By Clea Simon
Agent Jackie Rutledge cannot rest. Her Bureau partner is dead… but not buried. And as author Jim Duncan catches up with her in The Vengeful Dead, the second of his Deadworld series, Jackie is also trying to come to terms with her newfound powers… and some undead secrets of her own. We caught up with Jim Duncan, a seemingly human father of four, and asked him about this latest installment in his paranormal thriller, his writing habits, and what it is like to write from woman’s point of view. (For more, please check out Jim’s website.)
This is the second in your Deadworld series. Can you bring us up to date on this dark urban fantasy world? What are the parameters – and what should we know before reading this second book?
Deadworld introduces a modern day Chicago, where vampires exist, albeit in a fairly non-typical way, and the world beyond ours, where the spirits of the dead roam and occasionally cross over to walk among the living. In the first book, an emotionally struggling FBI agent is confronted by the fact that someone is draining the blood out of people, which then turns into a big, huge mess, as it becomes clear that they are caught up in a vendetta between two vampires. It’s a bit bloody and takes a pretty dark turn emotionally for the main characters. It’s part crime fiction, part supernatural thriller, which is what gives it that urban fantasy tag. As far as parameters go, I suppose it’s important to know that vampires and ghosts interact in a significant way, in that it’s spiritual energy that vampires draw upon to keep themselves alive and gives them the stronger than human powers they have. In book two, our heroine, Jackie Rutledge is still reeling from the events in book one, but is quickly drawn into another supernatural case, that given her already tenuous state of being, could very well be her undoing.
How have your characters changed or grown since the first book? Is there backstory we should know about them?
One of the things some readers wished for in book one was more backstory on the hero, Nick, who is the ‘good’ vampire that Jackie helped in defeating the villain from Deadworld. He was an old west sheriff who, in a tragic turn of events, killed the villain’s wife and son in a shootout, only to have the villain return the favor, who in turn, gave Nick the opportunity to become a vampire in order to get a second chance at revenge. This game of cat and mouse played out over the next century until we reached the present day involvement of the heroine. As far as Jackie is concerned, she’s a career opportunity for any therapist. Being a psychology major in school, I have a particular interest in delving into emotional issues, and Jackie has plenty of them, which come to a crisis point in book one, leaving her devastated, alone, and wondering how she can go on. She has a traumatic past that involves the suicide of her mother, which has haunted and formed her character up to present day, and let’s just say it makes her a difficult, thorny character. The rest of this series (hopefully) will detail her coming to grips with things and trying to become a healthy person again.
Suspense and horror seem to come together in The Vengeful Dead – can you tell me how the different elements of these genres worked together for you?
Honestly, horror was not something I was trying to create in this story, but I can understand the connection. It came about due to the nature of the villain in this story, a rage-filled spirit hell-bent on meting out some justice. While bloody and frightening in its wrath, I also hope the reader will see the sympathetic side, as I really like when good and evil kind of play off and against one another. It’s important to have some level of sympathy for the villain in any book, except perhaps in many horror stories, where that isn’t so much an issue as it is to express sheer terror and the struggle to survive evil. Regardless, after creating the villain for this story, I knew there would be a certain level of bloody violence, which I wanted to express without being gratuitous. It needed to achieve a certain level of “oh, my god” in order to better build that suspense factor when things take an interesting twist in the second half of the book. The disturbing, scary element I wanted to work with was when that external horror element takes on an internal dynamic. Again, back to a psychological factor, which I have a lot of fun playing around with in my stories.
Your protagonist, Jackie Rutledge, deals with the undead – but she has some inner demons to face, too. What can you tell us about these? How do these help or hinder her in her work?
Jackie’s demons stem from an inability to deal with the death of her mother and the stepfather who drove her to kill herself. That moment in her life has shaped everything she is to some degree. When the first book starts, she is not the most lovable character you’ve ever read. I’ve had some reader complaints in that regard, that she was just too hard to relate to and like. This was a hard balance to work with, and for some obviously, it did not work as well as I would have liked. I wanted a character who was starting from a dark place in her life, who was really kind of on the edge overlooking the abyss, and the only thing holding her together were external forces, namely her partner, Laurel. In Deadworld, this external force or emotional crutch, gets removed, and Jackie comes crashing down, suddenly forced to face everything she’s been afraid to over the years, and she is at a loss initially. While her issues are certainly a hindrance on many levels, they have also provided some of the drive and motivation for what has made her so dedicated and good at catching bad guys. From book two forward, she now has to come to grips with who and what she’s become and figure out how to heal and remake herself, and even if she wants to be an agent anymore. The Deadworld series, I hope at least, is as much an emotional journey into the unknown, as it is a supernatural one.
What are the challenges that you faced writing a female protagonist?
Female characters a both fun and a challenge to write. The most clearly difficult aspect is trying to think from a female POV. I can’t tell you how many times my thought process while writing has turned on the question, “If I was a woman here, how would I think and react?” It’s been even more difficult because Jackie is not a very feminine woman. Part of her character and the world she lives/works in is a rejection of that. On the other hand, I have a character like Laurel or Shelby, who are far more feminine in both manner and action. Psychology and women’s studies opened my eyes a lot in regard to many of the issues at least, and having had several best friends who are women, who were free to talk about boyfriends and such, hopefully has given me enough insight into at least being able to express a female pov without sounding like a guy in women’s clothing. I actually think I enjoy writing female characters more because of the challenges in trying to step into those very different shoes and trying to understand how to do that walk without falling on me face 🙂
How important is the romance angle?
Over the course of the series, it’s actually very significant. In Deadworld, it only just gets kind of started. Things in book two become so chaotic that pushing the romance element of the storyline was difficult at best. I will say, that in writing an action-driven suspense, working into and through a romance is not an easy task and make it believable. To me, in many stories, things get going way too fast, more so than typically happens in the real world. You only have so many pages however, and unless the story is centered on the romance, it’s just hard to work in enough content to make it work. In my opinion, anyway. While a significant thread in the series, it’s kind of the undercurrent to all of the supernatural stuff going on that drives the action in the story. The romantic thread is a major part of what pulls the thread of Jackie’s recovery along. So, while it’s actually very important and helps define the character development arc, it plays out over the course of the whole series, while each book involves a more concentrated course of events and tends to cover up its significance. It’s a hard balance to achieve, at least for me.
What are the challenges you faced in writing a human/vampire romance?
Most of the issues come from Jackie’s end of things, as you might guess. She’s not very keen on the whole blood-drinking thing, and the fact that Nick drank a fair amount of hers in Deadworld to help save them, has her continually wondering in the back of her mind about Nick’s motivations and desires. Also, there’s the simple fact that Nick has led a much fuller, longer life, has done so many more things, been to so many more places, and is just plain old, lol. He could be her grandfather several times over. So, age and blood are impediments to the romance to a certain degree, but the conflicts are far more human really. He’s very smart, with several degrees and runs a multi-million dollar company (which he started to develop a blood substitute). For Jackie he just seems to come from a very different world on a social level, and her own self-image issues interfere far more than anything else. Regardless of what he is, she has a hard time getting over the notion of, “why would he like someone like me?” which is a far more human to human issue. But, Nick can walk in the sun and doesn’t sleep underground, and other than some rather eerily glowing eyes and skin that is cooler to the touch than normal, he looks and feels much like any other guy would. So, I guess the vampire elements take a backstage to the emotional ones when it comes to the romance in the story.
In terms of fighting crime, what are the strengths and weaknesses of humans and the undead, as you see them?
Vampires draw upon the energy of the spirit world. They can do things no humans can come close to. Their senses are more acutely aware. They are stronger, and depending upon how much power they draw upon, can be almost superhero-like in their abilities. The power of the spiritworld also holds much sway over the living, giving them that classic hypnotic, charming effect. Their strength though is also their weakness, as they must constantly draw upon the spiritual energy of others in order to survive. You drain away the reserves and their living self will be drawn over to the other side. Think if it like a spaceship, where a door has cracked open to the vacuum of space beyond, sucking away at all of the oxygen, but as long as you can keep finding a source of oxygen to keep feeding out through the door, you’re safe, which also allows one to reach beyond that door and access those things one might otherwise not have access to.
What are your writing habits? When do you write, how much per day?
I would say it takes me about three months to write a novel. This is pure writing though, as I take a month or more beforehand to plot everything out. I need to have the whole thing kind of sketched out in my head, at least in rough form, before I put any words on the page. It’s a detailed map, not completely filled in mind you, but enough that I know where I’m going and where I’ll be stopping along the way. Though like any vacation, intriguing points of interest always seem to crop up along the way. When I actually write, my goal is 1,000 words per day, whether it takes two hours or 10 to get there. This varies a bit with work and since I’m currently looking for a new job at the moment, this method is subject to change. In general though, I like steady and consistent writing over the big bursts, and I especially hate it when one is forced to write big chunks under the pressure of deadlines. That’s when it’s the worst, especially if some element of the story has taken a turn for the worse and you just are sure how things are going to straighten themselves out.
What are you working on next?
Book three, The Lingering Dead, is actually turned in and I’m waiting on the copy edits now. It will be out next April. Beyond that, I hope to write a second set of three books in this series in order to play out the original story arc I had in mind. That of course, depends upon sales and my publisher, but I’m hopeful that I will be able to see this story to its conclusion. If not, I have another urban fantasy story I’m itching to write that involves a merman cop, witches, and a future-set, flooded New York City.
Thank you for having me here and letting me ramble about my story and my writing. It’s always fun to do so.
J.N. Duncan is a father of four living in Ohio with as many animals as kids. An aspiring teacher, lover of astronomy, mmorpg gaming, and other geeky things, he currently writes urban fantasy for Kensington books.
To learn more about Jim, please visit his website.