The Big Idea: A.J. Hartley

If we’re lucky, we don’t come to close to thing that might terrify us. A.J. Hartley did not have that luck, and the encounter he had informed what would become his latest novel, Impervious.


How do you make fantasy out of real life horror?

It happened 51 weeks ago, my personal glimpse of a distinctly American nightmare many of us generally witness from the safe distance of our living rooms while the usual images crowd our TVs and laptop screens: aerial footage of locked down schools surrounded by police cars with strobing lights, SWAT teams running past assembly halls, classrooms and libraries, crying children being led away. Then the endless talking heads babbling about motives, about mental health issues and, of course, about weapons. If there is a good thing to come out of this Corona virus nightmare it’s this: no more mass shootings.

51 weeks ago I was sheltering for fear of something other than contagion. I was huddled in a silent dressing room in a soundproofed corner of our university’s performing arts complex. I am, among other things, a Shakespeare professor in UNC Charlotte’s department of theatre, and I had been about to participate in an end of year celebration for our graduating students. Then the gunfire started in a neighboring building a couple of hundred yards away. Some people ran, some took shelter, fearing that we might be more vulnerable outside. I took a group of students and we waited it out in a locked dressing room, watching our muted phones for news of what was or might be going on.

I was oddly calm at the time, as if I had always known this day would come. I knew that my job was to stay composed and help others to do the same, and though we knew shots had been fired, we didn’t hear anything. Theatres are built to screen the noise beyond their walls out, so we kept still, listening for the sound of footsteps approaching, of someone trying to get in, wondering which of those with us might help fight off an attacker.

Run. Hide. Fight.

Those were the instructions we got through our phones from the school’s emergency broad cast system. We had missed our chance at the first, and all we could do was the second, hoping it didn’t come to the last.

And it didn’t. People died, but not us. One student, Riley Howel, sacrificed himself to disarm the gunman, and then the police contained the situation. We didn’t know that for almost two hours, during which time there were rumors of a second shooter which came through social media, talk of the police looking for bombs in other buildings… So we waited until the all clear came, the police swept the buildings and we emerged back into normal reality.

Except not really.

It was a couple of days before my first full on panic attack. I was grocery shopping at the store I always go to. It was all absolutely familiar. Then, for no reason I can identify, I started freaking out. I had to warn people how much danger they were in. I had to get out of there before he got me.

It wasn’t rational or triggered (the perfect word) by anything I could pinpoint. I just felt unsafe. 51 weeks on, a part of me still does.

So I did what I always do when I need to process something: I wrote. Specifically, I wrote a fantasy novel about a Buffy the Vampire Slayer-esque high school girl called Trina who wakes up one day with a curious affinity for and skill with blades: kitchen knives, machetes, swords. She was a hero born for a specific moment, a moment taking shape in her school, a moment we have seen countless times on those TV screens and laptop computers…

I wrote almost continually for thirteen days, pausing only to eat and sleep and use the bathroom. And when I was done I had a story called Impervious: young adult in terms of the protagonist, a little shorter than most complete novels, but a story, whole and finished. I tidied it up over the next week or so, polishing some more during the editorial process which spread out over the few months after the novel was acquired by Falstaff books. But the heart of the thing was done in those first thirteen days when I could still feel what it had been like, sneaking, hiding, wondering if I would walk away from it. Never in my life has the old cliché been truer: this was a book I had to write. It was part catharsis, part clarification and it was entirely necessary.

I am not naïve enough to imagine for a moment that a novel will have any significant impact in the world, but maybe—maybe—it will help people who have been in similar situations, or have not fully imagined what that experience is like. At the time I was baffled by how upsetting it was since, as I kept telling people, I had never personally been in serious danger. I wasn’t shot. I didn’t see those who were. But I have felt vulnerable ever since, as if a portion of the world I knew only by repute has become real to me. Maybe the book will do similarly for others. If nothing else, it’s a book about heroes, sung and unsung, and we always need those.


Impervious: Amazon|Others

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4 Comments on “The Big Idea: A.J. Hartley”

  1. Very interesting. I’d had the same thought about current conditions – at least the gun deaths must have dropped off in the U.S. for a while. But it turns out everything is kind of upside down right now. I’m Canadian, and up here we somehow just managed to have our worst mass shooting ever, and this happened during the pandemic, in a country where gun culture isn’t remotely as much of a thing. None of it makes any sense.

    At any rate, it’s devastating that anyone has to go through the horror of being involved in or adjacent to something like this anywhere. I spent a year working on a college campus in the U.S., and all the new employees there went through “active shooter” training. I’m glad they provided it, but all this much time later and I’m still boggled by the need for that.

  2. This looks like something I really need to read.

    A close family member went through a horrific workplace shooting a couple of years ago (literally right in front of them, watching the shooter, hearing the screams), and while they survived without physical injury, the psychological impacts are still reverberating for them. Those of us who haven’t experienced an event like that can’t imagine what it is like, and hence are limited in how effectively we can support the survivors no matter how badly we may want to do so. So I have actively sought out any way that I can broaden my comprehension of what my family member endured, which means I think this just got added to my list.

    And to Mr. Hartley, please accept my deepest sympathies. I wish you peace and healing.

  3. This looks very interesting and I’ve already picked up the Kindle version. I love the Big Idea posts because every once in a while I’m struck by it enough to get the book right away. Looking forward to reading it.

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