Local bird expert Clara Volar pens first horror novel
Parkite C.J. Johnson has been fascinated by birds from an early age, and when she was five, she had her first up-close encounter with a humming bird.
"I remember sitting in my neighbors yard that had these violets in it and a hummingbird flew over to suck the nectar out of these flowers," Johnson said during an interview with The Park Record. "It came so close to me that I thought I could touch it."
Johnson did that and more.
"I reached out and caught it and felt the vibration of its wings," she said. "It was so incredible to think I was holding a hummingbird. I wanted to take it to show my mom and decided to take a little peek and when I opened my hand, it flew straight up to the sky, but I knew I had touched magic."
Throughout her life, Johnson has worked at Tracy Aviary in Salt Lake City and did bird shows at Hogle Zoo.
She also works closely with Candy Carlson, who is a wildlife bird rehabilitator with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, and has used her avian knowledge to pen a new book, "Zombie Flock," under the pen name Clara Volar.
"I had to find a pen name because there is already a C.J. Johnson who is a horror author," Johnson said. "I chose Clara Volar because I like the sound of Clara and the word Volar in Spanish means to fly."
Johnson also took a cue from New York Times best-selling horror author Dean Koontz.
"He has a dog in every novel, and I’m going to have a bird in all my books," Johnson said. "So I wanted something that would tie that in, so Clara Volar is what I came up with."
"Zombie Flock" is about a man named Harold Harbinger, who works with an elite team of ornithologists that is searching for an antidote to parrot fever, a life-threatening bacterial disease that kills birds and humans.
One night, Harbinger infects his wife, who comes back as a humanoid zombie with bird-like attributes that infects others and goes on a killing rampage.
Although Johnson has written other books, including children’s books about birds, "Zombie Flock" is her first horror novel.
"A story developed in my head," Johnson said. "I saw the characters and I saw a dilemma and a story line coming together."
Johnson didn’t start writing the story until recently, thanks to the prodding of a friend.
"My middle son is an actor and I was on the phone with his agent, and the agent told me to get on the computer and write the story," Johnson said. "From that point, the story kept spilling out, but I didn’t have any idea where it was going. I just knew I had to follow it.
"I became obsessed with it and there were many dinners that I didn’t make for my family, but my husband saw how happy I was," she said. "And my son, Ben, and sister Chris, who read the manuscripts, really got into the story because the characters became so real to them."
The only part of the book that came to Johnson in advance was the climatic chapter.
"Author Kurt Vonnegut tell us that in order for us to write a novel is that we have to come up with a character that readers will fall in love with and then do horrible things to him," Johnson said with a laugh. "So that’s what I did, but just so everyone knows, none of the characters are based on people that I know, although I did name one of the characters after one of my sons, Davis."
To give the book some realism, all the things the zombies do are based on what birds do in real life.
"I thought to get them perching in trees at night because birds, even wild birds, get set in routines," Johnson said. "They love to sleep in the same spot every night. They like to eat in the same areas and fight to do that."
There are some birds that mate for life and there’s even a point in the book when a zombie couple is seen having a little tug of war with each other.
"It’s kind of a lighthearted and playful scene," Johnson said.
As with many zombie books, there is disturbing imagery as well.
"Birds also can be very mean, and gouge each other birds’ eyes out when they feel threatened," Johnson said. "There is some primal instinct in birds and its usually happens during the breeding season.
"I’ve seen that," she said. "It’s the most horrible thing when someone brings me a bird that has had its eyes pecked out. It’s pretty clear how gory and violent birds can be, which is appropriate for a horror novel."
In addition to writing a horror novel, Johnson wanted to educate people about birds, and in her afterword explains that she hopes her readers don’t start to fear birds because of the story.
"I actually hope the book will help people see how complex a bird is and develop an admiration for them," she said.
She also wants the book to help give people some guidance when buying birds for pets.
"We had just watched a documentary called ‘Parrot Confidential’ and it talked about how people in South America and Mexico take baby parrots from nests and sell them to the pet trade," Johnson said. "The public buy these parrots and become disenchanted with them and surrender them to bird rescue places or just let them go into the wild, which is dangerous to the bird. So I think educating people in the end is most important."
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