delving into the psychology of a murderer its easy for most writers
to jump right into the thick and allow their creations to go on a
rampage. But so few times do readers ever bare witness to the
beginning, let alone the evolution of the uncontrollable sociopath
before them. The recently released book I
Am Not A Serial Killer takes a
look into the mind of a potential homicidal mortician who tries to
hold back his urges and stay on the good side, only to be tempted
with a potential threat to the community to unleash the beast
Local writer Dan Wells recently penned this novel and has received great acclaim both here at home and overseas. Even just recently winning a Whitney Award for the Best New LDS Writer of 2009. And with a successful nation-wide tour underway and a second title about to be released, his career in writing looks to have a prosperous future. I got a chance to chat with Dan while he's currently running around the country, chatting about his work so far as well as his thoughts on local writers. Along with some photos from the man himself of both the current tour and his visits to Germany and England.
Gavin: Hey Dan, first off, tell us a bit about yourself.
Dan: My name is Dan Wells, I grew up in Salt Lake City, and I live in Orem with my wife and four kids. I've been writing since I was kid, when I told my parents in second grade that I was going to be an author. A few years ago I sold a book, which turned into a series, and I'm incredibly lucky to be working today as a full-time novelist.
Gavin: What first got you into writing and what were some of your favorite titles over the years?
Dan: I've always wanted to be a creator, and specifically a storyteller, and I believe that stems back to my parents. I am a writer because my parents were readers; it's really as simple as that. My dad read to us every night, starting with The Hobbit and moving on from there, and my Mom is reading or holding a book in literally every memory I have of my early childhood. They put a bookshelf in the bedroom I shared with my brother, Rob (another local author), stocked with the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen and A.A. Milne, who remains to this day as one of my favorite books. We had a big selection of historical novels, such as Johnny Tremain and Bullwhip Griffin, but my greatest love was science fiction and fantasy--I remember a book about a boy who lived in an ocean observatory on the bottom of the sea, with a pet dolphin, who discovered a prehistoric creature recently freed from a cave; I must have read that book 15 times. I read the Lord of the Rings, the Prydain Chronicles, the Pern books by Anne McCaffrey, the Berserker books by Fred Saberhagen, and on and on. As I got older I started reading more of the classics, and fell in love with Victor Hugo and Joseph Conrad and Fyodor Dostoevsky. I still read and love poetry, thanks to that early grounding in A.A. Milne, and I always end up sneaking poetry into my books. And of course I still love science fiction and fantasy: I think that Dune, by Frank Herbert, is my favorite book of all time.
Gavin: How was it for you growing up in Utah your whole life and having the local culture as an influence?
Dan: I love traveling and experiencing other cultures, but I also really love Utah. As a self-employed author I can literally live anywhere I want--we're not tied to an office or a company or even a country--and yet my wife and I both agree that we love it here and want to stay in Utah. There's an incredible writing community here, and a nice blend of civilization and wilderness: my front yard is a quiet street in an awesome neighborhood, my back yard borders a horse pasture, and within a one-mile radius there's a university, my favorite game store, and the busiest Wal-Mart in America. And despite Utah's reputation for overwhelming whiteness, my neighborhood is deliciously diverse. Not everything's perfect, of course--Utah is a lot more politically conservative than I am, and I tend to disagree with a lot of our political decisions. On the other hand, I don't pay a lot of attention to politics, so this doesn't have a lot of opportunity to bother me.
Gavin: I read that you spent a lot of years reading at the Sprague Library. What made you spend spend so much time there?
Dan: I grew up in Sugar House, so the Sprague was only a few blocks away, and I'd ride my bike there almost every day during the summer. I remember they did lots of reading incentive kind of activities, and my Grandma would pay us a dime for every book we read and things like that, but I didn't really need any of it--I just could never stop reading. It's been hands-down my favorite thing to do since the day I learned to do it.
Gavin: You currently have your Bachelors in English. What were those years like in college and how was the overall experience for you as a writer?
Dan: I went into the English program because I wanted to work with words, and yet my education and career counseling had convinced me that writing was a fun but useless endeavor completely separate from the concept of money. Our educational system is designed to put you in a cubicle, and there's no room for art anywhere in that cubicle, so I'd kind of given up my dreams of writing professionally and kept it to myself as a hobby. So anyway, I figured that becoming an editor was closest I could get to playing with with words for a living, and BYU has a great editing program, and I loved it. And then one semester a few friends and I signed up for a writing class taught by Dave Wolverton, a fantasy author, and on the very first day of class he told us "You can make a living as a writer." no one had ever said that to me before. I consider that I got an excellent education, from elementary school on up, but at no point had anyone ever told me that art was viable career, or explained how to make it happen. Dave knocked down all those barriers and walked us through the entire process: how to write, how to sell, how to sell enough to live on, and on and on and on. I brought all my half-written novels out into the light, set my goals as high as I could, and I've never looked back since.
Gavin: On the side you also do a lot of role-playing games. What got you hooked on those games?
Dan: Like I said before, I'm a storyteller, and role-playing is just one more opportunity to tell stories and flex your imagination. Role-playing has such a weird stigma attached to it, especially in highly religious communities, and frankly I can't think of anything more backwards. Parents, if you really understood what role-playing was you'd push your kids into it, not warn them away: imagine a game that's inherently social, encourages reading and math skills, and develops personal interaction in a cooperative, problem-solving environment. We talk all the time about how our kids are rotting their brains with TV and how no one reads anymore and how we want to make sure our children develop strong, supportive friendships, and role-playing is the one-stop shop to make all of that happen, and more. I've already started playing role-playing games with my kids, and I feel like I can almost see their imaginations getting stronger, and their communication skills getting better and better. Role-playing is awesome, and everyone should do it.
Gavin: How did the idea come about to officially start work on a novel?
Dan: I wrote my first book in second grade--a Choose Your Own Adventure book--so the idea of writing a novel was never really new, it's always been there. I started writing seriously my second year of college, and I started submitting them for publication soon after that. The book I eventually sold, I Am Not a Serial Killer, was my sixth finished book, and I'd already started on a seventh by the time it sold.
Gavin: Where did the concept come from for I Am Not A Serial Killer?
Dan: Like all normal, well-balanced people in the world, I study serial killers for fun--or as a hobby, more correctly, because it's hard to say that it's fun. I don't how I got hooked on them, but I find them fascinating to research and read about, and I've done it for years. One day, driving home from my weekly writing group, I was telling my friend Brandon (of Sanderson fame) all about sociopathy and developmental psychology, and we started a kind of jam session on the idea. Brandon and I do this all the time, and we come up with tons of awesomely goofy ideas we'll never be able to actually use, but this one we knew instantly would make an incredible story: a young sociopath who has all the predictors of serial killer behavior, but who's trying very hard to be good instead of bad. The story itself didn't coalesce for another year, but that character was too compelling, and I couldn't get him out of my head. I knew I had to write about a book about him.
Gavin: What was the process like for you while writing it and defining those characters?
Dan: It was surprisingly easy to get into the main character's head; that makes me sound like a really creepy person, but he's actually a lot more normal than people realize. Sociopathy is primarily defined as a lack of empathy: you feel emotions but you can't connect emotionally to other people. You feel different and weird; you don't understand why other people act the way they do, and they don't seem to understand you. That sounds very alien, but it's also an eerily perfect description of adolescence, and that makes it something we can all relate to. Why do I feel the the way I feel? Does anyone else feel it too, or am I a freak? Are the people at school being nice to me or making fun of me? Are my parents growing distant, or am I? The big surface problem in the book--a supernatural serial killer--is not something the average reader has any personal experience with, but the emotional problems at the core of the book are things we've all gone through, things we still go through every day. At it's heart this is the story of a boy trying to be good, and once I discovered that the entire thing just snapped into focus.
Gavin: Was there a lot of rewrite work to it or did everything just kind of fall into place?
Dan: I spent a year playing with the idea before I ever wrote anything: I placed him in different times and places, I gave him different families, I tested him in different genres. Slowly, the more I worked with it, the more ideas fell into place: he had to live in a certain kind of family, in a certain kind of town, facing a certain kind of enemy. Supernatural elements were a very early inclusion; the mortuary where he and his mother live was a very late inclusion, but one that kind of tied all the various ideas together. I wrote a few sample chapters, more monologues than anything else, just to make sure I understood the character's voice, and then I wrote out an outline and sat down to write and the first chapter just flowed out of me, like it was the most natural thing in the world. The tone was perfect. I don't think I've rewritten more than three sentences in that first chapter from that draft to the published one. Other parts of the book were much harder--the ending, for example, has been completely rewritten three times, from the ground up, because I couldn't get it right. My editor at Tor, Moshe Feder, and of course my writing group, helped a lot to get that ending right.
Gavin: Did you show it to anyone prior to finding a publisher?
Dan: I have a writing group, as I have mentioned, and we meet together once a week to read and critique each others' work. I really feel like this group is the single most valuable resource I have as a writer--they've helped me improve my writing, and this series in particular, in innumerable and invaluable ways. If you're serious about writing, take the time to find or create a good writing group.
Gavin: How did you come across Tor Books, and what was it like pitching the book to them?
Dan: Brandon Sanderson and I have been friends for nearly twelve years, long before either of us was published, and we spent those early years traveling to conventions and meeting editors and agents. We both wanted to do this for a living, so we set goals and went after it like a job search, or an actual job: we researched the various publishers, we figured out which editors would be a good fit for our work, and we tracked them down at parties and such to introduce ourselves. At one such convention in Montreal we met an editor named Moshe Feder, who'd recently become an acquiring editor for Tor and therefore had a lot of "open slots." We found him, introduced ourselves, pitched our books, and he asked to see them. A year later he bought Brandon's first book, Elantris, and a few years after that I wrote mine and Moshe loved it.
Gavin: When it finally got released what did you think of the public reaction to it? And how has it been for you promoting the book?
Dan: Seeing my own book on a shelf in a bookstore was one of the coolest things of my entire life. And the reaction has been great--people are reading it and loving it, sales have been excellent, and I even won the 2009 Whitney Award for best new LDS author. People keep asking why there hasn't been more of a controversy, with a horror novel in the heart of Mormondom, but so far the readers have all "gotten" it. It's not a slasher flick, though it is gruesome, and it's not evil, though it does confront the concept of evil fairly head-on. It's the story of a boy who's trying to be good, and that makes it not only a very moral novel but a very Mormon novel in a lot of ways--"the natural man is an enemy to God" and so on. The word 'horror" has such a stigma attached to it, but the concept of horror is at the heart of all fiction: something goes wrong, and the characters have to make it right again. Tragedy must be survived and conquered. Evil must be overcome by good. I think that people are seeing that and responding to it. The single most common comment I get from people is "I usually don't read this kind of book, but I loved it." What these people don't realize is that they read horrific fiction all the time, they just don't call it horror--they call it thriller, or dark fantasy, or paranormal romance, or a dozen other labels. This has made promoting the book very easy and a lot of fun, though I admit that it is surprisingly hard to avoid sensationalizing serial killers. People keep giving me ideas for advertising, or for T-shirts, or for viral web games, and they're all good in theory but wildly inappropriate in practice. Serial killers are real, and the things they do are horrible, and while I feel like I handle them well in my book it is surprisingly hard to handle them well in my advertising.
Gavin: Right now you're working on a second called Mr. Monster. Without giving away any grand details, what can you tell us about it?
Dan: I'm looking at the advance copies right now, actually--they just got delivered. Here's a pitch that's relatively spoiler-free: the first book is about letting your dark side loose, and the second book is about how hard it is to lock your dark side back up again. It's essentially a story about addiction, and about how doing something once can make it very, very hard not to do it again. It's definitely the darkest of the trilogy.
Gavin: Going local, what's your take on the local literary scene and the writers coming out of it?
Dan: Utah has an incredible writing community, big enough that people all over the country are starting to notice. I don't know how it started, but it's easy to see why it's still growing: everyone here is very supportive, specifically seeking to foster a strong writing community, so it's kind of rolling with it's own momentum. We have great local conventions like LTUE, CONduit, MountainCon, and StoryMakers, we have a ton of excellent writing workshops, we have local support from very big names like Dave Wolverton, Tracy Hickman, L.E. Modesitt, Brandon Sanderson, Brandon Mull, Shannon Hale, and so on. Even Stephenie Meyers and Orson Scott Card, though they don't live in Utah, help foster the local writing community just by being famous FORMER Utahns. Aspiring writers in Utah have a lot of resources to work with, and those of us who are published are doing our part to keep the ball rolling and gathering speed. Brandon and I, along with Sci-Fi webcartoonist Howard Tayler, do a weekly podcast on writing that's proven to be very popular, both locally and around the world. We even won a Parsec Award last year for Best Writing Related podcast. Just last week another Utahn sold a fantasy series, and the week before that a friend of mine sold a YA novel. The community just gets bigger and bigger.
Gavin: Is there anything you think could be done to make it more prominent?
Dan: In national publishing industry, Utah is already hugely prominent, but I don't know if many locals realize it. Just last year we had four local writers hit the New York Times bestseller list, and I think that kind of thing is only going to get more common and more frequent as time goes on. Plus we have a massively prolific local publishing industry feeding the LDS market, so there's a LOT of writers in the area. I guess the thing I'd like to see is more recognition of how many readers we have: national publishers don't typically send their authors through Utah, or really anywhere non-coastal, but I guarantee they'd get a huge response if they did. With a few big successes and some word of mouth, Utah could become a must-visit destination for book tours in every genre.
Gavin: Do you have any advice for writers about their work and getting published?
Dan: Always be writing, and always be submitting. Don't get stuck on one book, revising it until it's perfect, and don't keep your work in a closet where no one can see it. If you want to get published you have to treat it like a career, and you can't do a career in your spare time. The single most important skill I have as a writer is not writing but self-motivation; you have to make time and put in the work and never give up, and if you stick with it long enough and hard enough you WILL get published. Dave Wolverton said it to me and it changed my life, so now I'll say it to you: you can make a living as a writer. It just takes work.
Gavin: If you had to make a list, who are some of your favorite local authors?
Dan: Brandon Sanderson is a close friend, and certainly one of my favorites, as is our third podcasting buddy Howard Tayler. John Brown and Larry Correia are two more local writers that I love, probably because they write in my same genre of dark fantasy and horror. And of course my brother, Rob Wells, is an excellent writer with a few LDS books and he's about to close a deal with a national SF series that I've read and love. Honestly there are too many to mention--the local writing community is far, far bigger than most people realize--so I'll just say "[insert your name here] is awesome!" and leave it at that.
Gavin: What are your thoughts on the local book stores and how they're holing up against bigger chains?
Dan: With the passing of the Read Leaf in Springville we're down to just a handful of really solid indies in northern Utah, though the ones that are left are remarkably strong and even growing. Places like Sam Weller's and The King's English and The Purple Cow are fantastic bookstores that are more than holding their own. We've kind of passed the point, it seems, where indies are dying, and across the country we're starting to see them coming back to life. I'd love to see a Sci-Fi/Fantasy bookstore crop up in Utah somewhere, but I can't complain about what we've got.
Gavin: Do you feel like books are in decline with some being published online, or do you believe there will always be an audience there for a hand-held copy?
Dan: This is a hard one to answer, because I am a hardcore bibliophile but at the same time I'm a fairly avid environmentalist, and no matter how much I love holding a book in my hands I have to hope that we'll eventually move beyond the concept of non-digital printing. That said, I don't think we're anywhere near that point today, and it may be that even our grandchildren won't live to see it. But yes, the digital revolution has come, and it's hit every other industry and it's changed the way we do everything, and it would be foolish of us to assume it will never happen to publishing. We just need to be very careful in how we go about it--the music industry barely survived the switch, for crying out loud, and they're huge; I have no idea what it would do to publishing if every book was suddenly available at half the price in an easily-copied format. A lot of the big houses wouldn't survive. We need to give the major publishers a chance to convert their business models on their own schedule.
Gavin: What can we expect from you throughout this year?
Dan: My second book, Mr. Monster, comes out in October of this year, and my third comes out the following Spring. I'll be hitting a bunch of conventions and going on tour for each of them, which is going to eat up a ton of time, but even so I hope to get three new books written this year. The first two will be easy--I'm already done with one and working on the revision, and the second is about 1/3 written--but the third will be hard to squeeze in. I've set the goal for three just because I'm trying to push my limits a bit.
Gavin: Aside from the obvious, is there anything you'd like to plug or promote?
Dan: The last week of May is CONduit, an awesome SF/Fantasy convention in downtown Salt Lake. If you like writing, or reading, or even if you just like watching "Doctor Who", this is a wonderful place to meet other fans and writers and published authors and have a great time. Please come join us.