K.V. Johansen went to Macedonia to promote a translation of her children’s book, Torrie and the Pirate-Queen. Her trip was supported by the Canada Council for the Arts. Which got me to thinking. Didn’t a book tour used to mean Saskatoon if you lived in New Brunswick? Not the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia, unless you were already famous or being awarded a Royal Order of something. A mad search was on to find out how many grants went to publishers for such book promotion tours, and how many travel grants went to writers, and whether the amount has gone up in the past ten years. Then I got a headache because it involved numbers. But I did find out two startling things from the Canada Council website. The arts sector comprised 140,000 people in 2008 (Hill Strategies Research, Portrait of the Arts in Canada), a number expected to grow. Second, in The Current Environment for the Arts, the Canada Council points out that the arts are being affected by globalization, placing Canadian writers, for example, in an international competition. But… there were 89 recipients of travel grants for professional writers in 1998, and 89 recipients in 2011. Last year, grants to publishers for book promotion tours amounted to $308,700.00, according to the breakdown of costs by program.
Enough about numbers. Let’s get back to Johansen, whose writing crosses over from one genre to another: adult stories and novel, children’s books, teen fantasy, and most recently a manga project. Her book, Torrie and the Pirate-Queen, won the Canadian Authors’ Association 2006 Lilla Stirling Award, and its sequel, Torrie and the Firebird, was selected by the Ontario Library Association as one of the Top Ten Children’s Books of 2006. Her adult fantasy novel, Blackdog, was shortlisted for the Sunburst Award, with the jury saying “Blackdog is everything high fantasy should be: a tale of wars among gods, demons and wizards that also works as an oddly compelling social-cultural coming-of-age novel.”
Although Johansen has written on her blog about her trip to Macedonia, I persuaded her to answer a couple of questions for you.
1. You mentioned on your blog you’d been to Macedonia before. How many trips have you made to promote your work?
I attended the 2010 Skopje Book Fair for the launch of the translation of Torrie and the Snake-Prince. That’s all the trips abroad that I’ve made, though I’ve travelled a lot within Canada on reading tours with my children’s books.
2. Do you also travel for research for your books?
I wish I could! Nearly all my research is done by reading. That said, when I do get an opportunity to travel, I cram in a lot of what I guess you could call atmosphere research: landscape, natural history, history, architecture. It gives a flavour to things that you don’t get from reading alone.
3. How does this travel affect your work on your return to New Brunswick?
I mostly write secondary-world fantasy. Everything I can learn about other times and places feeds the development of the stories, because for me the world grows as I write. For that to happen, there has to be a lot underneath composting away, with all sorts of unexpected things waiting to sprout. In Skopje, there are traces of imperial Rome, Ottoman caravanserais and bath-houses, neighbourhoods where the street-plans probably haven’t changed much since the fourteenth century. That, and the mountainous landscape, adds detail and texture I can draw on as I write more in both the Blackdog and Torrie worlds. My academic background is in Medieval Studies, so to be in contact with the material remains of the era is fascinating.
4. Did you meet a local writer or anyone else you’d like to talk about?
I met a number of publishers, writers, and academics, too many to list here. I was really struck by the involvement of publishers and writers in creating the idea of who and what they should be, as a country. For them, culture’s not something vaguely nice to have, but something that is going to have an impact on whether the country grows into a peaceful, stable, society in which Macedonian-speakers, Albanian-speakers, Roma, Orthodox Christian and Muslim citizens all manage to co-exist and feel some connection with one another – or not.
5. If your hosts asked about Canada, how do such discussions make you feel about Canada?
We had some interesting discussions about how Canadians feel about being assumed to be Americans, Macedonia having had — and still having — a lot of problems with getting its identity accepted by some of its neighbours. We talked a fair bit about official bilingualism and making a multi-ethnic society work, that being a matter of great concern in Macedonia. It definitely made me appreciate the stability and peace here. One woman I met was very interested in talking about the Canadian wilderness, which led me to realize that there is still a very beautiful image of Canada in people’s minds abroad, something like a continent-wide Group of Seven painting: rocks, pines, maples, and clear water. Fracking, tar-sands, and pulpwood plantations don’t enter into that image.
6. Your blog mentions Macedonian food. Apart from that, what colour or odour did you notice/do you remember?
The colour of the limestone hills along the Matka Gorge, with lilacs in bloom across the river. Grey-white, with the green so bright in the sun, and the wash of lilac. That’s the part of the world lilacs originate from, I believe.