inspiration for A Thousand Nights? What drew you to The Arabian Nights as source material?
EKJ: I really wanted to do a folktale retelling, and was piecing together a story based on Sleeping Beauty. While I was hammering out some of the world building, I realized that there was an older story I could tell, about where magic came from. That story wasn’t The Arabian Nights – it’s too old – but it was a story that could become The Arabian Nights. Then one night at work I thought “Lo-Melkhiin killed three hundred girls when he came to my village, looking for a wife“, and that was that!
MP: This book is, appropriately, set in a desert society. How did you find and choose details to include in your story to evoke this setting? What kind of research was involved?
EKJ: Not so much research as personal experience! The deserts in NIGHTS are based on the deserts I have spent time in as a archaeologist and tourist in Jordan. The Scrub Desert is the north, and the Sand Desert is the south. The details that I used are all things that I have felt or seen or heard in the desert, particularly the way the wind picks up at sunset (though I had to leave out the children and their kites), and also the stars over Wadi Rum.
MP: Working off the last question, did any real locations help you envision the setting for this book? Did any pieces from The Arabian Nights particularly help inform the world of A Thousand Nights?
EKJ: Two in particular! The Turkish Bath in Amman, Jordan provided the feel for the scenes with the Henna Mistress, and the Umayyad palace on top of the Amman Citadel gave me the layout of the king’s qasr, though, again, the Umayyad dynasty is much too late for the setting of the book. (Sometimes you have to cheat for good architecture!)
MP: You made a deliberate choice in this book to not name the narrator and most of the characters (with a few exceptions including, notably, Lo-Melkhiin). Can you talk about your decision to avoid names in this novel?
EJK: I decided not to name any of the characters (the king doesn’t really have a name either) for two reasons. 1. We don’t know that much about Middle Bronze Age names for people who aren’t very high class, and 2. NIGHTS is, at heart, a folktale. Names always have power in folk tales, and they’re also usually pretty…general. I wanted it to be a recurring theme in the book.
MP: How did you decide which characters should be named? Since it does stand out as one of the only names in the story, can you talk about how you chose Lo-Melkhiin‘s name?
EKJ: Lo-Melkhiin is actually a title as well, and not a real name at all. I took the sounds that form the modern Arabic word for “king”, and then moved them around a bit. All languages experience phonetic shift, and so this is a good way to make a word seem older. The other names that appear in the book are also titles, Arabic (ish) words that mean exactly what the person is. The bulk of the names, though, I translated into English, for simplicity. My narrator has a name from everyone who loves her, which I think is kind of cool. The king on has two names (“the king” and “my son”), because no one likes him.
MP: One of my favorite things about A Thousand Nights is how much craft (weaving, embroidery, sculpture) and storytelling factor into the story. Did you always know that these themes with creation and story would feature in this novel?
EKJ: I did, because it’s the bedrock on which the book is written. Fairies and making always have a complementary relationship (usually bad for the maker!), so I knew that it was going to be a lot of the plot, both literally and metaphorically. And storytelling was a given, with the source material I was working with!
MP: Did you have a favorite scene to write in A Thousand Nights or a scene you are excited for readers to discover?
EKJ: I think my favourite scene to write was the hyena-murder chapter. My favourite scene in the book is the one with the talking camel, though. :)
MP: Can you share anything about your next project?
EKJ: I can! I have a companion novel for A THOUSAND NIGHTS coming out late this year. Remember how I mentioned Sleeping Beauty way up in the interview? Well that’s the companion. It’s called SPINDLE, and it takes place about 1500 years after NIGHTS (so about 500BCE), and tells the story of a kidnapping attempt that turns desperate when a curse-plagued princess proves to be almost as dangerous as she is endangered.
I also have a contemporary novel out on March 15, called EXIT, PURSUED BY A BEAR, which is Shakespeare and Cheerleaders (and Rape Culture).
MP: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?
EKJ: Keep writing, keep reading, keep trying. And listen. Listen really hard.
Thanks again to EK Johston for this awesome interview.
You can also check out my review of A Thousand Nights.