A.J. Hartley: Five Things I Learned Writing Impervious

Trina Warren didn’t think she was going to be a hero. She thought she was going to go to fourth period, hopefully avoiding any more hassle from the jocks about dropping their plates at her waitressing job the night before. Then there was a bang, and an overturned chair, and everything was different.

Now Trina finds herself in a fantasy world, pursued by a faceless, nameless monster that only she can stop. But she doesn’t know how to stop it, she doesn’t have any weapons, and her only clue is the necklace that arrived in a mysterious package that morning, with no return address and a cryptic note inside. She must navigate an unfamiliar world full of monsters, magic, and danger if she is to defeat the mysterious Soulless One and save her friends. And herself.

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In extraordinary circumstances, ordinary people show themselves to be extraordinary

Just under a year ago I survived a mass shooting on the campus of the university where I teach. I say survived, but that feels wrong. I mean, it’s not like I got shot. I was in a building a couple over from where the attack began where I hid in a locked room with my students. Though it took a couple of hours for us to be freed by the police, the incident itself was over very quickly. We just didn’t know it. For us it was two hours of watching our (muted) phones, trying to figure out what was going on and just how much danger we were in, and listening for footsteps outside. What we learned later is that the speed with which the police were able to take charge of the situation was due to the actions of one of the victims, Riley Howel who overpowered the shooter, running at him, and taking eight bullets to various parts of his body. Eight bullets, and he kept going, driven by what? I can barely imagine. In those horrific moments his will power, courage, greatness of heart—call it what you like—allowed most of the other students in that room to get out alive.

Writing is my way through trauma

Not for the first time in my life I came out of a bad situation with the need to talk about it not as it actually happened, but through the distorting lens of fiction. I did it after my wife’s cancer. I did it after the death of my father. And I did it after this glimpse of the appalling fragility of normal life. It’s a fantasy novel, swords and sorcery meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer, except that it’s finally not at all. It’s about the terrible and arbitrary ordinariness of certain kinds of violence. And I’m not kidding when I said I needed to write it. At the time I was ok, but within a few days I was very clearly not. I would suddenly be overcome with grief, panic or terror. I wrote the first draft in two breathless weeks, and felt a little better.

I’m not interested in purely escapist fantasy

I‘ve known this for a while but it has been a little surprising nonetheless. I always loved the idea of books which took you away from the real world and put your everyday problems on hold, but as I’ve got older I’ve found that less and less satisfying. Yes, I love the unreal, the paranormal, the magical, the preposterous in art, but somewhere deep inside, like the flaw at the heart of a crystal, I like to feel that for all its un reality those TV shows, movies and books all tap into something real, something true. I’m quite capable of investing in the strictly imaginary, but I like that imaginary to have just enough of a tether to the life I lead that some subconscious part of me will make use of it as I wrestle with ordinary issues.

There’s no such thing as apolitical fiction

My other fiction has similar handholds on reality and it can piss people off. I saw a one star Amazon review for one of my Steeplejack books which actually raised the outraged question: why put politics in fantasy? To which I say, because that’s where we live, and when authors say they don’t put politics in their fiction it’s because they are either writing about a place which bears no resemblance to the world or because they think that politics is for other people. The Steeplejack example is a case in point. It was read (rightly) as political because it was about racial struggle in an unequal society, something some people would prefer not to think about, usually because they aren’t the ones being disenfranchised by such inequality. For me, ignoring such things is political; it’s wishful thinking of a particularly insidious kind. So yes, people will attack Impervious for being a political book. Fine. Show me a book that isn’t, and I’ll show you a book so utterly divorced from reality that I have no interest in it.

You can’t please everyone

No surprise there. What I realized in writing this book, however, is that the desire to please everyone is not just foolish, it’s cowardly. You have to pick your battles, for sure, but there should be a point where you say, this is the hill I’m prepared to die on. Hell, if Riley Howel can take eight bullets to save his classmates, I ought to be able to write a damn novel with an ounce of integrity, and if I can’t, I should hang it up.

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Author A.J. Hartley is the bestselling writer of mystery/thriller, fantasy, historical fiction, and young adult novels. He was born in northern England, but has lived in many places including Japan, and is currently the Robinson Professor of Shakespeare studies at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, where he specializes in the performance history, theory and criticism of Renaissance English drama, and works as a director and dramaturg.

AJ Hartley: Website

Impervious: Amazon | Everywhere Else