In our roles as UNC Charlotte professors, Andrew Hartley and I were both on campus on April 30th of last year, the day that two UNC Charlotte students lost their lives in a shooting that took place in a campus classroom. I had left campus about fifteen minutes before the shooting occurred. Andrew, however, was in the middle of an end-of-year theatre departmental celebration when the shots rang out, so he and his students experienced first-hand the terror of huddling in a dressing room while the police investigated the shooting. Shortly after this experience, Andrew began writing a young adult fantasy novel in which he responded in a creative way to the shooting. The result is Impervious, which Falstaff Books released in April. For more information about this release, please click on the following link: http://falstaffbooks.com/impervious-book-release/
In his new novel, Andrew combines the grim reality of gun violence, the gritty world of today’s schools, and the liberating power of fantasy. Although real-world issues and problems often figure in Andrew’s fantasy novels, in Impervious the very real problem of school violence is at the center of the story. I recently contacted Andrew and asked him about how he combines fantasy and reality in the pages of Impervious. Here is his response:
Though I loved Tolkien growing up, I quickly gravitated to novels whose paranormal or fantastic elements were more clearly rooted in conventional reality and whose brand of evil was less abstract and more specifically human. That may have begun for me with Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy, but it expanded across genres and drove many of the stories I came to love, whether it was detective fiction or in the ordinary horrors of Stephen King. I developed a fascination with the way that the imagined, the spooky, or the otherworldly might be tied to the everyday. Likewise in television and film, I came to love the way that the most unlikely narratives might be the shadows cast by commonplace events, people or attitudes.
I didn’t start writing for younger readers till my son was old enough to read it. Until then I had written mostly adult mystery and thriller, but I came back to fantasy, my first literary love, moving from middle grade fiction to young adult as he aged. But I never lost that sense that the best fantasy did not point away from reality so much as it reflected back on it, albeit through a fun-house mirror which distorts and makes the familiar strange.
The idea for Impervious came to me several years ago: a fantasy novel in which the elements which marked it as fantasy gradually broke down, revealing an all too real and horrible event at the center, something the protagonist had not been able to bear looking at directly. I didn’t know how to write it, however, and it sat as a half developed outline, no more than a few pages long.
Then came April 30th 2019. I was trapped on campus at UNCC with a handful of students, hidden in a dressing room in the theatre building where I work, waiting for the police to determine it was safe to go out. A gunman had killed two students and injured four more. We waited for two hours in silence, trying to track events on our phones, see what had happened, what was happening, what might happen.
It was a few days before the extent of the trauma became clear to me. I was jumpy, emotional, prone to flashes of panic. It was odd because I had not actually been in real danger, though I hadn’t known that at the time. The shooter was subdued quickly, partly through the self sacrifice of a student, Riley Howell.
I don’t remember if it was my idea to write the book or if my wife suggested it. I’ve written through trauma before and it made sense to do it again. So I took the outline I had written for the fantasy novel built around a traumatic event, restructured it and spent two weeks at my computer, pausing, pretty much, only to sleep and eat. It just poured out. It was painful to write because I felt like I was reliving everything, but it was cathartic, and when it was done, I felt better.
I don’t know what other people will make of it, and a part of me doesn’t care, because writing it was, for me, both necessary and inevitable. If it brings other people closer to a sense of such things without having to live through them, if it helps them to reflect on violence, on heroism, all the better. I want it to. But I didn’t write it with that end in mind. I wrote it because if I was ever going to get out of that dressing room, I had to. Sometimes, that’s how writing is.
Andrew (or A.J. Hartley as he is known to his readers) has published many novels since moving to Charlotte in 2005, but Impervious is the one that has the deepest connections to his experiences in our city. Impervious was not just written in Charlotte; it was forged in the heat of one of Charlotte’s most hellish days. As such, Impervious is very much part of Storied Charlotte.