A lifelong resident of Toronto, Ontario.. A.J. Vrana is a Serbian-Canadian academic and writer who often centers her stories in modern settings, while also incorporating surreal, dark fantasy elements and flavoring them with glimpses of existential horror. Her stories tend to dance delicately along the seam between worlds whose sense of time, perception, and reality.. all waver.
She currently holds a BA in Psychology and a Masters in Humanities from New York University, and she's also working on her doctoral dissertation at the University of Toronto, exploring the supernatural in modern Japanese and Balkan fiction and its relationship to violence. Additionally, in 2019.. she began the journey to her Masters in Public Health, with the hope of helping shape better policies in mental healthcare for those with chronic illnesses.
As I said.. she's brilliant, funny, and incredibly intuitive. She has two rescue cats, Moonstone and Peanut Butter, though Moonstone seems to be the impish spirit.. either watching on somewhere with an air of disdain.. or trailing shedding piles of hair across the author's work space.
'The Hollow Gods' synopsis
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?
What came first with this story.. a character, a scene, a concept, something else?
I’d say it started off as a combination of characters and concept. Miya and Kai have always been very alive in my imagination, and they existed as characters well before I wrote the book. You might say the book was sort of constructed around them. In terms of concepts—and I know I’ve said this in other interviews—I love folklore. I wanted to have an intimate setting, a small town that believes very strongly in their dark lore. Then, I wanted to have a character who considers themselves modern, rational, and level-headed thrown into that world to see how they might react. This is how Mason was born, but he’s really there to help tell Miya and Kai’s story.
Were any of your characters more difficult to write than the others? If so, why?
Yes, absolutely. I find Kai the most challenging character to write. He has such a particular way of thinking, feeling, and expressing himself, so it can be difficult to really capture him with the right language. If I was writing Kai’s experiences through Miya or Mason, I would have a much easier time because Miya and Mason are far closer to me in how they might articulate themselves. But Kai is, well, different. His life experiences and background are quite a departure from mine, so he can be challenging. I often sit there and think, “How would Kai say this?” and 20 minutes later I’ll have an answer. With Miya and Mason, it usually just flows.
What's something interesting about your main characters that only you know?
They have natal charts.
Which character in your book are you least likely to get along with?
Probably Mason. I loathe his certainty about the world.
Are there misconceptions that people have about your book?
Oh, all the time! I do think this is just the reality of being an author. Your readership is going to be very diverse, and you can’t control what people read into your work. That said, I do wish we had more space for authors to share the intended message and meaning of their work. This could open up such interesting discussions about how meaning is made in the act of reading and writing.
I do think some readers struggle with works that blend different genres. I assume this is because genres have well-established tropes, and so when a reader goes into a book expecting those tropes and doesn’t find them, they may end up disappointed. I think one of the biggest misconceptions I see about The Hollow Gods is that it isn’t enough of one genre or another. The people who expect a mystery/thriller find that the mystery/thriller part of the book falls flat, and the people who expect a high fantasy might find that the magic system isn’t cohesive enough. I may get slack for this, but I genuinely don’t think this is a productive way to approach the book. In truth, The Hollow Gods is none of these genres, and the genre it most closely aligns with is magical realism with undertones of horror and dark fantasy. You just aren’t going to find high fantasy tropes or mystery/thriller tropes in magical realism because it is a genre on its own, though not many are familiar with it. There are no clear distinctions between fantasy and reality in MR, and there often isn’t very much cohesion to the fantastical because it’s used more as a device to examine the inner lives of the characters. Someone who reads high fantasy might read an MR book and say, “Wow this is sloppy world-building,” but it’s all quite intentional.
The other misconception I see quite often is that characters who shift into animals = werewolves or other common pop culture creatures. It’s an understandable misconception because people will always reach for explanations that are familiar and easily accessible, but for anyone out there wondering, the character often being called a werewolf isn’t actually a werewolf. Think more along the lines of Medved in The Bear and the Nightingale, or old folktales about people who are simultaneously animal and something else. Werewolves are, in my view, human first, and they are usually cursed to turn into wolves on a full moon. The Hollow Gods character in question emphasizes quite frequently that he is not human and expresses a strong disdain for the human world. If anything, he is more like the opposite of a werewolf: a wolf forced to walk through the world as a human.
If you could implore your readers to ask themselves one question after reading the book, what would it be?
I don’t think I have a specific question I’d want readers to ask, but I do have a question I don’t want them to ask, and that is something along the lines of, “So who was right?” or “Which explanation was right?” I’d much rather they ask, “What does it mean to not have answers?” or “What is the power of storytelling?”
Basically, I want to encourage my readers not to ask questions that will yield a specific answer, but to ask questions that will challenge their own assumptions about how they make sense of the world and how they interact with it.
What is the future for the characters? Will there be a sequel?
Their future looks rather grim! There is a sequel, and it’s a little bit more action-packed than The Hollow Gods. This story will really test the main cast in ways they weren’t tested in the first book. If The Hollow Gods was about the characters finding themselves and coming into their own, the sequel is all about testing their identities, who they think they are, and what they might be capable of becoming.
Does this story have a soundtrack? A playlist that inspired you while writing it?
I feel like the answer to this is both yes and no. I actually don’t listen to music when I write because it distracts me, but I will daydream about my book while listening to music. As to what music… I’ll have to get back to you on that. Probably some ear-shattering mix of industrial rock music, heavy metal, and singer-songwriter tracks.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
Probably the first time someone said something mean to me! I don’t actually remember what that might have been, but I imagine we all learn the power of words the first time they wound us. We live in a culture that constantly evaluates us, from the moment we can make weird, garbled baby noises. Everything from babies’ doctor appointments to kindergarden report cards are a testament to the power of language to impact our self-concepts and how other people might perceive us.
What are some elements you feel are becoming cliché in your genre?
Hmm, honestly, I think the ‘strong female protagonist’ is becoming a bit cliché in how it’s executed. We absolutely need books with strong female leads, but I see a lot of SFF with female leads who are really bull-headed regardless of context, and I think sometimes this overdetermined force of will is mistaken for strength. I understand the impulse; it’s difficult to write female characters because readers tend to be much harsher on them than they are on male characters, and female characters often have to contend with a society telling them what they can/cannot do, which really makes one want to rebel. That said, I don’t think the solution is to just infuse female characters with typically ‘masculine’ traits. I really want to see more SFF female leads that are vulnerable and insecure but find ways to work through and conquer those insecurities. I think that is far more relatable than a character who is just tough 100% of the time. I worry this sets an unrealistic standard of strength for young women and girls. I really believe being emotionally intelligent is better than being tough.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
Rather than underappreciated, I just wish North American publishing did a better job of bringing world fiction to the forefront. There are so many amazing classics and contemporary books from other cultures that most people aren’t aware of. I think engaging more with world literature can really broaden the scope of acceptable storytelling and help bring some much-needed diversity to the North American publishing world. Having a greater appreciation of the diversity in storytelling methods and styles can really do wonders for people who love reading and open them up to entirely new worlds. You can find some wonderfully entertaining books too. Want some truly terrifying horror? Pick up some short stories by Akutagawa. The man’s imagination is truly terrifying.
What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?
I think my biggest quirk is that I write dialogue first. Like, I imagine all scenes as an interaction between characters, and then I fill in the setting and details afterwards. I pretty much loathe writing descriptions so I save them for last, or I have editors yell at me to add more description so they’re not just floating through empty air in the scene.
If you had the opportunity to live anywhere in the world for a year while writing a book that took place in that same setting, where would you choose?
Kotor or Budva in Montenegro, and Inverness or Edinburgh in Scotland, hands down.