Seven Questions with Jennifer Willis

Today’s guest is Jennifer Willis, author of Valhalla, and editor of the 2014 Northwest Independent Writers’ Association anthology, Underground. Brave and unwavering, today she’ll challenge my seven deadly questions.

Hi Jennifer, welcome.

 Thanks! I’m happy to be here. I accept your challenge, and raise you a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Half-Baked.

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1) When we first met, you were signing copies of your novel Valhalla in downtown Hillsboro. Would you tell us a little bit about your book series?

 You know, this is probably the question I dislike the most because I’m terrible at describing my own work. But for you, I’ll give it a shot. Valhalla is a YA, urban fantasy series set mostly in Portland, Oregon (also in Norway, Ireland, and the Three Sisters Wilderness). It’s about the old Norse gods—Thor, Heimdall, Freya, Odin, et al.—having to work regular jobs because their power and immortality are waning. And, of course, they have to save the world in spectacular and unobtrusive ways. There’s also a teenage witch running around, and Loki is a constant presence. It’s magickal mayhem! The tag line: “Hilarity ensues.”

 
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Seven Questions with Gary Olson

Gary Olson wrote The Goldilocks Zone, my favorite short story in Fading Light; Anthology of the Monstrous. Gary has a great sense of humor and I knew his answers to my kooky questions would be a great addition to my collection of new and impressive authors.

Seven questions, Mr. Olson—

1)  Tell us a little about Brutal Light, is it your debut novel? How would you classify it, what genre? Who is the protagonist? What makes your story so unique? In other words, tell us about your latest book.

Hey, that’s five questions right there!  Two more and I’m done!

Ha.  Anyway, Brutal Light is indeed my first published novel, albeit my fifth or sixth stab at writing one.  It’s been classified as dark fantasy, which is probably the most accurate as far as popular categorizations go, though in the years I was slinging it at various slush piles, I would sometimes push it as a horror novel.  If I was going to shamelessly hype it up for a movie producer, I’d describe it as “Philip K. Dick meets Clive Barker.”  A reviewer described it as my having set myself a difficult challenge, “to depict the kind of interleaved, convoluted, and multi-layered world at which China Mieville is certainly adept.”

The center of the book is Kagami Takeda, a runaway with a connection to the Radiance, a merciless and godlike sea of light.  The connection comes at a cost–anyone who is around her for too long either develops a paranormal ability or, more often, goes insane.  At the novel’s opening, she’s nearly a shut-in, working from an apartment she shares with her lover, a detective named Nick Havelock (who, due to his association with her, developed a finding ability and experiences some rather nasty bloody visions).  But people she’s hurt in the past catch up to her, and she’s forced to run again as they and other parties interested in unlimited power try to take over her body and her mind.

It’s a book that I knew from the start would be difficult to classify.  I was letting my freak flag fly on this one, mixing metaphysics with action and bloody carnage and putting off worrying about how to explain it.  It’s not that I didn’t think it would have an audience–I know there are plenty of readers out there like me who enjoy books like these–it was just a question of finding that audience.  I was very happy it found a home with Damnation Books–a publisher that takes chances attracts readers who take chances.

2) Where did you come up with such an interesting story? What inspired it?

In a way, it was the culmination of a sort of tale I’ve been telling for the past fifteen or so years, in which someone with a great deal of power struggles with the consequences, mental and physical, of having this power.  I went through several iterations of this theme in my writing for the Superguy list in the mid-nineties, and later on in my first attempts at writing a novel.  (Or, in a few versions, a group of people have to deal with someone in their midst who has a great deal of power, who may or may not act in their favor.)  The overall theme of power–its temptations and dangers, and what our response to it says about us–has fascinated me for a long time.

Brutal Light came about after a few years had passed since my last attempt at a novel.  I’d read a striking essay by Arundhati Roy, with one line that stood out in particular: “Respect strength, never power.”  It was one of those moments that crystalized a great deal of vague thought I’d had on the subject.  The conflation of power and strength is a very human impulse, and it gave me a way to approach all this stuff in my head from a new angle.

Everything else accumulated around that idea.  It ended up getting fused to my fascination with memory and how it makes us who we are, a large swath of occult and alchemical studies I’ve read, layman-level works on how the mind works and some of the extreme ways things can go wrong, and so on.

3) Have you any other stories published that you would like to mention? Where can we get our hands on them? What can we expect to see and how soon?

Brutal Light was my first publication in quite a while.  I had three short works published in the late nineties–The Body in Motion, Glass Nails, and Electricity in the Rain–that are no longer available.  I made a revised version of The Body in Motion available for subscribers to my newsletter, and will eventually do the same for Glass NailsElectricity in the Rain I’m considering for revision/expansion as a paranormal-genre novella.

I also have a short story, Something You Should Know, set in the Brutal Light universe that’s available for free from Smashwords and BarnesAndNoble.com.  It centers on a homeless woman inadvertently given (by Kagami) the paranormal ability to remove memories–generally horrifying ones–from someone, and also to force these stolen memories on someone else–people she feels deserve the pain.  It’s set a few months before the ‘present day’ action in Brutal Light, though it’s more of a standalone story than a prequel.

4) If you had three words to define yourself, what would they be? Why? You don’t have to answer, remain a mystery if you choose.

Pachycephalic.  Bibliobibuli.  Fabulist.

I love old, forgotten words, though I don’t often use them in my writing.  I would like to see ‘bibliobibuli’ brought back… it means ‘people who read too much,’ to the point they seem ‘drunk on books.’  Hic!

‘Pachycephalic’ means ‘thick-skulled,’ which is self-explanatory (heh).  ‘Fabulist’ means both ‘a composer of fables’ and ‘a liar.’  Of course, when I say I’m a liar, I could be lying…

5) What are some of your favorite books?

Now there’s a question I could go all day answering.  I have trouble keeping up with my list of favorite authors, nevermind favorite books.  But since you ask…

I’m a longtime fan of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.  Of those, Reaper Man and The Wee Free Men are perhaps my favorites (at least today).  They manage the very difficult task of being both uproariously funny and terribly moving, often at the same time.  Of course, Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series is also a favorite, though it hasn’t aged quite as well.

Frank Herbert’s Dune had a huge influence on me, as did Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s Illumnatus Trilogy.  William Browning Spencer’s Zod Wallop is a wildly imaginative and fun book with an ending that is as stunning and emotional as any I’ve ever read–there are passages in it that still come to mind at odd moments that make me pause and reflect.  I still have enormous fondness for Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books, as dated as they now seem.  Clive Barker’s Imajica opened up major new avenues for my imagination to explore.

On the nonfiction end, books like Stephen Pinker’s How the Mind Works and V.S. Ramachandran’s Phantoms of the Brain have fascinated me through multiple readings.  Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World also rates for how brilliantly it illuminates the trickster archetype and the value of blurring the lines in our heads.

That’s just a sampling.  In general, I don’t reread a lot, as there’s way too much good stuff out there that I still haven’t gotten to.  Any book that can compel me to read it again and again is one I treasure.

6) What was your favorite Saturday morning cartoon/show when you were a little kid?

I can recall several of them, all Hanna Barbara ‘classics’ from the seventies.  Laff-a-Lympics was probably my favorite of them all, though I also loved the Road Runner cartoons, Captain Caveman, the Superfriends, Scooby-Doo, and Blue Falcon/Dynomutt.

Some of the Saturday Morning fare I most enjoyed, though, was actually live action: the Shazam/Isis Power Hour, for instance, even though I was too young to appreciate Isis fully (ahem) at the time.  Another gem was Jason of Star Command, a bargain-basement Saturday morning Star Wars knockoff which included the great Sid Haig as the villain Draco.

7) The Nevada State dinosaur is Ichthyosaurus, what is the Michigan State dinosaur? Does this inspire you? How?

It doesn’t appear (from my quick Google search) that Michigan has a State Dinosaur (unless you count Ted Nugent).  The closest we seem to have is a State Fossil… Ted Nugent.  (Ha, just kidding, it’s the Mastodon.)  Can’t say that it inspires me too much, except when I’m around a well-stocked salad bar.  (“I’m gonna rock that salad bar like a mastodon, and impale upon my tusks those who would deprive me of the bacon bits!”)

 

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Blurb for “Brutal Light”:

All Kagami Takeda wants is to be left alone, so that no one else can be destroyed by the madness she keeps at bay.  Her connection to the Radiance–a merciless and godlike sea of light–has driven her family insane and given her lover strange abilities and terrible visions.  But the occult forces that covet her access to the Radiance are relentless in their pursuit.  Worse, the Radiance itself has created an enemy who can kill her–a fate that would unleash its ravenous power on a defenseless city…

Rhea Cole is also on the run, after murdering her husband with a power she never knew she had–a power given her by a strange girl with a single touch.  Pursued by a grim man unable to dream and a dead soul with a taste for human flesh, she must contend with those who would use her to open the way to the Radiance, and fight a battle that stretches from the streets of Detroit to a forest of terrifying rogue memories.

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Bio for Gary W. Olson:

Gary W. Olson grew up in Michigan and, despite the weather, stuck around.  In 1991 he graduated from Central Michigan University and went to work as a software engineer.  He loves to read and write stories that transgress the boundaries of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, while examining ideas of identity and its loss in the many forms it can have.

Away from working and writing, Gary enjoys spending time with his wife, their cats, and their mostly reputable family and friends.  His website is at http://www.garywolson.com, and features his blog, A Taste of Strange (http://www.garywolson.com/blog), as well as links to everyplace else he is on the Internet, such as Twitter (http://twitter.com/gwox) and Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/gary.w.olson.author).

 

In the Land of the Free

(I’d entered this one in a ‘flash-fiction’ contest a while ago. It is hard to tell a story in less than 1000-words, this one does it in less than 750. It didn’t win. This afternoon I fixed it better than what was sent, but I’m not going to try entering it for another contest. I’m giving it to you for free.)

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In the Land of the Free

A nine millimeter diameter is a perfect circle. Perfection’s length is explained in inches, and four of them if measured exactly. The beginning of a perfect plan is incased by blued steel.  At the back-end is a hammer locked into place and ready to strike, but the open end is pressing hard against perspiring flesh, the focal point of what will be the execution of a perfected plan.

With one hand curled around rough rubber grips, Anthony Williams presses the pistol’s barrel against the Pakistani’s sweat-saturated head. One-half of the Pakistani’s smock was colored a dark yellow – a sickly urine-yellow – like the smell creeping up over the counter and assaulting Anthony’s nose. Gripping the other half of the clerk’s smock with his free hand – the light yellow half – just beneath where a badge reads, ‘Shop EZ.’

Anthony bellows into the ear of his captive, “Just gimmie a pack’a Newport’s! I gotta get back!”

Fumbling with the key in the register’s drawer, the clerk mumbles, pleading, begging, “Just don’t kill me, please! Have all of it!” His accent is thick, his English raw.

Anthony yells again, menacingly stabbing into the clerk’s head with his gun, “No punk! I don’t want yer god-damn money!  Gimmie the Newport’s!”   He stares directly into the security camera, spreading his lips with practiced smile. They’d know it was him.

Six months ago, Anthony ‘Tony’ Williams turned twenty-eight in Beau Sterritt State Correctional Facility, the ninth consecutive birthday passed in prison. Ten days later he was released on good behavior. More than a third of his life sheared away for selling someone else’s rock. Back then, peddling crack gave him an edge, made him look tough. He knew the streets were hard, but prison had taught him meaner – rehabilitated is what the system calls it.

Breakfast at seven, lunch at noon, dinner at five, lights out at nine, and then repeat. That was a perfect life; not freedom – just life. Freedom was for people who didn’t need structure. Tony would never admit needing someone to tell him ‘when to’ or ‘what for.’ By the standard measure of success in the land of the free, Anthony proved a complete failure.

It mattered no more. He was going back where he understood. Inside that world, he’d earned his rights, and his respects. He smiled one more time for the camera as the clerk  yanked a pack of menthol cigarettes out of the overhead rack, spilling three more cool-green packs across the counter. Releasing his temporary prisoner, Anthony grabbed another pack of smokes and turned towards the door.

He smiled with glee. When the police see the security film, they will know it was he who robbed this store. Reaching out towards the door before him, his head buzzed euphoric.  By the end of the week he’d be home with his armed guards protecting him from all these confusing liberties.  Life again would have definition, and Anthony would again have order. Everything balances by its own perfection.

Light travels faster than sound. Pushing upon the door to get out, a flash of lightning reflected across the pane of well-polished glass before exploding outward over the sidewalk like diamond cubes.  The pain first spread across his back like a bad sunburn, followed shortly thereafter by the sensation of muscle being torn into meat ribbons. From the waist down he feels nothing – absolutely nothing. Jello could have served a better foundation than his legs. The sound of thunder follows the lightning.

Dropping his cigarettes and gun he attempts to soften his fall. The pistol clatters across the sidewalk, scattering glass-cubes while continuing over the curb and bouncing out into the parking lot.  Falling through the shattered doorway and across the ‘Shop EZ’ welcome mat, blood spurts unchecked from a peppering of leaking holes.

Buckshot – the double-ought size shell – was several steel balls of nine-millimeter perfection delivered swiftly from a 12-guage shotgun.

The world began to wash like waves pulling sand across the beach. Slowly filling the grooves of the welcome mat, blood and safety glass mixed in the trenches.  “Why?” Tony croaked, sensing the clerk standing over him. A coppery flavor coated his tongue as he forced out the words, “My gun was empty.”  A crimson smear tainted the cellophane covering over the tobacco.  He remembered believing the day he was released, “I am free!” The pain fades into nothing, as goes the prison called the free world.

(If you liked this one – remember, my best work is for sale, the links are on the left.)