WhenÂ Dan Wells showed up a couple years ago with a sociopathic teenager named John Cleaver, I wasn’t sure what to make of him. Everywhere I looked he was being treated as an established property, yet this Utahn’s book wasn’t even available in America yet. And before it’s U.S. release it was nominated for a Whitney. Then I read book one. Then I read book two. And you know what? I’m glad he’s getting all this praise. These are good books.
Theric: The first couple of questions will just be about the John Cleaver books since the last oneâ€™s just about to come out in . . . is it March (Amazon)?
Dan: Yes, the 29th.
Theric: So, I guess my first question is: You originally wrote it as just a single book, right?
Theric: And so Iâ€™m wondering, did the first book change when you were talked into changing it into a trilogy?
Dan: Somewhat, it did. I had never really planned a backdoor out of the series. I wanted to make sure that there was room to grow. And so, the first book became much less conclusive character-wise once I knew that it was going to be a trilogy. There were issues in Johnâ€™s psychology that got resolved in the first book that donâ€™t now get resolved until the third book.
Theric: But youâ€™re done writing them now, I guess.
Dan: Yes, Iâ€™m done. Iâ€™ve been done for well over a year, actually.
Theric: So what are you working on now?
Dan: I have written and sold another book called The Hollow Cityâ€”
Theric: Same publisher?
Dan: Well, itâ€™s got the same German publisher; Tor wants it in the U.S. We just havenâ€™t finalized the deal yet.
Theric: Oh, congratulations.
Dan: So, it will be the same publisher eventually, but I unfortunately donâ€™t have any specifics because weâ€™re still working them out. Â But itâ€™s a similar genreâ€”supernatural psychological thriller, this time focusing on a guy with schizophrenia, rather than a sociopath.
Theric: Nice. So how did you move into the psychological arena?
Dan: I have no idea. I just, I just find it very interesting; I find it really fascinating. So I started with serial killers, because thatâ€™s always been kind of an armchair hobby of mineâ€”I studied them for fun. You know, like all normal people do.
Dan: And so when that was really successful, I thought, well, okay, maybe itâ€™s time to explore one of these other avenues that isnâ€™t as immediately marketable but thereâ€™s apparently an audience for. So, I decided to try a schizophrenia book.
Theric: I remember in high school, going to the… the library during… during lunch and reading a book called Bloodletters and Badmen (Amazon) and I was a lot more interested in Albert Fish than Al Capone. In the preface or acknowledgements or something to I Am Not a Serial Killer, you said that it did not occur to you to write about serial killers until Brandon Sanderson recommended it? Am I remembering this right?
Dan: Yeah, thatâ€™s correct.
Theric: So, what were you writing before that?
Dan: I was writing fantasy. I grew up reading fantasy and just kind of assumed that thatâ€™s what I wanted to write, as well. And so I wrote a lot of, you know, very typical epic0fantasy kind of books. Most of which were horribleâ€”I have no qualms telling the world how bad they were. But I did do one that was like a historicalâ€”half-historical fantasy, but very dark, and really kind of enjoyed that, and so thatâ€™s what got us thinking along the lines of a straight horror novel. Then it was Brandonâ€™s suggestion, since I talked about them all the time, to go ahead and use serial killers as the premise for it. So thatâ€™s where it came from. Thatâ€™s also why it never occurred to me that I would write a serial killer that did not have supernatural elements in it cause Iâ€™d been writing fantasy books forever, so, once I started writing modern horror, it was obviously going to be a kind of a dark urban fantasy rather than a straight crime fiction.
Theric: Any plans to see what it tastes like not to have the supernatural?
Dan: I donâ€™t know. Â Maybe, maybe not. Â It worked really wellâ€”itâ€™s surprising to a lot of people, if theyâ€™re not expecting it, halfway through, I Am Not a Serial Killer turns out to be supernatural, but I think, aside from that shock, the supernatural aspect works really well. It allows me to do things with the story that I couldnâ€™t do otherwise. One of the hazards of writing about serial killers is that theyâ€™ve really been done to death. In fact, weâ€™re on the declining end of the wave, right now, of serial killer stuff. And if not for Dexter, we would hardly ever hear about them at all. And so, having that supernatural element in there, I think, is important, at least for me, because it differentiates itâ€”itâ€™s not just another serial killer book. Itâ€™s a kid saves his town from monsters, but happens to be very creepy when he does it.
Theric: What kind of besides the fantasy that youâ€™ve mentioned, what other sort of literary influences are you seeing in your work?
Dan: After finishing that schizophrenia one, I started writing a science-fiction book, which I had never attempted before. And that ended up being very political. That one is currently on the shelf because, talking to another publisher a few months ago, during the conversation, we hit on the idea of a completely different all-new science-fiction series, and quickly wrote up a deal for that, so thatâ€™s what Iâ€™m writing right now. And that one is also being very political and I never really thought that about myself because I tend to ignore politics to a large degree, but for whatever reason the genre of science-fiction is bringing that side out of me, that kind of â€œThis is all the things that are wrongâ€â€”I mean, not to say that itâ€™s preachy, butâ€”
Theric: No, itâ€™s just the nature of science-fiction.
Dan: Itâ€™s more concerned with, you know, social issues than say, a book about a kid locked in a basement.
Theric: So how quickly do you work? Sounds like youâ€™re cranking them out pretty quick here.
Dan: Well, it depends. I tend to do about two books a year. The last year was one-and-a-half books cause the second one was that science fiction that I didnâ€™t finish, and it ended up being at least three times longer than my books typically are, so the overall word count for the year was the same, but it did not result in two complete books. Iâ€™m hoping this year to finish three books, but weâ€™ll see. Itâ€™s not as prolific as some â€“ no way will I ever be able to keep up with Brandon, for exampleâ€”
Theric: Yeah, heâ€™s something else.
Dan: Yeah, I think that two books a year is a good pace, and if I can ever kick out an extra one now and then, then hooray for me.
Theric: So back to John Cleaver and before we leave literary-influence questions, when I was reading Mr. Monster, I really felt thatâ€”and tell me if I was imagining thisâ€”but it seemed like you were drawing strong connections between the monsters in that book and Lovecraftâ€™s Old Ones. Was that intentional or was I reading into that?
Dan: No, itâ€™s not directly Lovecraft, but itâ€™s that same, kind of, you know, whatever was influencing him. Itâ€™s really, if we want to look at a specific influence, I would point to Highlander, of all things.
Dan: You know, my mind always tending to turn everything into something dark and weird. The concept, of the old Highlander movies, that there was this separate race that lived on Earth and they were, you know, essentially immortal, and theyâ€™ve been around foreverâ€” I always found that amazing and thought, â€œWhat if they were monsters instead?â€ And so thatâ€™s kind of where that came from. Thereâ€™s a lot of dark Old Ones stuff in it. And I have to acknowledge Lovecraft had a huge influence on my love of horror, but it was more that kind of Highlander idea, that there were just these people whoâ€™ve been around forever, and the way that I wrote them in my books, they donâ€™t control the world because they already did that thousands of years agoâ€”they were the god-kings of the pharaohs and so onâ€”and now, theyâ€™re just . . . tired. Theyâ€™ve been around forever. They are out of gas and just kind ofâ€” Theyâ€™ve become slave to whatever darker side of their personality theyâ€™ve had, rather than using that power to rule.
Theric: Now, John Cleaver himself, and you recognize this, which is how I think youâ€™ve got away with it, but his name is so obviously a serial-killer name, starting with his middle name, and of course John doesnâ€™t help, and then his last name is a weapon.Â But then, on the other hand, the first rule of bad literary analysis is if any character with the initials JC is a Christ figure, and I wonder if you would comment on that. Is John a Christ figure? Or how is he?
Dan: Well, itâ€™s almost impossible to get away from a Christ figure in Western literature, whether itâ€™s intended or not.
Dan: You reduce the Christ symbolism down to a suffering savior, absolutely John is. He is someone who essentially decides, â€œThis is a horrible thing, no one else can do it, Iâ€™m going to be the bad person and commit all the sins, so that nobody else has to. And so, in that sense, yes. I didnâ€™t necessarily do that on purpose, but I am Christian, and so I think that comes out inevitably. I didnâ€™t give him those initials until you pointed out the Christ analogy though.
Theric: Now, John Cleaver, and also the hero of your story from Monsters & Mormons (and I donâ€™t know about your other work since I havenâ€™t read it) but both of them are these boys who realize that they have this curse, which can be turned into a gift to bless other people.Â And I think, I find it really interesting that sort of this same idea is showing up in both sets of work, and, Iâ€™m curious ifâ€”the obvious question that a fanboy would ask is, â€œIs that autobiographical? And, if so, is it your penchant for writing dark fiction that is your curse?â€
Dan: I would love to have a curse like that, thatâ€™s great.Â I actually, while writing â€œThe Mountain of the Lord,â€ the Monsters & Mormons story, really started to feel bad part way through, saying, â€œThis is just John! I canâ€™t just write this guy exactly the same as John Cleaver! And I kind of tweaked it around and had to change it, andâ€” I donâ€™t know why Iâ€™m particularly attracted to that archetype. Probably because, at some base level itâ€™s the whole suffering savior idea, I donâ€™t know.Â I tried to tweak it, but itâ€™s definitely similar enough that it even started to bother me.Â It drove me crazy. So I did tweak it. Itâ€™s not nearly as it was in the first draft.
Theric: So Iâ€™ve heard you quoted, I only have this secondhand so maybe you never said this, but that you are one of the people who would argue that â€œhorrorâ€ is the most moral of fiction?
Theric: Say why, because I think thatâ€™s a strange idea for a lot of people.
Dan: Well, itâ€™s because horror is specifically about good-versus-evil, more so than any other genre.Â You will get that kind of working-against-trials element in any aspect of fiction. In fact, I think that horror, as a concept, is one of the reasons that we read, no matter what we read. But horror, specifically, as a moral thing, even if weâ€™re looking at the most superficial level possible, take, like, a slasher movieâ€”some of the tropes of the slasher movie are inherently, almost humorously, moralistic.Â You wonâ€™t be murdered until you sleep with someone, you know; the virgin is always the one who survives to the end.Â Things like that that crop up.Â Look at our spate of zombies right now, which is a huge, huge wave of zombie fiction.Â Zombie stories are not about, â€œOh no, thereâ€™s zombies trying to kill us,â€ theyâ€™re about, â€œHow are we as humans going to react?â€ and are we going to take advantage of this, are we going to be selfless and help others, or are we going to be selfish and save ourselves or even establish a power base?Â If you look at zombie fiction, the villains are always humans who decide theyâ€™re going to react poorly to the situation.Â And so, that element of good-versus-evil and what kind of a person are you really, deep down inside, horror deals with that more so than any other genre in my opinion.
Theric: Yeah, I have to admit I agree with you. But I have to say, that even though I agree with you, Iâ€™m still surprised with how embraced your books seem to beâ€”for instance with the Whitney Awardsâ€”just because of the stereotype of people who read a lot of the books that have been nominated.Â You know, if weâ€™re dealing with stereotypes, itâ€™s hard to imagine that they would be able to embrace John Cleaver.Â And I wonder if you were surprised by that or not?
Dan: Iâ€™m completely shocked.Â I expected, and honestly kind of hoped, that the books would create a big controversy and the Utah-Mormon crowd would decry them and try to ban them somewhere.Â I thought thatâ€™d be fantastic because my salesâ€”
Theric: The best kind of marketing.
Dan: â€”would be wonderful, but that hasnâ€™t happened. And it sounds almost patronizing to say that Iâ€™m surprised by that, but I really am, and Iâ€™m really very gratified because it means that the reading audience is really actually reading; theyâ€™re not just looking at it and saying, â€œOh, well this is about a kid who does bad thingsâ€; theyâ€™re actually reading the book and realizing, â€œOh, this is about a kid whoâ€™s trying as hard as he can to be good.â€Â And in that sense itâ€™s almost an inherently Mormon idea, the natural man is an enemy to God, and he spends three books trying to overcome that.
Theric: Do you hear a lot from readers of your work?
Dan: I do. I hear a lot on Facebook and Twitter primarily, but I will occasionally get emails, and a surprising number of emails from people who struggle with sociopathic tendencies and backgrounds, which was unexpected.Â Every couple of weeks or so though, Iâ€™ll get another email saying, â€œHey, thanks so much for writing this book, itâ€™s wonderful to hear someone whoâ€™s more messed up than I am, or struggling with the same things.â€Â Thatâ€™s kind of a creepy email to get sometimes but, on the other hand, itâ€™s kind of cool.
Theric: Absolutely.Â Well, Iâ€™m glad you wrote the book, because I was trying to write something similar and it was a complete failure, so I feel like youâ€™ve released me from that responsibility. So thank you.
Dan: My pleasure.
Theric: The only other question left on my list is really a practical one, and I wanted to ask about your road to publication because it seems strange being published by a German company first. It came out in translation first, didnâ€™t it? Is that right?
Dan: It actually hit England two months before it hit Germany.Â But yes, in general Europe got it first before everyone else.
Theric: And how did that happen?
Dan: That was mostly just a factor of scheduling. Itâ€™s not as interesting a story as I wish it was.Â I sold to Tor first, made the U.S. sale first, and they didnâ€™t have room in their schedule to get it, to get the first one out, until 2010, even though I sold it way back in 2008. Then my agent, being very wonderful, took it around to all of these other foreign publishers, and Germany and England both had room in their schedules to get it out much earlier. So thatâ€™s why. Â And honestly, itâ€™s been great in terms of U.S. promotion, because I can get all of these fantastic reviews and post them on my website a few months before we get the book. Everyone in England is already reading it and loving it and I can say â€œLook everyone, go buy this.â€Â Or I can take the German sales numbers to Tor and say, â€œLook, this book can do really well if you support it,â€ and then theyâ€™ll support it a little more than theyâ€™d been meaning to. And itâ€™s been great.
Theric: Well, that was the last question on my listâ€”what should I have asked you that I didnâ€™t?Â Especially given the Mormonness of Motley Vision is there any particularly Mormon thing that you want to say?
Dan: Particularly Mormon thing . . . . I donâ€™t think so.Â But I wish that I had mentioned earlier, when you were talking about some of my influences with writingâ€” I was going to say, before the conversation got away from me, I was going to mention poetry, which has always been a big thing for me. I donâ€™t really write it anymore, although I used to, but I really love it, and certain genres and eras specifically.Â And so I tried to put that into this book and into this series, and you can see all three books include in the text an old British poem, and then have as an epigram an old American poem.Â During editing some of that got tweaked, so the patternâ€™s not perfect, but I do like poetry a lot and was very excited to include it in the series.
Theric: Itâ€™s interesting that you say that, and I wonder if this is some new trend, because I donâ€™t know if youâ€™ve seen the interview with Ally Condie that Angela Hallstrom recently did, but in Matched (Amazon), but sheâ€™s also planning on putting poems in every book. Maybe youâ€™ve started some trend.
Dan: Well I donâ€™t know if I started it, but itâ€™s definitely around.Â Kristen Chandler, I believe it is, has all of those in all of her books.Â Lisa Mangum used a ton of poetry in The Hourglass Door, and itâ€™s something thatâ€™s there, and is very cool.Â Honestly, I started using it in part because I love Dune, which sounds weird, but one of the things that Dune does is it starts every chapter with this kind of historical note or a piece of poetry, and itâ€™s all made up from his world, a little fantasy trope that you see in a lot of fantasy books.Â I just thought, â€œYou know, we have a rich culture and I donâ€™t even have to make it up, so Iâ€™ll use it in my book thatâ€™s set in the real world.â€Â Iâ€™m excited about it, I think that we donâ€™t read enough poetry as a culture, and Iâ€™d like to see a lot more of it showing up in our literature.
Theric: Good on you. I would agree.Â Well, thank you, Dan.
Dan: Thank you.
Theric: I appreciate it.
Transcribed by Andrew Lin and Jakob Lengacher