Karina Berg Johansson is an alum of the Eckerd College Writers’ Conference: Writers in Paradise. Her debut novel, SYNVILLA, has just been released in Sweden. Karina was kind enough to answer a few questions about her new book.
SYNVILLA, or DELUSION (the English translation of SYNVILLA), is a dark and edgy, Young Adult novel. What drew you to that genre? Did you start with the genre in mind, or did the story dictate that would be the best format?
I had no idea I was writing YA. I haven’t read YA in a long time, not since I was one of those young adults myself, which is a very long time ago. But when I finished the story I looked at it, trying to decide what kind of beast it was – adult or YA? With one of the protags a 15-year old boy, chances were it actually was YA. The first publisher I sent it to did both adult and YA, but said no. Second round, I sent it to two publishers, one adult, one YA. The YA-publisher wanted it – if I changed the ending to less of horror, more of hope, which I was more than happy to do.
Embarking on the class trip to Gotland, the novel features two points of view: Samuel, the outsider teenage boy, and then Ika, the mother of one of Samuel’s classmates. How did you come to the decision to feature these two voices? And, how was it writing them?
The main thing with Ika and Samuel as POV-characters are that both are outsiders. They are the ones not really involved in what’s going on, but they have great impact on the things that unfold.
Samuel was easiest, because he came to me first. He’s the reason for me writing the story in the first place – giving voice to that lonely boy. I like his sarcastic tone, how he looks at the world and everyone in it with a sneer. Although not very nice at first glance, he was, and hopefully is!, a lot of fun to be with.
Ika was more difficult, mainly because she and I are similar on the surface – both women, about the same age, struggling with kids and everyday life – but she does things I wouldn’t do. I wanted to create a character capable of the incomprehensible, and to try to understand why it happens.
SYNVILLA is such a multi-faceted work, dealing with loneliness, acceptance, desire, and also the delicate issue of teenage suicide. It is not an easy issue to tackle in a debut novel. Did you have any reservations about how it should be handled?
Not when I did the actual writing, really. Some concerns were inevitable, though. I knew I didn’t want him to go through with it. I wanted both him and readers to see that although we all might have dark thoughts for whatever reasons, things might change, and what seemed like the only solution just now, can turn into something completely different.
I’ve heard you have a playlist of songs you listened to while writing the book. Do you feel music influences the way you write, and, if yes, how so?
Oh, yes! Music is crucial when I’m writing. Most important for SYNVILLA is Keane’s Atlantic, which both sets the tone and captures the mood of the entire book. I started out every morning listening to that song to get into Samuel’s mindset, or listened to it in the car when I was stuck and in need of ideas. Actually that song is so important to the story that if possible, I would have wanted it to start playing when the book opened up, like one of those playing birthday cards.
Care to share the playlist?
Atlantic — Keane
All Hope Is Gone — Slipknot
Heartbreak Warfare — John Mayer
Wherein Lies Continue — Slipknot
Chasing Cars — Snow Patrol
How to Save a Life — The Fray
A Bad Dream — Keane
Love Is A Losing Game — Amy Winehouse
F*ns — Kings of Leon
The Fear — Lily Allen
Not Dead Yet — The Weepies
Sweet Talk — The Killers
With Arms Wide Open — Creed
Viva la Vida — Coldplay
Stay — Simply Red
Wish I Could Forget – The Weepies
Built to Last — Mêlée
All We Ever Do Is Say Goodbye – John Mayer
Hamburg Song — Keane
Vi Kommer Aldrig Att Dö – Bo Kaspers Orkester
Who are some of your influences as a writer? And, what are you currently reading?
Ruth Rendell, Stephen King, Alice Hoffman, Dennis Lehane, Joy Fielding, Sterling Watson, Elizabeth Berg, Marian Keyes, Richard Matheson to name a few of the most important ones. Now I’m reading a lot of YA to familiarize myself with what is done, what can be done, what I hope to do, and I’m making exciting new acquaintances like Anne Cassidy, Candace Bushnell, John Green, Alicia Thompson, and my latest favorite Sarah Ockler who has written the awesome TWENTY BOY SUMMER which I’m reading right now.
Your first language is Swedish, and your novel is in Swedish, and when you have attended the Eckerd College Writers’ Conference, you have submitted work in English. How difficult is it for you handling the translation of your work?
Yes, Swedish is my first language, and apart from occasional visits to the US, I live and write in Sweden. But as apparent above, I’ve always read a lot of mainly American writers, in English. So, when I started writing fiction, I started in English, and found my style, my voice, my stories. In English I don’t aim for perfection in language because I know I can never get there. Instead I have to find the story, and I have to tell it in the most effective way I can because I can’t get into too much detail – I simply don’t know the language well enough.
The best ‘side effect’ is that when transferring the story from one to the other, it’s so much easier to find and cut the boring parts. If I can’t be bothered translating it, it shouldn’t be in there at all!
SYNVILLA has just been released by the Swedish Publisher Rabén & Sjögren. You’ve mentioned your experience in Sweden with publishing is different from what writers might experience in the United States. Could you tell readers a little bit about that process?
To me, the main difference is that we don’t work with agents like you do, and I think that is simply a matter of numbers. In the US there are close to 310 million people. In Sweden we are closing in on 10 million. Huge difference, obviously. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easier to get published here, but because this is a smaller venue the whole business of publishing works on a smaller scale.
And then the agents …we do have them, but sort of at the opposite end. We send the manuscript – the full ms, no queries needed, no waiting for partials to be read – directly to the publisher. I then got an agent when I signed the contract with the publisher, an agent who didn’t handle or negotiate that initial contract at all, but who will work to sell my novel in foreign markets.
What can readers expect next from Karina Berg Johansson?
The next thing I’m working on is YA from the get go. It will still be dark, but I’m trying to learn from all that other YA stuff I’m reading and loving. Hopefully it will be chattier, more detailed both in terms of characters, settings and story, and a lot longer.
This is your first book length publication. There are many writers out there who are working toward that very goal. What would be your advice to those writers?
Learn all you can – through novels, how-to-books, conferences, writing groups. Study the novels you love and see how they do it. Find books on writing and pick a thing here, a thing there and mix it into your way of working. Go to great conferences like ECWC and learn from teachers and students there. Find a writers’ group just as awesome as the one I have had the joy to be a part of – writers who take writing just as seriously as you do and who challenge you into becoming a better writer.
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Karina Berg Johansson is a Swede with a love for writing, the English language and dark stories. Her short stories have appeared in magazines, both online and in print, and in “Deadlines – an anthology of horror and dark fiction”. Her debut YA novel SYNVILLA is just out from Swedish Rabén & Sjögren.
You can also find Karina on her website and on Facebook.
In 2009, an excerpt of SYNVILLA was selected for “Best Of” the Eckerd College Writers’ Conference Workshops and was published in Volume 4 of SABAL.