Gemma Tarlach, author of “Plaguewalker”
Just in time for Halloween, author Gemma Tarlach celebrates the release of "Plaguewalker" with readings at Boswell and the Wauwatosa Public Library this week.
Gemma Tarlach is truly a Renaissance woman. She’s a writer who was once the pop music critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She’s worked as a baker and pastry chef. She’s also a world traveler who has made her way to all seven continents.
Now you can add novelist to Tarlach’s list of impressive accomplishments. Her historical novel, Plaguewalker, has just been released. Plaguewalker is about Marcus, an orphan who is adopted by the town executioner. Truly evil and hated by his fellow townspeople, Marcus somehow finds redemption while trying to find his missing daughter.
To launch the release of the novel, she is doing two readings and signings: Friday, Oct. 26, at 7 p.m., at Boswell Book Company, and on Saturday, Oct, 27, at 2 p.m., she joins forces with award-winning author Paul McComas for the “Halloweekend ‘Tosa Tag Team of Terror” reading and signing at the Wauwatosa Public Library.
ThirdCoast Digest interviewed Tarlach about the inspiration behind Plaguewalker, this week’s upcoming events, her future plans and what she loves about Milwaukee.
TCD: What inspired you to write Plaguewalkerand why are you so drawn to the historical fiction genre?
Gemma Tarlach: I was inspired by two museum exhibits that happened to be co-located when I was living in Germany several years ago. One exhibit was on the Black Death. The other was on the role of the executioner in medieval German society, which is fascinating. The two topics seemed to go together, but I filed them in the back of my mind for a few years before the character Marcus came to me and tied it all together. Although the setting is historical and the theme is a classic journey from evil to redemption, Marcus himself was inspired by two pop culture characters: my childhood idol Darth Vader (yes, really), and a professional wrestler known as The Undertaker.
TCD: What do you want readers to get from reading Plaguewalker?
GT: Well, most importantly, I hope they enjoy reading it! I write the kinds of stories I want to read, and my personal preference is for characters you find yourself caring about even though they may do some reprehensible things. I’ll admit it. I love villains. I love learning what makes them do what they do, and what they think, if anything, about their work.
I also love stories that focus on a character usually on the fringes of other tales. Plaguewalker is the story of an amoral executioner and how his world is completely upended by the Black Death. As readers journey with Marcus, I hope that they see behind the executioners’ mask—in many ways, despite his size and brutish manner, he is vulnerable and insecure, even a bit clueless about basic things, such as how to have a normal conversation with another human being.
Once you understand and even sympathize with a man who may appear at first as monstrous, I think you’re drawn to ask questions about how character is formed and changed, whether there is a difference between being evil and doing evil.
I also hope readers get the moments of humor. It’s dark subject matter, I know, but Marcus has a desert-dry sense of humor. I am of course highly biased, but it’s his beleaguered asides that really endeared him to me.
TCD: What can audiences expect from you readings at Boswell Book Company and the Wauwatosa Public Library?
GT: I’ve been told I’m very entertaining when I’ve had too much coffee, for starters. I’ll be reading a few short selections from Plaguewalker, but I’ll also be talking about what inspired me to write it, my writing process, which I think is a little unusual, and the circumstances under which the book was published. I was living in Antarctica at the time, in winter, and had to do everything digitally. I’ll also be answering questions about the book and about my global nomad ways. And I promise at least two amusing Darth Vader anecdotes, one of which involves kissing him. No, really.
TCD: You have such an interesting life. How do your life experiences influence your writing?
GT: A couple friends of mine have been bugging me forever to write my memoirs. I feel like I’m too young to do that, but I also feel like my experiences sneak into my fiction writing anyway. I love to walk outside in cold weather, for example—snow, rain, sleet, wind—and I noticed that my characters, poor things, tend to get stuck walking a lot in miserable weather. What they see, the sound of their feet crunching on snow or wet leaves, all comes from my own experiences. More broadly, I’ve been fortunate to travel to some of the most amazing places on our planet, and specific landscapes often make their way into my writing.
TCD: What do you miss about Milwaukee? And is there anything you’d like to do in Milwaukee besides the readings?
GT: Some people don’t believe me, but I’m actually back in Milwaukee for good. I think traveling like I have has given me a great appreciation for the city that one might not have if they don’t stray too far. Milwaukee has such a great quality of life and so much to offer culturally for a city its size. And I love Lake Michigan. If I had to pick one thing I missed about the city, other than my amazing and generous friends, it would be the lake. Even when I’m not looking at it, I feel its presence.
GT: I’m working on a fantasy novel, The War’s End, that I hope to publish next year. Like Plaguewalker, the two main characters in The War’s End probably would be treated as second tier villains in someone else’s story. I was inspired to write the tale after a chance encounter on a bus got me thinking about the aftermath of war: the main villains are destroyed one way or another, yes, but what happens to the rest of the bad guys? The minions, the underlings? The War’s End is their story. I’m also working on a collection of short stories and the sequel to The War’s End, as well as drafting another idea for a fantasy novel. What can I say…wintering in Antarctica gives one a lot of time to think and write!
Meet Gemma Tarlach on Friday, Oct. 26, 7 p.m. at Boswell Book Company, located at 2559 N. Downer Avenue. Join Gemma Tarlach and Paul McComas for the “Tag Team of Terror Reading” on Saturday, Oct. 27 at 2 p.m. at the Wauwatosa Public Library, located at 7635 W. North Avenue.