Interview With an Author: J.R. Dawson

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author J.R. Dawson and her first novel, The First Bright Thing
Author J.R. Dawson and her first novel, The First Bright Thing. Photo of author: Caulene Hudson-Pace

J.R. Dawson (she/they) has published shorter works in places such as F&SF, Lightspeed, and The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. She lives in Omaha with her spouse and three dogs in the middle of a city park. Having earned a BFA from The Theatre School at DePaul and an MFA in Creative Writing from Stonecoast, Dawson works at Nebraska Writers Collective and other Midwestern nonprofits that teach kids the power of performance and storytelling. The First Bright Thing is her first novel, and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for The First Bright Thing?

This book is one of those weird occurrences where your brain has been getting ready to write it your whole life. There are a lot of moments where the foundation was laid. When I was a kid, we went to a circus in Iowa in the middle of summer, and it was one of those old-school Big Top dusty circuses. I fell in love. Then the trapeze swinger came out and did her act, and I was hooked. There was real magic.

I also think that a lot of inspiration came from being queer in Nebraska in the 21st Century, learning how artists find each other and make community, how found families are formed, and how important they are to us folx who don't necessarily "fit."

Also Ben Cooper’s The Family Tree trilogy. It's an incredible series of music albums that trace his family history from the 1800s to the present day.

Are Rin, Odette, Mauve, Edward, Jo, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

This book is very… personal. The best people I've ever known are in this book. The worst people I've ever known are in this book. Under the sheen of fantasy, the scarier parts definitely ring true. But on the flip side, the love is real. So very real.

I can say that in creating Rin, I wanted to be able to see a future for myself. I was hitting 30, and a lot of the characters I'd fallen in love with were now younger than me. I was facing the truth of things that had happened to me, and it was hard to see a tomorrow where I was happy and thriving. And I was coming to terms with the fact that I wouldn't be a mother, at least in the traditional sense. So Rin, even though she's her own person, definitely was created so I could get older and still have a character who was a badass who I could relate to. And my God, Rin is a badass.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

So it started off in a completely different place. It was a YA space opera, with Jo as the main character. The Sparks were cyborg enhancements. The circus jumped around the universe. It had a bit of a Howl's Moving Castle vibe if Howl was a space pirate and Sophie was her adopted daughter.

But then I saw Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old. It reminded me of something we talk a lot about when we talk about genocide and war, and inequality: how many artists and poets died in the trenches? In the Holocaust? And furthermore, how many disappeared at the border? Or in the pandemic? Suddenly, there was this connection between the 1920s and the 2020s, and that's where historical fiction really gets strong: when you're talking about the present through the past.

So the book shifted to be in that in-between space of 1926, after The Great War and before WWII. Sort of like the millennial experience: one major historical event every other week with no end in sight. And what if we all knew twenty years ago things were just gonna get worse? What could we have done? How would we have handled that? And how are we currently handling that? With climate change getting worse, all these restrictive bills getting passed, all these terrible things just snowballing, how are we supposed to just get up and throw some Pop-Tarts in a toaster and do our taxes?

There are two scenes I wish I'd kept. It isn't that they were cut; it's that I chose to pull them out. One was focusing on lesser-known moments of WWII, but it was far too grim and horrifying. And another one was way happier: Mauve accidentally runs into Clyde on the street, ten years too early, and she like dive-rolls out of the way and shouts something like "Not yet! Not yet!" It was a very definitive moment for Mauve, but also it just ended up not fitting anywhere.

How familiar were you with circuses and the early 20th Century prior to writing the novel? Did you have to do a bit of research? If so, how long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write The First Bright Thing?

So I grew up in the theatre, which means that I knew a little about circuses but definitely had a lot to learn. I'm a big history nerd, so I knew more than I thought I did about the historical aspects. It still took a very long time to research, especially since if there's a specific place, I want to go there and do hands-on work. Which is how I ended up trespassing on a cow farm in the middle of Kansas… by mistake!

What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?

Honestly, as a queer person, I did not know half of our collective history. And I was angry and also ashamed of that. I should have known more. I also felt a lot like Molly Grue looking at my elders shouting, "Where were you!" Well… then you find out the answer, and your anger burns even hotter against those who killed or silenced them. I learned in myself how important it was to be a queer elder, something I didn't have growing up.

When it came to WWII, as a Holocaust educator, I knew the basics. And as an SFF reader, I had read the whole "we should kill Baby Hitler" tale. So I wanted to see if there were smaller threads the characters could pull to maybe stop this big thing from happening. I learned about what was playing in London Theatre in 1938, a lot about Neville Chamberlain's walking habits… just little things about the art and how it's woven into these big choices.

Have you ever attended circuses, recently or in the past? Do you have any favorite memories of going to the circus?

Yes! The first circus I went to was, I believe, Barnum and Bailey when I was a kid, back when they had elephant rides. Now that the circuses are a little more humane, I'm really enjoying the new "water circus" motif that so many productions are leaning into. Cirque Italia was gorgeous in 2021 when I went, as was Cirque du Soleil's Drawn to Life in 2022. The way circuses were is not good, but the art form is shifting and changing with the times to create something wonderful.

What is it about circuses that continue to draw writers to set their stories in/around them and readers to read stories about them?

I think, for better or worse, it's two things: The Possibility of Magic and The Other. Circuses started off as traveling zoos, a way for people in rural areas to see a zebra or a tiger or learn about the larger world. It was a World's Fair on a much smaller scale. And when you step into a Big Top, you're leaving the world you know and entering this touring magical fantasyland of flying people and fire-eaters and found families that live on the road and play pretend for a living. But also, the darker underbelly of that, I think, is how "Other" a circus can be. Circuses historically have been used to exploit. While it could be a place for marginalized folx to have independence and financial stability, respect, and camaraderie, there was also a lot of really terrible stuff happening behind the scenes and in the ring.

And also, a bunch of artists and "weirdos" show up in a small town and then disappear, it's like most groups of us artists; a lot of people don't know what to do with us. We make sense on the stage, and then we step off, and we still have our makeup on, and our big loud voices and we aren't always invited to the after party. Actors, painters, writers, poets, and circus performers, are time and time again revered under the spotlight and then shunned and excluded in "polite company." So I wonder how much of that Othering found its way into the scary circus stories—a carousel that will eat your years away, etc. There is fear in the Unknown.

While there is a scary circus in this book, there is also a circus that does what most artists set out to do: inspire a better world to happen.

If you had Rin's ability to time travel, where would you like to go? Would you try to change anything?

So when I started this book, I really thought I would pick time traveling as my Spark. I would give anything to go back to the apartment where I grew up and hug my Gramma one more time. I would love to see her as a little girl on her farm in Iowa. If I could have met VanGogh, if I could have seen the first preview night of Rent, if I could have heard Octavia Butler on a panel at ICFA… all of these amazing moments that have come and gone… But then, seeing how precious and fragile the present is… I don't think I would change anything. I don't think I would go anywhere other than where I currently am.

Although seeing The Lion King at the now-defunct Council Bluffs drive-in theater in 1995 was pretty cool…

What's currently on your nightstand?

I am currently reading Linghun by Ai Jiang. It's damn good. I'm so glad I got a copy. Also, A Power Unbound by Freya Marske, which I don't want to actually finish because then I have to say goodbye to these characters. I also am just starting Ebony Gate by Julia Vee and Ken Bebelle. Imogen, Obviously is my current contemporary sapphic read. My last sapphic read was Bookshops and Bonedust by Travis Baldree, which… run don't walk for that preorder. And finally, it's no longer on my nightstand because I read it so much and needed to put it back in my home library, but On the Corner of Fantasy and Main by Matt Mason is an entire poetry book about Disneyland, so you know… poetry and Disneyland? In one book? Yes.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

I always say K.A. Applegate and Michael Grant. They are my favorite; they are my most influential. They wrote the first book I picked out by myself at the Book Fair when I was eight. Animorphs. Sometimes people snort when I say that, but you don't understand, these books go hard. They really said, "We're gonna write a 51-book series about child soldiers and how war is terrible and also they can morph into animals, and we'll make it like a gory Zoobooks, and No One is Gonna Stop Us!" They taught me that I can be my weird, dark, imaginative self. I can write action scenes and also take these deep moments to talk about characters' depression, ideation, PTSD, and pure love for each other. Those books slap. I am recommending that entire series to anyone reading this.

I also loved Watership Down by Richard Adams for very similar reasons. And Richard Matheson, his What Dreams May Come and Somewhere in Time, which I believe he said at some point were his two favorite stories because it showed that love could withstand death and time. And finally, I have to say Neil Gaiman as a whole. Good Omens, Stardust, Ocean at the End of the Lane, The Graveyard BookNeil Gaiman is a literary genius and is sort of like the rock star Leonard Cohen of fantasy writing.

As a debut author, what have you learned during the process of getting your novel published that you would like to share with other writers about this experience?

So Much. There's all the stuff about how long it takes, what's an ABM, what's an ARC, what's the difference between developmental and line edits, and what Edelweiss is… but the biggest thing I think I learned was that I maybe know what I'm doing. Up until this point, I'd been studying, I'd been a student, I'd been learning and practicing and preparing. But then you get on the floor where the sausage is made, and professionals you look up to are like, "Okay, Jen, what do you think?" And you realize you're not playing anymore. You're expected to be a professional, and you are actually ready to maybe do this. So, confidence. I learned confidence.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

I loved making my mother read Fox in Socks because she hated it and I thought her hatred was hilarious.

I also devoured Little Critter, Strega Nona, Grimm Brothers… actually, it was a Grimm Brothers tale where Edward first erupted into my brain. Way back when I was like four. Honestly, I would read anything. And Mom and Gramma kept throwing books at me, and I kept reading them.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

No, but there were books I needed to hide from people who weren't my parents. Mom was a big Stephen King fan. So when I went through my Stephen King phase when I was like eleven, Gramma didn't know what to do with me. And my teacher was very confused when I did a book report on Animal Farm in the third grade. As I got older, there were queer books I started reading that I just… didn't mention to my parents. I remember reading Perks of Being a Wallflower in the back of a van on a road trip when I was sixteen, and I was like, "They can never know."

Is there a book you've faked reading?

So Many. I will admit I never actually read Middlemarch. I Sparknoted it the night before the paper was due. I'm so sorry, Professor Murphy.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

Oh my God… there are so many beautiful covers out there… Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow because I needed to understand what was going on with the font and the waves and the colors… there were so many questions I had. And all of them were answered.

Is there a book that changed your life?

There are… so many. I think every time you read a book, it changes your life in a small or big way. I think… and yes, I'm going to harp on Perks again… I think Perks of Being a Wallflower was one of those where when he said "we accept the love we think we deserve"… Chills. The Two Towers. The Hobbit… Lately, I would say Becky ChambersMonk and Robot series. And a book that Just came out, Jen St. Jude’s If Tomorrow Doesn’t Come. It wrecked me. But it also made me feel not so alone. It was like… oh, someone else feels this way. Oh, someone else gets it. And yes, this is how we should live our lives. At the moment. It's gorgeous.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

Ryka Aoki’s Light from Uncommon Stars is a masterclass on how to write a book. It is so original, so musical, so full of spirit and love. The way she weaves these unlikely tales together… you just gotta. You Gotta.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

I wish I could start The Last Binding series over again. I want to meet them all again. I want to fall in love with their little found family again. And also, if I could just re-discover Legends and Lattes that would be great!

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

The Owl House. It was cut before its time. The character growth… the fight scenes… the Owl Lady herself… (screams internally forever).

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

I would take my spouse to a place we've never been, with a comfy hotel and beautiful nature. My Gramma would be there, along with everyone else I've lost. We would make s'mores and listen to music and laugh together. And we'd watch the sun go down and get a good goodbye.

What is the question that you're always hoping you'll be asked but never have been? What is your answer?

Jen, would you be up for seeing fanart of your book?
Why Yes I Would Please I Want To See The Art Please I Am A Sucker For Art.

What are you working on now?

My next book is another standalone adult fantasy with Tor. It takes place in 2003 Chicago, where Lake Michigan is the river Styx. It's about Charon's daughter, who must become the next ferryman. But on her first night steering the boat, a live girl infiltrates the world of the dead. And she's beautiful.

Book cover of The first bright thing
The First Bright Thing
Dawson, J. R.