By J.N. Duncan
I’d like to welcome Carole Nelson Douglas, author of VIRTUAL VIRGIN, a post-apocalyptic, paranormal, crime story, full of drugs, zombies, werewolves, and even, yes, robots. She is the best-selling author of this Delilah Street series as well as the Midnight Louie mystery series. I had the wonderful opportunity to interview her about her writing and the supernatural. What more could one ask for? So, here we go!
In 25 words or less, tell us what your story is about.
Delilah Street, ex-reporter, works with and against 2013 Las Vegas crime/supernatural elements while hunting her double viewed on a CSI TV show autopsy table.
I’m also an ex-reporter, so you’ll notice that sentence includes who/what/when/where. And word count will vary depending on how you count initials and slash-linked words.
Now that I’ve made you condense your story down to as little as possible, what is it about your story that you think will appeal most to readers of the thriller genre?
Thriller readers should love the investigative team of ex-FBI profiler Ricardo Montoya and Delilah Street, including Delilah’s rescue dog turned K-9 partner, Quicksilver. Ric and Delilah aren’t joined at the hip and often investigate solo, but it all comes together at the end.
Delilah is a 24-year-old Kansas orphan searching for that apparent double, who could have been a twin. Or a doppelganger. Or maybe she was a corpse. Anything can happen in a Vegas gone supernatural. Some days Delilah is Dorothy Gale in Oz. Some days she’s Mrs. Emma Peel on a tear.
There’s a lot of crime realism in the series. My main characters have only borderline supernatural powers for this Urban Fantasy genre, extremes of what people claim to do in today’s world. Ric, for instance, was born into a water-dowsing family. Only he can dowse for the dead. Delilah discovers she has some unsuspected silver mojo. She sees dead people . . . in mirrors, which are silver-backed.
Thriller readers would like the large-cast action showdowns in such exotic locations as an under-casino vampire slaughterhouse, the desert outside deadly Juarez and Wichita, Kansas. If you don’t think downtown Wichita is an exotic location, you haven’t seen its 60-story Emerald City hotel-casino stormed by a drug lord’s minions, including a couple chupacabras and weather witches from the local TV channels who can conjure tornados. Not to mention lots of plain pug-ugly thugs. And hopped-up zombies.
Several reviews compliment Delilah’s quick thinking on her feet. That’s a thriller/action necessity not always seen in Urban Fantasy, where supernatural powers can be called on too often. In my series, supernatural powers are part of the equation, but are not an ever-easy out.
Another thing is that mystery/thriller readers expect much that’s going on is not what it seems. They trust the author to reveal all in time and hope to even figure it out before the final reveal. Some Urban Fantasy readers, I’ve found, are confused by ambiguity, expecting authors to lay everything out like world-building rules, even where the plot is going. One UF reader-reviewer complained, “I can’t tell who’s good and who’s bad.”
Exactly! Great. Thank you! I’ve done my job.
What makes for a great crime-fighting heroine in a supernatural world?
The same elements that make for a great PI protagonist—that means a strong, irreverent and sometimes edgy first-person female voice. She must have something bigger than herself to fight for. A personal quest always strengthens a main character, but Delilah Street is basically a crime reporter turned paranormal investigator and freelancer problem-solver. She’s got some martial arts savvy, but, as mentioned, her brain is her best weapon.
A great crime-fighter needs great sidekicks. Delilah’s other half of that slightly supernatural
K-9 team is a 150-pound wolfhound-wolf rescue dog who can lay on the fangs when needed, but also has a wound-healing tongue. Very handy, if sometimes awkward.
Delilah also has a silver familiar. She came into contact with a long white hair from the albino rock star, Snow, which turned into a snake of silver metal she can’t remove. It can change locations and form on her body, often becoming an innovative weapon . . . or jewelry when dormant. She considers it half-talisman, and half-leech.
Delilah’s human partner is normal for a UF male lead. Ric had phenomenal “luck” in the Agency finding dead bodies, of course. He was fostered in an upper-middle class D.C. family, but was born into the heart of darkness and human trafficking that was and is Mexico.
At first glance, your world building and plot elements have an almost “over-the-top” feel to them, with the ghost robot armies and zombies on speed. Being a fan of “camp” horror myself, is there a purposefulness to this in your story?
I summarize those elements in oversimplified terms to convey the excitement and action in Urban Fantasy, but current social issues underlie them, and so do what the reviewers call “moral complexities.” Also, I have a horror writing gene I seldom draw on, except in this series. I’m not afraid of “campy” touches as long as I’m also touching readers’ emotions.
I put social issues in all my novels, using satire to make that fun and drama and action to make what’s at stake thought-provoking.
Fun part: Aren’t we all tired of the old slow-stalking film zombies? Beloved classics, yes, but that funereal pace eventually undercuts the action. Why wouldn’t a demon drug lord from Mexico, where zombies are already being illegally exported as cheap labor, charge his zombie troops up on meth? I see other writers/films are going that route now too.
Serious side: The “ghost robot army” is shorthand for describing the climax of a harrowing solo trip Delilah makes to Juarez in VIRTUAL VIRGIN. Here the femicides—the hundreds of women and girls murdered and buried in the surrounding dessert, turn on the human traffickers who tortured, raped and killed them. It’s a tremendously female-empowering action, plot and character high point.
That’s what UF allows writers to do, address current events and moral dilemmas in a non-preachy, adventuresome way, offering both humor and horror. BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER TV series started that trend, especially for the female UF protagonist.
Being a fellow UF writer in a thriller writer’s group, I get the impression that UF does not get much notice and/or credit within the genre. What are your thoughts about UF’s role in crime fiction?
It may not always be obvious, but noir and mystery-crime elements really drive the current UF surge.
Because I use the Las Vegas setting where moguls dominate, the storylines are always about control and who’s using whom. Who’s going to control Vegas, the money, the drugs, the CinSims, the mysterious Immortality Mob, and everyone’s body . . . and soul?
Then there are the CinSims, the cinema simulacrums.
This where I really let loose the Noir, film noir, with a touch of horror. Readers can join Delilah and Ric in meeting the black-and-white film versions of Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine from CASABLANCA or Sam Spade, the Invisible Man and Dr. Frankenstein, and, in VIRTUAL VIRGIN, a slew of 1940s film-star babes working the Lust Level of the Inferno Hotel.
For a lighter moments, there are Nick and Nora Charles, complete with pooch, Asta.
A Vegas nightclub is now offering holographic celebrities, but my CinSims were there first. They are zombie bodies melded with the literal black-and-white film characters, leased by the Immortality Mob to various Vegas venues and chipped to stay in place at the Inferno hotel bar, say, or in the home of CSI producer and CinSim aficionado, Hector Nightwine. (Think a blend of Orson Welles, Nero Wolfe, and Alfred Hitchcock.)
Some CinSims are Delilah’s confidential informants, since the “celebrity zombies” see a lot. Some are sent to kill her. And some may not be as controlled as the mysterious Immortality Mob that creates them thinks.
You mention the “Metropolis” styled robot from your story. Is this a literal recreation? What was the inspiration behind involving such an iconic figure?
The SinCims present such complex moral dilemmas. Are they the film character or the actor who played the character? What about the anonymous zombie body their essence has been fused with? Can they grow and change outside their “roles?” Do they have free will?
The Metropolis robot was introduced to the series in the book named after her, SILVER ZOMBIE. She has even more layers, because in the film she was both saintly Maria, advocate of children and regimented worker-slaves, and the evil robot who took her human form to perform as a perverse love goddess. Talk about bipolar.
Then there’s the actress who was inside the iconic and voluptuous robot suit. It’s the whole package: good and evil, flesh and machine. She’s a fabulous character and . . . a virtual virgin.
Building up a believable, make-believe world full of supernatural elements is a challenging task. What do you do and/or feel is needed to make this work for readers?
I’d written Tolkienesque high fantasy early in my career and introduced a totally new world in each of a five-book series. So imaginative but believable world-building is my favorite thing, whether it’s realistic contemporary or accurate but imaginative historical or free-range fantasy.
Consistency is job one. That means if you make a “rule,” you can’t break it. And the writing process will throw in a “rule” almost subconsciously. When you run into an unforeseen roadblock because of that rule, and you will, you still can’t break it . . . but you can come up with a legitimate way around it that makes for creative plot and character reinvention.
So you have both unlimited scope, and tight corners to play in. That makes the story unpredictable for the writer and readers.
You’ve written across a variety of genres. What do you like/find challenging in UF relative to the other genres you’ve written in? UF is typically a blend of story types. Have you found that writing across genres gives you any particular advantages in writing UF stories?
Urban Fantasy draws on every genre I’ve ever written, intrigue, action, mystery, history, fantasy, science fiction, romance. My second novel was a historical anti-bodice-ripper female swashbuckler, sea battles, wars, duels and all.
After having written contemporary and historical mystery series exclusively for 16 years, I’m loving getting back into big-time action, fantasy and even touches of science fiction. I’ve never censored my writing and this is a much broader canvas.
Even when writing mystery-suspense, my Irene Adler series, like the Sherlock Holmes stories, flirted with the paranormal now and then, although that always came down on the side of the rational explanation.
Midnight Louie, feline PI, is a fantasy construct in a realistic contemporary mystery series with an international terrorism subplot. Only the reader knows about Louie’s first-person feline chapters and sleuthing he does and his voice is Damon Runyon mixed with generic gumshoe.
Six-pack ab heroes full of macho kick-assery are something of a norm to the UF genre. Crime-fiction tends a bit more to the subtler, troubled hero type. Where does your hero type fall in this (I’m assuming the ex-FBI partner guy here)? What’s your take on the UFhero?
I’m so glad you brought that up. The UF upswing started with “kick-ass heroines,” but the popularity of TWILIGHT and other books that are more paranormal romance—where vampires are Byronic heroes and werewolves alpha sex partners—dominate the media.
That conceals that UF is a natural crossover to noir/thriller, where male characters are more morally complex and “hunks” are more likely to be mob muscle.
The troubled hero or heroine with a conscience is interesting to know and write. For a long time the thriller mode was exemplified by James Bond. If Cyndi Lauper sang about him it’d be “Boys Just Want to Have Fun.”
I have trouble with super kick-ass women, because most women are strong in many ways and physically is often an exception. I always write against genre conventions anyway. I write women main characters who’re involved with men who become co-protagonists.
If I have a vampire guy, and I do, he’s going to have an inconvenient conscience. Or he’ll be Howard Hughes, who had himself turned in secret to live on and protect his assets, only he did it when he was old and unkempt and had fingernails like Nosferatu. Not “hunk” or hero material, but a fascinating secondary character.
Ric’s past is includes extreme but very human evil, and it makes his passion for justice understandable. Delilah’s unadopted status made her wary and resilient. I require characters with pasts to come to terms with, but with a future as well as a present. Peeling back those pasts is one of the great pleasures of reading and writing, and really necessary in a mystery, suspense, thriller or UF series. In any novel, really.
Multi-genre novelist Carole Nelson Douglas writes two bestselling series set in a Las Vegas worlds apart: the contemporary Midnight Louie feline PI mysteries (“Remington Steele with two couples, a cat, and an international terrorism backstory”) and the Delilah Street, Paranormal Investigator, noir urban fantasies set in 2013.
From Vogue to Romantic Times to the New York Times, Carole has won more than thirty writing awards, including RT Book Reviews Lifetime Achievement Awards for Mystery and Versatility. Her NYT Notable Book of the Year, Good Night, Mr. Holmes, launched the first series to feature a Sherlockian woman protagonist, Irene Adler.
To learn more about Carole, please visit her website.