Smile Politely

Games, trains, and howling delves

Once upon a time, in a land not so far away, a young woman grew up with a love for reading, a little D&D, and creating fantastic worlds of her own. As will happen, this has led to quite a journey, the most recent result of which is a novel for young readers entitled The Mark of the Dragonfly. Along the way, there have been visits to worlds of imagination and adventure, with the promise of many more to come.

By virtue of luck and geography, Jaleigh Johnson might be a “local” author to those of us in Champaign-Urbana, but her work is making her known far beyond the neighborhood Barnes & Noble (where you might very well find her browsing, as I once did).

You may recall that I reviewed The Mark of the Dragonfly recently for SP, and I will repeat here that I was quite taken with it and eagerly await the next installment in the series. The synopsis of the book, taken from the author’s website, goes like this:

Piper has never seen the mark of the dragonfly until she finds the girl amid the wreckage of a caravan in the meteor fields.

The girl doesn’t remember a thing about her life, but the intricate tattoo on her arm is proof that she’s from the Dragonfly Territories and that she’s protected by the king.  Which means a reward for Piper if she can get the girl home.

The one sure way to the Territories is the 401, a great old beauty of a train.  But a ticket costs more coin than Piper could make in a year.  And stowing away is a difficult prospect–everyone knows that getting past the peculiar green-eyed boy who stands guard is nearly impossible.

Life for Piper just turned dangerous.  A little bit magical.  And very exciting, if she can manage to survive the journey.

You have to admit, it’s a great premise. And I can attest that it pays off and leaves you wanting even more. For that reason, I consider it a great bit of good fortune that I had the opportunity to pose a few questions to Ms. Johnson. 

Here’s our conversation.


Smile Politely: I’d like to begin with some questions about life before the 401 and the Dragonfly Territories, if I might…Where did you grow up? And, although you write mostly about places pretty far-flung from here, do you recognize any influence of your home on the places you create?

Jaleigh Johnson: I grew up in Arthur, Illinois. I still work in an accounting business there, and it’s where my parents live, so I have strong ties to the place, but I wouldn’t say it’s had a specific influence on the worlds I create, at least not one I could point to right now.

SP: I have to assume reading was a very important part of your development, so I’m curious to know who the authors were who sparked your interest.

Johnson: So many! Madeleine L’Engle, Robin McKinley, Neil Gaiman, Sherman Alexie, Jane Austen, Ed Greenwood, Elaine Cunningham, Peter S. Beagle, J.R.R. Tolkien, and I could go on and on. The list is long.

SP: It seems to me that everyone has something that they discovered as a teenager that has stuck with them ever since, whether it’s a book or a film or a band or (sadly) a haircut. Anything you can claim?

Johnson: I’m a huge geek and a gamer. The Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game was what made me fall in love with fantasy stories as a kid. I don’t get to play much anymore, but I’ve made up for it with tabletop board gaming and video games. And gamers surround me in my life. My husband is a gamer, and so is my brother. Most of my friends are gamers. Safe to say gaming will probably always be a part of my life. 

SP: Okay, back to writing. What was the first thing you published?

Johnson: Very first thing I ever had published was a short story that I sold to a small children’s magazine called Spellbound. I was just out of high school, if I remember right. I sold the story for one dollar and was so excited because it felt like the beginning of something. 

SP: Before The Mark of the Dragonfly, you wrote several entries in the Dungeons & Dragons Forgotten Realms series. I’ve seen so many iterations of those novels by so many writers on the bookstore shelves (and each one a fully realized world). How did you get involved in that?

Johnson: I answered an open call from the publisher, Wizards of the Coast. They were looking for new writers for the series, so I submitted a proposal and a sample chapter. They liked it enough to ask me to submit another proposal, which eventually turned into my first published novel, The Howling Delve.

SP: A summary for your Forgotten Realms book Spider and Stone begins thusly: “Lolth—patron deity of the drow, Spider Queen, regent of the Demon Web Pits—has once again stirred the dark elves into roiling aggression against the rest of Faerûn, reveling in the chaos born from her dark schemata. This is the Rise of the Underdark.” I don’t quite know where to begin…That’s a mouthful. I wonder: Do the trappings of fantasy writing—the jargon, the otherness—make it easier or harder to write?

Johnson: You say it’s a mouthful, but I’ve had a steady diet of this kind of writing since I was a teenager. I guess because of that it’s never seemed strange to me. It’s just part of the genre, and fantasy worlds are where I feel most at home.

SP: Speaking of Forgotten Realms… can you tell me, in ten words or less, what is a “Howling Delve?”

Johnson: A deep dark dungeon full of ghosts.

SP: You did it in seven. Nice! Okay, now on to Piper and her adventures on and around the 401… First, let me say that, as the father of two girls, one of whom will be reading soon, I was thrilled to read a tale in which the young female protagonist is tough and resourceful but also fallible. Piper is so capable, yet she finds herself constantly in over her head. What brought you to Piper? Was there a conscious decision to mirror back the young ladies who would inevitably read your book?

Johnson: First, happy reading to both your girls! Second, Piper and Anna really came as a package deal when I was planning the story. I knew I wanted to write about two young girls who had wildly different personalities, and I wanted to watch them come together and form a bond. I wanted Piper to be good with machines and for Anna to love books, and I wanted the two of them to care about each other like sisters. Everything else came from that.

SP: The Mark of the Dragonfly has a train as its centerpiece. Obviously a book about a journey needs conveyance, but the 401 is more than that. Could you describe it a bit?

Johnson: The fictional 401 was actually inspired by the Southern 401 at the Monticello Railway Museum in Monticello, Illinois. I first read about this steam engine back in 2010, how the volunteers at the museum spent years bringing it back to life and restoring it to working condition. I knew as soon as I saw the engine that I had to put it in a story. Trains have always seemed so romantic and mysterious to me, but there’s something extra special about the 401. I think part of it is that, if the volunteers hadn’t been so dedicated in their project, this beautiful old steam engine might have been abandoned and forgotten. It’s so easy for technologies to become obsolete and for us to discard things we don’t have a use for anymore, but there are so many things out there worth preserving. The world of Solace in my story is a reflection of that. It’s full of objects that have been forgotten by other worlds, and characters that have slipped through the cracks. 

SP: I truly do not want to give anything away, but I was so pleased to find so many elements of various fantasy and science fiction subgenres in your novel. Some steampunk, some shapeshifting, some magic, some alien creatures… As I mentioned in my review of the book, you truly created your own world. How far in advance of beginning the writing had you “mapped out” the world of Solace?

Johnson: The world pretty much came first, and the characters and creatures that populated it came soon after. I had the world mapped out, literally and figuratively, before I knew what journey the characters would take and where they would end up. Solace is a world of many secrets, and I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of the stories I’d like to tell there.

SP: I know you are working on a companion book that takes place in the world of Solace but features new characters. How far along in that process are you?

Johnson: I’m working on a second draft right now with notes from my editor, and we almost have the title nailed down. You’ll probably see it on the shelves in 2016.

SP: I know from personal experience that, to some extent, writers are never not writing. But, when you’re not 100% locked into the act, what do you like to do?

Johnson: Gaming! But you probably guessed that. I also enjoy going to movies with my husband, gardening, and reading, of course. 

SP: Do you consider there to be requirements for writing for young readers, with regards to content? Obviously, you want to tailor your story to the audience, but are there other considerations? Do you think, for example, that a “moral” is necessary?

Johnson: I don’t really set out to put morals in the story. I like to write about characters who are good people, who make mistakes but in general try to do the right thing. Mostly, I set out to entertain my audience, to keep them turning the pages and give them a satisfying reading experience. If the book touches readers, or if they find something in the story that resonates with them, that’s wonderful.

SP: One last thing before I let you go. Could you recommend a good book?

Johnson: If you love great world building, check out S.E. Grove’s The Glass Sentence.  


If you haven’t read The Mark of the Dragonfly yet, I highly recommend it. There are more adults reading YA and Teen literature than ever before, and books like this deserve a wide audience. Read it for yourself, then share it with a young person who needs a little adventure.

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