Jana Oliver is the multi award-winning author of the Time Rovers Series, set in 1888 London. Her young adult Demon Trappers Series is located in a bankrupt 2018 Atlanta plagued by Hellspawn and scheming necromancers. It appears no major city is safe from her fertile imagination.
Tell us a little about finding a mystery in every story.
I’m a firm believer that at the core of every good story is a mystery. It may not be the classic “Who killed Mrs. X in the library?” but there should be a question that has to be answered. Shakespeare? Will Romeo and Juliet find happiness? Elizabeth George? Will Inspector Thomas Lynley overcome his personal issues and solve the case? J.K. Rowling? Will Harry outwit the evil Lord Voldemort?
Mysteries build layers of conflict into the plot and allow unexpected things to happen. You sprinkle that mystery with a little magic and that’s when a book really starts to take off.
Since I'm only given a certain amount of "canvas" in each book, I like to write stories that are a bit more complex than one might expect. I also love a balance of angst and action. Many teen authors are more heavily into the angst/emotional aspects of their story and I'm good with that. Personally, I like the occasional explosion or battle scene to spice things up. The trick is finding the perfect balance.
I also try to write unusual stories, ones that take established tropes and set them on their ears. In the Time Rovers, most of my readers assumed that my heroine would make the standard "I'm staying in Victorian England with the man I love" decision. It didn't work out like that. Life is rarely so tidy.
I'm also straying off the beaten path with the Trappers series because I examine the religious and political aspects of the rivalry between Heaven and Hell (I cap them because I see them a lot like rival corporations). One of the young adult characters is a deeply religious Catholic lad and after a horrendous experience, he undergoes a vast crisis of faith during which he learns that religion can be dynamic, not static.
I read a lot of books set in Victorian England, but your London in Time Rovers was so rich and unusual. What's the hardest thing about world building?
For me it’s the shutting off the “that can’t possibly happen” part of my brain. I’m a pretty logical soul so it behooves me to set that aside. If I’m inventing a new world, I have free reign and I don’t let history constrain me too much. If I’m working in an existing or past time period (in the case of the Victorian Era for Time Rovers) I feel compelled to be exactly true to that world. It took me a long time to embrace alternate history, to set my mind free to do what I wanted within a historical setting and not feel guilty about that. Once I did, it was liberating. Especially since I’d once sworn I would never write alternate history.
What's the most fun?
Just letting my mind play with the absurdities. What if demons really did invade libraries and destroy books? What if one of the ways to catch the Biblio-Fiends was to put them to sleep by reading aloud from Moby Dick? Once I let me mind off its leash, it’s pure joy dreaming up new things. That’s the great part about being an author. There are no boundaries.
For your next effort you’re moving to a young urban fantasy series, which will crossover to adults?
I am so looking forward to this new project. The Demon Trappers Series is set in 2018 Atlanta where the economy only became worse to the point where the city is bankrupt) and demons are having their merry way with the citizens. The heroine is seventeen-year-old Riley Blackthorne, only daughter of Master Trapper Paul Blackthorne and she's learning how to trap Hellspawn with him. Problem is, the Atlanta Trappers Guild is all male and not everyone is thrilled to see a girl in their midst. Add in the usual teen angst and guy issues and Riley's life is complicated, at the very least. The demons she faces range from the small Grade One Biblio-Fiends (who swear and destroy books) to the Grade Five Geo-Fiends who generate earthquakes and spot tornados.
I also explore "The Grand Game" between Heaven and Hell, which are much like the maneuvers between the CIA and the KGB during the Cold War. (I admit to being hugely inspired by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens). It was my desire to more fully explore good and evil beyond the usual "good is always good/evil is always evil" level. And just to make things more interesting, the books have different titles depending on whether they’re published in the U.S. or the U.K.
Why Atlanta in the near future? Why a dystopian Atlanta?
I chose Atlanta for a number of reasons. Time Rovers required numerous trips to London for research (at my own expense) so my husband suggested I consider Atlanta because he’s a pragmatic sort.
Initially I wasn’t so sure about that, but once I visited Oakland Cemetery and fell in love with their incredible Victorian mausoleums, the story started to play in my head. Living nearby allows me some inside knowledge that others might not have (like the holes over the old steam vents in Five Points that became home to my Grade Three demons). For the locals, they’re really happy to see Hot*Lanta in a series, even one that does involve Hellspawn.
Part of the reason I went into the future (2018) is to give myself some breathing room. A dystopian setting forces the characters to deal with a dysfunctional environment where they can’t count on anyone but themselves. That uncertainly causes folks to be unpredictable in the face of adversity. Unpredictability always leads to a more intriguing plot.
That being said, “my” Atlanta isn’t a Mad Max sort of place, just a city where things aren’t going right. Metal is extremely valuable so street lights are stolen about as fast as they’re replaced. Gasoline is at $10/gallon causing horses and buggies to make a comeback. The educational system is kaput so Riley, my seventeen-year-old heroine, and her friends attend classes in abandoned buildings (like an old Kroger or Starbucks). Everything you take for granted in modern Atlanta is on the skids, which makes for a rich and challenging environment for my characters.
Have you ever run across the quote from Stephen King about him and Louis L'Amour looking at the same lake? King said L'Amour would see a dispute over water rights and he'd see something slithering out of the water. What would you see if you looked at a lake? Were do your stories start? What's the first thing that comes to you?
That’s a great quote. It is so Stephen King. The slithery something would run a close second for me, but the first thing I think of when I see a pristine lake is a chainmail-clad arm rising out of the crystalline waters holding a shimmering sword. Like the Lady of the Lake in Arthurian legends. That says a lot about how I approach a story – I’m always looking for the magical, the strange, the mystery at the heart of the tale.
My books usually come to me in very odd ways. Sometimes they’re triggered by a newspaper article or something someone says. Other times music sends me down a particular rabbit hole. I usually see the first scene and the very last while the middle is a lot of chirping crickets. My job is to fill in that middle with cool scenes, which sounds a lot easier than it is. If I do my job right, the result is a satisfying adventure for my readers.
For more information about Jana and her books, visit her web site.
The Time Rover series is published by Dragon Moon Press.
In the US: St. Martin’s press will publish The Demon Trapper’s Daughter, February 1, 2011
In the UK: Macmillan Children’s Books will publish their edition as The Demon Trappers: Forsaken on January 7, 2011