Interview With an Author: Natalie Zina Walschots

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Natalie Zina Walschots and her debut novel, Hench
Photo credit: Max Lander

Natalie Zina Walschots is a writer and game designer whose work includes LARP scripts, heavy metal music journalism, video game lore, and weirder things classified as "interactive experiences." Her writing on the interactive adventure The Aluminum Cat won an IndieCade award, and her poetic exploration of the notes engine in Bloodborne was featured in Kotaku and First Person Scholar. She is (unfortunately) the author of two books of poetry: Thumbscrews, which won the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry, and DOOM: Love Poems for Supervillains. Natalie sits on the board of Dames Making Games, space for queer and gender-marginalized people to create games freely, where she hosts interactive narrative workshops. She plays a lot of D&D, participates in a lot of Nordic LARPs, watches a lot of horror movies, and reads a lot of speculative fiction. She lives in Toronto with her partner and five cats. This is, arguably, too many cats. Her debut novel is Hench and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for Hench?

I've always been fascinated by henchpeople as characters. They are, by nature, peripheral and disposable, meant only to have a single pithy line (or no speaking part at all) before being chucked through a window by some hero or another. But as characters, they've always been incredibly interesting to me. I've wanted to know who they are, how they ended up with this job, what their personal lives are like, and why they made the choices they did. Like, how did you choose to wear a themed outfit and place yourself at great personal risk every day? I eventually realized that this with the story I needed to write because no one was going to tell it for me.

I've also often felt like a henchperson in my own career: in someone else's shadow, considered completely interchangeable or disposable, doing truly ridiculous things for money. A lot of those experiences ended up being funneled into the book (I really did hide someone's phone in a spooky pumpkin).

Are Anna, June, Leviathan, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

Anna, June and a lot of the other henches are based more on situations than specific people. Collectively, they look something like my real-life friends and colleagues, who are all hilarious geniuses. Similarly, Leviathan is based more on the *idea* of a supervillain than any one particular person or character, though he has elements of every villain (the Phantom of the Opera, The Goblin King) I had a crush on when I was 13 years old.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

There's nothing that I wished had made it in that didn't; I had a wonderful experience working with my editor, David Pomerico, and all of the changes and cuts were things I think made the book much better in the process. Now and again a line I really loved would just not quite fit and it would regretfully be sacrificed, but that's just the writing process in general.

The first draft of the book, which I primarily wrote in 2016-2017, didn't have the depth that the final version did. It was a lot more glib. Over time, as I got to know the characters better and got a better sense of what I wanted the story to do, it gained more complex narrative layers. It also got a lot angrier.

I’m guessing you are a big comic book/graphic novel reader. Are you a DC or Marvel fan (or some other publisher)?

Growing up, I was always a DC Vertigo person, but in the last few years I cannot deny the Marvel cinematic universe has become something extraordinary.

Do you have a favorite comic book adaptation (television, motion picture or theatre production)?

The first season of Jessica Jones has a massive impact on me; it's still one of my favourite hero stories of all time for the way it handles relationships and trauma in the context of superpowers. I also think that the tv adaptation of Wynonna Earp is absolutely amazing and hilarious.

Do you have a favorite superhero? Villain?

My favourite comic villain is, unquestionably, Dr. Doom. I recently wrote about these feelings.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

Honestly having a superpower seems kind of terrible. They seem to make everything bad and complicated, and also place huge expectations on you to do good (or evil) in very particular and not very healthy ways. I wish I felt well-rested all the time and never had a headache, but I am not sure that counts.

The ending of Hench seems open to the possibility of readers getting to follow Anna on another adventure. Is Hench a standalone novel or might there be more books in the future?

I would dearly like there to be more! I loved spending time in this universe and with these characters, and I feel like there is a lot more to explore here. I wrote Hench in such a way that if this was the whole story I got to tell then it would hang together as a complete arc, but I also wanted to leave the door open to more in the future.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

Harrow the Ninth by Tamsin Muir, When No One Is Watching by Alyssa Cole, How To Future by Madeline Ashby and Scott Smith, and Be Scared of Everything by Peter Counter.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

Two of the first novels I remember loving, that I still think are incredible, were Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH and Z for Zachariah, both by Robert C. O'Brien. I also read a lot of Stephen King, and huge quantities of high fantasy (if there was a dragon or a wizard on the cover I was in).

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

I wasn't supervised very much when I was a child, certainly not when it came to media consumption, so I didn't feel much of a need to hide anything I read. I remember once having some horror novel in my hands (I think I was about 10), and my dad taking it from me and flipping to a random page to see what I was reading. Whatever it was horrified him, and he said something like, "You like this kind of thing? Should we be letting you read this?" I pointed out it was rather late for that, and he must have agreed because he handed it back to me.

What is a book you've faked reading?

Oh man, I am for sure a recovering book liar. When I was doing my MA, I was very young and was working with several people who made me feel terrible any time I admitted I hadn't read something. Admitting I hadn't read J.G. Ballard or a particular Dennis Lee was treated like a personal failing. I started lying about having read things just so I wouldn't have to hear "What do you mean you haven't read this, *lecture begins*." Over time I have worked very hard not to do this because I now have people in my life who are just going to be excited to tell me about a thing they think I would like, but it's a habit I had to break.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

I spent a very long time buying books exclusively for the covers; as a kid I'd go into my shitty small-town mall's only bookstore and buy literally anything with a mythical creature or magical orb on it. I think buying books for the cover is still an excellent strategy, especially when it comes to spec fic. There's so much art and joy in those covers, it's worth it.

Is there a book that changed your life?

Lots and lots of books have changed my life. It's genuinely hard to pick one. Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus really changed the way I think about storytelling and fairytales; A Long Way To A Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers taught me so much about characters and relationships and joy, and I learned a ton about stories about stories from the Sandman comics.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

I don't know if I can say I have been evangelical about it at all, but I think everyone should read Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

If I could etch-a-sketch my brain, I would love to read The Last Unicorn again for the first time. It is so kind and wonderful and full of joy. This could also be on my list of life-changing books.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

I feel like my answer today is very different from what it might have been 6 or 8 months ago. The thing I miss the most, and that would make almost any day perfect, would be going out for diner breakfast with my friends. If we're talking perfect-perfect, then I am with my partner in New York and we spend the afternoon exploring, and have the best pizza in the universe somewhere for dinner, and then head back to a hotel and go to bed early or stay up all night playing video games. But friends and diner breakfast are the essential things.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

It is something that I am often asked, but I am always hoping someone will ask me if they can bring me food/coffee/tea, and the answer is always yes. I am extremely treat-motivated and my affection can be bought with snacks, like a cat.

What are you working on now?

Many things, because I am extremely bad at relaxing in any meaningful sense of the word. I am beginning to work on a sequel to Hench, hoping one will take shape; I am also writing a video game with some collaborators, and writing a fake true-crime podcast.

Book cover for Hench
Walschots, Natalie Zina

In her debut novel, Natalie Zina Walschots takes a critical look at the concepts of heroes and villains, and how they are wielded in our culture. Simultaneously, like the greatest of the graphic novels that surely were an inspiration, she also comments on contemporary cultural issues like the plight of the temporary worker (and others who are under-employed with low pay, no benefits, and little to no security in the positions they hold, which can be, and often are, eliminated in a moment). However, Walschots IS dealing with superheroes and villains, so all of this is done with a wink, a nudge, and a wicked sense of humor.