TCR Talks with Tyrell Johnson about His Second Novel, The Lost Kings
By Nicholas Belardes
In Tyrell Johnson’s second novel, The Lost Kings, Jeanie King has to stitch together a violent, uncertain past in order to understand the mysterious disappearance of her brother and father. We’re right there with her, tight amid all her reliability and unreliability as a narrator. At times, her traumatic story reads like a case study of the dangers American families face post-war, post-Covid, post–anything collectively horrible. We connect to her because she helps us see who we could become if we don’t seek to infiltrate the trauma that may inhabit us.
Amid all of this connectivity between character, story, and reader is the how and why Johnson crafted The Lost Kings. I wanted to get to the heart of his methods, his reasoning, and his passions. The Lost Kings has the power to connect us to our own self-fear. But how? On one level, writers can dissect his storytelling, study its physical and psychological trauma, learn how to channel expertise from our shared real world, and embed that into the stories we want to tell. In my interview with Johnson, he dives deep into his answers, pulls no punches, and offers insights on the why and how to craft violence into a story.
THE COACHELLA REVIEW: The Wolves of Winter and The Lost Kings both open with a question about violence. In Wolves, a stark image of blood near a trap set in the snow; in The Lost Kings, the question feels deeper, blood on a father’s hands that the protagonist many years later considers an “emotional visual stimulus.” What is it about blood, or the idea of violence, that becomes an instant page-turner?
TYRELL JOHNSON: I think when it comes to fiction, there’s a fascination with violence, even if it’s sort of that watching-a-train-wreck type of fascination. The sight of blood is also just an excellent tool, especially when it’s unknown blood. Since it didn’t get there on its own, it practically screams, Something has happened! You’re going to want to know what it is. It begs immediate questions: What happened? Who is bleeding? Who did it? Building a plot upon these questions is a great way to start a novel, especially one that falls within a thriller construct. I’m sure I won’t start every novel I write with the sight of blood . . . but then again, why not?
TCR: Your female leads have gone from dystopian adventure heroine with a bow—The Wolves of Winter—to psychologically complex, darkly mysterious, unreliable, out-of-balance, dangerously on edge. As a result, your prose, already tight, already expertly tugging the reader along, feels denser, richer, more introspective. You could have told the story through the point of view of Maddox, an investigative journalist. Instead, you chose Jeanie, a trauma victim. What made you want to write this kind of novel that really digs into character psychology? What were some of your research hurdles?
TJ: The Wolves of Winter teetered on the edge of YA, which made sense because the main character, though in her twenties, essentially experienced arrested development from what happened to her and the whole world in general. That said, I wanted this novel to fall more firmly in adult fiction because it’s where I do most of my own reading. I also wrote this during the beginning of a real-life global pandemic and wanted to dive into the mind of a character who was deeply not okay. I felt like a lot of people probably felt that way, and I wanted to destigmatize mental health struggles to some extent. As far as the research goes, I did do my own, but then cheated by having a psychologist friend read an early draft.
TCR: Every thought Jeanie seems to have can be framed in the question of trauma. This is what makes her complex, so interesting, so compelling, so heartbreaking and unreliable. I recently read a study on inherited trauma, how it’s not just passed from parent to offspring. It’s intergenerational. This thought was in my mind during my read, especially since Jeanie was a student of psychology and afraid of kids. What are your thoughts on trauma and how we can explore this in our characters?
TJ: I’m definitely interested in the ways that trauma and our childhood experiences affect who we are and the things we choose to do, both positive and destructive. I think this is hugely relatable because everyone has some form of trauma that they’re dealing with, even if it’s not something as extreme as what Jeanie goes through. Trauma can come in all shapes and sizes. Flannery O’Connor said, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” In this way, writing about characters with trauma really is simply exploring the human experience.
TCR: The loss of parent figures has been a strong theme in both your novels. In The Lost Kings, both parents are gone; the aunt and uncle serve as surrogates. Jeanie sees them as a “pretend family.” Why has familial loss and pretend families been such a strong theme in your work? Are you reflecting on our broken familial world? What is it about craft opportunities and page-turning conflict when writing familial obstacles into your stories?
TJ: Family is another element of life and, in terms of fiction, that most everyone can relate to, whether it’s the family you’re born into or the family that you choose. And one way to reveal the emotional resonance of something is, I think, to take it away. In both of my novels, a parental figure is lost, and the characters are forced to deal with that tragedy in very different ways. By examining the impact of these situations, I’m attempting to explore the connection we have to our families, healthy or otherwise. Because these relationships are so important and influential, they establish great drama. You want to know what’s going to happen next between family members. You want to see if the main character will reunite with her family, or, maybe, just shoot them in the back.
TCR: We play with so many tropes in our fiction writing, trying to turn them on their head when we can. Part of your craft framework for The Lost Kings is to tell a portion of the story as therapist conversation, with the therapist popping in sporadically as a way to remind the reader that Jeanie is someone who has faced incredible trauma, who seeks healing, who might not be getting the growth she needs. She is so vulnerable, so at-risk even her therapy feels dangerous. What can you tell us about your craft decisions in how you framed this book with those sessions?
TJ: I used the therapy sessions as a way to get my main character, Jeanie King, to look inward, to unearth more about her internal struggles using the therapist as a soundboard. This dynamic works even better when, like you said, the sessions have their own sort of danger involved. I love moments in fiction where the internal struggles of your character can manifest in a way that also propels the plot forward, which was ultimately what I was hoping to do. Also, because The Lost Kings deals so much with Jeanie’s mental health and trauma, it seemed a fitting device.
TCR: The late Bettina Gilois, screenwriter for McFarland, USA, once told me that every great story needs a Shakespearean love-tragedy. I don’t know if that’s true or not but I am really fond of the way you write complicated love stories into your work. I’m a big fan of the Jeanie-Maddox love story. What’s your attraction to love stories in fiction? Do you purposely spin them into your work? Do your characters lead you into their complex need to love and be loved?
TJ: Perhaps I’m just a romantic at heart! But love stories, I think, reveal character in really interesting ways. Romantic love can make a character act differently than they normally would. It can make a character realize something about themselves. It can make them willingly place themselves into dangerous or dramatic situations, all of which make for excellent fiction. It’s really a bottomless pit of material to mine.
TCR: At one point early in the novel, it felt like you’d channeled writers Denis Johnson and Tim O’Brien. We’re with Jeanie, Jamie, and their father, who suffers from PTSD, in a rainstorm. In front of them, a tree explodes from lightning as if hit by a mortar. The writing is magical, visceral, terrifying, and war-like. They’re screaming and I’m screaming inside, terrified for every soldier with PTSD I’ve known. One comes to mind, who wrote me a letter, venting about the atrocities he committed, how they haunt him. There’s this chance so many soldiers are ending up like Jeanie’s dad: abusive, lost, seeking escape, enraged. What would you say to them? What does your work say to them?
TJ: Like I said, I wanted to play my part in removing stigma from people suffering with mental health by writing about it. I wanted to portray a sense of I’m not okay, and that’s okay. I remember hearing an interview with a therapist who said that a person can work through their trauma alone, but it’s like trying to build a house by hand instead of using all the machines we have at our disposal. You can do it, but why not use the power tools? That said, I don’t ever try to put any moral or lesson into my writing. I want to simply deal with real-life issues using realistic characters in the most compelling and, hopefully, entertaining way possible. I try not to assume what anyone will or won’t get out of reading something I wrote, but for people with varying levels of PTSD, I hope that The Lost Kings reaches out a hand and says it’s okay to not be okay; it’s okay to get help; you’re not alone. At the risk of sounding cliché, I think, in some ways, all good fiction does that: it reaches out a hand and tells the reader they’re not alone.
Nicholas Belardes writes essays and fiction. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as Carve Magazine, Southwestern American Literature (Texas State University), Boom California (University of California Press), Speculative Fiction for Dreamers (Ohio State University Press), and Writing the Golden State: The New Literary Terrain of California (Angel City Press).