Hi there, Bookworms!
I hope you’re keeping safe and hanging in there! It was a strange Victoria Day long weekend here in Ottawa. Normally, the first long weekend of the summer after a long Canadian winter means family BBQs, a trip to Tulip Fest, and fireworks…not this year. BUT the border finally opened between Quebec and Ontario, so I was able to visit my mom for the first time in two months!! Not to worry, we kept our distance, but just being able to see her face and chat in the driveway was very special.
And I have more special for you today! I’m so excited to introduce you to my friend and fellow Canadian 2020debuts A.J. Vrana! You might remember we had a cover reveal for Alex back at the beginning of the year and I told you to stay tuned for our interview. Well, here it is! I hope you enjoy getting to know more about Alex and her wonderful novel The Hollow Gods!
Thanks so much for dropping by, Alex, and congratulations on your fantastic debut!
AK: Tell us a little about yourself.
AJV: Oh jeez—what to say! Well, my name is Alex (the A. in the A. J. Vrana!), and I’m a Serbian-Canadian academic and author. I was born and raised in Toronto, though my parents frequently took me back to the motherland, so I have very deep cultural ties to former-Yugoslavia—so much so, that I wound up researching former-Yugoslavian literature and history! I am currently competing my doctoral research at the University of Toronto and working on a Master of Health Studies at Athabasca University.
AK: What’s the premise of your book?
AJV: The Hollow Gods is set in Black Hollow, an isolated, fictional town in Western Canada that’s surrounded by temperate rainforest. The town has this unusual folklore about an ominous figure known as the Dreamwalker, who is said to lure young women into the woods and possess them. However, the line between fact and fiction isn’t so clear, because every so often, women really do go missing, and when they return, they almost always end up dead.
The story follows three narrators: Miya, a floundering college student who suspects she might be the Dreamwalker’s next victim; Kai, a brazen young man haunted by a sinister presence; and Mason, a big-city oncologist who runs away to Black Hollow to escape the trauma of losing a young Leukemia patient, only to find his very sense of reality tested by the town’s bizarre folklore.
AK: What inspired you to write it?
AJV: So, this might come as a total SHOCKER (sarcasm!), but I absolutely LOVE folklore. So much so, that it permeates both my academic and creative life. A huge part of my academic research on former-Yugoslavian and Japanese literature & history hones in on ethnography, collective memory, and the production of alternate histories through oral culture—specifically, storytelling and folklore. I am fascinated by how communities produce unconventional histories, and how there are typically multiple histories—sometimes complimentary, sometimes competing.
In building the world of The Hollow Gods, I was especially drawn to South Slavic folklore, which loosely inspired the Dreamwalker and one of the main characters. The supernatural is always such a prominent part of folklore and oral traditions, but we sometimes mistakenly think this aspect of culture is some archaic thing from our pasts, and that it no longer plays a role in our modern lives. I wanted to write a story about a contemporary town that has very strong remnants of folk culture present in daily life. Then, I wanted to take a person who fancies themselves modern, rational, and scientific, and see what happens when they’re thrown into a place that feels out of time but is very much a part of our time. How do they respond? How do they reconcile the things that don’t fit their world view? Are they capable of adjusting? Basically, kill your darlings.
AK: What are you most looking forward to this debut year? And conversely, what are you most nervous about?
AJV: Oh man, what am I not looking forward to? Honestly, I think what I ‘m most looking forward to is the moment I get to hold a physical copy of my book between my greedy little paws.
Conversely, I’m not looking forward to all the sleep I know I’ll lose from both excitement and skull-crushing anxiety. I am a worry-wart and a perfectionist, so I can totally picture myself going batty over every metaphorical hair out of place!
AK: What authors do you admire and/or have influenced your development as a writer? Please feel free to add specific books, we love recommendations!
AJV: Uff, so many. I think my horror aesthetic is deeply influenced by my time spent studying Japanese literature, folklore, and film. Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s Hell Screen and Sakaguchi Ango’s In the Forest Under the Cherry Blossom’s in Full Bloom are deliciously terrifying short stories that I recommend to everyone looking to read some classic Japanese horror. During my undergrad, I also fell in love with Murakami Haruki’s Kafka on the Shore. It was my first encounter with magical realism, and after reading Kafka on the Shore, I started drafting my first novel. It was a trash-fire that will never see the light of day, but it was also an important step on my way to publication. I adore magical realism because it gives us such a creative way to explore our characters’ problems, traumas, hang-ups—whatever it may be! The genre has always spoken to me, and so I suppose it’s no surprise that my debut novel is a blend of dark contemporary fantasy and magical realism!
In terms of style, I adore V. E. Schwab’s way with words. Her writing in A Darker Shade of Magic is both beautiful and accessible, and that is precisely what I strive for in my own work. That all said, I feel like my kindred author-spirit is Katya de Becerra; we’re both Slavic immigrants, in academia, and we both happen to write twisty speculative fiction. I adore her work, and I feel so grateful to have had the opportunity to connect with her!
AK: What are you working on now?
AJV : Currently, I’m slogging through the sequel to The Hollow Gods and drafting two other novels. One of those is a companion novel to The Hollow Gods and focuses on two of my favourite side characters. The other is a supernatural horror novel.
Release date: July 28, 2020 (Everywhere!)
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?
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