Interview with A.J. Vrana, author of THE HOLLOW GODS

I'm so excited to welcome A.J. Vrana to my blog today! I've read A.J.'s debut The Hollow Gods a while back now and loved it so much that I blurbed it!

Here's what I thought:

This dazzling debut pulls you in with its compelling characters and horrifying mystery and keeps you in its thrall until the final page. The writing sizzles with menace, and the dark mythology A. J. Vrana weaves from dreams and nightmares is unlike any I've ever encountered, in and out of books. A perfect story for contemporary fantasy readers who love their narratives razor-sharp and their secrets dark and deadly.

What's the book about?

Black Hollow is a town with a dark secret.

For centuries, residents have foretold the return of the Dreamwalker—an ominous figure from local folklore said to lure young women into the woods and possess them. Yet the boundary between fact and fable is blurred by a troubling statistic: occasionally, women do go missing. And after they return, they almost always end up dead.

When Kai wakes up next to the lifeless body of a recently missing girl, his memory blank, he struggles to clear his already threadbare conscience.

Miya, a floundering university student, experiences signs that she may be the Dreamwalker’s next victim. Can she trust Kai as their paths collide, or does he herald her demise?

And after losing a young patient, crestfallen oncologist, Mason, embarks on a quest to debunk the town’s superstitions, only to find his sanity tested.

A maelstrom of ancient grudges, forgotten traumas, and deadly secrets loom in the foggy forests of Black Hollow. Can three unlikely heroes put aside their fears and unite to confront a centuries-old evil? Will they uncover the truth behind the fable, or will the cycle repeat?

On to the interview now...

Who is A.J. Vrana? Tell us about yourself and how you became a writer.

A.J. Vrana is an enigma, even to me! Just kidding. My first name is Alex, and I was born and raised in Toronto, Canada. My parents are from former-Yugoslavia, so that has been a big part of my upbringing and identity as a first-generation immigrant. I really think the experience of being diasporic has not just influenced my writing, but is also a huge reason why I write in the first place. I’m an only child, and growing up between cultures with no siblings or extended family was pretty alienating. I honestly remember writing stories from a very early age, and while I don’t think I knew it at the time, every story I wrote had something to do with that alienation—whether it was an exploration or escape from it.

As for when I became a writer—oof, I’m not sure. What’s the metric? By some definitions, I’ve always been a writer in one capacity or another. I knew pretty early on that writing was important to me. I took my Writer’s Craft class in high school very seriously (unlike most of my other classes) and wrote several full-length novels and novellas during high school and undergrad. Of course, they were terrible, incoherent, and will never see the light of day.

Please correct me if I'm wrong - you're an academic currently working on a PhD dissertation which focuses on comparative mythologies. (Such a fascinating topic, by the way!) As your debut THE HOLLOW GODS implements some mythological elements into its narrative, I'm curious to know whether your academic research influences your writing (or vice versa, if applicable), and if yes - in what way?

Very close! My dissertation focuses on the supernatural in modern Japanese and former-Yugoslavian literature and its relationship to violence. Of course, some of the earliest iterations of the supernatural in modern literature is drawn directly from folklore and myth.

Truthfully, my PhD dissertation and The Hollow Gods are inseparable. There is so much of my academic work that comes out in the book, often unconsciously, and I don’t think The Hollow Gods would be what it is without that influence. The relationship between the supernatural and violence is a pretty prominent theme in The Hollow Gods. One thing that is true both historically and in the novel is that the supernatural tends to follow trauma, and belief in the supernatural is not simply a lack of enlightenment or scientific knowledge. Wherever we see significant violence and trauma—for example, colonial trauma—we see the supernatural permeating not just creative expression, but daily life too.

This conflict between scientific rationalism and the supernatural, and scientific rationalism’s claim to immunity from the supernatural is something my brain decided it was going to explore in The Hollow Gods. I think Western cultures in particular have this antagonism towards folk belief and the supernatural because scientific rationalism should have done away with all that stuff years ago. But in truth, our claims to rationality are often only possible through identifying something as irrational and defining ourselves against it. This is the journey one of The Hollow Gods’ POV characters goes through. He has to reconcile his irrational experiences with his rational world view, and it doesn’t really go well for him. This is where a lot of the book’s psychological horror takes root.

Furthermore, I do really think The Hollow Gods influenced my academic work. At the very least, it gave me a lot of steam and inspiration to keep going (and is continuing to do that). Sometimes fiction also offers a very different mode of expression than academic writing, and I find myself borrowing a lot of language from my fiction to help enrich my arguments in my academic work. So far, none of my supervisory committee have slapped my wrist for it, so I think it’s working!

I believe that the books we read influence the writers we become. What kinds of books were important to you as a child or a teen? What about now - what kinds of books have gotten you excited lately?

Ok, confession time: I hated reading as a kid. I just didn’t have the patience or mental stamina for it. I think our education system does a lot of damage to kids’ love of reading, but I remember really wanting to love reading and just…not loving it. That said, I grew into a love of reading during my undergrad degree. I took a class in Japanese literature and film, and it blew me away. There wasn’t a single thing I didn’t read in that class. Of particular note was Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. God, I love that book so much. It was my first foray into magical realism, and it was an instant win for me. I think because Murakami focuses so much on alienation and uses the weird and supernatural to explore that, it really spoke to me. I also fell absolutely in love with some early Japanese horror fiction: Akutagawa’s short stories (especially Hell Screen), Ango’s In the Forest Under the Cherry Blossoms in Full Bloom, and Izumi Kyoka’s plays and short stories really captivated me.

Currently, I’m trying really hard to permit myself to just…read for pleasure. My partner recently introduced me to Victoria Schwab’s adult fiction. Her style and fast-paced, accessible fantasy has been very instructive for me. Because of my Slavic roots, I’m more and more curious about Slavic fantasy, especially stuff written by Slavic people. And, if I may, I found What the Woods Keep and Oasis really inspirational for several reasons, but the one that sticks out the most for me is the genre-blending. I think writers hear quite often that their first few books should stick more readily to genre conventions, and it was really validating to see a debut and a second book that were genre-busting and didn’t play by the rules. I’m a bit of a genre-blender myself, and I honestly don’t think I could write any other way. It might have something to do with me having grown up being between a lot of things (culturally, etc), but hey, isn’t that what diversifying publishing is all about? If we want diverse books from diverse people, we probably need to let those people step outside the box with their work! 

You're being published with The Parliament House - what was your path to publication like?

Tumultuous. But I think that’s the norm. I’ll be honest: my first draft of The Hollow Gods was crap. I did two substantive edits of the manuscript when I realized it was way too big and way too all over the place (it was a 135k word monster). I got it down to about 105k words, then started querying. I had a few bites, but it wasn’t there yet. So, I edited again. Rinse and repeat. In its almost-final form, it was 98k words. At this point, and after reworking my query letter about 10 times, I started to get more bites from agents. I had about 5 fulls and partials out in the wild by the time PitDark rolled around. My pitches did very well in PitDark, and I had several requests from small presses and agents. After about a week, I had several offers from small presses, but the agents were still mulling over the manuscript. When my two top-pick agents passed, I decided to take the best offer from one of the small presses, and that was The Parliament House.

Debut authors (and authors, in general...) tend to be heavily involved in marketing and publicizing of their own work. What kind of publicity have you been doing for your debut and what have you found the most effective in that regard?

Publicizing and marketing are probably the hardest thing for me because I have NO idea if my efforts are working or not. There’s the obvious stuff, like building your social media presence and trying to gain a solid following on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. But honestly, what I’ve found to be the most effective thing is being personable and reaching out to people you think will jive with your work. Being friendly and confident can go a long way, and it’s the individual people you connect with who will really root for you and push your work. I’ve been extremely fortunate to be able to connect with fellow authors *stares at you, Katya*, and some wonderful book bloggers and reviewers.

Do your research, find magazines and other media outlets who might be interested in supporting you. I even reached out to the editor of the alumni magazine at my undergrad and MA university and said, “Hey, want to use me to promote your creative writing program?” I also try to leverage my background in academia as much as possible. When I reach out to media outlets, I emphasize that I am a scholar/expert on the topic I’m writing about, even though it’s fiction. Find something unique about yourself and sell the crap out of it. Make it relevant to your book, if you can.

I like to conclude each interview I conduct for my blog with a quick round of bonus questions, so here we go:

- Your dream holiday?

A few weeks in a city I’m dying to visit. Last summer I got to visit a few cities in Scotland and it was amazing, but we only had a few days in each city and that sucked. Right now, I really want to see Prague and Budapest, but I’d want to take my time in each city. Unscripted is best!

- Favorite writing snack?

Does coffee count as a snack? Like, if I put lots of cream in it? Cream has calories. That’s a snack, right?

- In your writing process/routine, are you… a planner, pantser, or…?

I used to be a pantser, but I’ve become more of a sort-of planner. I do rough/messy outlines, but sometimes things go… off. I try to keep my outlines open enough that they don’t stifle creativity and allow for some spontaneity.

- Do you listen to music when you write? (If yes, what's been on your play-list lately?)

No way. It kills my focus, though recently my partner has been playing the Witcher 3 and Control on PS4, and some of the more emotive background music has affected the tone of my writing in a good way!

- Cats or dogs?

Both! I do think cats are easier to take care of, though, and if you’re a manic writer like I am, they’re a better choice because they don’t need as much attention.

- Coffee or tea?

Coffee, though tea after 5pm or I am NOT SLEEPING.

Where to buy The Hollow Gods by A.J. Vrana

You can buy The Hollow Gods at following retailers - or check your local indie shop (always support indie bookshop, where possible!)

Parliament House Press

Where you can learn more about A.J. Vrana's books? Follow on social media:

Twitter: @AJVrana

IG: @a.j.vrana





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