By E. A. Aymar
Suzanne Johnson enjoys keeping a foot in two worlds.
Her Sentinels series takes place both in contemporary New Orleans and an intricately developed paranormal universe that lies just beyond the city. Her characters battle both supernatural and human conflicts, but Johnson is too skilled a writer to let the physical fights overshadow the emotions that led to them. And although her books employ a number of fantasy conventions, Johnson uses actual historic incidents and figures (such as Hurricane Katrina, and the French pirate Jean Lafitte) in her work.
Additionally, she co-writes the Collectors’ series under the pseudonym Susannah Sandlin. Despite her busy schedule, Johnson took the time to discuss her writing and her latest book in the Sentinels series, PIRATE’S ALLEY.
What’s been your biggest challenge with maintaining the Sentinels series?
Building and sustaining a large multiverse—lots of species, each with different types of magic or powers—without drowning the reader in too many characters or complexity. I’ve introduced the major political players slowly, with the wizards and historical undead in the first book, Royal Street, then shifters and the water species in River Road, the elves and vampires in Elysian Fields, and now the fae in PIRATE’S ALLEY. As the series marches toward an interspecies war unless heroine DJ finds a way to prevent it, I hope introducing the species slowly in this way will help readers keep them straight!
How did you develop the world for your characters, and is it important to you (particularly in the aftermath of Katrina) to keep a base in the real and paranormal universes?
Even though I moved away for family reasons a few years ago, I consider myself a New Orleanian and was there during and after Katrina. The hurricane—and my own lingering reaction to what we went through—was the impetus for this series, so I have been adamant from the first book that it be as grounded in reality as a fantasy can be. The places in New Orleans where scenes take place are real places, the traditions are real, the settings are as filled with real details as I can make them. The immediate post-Katrina experiences in the first book, especially, were pulled from my own experiences.
I think of my world as a two-layer cake. The top layer is modern New Orleans; the bottom layer is the Beyond—the kingdoms of the preternatural species, including Elfheim and Vampyre and Faerie. The frosting between layers is the “lawless border town” of Old Orleans, where all eras of New Orleans coexist, which allows me to play with the city’s rich history as well as the current city and the fabricated realms of the preternatural species. It’s the best of all worlds for an author!
Are there rules, as the author, in regards to the limits of DJ’s magic?
DJ is no superhero, although she has grown more confident with each book. I want her to think on her feet and be smart and creative, which means her magic can’t make things too easy for her.
The most powerful wizards are Red Congress wizards, who can do flashy physical magic. DJ is a Green Congress wizard, which means she’s good at ritual magic—spells and potions. Using her very limited physical magic gives her migraines and nosebleeds, which limits what she can do and how long she can do it. Her ritual magic is powerful, but not fast.
She also has some elven magic from her ancestors, and has been claimed by an elven fire staff. But her aim is atrocious; so far, she’s burned up a ceiling fan, blown up her car, and set fire to the roller coaster at Six Flags New Orleans, which has been abandoned since Hurricane Katrina. Also wizards’ magic grows unreliable outside the modern world, so when she goes into the Beyond or Old Orleans, she loses all her physical magic and part of her ritual magic. Very inconvenient.
Do you have an end in sight for the series? Have you ever considered writing a spin-off from the Sentinels series?
The current story arc will end at either book six or seven. I have written quite a few short stories and a couple of novelettes set in the Sentinels world, and will be working on a Jean Lafitte-centered novella later this year. The world is so rich and varied that I think it lends itself to spinoffs, and I have considered one built around the inter-world smuggling operation that the undead pirate Jean Lafitte already runs with Cajun merman Rene Delachaise. We’ll just have to wait and see where it goes!
What twist in this series has given readers the most fits?
So far, it was probably the twist in book three, Elysian Fields, where DJ is forced to enter into a lifelong bond with the heir apparent of one of the elven clans, Quince Randolph, aka Rand. In his world, it’s a marriage. To her, it’s a business arrangement, and since Rand is (pardon my French) a jackass, I think readers were groaning over that one. I do think the ending of PIRATE’S ALLEY is going to cause a few fits, but no spoilers!
How often do you write?
I write every day. I still have a full-time “day job” that involves writing and editing, and then I try to work at least three or four hours a day (longer on weekends) on my other full-time job, which is the novels. I just sold two books in a new series under my Susannah Sandlin pen name, so that’s where I’m focusing the next month or two. I’m also writing more promotional material during the PIRATE’S ALLEY release.
Outside of literature, what work inspires you (TV, music, movies, etc.)?
Definitely music; I don’t have a lot of time for TV or movies anymore except a few vegetative shows—“Cutthroat Kitchen,” anyone? When I’m working on the Sentinels series, or anything set back in Louisiana, I listen to a lot of Zachary Richard. He even made an “appearance” in one of the books. One of the Sentinels characters, Jake, has some attributes from Zachary’s song “La Ballade de Jean Batailleur,” and the name of the French Quarter vampire bar, L’Amour Sauvage, came from a line in his song “Un Coeur Fidèle.” I’m not sure what he’d think of it!
Do you wait for publication of a book to start the next book in your series? And what’s next?
No, the publication cycle takes too long. I start working on something else right away, although it’s not necessarily the next in this particular series. I also write two other series (one paranormal thriller, one romantic suspense) under my Susannah Sandlin pen name, so I always have something in progress. The fifth book in the Sentinels series, Belle Chasse, was finished in December 2014 and is awaiting edits—I don’t yet have a release date, but I’m guessing it will be Spring 2016. I hope to start book six toward the end of this year.
Suzanne Johnson is the author of the award-winning Sentinels of New Orleans urban fantasy series and, as Susannah Sandlin, the best-selling Penton Legacy paranormal thriller series and The Collectors romantic thriller series. A native of Winfield, Alabama, Johnson has worked as a writer/editor in educational publishing in Alabama, Illinois, Texas, California, and Louisiana. She currently lives in Auburn, Alabama.
To learn more about Suzanne, please visit her website.