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Brutal shooting inspires fantasy novel

Brutal shooting inspires fantasy novel

One moment she is an ordinary girl at high school; the next, Trina Warren has heightened awareness and is destined to fight a nameless monster - to be a hero.
US bestselling author AJ Hartley talks to ReadingZone about his latest novel, IMPERVIOUS, a YA fantasy he wrote following a shooting at the US university where he works.

Q: Can you tell us a little about Impervious?

A: The novel focuses on Trina Warren, a bright but otherwise ordinary (if slightly clumsy) high school student in an ordinary North Carolina town. She has a taste for fantasy, sci-fi and all things geeky.
One day she receives a mysterious necklace with a pendant shaped like a miniature sword on it. As soon as she puts it on she becomes strong, graceful and drawn to knives and other edged weapons, swords in particular. Her destiny, she is told, is to be a warrior tasked with protecting her world from something terrible which is coming.

Q: Why did you want to write this book, and how important was it for you personally? Was it a hard book to write?

A: A version of the story had been kicking around in my head for years but it took something personal to force the issue. When I did it came out very fast, but it was emotionally hard to get it all down because of the circumstances: I survived a shooting on the university campus where I work.

The book, which is dedicated to those who died, was written in direct response to that, as a kind of processing/coping mechanism. It was a while before I could edit the first draft (which I had written in almost a single, breathless sitting [sleep and meals aside] lasting only two weeks). It was hard, but I had to write it in order to move past the event.

Q: Since Impervious is drawn from what you experienced in a real life situation, why did you decide to take the story into a fantasy world?

A: I'm at home in fantasy, but had been wondering a lot about the way we represent heroism in those larger than life stories, whether they are high fantasy epics or superhero movies. I wanted to come at the core issue in a way that was engaging but which approached the issue of gun violence side on, as it were, so that it didn't dominate the story throughout and would allow the reader to enjoy and connect with the core character while also engaging with a mystery at the heart of the book about what was really going on.

I hoped that this approach would make people engage with it, and maybe lead them to think differently about the core issue and how we represent it in art more than a straight-on "issue book" would.

Q: Why did you want your main character, Trina Warren, to be female?

A: It was important to me that this didn't become a macho study in violence, who's stronger or has the most powerful punch. We waste a lot of time on such things as a culture and they often break along gender lines. I prefer to think about such things in a less binary, more fluid way, because I think that even when we think of ourselves strictly in terms of a single gender, we tend to internalise a socially constructed spectrum about just how male/female we are behaving in any given moment. I think that's one of the ways we figure out the elements of our own personality, our traits, strengths, the things we care about, what - and how - we are prepared to fight for.

In reality, both genders still get forced into boxes built from the rest of the world's assumptions and stereotypes, but in fantasy you can push those limitations, let people be who they want to be, give them the opportunity to break free and take control of who they are. I wanted the hero of this book also to stand against a brand of entitled and toxic violence which is almost always male.

Q: Despite the fantasy element, the setting in Impervious is a very ordinary town and Trina describes herself as an ordinary girl. Why did you choose this as the backdrop to the main action, and where did you get the town's name, Treysville?

A: I live in Charlotte NC and teach at a university which draws a lot of people from small towns, many of which are limited in terms of jobs and opportunities, to the big city. It's a constituency I know well, and one I can relate to, since I also grew up in a town which, at the time, felt small and ordinary in ways that could feel confining.

I guess that's true of most places for most adolescents, especially if they are imaginative and feel pressured to fit into the world around them in ways which seem to deprive them of their own agency. Their impulse to rebel or escape is really just a desire to grow, to blossom. "Treysville" is just a generic name (there are a lot of places with similar names around here) for a generic and run down town.

Q: Through the novel, Trina has to battle 'The Soulless One' who is casual and arbitrary in his attacks. In most fiction we eventually discover a reason behind evil actions, so what would you like your readers to take from the story?

Yes, a couple of publishers raised the idea of wanting more motivations for the villain's actions, but I refused. The aimlessness is the point, as it always is in school shootings. After every such incident the news becomes obsessed with the idea of finding out why he (it's almost always 'he') did what he did, as if an unhappy home life or being bullied or playing too many video games would somehow explain it away, make it manageable. I see it all the time. We fasten onto the motive and then we can relax, close the case. And wait for the next one.

Personal motives are irrelevant to me in such cases. We have a deeper, wider problem in our societies and I didn't want to write a fictional version of such an event which wrapped things up neatly with a little pop psychology that made the closure complete. I wanted the ending to feel like there were loose ends, things unresolved, unexplained, because that's life. Nothing discovered about the shooter at my school will ever satisfy the parents of the dead, nor should it.

Q: You have described Impervious as a political novel - what do you say to those who argue that politics shouldn't come into fiction - and isn't fantasy often politicised?

A: I think all books are political, even when they claim not to be. Refusing to take a stand is a stand in itself. Yes, my books usually have a political element, even if it's minor or oblique. This one is unusual because it centers on a specific issue - guns - but it really only does that in hindsight (the afterword is more political than the novel seems to be, though I suppose it tints the novel after the fact, as it were).

I'm not interested in fantasy which is so far removed from reality that it has no point of contact to the world we live in at all. I'm not even sure what such a book would look like and still be relatable to the reader. And let's be honest, mostly when people say they don't want politics in books (or movies or music or whatever), what they mean is they don't want the kind of politics which they disagree with in their art; when the politics echoes their own beliefs, it's not politics at all, just normality.

A case in point: every book that solves its problems with the poetic justice of a gun fight in which the bad guys die and the good guys live is making a political statement (and enacting an altogether different and less defensible brand of fantasy). We're so used to it that we don't see it as political, but believe me, especially in the USA, it is.

Q: Has what you experienced changed how you write? Do you plan to write more novels like this - using art to influence change?

A: Not really. I've always wanted to use art to influence change, albeit subtly, by raising issues and working gently on people's perspectives or showing them things they might not have experienced themselves. This book is, as I say, more issue centred than I usually write, but even here it's a story first and foremost, something centering on a character, not simply an idea or issue.

In all honesty, I don't want to write "issue books" because they don't especially interest me as a reader. When I know what I'm going to get, I lose interest, and I don't want to be preached at, even if I agree with the sentiment, not in fiction. So yes, I'll keep writing fiction with political elements and will keep pressing issues I think are important, but I won't write "message books," no.

Q: Are there any organisations campaigning for change in firearms that you are working with?

A: I'm a member of a number of US organisations which campaign for common sense gun laws and am a member of a survivor group, but their work tends to be direct and legislative, so I'm there as a private citizen, not as a creative writer.

Q: What are you currently writing for YA / Children?

A: I'm two books into my Cathedrals of Glass trilogy, which is a YA sci-fi / psychological thriller and part of my partnership with Tom DeLonge (front man for Blink 182/Angels and Airwaves), and the third and final book in my Monsters in the Mirror series is poised to come out in the UK this fall. After those, I'm not sure. There are some TV issues in the works and what happens there (if anything) may affect where my energies go for a little while.

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