While I was at the RT Booklovers Convention, I had the amazing opportunity to talk with Vicki Pettersson, author of the Signs of the Zodiac series. Vicki is such a wonderful person and if you ever get the chance to talk with her, you should totally do it. Today, we’re celebrating the release of Vicki’s fifth Zodiac novel, Cheat the Grave (click here for Jennifer’s review).
Joanna Archer is working hard to put the painful events of her recent past behind, doing her best to embrace mortality after being superhuman.
But when she is stalked by a madman, she is forced to dive back into Vegas’ underworld to piece together shocking discoveries about the mother who abandoned her, the lover who betrayed her, and the daughter who will follow in her footsteps. But in order to win back all those things, she must face off against a death-dealer who carries his soul in a blade… one that’s screaming her name.
Literary Escapism: Why Joanna? What was it about her that made you want to tell her story and her world?
Vicki Pettersson: Because Joanna came first. It wasn’t the world, it wasn’t superheroes or supernaturals — that element actually came in the third chapter when someone popped up and said they were all superheroes. I was playing. I figured this wasn’t for anybody but me at the time. I had given up on being published, I just wanted to write something that I loved and I thought was fun. So that was what I was doing. When this character said he was a superhero, then I thought why not and let’s give that a shot and I just kind of followed him and that lead to Joanna being a superhero. So she actually didn’t start out as a superhero, she was just…I didn’t know what she was, but I knew she was tough and she had a reason for being tough, dark and mysterious … and a very good one at that.
You have to remember this was before urban fantasy was coined as we know it today. My agent was the one who actually told me what urban fantasy was. That was after I completed the manuscript and submitted it. So I had no idea what it was as I was writing it, but I was seeing a dearth of strong females – they were always the sidekick, the girlfriend who was killed in the third chapter, pretty much up front, the one that needed to be saved – and I was clearly drinking from the well of the collective consciousness because all of a sudden at the same time all these mouthy first person narratives with strong females and guns and knives and such, along with paranormal elements, popped up. I wasn’t influenced by Buffy because I didn’t watch it, I worked at night while it was on; and I think I was more influenced by La Femme Nikita, very much so. I also read and continue to read a lot in the mystery genre. I thought, what if you have a woman who was in a starring role, rather than acting as a victim? Because I wasn’t seeing anybody who was reflective of anyone I would want to hang out with.
Arguably, you don’t necessarily want to hang out with Joanna. She’s really hard, but the thing that is driving her to be that hard, and alone, was what enabled her to grow. Now that Cheat the Grave is coming out, she’s significantly different than she was in The Scent of Shadows. A lot of ongoing series’ tend to keep their characters relatively stagnant; you continue along with that character because you like being with them, and you want to go with them on this journey. There’s some of that with Joanna, but mostly what I did with her, and why people are really rooting for her now, is because she is being pushed so hard and so fast and she’s going through so many changes in each book.
If you’ve only read two books in, you may not have hit a lot of those, but if you read the cover blurb of the fifth book, you realize what has happened. Joanna has been built up only to be stripped back down again. So it was easier in the beginning because she didn’t know what she was missing. Now she’s had all of these supernatural experiences. How do you deal with that when something you’ve built your life around is gone, and now that the rug has been pulled out from underneath you? I’ve pushed her hard, but it’s those questions that are driving me. You throw someone a twist and see how they react to adversity, not to necessarily things blowing up around them. It has to be both an internal and external conflict for the story to be even remotely interesting to me.
Vicki Pettersson: There are a lot of unanswered questions that get resolved in Cheat the Grave. In the fourth book, I really stripped Joanna down and I had readers furious with me because they had to wait for a full year to find out what happened. They’re like – that’s how you ended up? Is there any more? They wanted to know immediately what happened next. They had to wait a year and now I’m really rewarding them for the wait. I’m giving them some strong answers and a little bit of happiness.
In the fifth book, I start tying some of those things up. Like the long-standing question – who is Zoe Archer? Where is she? What has she been doing all this time? Does she have a good explanation for abandoning her daughter at a time when she needed her the most? She’d better. As a parent, as a mother, I’m really interested in that one. I get to tie that up.
Literary Escapism: So we’re going to see more of Zoe in Cheat the Grave.
Vicki Pettersson: Yes.
Literary Escapism: Will Joanna get her happily ever after? Well, with the sixth book coming out next year, I’m assuming she’s not getting a great happy ending. How is Cheat the Grave going to affect Joanna?
Vicki Pettersson: I’m tying things off and I’m giving her some hope. I think that’s what readers despaired of the most, that there was no hope. Now they so closely identify with Joanna, they feel for her so greatly that they turn against me, but I’m like, ‘But wait, there’s more!’
Literary Escapism: What was your inspiration when you created your characters and the worlds they live in? How did you determine how they were going to interact with each other? Are any of your characters modeled off anyone you know?
Vicki Pettersson: No, some of them were story needs – what do I need in a story, what is going to provide the greatest conflict, what is the most interesting conflicts? Or parallels even – if they are similar, how can I play off that? But like I said before, a lot of that is organic. I don’t necessarily like Warren in the series. I don’t want to say he was a white hat, because he was twisted in his own way, but you knew who he was and he had a certain set of morals. One thing I’m playing through the series is do you ever really know who someone is? Everyone wears a mask, literally in my series because they are superheroes. So by the time they start striping off their masks that’s where you find out a little more about who they are. It’s like an onion. You’re peeling an onion back and you’re finding there are layers to these people. Warren has layers to him and they actually don’t work very well with Joanna and her goals anymore at all. So that’s turned into a huge conflict. I’ve had readers who go from, ‘Oh, Warren, he’s so cool,’ to ‘That fool!’ But can you ever really know anybody? That’s one of the themes. I never say it aloud, or have Joanna voice it, but it’s one of the things I’m playing with along with identity. I mean, Joanna becomes her sister. How do you deal with that when there’s a totally different person underneath?
Literary Escapism: Especially considering you want to be yourself, yet you’re expected to be this other person.
Vicki Pettersson: People do that in real life. People look at you and expect you to be one way because of the way you look or because you’re a woman or because you’re a man or they expect a certain thing from you. To fit that mold.
Literary Escapism: Speaking of Joanna’s development. Does Joanna talk to you? How do you visualize your characters? Do you converse with them, do they talk with you? Or is it more like a movie screen and you see the scene as the story unravels?
Vicki Pettersson: I like to think that I’m not a crazy person. I have more control over them than that. No, they don’t talk to me. I’m in control at all times. I’m developing and being conscious of plot and arc all at the same time. I kind of see it as me dropping them into a situation and going, ‘Now what are you going to do?’ But I’m always in control. If I put Joanna into a situation where you’re going, ‘Oh my God, this is horrible, this is the worst thing that’s happen to her, this is terrible’ then I’m always thinking in the back of my head. ‘How can I make that the best thing?’ That leads to interesting plot twists I never saw coming. Because conversely, I’ll go, ‘What is the best thing that could possibly happen to Joanna?’ and then when everyone is thinking that Joanna is getting her big happy moment I’ll be thinking ‘How can I make that the worst?’ So I’ll work back and forth across those lines, and really just mess with her. I’m in control and not her. That said, once I place her there, I know her so well, I mean she’s so fully developed, that I feel like she’s sitting right next to me. She’s not me anymore, not that she ever was, but she’s not me piecing her together. She’s fully formed; very much like a tulpa in a way. She’s taken on her own life. I can drop her down and pretty well know now exactly what she is going to do and say in any given situation. Basically she’s looking at me and saying, ‘Witch, you’re doing it again.’
Literary Escapism: Do you ever become emotionally attached to your characters? Does that ever effect their outcomes? What has gone through your mind as you’ve thrown obstacle after obstacle at her and how did you come about using those obstacles?
Vicki Pettersson: I was in tears at the end of the fourth book and I had other readers say the same thing. So I know if I’m feeling it that readers will feel it, because I know what is coming. I plotted this out, I understand what happens next and at the same time, I’m writing going, ‘I’m sorry!’ She is a way for me to explore the full spectrum of human emotions. Not just her, but all the story’s characters. And anything that is touching me, or has touched me in the recent past, it will go into the book. What can I say, City of Souls was a hard year for me. If I have to suffer, you do too.
Literary Escapism: I have to wonder, since creating your world in The Scent of Shadows, has there been anything you’ve regretting starting or wish you had started sooner? Was there something that worked out great in The Scent of Shadows or The Taste of Night, but you had wished you done differently?
Vicki Pettersson: The only thing, looking back at the newbie mistakes that I made, was really unloading the world building up front. But I was having so much fun with it. I call it my kitchen sink method – you throw everything in – because that’s when you have all these ideas and that’s when you have these bright shiny new things to play with. The worldbuilding for me, I just didn’t expect it to take over my brain the way it has. So people who have picked up the series in the fourth or fifth book have missed a lot of worldbuilding. And I can’t go back and take these three, or four, thick books and say, ‘This is everything you’ve missed and let me just recap it real quick’ because that’s boring and that’s an info dump. So I will have to take a huge plot point from book two or three and sum it up in two or three sentences, or paragraphs at most. New readers are supposed to feel caught up, but they don’t have as much invested in the story at that point, but hopefully they are curious and then they can go back. I think I’ve written myself into a corner a couple of times due to the world building, so while it’s turned out to be one of my biggest strengths, it can also be one of my greatest weaknesses if I don’t do it properly. So it’s my first series and that’s something I’ve learned. I’ll be careful not to do that again. I’m very watchful of it because each book is meant to stand alone, but again her character development is so drastic from the first book to the fifth that…
Literary Escapism: drastic in a good way or a bad way?
Vicki Pettersson: …I think it’s good.
Want to purchase Vicki’s novels?
Signs of the Zodiac:
- The Scent of Shadows at Amazon or the Book Depository
- The Taste of Night at Amazon or the Book Depository
- The Touch of Twilight at Amazon or the Book Depository
- City of Souls at Amazon or the Book Depository
- Cheat the Grave at Amazon or the Book Depository
- Holidays are Hell at Amazon or the Book Depository
- Unbound at Amazon or the Book Depository
- Dark and Stormy Knights at Amazon or the Book Depository
You’re probably thinking that ended kind of suddenly, huh. Well, that’s because Vicki and I talked for a good hour and a half and this isn’t even half of what we’ve talked about. So the good news is there is more. The bad news is, you’re going to have until August 23rd to see the rest. What can I say, I’m evil like that.
Seriously though, Vicki was such a blast to talk with and I know I can’t wait to do so again.
Contest Time! Vicki is graciously offering to give away two signed copies of Cheat the Grave, plus I have two copies of City of Souls that I was able to grab at RT, and we’re going to give them away to four lucky winners. All you have to do is answer this question: What is your tulpa? When you leave your answer, let me know if you have a preference.
Update: Since there seems to be some confusion, A Tulpa is a created spirit, imbued with it’s own sentience.
As always, there’s more ways of getting your name in the hat (remember, these aren’t mandatory to enter, just extra entries):
- +1 for each place you post about today’s contest on your blog, social network, or anywhere you can. Digg it, stumble it, twit it, share it with the world. Wherever you share it, make sure you add a link to it along with your answer.
- +1 to any review you comment on, however, comments must be meaningful. Just give me the title of the review and I’ll be able to figure it out from there.
- +1 If you are a follower of Literary Escapism on Facebook and/or Twitter
- +10 Purchase any of Vicki’s novels through LE’s Amazon store or through the Book Depository sometime during this contest and send a copy of the receipt VIA email for your purchase to: jackie AT literaryescapism DOT com. Each purchase is worth ten entries.
There is one thing I am adding to my contests now…the winner must post a review of the novel someplace. Whether it is on their own blog, Amazon, GoodReads, LibraryThing or wherever, it doesn’t matter. Just help get the word out.
I have not been contacting winners, so you will need to check back to see if you’ve won.