John Brown is yet another Mormon speculative fiction author success story. Servant of a Dark God was just published last week by Tor — the first in a trilogy by Brown that the science fiction and fantasy giant picked up. He lives in the NE corner of Utah with his wife and four daughters. More about John, including a rather entertaining bio, is available at his website JohnDBrown.com. John was kind enough to do an AMV Q&A even though he’s in the middle of a book tour.
Take us through a brief review of your writing career so far — how and why did you first begin writing speculative fiction and what led up to you signing a three-book deal with Tor?
It all started with Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer. When I was a teen I loved the Rankin/Bass Christmas animation specials and I decided I wanted to be an animator and tell stories. I even saved up and bought a movie camera and the blueprints for an animation stand. But my camera got crunched in a conveyor belt at the Athens, Greece airport. And I just never moved forward with those plans. Heck, I was a teenager.
Fast forward a number of years. I was in the English program, taking a whole bunch of creative writing classes. But I was just diddling. I never thought I could actually be an author and write something like the books I loved. However, in 1994 Dave Wolverton held a workshop. It was transformational because for the first time since those Rudolph days I thought that maybe I could write the things I loved. And submit for publication. About a year and a half later I won a first prize in the big Writers of the Future contest. $2,000, a trip to Cocoa Beach, Florida, a workshop with pro authors. I thought I was on my way. Alas, life happened. And I didn’t really know what I was doing anyway. For the next 6 years I just couldn’t finish a thing.
Then I took another workshop in 2002, this one by Orson Card. It was amazing. I figured out what had been keeping me back. And I began to write AND finish. I made a goal to finish a number of novels and sell one in five years. About five years later I got an agent. A year after that I had a three-book deal with Tor Books.
What is Servant of a Dark God about? What was the genesis of the novel or rather the trilogy?
The story is set in a world where humans are ranched by beings of immense power. But not for their flesh. I thought if souls exist, they’re physical. And so what would happen if there was a food chain based on that? Furthermore, if you were ranching intelligent beings, you wouldn’t want them to know it. You’d want them to think they were governing themselves. So the truth is buried deep, and the human overseers mercilessly hunt anyone who show any sign of discovering what’s going on. The book focuses on a teenage boy and girl. The problems in this book start when one of these hunts targets the teenage girl’s family.
As for the genesis, well, I got the idea from cows.
I live up in the hinterlands of Utah in Rich County. It’s all ranch land for miles and miles. Now, I’m a city boy, so everything up here was new to me. And one day I was hiking up a canyon and came across a small herd of cattle on their summer range. The bull was bellowing. Being of supreme intelligence, I bellowed back because, hey, isn’t it everyone’s dream to talk to animals? We went back and forth a few times. I thought we were having a fine conversation until he began to charge through the willows at me. I suddenly realized I was telling him I was going to take one of his women. He had a slight size advantage on me, and because I’m not attracted to cows I high-tailed it out of there. But I began to think: humans, cows, ranching–what if humans were ranched? So it was cows that gave me the idea.
Like Brandon Sanderson you are very up front about your writing process and progress. Why is that and what benefits do it give to you and/or your fans?
As a fan of other authors I’m always interested in knowing what’s coming next and when. I like previews. But very few authors put that data out. I don’t know why. From a marketing perspective it builds anticipation. I want my readers looking for the next book. I want them to get excited about it, not be like, hey, what? Brown’s got a new one out? And this is one way to do that. But it’s not just marketing. I get a lot of people asking me where I am with my books. So even if it didn’t build anticipation, I’d provide it because many readers are interested.
How does your Mormonism influence, inform and/or interact with your writing? On what levels does it operate (thematically, character development, world building, philosophically, etc.) and how? In particular, I’d love to hear a little bit about your conception of Godhood in the Dark God trilogy.
Mormonism sets up some boundaries for me. It sets up an objective as well. I’ve made a commitment to consecrate my time and skills to building up Zion. And good entertainment is a part of that. It refreshes and relaxes. It makes the reader think. It’s sometimes triumphant, sometimes silly, sometimes poignant. So I’m aware of this as I write. I see writing as a service, and I want to be focused on the reader. I want to be giving good gifts.
Beyond that, I’m not sure of any conscious influence. Of course, there are Mormon themes and tropes that are interesting to me. And so I’m sure they’ll show up in the writing, but that’s just because I write from what sparks my imagination.
The gods in the Dark God books are probably influenced by this. Because they’re not the omnipotent gods of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Nor are they the Greek reprobates. They’re men and women with knowledge. All humans started out with this knowledge in my world, but it was lost through greed and strife. Those that hunted humans were able to take advantage of this. And so interspersed throughout all the action and mayhem, the book deals with themes of truth and religion.
As the series progresses we’ll see more about agency versus free-will and restoration. I even have the ancestors play a role. These things resonate with me, and I think that’s in part because I’m steeped in Mormonism. Some of the Mormon ideas are just cool. I have creatures in book two called Gnolom. I love that word from the Pearl of Great Price. I has nothing to do with gnolaum, i.e. eternal. It’s just a cool word. Which shows that the story is not an allegory. I don’t like allegories much. There are simply elements I find cool that I had to use. It’s also a book focused on family. My hero doesn’t go off on a quest alone. Nothing wrong with that. But I wanted to explore how a family would face these dangers together. So these are all Mormonish things.
Now, having said all this, I don’t think this is exclusively Mormon. Knowledge lost and regained is a very common trope in fantasy fiction. The fight against evil–it’s a core part of the majority of epic fantasy. So these things are shared by people of many different backgrounds.
You are part of a community of second-generation LDS speculative fiction authors who are having success in the national market. Lots of ink has been spilled about why Mormons are attracted to sci-fi/fantasy and well-suited to write it. Do you have anything you want to say about all that?
There’s a lot of speculation on this. One person sees God blessing the Mormon artists. The whole Orson F. Whitney thing. Another argues that Mormons grow up with SF/Fantasy as doctrine and so it’s natural to fall into the genre. And while those two things may be at play, I think something else explains it better.
I mean, where’s the data? Has anyone done a survey that verifies Mormons read more SF/Fantasy than other groups? Is this a Utah or Mountain West thing? Just pure local culture? Do we even know if Mormons are over-represented in the SF/Fantasy field? I don’t have any data on this.
But even if we are over-represented, what I think explains it better is what Thomas Sowell found when he studied immigrant populations all over the world. He wrote about it in his book Migrations and Culture. What he found was that an ethnic group would make a beach head into a trade. There are sometimes significant barriers to entry into an industry. Not only with cash, but also with know-how. Having someone giving you tips or a helping hand can lower those barriers. It also suggests a career path, it suggests possibilities to the mind. So the immigrants would take their trade with them. And in the place they immigrated to, you’d find them flourishing in that trade generations later.
In a similar fashion, Orson Card, Tracy Hickman, and David Wolverton made a beach head into the speculative fiction genre. Of course, there are others. But these are the ones who I believe made the largest impact. I don’t know about Hickman, but I know Card and Wolverton have been very active teaching others about the craft. And because they have Utah ties, a lot of those people they were teaching were Mormons.
Brandon Sanderson, the new rising light in the epic fantasy genre, says Wolverton’s BYU class was what convinced him he could write for a living. I had the same experience. Card conducted a boot camp that opened the doors for me. These things ripple out so not everyone needs to be touched by these pioneers personally. But their effect is to blaze a path for others to follow. It also provides networking opportunities you might not have otherwise, where the artists help each other along. You have the same thing going on in YA fiction now. You saw the same thing with Richard Dutcher and God’s Army.
I also think there’s something about Utah culture that might be affecting it. I don’t have comprehensive data, but I’m guessing Utah youth read more SF/Fantasy than the average in the nation. I was gathering circulation data from libraries in Ohio and Utah for an ALA conference talk I gave this summer. The Utah libraries had a significantly higher percentage of young adult SF/Fantasy circulation than did the libraries in Ohio. I’d need more data points. But I don’t think that’s Mormon, i.e. if you surveyed Mormons around the country I don’t know that percentage would hold. I think it’s Utah. I mean, you have Deseret Book publishing SF/Fantasy for young adults and marketing the heck out of it in Utah. That’s just one factor. I think there are a number in Utah that support SF/Fantasy tastes.
So all that to say I don’t know, but I don’t think it has too much to do with Mormonism.
What works of art — music, fiction, film, visual arts, drama, etc. — by LDS or non-LDS artists are you really digging right now?
I’m a sampler, I think. I’ll read a little of this and a little of that. One book by an author will amaze me, but then I’ll move on. I’m reading a lot of non-fiction now. As for authors, there are just too many good ones to list, but my most recent find was Temple Grandin. Her Animals in Translation and Animals Make Us Human are wonderful. She has an incredible story and insights.
Finally, what’s on tap for the future? You’ve finished the second draft of the second novel in the series and are predrafting the final of the three. How is that going so far and, more importantly, what else are you looking at or even working on?
It’s a good question. My focus right now is book 2 and book 3. They’re huge projects. Hundreds of hours. So I’m not looking too far down the road. I’m not working on nothing else. But there are a few projects that will be vying for my attention when I finish. There’s a thriller based on a man I met in Ohio who once was a bank robber, went to prison, but reformed. I have another epic fantasy series in mind. I have a YA novel. But that’s a little over a year away. Right now I’ve got to focus.
Full disclosure: If you click on the link at the top of the interview and buy John’s book from Amazon, AMV gets a few pennies to pay for web hosting.
Also: John doesn’t know this, but I’ve read and provided comments to one of his colleagues in the , and I published a short story by Codex writer Eric James Stone at Popcorn Popping. And my brother did an interview with John’s co-one-arm-of-his-book-tour-participant Brandon Sanderson which was published in Mormon Artist which my sister manage edits. Oh and John did an episode of the excellent podcast , which was created by Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler and Dan Wells. Dan’s brother Rob and I went to lunch once. I can’t provide a link to Tayler, but I did e-mail him a couple of times in the early days of Schlock Mercenary. Take that FCC!