My interview with RJ Sullivan about Virtual Blue
I am thrilled to present this interview with my friend, author RJ Sullivan! RJ and I met a couple of years ago at a writer’s retreat, where we quickly discovered bizarre parallels between our writing. So much so that it led to a shared universe agreement between us where we borrow each other’s characters and events as it fits our stories.
His most recent publication was the dark and sexy Haunting Obsession, but before that was his ghostly thriller, Haunting Blue. Now, he’s coming out with a follow-up to Haunting Blue through Seventh Star Press called Virtual Blue. I’ve had the privilege of being one of his early readers as he’s written the book. It is a fantastic story, and I can’t wait to see it in print in its final form.
Virtual Blue picks up where Haunting Blue left off, finding Blue, aka Fiona Schafer, in college, the events of the previous adventure weighing heavily upon her, when a new and even more bizarre challenge confronts her and her boyfriend Chip. Though the title gives some hint at spoilers, I’ll leave that for RJ to tell.
RJ, it seems to me you’ve crossed genre lines here with Virtual Blue. Where Haunting Blue was pure ghost story, Virtual Blue is something quite different. Could you please explain how you view this blend of science fiction and dark paranormal fantasy?
Both my publishers call me a paranormal thriller author. Narrowing that down, I’ve written two ghost stories. I really had little more to say about ghosts. I looked at other paranormal tropes and demons seemed that step-up intensity that best fit Blue’s world. At the same time, in Haunting Blue I explored a punk girl’s street savvy becoming the deciding factor in a battle with a vengeful ghost. Her boyfriend, Chip, is the weak one, and he plays the dubious part of the person in need of rescue.
Having brought in demons with Rebecca Burton already in a short story (Inner Strength) and knowing I wanted to introduce Burton to Blue, I realized I could do taking Blue out of her element–the streets– and into Chip’s, in a cyber battle that gives him advantages and throws her off her game. So I put all that into a blender and came up with the demon worshippers who conjure techno-magic.
Magic and technology are often shown as contrasts, opposites, in speculative fiction. You bring the two together in a way that feels believable. What works did you look to for inspiration? Can you come up with an “A meets B” mashup that sums up your story?
I’m….really not sure, except it’s part Tron, part….something. Nothing I’ve ever quite read on my own. Blue is a strong, independent woman, and the demon is a masterful liar, so I played around with a coven of damaged women in which feminist intents go horribly wrong. These are people who could have done great things for a worthy cause, except for how they’ve been tricked and twisted, possibly lost beyond saving. Rebecca, at least, intends to try to help them. Maybe Tron and Patty Hearst? Kinda, sorta, lol.
Virtual Blue has Blue in the title, and she certainly has but it seems to me to be more Chip’s story this time around. Could you tell me why that is, and what came first, the geekier plot idea, or the decision to feature Chip?
Weeellll….. I agree Chip is more prominent in this story, but I’m not sure I’d call this his story. Chip is the stable, steady character of Haunting Blue, and he remains the steady, stable character in Virtual Blue. He knows where he stands with Blue. That never changes. Yes, he has moments of doubt when things get intense, but who he is and what he stands for never shifts. Blue, however, starts out struggling with the trauma from years ago and just when it looks like she’s starting to get a grip on things, these events threaten to push her even further over the edge.
Haunting Blue and Virtual Blue both feature young adults, first in high school, now in college. Would you consider these to be YA titles? Do you write toward that label, or for you do labels come after the story is written?
That’s a two-part question. No, I don’t consider them YA titles. Having said that, I’ll admit I have only a tenuous grip on what YA even means. I just know, I wanted to explore serious, dark themes in both of these novels. The age of the character is secondary. Plus, I reject this notion that a high school aged protagonist must equate to lighter reading. I don’t remember anyone who graduated high school who said “Piece of cake. So when’s this shit get serious?” :) I also know my readership for the most part consists of older readers. I’m not comparing, but Stephen King wrote novels such as Christine and Carrie, and no one would consider those YA.
As for the label…no, I write the story I want to tell and I let the publisher worry about how to market it. I never worried about it before I was published (and to be fair, received a lot of rejection for not staying more in the lines, lol) so I’m not going to start now.
Virtual Blue, like many fantasy thrillers, is a story of good vs evil. You have sinister villains in this book (avoiding spoilers here), but you get in their heads. How do you avoid the evil-for-evil’s-sake cliché?
I did a lot of re-writing early on. I let my villains talk to each other, off the cuff, “pantsing” as we writers like to call it when we’re making it up as we go. I realized these were talented, passionate people tricked by a greater evil. They’d bought into a lie, and if not for that, they all may have been different people. They’re the villains but also there’s a tragic undercurrent to their story. Once I wrote five or six really bad scenes, I kept the good fragments and started their scenes over.
This is another story that features your beautiful badass paranormal troubleshooter, Rebecca Burton. Her role is crucial, and yet, she’s a secondary character beyond Chip and Blue. Rebecca also played a key but secondary role in Haunting Obsession and your short story, Backstage Pass. Do you have plans to feature her as a main character in any upcoming works? I, for one, would love this mysterious character come to the forefront.
Yes, you and a big chunk of my readership. Burton will get her standalone story. It will cap her series. That said, while “cutting edge” is thrown around by a lot of authors, I’ll admit to using Burton in a very old fashioned way. Burton is my Perry Mason, or perhaps more appropriately, Lieutenant Columbo. We spend a great deal of time with the guest stars, their problems and traumas, then Burton comes along in the third act to help with the resolution. At the same time, we learn a little more about this “beautiful badass paranormal troubleshooter” with each story. I have several standalone stories about a variety of interesting people I want to tell, and Burton is my witness to their stories.
You “borrowed” the Transit King and Skye from my Blue Spirit, one for Haunting Obsession, the other for Rebecca’s sidekick in Virtual Blue. Do you find it to be a challenge to write another author’s characters, or is it fun for you?
When the other author has 1) written such dynamic characters and 2) is agreeable to the world sharing, then it’s a great deal of fun. As you know, I took your Transit King and dropped him in to the rough draft of Haunting Obsession. It was easier than trying to think of my own character that would fit the scene. Frankly, I was being lazy. I was in the zone, and didn’t want to stop long enough to come up with my own idea. He was supposed to be temporary, changed in draft two. But as I showed it to the beta readers, and to you, it turned out it worked extremely well. The fact that I know you personally, and that our “worlds” share so much in common in terms of theme and character type, and even location, made discussing a shared universe the next logical step.
The final obstacle was the publisher, and the one thing we couldn’t plan but maybe hope for indeed happened. Both of our series are coming out through Seventh Star Press, and they’re quite agreeable to the experimenting. So using Skye in Virtual Blue was a no-brainer. I knew it would be a minor, supporting part, but an important one all the same. And I knew she’d have a couple of moments to shine, and you seemed to like those scenes when I presented them to you at least as much as I did when I drafted them. So I knew I’d done right by her.
Since you asked me in a recent interview, I’ll ask you the same question: What’s coming up next for RJ Sullivan?
As soon as I finished Virtual Blue back in April, I started drafting something brand-new in a different genre–in fact, my first love as a reader–spaceship science fiction. I wrote a 12K novella over the summer. Because Virtual Blue is a complicated project in terms of production, the release was delayed until late August. At the same time, because an ebook-only novella is a relatively simple project, it was processed pretty quick. So the two stories came out within a few days of each other. It’s a delightful breath of fresh air in terms of writing for me, you might say a palette cleanser. I’m already halfway through the second novelette and I have a couple more planned. Then back to the paranormal thrillers.
In the meantime, the hits just keep coming. Seventh Star is prepping my first novel, Haunting Blue, for an end-of-the-year re-release, which will put the entire series with one publisher. And maybe, a couple surprises for early 2014. But it’s too soon to tell.