We are so done with damsels in distress. Thankfully, we have writers like Alice James turning the tide! A little bit Buffy, a little bit Scooby-Doo, Grave Secrets will keep you on the edge of your seat while simultaneously make you cry with laughter.
We asked Alice about necromancy and sexism, among other things…
Grave Secrets is out September 1st from Rebellion Publishing. Pre-order your copy now!
It’s unusual to have a necromancer as the protagonist! Why did you want to make Toni a necromancer? Is necromancy just a misunderstood art form?
I am one of those always-wears-black people whose house is full of skulls, candles, more skulls and more candles. I mean, I genuinely live in a chapel; there are gravestones in my garden… And it’s not just my home. Honestly, if a book has a vampire or a zombie sneaking across the cover, my fingers start itching to turn the pages. So I think a necromancer was always going to be a shoe-in for my protagonist.
Moreover, the book was also initially planned as a short story about the zombie Bredon, who becomes our heroine Toni’s undead best friend, so a necromancer was essential. I initially wanted to write a story that was told from the undead perspective, but that’s not what happened in the end. As I was fleshing things out – pun intended, sorry – it became apparent that Grave Secrets was in fact a whodunit, and that our budding necromancer was the amateur sleuth tasked with tracking down the murderer and bringing them to justice… So it wasn’t really planned. And Toni is also still working stuff out as she goes along. She doesn’t know exactly how necromancy works, or exactly what will happen when she’s hauling the undead from their mouldering graves, so I hope that adds an element of magic-isn’t-science to the pot.
It’s not your traditional shuffling dead horror, either, but then the book was written a couple of years ago, because the print world of publishing moves slowly. There has been a splendid zombie resurgence in the meantime, and with such variety in rendition. My own revenants are sentient and retain their own personalities; festering is optional. But they are still eternally ravenous and brains are always welcome on the menu, alongside cream cakes or ham sandwiches, or anything else that comes out of the kitchen, including the cook…
Necromancy is also rarely portrayed as a female pursuit. Why is that and why did you want to create a female necromancer?
You are not wrong. There is a tendency for the “traditional” divide to mean that women fall in love with vampires while men raise the dead. I think it is all part of the skewed tendency in novels to associate certain fantasy powers with historical perceptions of femininity and others with masculinity. So, often witches exhibit cunning but their magic is seen as scrambling and disorganised. They cook things up in a cauldron as though it was a kitchenette. While your wizards? No ladles and recipe books for them. They are powerful and their magic is structured and architectural. And of course necromancy is all about power…so, because I am naturally ornery when it comes to such matters, of course my necromancer was always going to be female.
And I do love Toni. She is snarky and short tempered but also kind and well intentioned. She drinks too much, never gets enough sleep and makes terrible decisions. She falls for expensive boots and the wrong people. She oversleeps and forgets to brush her hair and is constantly short of money. And zombies are her addiction. Instead of watching wrestling, playing Fortnite or going to the gym, she hangs round dark graveyards summoning the dead from their rest. I wanted her to be real and flawed but also be someone you find yourself gunning for.
What is it that is so appealing about narratives where characters have to keep their supernatural and mundane lives separate… with inevitable hilarity and chaos ensuing as a result?
It’s such an old trope, isn’t it, and it never loses its allure. From Greek Gods to Superman, your supercharged protagonist hides their true colours but is always nearly-but-not-quite slipping up. And interestingly it doesn’t even have to be magical powers they are concealing. Yes, it’s the soul of Buffy, but it’s also the core of Hannah Montana, for example.
I think there are many appeals.
Firstly, it supports our unconscious desire for the “wonderful” to be real. The guy you saw at the bus stop could be an angel and you didn’t even know. The woman with the snaky hair who swam around that rock might actually be a mermaid. Perhaps you are actually walking through Diagon Alley, but Hagrid just nipped around the corner.
And secondly, there is the sense that it could be you. You could do it. If your dad becomes Superman when he pretends to go to the office, maybe that is what lies ahead for you. If your big sister sneaks into her teleport suit and slips off to fight crime, you could be next.
And there’s another and even more direct appeal; it makes your characters so much more relatable. If Buffy didn’t have homework to do in between trying to stake Spike through the left ventricle, then she would be far less approachable as a character. Her real world tribulations give her a humanity – and a vulnerability – that she wouldn’t have if she was a superhero all the time.
What is the trick to balancing dark themes, gore and a good sense of humour?
It’s the literary equivalent of mixing the perfect cocktail, isn’t it? Two measures of imminent doom, a dash of severed artery, four drops of sarcasm and a garnish of savage eye roll.
Of course, slip in too much angst and half your readers will just go and reread The Hobbit instead. Overdo the gore and ditto. And if you stray too far into farce territory you lose your realism. Tamsyn Muir catches it exquisitely in Gideon the Ninth, for example, the perfect middle ground between The Walking Dead and Scooby Doo.
My sense is that it’s much easier if you are writing in the first person, because your character can directly appreciate the situational humour of their misfortunes and leaven an action scene with the oh-bollocks-to-this tone of their own internal monologue. It also allows you to add snark to a scene where there is only one person and therefore no spoken dialogue, or an action scene where too much is going on physically for conversation. I recently finished my first science fiction novel and it’s written in the third person for a change. I found it much tougher to pull off those laugh-out-loud moments when I didn’t have that stream of consciousness available.
Pitch us Grave Secrets! Why should BtGS fans pick up a copy?
It’s a perfect holiday read, which is ironic as half of us can’t go on holiday any more this year! (Thanks 2020. You suck.) It’s a smashing genre mash-up too; there are zombies, vampires, a whodunit, some romance, sheep-shagging and a cute cat. Oh, and heads get ripped off. An awful lot of them…
It’s also LGBTQIA+ friendly and there are the world’s cutest little chapter illustrations by graphic novel goddess Gem Sheldrake. And it stars Toni, the utterly British diminutive red head who’s an estate agent by day and a budding necromancer by night. She has a slight shopping addiction, a tendency to poor impulse decisions and really terrible taste in men that certainly doesn’t get any better in Volume One. But she is also never despairing as she has to triumph over imminent death, the shuffling dead, super powerful murderous vampires, irritating clients, gropey men, bad hair days, bad date nights and flying ants. She is both feminine and a complete badass.
Also, I really need everyone to go out and buy it so that we can publish Book Two!
Alice James was born in Staffordshire, where she grew up reading novels and spending a lot of time with sheep. She was lucky enough to have a mother who was addicted to science fiction and a father who was fond of long country walks, so she grew up with her head in the stars and her feet on the ground. She now lives in Oxfordshire with a fine selection of cats, fulfilling her teenage gothic fantasies by moving into a converted chapel with an ancient spiral staircase—and gravestones in the garden.