Just four short years ago, debut novelist Vicki Pettersson turned the well-worn arena of Urban Fantasy on its head with her successful mash-up of mythology, astrology and comic book lore in the blisteringly original First Sign of the Zodiac, The Scent of Shadows. Since then, she has gone on to further round out her Las Vegas-set world of destined superheroes in five subsequent novels, and in the process has even earned the much-coveted sobriquet of “New York Times Best-Selling Author”.
With the hotly-anticipated series finale, The Neon Graveyard, released May 31, she joins us here to discuss her super-special heroine, the significance of astrological portents, and the realities of the surreal town she calls home...
For those who have yet to discover your work, tell us how you’d describe your Signs of the Zodiac series…
VP: The Signs of the Zodiac is an Urban Fantasy series set in the paranormal underbelly of my glittery hometown, Las Vegas. It features Joanna Archer, a woman who is unexpectedly thrust into a battle between Light and Shadow, i.e., good and evil, and forced to choose sides. Through the course of the series she has to determine for herself who is truly good, and where she fits in. She’s not a static character, nor is it a static series. Everyone ends up in a different place than where they started … or ever expected to be.
The first in the series, The Scent of Shadows, establishes your heroine, Joanna Archer, as extra-specially special, in the way of many Urban Fantasy protagonists. She’s not just a superhero… she’s a special superhero. Did you ever consider making her just your general, garden variety superhero?
VP: It’s not so much that she’s special as that she is different. I wanted to explore the conflict inherent in those differences, not only between her and her enemies, but between her and her allies as well. She’s also an incredibly strong woman (mostly because I can’t see writing a weak one), though she’s far from perfect. She makes mistakes, acts impulsively, and has to correct those things, but that’s what makes her relatable as a person … regardless of whether she’s a superheroine or not.
In Fantasy there is a subgenre of story known as the “Rape and Revenge” plot. Is this something you were aware of when you began to craft Joanna’s tragic background?
VP: I wanted to write a woman who was strong, but it’s a pet peeve of mine when I read a novel where a woman can fend off every imaginable threat with her willpower alone, or very little physical training. Sorry, but even if a woman is in incredible shape, it doesn’t mean she can easily beat back a human predator. So I didn’t choose a martial art or sport for Jo. I chose contact combat. She’s willing and able to go for the killing blow with the first strike in any altercation.
Yet I needed to have an equally strong reason for her choosing such an extreme skill base, and rape certainly qualifies. That said, I didn’t want to portray her as a victim, which is why that violence is a part of her past and not shown on the page. I was less interested in the act than her ability to push past it, so I revisit her personal evolution in piecemeal as an ongoing part of the series. I don’t know how that compares to others who’ve written about it, but it seems intuitive that even when scars fade, they leave a person forever changed.
What is appealing about this level of trauma, do you think? Is it that it shows the resilience of a character, or that it is inspiring to think that someone can get past such a horrific experience?
VP: I don’t think it’s the trauma that’s appealing as much as it is a person’s capacity to refuse to be a victim, regardless of someone else’s actions. There are things that can be taken from you, others that can be broken … but there are also ways to overcome those things, and the resilience of the human spirit is something that speaks to us all.
In fact, Joanna is always getting the short end of a very pointy stick… and one full of splinters… in this series. (Book 4, especially, really did her wrong.)
VP: But she continues to fight despite losing damned near everything that’s dear to her. She doesn’t always win, but I admire the way she never gives up.
Joanna’s parents in this series are polar opposites; one battles on the side of Good, the other is the Ultimate Evil. Indeed, the overwhelming theme here initially seemed to be Black Hats VS White Hats, so that when you brought in the grays halfway through the series, it was a wonderfully unexpected twist. What led you to that particular plot development?
VP: It was Joanna, actually. It was becoming increasingly clear that she wasn’t going to fit in with either the Shadow or the Light and that neither side would ever fully trust her, precisely because of her dual heritage. So it made sense that while she was questioning who was truly good and evil she would also question the place of those agents operating on the fringe of the supernatural world. In the end, Joanna personifies that gray area.
Speaking of parents… is it just me, or are almost all the fathers evil here? I mean, Joanna even has TWO evil Dads! Dare I even ask what that may mean for you personally?
VP: I know! Believe me, I’ve apologized to my father repeatedly for that. But it’s much like mystery writers who pen these horrific crimes on the page, and then you meet them and they’re almost impossibly nice. It’s quite the opposite, I assure you.
With The Scent of Shadows being your debut novel, you’ve obviously grown as a writer since then. Is there anything you established, like laws of your universe or any of your characters’ motivations, in the earlier part of this series that you later wished you could go back and change?
VP: If I could go back and change anything, I’d pare the world down and integrate it more evenly throughout the series. I revealed so much in that first book. Yet there’s also a tremendous energy to it. You can tell how much fun I was having with the characters and world, and I was clearly enthusiastic about sharing all my toys with others.
This series is part Urban Fantasy, part Paranormal Romance, part Comparative Mythology text, part Crime Thriller, part Family Dynasty Drama, and a large part Graphic Novel… how did you ever manage to bring together so many disparate elements? Did you know that was what you were doing?
VP: Oh, no -- I had no clue at all. I was just having fun, letting my imagination go wild. A character popped up in the third chapter and said he was a superhero. At first it was just a throw-away line by someone who appeared crazy, but then I thought, ‘What if he isn’t crazy? Let’s explore that.’ So I did. At the time I’d long been a part of a writer’s forum frequented by Diana Gabaldon, and she liked to say that a writer could do anything as long as they did it well. So I simply endeavored to do my level best at all times, and hoped that as long as I was enjoying writing the story, someone else would enjoy it too. I figured I’d worry about what it was after I’d finished.
The way the agents of Shadow took so long to recognize Joanna as their nemesis always delighted me no end. Am I right in thinking this is this an homage to the superhero genre; that kind of “Clark Kent can’t be Superman, he wears glasses!” kind of thinking one sees in comics?
VP: There was definitely some of that. Ditto the Zoe reveal [the identity of Joanna’s mother. - Ed.], which was tremendous fun to plant throughout the series. I love it when readers write me to say I caught them off guard with that.
Are you a comic book fan yourself? I only ask because Joanna seems to consider graphic novels and comic stores the province solely of socially awkward preadolescents… Does this also reflect your beliefs?
VP: Not at all. If you read the series it’s clear from the word go that comic book ‘geeks’ are actually some of the most knowledgeable people in the story. Yet Joanna was entering the world of superheroes literally as an outsider, so what better (or more fun) way to address that? Thus those scenes served multiple purposes – they provided conflict, information about the Zodiac world, and comedic relief. It was also one of the few places where Jo’s world wasn’t so unreservedly dark.
Is Master Comics based on a real place?
VP: It is loosely based on Alternate Reality Comics, which is Vegas’ oldest comic book shop, and located right across the street from my alma mater, UNLV. (Though they don’t have any changelings, as far as I know.)
Obviously, a lot of the places in your books are real; these books read a lot like love letters to Las Vegas… love letters of the kind that acknowledge your beloved has flaws, but you adore them anyway. Is that how you feel about your home town?
VP: Yes, that’s one thing that I did actually draw from my own experience (since I have no superpowers or evil fathers to speak of). I wanted to show people a side of Las Vegas not oft-portrayed in books or movies -- which too frequently is a cheap, sleazy, one-dimensional depiction of a city that I’ve always called home. That gets wearying, to say the least.
My hope was that Las Vegas would almost come off as another character in my books. Everyone has an idea of what Vegas is (or is supposed to be) but the Las Vegas represented in this series is clearly Joanna’s Vegas -- dark, nefarious … yet still home.
In City of Souls (Book 4), your dedication was to a Susan Agassi-Hughes… Andre Agassi is from Las Vegas… any relation? Is the town really that small?
VP: Yes, that’s exactly what it is for the locals -- a small town with a big, bright bulge in the middle. As for the rest, I played a lot of tennis before having to get a paying job.
Vegas seems like such a fascinating place to call home; it’s like saying you come from Disney World. What was it like growing up in that glitzy city? Were you always aware of its grownup play land status?
VP: No way. Of course, I knew we had tourists, and I knew being able to get practically anything you wanted at midnight wasn’t “normal” (though it was for me) and I knew that not every supermarket had slot machines to lose your loose change in after buying groceries (my mom would make me stand by the gumball machines while she blew all the quarters, which was bullshit because quarters actually got something in return when placed in gumball machines) but we had our own “normal.” I rode dirt bikes in the desert, and sledded on plywood down overpass slopes. I never felt the heat as a kid. I freaked out the first time I was in a city that went dark. I made tourists take pictures of me in front of Caesars Palace. I celebrated New Year’s Eve at fourteen in the casino I’d work at as a showgirl nine years later … but it wasn’t notable. It was just life.
Being a Vegas showgirl is probably the greatest “Before I Was a Writer” profession EVER. How did that come about?
VP: Well, I’m tall, and when you’re tall in Vegas, you grow up hearing “You should be a showgirl.” So it always seemed plausible. And to be truthful, it was a fantastic after-school job. I did homework between numbers. I went to school during the day and worked at night. I worked part-time for full-time pay, and had ample time to learn to write. It was the perfect job for someone aspiring to the writer’s life.
What’s your favorite story from that time in your life? Did you ever meet Siegfried and/or Roy? Wayne Newton? Any of those Blue Men?
VP: Gosh, I “did” Regis and Cathy, and Jay Leno, and Ellen, and Wheel of Fortune -- lots of commercial programming -- but nothing compares to the memories of goofing off night after night backstage. The friends I made there remain my forever-friends, and I know that if I were to never write another word, they’d still love and value me as much as they ever have. So in that I’m blessed.
How did you segue into writing?
VP: Like most writers, I was always a voracious reader. So I continued to do that, and I also wrote in the daytime, while working at night. It wasn’t segueing so much as it was doing both at the same time.
And now the series is coming to an end; are you happy with the way things work out for your characters? Is The Neon Graveyard the finale you hoped it would be?
VP: It’s the finale I’ve been writing toward for the last three books, and I think it gives Jo the respect, acknowledgment and ending she deserves. I hope she can turn it into something amazing.
To stave off any confusion as to why the series is ending with Book 6, when there are twelve established signs of the Zodiac, can you explain what the “signs” actually mean in your mythology?
VP: The “signs” of the Zodiac are actually portents - prophesies that Joanna is fated to bring about due to her Kairotic nature, or nature as the ‘chosen one.’ These signs are progressive, and forever change things in the world of the Zodiac, and each book brings one portent to pass.
Speaking of the Zodiac… what’s your feeling? Do you believe in Astrology?
VP: I do believe in it to a degree, though I don’t base life decisions on it. I think there are good readers and bad readers out there (astrology, not books -- all book readers are good!) and that muddies the waters a bit, but more than anything I believe in self-will, choice, and the ability to create whatever life you want for yourself. A good reading might be able to tell you where you started out, or where you are now, but I believe where a person ends up is entirely up to them.
How did you feel when you sent off your final draft of The Neon Graveyard, knowing that you probably wouldn’t be venturing into Joanna’s life again any time soon? Relief? Sadness? Anger?
VP: I was hesitant to say I was done with that world until I heard back from my editor. When she’d finally read it, I got three words in my inbox: “You nailed it.” Anyone who knows my editor also knows that’s absolutely out of character for her. So when she said it, I believed it. It made me feel that I accomplished exactly what I set out to do with the book and the series. What better note to end on than that?
Now that you’ve wrapped up Signs -- at least for now -- what can we expect to see next from you?
VP: I’m thrilled to continue working with Harper, and my amazing editor there, Diana Gill. I’ve just turned in The Taken, which is the first book in my new Celestial Blues series. While still set in Vegas, it features a new world and cast of characters, and focuses on a partnership between a supernatural private eye and a rockabilly reporter with a real nose for trouble. The first book should be out in Spring 2012.
The Final 5 with Vicki Pettersson
Trek or Wars? Wars.
Marvel or DC? DC.
Vampires or Werewolves? Superheroes.
Dragons or Unicorns? Unicorns.
Time Travel: Pro or Con? Pro – I have recurring dreams featuring time travel!
-- Rachel Hyland
Geek Speak Magazine would like to thank Vicki Pettersson for her participation in this interview.
Geek Speak Magazine would like to thank Vicki Pettersson for her participation in this interview.