A. J. Vrana Interview: “The whole is always greater than the sum of its parts”

14 min read

AJ Vrana, author of “The Hollow Gods” – first installment in Chaos Cycle, and “These Silent Walls” short story talks about transposing Slavic mythology on the Western soil, Gestaltian theories, and the future of experimental literature

Alex Khlopenko: How does it feel to write better magic realism/horror novels than Stephen King?

AJ Vrana: Well, shit. I feel Stephen King would have something to say about that. But seriously, thank you! That is such a huge compliment, and I honestly never imagined a newbie like me would draw comparisons to Stephen King. I have been genuinely shocked and flattered at how many people have compared me to him in their reviews, and I’m a bit embarrassed to admit I’m not all that familiar with his work. Of course, it’s impossible not to have some familiarity with King because he is so prominent in horror media, but I have honestly never read his books and now I think I really should.
In truth, one of my first inspirations was Murakami Haruki. He doesn’t do horror, but I did find his book Kafka on the Shore to be…kind of horrific, but in the best way. Murakami’s magical realism is what really got me into the genre; something about his work spoke to me. I think it may be that Murakami focuses so intensely on alienation and uses the fantastical to explore that. Being an immigrant kid and an only child really contributed to my own sense of alienation, and so I think on some cerebral level, Murakami’s work spoke to me. I’m also very familiar with some early 20th century Japanese horror, like Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s short fiction. His story, Hell Screen, scared the crap out of me (again, in the best way), and Sakaguchi Ango’s In the Forest Under the Cherry Blossoms in Full Bloom is probably also one of my favourite short horror stories. That said, tales of vengeful spirits, like Yotsuya Kaidan and The Peony Lantern also had a huge impact on me, so I attribute much of my horror aesthetic to those.

AK: Have you been to a place like Black Hollow?

AJV: Probably. I mean, it had to come from somewhere, right? I grew up in a huge city (Toronto), but I’ve always been kind of obsessed with small, isolated towns. My dad is from a small town, so whenever we went to Serbia, I’d spend most of my time there. It was so radically different, so I did get a bit of a taste for what that might look like. Still, I don’t imagine Black Hollow being anything like my dad’s town.
Originally, I came up with the concept for Black Hollow while working on Mason’s character. I was writing a character who ascribed to an overly simplistic urban/rural binary. In his worldview, the urban is de-personalized, alienating, stressful, and without spirit, and the rural is quaint, relaxing, communal, idyllic, and served as the ideal escape. I knew immediately I wanted to subvert his expectations and to teach him that he couldn’t outrun his problems, so I wrote a town that had the perfect veneer but was simmering with dark secrets under the surface. Then again, I guess most places are like that, if you know where to go digging.

AK: Your academic background has seriously leaked into every aspect of the novel – Miya’s struggles with her university, Mason’s adventures, and even the rich Slavic folklore that you studied. How much of your own experience and struggles found their way into the novel? Did it feel therapeutic to write about it?

AJV: Counter question: does my academic work leak into my fiction or does my fiction leak into my academic work? I’m honestly not sure. There is a ton of crossover between my academic work and my fiction, so I suppose there is just something in the fabric of being that is drawn to the intersection of the supernatural and violence.

I think a LOT of my experiences are there, but they’re all written in through metaphor and allegory. I really struggle with explicit #ownvoices stories because it feels like there is no barrier between the reader and the writer. It’s too vulnerable. However, using the supernatural to talk about communal violence in a place I’ve never been to are a great, self-protective way to talk about themes in my life without being explicit about them. So, I mean, obviously I’ve never been kidnapped by spirits or anything, but I do think there is a relationship between Miya’s existential ruminations, Kai’s alienation from society, and my diasporic own experience.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I wrote a book that discusses mass violence while coming from a country that in my lifetime was embroiled in four civil wars in the span of a decade, and literally tore itself to pieces (not without foreign help, of course). People turning violently on their neighbours and friends was a real thing in former Yugoslavia, and it’s a real thing in my book. The logic behind why it happens feels completely disjointed, perhaps even occult, to an outside observer. Mason coming to Black Hollow, witnessing its systems of knowledge, and struggling to rationalize a foreign ontology while playing the role of the moral savior is not unlike how the West treated former Yugoslavia, the Middle East, and how it continues to treat politically, culturally, and racially non-white places. Mason’s big moment of reckoning is when he realizes he’s no better than the people he thinks are benighted, superstitious, and barbaric; he realizes he is as much a part of the problem as they are, and he has to make peace with the irreconcilability between his ontology and that of Black Hollow.

Did I do this intentionally? Nope. But that’s the beauty of storytelling—your subconscious does the work for you! Was it therapeutic? I have no bloody clue, but I’m happy I wrote it!

AK: Miya, Kai, and Mason are all a lot of fun, but neither of them is exactly likeable. Was it an issue for you? Why is it expected that protagonists must be likeable to enjoy a book?

AJV: Hah! Full disclosure: I would get on very well with both Miya and Kai, but I don’t think I’d like Mason very much. To be totally honest, I don’t give a rat’s ass about likeability. It’s overrated, and I struggle with readers who need likeable characters. It’s more important that they are believable and that they challenge you to think differently, or to learn about how different people operate.

I think people want likeable characters because a lot of readers go into a book looking for a vicarious experience—an escape. If that’s what you’re looking for, I can understand why you’d want to read about people you’d personally get along with. However, I think this is a really damaging way to approach literature. Sure, reading for escapism sometimes is great, but it shouldn’t be your only approach. Readers who do this are basically saying, “I want the book to match my tastes and give me exactly what I want.” Sorry, but that’s not going to happen. As an author I can’t possibly write something everyone will like or want to be a part of, but I hope that readers will at the very least meet my work on its own terms. I’m sure that Kai’s potty mouth is very off-putting for some people, and I’m sure Miya’s depression is tiring for others, but I would hope that a reader can at least think about why they are the way they are and have the empathy to hear the characters out.

Another reason I think people want likeable characters is because compassion and empathy are work. I mean, just look at social media, where people dog-pile each other over pedantry. Technology and physical distance have made it so easy to dehumanize others because they’re just words on a screen. Well, characters are just words on a page. I think it’s a similar psychological process. It takes a conscious effort to empathize with someone who isn’t exactly like you, and who isn’t physically present. This makes it so easy to hate characters with what I think is a disproportionate amount of emotional zeal, and it feeds the demand for “likeability”.

AK: Projecting American mythology onto any other soil rarely works. You went the other way – transposing Southern Slavic myths onto the issues of western society and it worked perfectly. What was the reasoning behind this choice?

AJV: First off, I want to say I love this question. I think it touches on the heart of my novel and where so much of the horror and the fantastical come from: the diasporic imagination. Being ex-Yugoslavian diaspora has had such a huge impact on my life, obviously, but I really think it’s at the crux of why I was able to transpose non-Western mythos and folklore onto a Western setting. I brought the monsters with me, and now they live here.
I wouldn’t quite say it was a conscious choice so much as it was inevitable. I don’t really know Western mythos, but I do know Western social problems. I suppose a cheap answer would be that Canada is supposed to be a mosaic of cultures, but I think that would be a very sanitized and dishonest response. Being a white-passing ethnic minority in Canada is not unlike the legend of the Dreamwalker; everyone knows you’re there, everyone believes you exist, but you’re kind of like a ghost, haunting the imaginations of mainstream Western society. Canada is built on the blood and erasure of indigenous and non-Western peoples. Beneath the façade of the Western European nation-state is an ugly history of violence against not just people, but their stories and their epistemologies. However, that doesn’t mean those stories are gone; they’re just lurking under the surface like a revenant waiting to return. So, put another way, the reason transposing South Slavic myths onto Western soil works so well is because Western soil is already saturated with stories and histories that exist independently of the Western nation-state.

AK: As opposed to the mainstream western writers, who are laser-focused on psychological aspects of stories, it appears you have more interest in researching the communal aspects of horror and magical – how communities come up and deal with them. Why is that so and why do you think other don’t dare address the communal side of the phenomena?

AJV: I think Western societies really struggle with the idea of collective responsibility, especially in North America. We place so much emphasis on the individual, and this applies to both the good and the bad. If you succeed, it has nothing to do with the social conditions, your luck or privilege; it’s your hard work and talent. If you fail, it isn’t that the odds were stacked against you or that you were disadvantaged; you just messed up or didn’t work hard enough. It’s very atomizing and insular, and in America particularly, it’s pathological. You see it even among people who are getting screwed over by their own society; they don’t want to feel like victims, so they take pride in the pennies they get while being exploited and get angry when others want to fight for better conditions. They don’t want to feel like they’re being robbed, and they don’t like the prospect of being powerless, so they ascribe to this notion that they are solely responsible for what happens to them.

This filters into the way Western writers do fiction (and how they have done it for a while). I don’t think it’s necessarily a willful ignorance of the communal, but more of a lack of awareness of its impact. Even for people who are implicitly aware, I just don’t think it’s what comes to mind when they write stories.

That said, I am also fascinated by how groups function. It makes me think of Gestaltian theory: the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts, and I think this has never been truer than in group dynamics. If you study social psychology, you learn very quickly that groups are terrifying. The things individual people will do once in the safety of the herd is shocking. Everyone always thinks, “not me, I wouldn’t do that,” but in truth, we’re all capable of monstrosity under the right conditions, and the right conditions are never riper than in groups. What’s ironic, I think, is that even in North American society, where we generally disavow the impact of the social, the terrifying power of groups remains so potent. It doesn’t matter how much you ascribe to the atomizing notion of individualism. Mob mentality is real even where the communal goes unacknowledged. That, for me, is true horror.

AK: There appears to be an increased interest in non-western, non-Eurocentric mythology, settings, and writers. Are SFF/H readers getting more conscious about anti-colonialist/imperialist narratives? Where will this trend lead?

AJV: Eh…I’m honestly skeptical, and I’m not convinced we as a culture know the difference between an anti-imperialist narrative and anti-imperialist lip service. The alleged commitment to diversity, I fear, is more of a trend, a current fascination. I think as long as we have white-led MFA programs dictating what literature is, we won’t really see true diversity. The gatekeepers are pretty homogenous, and so even if they genuinely want diversity, it goes without saying that their tastes and conceptions of ‘good literature’ will subscribe to the standards of white-led MFA programs. The fact is, diverse people will write diverse stories, both in structure and content. If your gatekeepers are all the same, and if their understanding of good literature is based on their own experience and education, then a lot of diverse literature will get thrown out just because it’s different in form.

Compare Katherine Arden’s Winternight trilogy to Marina and Sergey Dyachenko’s Vita Nostra. Neither are on the surface Eurocentric SFF, but I’d argue that Arden’ work is still Eurocentric in its structure and form. It still follows MFA conventions, and you still see Eurocentric notions of ‘the nation,’ despite that the book is set in a historical era where there was no coherent Russian nation. Eurocentric notions of the nation-state hadn’t even been conceptualized. Don’t get me wrong, I love Katherine Arden’s trilogy, but I wouldn’t call it ‘diverse’ just because it draws from non-Eurocentric mythology.
There’s a slew of Anglo-American authors who have used Slavic aesthetic and mythology as a kind of ‘set dressing’ for what are otherwise Western fantasy novels, and I’m just not convinced this is actually subverting the Eurocentrism of Western publishing.

There’s also a lot of pressure for people of colour to abide by these Western standards of storytelling, and it can be very hard to push unconventional literature because of the way publishers calculate risk in the market. I think we hear a lot of noise on social media about people wanting diverse fiction, but publishers are very risk-averse and aren’t listening.

This makes me worry that we aren’t really anywhere close to pushing truly anti-imperialist narratives beyond vapid lip service. A real anti-imperialist publishing industry wouldn’t just address the “set dressing” of books (i.e. the race of the characters, the setting of the world), but also address the structure of the works themselves. They would challenge the market to meet diverse works on their own terms, not the other way around.

AK: What scares you now the most?

AJV: Honestly, I’m terrified that my sequel to The Hollow Gods will fall flat, or that I will somehow fail to captivate fans of the first book. It’s a much more action-oriented book, but it still has a bit of an unconventional structure. If The Hollow Gods was all about communal horror and trauma, the sequel is about how that communal horror and trauma becomes personal, how it impacts individuals and transforms them—sometimes for the better, but often for the worse. There’s less focus on setting and atmosphere and more focus on interpersonal interactions. I also know readers have questions about certain aspects of the first book, and it was a real challenge trying to answer those questions while maintaining some of the ambiguity characteristic of the first book.

AK: When are we going to see the sequel to The Hollow Gods? And what’s next for you?

AJV: I’m currently in the “cutting” stage of editing the sequel. I’ve completed it and done my best to iron it out, and now I’m just trying to get the word count down to under 100k before I throw it at my publisher. Currently, it’s sitting at about 104k, so I think I will manage! Once I give the manuscript to my publisher, they will decide on an appropriate publication date, which will probably be some time in late 2021 or early 2022. I’m speculating, though, so don’t hold me to that!

Aside from the sequel, I do have a short horror story coming out with this really amazing SFF publication called Three Crows Magazine—not sure if you’ve heard of them? If not, you should really check them out; I hear they’ve got some real cutting-edge fiction!

I’ve also got a few more projects lined up. The one I’m most excited about is a supernatural horror murder-mystery novel, again in a small town, but this time in the Appalachian Mountains in Pennsylvania. My protagonist is a half-Serbian, half-Anglo-American Canadian citizen who comes to this small town to care for her sick, estranged older sister, and while she is there, she notices things that don’t add up. Whenever she leaves the town, she’s suddenly privy to the information she was totally unaware of while in the town—things that should have been obvious.

This results in memory-gaps while she is in the town. However, she can’t just leave her sister. Meanwhile, there is a murderer on the loose who is picking people off one by one, and not only is his motive a mystery, but the murders are totally covered up. No one appears to be aware of them, or they are pretending they didn’t happen. As with The Hollow Gods, this book grapples with the intersection of the communal and the personal, but with a stronger emphasis on the familial.

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