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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Interview with Dan Wells (by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Dan Wells Website
Read FBC Review of I Am Not a Serial Killer

1] Thank you for taking the time to interview with us so to begin with could you tell us about yourself, your background, and your eventual journey towards publication.

My name is Dan Wells, and I was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, in the US; aside from two years in Mexico, I've lived in Utah all my life. I'm married with four children, and after working for several years as a corporate writer (marketing, advertising, etc.) I sold a trilogy of books and I'm now a full-time novelist.

2] Who are the people who can lay claim to being your literary idols and which books are your favorites amongst the many genres that you read in?

My favorite authors include Victor Hugo, Joseph Conrad, Neil Gaiman, Philip K. Dick, and Bernard Cornwell. My favorite books include Dune by Frank Herbert, Perfume by Patrick Suskind, and Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen. I'm also a big lover of poetry, and some of my favorite poets are A. A. Milne, Emily Bronte, John Keats, and E.E. Cummings.

3] What do you do when you are not writing or reading books? What are your other hobbies?

I am a crazy, obsessive game player; I have two offices, one at home and one at work, and both are crammed full of board games, card games, miniatures games, and everything in between. My current favorite board game is Battlestar Galactica, though I also play a ton of Pandemic, Cosmic Encounter, Descent, and so on. I used to play a lot of Heroclix, because I'm a big superhero geek as well, and now that the game is live again I'm starting to get back into it.

4] What led you to the choice to write this book using the first person narrative considering it's your debut? How difficult/easy was it? What's your idea in the debate between using first or third person narratives in any story?

The choice of first person was easy for this particular book, because the main character is the centerpiece, and first person allowed me to really show how he thinks and feels. Of the ten books I've written, half have been first person and half have been third; I don't think one is more difficult than another, they just have different strengths and weaknesses, and different effects on the story and the reader.

5] How did you get started in writing? What were the types of books you think helped get you hooked on reading and thereby set you on this path as well?

My parents were both avid readers, so I became a reader very early. I loved JRR Tolkien and Anne McCaffrey and Fred Saberhagen, who combined to get me completely hooked on Fantasy; most of my early novels were fantasy, and today that's still the genre I read more than anything. If I had to choose the one author who got me hooked on writing, though, it would probably be A. A. Milne—I was never a huge fan of Winnie the Pooh, but I read the Christopher Robin poem collections cover to cover, multiple times, until I actually destroyed one from overuse. His language is so brilliant, yet so approachable and fun, that I knew immediately that THIS is what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to play with words.

6] Some writers like to plot out where the characters in their book are going to go and how they are going to grow. While other authors like to let the characters take on a life of themselves. Which type of writer are you and is there an example of a character developing into something that you never expected?

I think I'm about half and half: I know what I might my books to accomplish, and I outline them loosely so that, at the very least, I know how they're going to end and what I need to do to get there, but then I just sit down and right and play around and see where the story and the characters want to go. This process requires a lot of work up front, and a lot of work afterward in revision, but it's very satisfying and I love it. And yes, I've had many characters take on unexpected lives of their own; one of them is a minor character in "I Am Not a Serial Killer", who became slightly more important in "Mr. Monster" and then by book three was my very favorite character in the series. Another good example that I can actually talk about, is John Cleaver's mother—I imagined her as a flawed, dysfunctional parent, but as I wrote her I realized she had a deep love for her son that she simply didn't know how to express. This added dimension to her that I hadn't anticipated, and her goal to connect with her son became my goal to round her out, giving her opportunities to grow and redeem herself of the course of the trilogy.

7] When you began writing "I am not a serial Killer" did you plan it to be the first book in the trilogy or was it a standalone in which you saw further possibilities?

I knew that John Cleaver would make a great series character, but I hadn't actually plotted out a trilogy or figured out what the ongoing story would be. When the publisher bought the first they asked for two more, so I combed through my notes and put it all together. John is still such a great character, though, that I think I may come back to him in a year or two and write some more.

8] Have you thought about a series title for it? What can you tell us about the progress on the third book and could you tell us anything about it [title, plot?]

I don't have a title for the series, though I usually refer to them as "the John Cleaver books," so I suppose that works well enough. The third book in the series is called "I Don't Want to Kill You", and it's all finished and translated and into the final stages of production. What hints can I give you? Well, the third book is John's first real opportunity to be in control—he has a clear goal in mind, with a real purpose in life and a pretty good grip on his dark side. He's healthier, in a sense, than he's ever been. On the other hand, his active hunt for new demons is exactly what his dark side has always wanted to do, so he's controlling it and feeding it at the same time, which is more dangerous than he realizes. Book 3 also continues the social theme from Book 2, which was very fun to write—we know John can kill monsters, but he's still not very good at talking to people. Giving him a chance to grow and try to connect with people was a blast.

9] Why did you name the main character John Wayne Cleaver, Is it of any special significance to the series or just something which you thought would be funny in regards to the character.

When I first started working on this book four years ago, I started with the character concept and then just brainstormed to see where it led me; his name came almost instantly, and predates almost every other aspect of the books. "John Wayne," of course, comes from both the serial killer John Wayne Gacy, and the movie star John Wayne; one is an iconic villain, and the other an iconic hero, and that tension is exactly what I wanted for the character. The last name, Cleaver, has a similar tension, but it might not translate as well to a non-American culture: in the US in the 1950s we had a classic TV show called Leave it to Beaver that more or less defines the idyllic American family: everyone loves each other, everyone's always happy, the problems are always simple and they always solve them in half an hour. The family in the TV show was called the Cleavers, but Cleaver is also a giant knife used to chop through bones and meat, so the name signifies both simple joy and bloody horror at the same time.

10] You also do a series of Podcasts along with Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler and few other people, what would you have been your favorite topics amongst the many which you have discussed

Some of my favorite topics have been the recent episodes on Tragedy and Anti-heroes, because it gave us a chance to delve into the harder, harsher aspects of storytelling that we don't often deal with. I also love our worldbuilding series, and I'm always trying to add more episodes on that topic.

11] Can you give three weird facts which you unearthed during the research for your books.

  1. The serial killers we usually hear about are the ones with a distinct, wacky trait, like they always kill in the same way, or they always steal a certain body part, or whatever. And because that's all we hear about, that's how we assume they all are. Modern investigative theory suggests, however, that there are FAR, FAR more serial killers than we think, and that most of them are much more subtle and, therefore, harder to identify and almost impossible to catch. Sleep well tonight!
  2. When a mortician embalms a corpse, they only have to make the top half pretty because that's the only half you see in a funeral or viewing. In some cases, especially if the corpse was autopsied, if you open the bottom half of the coffin you'll see a bag of organs that were removed and embalmed separately.
  3. Dead bodies continue to move long after death, because the bones and muscles and tendons all dry and decompose at different rates, causing legs to twitch, arms to fold, and sometimes entire bodies will sit up abruptly in the middle of an autopsy or embalming.

12] Serial killers have been a staple diet for thriller writers as much as the farm boy trope is for fantasy writers what do you think it is about this that makes them so attractive for writers to write about?

They're real. Vampires and werewolves are human beings who hunt and feed on other human beings, with a lot of atmospheric supernatural stuff thrown in, but serial killers do exactly the same thing and they're completely real, and they're much harder to detect. Wouldn't it be easy if we could just show our neighbors a cross, or touch them with silver, and find out exactly how dangerous they are? Or if we could protect our house and family just by stringing some garlic over the door? Serial killers are just as iconic, usually much creepier, and they don't have any of the "easy outs" that we get with vampires and werewolves. Your next door neighbor could have a refrigerator full of human heads, and you'd never know it, and if he decided to add yours to the collection you wouldn't have any handy supernatural defenses.

13] In the acknowledgments of Mr. Monster you mention how your agent Moshe Feder helped you develop your book into a series, can you entail/discuss a few of those suggestions.

Moshe is my US editor, and the one who suggested making the book into a trilogy. Our main concern was avoiding the obvious silliness of having a small town in the middle of nowhere inexplicably filled with supernatural demons. We talked it over and proposed several solutions, and the one that made the most sense was the simple one we presented in Mr. Monster: once the demon in the first book disappeared, other demons came looking for him. This idea of the "demon community" gave us a lot of ideas for book 3, and suggest a lot of possibilities for a future series.

14] In closing, any last words for our readers and what we can expect from you next?

I've just finished a new manuscript called "Pain of Glass", and if all goes well you'll see it in stores next fall. It's another psychological thriller, unrelated to the John Cleaver books, about a schizophrenic man who realizes that some of the monsters he sees are real. No one will believe him, naturally, so he has to sort through what is real and what isn't to find a way to stop them on his own.


Bastard said...

Nice interview, big fan of I'm Not a Serial Killer. Waiting for Mr. Monster to arrive since I ordered the US version.

I do hope he goes beyond the planned trilogy. There's a lot of cool stuff he can do with this character, particularly with the supernatural element that was introduced.

John will simply have too many enemies, law enforcement, demons, just people, and himself... just a good source for interesting stories.

Jared said...

I am very intrigued by the next book you mention. Your exploration of mental illness in your main characters is both powerful and poignant. My brother and father are both bipolar and I have often thought of how it would be not to be able to trust your own thoughts... Looking forward to it!

dining tables said...

Dan Wells is a very adorable man. He is a great man. I want to congratulate you for having a chance to interview Dan. I love the result of your interview. It is a well done job.

Jennifer Fiddes said...

I Am Not a Serial Killer was a great read, and I want to enjoy it again before picking up the next book. I love Mr. Wells's explanations of his process, always super helpful. A few typos in my opinion, but all in all a well done and formatted interview. Thank you for posting it.

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