When 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 one’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 I’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 John’s psychology that got resolved in the first book that don’t now get resolved until the third book.
Theric: But you’re done writing them now, I guess.
Dan: Yes, I’m done. I’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 City—
Theric: Same publisher?
Dan: Well, it’s got the same German publisher; Tor wants it in the U.S. We just haven’t finalized the deal yet.
Theric: Oh, congratulations.
Dan: So, it will be the same publisher eventually, but I unfortunately don’t have any specifics because we’re still working them out. But it’s a similar genre–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 that’s always been kind of an armchair hobby of mine–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 it’s time to explore one of these other avenues that isn’t as immediately marketable but there’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, that’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 that’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 horrible–I have no qualms telling the world how bad they were. But I did do one that was like a historical–half-historical fantasy, but very dark, and really kind of enjoyed that, and so that’s what got us thinking along the lines of a straight horror novel. Then it was Brandon’s suggestion, since I talked about them all the time, to go ahead and use serial killers as the premise for it. So that’s where it came from. That’s also why it never occurred to me that I would write a serial killer that did not have supernatural elements in it cause I’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 don’t know. Maybe, maybe not. It worked really well–it’s surprising to a lot of people, if they’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 couldn’t do otherwise. One of the hazards of writing about serial killers is that they’ve really been done to death. In fact, we’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 it–it’s not just another serial killer book. It’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 you’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 that’s what I’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 “This is all the things that are wrong”–I mean, not to say that it’s preachy, but–
Theric: No, it’s just the nature of science-fiction.
Dan: It’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 you’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 didn’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. I’m hoping this year to finish three books, but we’ll see. It’s not as prolific as some ““ no way will I ever be able to keep up with Brandon, for example–
Theric: Yeah, he’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 that–and tell me if I was imagining this–but it seemed like you were drawing strong connections between the monsters in that book and Lovecraft’s Old Ones. Was that intentional or was I reading into that?
Dan: No, it’s not directly Lovecraft, but it’s that same, kind of, you know, whatever was influencing him. It’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 they’ve been around forever– I always found that amazing and thought, “What if they were monsters instead?” And so that’s kind of where that came from. There’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 who’ve been around forever, and the way that I wrote them in my books, they don’t control the world because they already did that thousands of years ago–they were the god-kings of the pharaohs and so on–and now, they’re just . . . tired. They’ve been around forever. They are out of gas and just kind of– They’ve become slave to whatever darker side of their personality they’ve had, rather than using that power to rule.
Theric: Now, John Cleaver himself, and you recognize this, which is how I think you’ve got away with it, but his name is so obviously a serial-killer name, starting with his middle name, and of course John doesn’t help, and then his last name is a weapon. 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, it’s almost impossible to get away from a Christ figure in Western literature, whether it’s intended or not.
Dan: You reduce the Christ symbolism down to a suffering savior, absolutely John is. He is someone who essentially decides, “This is a horrible thing, no one else can do it, I’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 didn’t necessarily do that on purpose, but I am Christian, and so I think that comes out inevitably. I didn’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 don’t know about your other work since I haven’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. And I think, I find it really interesting that sort of this same idea is showing up in both sets of work, and, I’m curious if–the obvious question that a fanboy would ask is, “Is that autobiographical? And, if so, is it your penchant for writing dark fiction that is your curse?”
Dan: I would love to have a curse like that, that’s great. I actually, while writing “The Mountain of the Lord,” the Monsters & Mormons story, really started to feel bad part way through, saying, “This is just John! I can’t just write this guy exactly the same as John Cleaver! And I kind of tweaked it around and had to change it, and– I don’t know why I’m particularly attracted to that archetype. Probably because, at some base level it’s the whole suffering savior idea, I don’t know. I tried to tweak it, but it’s definitely similar enough that it even started to bother me. It drove me crazy. So I did tweak it. It’s not nearly as it was in the first draft.
Theric: So I’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 “horror” is the most moral of fiction?
Theric: Say why, because I think that’s a strange idea for a lot of people.
Dan: Well, it’s because horror is specifically about good-versus-evil, more so than any other genre. 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 we’re looking at the most superficial level possible, take, like, a slasher movie–some of the tropes of the slasher movie are inherently, almost humorously, moralistic. You won’t be murdered until you sleep with someone, you know; the virgin is always the one who survives to the end. Things like that that crop up. Look at our spate of zombies right now, which is a huge, huge wave of zombie fiction. Zombie stories are not about, “Oh no, there’s zombies trying to kill us,” they’re about, “How are we as humans going to react?” 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? If you look at zombie fiction, the villains are always humans who decide they’re going to react poorly to the situation. 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, I’m still surprised with how embraced your books seem to be–for instance with the Whitney Awards–just because of the stereotype of people who read a lot of the books that have been nominated. You know, if we’re dealing with stereotypes, it’s hard to imagine that they would be able to embrace John Cleaver. And I wonder if you were surprised by that or not?
Dan: I’m completely shocked. 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. I thought that’d be fantastic because my sales–
Theric: The best kind of marketing.
Dan: –would be wonderful, but that hasn’t happened. And it sounds almost patronizing to say that I’m surprised by that, but I really am, and I’m really very gratified because it means that the reading audience is really actually reading; they’re not just looking at it and saying, “Oh, well this is about a kid who does bad things”; they’re actually reading the book and realizing, “Oh, this is about a kid who’s trying as hard as he can to be good.” And in that sense it’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. Every couple of weeks or so though, I’ll get another email saying, “Hey, thanks so much for writing this book, it’s wonderful to hear someone who’s more messed up than I am, or struggling with the same things.” That’s kind of a creepy email to get sometimes but, on the other hand, it’s kind of cool.
Theric: Absolutely. Well, I’m glad you wrote the book, because I was trying to write something similar and it was a complete failure, so I feel like you’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, didn’t it? Is that right?
Dan: It actually hit England two months before it hit Germany. 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. It’s not as interesting a story as I wish it was. I sold to Tor first, made the U.S. sale first, and they didn’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 that’s why. And honestly, it’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 “Look everyone, go buy this.” Or I can take the German sales numbers to Tor and say, “Look, this book can do really well if you support it,” and then they’ll support it a little more than they’d been meaning to. And it’s been great.
Theric: Well, that was the last question on my list–what should I have asked you that I didn’t? Especially given the Mormonness of Motley Vision is there any particularly Mormon thing that you want to say?
Dan: Particularly Mormon thing . . . . I don’t think so. But I wish that I had mentioned earlier, when you were talking about some of my influences with writing– 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 don’t really write it anymore, although I used to, but I really love it, and certain genres and eras specifically. 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. During editing some of that got tweaked, so the pattern’s not perfect, but I do like poetry a lot and was very excited to include it in the series.
Theric: It’s interesting that you say that, and I wonder if this is some new trend, because I don’t know if you’ve seen the interview with Ally Condie that Angela Hallstrom recently did, but in Matched (Amazon), but she’s also planning on putting poems in every book. Maybe you’ve started some trend.
Dan: Well I don’t know if I started it, but it’s definitely around. Kristen Chandler, I believe it is, has all of those in all of her books. Lisa Mangum used a ton of poetry in The Hourglass Door, and it’s something that’s there, and is very cool. 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 it’s all made up from his world, a little fantasy trope that you see in a lot of fantasy books. I just thought, “You know, we have a rich culture and I don’t even have to make it up, so I’ll use it in my book that’s set in the real world.” I’m excited about it, I think that we don’t read enough poetry as a culture, and I’d like to see a lot more of it showing up in our literature.
Theric: Good on you. I would agree. Well, thank you, Dan.
Dan: Thank you.
Theric: I appreciate it.
Transcribed by Andrew Lin and Jakob Lengacher
8 thoughts on “Dan Wells & Serial Killers & Thematically Related Stuff”
THAT was an awesome interview! Thanks guys!
For the first time in my life you’re making me interested in horror. I can’t stop wondering what I’ve been missing. Thanks.
This is a great place to start.
When I was fourteen, I wrote a persuasive essay arguing that Stephen King was not demented but was in fact very moral. I argued that he made evil very evil and the prots who worked together and made the purest sacrifices won.
Good vs. evil.
I think Dan’s right on.
This might be one of the places you originally heard Dan talk about horror as a very moral type of fiction:
He’s also said as much on Writing Excuses.
Actually, it was in a review of his book in the latest Irreantum, but this may have been her source. (And thanks for the link. I wish I could still get to LTUE.)
And, Kenneth, I find it curious, but the same people who hate horror’s immorality will hate its “simplistic” morality when that’s shown to them. I think there must be something deeper going on.
My source was that I attended the Whitney Awards night and heard him say so–I suppose I should have cited that, or referenced a transcript of the speech or something. Sorry! But really great interview.
That’s okay, Emily.