Jaleigh Johnson is the author of the middle grade steampunk fantasy, The Mark of the Dragonfly. I read this novel a few months ago and could not put it down. This extraordinary blend of genres was an adventure I will not soon forget. And so, of course, I thought I needed to ask Jaleigh some questions… she was kind enough to answer.
1. Were you an avid reader as a child? What was your favourite book?
Oh yes. My parents used to read to me when I was little, and that’s what started it all. I’d hand them book after book at bedtime, and many times they’d nod off before I would! One of my favorite books was A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. Back then, I felt like I was Meg Murry.
2. Tell us a little about your novel, The Mark of the Dragonfly. (without spoilers, of course)
It’s a second world, middle grade, steampunk fantasy set in a place called Solace, where forgotten objects from other worlds fall from the sky in violent meteor storms and two kingdoms are embroiled in a conflict born of an industrial revolution and an age of exploration. Two young girls caught in the middle of the upheaval have to help each other survive. And there’s a steam train!
3. Why a train? (I love trains!) It’s a great setting for this story but how did you come up with that idea?
I love trains too! I think they’re so romantic and mysterious. The 401 in Mark of the Dragonfly was inspired by an actual steam engine—the 401 Southern at the Monticello Railway Museum in Monticello, Illinois. Volunteers at the museum spent 15 years restoring the engine to working order. It’s a big, beautiful old train, and I fell in love with it as soon as I saw it. I knew I had to put it in a story.
4. You are an exceptional world builder – Solace is a rich, detailed place. I’ve heard a lot of authors attribute this skill to gaming. Would you agree? If so, can you let us in on why gaming is so key to world building?
Thank you! In some ways, yes, gaming is definitely an influence on my world building. I’ve also written novels for the Dungeons and Dragons Forgotten Realms setting published by Wizards of the Coast, which is an immense shared fantasy world with tons of stories and characters written by many different authors. I learned a lot by working collaboratively with other writers and editors on that setting. I think gaming, especially D&D, forces you to think deeply about the world your character inhabits—its people, culture, magic, religion, etc. The more detailed the world, the more it enhances the experience for the player. That experience translates well to novels—you’re just trying to immerse the reader.
5. This story is such a genre blender with elements of steampunk, dystopia, science-fiction, fantasy. Was that intentional or did the story simply evolve that way?
The only genres I intentionally targeted were steampunk and a bit of fantasy. Solace is an industrialized world but with limited resources (to the detriment of its people), and those who hold power haven’t historically been ambitious about exploring the wider, unknown world. But now that’s changing, and people like Piper and Anna are caught in the middle of the struggle for resources like iron—and what those in power want to do with it. This king wants airships, but that king wants weapons, and all this time they’re ignoring the people they’re supposed to be protecting. It felt very steampunk to me. And did I mention steam trains!
6. Your characters are wonderful. They’re all a little broken in some way, they’re all hiding something (some don’t even know they’re hiding something) and more often than not they are full of surprises. Were any of them more interesting to write than others?
I love Piper, Anna, and Gee for exactly the reasons you mention. They’re all broken in a way, and they need each other to heal and to remind each other that there’s kindness and decency in the world. But Piper was one of the most interesting characters to write because in my mind she’s the most broken of them all. She needs Anna to save her spirit.
7. I have read some phenomenal children’s novels this year (yours included). How does writing for children influence your storytelling? Is it any different to how you approach writing for adults?
Coming from a background of writing for adults, I found it actually isn’t so very different to write for children. They still want amazing characters, a good dose of action, and a vivid world, just like adults. In some ways, kids are more fun to write for because they embrace a fantasy world with such pure joy and excitement. It’s wonderful to hear them talking about Solace as if it’s a real place.
8. Do you have any kind of routine (OCD or otherwise) that helps you to get writing?
When I’m on a deadline, I have to get 1000 words on the page each day. Time of day doesn’t matter, though typically I write as soon as I get home from work. If I can stick to that schedule, I can have a novel draft in three months.
9. Can you talk about any future projects? Or are they all top secret?
All I can say is that I’m currently working on a companion novel to Mark of the Dragonfly. It takes place in the same world of Solace but follows different characters.
10. Any sage words of wisdom for new writers?
Find joy in whatever you’re writing. And don’t stop reading either. There’s so much joy in getting lost in other people’s stories too.