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Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Interview with A.J. Vrana, author of The Hollow Gods

Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Before we start, tell us a little about yourself. 

No, no, thank you! I’m born and raised in Toronto, Ontario to Serbian diasporic parents. In addition to my writing, I am a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto, and my research focuses on the supernatural in Japanese and former Yugoslavian fiction and its relationship to violence. I’m also lucky enough to live with two ridiculous rescue cats, Moonstone and Peanut Butter, who are adorable and definitely aliens. I love shiny things and make jewelry from semi-precious gemstones like labradorite and moonstone, which features heavily in my pet naming conventions and within my fiction. 

How old were you when you first sat down to write a fantasy story or novel? And how old were you when you made your first professional sale? 

Oof. I honestly don’t remember—young enough to not remember, I guess? I do remember writing short stories when I was in 4th grade, and by the time I was in high school I was writing pretty regularly. I finished a few novella-length projects by the time I graduated high school, and I finished my first novel when I was 21 or 22. The Hollow Gods is my debut, and I was 31 when it was first accepted for publication at The Parliament House Press!

In your own words, what is The Hollow Gods about? 

Honestly? The first thing that popped into my head: trauma. It’s about three people from three very different walks of life, with three very different world views, contending with their traumas, fears, and hopes. However, they don’t do this in by sitting in a therapist’s office. A lot of it is explored via their entanglements with the folklore of Black Hollow, and through the supernatural events that revolve around this folklore. To that extent, the town itself is a kind of traumatized character struggling to come to terms with the sins of the past, and we see that play out in a most violent fashion. 

What inspired you to write this story? Was there one “lightbulb moment” when the concept for this book popped into your head or did it develop over time? 

I think inspiration is impossible to pin-point. I’ve said in other interviews that I drew a lot from South Slavic folklore, and I think my encounters with Japanese horror fiction also played a pretty profound role in how I write. That said, I don’t think there was any one particular thing that inspired this story. It started as a short story that I gradually expanded into a novel. Then I axed it, started it again. Rinse and repeat. Definitely no lightbulb moment for me! I can say pretty confidently that it was a journey and that I did a lot of work on the way to figure how to construct a good story. 

If you had to describe The Hollow Gods in 3 adjectives, which would you choose? 

Hmmm… dark, haunted, and layered. 

Would you say that The Hollow Gods follows tropes or kicks them? 

Hah! I feel like I’m not the right person to make this evaluation. I mean, I’m sure it follows some tropes. Every book needs tropes to remain recognizable to an audience. I will say, however, that a lot of my reviewers comment that the book wasn’t what they expected (for better or for worse), so I suppose there is something in there that subverts tropes. I do think it’s a genre-bender; you’ve got some folklore-infused dark fantasy, a little bit of mystery, paranormal undertones, touches of horror, and a good dose of surrealism. On the one hand, I love genre-benders and I’m extremely proud of my work. On the other, it can be a bit tough to market. Some folks will be like, “Man, this didn’t scratch my mystery itch,” or, “This horror book wasn’t very original,” but I guess that’s because the book isn’t meant to be any one of those genres in its entirety. 

Tell us about The Hollow God’s protagonists. Who are they? How would you describe them to someone meeting them for the first time? 

Our three leads are Miya, Kai, and Mason. As I noted earlier, they are all from very different walks of life and have different world views. Miya is your broke, floundering college student struggling to make sense of what she wants with her life. She’s unhappy with the way things are, with social expectation, and with her journalism major and where it is taking her. She’s probably the wallflower at a house party she forced herself to attend in the name of human interaction. Don’t be fooled by her introversion, though; she’s read the room and by midnight has a grasp on all your darkest secrets. Really, though, Miya just wants something more meaningful than clickbait headlines and small talk. 

Kai is the outcast to society. He’s a mysterious firecracker with one hell of a past and a sinister presence nipping at his heels. It talks to him, mocks him, and tests him at every corner. Supernatural stuff aside, Kai is probably that sketchy dude in the dive bar that every regular knows to have a drink with but never start shit with. Somehow, though, none of the patrons remember his name, though there’s no telling whether that’s because of the hangover or the concussion. Kai thrives in the underbelly of Black Hollow, and even though he’s not one for propriety or social niceties, he’s definitely not a bad friend to have around…that is, if you can get him to play nice for long enough to want to be friends. 

Mason’s the poster boy for what every parent wants their child to grow up to be. He graduated from Ivy League, finished med school, and has a coveted residency in the oncology department at Vancouver General Hospital. He’s that annoying balance of privilege and hard work, and it’s afforded him a great deal of simplicity in his life. Unfortunately, life isn’t simple, and Mason is shaken out of his status quo when a poor decision leads to the death of a young cancer patient. Crestfallen, he goes on mental health leave in the hopes of regaining his confidence and restoring his old sense of self. 

Alright, we need the details on that gorgeous cover. Who's the artist/designer, and can you give us a little insight into the process for coming up with it? How does it tie to the book? 

Ohhh thank you!!! I am in love with the cover as well! It was designed by Shayne Leighton, who is honestly such a badass and incredible to work with. I am not an artist by any stretch of the imagination, so most of my feedback to Shayne consisted of garbled ideas for what I wanted, and she turned it into something beautiful. I always knew I wanted a raven on the cover, and I knew I wanted a purple/grey/black colour scheme. For those who have read the book, you’ll know that purple and black are the Dreamwalker’s colours. Ravens also feature prominently in the book. Some who have Slavic heritage might know that the name of one of my characters, Gavran, means raven. Although he’s a bit of a quirky character, he plays an important role in this book and the sequel. If you look closely, you’ll also see silhouettes of trees on the cover, which connect to the forests surrounding Black Hollow! 

How did you come up with the title The Hollow Gods? 

I think I came up with the name almost immediately after naming the town ‘Black Hollow’. The idea for the town name was a mish mash of Sleepy Hollow and Montenegro, where part of my family is from. In the native language of the region, Montenegro is ‘Crna Gora,’ which means Black Forest or Black Mountain. The mountains there are very heavily forested, and the foliage is super dark green, which gave way to the name. 

How does it tie with the plot of the book? 

It’s word play! It refers to both the ‘gods’ (or spirits) of Black Hollow, and it also refers to the gods/spirits themselves being hollow. My book touches on past lives and the idea of cycles quite a lot, and so there is this sense of these spirits becoming hollow like ghosts, but much like ghosts, they haunt the present. 

What do you hope your readers take away from this book? 

I feel like this is where I say something cryptic like, “Things are not what they seem…” 

I don’t think there is anything super specific I want people to take away from the book, but I will say that I hope people read with an open mind, and with an eye to metaphor. I don’t want people to read the book too literally or look for clear-cut answers and explanations. This is a theme-heavy book and if there is any point to it, it’s that life will always deny us easy answers. It’s not a book that ascribes to rigid fantasy systems or simple/singular explanations. It’s okay if you get to the end and don’t have all the answers, because that’s definitely the kind of novel I set out to write! 

Thank you again for taking the time to chat with us, AJ. When can readers be able to read The Hollow Gods? Anything else you has going on right now that you'd like the world to know about? 

Thank you as well for treating me to this amazing interview! The Hollow Gods will be out July 28, and you can find it on Amazon, Kobo, B&N, Google Play and Apple Books. If you’re looking for a hard copy, you can get a signed copy from my website, or from the publisher’s website,

In terms of what’s coming up—a few things, actually! The Hollow Gods will be getting its own audiobook with Tantor Media! Unfortunately, I don’t have a date for that yet, but it will definitely be within the year. I’ve also finished the sequel, The Echoed Realm, and I anticipate that will be out in the next year or year and a half. I also have a short supernatural horror story, These Silent Walls, coming out from Three Crows Magazine.

This was part of The Hollow Gods blog tour organized by Storytellers On Tour. My thanks to Justine and Timy for letting Fantasy Book Critic be a part of it. You can check out the rest of the stops over here.


Ollie@TheStoneCloud said...

Great interview!

Arina said...

Gotta love a book that can't be marketed into a box


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