Author Lissa Johnston, proud Texwegian
Heidi Håvan Grosch
Can you be a Texan and still embrace your Norwegian heritage? Author Lissa Johnston would say yes. Her new middle grade novel, The Dala Horse, taps into both Johnston’s love of history and her heritage, as well as delivering an engaging story about 10-year-old Kaya Olson from a small Norwegian immigrant settlement in post-Civil War Texas with secrets to uncover.
The Dala Horse
I knew that Lissa had published non-fiction before through mainstream publishers, and I was curious why she chose this time to self-publish and how the writing of her first fiction novel evolved. Her answer was that even though she didn’t grow up with any Norwegian traditions in her own family (immigrants to Texas in the 1860s) save for her grandmother’s maiden name (Olson), when need for inspiration for this latest novel came it was her Norwegian heritage that answered.
“The Dala Horse was an easy transition conceptually,” she reports, although the process from conception to publication took years “mainly due to fits and starts… and of course the bane of many writers, procrastination.” Time, however, provided Lissa the opportunity to dig deep into her Norwegian heritage and “really relish it,” something much easier to do while living in Minnesota with ready access to Norwegian products, foods, and traditions, as well as fellow Norwegians.
I asked if she identified with any character from The Dala Horse in particular. “I think most protagonists are an extension of the writer, perhaps because you spend so much time inside their heads. The character of Kaya’s bestemor, Olena Olson, is also a favorite,” no doubt perhaps because that is a concrete part of Lissa’s own historic past.
What are Texwegians really like?
“They still have a love/hate relationship with lutefisk,” commented Lissa, who went on to add that a Texan’s pride in their Norwegian heritage is as strong as any other who claims to have Norwegian blood running through their veins. Always the historian, Lissa then provided a brief recap of Norwegian Texas history, more of which can be found on her website (www.lissajohnston.com under the tab The Dala Horse).
“Norwegians came to Texas thanks to some Norse ‘Pied Pipers,’ including Johan Reinert Reiersen, Cleng Peerson, and Elise Waerenskjold. Their writings encouraged others to choose Texas as their new home. Land was plentiful and cheap and far exceeded the average-size farm in Norway. Norwegians first settled in East Texas in Kaufman and Van Zandt counties. A second, larger settlement later arose further west in Bosque County.”
Why a novel based on history?
“To me,” Johnston reflects, “history is an integral part of the big picture. Who are we? How did we get where we are today? What makes us different? What makes us the same? Until someone develops a working time machine, the study of history is the closest I can get to reliving and experiencing things that intrigue me from our past.” One rich source of inspiration for The Dala Horse came from the writings of Elise Waerenskjold, an early immigrant to Texas in 1847. “She was something else! I enjoyed reading her letters/journal as well as her biography by Charles Russell. I love powerful female characters, both real and imaginary.”
The self-publishing market has changed and is now widely accepted as a legitimate publishing route. Though Lissa had worked with established publishing houses in the past, she relished this new channel in which to share her work. “I don’t have to say farewell to the book once it’s published. I get to stay connected with it through marketing and interacting with great folks who share a common interest.” In other words, her story can live on in the relationships she creates because of writing it.
A final word from author Lissa Johnston:
“Thank you for your interest in my book, The Dala Horse, and thanks to everyone who will be checking it out in future.”
Lissa is a great speaker, and has already begun her round of Sons of Norway lodges and Norwegian Heritage Societies, so get in touch if this sounds interesting to you. You can find her on:
• Facebook: www.facebook.com/trying2write
• Twitter: twitter.com/trying2write
• Pinterest: www.pinterest.com/trying2write/the-dala-horse
• website: www.lissajohnston.com/p/the-dala-horse.html
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 13, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.