If you were unaware, Dan Wells is an American novelist who’s written two books to date, I Am Not a Serial Killer and Mr. Monster (reviews here and here respectively). He’s a sublime writer and his books are just plain awesome.
I’m proud to say that I’ve had the opportunity to trade a few questions and answers with him over the past few days and the interview below is the result of that exchange. I’m also proud to say that he featured one of my questions on his blog, for which you can find a link to in that section at the bottom of the post.
Anyways, scroll down or click through to find the complete interview….
LEC Book Reviews: All authors have their story of how they acquired a desire to write. What is yours?
Dan Wells: There are many seminal moments in my development as a writer, but the biggest influence is simply that I became a writer because my parents were both readers—they've always had a book in their hands, even in my earliest memories of them. I learned young that books were wonderful things, and I can't ever remember NOT wanting to write them. Add to that a long history of fantastic English teachers who fostered my love of both reading and writing, and here I am.
LBR: From what I gather you wrote a number of novels before getting your first published. Can you tell us a bit about them and how you went from those to I Am Not a Serial Killer?
DW: I grew up reading fantasy, and assumed I was going to be a fantasy writer, and all of my early books were fantasy—some of it pure Warhammer fan fiction, though at the time I thought it was stunningly brilliant and original. After finishing two novels that were both set in the same derivative world (one was called Realm and one was called Deeper Into Chaos), I decided to try something completely new and different, and started free-writing; this eventually turned into A Night of Blacker Darkness, a historical horror farce about graverobbers and fraudulent accountants and incredibly stupid vampires. Of all my old novels this is the one I think is good enough to publish, though I've had to rewrite it more times than was probably wise to get it into that condition. Every few years, after finishing two or three more books, I'll go back to that one and say “I've learned so much in the last few years, and I can see why this doesn't work—let me just tweak it a little.” I should just give it up and move on, but I think it has a lot of potential; one of these days I'm going to redo it as a stage play, and see how it works in that format.
After that one I wrote a book called The Legend of Krag, which was a return to fantasy but with all of my preconceptions broken down—probably too drastically. The world and the story were created out of whole cloth, as a reaction against my derivative earlier books, but I swung the pendulum so far to the other side that “original” became “too wacky to be accessible.” The one thing I really liked about this book, though, was the very dark undercurrent, so when the time came to write another book I focused on that and made a return to historical horror, though after two humor books I decided to write this one completely straight. I don't even remember what this book was called, because I always just referred to it as “Victorian Batgirl.” It was SO MUCH FUN to write a straight gothic horror; I'd never even considered it, but I sort of backed into accidentally and ended up loving it. My world and plotting were much better in this book than in my previous books, but it still had some major problems—most notably, my attempt to write a victorian girls school was an abysmal failure.
While running that book through my writing group, a friend and I hit on the idea of a young sociopath trying not to become a serial killer, and I decided that since I was loving horror so much I should go ahead and make the sociopath my next project. That, of course, turned into I Am Not a Serial Killer. (That title, by the way, was another goofy working title along the lines of Victorian Batgirl, never intended to see the light of day, but my writing group convinced me it was actually a really good title. I'm glad I listened to them.) By now, with five other books under my belt across a wide range of styles and genres, I had a much better grasp of characterization and story arc, and everything just kind of came together. It took me eight years and six books, but I did eventually learn all my lessons and figure out how to write a good book.
LBR: Your books were first published in the UK before they were released in the US. What was it like to have your books out in a different country before your own? What did this entail in the behind the scenes side of things?
DW: The reason for the odd release schedule is simple: my US publisher was already booked a year and a half ahead, whereas my UK publisher had a slot open much earlier than anyone expected. So one publisher took longer than usual, and the other took much less time than usual, and now everyone in America thinks I'm a European author. This is totally fine with me. It's actually been very handy, because I've been able to take all the success stories from Germany and the UK and show them to my US publisher and say “look: this can be a big hit if you put more money behind it,” and they've actually given me much more marketing support than initially planned because of it.
LBR: John Cleaver is quite a strange teenager. Are there any traits or quirks that you have in common with him?
DW: The only things John and I really share are a dark sense of humor and a fascination with serial killers, though he's much more obsessed about it than I am. Aside from that, we're actually very different; even the teen angst that makes him so relatable is not really mine, because I had a pretty mellow childhood and adolescence. I suppose, though, that we have similar resumes: he works in a mortuary, and I spent a summer working in a cemetery (and another summer landscaping a mausoleum, but that wasn't nearly as dark as the cemetery).
LBR: What were the challenges involved in writing a book from the point of view of a psychopath? ?
DW: Not nearly as hard as you think. I kept three main things in mind while writing him: first, I had to always keep him funny, so we could relate to him even when he was being creepy. Second, I really played up his sense of alienation, since that's one of the key emotional factors for sociopathy. Third—and this is a cheap trick I hesitate to mention—I forced myself to always describe a person's face EVERY SINGLE TIME John talks about their emotions. As a sociopath, John can't read emotions the same way that most of us do, and this extra layer of analysis gives him a very distant, calculating feel without ever coming out and saying “John is distant and calculating.” Not really a cheap trick I guess, since it's just the classic “show don't tell” principle, but now I worry that people will notice it, like I've just pulled back the curtain on a stage magician.
LBR: The John Cleaver books do not really follow the tropes that have often come to be associated with the horror genre. How exactly do they differ? Was that something you set out to do?
DW: It doesn't follow the tropes because I didn't know what they were: at the time I wrote it I hadn't really read a lot of horror, though I've started to read a lot more. I just started with a compelling character, tried to figure out what would be interesting for him to do, and tossed in some supernatural stuff because that's what I love. The fact that it ended up as more of a coming of age novel than a “standard” horror novel is cool, but what I've learned is that there is no “standard” horror novel. The word has become so closely associated with slasher films and a specific subset of 70s horror that we tend to assume horror is much more homogenous than it really is. Horror is actually a very wide field with a lot of power and originality, and at this point I'm just trying to live up to that legacy.
LBR: The third book in the John Cleaver series, I Don’t Want To Kill You, will be your next book published. Is there anything you can tell us about it or any other projects you have been working on?
DW: I have two projects going right now, one of which is almost finished and fits in a similar “psychological/supernatural thriller” genre as the John Cleaver books. It's tentatively titled Pain of Glass, and it's about a man with schizophrenia. The other project is further from completion, and very different from anything I've ever written; sort of a corporate satire/social science fiction kind of thing. It's been a lot of fun to write, and I hope my readers will be willing to take a chance on something really different.
LBR: What were some of the highlights of your recent book tour for I Am Not a Serial Killer?
DW: One of the best moments for me was visiting a bookstore in San Diego where I didn't have anything scheduled; I was just hitting as many local stores as I could to meet the booksellers and sign their stock. This particular store was one I found literally by accident, but when I went in to introduce myself the clerk said “oh good, we've been expecting you!” It turns out that one of the booksellers saw my book while stocking shelves, read it, and completely fell in love with it; whereas most Borders have five or so copies, this place had 17, and that was their second shipment after this bookseller had already handsold the first. They knew I had a tour date in San Diego and were hoping that I would stop by. I chatted for a while, made tentative plans to go back for the US release of Mr. Monster, and signed all their books; the bookseller who loved the book so much asked me to sign hers to “Mrs. Monster,” which was an awesome little touch.
LBR: As I understand it, you are a full-time writer, but before you had a "normal" fulltime job. How have you and your family adapted to this change?
DW: My family loves my new schedule, because I'm available pretty much any time they need me, but the frequent trips out of town for conventions and signings are occasionally problematic.
LBR: Many thanks for your time and effort in answering these questions. Any parting words?
DW: Thanks for the questions and the chance to talk. It's been great.
Dan Well's Website: http://www.fearfulsymmetry.net
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