Welcome to my stop for the THE HOLLOW GODS (out TODAY) book tour with Storytellers on Tour! I am so happy to be able to present this book to you all in this Part One of a two part interview series with A. J. Vrana, in discussion about her book, philosophy, folklore, history, and literature more broadly. Stay tuned for Part Two! Congratulations to Ms. Vrana for this stunning debut!
Without further ado…
A. J. Vrana has written a chronicle—a story that harnesses the past, grounds it in the present, and projects possibility into our future. As an academic, writer, and a first-generation Serbian-Canadian, Vrana spends her days exploring the way that lived experiences and literature interplay to inform our understanding of the world. Just so, in the words of Annabelle in A. J. Vrana’s riveting debut, The Hollow Gods, “Stories aren’t told to convey the facts. They’re told to convey the truth.” It becomes clear just how true this is over the course of the conversation I had with Vrana from our respective homes where we are waiting out the coronavirus pandemic.
MALORIE NILSON: Hi, A. J.! Thank you so much for meeting with me today! I would like to begin by just asking where you are—life, in general, feels so crazy at present, how are you holding up? How has this impacted your writing process? What is your experience of launching a book during a pandemic?
A. J. VRANA: Hi! It’s great to be here (virtually, of course), and thanks for taking the time to chat with me! I’m doing alright, all things considered. I’ve been in quarantine since late February, but I feel like my undergraduate years really prepared me for six-plus months of isolation. Still, it is hard sometimes. My sleep is wrecked, and that will really mess with my productivity and motivation levels. To be honest, though, I think I’ve been more creatively productive these last six months than I have been in years. I guess because the pandemic is such a difficult, negative time, I gave myself permission to really focus on what I want. I know sometimes people feel during times of crisis like their personal goals feel small and insignificant, but I try to take the opposite approach; during a crisis, what I want for myself is the only thing that really matters because it feels like the world has fallen away.
That said, launching a book during a pandemic sucks. Everything feels less real because you don’t have very much outside of the internet. All my events were cancelled, and I won’t really be able to go into bookstores and see my book on shelves. That has definitely put a damper on things, but I will make the best of it.
MN: Definitely. In general, the publishing industry has been in an upheaval, so I can only imagine how that translates to your individual experience or the experience of any author releasing right now. But I want to focus on that creativity. It is heartening to hear that your creativity has flourished. I wonder if that ties into some of the themes of your work, namely working within strife and how narratives unfold out of that. Do those themes seem to be present in your own life as you pick up these narrative threads and expound upon them?
AJV: Yes, definitely. I don’t think it’s necessarily a conscious process, but humans are natural storytellers, and I think stories are such a valuable way to talk about experiences, especially difficult ones. I think some things are just too difficult to articulate directly. Like, how the heck do you convey the emotional experience of living in quarantine for six months with no end in sight? I just don’t think there’s a way to explicitly talk about it and have it be true to the actual experience of it. I’ve always felt that stories are an effective method of “telling the truth”. You might not be able to capture the power and impact of an event by describing it literally, but you can capture its affective power through storytelling, and really, that’s what is important to us when we talk about an experience. That’s why so much of oral history relies on myths and stories; they’re metaphors for some deeper truth that is both communal and personal. So I think that whenever I personally experience strife, I’ve found ways to talk about that strife without directly talking about it, and I’ve done that through storytelling.
MN: That is such an excellent point, and it really does speak to a very human need for myth even in a very present sense. I think we are tempted to think of myth as a part of the distant past, but we are continually mythologizing to make sense of our present. You study folklore and transgenerational trauma as a result of conflict and violence, and this idea comes up in your writing. In a way, this connection to myth and folklore, though largely considered to be fiction, has its roots in reality, and so your stories similarly, though fantastical, are rooted in reality. Can you speak on that a bit?
AJV: I can try! I think what’s really important to me is that we do away with the strict divide between scientific rationalism and ‘folk knowledge’. I’m an academic at heart, and part of what I study is the way we produce knowledge. That is to say, there is no such thing as knowledge that exists “out there,” independent of context or the people within that context. I think this also trickles down to the way we individually experience the world. We’re socialized to try and be rational and to reconcile extraordinary experiences into a rational framework, but that doesn’t always help us make sense of things.
If anything, it can just heighten our anxiety and existential uncertainty. For better or for worse, life can feel like a supernatural experience sometimes. It can feel absurd, irrational, and it hardly ever lends itself to rational explanation. I guess, put another way, there is no real difference between feeling like you’re being haunted by something (i.e., your grandmparents’ trauma) and actually believing you are haunted by a ghost or something. In fact, the supernatural, though commonly thought of as ‘irrational’ or ‘pre-modern’ has not gone away at all with the rise of modernity and scientific rationalism. But if you pay attention, what you find is that ‘the supernatural’ follows trauma. Wherever you have trauma, you have ghosts, ghouls, and monsters. Sometimes people understand those things as being symbolic, and sometimes they are felt so viscerally they become real enough for us to believe in them.
MN: It is interesting that you note the role of modernity in this shift in thinking because it is obviously pervasive, but by nature is also obscured simply because we exist within a modern context. I don’t want to get too out in the weeds here, but it seems like everything you are touching upon goes a long way to explain why so many feel such deep connection to dark fantasy and horror as genres.
AJV: I think that’s definitely a part of it! Modernity has undoubtedly lead to a shift in thinking, and the funny thing about modernity is that it’s a loaded term with no concrete meaning. When we say ‘modern,’ we are actually talking about a present moment that is constantly shifting, and we are talking about a set of intellectual values that are inherently tied to power structures. However, all that stuff is sort of in the background, and we aren’t aware of it on a daily basis. I think horror is interesting because it is a distinctly modern genre that speaks to fears and fascinations that are a product of our modern world. One of my absolute favourite quotes about horror is from Clive Barker:
“[Horror fiction] shows us that the control we believe we have is purely illusory, and that every moment we teeter on chaos and oblivion.” I think this speaks directly to the modern condition–this idea that we should have control, that if we think rationally enough and act accordingly, we are masters of our own universe. But life is horrific in that it doesn’t ever give us that, and the moment of dread comes when we realize that we don’t, in fact, have control.”
MN: And that teetering in the precipice ties back into this desire to explain our existence through myth. Even in this “modern” expression, we are tied to our not modern (historical) modes. This ties into my next question pretty neatly, actually. Do you find that the way you approach historical text and historical representations of folklore/belief/philosophy is the same way that you approach fiction?
AJV: To be honest, I don’t really make a distinction between historical texts, historical representations of folklore/belief/philosophy, and fiction. For me, fictional works are historical texts simply because they are produced in a historical contexts. My research is on literature, but I approach literary works as historical texts and as narratives about history. To me, fiction is just an alternate history. I think we are really committed to this idea that “history” is a dry re-telling of real-life events, but there’s very little difference between historical narrative and fictional narrative from a mechanical perspective. Both things are narratives at their core; historians, like fiction writers, make decisions about what to include, and by necessity, what to omit. So, when we read a historical narrative about “the past,” what we’re reading is a story written by an author who made choices, but we can’t ever actually know the past, and for all intents and purpose, the past isn’t actually… real. All we have is our re-imagining of it. And fiction is also a kind of re-imagining of a particular historical moment. *
MN: Yes! I am very drawn to this concept and think that it is a crucial way of looking at history, but also important when addressing how we approach fiction as readers and as writers. Have you thought about yourself in that context? That you are writing a chronicle—you are a historian telling an account of the world?
AJV: Yes, absolutely! I definitely think that my fiction is not just a part of me but a kind of auto-ethnography. It’s my very particular historical moment, through my eyes. This is the world as I experience it, in one, big, obscure metaphor. None of my fiction would be possible if I wasn’t who I am–a diabetic, first-gen Serb living in Canada.
MN: Absolutely. Looking at it this way, it reminds me of how fantasy is often described as having no boundaries because it does not exist in reality. But in describing fiction as an alternate telling of history, that explanation of the genre falls flat. Do you have any thoughts on that?
AJV: Yes, many thoughts. I find the sentiment to be frustratingly superficial. If we accept the premise that fiction is informed by its historical context—and I think that is a pretty basic premise—then it goes without saying that genre fiction like SFF is just as much a product of its historical moment as anything else. This idea that secondary worlds in fantasy fiction are somehow divorced from our own because they “aren’t real” is pretty obtuse. I mean, where do people think authors get their inspiration for fantasy worlds from? We draw from real life, and we mimic the power dynamics and systems of the real world in our fiction. However, even if that weren’t the case, and we somehow managed to conjure a world totally divorced from our own, readers will still read real-world dynamics into the story. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how original you think your fantastical world is; it’s never free of its context. Through the reader’s own style of engagement, fiction and reality will often end up reinforcing one another.
MN: It also seems that the idea that SFF is divorced from historical relevance or importance actually lends itself to the typical devaluing of SFF that has occurred since its inception—that it can’t have value because it is not real. Almost like the argument that this is a positive actually is subtly a part of an oppositional viewpoint.
AJV: I think so, yes. Historically speaking, though, fantasy has been one of the most important genres for grappling with really massive socio-political issues. Two extremely well-known pop culture examples: The Lord of the Rings and the original Star Wars trilogy. LOTR was initially published only 9 years after the end of WWII. If you look closely, you will see how closely Middle Earth mimics the socio-political reality of the 1930s and 40s–from the perspective of a British man, that is. Similar arguments have been made about Star Wars, with the Empire and the stormtroopers being very similar to Hitler’s Germany and the SS.
However, the one thing that fantasy accomplishes that explicit historical texts cannot is defamiliarization. When you are defamiliarized via the fantasy world, you actually get to experience a historical reality from a completely new place. Ironically, that can make the fantasy feel more real than encountering a historical narrative that is ingrained in social consciousness.
MN: I think that is a fascinating and essential aspect of it—that defamiliarization. I am glad that you touched on it. But, I am going to shift gears a little bit here and move into more explicit themes. Power seems to be a foundational element of the world you have created. The terror that it produces in those less powerful is often an animating principle in your protagonist and POV characters, and the corruption of, or indulgence in, or the wickedness with which they deploy power in those more possessing of it, seems to create the tension of this universe. Where does that come from? Do you have an abiding fascination with power, or is its primacy a sort of truism about our human nature?
AJV: Power is such an interesting, abstract concept. It’s a loaded term, and I don’t think I could give you a definition of power that I’m fully satisfied with. However, I do believe that my fascination with power comes from an intimate understanding of what it means to be powerless—and that is something a little bit less loaded and a little bit clearer. It’s weird that we really need no explanation of powerlessness, but power is this amorphous thing that isn’t easily distilled. I think what fascinates me about power is that it’s so much more insidious and nuanced than we realize. For me, it isn’t some broad-shouldered man in a tower, conspiring to control or dominate. Power is diffuse; it’s conditioned and unconsciously reinforced by everyone. In my experience, people don’t exercise power because of conscious malicious intent. That isn’t to say there isn’t malice involved; they often just aren’t aware of it. And I think that gets to the core of a lot of my book. The very notion of my villain is one of diffuseness, of a chaotic amalgamation of things and no easy scapegoat. Yet what makes it all terrifying is that power is still real; it’s still felt, and it still has the potential to cause great harm.
MN: Yes, I think that is one thing that can definitely describe your villain—diffuse! I like your point about powerlessness, and I would like to lean into that a little bit more. Your protagonists all seem to be outsiders seeking inclusion: Miya has found frustration and isolation in her chosen path. Kai is a full-on outcast from human society. And Mason has difficulty relating to people outside of how he believes he can help them. Is that search for belonging a natural reaction to what was discussed above, this exploration of powerlessness dynamics as a way of protecting the self or a desire for kindred spirits? Or is it something else?
AJV: I definitely think a part of it is self-protection. This is a natural impulse, and many folks are very protective of their traumas and fears because the process of excavating those things is scary and can seem insurmountable. Of course, it can also unearth a lot of pain people are understandably unwilling to experience. When I think about Mason’s specific journey, this really resonates. You’re looking at someone who suffered a big trauma, not just in losing someone he was tasked with saving, but in having his entire sense of self upended because of this. So what does he do? He fights tooth and nail to keep that trauma under wraps by trying to restore and validate his crumbling worldview. He may be a frustrating character to read for some people, but he also represents the way many of us deal with a newfound sense of powerlessness.
Miya, too, has to come to terms with the self-indulgence of her own depression, and yet she is also very sympathetic because she represents so much of the anxieties of our time. I think Kai is probably the most alien character because he exists on the outside, but his is a very visceral trauma, and I’m sure he feels there is nothing but powerlessness awaiting him, and that informs how he alienates himself and copes with his own traumas. Whether or not this is all natural, I certainly think it’s a psychological reality we all have to contend with.
MN: I am glad you brought up the different ways that these perspective characters experience powerlessness and how they occupy very different spaces within the world. How does this affect their roles within the story or their narrative purpose?
AJV: You know, writing three perspectives isn’t easy! It’s generally expected that characters have a definitive arc, and the end of that arc typically involves the hero conquering their fears, overcoming some seemingly insurmountable task, and learning a valuable but unexpected lesson along the way.
I think Miya most closely aligns with this structure. After all, she is the main character, and so it makes sense that she most fully realizes this arc. Kai is the least prominent of the three. Although he’s a POV character, I wouldn’t call him a main character. He’s there to support Miya, entertain the reader, and defamiliarize people (both in and out of the text) from what they assume to be common sense. Kai grows the least (in my opinion), but he grows enough to learn to trust and to share himself with another person. Mason, however, follows the most unconventional arc. He’s the guy who goes into the story wanting to be the hero, expecting to solve the mystery and to win the day. He’s also the guy who ends up having the least impact on critical events in the book. However, this is all very intentional, and his arc is this way by design. His role is minimized in critical moments precisely because he’s spent the whole book thinking he’s going to be the guy to save everyone, and the truth is, he isn’t. He isn’t even equipped for it. His entire arc centers around one vital lesson he’s loathe to learn: he’s not actually that important, and not everything is about him.
MN: An important lesson for us all, probably! It seems that our time together is coming to a close. I am looking forward to sitting down with you again to talk more about THE HOLLOW GODS; readers can look forward to that follow-up. I wanted to leave on something a bit lighter. Honestly, lightness seems to be more challenging to come by naturally these days, so even my jokes are tainted by COVID. That said, we will roll with it! How would each of the characters handle being stuck in quarantine together?
AJV: Oh, god. Well, Mason’s only hand to play would be, “I’m a doctor.” That would literally be the only thing keeping him from getting murdered by Kai. Miya would be fine, I think. She’s very introverted and is quite accustomed to isolation from living alone in a windowless basement. Kai would probably go stir crazy and disappear for lengthy periods of time—somewhere in the woods without any people—but you can bet he’d punch anyone who comes within six feet of him. If they have the space, they’d probably keep some distance–Mason in one room, Kai and Miya in another. Though I’m sure mealtime would be a disaster and keeping communal spaces orderly would be… hazardous.
MN: And I am sure filled with snarky comments and thinly veiled disdain. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. It was a delight, and congratulations on THE HOLLOW GODS!
AJV: Oh, ALL the snarky comments and thinly veiled–torn and filled with gaping holes–disdain. Thank you for having me! This was truly a pleasure!
* For further viewing on the subject of literature as a reimagining of historical moments, A. J. Vrana provided this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5N5zfBzzTvs&t=303s
As always, I am thrilled to be a part of Storytellers on Tour, but I must confess that this book is very dear to me—my excitement is compounded! A. J. Vrana is a wonderful writer, and I am so excited to be taking part in introducing you to this wonderful author and her engrossing debut.
JULY 26TH – Tour Kickoff
Whispers & Wonder
The Sword Smith
Cosmic Lattes and Books
Betwixt The Sheets
Fantasy Book Critic
The Bookish Fae
A Bronx Latina Reads
Armed with A Book
The Coycaterpillar Reads
JULY 11TH – Tour Close
For more about this tour visit Storytellers On Tour.
Lately, I can’t stop looking for the unknown in storytelling. The unknown as twofold: as it relates to the plot (the spiritual, the mysterious, the concealed within a cloak of secrets, the supernatural) and as it relates to how a story is told (unreliable narrators, dreams, liminal space, deviating from the expected form). It is invigorating exploring that which lit a fire of passion for reading within me, a love that caused me to study literature and to focus on Postmodern lit specifically. But it is also exciting to see that type of exploration and experimentation that invigorates genres that have maintained their own formula—like that of fantasy.
A. J. Vrana’s iridescent debut, THE HOLLOW GODS, is the first volume in a series called The Chaos Cycle. A story weaving folklore, dreams, the complicated histories contained within families, and the demons that communities carry with them. It is a speculative novel that defies classification in just one genre: it is magical realism, it is literary, it touches upon fantasy, it gives us a glimpse at real horror.
My full review can be found here…
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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A. J. Vrana is a Serbian-Canadian academic and writer from Toronto, Canada. She lives with her two rescue cats, Moonstone and Peanut Butter, who nest in her window-side bookshelf and cast judgmental stares at nearby pigeons. Her doctoral research examines the supernatural in modern Japanese and former-Yugoslavian literature and its relationship to violence. When not toiling away at caffeine-fueled, scholarly pursuits, she enjoys jewelry-making, cupcakes, and concocting dark tales to unleash upon the world.
You can find her on her website, http://www.thechaoscycle.com.