Interview: Jenna Elizabeth Johnson on “Faeborne”

Jenna Elizabeth Johnson’s Faeborne takes us to a land where the Morrigan, the goddess of war and strife, aspires to become more powerful through the use of violence and sacrifice. This is a wonderful tale of how even in dark and complicated circumstances, one can find love, trust, and happiness.

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Since she was a young girl, she had been able to fix many of the things the world had broken.  The gift had developed in stages, slowly.  First, she had started with plants.  Seren’s tribe happened to live along the edge of one of the many meadows dotting the Weald, and several of the families kept small gardens just outside their dens.  One day, Seren had woken before her mother, on the very brink of dawn, before the sun crested the earth, to find their tiny seedlings trampled.  Seren knew, even at that young age, that someone in their tribe had sabotaged their garden on purpose.  She had stepped out into the deep, loamy earth, her bare feet tingling with Eile’s magic, and knelt in the midst of the destruction.  Hot tears of sorrow fell from her eyes and trailed down her cheeks.  She had knelt in the soil, splaying her hands over the most damaged of the lot.  Then, the pain and hurt in her heart stopped burning, and instead, spread throughout her body like warm sunshine piercing a bank of rainclouds.  Her fingers began to glow a golden green, and the light swirled around the stems of earth, to find their tiny seedlings trampled.  Seren knew, even at that young age, that someone in their tribe had sabotaged their garden on purpose.  She had stepped out into the deep, loamy earth, her bare feet tingling with Eile’s magic, and knelt in the midst of the destruction.  Hot tears of sorrow fell from her eyes and trailed down her cheeks.  She had knelt in the soil, splaying her hands over the most damaged of the lot.  Then, the pain and hurt in her heart stopped burning, and instead, spread throughout her body like warm sunshine piercing a bank of rainclouds.  Her fingers began to glow a golden green, and the light swirled around the stems of the tiny plants, weaving the broken leaves and shoots back together.

Gasping in surprise, Seren had stood up, trembling not from the cold of the early morning, but from the exhilaration and shock of what had just happened.  When her fingers stopped tingling, she bent down and tried to repeat the action with another row of plants, this time reining in her fear.  For once in her life, she felt a boldness welling up inside of her.  No longer was she the smallest and the weakest of her tribe.  No, in this she was strong.  Not because she thought so, but because she felt it.  Sweet pride, tinged with a bone-deep certainty, flowed free with this new and strange magic.

—from Faeborne by Jenna Elizabeth Johnson

The Interview

Faeborne is a standalone novel in your Otherworld series. What keeps pulling you back to write more in this intriguing world you’ve created?

When I started writing in the Otherworld universe, I didn’t have a complete grasp on the world itself quite yet. By the third book in the series, my characters are living in the Otherworld, but I still had only scratched the surface. With each foray into Eile (the formal name for the Celtic Otherworld in my series) and the characters’ lives, I get new glimpses of this wondrous place and the magical beings and things that exist there. It’s this continual unveiling that keeps me coming back for more.

The Morrigan, a queen associated with war and fate in Irish mythology, appears in Faeborne. What parts of her traditional mythology did you pull into your story?

One of my goals with the Otherworld series was to keep as true to the legend of the established gods and goddesses as I could, but also to portray them in the way I had interpreted them during my studies. For the Morrigan, I wanted to keep her title – the goddess of war and strife – establish that her feast day is Samhain (Sow-when), and include the animal most associated with her, the raven. Her spirit guide (in the Otherworld universe, a spirit guide is an animal that bonds with its familiar and shares their mortality) is a white raven.

In the myths and legends of Ireland, the Morrigan can take on three aspects – mother, maiden, crone—but in the Otherworld series, her main focus is to stir up trouble and gain power through violence and sacrifice. She aims to steal the glamour, or magic, from others in order to become more powerful and wreak more havoc. I always got the impression from my Celtic studies classes that the Morrigan was her own woman, not one to be trifled with, so I took these traits and embellished them a little.

The nice thing about Celtic mythology (at least for those of us who like to take creative license with the old tales) is that it was passed on through oral tradition, and much of what we know has been learned through conjecture. This gives authors reworking the myths and legends more wiggle room and freedom to be more creative. Still, I hope I’ve managed to capture the essence of this great Celtic goddess in the Otherworld books, even if this rendition is heavily painted with my own whimsy.

The main characters in Faeborne have experienced loss and adversity, and have to deal with their burdens of the past as they learn and grow in this book. What do you enjoy about adding this type of darker element to your fiction?

Many of my favorite characters in books I’ve read have been those with troubled pasts, and perhaps this is why I like to write characters like this. Knowing that a character has faced many challenges and much adversity, I think, makes characters more relatable and gives the reader a deeper connection to them. Plus, it just makes them so interesting and so often I find myself taking their side and really feeling empathy for them.

Secondly, more complicated, damaged characters require more healing throughout the story and I love picking up on and working out those little moments where that healing process gradually unfolds through the love and patience of those they have come to rely upon. Damaged characters—and those fighting for them—have to work harder to reach the end goal of becoming better people, and there is just something so very real and endearing about that.

Finally, I think reading about and working with the deeply damaged characters gives all of us a ray of hope. If characters with great flaws and so many issues can find redemption and someone to love—and someone to forgive them—then we, too, can discover the same in our own lives.

In addition to incorporating Celtic mythology into your writing, you’ve also written an entire series set in a world where dragons, elves, and other mythological beings exist. What inspired your Legend of Oescienne series?

The Legend of Oescienne series was born in my sketch book from my college art classes. It started out as character and map sketches, then blossomed into a bigger story idea. In all honesty, though, I’m pretty sure it had been brewing in my head for years before I realized what it was. The geography of the world—at least the area where my main character grows up – is entirely based off my hometown, and Jahrra (my heroine) is a reflection of me (but she’s so much braver than I ever was or probably ever will be). If you’re paying attention, though, you won’t miss the Celtic influences sprinkled throughout this series as well. It’s just in my blood and soul, I guess.

The theme of helping others, even at cost to oneself, appears in a number of your stories and provides a very positive message. What’s important to you about incorporating this message in your work?

More and more in this day and age, it seems kindness is being set aside for greed and the Might Makes Right mentality. Perhaps it’s just the result of a world saturated with social media and the ability to access information in the blink of an eye – that we are more aware of it because we have access to what’s going on in the world on a minute-by-minute basis.

Being kind and showing compassion is a huge theme for me. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I attended twelve years of Catholic school. Most people I have ever talked to claim to have a more negative experience with Catholic school education, but for me—at least the first eight years—my own experience was positive. I had the Irish Sisters of Mercy educating me. I never felt judged by them and we were always aware of the Charism of Mercy. We were taught to treat others with respect and kindness and this was reflected in the actions of those around me. This was also stressed in my household as well. I think that aspect of my childhood blended with my deeper connection to nature helped stoke this need to exude kindness and compassion for not just humans, but all living things as well. Now, I’m not saying I never break this rule. I’m only human and make mistakes, but I strive to be the best person I can be and to spread the message of kindness and acceptance because there always seems to be someone or something out there who really needs a bit of kindness to get through the day or week. I would love to be remembered as someone who helped others through a difficult time in their lives or helped them to feel like a part of something even if they don’t fit in with the crowd.

You visited Ireland a few years ago. How has that experience impacted your writing?

To be entirely honest, I’m not sure if it has added anything to my writing. I would say it did a better job of validating what I’ve been trying to do as opposed to adding to it. When I was in Ireland, I was so ready to absorb all the great Otherworldly vibes (and believe me, I did!), but I can’t say whether or not it affected my writing. I like to think I’ll be able to describe the Otherworld more accurately, and I’m hoping some of those hidden corners of Ireland we stumbled upon will inspire a new setting, but it was more of a soul recharging venture for me. You could say my Otherworldly glamour had drained low and after visiting Ireland, that Celtic magic was strong once again.

Tell us about your chickens!

Oh, boy. How much time do you have? Ha ha, just kidding! For those of you who follow me on social media, you also know I’m a chicken mom. I love my chickens and all chickens in general. Some people may call me crazy, but honestly, who wouldn’t want to have a flock of modern-day velociraptors at their beck and call? Most people might think chickens are stupid and flighty, but if you spend any time with them at all, you’ll realize they are all individuals with their own personalities and outlook on life. And they are just so adorable and there is nothing more enjoyable than raising the little fluff balls from day one until adulthood (and nothing more stressful for those of us who take it a little too seriously).

I’m very hands on with my chickens, from day one, probably more so than most people. And this is why they grow up expecting me to be filled with treats when I visit them in the coop, and why they will still sit on my lap even when they are older (like my 6 year old Barred Rock, Alice).

I can’t say exactly why I love chickens so much, but they are such a joy to have around, despite all the stress and worry about how they can get hurt or sick. If it were up to me, my only occupations would be an author and a stay at home chicken mom.

What are you working on now, and what’s fun about what you’re writing?

I’ve been shamefully away from the writing world for too long of late. I planned on writing all throughout the summer, but my chickens were still babies and needed all of my attention. Now that fall is in full swing, I’m working on getting regular writing back into my weekly schedule. I’ve had so many small side projects it’s been hard to find time for one of my greatest passions.

Recently, I finished up a short story for a scary story writing contest, so that is a step in the right direction. I’m working on getting Blaze and Borne (the second novella in my Draghans of Firiehn series) available in print format. After that, I need to get to work on the third book in that series, as well as another trilogy that takes place in the Otherworld series. One more priority is another short story project that will be due soon. Alas! So many writing projects, so little time!

Fortunately, the fun thing about what I’ll be working on is I’ll be writing from Cade’s (the hero in the Otherworld trilogy) point of view for the next three books, and there will also be a revelation about the Morrigan that I hope will leave readers (and some of the Otherworld characters) reconsidering everything they thought about her. For the third installment of the Draghans of Firiehn series, I’ll be tying up Dorran’s and Brienne’s story but opening up windows into the follow-up novellas (which will follow Dorran’s five loyal guards). As for the short story, I can’t really say much about it yet since it’s a group effort. I am looking forward to really digging into it, though. Thank goodness NaNoWriMo is coming up! I’ll need that daily word count challenge to keep me in line.

About Jenna

Jenna Elizabeth Johnson is a bestselling, multi-award winning author of epic and contemporary fantasy.  She has published several novels, novellas, and short stories in her Legend of Oescienne, Otherworld, and Draghans of Firiehn series.

Jenna’s writing is heavily influenced by the Celtic mythology she studied while attending college.  When not working on her books, Jenna can be found at home tending to her chickens, camping and hiking in Yosemite, and practicing German longsword.

Find Jenna

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