I recently bought a copy of Touched, which is the first book in her Marnie Baranuik Files series. (How cool is that cover, by the way?) Immediately, I was sucked into Marnie's world, and having a blast with all the characters. So I jumped at the chance to interview AJ Aalto to talk about the series. And she loves goofballs!
Tell me about Touched. What inspired you to tell Marnie’s story?
I had been working on an epic fantasy novel that was breaking my brain and needed a break. My good friend who was acting as a beta reader suggested I try something lighter, something just for fun. I started Touched as a joke, actually, making up a silly main character who was an amalgamation of several of my goofiest friends and myself, asking myself how they (and I) would face serious monster problems. That's how Marnie was born. I fell in love soon after. I abandoned the epic fantasy and focused on having fun with Marnie.
I am only part way through the book, and I love it so far. She is such a bad ass, take no shit character, and her side kick revenant is just wonderfully drawn, and they have such a tight relationship! Correct me if I am wrong, but in the Touched world, psychics like Marnie are paired off with vampires in a very interesting way. Can you explain that a bit more?
Usually the revenant chooses a mundane mortal companion to guard him during his daylight sleeping hours, when he is most vulnerable. He will share his particular psychic Talents with this DaySitter. They will live together, and he will feed from her, and they will share a unique metaphysical Bond. In Marnie's case, Harry was an inheritance from her grandmother, Vi. Harry and Marnie both had the option to opt out of this, and it was merely a suggestion in Vi's will, but they both accepted and went forward together. Before Bonding with Harry, Marnie was not psychic at all. She gained her Talents from the Bond with Harry and from continued cohabitation.
What sparked the idea to pair revenants with human caretakers?
I always wondered why Dracula and other vampires didn't have an army of bodyguards. Sure, they're immortal, but they have so many vulnerabilities. Even being monsters, they have the ability to sway human minds, and they have an obscene amount of money, it only made sense they'd have protectors. That thought lead to: what if it was just one person, but they had some extra superpowers? Maybe borrowed psychic powers? And that lead to: what if this main character was a bodyguard of sorts, but she kinda sucked at it in funny ways? I mean, who says the vampire/revenant would always pick a successful bodyguard? Maybe they'd choose badly based on some personal quirk. Harry chose Marnie because she made him laugh. That's not the best reason to basically hire someone who will be caring for your life, but Harry was bored by four hundred years of people who were good at things, was surprised by her unusual ways. He also saw an opportunity to take a hot mess and reshape her into someone more manageable. Much to my delight, Harry hasn't had much success with that though bless his heart, he keeps trying.
When we first meet Marnie, we learn that her first job with the FBI turned out to be a total fail. I love that we were dropped into the world with this situation already done and over. But, I have to ask, have you considered doing prequel?
I have considered it, and may. I'm still toying with it. I'd like to see early Batten. He's really mellowing in the later books (I'm currently writing the fourth in the series) as he gets more familiar with Harry and Marnie and the realities of immortals who live within the law, but I'd prefer to see him at Full Jerk strength, the way we meet him in Touched. I've always had an inexplicable urge to boff jerks.
Touched is the first in a series, can you tell us about the others?
In Death Rejoices, Marnie starts working full-time with the FBI's Preternatural Crimes Unit and deals with the early days of a possible zombie plague, and an assistant who may or may not be trying to steal her job. You can perhaps imagine how our accident-prone, goofball heroine might deal with that. In Dirt Nap, Marnie must deal with a stone boggle in a pit mine. In Cold Company, a much darker short story, Marnie pops home to Canada to help trace a missing person. In Last Impressions, Marnie returns home again, this time to explore whether or not the Welland Canal is haunted by a killer ghost, and what's happening at an underwater graveyard. The fun part about Last Impressions is that the underwater graveyard I wrote about actually exists about five minutes from my house. I was able to tromp around that area and the local "haunted" Blue Ghost Tunnel for research. Readers can Google the area and learn about the true stories that inspired this book.
What are you working on now? And when can we expect to see it?
I've retired from my day job and am writing full time now, currently working on the fourth full-length novel in the series, called Wrath & Bones. I have no estimate for the deadline yet. I figure I'll be looking at a spring release.
Do you have any writing rituals?
Every night, I get my desk ready for the morning's work, set out my tea supplies and do a quick read to set up what I might need to start with. I set my alarm for 4 AM, and get up early every morning (unless I'm sick). I write until the kids are up for school, and return to writing by 9. I write again until late afternoon. Evenings are for exploring what I've done and deciding what I might need my editor's advice about; he's good to brainstorm with. Some Sunday mornings, I print out a few chapters and take my red or pink pen and go to a local breakfast place to eat eggs and drink tea and do edits on paper. I almost always do my own edits on paper. I do ten or fifteen editing passes before I give it to my editor for him to do his first pass. I may have to do two or three rewrites after he's done his work, so I face more 4 AM work mornings when I get his notes. After release day, it starts all over again with the next book.
Where is your favorite place to write?
My office used to be our dining room. It's been invaded by bookshelves, cork boards, and my desk. I'm most productive there.
What inspires you to write?
The short answer would be: human goofiness. I love all the different, hilarious ways that normal, non-heroic people mishandle difficulties. I'm not interested in writing about people who are awesome at everything they do, or flawlessly beautiful, or always have the right answer. I find that boring and I couldn't face writing that sort of character unless they were truly secondary...or the bad guy. I love regular people who screw things up and then make good. I love the final victory of a lovable doofus.
What five books are on your bookshelf right now?
I have over four thousand paperbacks on my bookshelves. They groan. They whimper. I have a couple dozen beside my bed right now, too. The one I'm currently making my way through again is Stephen King's The Stand. I hadn't read it in about five years and was in the mood to revisit the characters. I'm also reading the Winter King by Bernard Cornwell. It's excellent.
What do you recommend people see/read/hear?
If you haven't seen Shaun of the Dead, you must. It's awesome. (Warning: graphic near the end.) I loved reading the Janet Evanovich books; she just cracks me up. Exactly the kind of goofy characters I was talking about. I enjoyed the Belgariad series by David Eddings and am still working through the Harry Dresden books by Jim Butcher. I would highly recommend anything by Martin Amis.