KatG chatted with Carolyn Crane, author of Mind Games and Double Cross in The Disillusionists contemporary fantasy series:
1) Justine Jones: hypochondriac. How did you come up with that as ideal for a fantasy-powered secret agent?
One of the things I most love in fiction is power shifts–when something bad flips to good, when the winner becomes the loser (or vice versa), or, in this case, when a debilitating weakness–fear–becomes a strength, making a total loser into a hero.
Also, In everyday life, emotions like that are powerful. I think people do use emotions as weapons in a sense, or get affected by other people’s emotions and neurotic freak-outs as if they’re weapons, so it wasn’t too hard for me to imagine them actually being weaponized in an urban fantasy scenario.
2) The setting of the imaginary Midcity could be considered almost another character in the series. Is it based on any particular city?
Midcity is the Chicago of my childhood memory, with a little Milwaukee thrown in. As a child of the far suburbs, my experience of Chicago was limited to rides downtown in a station wagon with a frantic mother at the wheel, often getting lost. Everything seemed like it was made of metal, and dangerously bolted together, or really decrepit and foreboding. We had nothing like this stuff in the suburbs, which, in my childhood mind, was composed entirely of houses, swing sets, and family dogs. So, Chicago was the city version of an enchanted forest to me, and my most vivid place memory. It seemed the perfect setting for an urban fantasy.
3) Because of the nature of the Disillusionists’ powers and Justine’s complicated relationship with her “highcap” boss, Packard, who gives her those powers, there’s that strong psychological component to the series. How do you balance that with the action parts?
You know, to me, psychological intrigue feels like high action. It feels thrilling and exciting, so I don’t think about balance, because in my mind, there’s action everywhere. Sometimes, in retrospect, I get a little self-conscious, like, my books aren’t as physically action-packed as other UF books, but, oh well!
4) Tell us about Shelby and Carter, Justine’s unusual teammates.
All of Justine’s teammates have extreme neurotic tendencies that are transformed into crime-fighting powers. So, Shelby zings her victims with her grim and depressive outlook, which debilitates them. She hates beauty and believes there is no such thing as happiness or freedom. Carter is the rage-aholic disillusionist. He used to be a cook. He freaks out all the time, but he gets into situations that make him freak out.
5) In the first novel, Mind Games, Justine wins free of her neurosis by joining Packard’s team, but then finds that she’s engaged in something more tangled and ambiguous in rehabilitating criminals and battling mutant highcaps who are trying to take over MidCity. How does Justine deal with the issue of vigilante justice and with the possibility that she’s made a Faustian bargain?
Oh, wow, great question! In a way there are two Faustian bargains at work. Mastermind Packard gives Justine freedom from the fear that has debilitated her all her life (she gets to zing her fear into dangerous paranormal criminals, and it starts them toward rehabilitation), but she realizes too late it makes her beholden to Packard and his dubious agenda. And, she gets the peace she has longed for, but at the expense of these criminals, so it’s like a Faustian bargain inside herself.
I love the Faust story, and as a writer, I relished taking a character through the process of realizing the enormity of a bargain like this. And, I love a character wanting to be a good guy, but deeply enjoying the perks of doing what they know is wrong, and being tempted to keep that bargain going. I also enjoy having different characters bring different perspectives to their own bargains. As for the bargain, this book is a quest for freedom from that bargain in all its forms, which ultimately means fighting fear itself.
6) Let’s talk ants – a number of your readers say they’ll never look at ants the same way again after reading Mind Games. What was the impetus for such a bizarre, darkly funny sequence?
Hah! When I was a kid, I read some book about a Native American tribe that killed people in this way. Who knows if it was true or propaganda, but it seized my imagination, much as I tried to scrub it out of there–and I really did want to forget it forever, along with the smell of cooking Brussels sprouts. And, luckily, I didn’t succeed, because it was a handy psycho villain move.
7) Justine develops an equally complicated relationship with Otto Sanchez, another highcap with the ability to imprison others and who becomes important in the politics of Midcity. Is this sending her down another rabbit hole? Is Otto all he seems?
SPOILER ANSWER! SPOILER ANSWER!
Otto is an idealist. Some idealists make the world better, and some crash and burn and take people with them. I like writing about this type of character, because I have sympathy for them, even when they go bad, and I think it’s hard to tell sometimes when they do go bad. Otto starts out in the first group, making Midcity safer and being a hero. But, he clings onto his wins, and also to the people who are important to him, and really, he is a very fearful character, deep down, and the serial killers he calls the Dorks touch a hidden nerve in him, making things way worse. His journey becomes one of forcing his vision on people through might, and eventually, just moral decay.
8) In the second book in the series, Double Cross, Justine is dealing with this gang of serial killers you mentioned, labeled “The Dorks,” who seem immune to highcap powers and the Disillusionists. How does she handle this new challenge?
Justine and n’er do well mastermind Packard are dream invaded together so their dreams are linked; that is, she gets access to Packard’s dreams, and he has access to hers. Packard has these recurring nightmares, scenes from the past. He tends to look away from them in horror, as one does with nightmares. But Justine is nosily interested in them and discovers a clue there that helps to crack the case.
9) Also in Double Cross, Justine is working with a criminal whose guilt she begins to doubt, even though the woman is able to enter her and Packard’s dreams. How does this encounter alter her perspective?
It’s a dilemma I richly enjoyed working with. By mucking around in their dreams, this woman is gaining control over Justine and Packard, and of course, they want her fully disillusioned, which would break her down and reboot her and make her release control of them. Meanwhile, Justine is realizing that, awful as it is to be dream invaded, the woman may not actually be guilty of the big crimes she’s imprisoned for. Justine wishes very badly the woman was guilty, because it would be way more convenient just to disillusion her. It would solve a lot of Justine’s problems.
So, it alters Justine’s perspective, in a way, about herself. Is Justine the kind of person to put somebody under the train to save herself? Well, she does do it for a little while through inaction. I know some people cite their annoyance with Justine’s weighing of pros and cons–it feels wishy-washy to them. But, I love when characters deliberate. And like, I love listening to those news shows that report on the minute deliberations of Supreme Court justices, or philosophical story problems about people in boats or whatever and who do you throw overboard?
10) Are there going to be more books in the Disillusionists’ series and/or are you working on other projects?
The third and final book in the trilogy, Head Rush, comes out this fall/early winter. Also, I had a spin-off novella (about a memory revisionist) in an anthology that I self-pubbed with a couple author friends this summer. Well, that self-pubbing experience has been dizzyingly exciting! So I’m working on another Disillusionist spin-off to self-pub (featuring Simon the recklessness Disillusionist) that will be out in early 2012. I’m working on two new series as well, one in proposal state and currently being shopped around to publishers, and one in pre-proposal state.
11) Are the new projects also in the contemporary fantasy sub-genre?
One of the series I’m developing right now is. And, the novella certainly is, too.
12) And lastly, because it seems appropriate, what would you say was your own neurosis in life?
Hah! I always think I left the stove on, or left the door unlocked, and I have to go back and check. And there are times when I find I HAVE left the stove on or the door unlocked, so I don’t know if that qualifies as a mild case of OCD or just being absent-minded.