Interview with Julian Traas
Author of The Rave (The Aelfraver Trilogy Book 1)
Author, editor, and tutor. International ping pong ball. DEFINITELY human. Independent publisher of over twenty books, as well as various short stories and poems. Teaching captive teenage audiences where the commas go since 2006.
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Jumping right in, could you give us a bird's-eye of the book for prospective readers - what should they expect?
- The Rave is the first book in The Aelfraver Trilogy (as we speak, I'm working on book 3). Its world blends far-future technology and weird magic, giving us solar-powered mechanical dragon drones, a chain-bound capital city in the sky, characters who can track their magic consumption using their cellphones... Humanity competes for supremacy with the "Aelf," a name applied to any creature that isn't human or animal -- the "others." Some Aelf are beast-like, driven purely by instinct; others are sentient, deviously clever, powerful, and elusive.
The story itself centers on Alina, a 17-year-old Aelfraver (a monster hunter) in training. After her grandfather and mentor ghosts her one night in the middle of making dinner, she's left holding the bag: all the bills, debts, and the empty School (where he previously trained Aelfravers). Broke as broke can be, Alina decides to gamble everything she has on a Rave in the floating capital city of New El, where an unknown entity has been targeting the wealthy elite. The problem? The huge reward for dealing with this threat has, of course, attracted the attentions of 200 other Aelfravers. The other problem? Alina is a pacifist, so she has to get creative about how she deals with the creatures she hunts; her competitors have no qualms about killing -- human or nonhuman.
So, it's basically an all-or-nothing free-for-all race-to-the-finish. And the finish line is a den of vipers. And the vipers all have machine guns, swords, and can shoot fireballs.
What inspired you to write this book?
- I have fairly wide-ranging tastes, so I draw inspiration from a lot of different sources and probably don't keep good enough track. The most honest answer is that I wanted to try something new; I'd always been a fan of YA fantasy and its sub-genres, but I'd yet to try my hand at it. Previously, I'd been writing historical fiction, adult fantasy, absurdist black comedies, you name it. But I hadn't yet come up with an idea that would fit the YA genre -- which is honestly why I started writing in the first place. So, I made up my mind to finally get to it. From there, I started reading a bunch of different popular YA books. Traditionally and self-published, it didn't matter. I studied them, thought carefully about the tropes, the shared details, the contrasts. Then, as The Rave developed in my mind, I continuously put my own spin on these elements. From the plucky "heroine" to the "love triangle," YA readers of all ages will get the story beats they're looking for -- but not in the way they expect. And that's what I do with everything I write: gamble by making it unique. I play it safe in much of my life, but -- with writing -- I prefer to ride the edge. No risk, no reward.
Can you point to any specific influences on this project?
- Again, probably lots of sources I'm not able to consciously conjure up... But, specifically, I should name The Witcher book series and the anime Hunter x Hunter. In 2017, I was consuming both -- among many other things -- and something crystallized in my mind. I thought: monster hunter but... And I wracked my brain for a way to make it new, exciting, and weird. Then it came to me: monster hunter, but she's a pacifist. From there, I started thinking about all the different ways that could play out. What would have made this person a pacifist, how could they still do their job? And so on. And the story unraveled from my brain.
Can you tell us a little about the locations in your book?
- The main division is earth and air: the capital city of New El, where all the money and power lives, flies high in the sky; and it garners its resources from the surface world, where Alina is from. The sky people call themselves Elementals, and all other humans are considered "Landsiders" if you're feeling polite ("Terries" if you're not).
The surface world's cities are divided in terms of wealth. Some areas, like Alina's hometown of Truct, are depressed and run-down. Nearly ghost towns. Then there are places, usually closer to the Capital or the coast, that are more well-to-do.
New El has all the craziest technology, like magical bubble shuttles for personal transport; hydrogen-powered hovercraft; a literal "cloud computer..." Truct is a smog-covered dump in a valley, shadowed by the curved peak of Mount Morbin.
New El is a place of light, glitz, and glam. Truct stands in for the countless hovels housing the down-trodden, wretched masses.
Additionally, I love to pepper in weirdness wherever I can. So, there are virtual-reality lighthouses and libraries inside giant crystals juxtaposed with perfectly "normal" areas like bus stations and crappy motels.
That all sounds... quite interesting. How do you come up with your ideas?
- This... [Traas taps his forehead with two fingers] For better or worse, this doesn't turn off. Whenever I'm sitting around, any time I have a moment to think, it's like I superimpose a layer of madness on reality. I like to people-watch, and I firmly believe that truth is stranger than fiction. I'm simply abstracting our world, throwing a little "what if" in there, and the rest handles itself.
Really, whenever I have an idea, I try to marry it with something completely unexpected. For example, I've been a fan of fantasy since I was a kid, and I grew up on swords and sorcery. But those types of stories have been done so well -- and so often -- that, if I wanted to make my mark on the fantasy genre, I knew I'd have to make my own patented blend. That's how "arcanepunk cyberfantasy" was born -- far-future tech mixed with mind-melting magic. Physically transport yourself into a virtual reality by magically digitizing your body; adapt an ancient summoning ritual to trap a demon inside an email...
You can't ever get bored -- or run out of ideas -- if you're living infinite second lives inside your own mind.
Went off on a tangent there, didn't I? Did I answer your question at least? [Traas laughs]
I think so. Piggy-backing off that last question, could you tell us about your writing process? The technical side?
- Okay, setting the scene... My day job (tutoring) has weird, shifty hours, usually in the middle of the afternoon and evening. So, I get a lot of my writing done at my desk mid-morning and late at night. When I'm not tutoring, I'll indulge in a cup of coffee, open the window, and take a few deep breaths. Then I crack open the 60-page outline I compose before writing the first word of any book, and I gel with my intentions for the scene. The outline is there as a guide, containing notes on plot points, themes, symbols, and other useful tidbits. I find the structure incredibly helpful for keeping me on task -- and, for me, it all but eliminates writer's block because I have already overcome most of the hurdles that previously would have caused me to choke. The best part is that I still am totally free to change anything I like. In fact, working on book 3, I've completely altered the middle 10 chapters of the book in terms of their structure and even some of the character beats. A change for the better, I'm quite confident. But having such a clear, detailed outline really helps me out. It's like have a truncated 1st draft, so that the actual writing process kind of feels like a 2nd draft already.
Even so, I do still run into pitfalls. The reason I altered the middle chapters I just mentioned is that I felt some necessary energy was lacking. To resolve the problem, I pulled out my old standby: any time I'm stuck, I figure out how to make things harder for my characters -- injecting tension and conflict into the plot. It's like liquid plumber but for scenes.
In short, I respect the hell out of "pantsers," but I am a hybrid: a plotter at the outset, and I can pants with the best of them when it comes to the specifics.
Alright, which character has had the greatest impact on readers?
- Whenever I speak to someone who's read the book, I ask them "who's your favorite character?" It's not scientific, and my sample size isn't huge, but so far the overwhelming favorite has been Cho. So, I imagine she's had the greatest impact. Probably because, being 11, and a street urchin shrouded in mystery, with strange abilities, she's got a lot going for her. There's a certain mystique above and beyond even Alina's. But I do think readers -- adults and teens -- resonate with her combo platter personality. She delivers the sass and the heart all at once.
Were the book adapted for TV or film, who would you see in the role of Cho, then? Do you have any actors in mind for the other characters?
- I don't really have anyone in mind for Cho, honestly. Since she's so young, I think -- as with so many breakaway performances -- the actress would be better off being discovered for the project. That's my dream for that particular role anyway. Maybe, selfishly, I'd want the portrayal of Cho to be done by a talented young performer who doesn't have too much other major work to their name yet. That way I could secretly, goblin-like, cling to the shiny idea that the adaptation of my work helped launch their career -- and that would help carry The Rave a generation into the future.
Previously, I'd thought Zendaya would be a good fit for Alina. And she'd probably do an amazing job. But now she's in everything, you know. So, again, it's tough to say. Maybe the real-life Alina would have to be discovered too. For some of the side characters, I do have firmer ideas. For example, it'd be a dream (pun-intended) for Morphea the Dream Queen to be played by Lupita Nyong'o.
As an independent author and publisher, do you have any advice for anyone in a similar position?
- It's not easy, being indie, but to me it's worth the effort. Yes, I have to do almost everything on my own -- writing, publicizing, conventions, etc. But I also get to put out a book I can wholeheartedly stand by, a project that fully represents what I care about. I operate by a simple philosophy: write a thing that will change your life. So, that's what I do.
Traditional publishing was always a dream of mine (and, Random House, if you're reading this, I wouldn't necessarily turn my nose up at a six-figure contract or anything...) But the industry's become increasingly gate-keep-y. That's not news to anyone who is taking the indie route, of course. And the good thing is that now's the best time to go indie. Yes, there's a lot more competition, but there are also so many platforms and venues through which to carve out your niche.
So, circling back to the question. [Traas chuckles] My best advice is:
1. Write first for yourself. What do you love and care about? Make that. If you love it, you stand a much better chance of communicating and instilling that emotional response in your readers.
2. Get feedback early and often. Alpha and Beta readers can shed light on potential setbacks that you might not catch.
3. Get a professional editor if you can afford to. They're very much worth it.
4. Get a professional or legit artist to do your cover. It sets you apart from the crowd, beaming the quality of your work into the prospective customer's subconscious. I'm sure most of the people who've actually bought The Rave were drawn in by the cover. Really, it's the best way to present a professional first impression.
5. Define success for yourself; don't worry about what others think. I don't need to be a millionaire to consider myself successful (although, again, Random House... Tor... my door's ajar for you). I am content, for now, to build up, bit by bit. I reach out to BookTubers, do interviews when I can, go to conventions. Every little bit helps. You just have to keep putting yourself out there. But don't think that you need to become a Gaiman or Rowling to mean anything in this world. You can get quite a lot done with 10,000 happy fans, you know. So, as an indie, it all comes down to you again. You define what success means to you.
6. Live for the little moments. Let them fuel your continued growth. Every time I get a note from a reader telling me they enjoyed this or that about the books, I am reinvigorated and shielded against the harsh elements of this world for a solid week. Don't get bogged down by negative feedback; learn from it what can be learned, ignore the plain hurtful stuff; and suck the marrow out of the positive comments, becoming immortal, indomitable.
7. If you love writing, let nothing stop you. Write defiantly, passionately, and powerfully. Be authentically you. You'll never be loved or even liked by everyone; if some people hate your stuff with a capital "h" -- good! That means you've struck a chord. And, anyway, for every action there's an equal but opposite reaction. Write what matters to you and keep putting yourself out there. You'll find your way, and you'll have fun along the way.
You mentioned you are working on the third installment in your trilogy. Where do you go after that's done?
- I've got big, developing plans for an expanded series once I finish this trilogy -- The Rave, The Rebel, and The Ruin. There are so many seeds I've planted across this epic tale, and I can't wait to grow them into gardens of their own. I have ideas for a solid seven stories so far--spinoffs, spiritual sequels, prequels, side-stories--with more on the way. It's all still very much in the early stages. 99% of my mental energy is devoted to finishing The Ruin, but I'm so incredibly excited to expand this world in many different directions -- across different eras and genres even -- once this initial trilogy is complete. The goal is to have a huge, vibrant world that long-time fans can enjoy and newcomers can hop into at any point.
... Time, it stretched before her, every second crawling by, lengthening like an uncurling worm. Alina absorbed it all in painful detail: the twinkles of firelight caught in the breastplates and gauntlets of the Chimaera Guard, the panic in Cho’s eyes, the spittle glistening on Mezami’s fangs, every growl and sputter of all their raised voices...
An arcanepunk cyberfantasy set in J.R. Traas's futuristic world of El, The Aelfraver Trilogy is a story about teenage rebellion—against the ruling elite and their gods.
GO HOME, ALINA
When Alina K’vich lost her parents, her grandfather Dimas gave her a home and a purpose. At The School, he trained her to become an Aelfraver—a hunter of arcane beasts, demons, and other anti-human entities. For ten years, they built a life together. Then, one night, in the middle of preparing dinner, Dimas vanished.
Now seventeen, and stuck with her grandfather’s debts, Alina resorts to illegal Raves in her rundown hometown. But these small-time contracts simply aren’t enough: The School lies in disrepair, the power’s shut off, and the bills remain insurmountable. In a last-ditch gamble, she signs up for a Rave whose massive reward could rewrite her entire future. However, she’s far from the only Aelfraver to answer the call of such an alluring bounty…
Out of options, Alina sinks the last of her money into a forged Raver’s license and a one-way ticket to New El, the floating Capital. There, an unnamable horror—her target—busies itself slaughtering the nobility in the dead of night, leaving no survivors and no witnesses. Protected only by her wits and spells, Alina must find a way to save New El, her School, and herself.