Today we welcome Dan Jolley to The Seventh Star for a fantastic interview focusing on his character The Gray Widow and writing Gray Widow’s Web! Gray Widow’s Web is his new release and the follow-up to the highly-acclaimed Gray Widow’s Walk. Discover a great author and a great UrbanSciFi series today!
1. What was the inspiration behind the character The Gray Widow?
I wrote the manuscript that would eventually become Gray Widow’s Walk, the first book in the Gray Widow Trilogy, over the course of about a year back in 1996, mainly working on it on Saturdays. It’s the first real novel I ever wrote, and it was a very different beast back then, since the main character at that point was a guy named Matt Sinclair. It would take twenty solid years and I don’t even know how many re-writes for me to realize what was holding the story back: the protagonist needed to be female. As soon as Matt Sinclair transformed into Janey Sinclair, his love interest Diedra Shikari became Tim Kapoor, and I extensively re-wrote it, everything clicked and Seventh Star snapped it up.
The original inspiration for the character, though, actually dates back to 1990. My then-girlfriend and I were watching an episode of The Equalizer, in which William Atherton played an assassin; at one point in the episode, he goes to a costume party, and puts on a priest’s outfit and paints his face half-white and half-black. Something about that image started a series of relays clicking over in my brain, and as soon as the show ended I grabbed a notebook and started scribbling things down. Atherton’s character bore very little resemblance to the character I came up with then, and it bears zero resemblance to Janey Sinclair now, but that’s where it all started.
2. What, in your view, makes The Gray Widow distinctive in comparison to popular heroines/superheroes in books, movies and television?
There’s a trap that’s easy to fall into for people who grow up reading comic books and want to create their own. My friend Josh Krach and I spent a long time in it when we were at the University of Georgia together. The trap is that people think they have to come up with some new super-power, something no one has seen before, in order to create a compelling superhero.
Number one, that’s insanely difficult to do. The only really original super-power in my recent memory belongs to Jack Hawksmoor, a character created by Warren Ellis who got modified by extraterrestrials to be a “god of the city”—he fed on pollution, could see out of any window anywhere in the city, was incredibly strong and damage-resistant, and if you took him out of the city, he got progressively weaker. Other than that, superheroes generally have some combination of about ten or twelve common powers. Stuff like flight, super-strength, rapid healing, invulnerability. Magic use. You get the picture. Dress them up in different clothes, but they’re still the same powers.
Number two, a unique power is NOT what makes an interesting character, superheroic or otherwise. What makes for a good character, one audiences will care about and root for (or despise and wish dead), is that character’s personality and actions. You’ve got seventeen billion shows on network TV about doctors, lawyers, and cops. What differentiates them? Their personalities. The way they interact with other characters. Their personal histories and habits and speech patterns. The pets they own.
Janey Sinclair is a massive introvert who, most of the time, is happier being by herself than with other people. She’s got room in her life and her heart for two, maybe three close friends. She makes her living as a fine artist, selling paintings in a gallery in Atlanta, and lives in an apartment that’s so Spartan you’d think she’d either just moved in or was about to move out. She lost her mother to cancer when she was nine, and then her father when she was a young teenager, in a traumatic event that left Janey institutionalized for a couple of years. She’s got old Marty Robbins songs on her phone alongside every album Snoop Dogg has ever released. She’s a good bit taller than the national average for women, and has the chiseled body of an athlete, which she tries to hide under baggy shirts and loose jeans. She might wear makeup twice a year.
Janey can also teleport from one patch of darkness to another, can see in absolute darkness, and is roughly as strong as three burly men put together. She wears a prototype suit of military body armor that she stole from a research facility, and uses blunt weapons with an immense amount of skill. But none of that stuff matters if you don’t know the stuff in the paragraph right before this one. If you don’t know who Janey is, you won’t care about the mysterious Augmentations she’s received, or the mission she’s set for herself to protect the city of Atlanta, or the plans a group of nameless extraterrestrials have for her. Janey is her own unique, distinctive person, and if anything sets her apart from the crowd, it’ll be that.
3. The Gray Widow Trilogy crosses genres such as urban fantasy, superhero fiction, and science fiction. Urban Sci-Fi has been used to describe the genre of these books. What is Urban Sci-Fi in your eyes and how would you describe it as a genre to a new reader?
Urban Sci-Fi, to me, is simply the science-fiction counterpart to Urban Fantasy. We have tons and tons of great examples of Urban Fantasy—Harry Dresden, the Sookie Stackhouse books, the Chicagoland Vampire stories. They’re all more or less defined as stories that take place in a modern-day urban setting, and involve magical elements such as sorcery or vampires or were-creatures. (Also, as I’ve recently discovered, some editors feel that Urban Fantasy has to be written in first-person.) Urban Sci-Fi, likewise, takes place in a modern-day urban setting, but involves science-fiction elements such as extraterrestrials, time travel, parallel universes, etc. There aren’t as many well-known examples of Urban Sci-Fi as there are of Urban Fantasy, at least as far as books go, but I think one franchise that makes the concept clear would be The Terminator.
4. You are establishing an iconic character in this trilogy. Will there be more tales of the Gray Widow, or other stories set in the world you’ve built around her, once this trilogy is complete?
I was just talking to Stephen Zimmer about this a few days ago. I think, at this point, the chances of a follow-up trilogy happening in the near future are very good. I’m not a huge fan of series that are meant to be completely open-ended, at least as far as my own output; they run too great a risk of losing steam and driving themselves into the ground. I don’t ever want anyone to say, “Yeah, the Gray Widow books were good for a while, but I wouldn’t bother with the later ones.” The Gray Widow Trilogy will be one complete story: beginning, middle, and end. If I can flesh out the concept for the follow-up to my satisfaction, yes, there will be more. But then that second trilogy, as well, will be one complete story in itself.
5. What do you feel were the most challenging aspects, as a writer, in bringing The Gray Widow character to life?
My body of work has basically been one example after another of writing within set parameters. All the comic book work I did, I had to write within the physical limitations of the medium (page count, maximum panels on a page, etc.) as well as within the standards set by Marvel or DC or whoever, regarding language and violence and sex. All of the Middle Grade and Young Adult material I’ve done, of course, has to be suitable for the target audiences (though what’s suitable for kids and what isn’t varies from publisher to publisher). Writing in video games is nothing *but* working within strict limitations, whether it’s designing a cinematic cut-scene to last exactly ninety seconds or coming up with thirty different ways to say, “He’s over here!” so that none of them exceed eight syllables.
Writing the Gray Widow books has been the most liberating experience of my entire career. No ideas off-limits, no restrictions on…well, anything, really. Nothing about writing Janey Sinclair has been challenging, if I’m being honest. The hardest part right now is getting a number of other projects off my plate so that I can finish Book 3.
6. In writing the second book, Gray Widow’s Web, have any new elements sprouted up along the way that you did not foresee when you finished the first book? Or did you have a strict outline in place?
A couple of times, the characters in the book surprised me. For example, one of the antagonists is a fellow named Derek Stamford. He was mentioned a good bit in Gray Widow’s Walk, but we only got to see him for a couple of pages at the end. In Gray Widow’s Web, he has a much more central role, and when we first meet him in this book I had just intended to have him take part in an interrogation. As soon as I started writing the chapter, though, I realized that Stamford has some truly profound psycho-sexual issues. By the end of the chapter’s first draft I knew I was on exactly the right track with the character. I also wanted to go take a long, hot shower and scrub him off me.
7. What kinds of things do you want readers to come away with after reading your Gray Widow novels?
There are a couple of issues dealt with in the books that I’d like readers to maybe think about to a greater degree after they’re done reading. The most prominent one is gun control, an issue I’m very passionate about, which I also addressed in my comic book miniseries Bloodhound: Crowbar Medicine. (I’m not interested in just telling people what to think, though. If the story does its job, then it’ll make my point. I never want to get preachy.)
The biggest thing I want readers to be left with, though, is the feeling that they’ve really gotten to know Janey and Tim, and Nathan Pittman and Sha’dae Wilkerson, and the other characters central to the story. I want readers to care about what happens to the characters, and to miss them when they’re finished reading. If I can make that happen, it’ll be mission accomplished.
Pick up a copy of Gray Widow’s Web today in print or eBook formats!
Synopsis of Gray Widow’s Web: JANEY SINCLAIR never knew how or why she gained her ability to teleport. She never wanted it, and for years tried her best to ignore it. But when horrible violence shattered her world, she vowed to use her mysterious talent to protect the citizens of Atlanta, in an effort to prevent anyone else from suffering the kind of agony she had. Wearing a suit of stolen military body armor, Janey became known to the public as the GRAY WIDOW.
But now the extraterrestrial source of her “Augmentation” is about to reveal itself, in an event that will profoundly impact Janey’s life and the lives of those closest to her—
TIM KAPOOR, who barely survived the assault of twisted, bloodthirsty shapeshifter Simon Grove and still struggles to pull himself together, both physically and mentally.
NATHAN PITTMAN, the teenager who got shot trying to imitate Janey’s vigilante tactics, and has since become obsessed with the Gray Widow.
SHA’DAE WILKERSON, Janey’s neighbor and newfound best friend, whose instant chemistry with Janey may have roots that neither of them fully understand.
And Janey’s going to need all the help she can get, because one of the other Augments has her sights set on the Gray Widow. The terrifying abomination known as APHRODITE LUPO is more powerful and lethal than anyone or anything Janey has ever faced. And Aphrodite is determined to recruit Janey to her twisted cause…or take her off the field for good.
Unrelenting ghosts of the past clash with the vicious threats of the future. Janey’s destiny bursts from the shadows into the light in GRAY WIDOW’S WEB, leaving the course of humanity itself forever changed.
About Dan Jolley: Dan Jolley started writing professionally at age nineteen. Beginning in comic books, he soon branched out into original novels, licensed-property novels, children’s books, and video games. His twenty-six-year career includes the YA sci-fi/espionage trilogy Alex Unlimited; the award-winning comic book mini-series Obergeist; the Eisner Award-nominated comic book mini-series JSA: The Liberty Files; and the Transformers video games War for Cybertron and Fall of Cybertron. Dan was co-writer of the world-wide-bestselling zombie/parkour game Dying Light, and is the author of the Middle Grade Urban Fantasy novel series Five Elements. Dan lives somewhere in the northwest Georgia foothills with his wife Tracy and a handful of largely inert cats.
Learn more about Dan by visiting his website, www.danjolley.com, and follow him on Twitter @_DanJolley.