As a young writer trying to break into the publishing world, Erika Johansen did everything right -- and she couldn't understand why everything went wrong.
Johansen, 36, had always made fiction writing a goal. After graduating from Swarthmore College, she earned her MFA at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, one of the country's premier destinations for aspiring writers.
But she says she was always out of step with the prestigious institute's focus on literary fiction. As a reader, Johansen loved fantasy and horror: Her favorite authors include Stephen King and Frank Herbert. She gradually realized that she just couldn't write what she calls "New Yorker fiction -- people sitting in rooms, having epiphanies."
Discouraged, she decided to go to law school. At night, though, she kept writing -- this time, for herself.
The result is "The Queen of the Tearling," a sprawling fantasy novel set in a dystopian future. With its release, Johansen joins the ranks of successful first-time authors. The book is finding an audience and is currently in development as a feature film.
Johansen, who was raised in Mill Valley and lives in Petaluma, says it never occurred to her to write the kind of books she loved to read. "There's a kind of unspoken snobbery toward genre fiction," she says. "I love school, and every professor I ever had taught that 'good books' were literary fiction. But I always felt that I was trying to write someone else's story."
Not that she didn't try. Johansen wrote an earlier novel, which even her agent told her was bad. "It was set in our world," Johansen says. "That was the problem."
With its long ships, ancient kingdoms and malevolent monarchs, "The Queen of the Tearling" suggests a medieval setting but actually takes place in the future, three centuries after an environmental disaster. The novel's heroine, 19-year-old Kelsea Raleigh Glynn, is destined to become the leader of the decaying society -- one in which technology has been abandoned and books don't matter.
Johansen started the book in 2007, taking her initial inspiration from a dream -- "an image of ships going over a horizon," she says.
Two days later, she saw then-Sen. Barack Obama on television. "I was deeply inspired by him," she recalls. "I decided I wanted to write a book about what was politically possible when an idealist got into power. I couldn't set it in our world, because nothing's possible now, even when an idealist does get into power. So I made up my own fantasy kingdom, where I had control over what they could and couldn't do."
By that time, she'd given up on publishing. "I decided to write the story for myself and not think about whether it was ever going to get published," she says.
Kelsea, she says, "sprang into being pretty much fully formed. Her political ideals are mine, but she's a much braver, smarter, stronger version of me."
If the book is pure fantasy, it also mirrors what Johansen sees as contemporary society's ills. Most people in "The Queen of the Tearling" can't read. "I see books becoming less valuable to our society, decade by decade," she says. "It drives me nuts. I wanted to look at that nightmare scenario, to see what happens when no one values books."
Johansen worked on the book for four years, writing as time allowed. (She also finished her degree at University of the Pacific's McGeorge School of Law, but she has never practiced.) She says she had no problems completing it. "I never agonized over it," she says. "That was the value of giving up the dream of getting published. I really treated it like a hobby. Once the pressure was off, I wrote for myself. And I think it's the best thing I've ever written."
The book has been called a female "Game of Thrones," but Johansen thinks Herbert's "Dune" is a better comparison. "I looked very hard at that book, because it's the story of a young person who's kicked out of their ruling throne and has to go back and take back their power. I'm a great admirer of how Herbert structured that book."
Today, she says she's nearly finished with the second book in the trilogy and plans to write the third volume next year.
Meanwhile, "The Queen of the Tearling" appears destined for the big screen. Warner Bros. and "Harry Potter" producer David Heyman are planning to turn the book into a film starring actress Emma Watson.
For Johansen, that's an outcome even she couldn't have imagined. "I'm so pleased," she says. "Emma Watson radiates intelligence, and I think she'll be a great Kelsea."