Friday, August 26, 2016

Interview: Michelle Belanger

Tell me a little bit about your book.
Whenever someone asks me this question, I imagine a logline in “announcer voice.” It goes something like this:

An ancient force seeks a new base of power. A possessed girl harbors a devastating secret. Zack Westland’s having one hell of a night.

But little blurbs like that only skim the surface. Let me try to sum things up without giving too much away. 
Zack Westland’s life is extraordinary – he’s one of the Anakim, a tribe of earth-bound angels who have lived secretly among humanity for millennia.  Not that Zack remembers any of those thousands of years. He’s immortal, but almost all of his memories have been stolen, so he’s pretty much on the same footing as everyone else. Almost. 
Zack is psychic, has a knack for languages, and can bodily move into the realm of spirits known as the Shadowside. But after everything that’s happened to him in the past year, Zack mostly wants to be left alone. He’s in full avoidance mode at the start of the story, binge-playing a computer game (it’s inspired by Assassin’s Creed). An old friend, who Zack can’t even remember, reaches out for help with an exorcism, and all Zack can think is that the universe is having fun with him, given the whole angel thing. But the possessed girl, Halley, really captures Zack’s attention. She’s autistic but also gifted, and she’s been channeling messages in a language she can’t possibly know. She calls the entity Whisper Man, and Whisper Man wants her so badly, he sends a bunch of mind-controlled vagrants to invade her home. Things intensify as Whisper Man grows in power, and when a few of Zack’s winged relations get involved, people start to die.
These are not your grandma’s angels. 
Fortunately, Zack has allies to help him sort out the Whisper Man mess. There’s Father Frank, the Marine turned Catholic priest, Detective Bobby Park, the vampire Remy, Terael, who inhabits a statue in the art museum, and Lil, the Lady of Beasts. Tormenting Zack while also pulling his ass out of the fire is one of Lil’s superpowers. For Halley’s sake, Zack needs all the help he can get, because what he can’t remember could get a lot of people killed.

Title: Harsh Gods
Series: Shadowside
Publication Date: Aug 2016
Publisher: Titan Books
Age Group: 18+
Genre: Paranormal
Pages: 480
Find the Book: Amazon | Goodreads

If you had to write this one all over again, go through the whole editing and publishing process from the beginning again, is there anything you’d do differently?
I’ve got writer friends who went indie, others who have made a very successful career for themselves in self-publishing. I’ve watched people kick butt on Kickstarter and fund character-driven empires on Patreon. Sometimes I wonder how far along I would be in the Shadowside series if all the resources that make these things possible had been as readily available back in 2008 when I wrote the first draft of Conspiracy of Angels. Then again, if I hadn’t gone the traditional route, I would never have had the pleasure of working with Lucienne Diver at the Knight Agency, nor would I have gotten the truly invaluable insight from editor Steve Saffel at Titan. I like to think everything came together the way it did for a reason.

Are you a plotter and know what’s going to happen or are you a pantser that lets your characters lead you by the balls?
To be honest, I’m a little of both. Blame my years as a game master running RPGs like Vampire: the Masquerade. I start off plotting, and overall, I stick to the outline of events, but I like to give a certain amount of freedom to the characters. Sometimes, no matter how much I’ve plotted, a character decides to take a weird turn, and those unexpected twists can lead to great places. So each book has a loose guideline for how the story plays out, with room for deviation in case Zack or Lil or anyone else gets a bright idea.

What’s something that you are really good at that most people don’t know about?
Frank Sinatra impersonations, which is relevant to 0% of anything in my career(s), but his music falls perfectly in the lower end of my vocal range. The time period and culture surrounding Sinatra’s work have always fascinated me. I think this may be one factor that drew me to creating Zack’s world – Sinatra’s club scene, the mafia ties, the gritty noir feel – these are elements woven through the fabric of my Shadowside version of Cleveland, Ohio. These come out especially with Zack’s questionable allies among the Nephilim, Saliriel and Remy, and their main base of operations, Club Heaven.

I have to ask, are there any specific experiences that you’ve had with the paranormal that have made their way into this work?
Oh boy, where do I start? In many ways, the Shadowside series grew out of my work as a paranormal investigator. I witnessed so many things people wouldn’t believe in any medium other than fiction. In Harsh Gods, possession is the focus, and I shamelessly drew upon elements of suspected possessions I personally witnessed in order to intensify the creep factor of the main baddie, Whisper Man. Zack’s psychic abilities – especially his perception of Crossings, where human trauma leaves a kind of stain in the fabric of reality – are also strongly inspired by personal experience.

Parents like to say they don’t have a favorite child, but we all know that’s not true. I could say the same for writers. So who’s your favorite child... erm, I mean character?
Zack’s great. I love writing him, but he can sometimes be a broody bastard – and the only way to get him out of his shell is Lil. Lillee Gibson, Lilianna, the Lady of Beasts – call her what you will, Lil is all fire and scathing sarcasm, and I adore writing her as a foil to Zack. There’s a lot of freedom because she’s not the POV character. I don’t have to make her relatable. I don’t have to make her a nice person. She can say and do whatever she wants, and that is exactly what she does whenever she takes the stage.

Do you usually root for the heroes or the villians?
The villains. I can’t help myself. It’s so easy to write a hero. Everyone wants to like them. But it’s a challenge to make people like the villain – and maybe even relate a bit to the choice to do evil.

Who are your favorite authors?
I grew up reading Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Tanith Lee, and too many others to count. Speculative fiction, mystery, horror, thrillers – genre was less important than some element of the supernatural. It wasn’t just about monsters, though. The stories I sought out again and again used their monsters to tell very human stories, and that was what gripped me. That contrast – how the supernatural can be used to put our day-to-day experiences into a new light – that keeps me coming back.

What about up and coming authors? Anyone caught your fancy?
I have great respect for the art of the short story, and that’s a lot of what I’ve been reading of late. Alyssa Wong’s “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” caught my eye a little while ago, and it deservedly won a recent Hugo. I’m very keen to see what else she dreams up. Max Gladstone’s “A Kiss with Teeth” turned me onto to the rest of his fiction (start with the Craft Sequence). Ursula Vernon’s “Jackalope Wives” blew me away, and I would love to see more of her voice out there. In slightly longer form fiction, Matt Wallace’s Sin du Jour novellas are a perfect blend of action, humor, and supernatural shenanigans. But honestly, there are so many fresh, new voices out there, it’s hard to keep up.

Back to your characters for a minute, who would you like to have a beer with? Who do you wish you hadn’t created?
Remy – Zack’s blood-sucking brother and sometime ally – is totally someone I would go out with clubbing, and as part of the Nephilim tribe, he’d have the skinny on all the coolest parties. As for who I wish I hadn’t created, it’s not so much a who as a collective of “its.” The cacodaimons – composite horrors that creep into the edges of our reality from the deep places of the dark – they’re shuddersome nasties and more than a few readers have described them fittingly as “nightmare fuel.” Since I was going for creepy as hell with them, that’s probably a good thing, but still – getting into their heads leaves me with that skittery feeling you get when you’ve spied an enormous spider crawling far too close to your shoulder, and when you go to smush it, it’s disappeared.

Tell me one thing that’s on your bucket list.
I want to visit the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva, where Lord Byron hosted the Shelleys and where Mary’s Frankenstein was conceived.

If you were asked to write a book in a different genre than your current works, what genre would you choose and why?
Gothic Horror, hands-down. The creeping, old-school stuff like “Turn of the Screw.” I love the atmosphere, the slowly building dread, and also the lushness of language that genre provides. Although it’s a movie, Guillermo del Toro’s “Crimson Peak” embodies all the ideals of Gothic Horror, and I would love to immerse myself in such a darkly beautiful world where every door opens to secrets and evil wears a seductive face.

What are you working on right now?
Currently, I’m finishing the first draft of The Resurrection Game, the third book in the Shadowside Series. The action takes place about six months after the close of Harsh Gods and it brings a few things from Conspiracy full circle. Zack’s up to his neck in cacodaimons, and someone is hunting people from his past.

Care to give us the first sentence of the last chapter you were working on?
“For an interminable stretch of minutes, my brain clamored orders at a body that stubbornly refused to respond.”

The Resurrection Game opens with a heated battle, and I really put Zack through the ringer. We all love beating up on our main characters, right? It’s fun to see what they do once they get back up.

So, say you just got arrested. What’s the most likely reason the cops are carting you off to jail?
I finally hauled off and punched someone for being an ignorant a-hole. Seriously. Some days that’s a challenge.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever researched for one of your books?
You know that joke about writers and serial killers having the same browser history? That would be me. Since I started writing the Shadowside Series, I’ve had to research how to make a bomb from a propane tank (thanks, Lil), how easily a homeless person without a legal ID can get their hands on a hunting rifle (the answer was scary), and the average time it would take someone to joint a desiccated a human body (that honor goes to Zack). With all that, I think the strangest thing still was the depth of Lake Erie: a mere 200 feet, as it turns out. That’s not necessarily strange, but that research led to information on the salt mines 1800 feet beneath Cleveland’s northern shoreline. Google the pictures. They’re both terrifying an amazing. I’ve lived here my entire life and I had no idea.

What’s the one book you wish you had written?
Tobin’s Spirit Guide. Yes, I know it’s a fictional book made up for the original Ghostbusters, but I still love the concept. Wouldn’t it be great to have a handy dandy field guide to every ghost, ghoul, and beastie out there? Of course, I’m the researcher who slogged through 16th century Latin manuscripts in German block print just to collect the names for the Dictionary of Demons, so there’s still time.

Tell us about your most embarrasing bookish experience.
You know, I can’t even remember the title of it anymore, but it was this vampire romance novel I wrote when I was seventeen. It got entered into some contest run by Avon/Flare. It didn’t win, thank God. It was filled with so many clichés and such over-the-top writing, I’m happy the manuscript got lost in a move.

When you were little, what did you dream of being when you grew up?
I knew from the time I put crayon to paper that I wanted to grow up and become a writer. When my mom passed back in 2004 and I was going through her things, I found the first “book” I’d ever penned – this little eight page story all stapled together about my aunt’s dog that got hit by a car. Hand-written and illustrated the winter before my final heart surgery, I would’ve been four. Mom kept it for thirty years.

What’s your writing quirk? Every author’s got one ;)
I am very particular about my keyboard, to the point that I’ve been using the same laptop long past when the poor thing should have been retired. Most of the letters have been worn from the keys and a few of them have visible divots from repeated wear. The laptop speaks to my need for familiar things around me when I settle down to write – the same location, the same music, the same brand of tea, prepared an exacting way. All of these things become sensory cues that I use to propel myself into my writing headspace. It’s totally Pavlovian, but so far, it works.

In your most recent work, would you tell us about some of the material that didn’t make it past the cutting room floor?
So many conversations with Zack and Lil! Once those two get going, they don’t quit, and while the banter is always fun to write, it doesn’t always drive the plot. The holes in Zack’s memory leave so many openings for Lil, and she just can’t resist teasing him – or using his ignorance as a goad to get things she wants. A specific example would be material about the Lusty Leprechaun event at Club Heaven. Zack learns that Lil, in her spare time, performs with a burlesque troupe, the Windy City Vixens. Poor Zack just can’t wrap his head around the notion of Lil dancing with a group of mortals. He thinks of her as sexy, no doubt, but he’s seen her cold, efficient assassin side first hand, and the two simply don’t compute. What readers don’t get to see is her actual performance – although I couldn’t resist hanging onto it, maybe to release as an extra down the line.

What’s your favorite Disney movie? Seriously, this one is super important. Your life depends on your answer here.
When I was very little, my mom took me to see the original Fantasia in the theaters. That movie – all the lavish, creative imagery – had a tremendous impact on me, especially the “Night on Bald Mountain” scenes. I was so young, you’d think those Walpurgisnacht monsters would have terrified me, but I loved them. I guess my fascination for dark things started pretty young. Second to that? Frozen – and it’s funny you should ask. Because Halley loves her Disney Princesses, I had to revisit the movies, with an eye toward which ones she would like above all the rest. Her autism often makes her feel like she’s isolated, with her mind as the lonely tower, so Halley’s current favorite is Tangled. 

Where can our readers find your work?
Harsh Gods gets released simultaneously in the US, UK, and Canada, so you’ll find it at chain stores like Barnes & Noble, indie stores like Forbidden Planet, and of course, online sites like Amazon. For most of my non-fiction books, like the Dictionary of Demons, it’s the same story. And, of course, you can purchase signed copies directly from my site at

What/When is your next release coming out?
After Harsh Gods, there’s a Shadowside novella that will be released in installments this October. Mortal Sins is a ghost story, with Zack and Lil at the center, and the action takes place in between Conspiracy of Angels and Harsh Gods. It answers a few things about Lailah, Zack’s some-time partner, and, best of all, it will be free.

How do you want readers to keep in touch with you?
The easiest place to catch me online is Twitter. My handle is @sethanikeem and I’m very active there. Be forewarned – it’s not all books & writing. I ramble about gaming, paranormal investigation, music, social commentary and, of course, my two feline writing companions, Bliss and Remy (yes, named for the character).

About the Author:

Michelle Belanger is an author, occult expert, singer, and psychic seen regularly on the television Paranormal State. She's been featured on programs on HBO, the History Channel, Destination America, and CNN Headline News. Michelle's work has taken her around the globe, but she resides near Cleveland, Ohio with two cats, a few friendly spirits, and a library of more than five thousand books.

Find her:
Twitter: @sethanikeem

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