The Scariest Part: J.A. McLachlan Talks About THE OCCASIONAL DIAMOND THIEF

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This week on The Scariest Part, my guest is J.A. McLachlan, whose latest novel is The Occasional Diamond Thief. Here’s the publisher’s description:

What if you learned your father was a thief? Would you follow in his footsteps, learn his “trade”? If you were the only one who knew, would you keep his secret?

Kia is training to be a universal interpreter. Her plans go awry when she is co-opted into traveling as an interpreter to Malem. This is the last place in the universe that Kia wants to be — it’s the planet where her father caught the terrible illness that killed him — but it’s also where he got the magnificent diamond that only she knows about. Kia is convinced he stole it, as it is illegal for any off-worlder to possess a Malemese diamond.

Using her skill in languages — and another skill she picked up, the skill of picking locks — Kia unravels the secret of the mysterious gem and learns what she must do to set things right: return the diamond to its original owner.

But how will she find out who that is when no one can know that she, an off-worlder, has a Malemese diamond? Can she trust the new friends she’s made on Malem, especially handsome but mysterious Jumal, to help her? And will she solve the mystery in time to save Agatha, the last person she would have expected to become her closest friend?

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for J.A. McLachlan:

At first, considering this post, I didn’t think my book, The Occasional Diamond Thief, is scary. It definitely isn’t traditional horror. But then I began to think about the nature of fear. Sure, soul-eaters and zombies and paranormal occurrences are frightening — but they’re scary the way a roller-coaster is scary: you’re screaming as you plunge downward, but at the bottom you’re laughing, because you know the frightening thing was never real. It could never happen to you.

What is real, what is truly terrifying, are the things that could happen to us. Fatal illnesses destroying our body or our mind; public humiliation; failure at something that matters vitally to us; falling from a great height. A near miss with something horrifying doesn’t entertain us; it haunts us, appears in our dreams, and jumps out at us in all its gruesomeness when we try to ignore it.

One sunny day back when I was in university, a young man jumped from the top of a building where I was having a class. His body had been removed by the time I left my class, but the outline of his landing was there on the concrete, along with blood and bits of him. A friend of mine had been walking by when he jumped and was still shaking as he described with chilling detail seeing the young man land near him.

From that day, I have been afraid of heights — or, more specifically, falling from them. I have to steel my nerves to drive over a tall bridge. Ferris wheels, which I used to love, now terrify me — I mean, really, you’re not even strapped in! I imagine not the landing, but the long fall, knowing all the way down that I am going to hit, hard, and there’s no preventing it. I have nightmares of being on the top of very high, narrow buildings which begin to sway unsteadily in the wind…

The scariest things are things that are real to us because we have seen them ourselves and we know it could happen to us. My novel isn’t horror, but it is suspenseful, and Kia, the main character, has to face a number of terrifying things — exposure to the plague that killed her father, imprisonment, and the brutal justice of Malem, where the story takes place. While I haven’t written my fear of heights into Kia, I have given her the experience of witnessing something terrifying that might well happen to her, and then having to face that fear again and again.

In the following excerpt, Kia and her friends Agatha and Hamza have been rounded up along with all the citizens of Malem to watch justice being executed in the public square:

“Don’t look, Kia,” Agatha whispers to me. Her mouth moves in a silent prayer. Her face is so white that even her lips are a pale ivory color.

“You must look, both of you,” Hamza says quickly. “The guards are watching to see that we do. Try to look without seeing. Stare straight ahead but focus inward. If you can’t do that, watch the priest, not the boy. Under the law he’s still a child; they’ll only take off two of his fingers, not the whole hand.”

I swallow, hard.

In a loud voice that carries across the square, the priest cries out the name of the boy and his crime: theft. The priest’s face is impassive but in the sunlight I can see beads of sweat on his forehead. He grasps an axe which is leaning against the wooden block, and raises it. He holds it aloft for one terrible moment while he takes aim.

He won’t do it, I think, staring at the axe as it trembles in the air. It flashes down so quickly I don’t believe it’s really happening until I hear it thunk deep into the block of wood.

I lean forward and throw up.

That night, Kia has a nightmare…

I wake hours later. It is pitch dark. My left arm, minus the hand, lies heavy across my chest. I can feel the stump of my wrist above my breast. I cannot breathe, cannot move. I lie there paralyzed with terror. A strangled whimper gurgles in my throat, and I am breathing, sweating, but still too afraid to move, my every sense focused on the arm across my chest. Is there a hand or not? As nightmare and sleep recede, I force myself to raise my right hand, to feel along my forearm… and grasp my left hand with a relief so great it leaves me dizzy. I become aware of Agatha lying beside me in our bed, her breathing deep and regular. I am safe in the house on Prophet’s Lane.

Not safe. None of us are safe, stranded here at the mercy of barbarians.

I think of my bags and what’s in them, and close my eyes. My left hand is still cradled in my right, but I am no longer reassured. I listen intently: all is quiet. I get up and grope by touch in the darkness through my bags until I feel the smooth, hard surface of the little box of thieves’ tools Sodum gave me.

Oh, did I mention that Kia is in possession of a stolen diamond, not to mention a box of thieves’ tools? For the rest of the novel she is vitally aware of what will happen to her if they are discovered; she’s witnessed it first-hand. Yet she has to use both the diamond and the tools, risking their discovery, in order to save herself and those she cares about.

That’s like asking me to sky-dive in order to save people I love, after I’ve seen what happens to someone who falls from a great height. Believe me, I’d far rather be chased by zombies!

J.A. McLachlan: Website / Facebook / Twitter

The Occasional Diamond Thief: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Powell’s / IndieBound / Indigo / Goodreads / Kobo

J.A. McLachlan taught college ethics and has published two textbooks on professional ethics through Pearson/Prentice Hall. She is currently a full-time writer with two published science fiction novels: Walls of Wind and her most recent book, a young adult science fiction novel titled The Occasional Diamond Thief, published by EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing.

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