Seven Questions with Dan Wells

3 10 2011


Dan Well’s John Cleaver trilogy is a truly amazing read, and the audiobook version of the finale of the series, I Don’t Want to Kill You has sat high atop my favorite audiobooks of 2011 list for a while. The series is a genre bending psychological thriller with one of the most intriguing main characters I have ever read. Dan Wells was kind enough to take some time out of his schedule to answer some of my questions.


Bob: First off, I need to reiterate how much I love the entire John Cleaver series. It’s obvious when you read my reviews of Mr. Monster and I Don’t Want to Kill You. Our society seems almost obsessed with Serial Killers, to the point where they have started to become heroes. Yet, John Cleaver is not a Serial Killer. What inspired you to come up with the John Cleaver character, a young boy, struggling with dark urges, yet trying to do the right thing?

Dan: Like all normal, well-adjusted people, I read about serial killers as a hobby. I study them, I research them, and I’ve done so since I was in high school; I just find them fascinating, especially the question of why they do what they do. How can one person contain something so banal and something so evil at the same time? Meanwhile, I’d been writing books for years, mostly epic fantasy because that’s the fiction I tended to read, and I had a great writing group. One night, driving home with my friend Brandon (of Sanderson fame, also a fantasy writer) I was talking all about the Macdonald Triad–three traits in common to the vast majority of serial killers–and Brandon mentioned that that would be a cool first line for a book: "There are three traits in common to 99% of serial killers, and I have all of them." That’s not the first line of the book, obviously, but that’s where the germ of the idea came from. I spent about a year trying to figure out what to do with that character: would the book be funny? Scary? Sad? Something else entirely? At one point I started plotting it out as a sort of new Addams Family, with a family full of creepy murderer archetypes (the son’s a serial killer, the dad’s a grizzled axe murderer, etc.), but eventually I realized that the real core of the idea, what really made it interesting, was the conflict inside of John: everything about him is pushing him toward evil, but he tries to be good instead. That’s what worked, so I threw out everything else and focused on that, and the rest of the books as we know them grew up pretty organically from there.

Bob:  One of the things I struggled with when writing my reviews is that this series is very hard to define. It seems to defy easy labels. While it’s about a teenage boy in high school who crushes on the popular girl and has to put up with the school bully, it also has a maturity and a feel that doesn’t fit in well with my concept of what a traditional young adult novel should be. Also, it has elements of horror and mysteries, with a touch of conspiracy thriller and a dash of science fiction. When you set out to write, I Am Not a Serial Killer, did you have a firm idea of the type of book you were after, or was it a matter of plot and characters leading the way?

Dan: The simplest answer to this question is that the only audience I write for is myself: I didn’t think about genre or readership or anything else, I just wrote a book I thought was cool. The main character is a teen because I was telling a story about psychological development, and that’s where it all comes to a head; it has a supernatural monster in it because I like supernatural monsters, and I liked the idea of an inhuman monster who can connect with people better than the very human yet sociopathic narrator. When I looked at the finished product I knew it would be a hard sell precisely because it doesn’t fit into any genre very neatly, and when I sold it to my editor he had a devil of a time trying to pitch it to the rest of the publishing house for precisely that reason.

Bob: I think one of the overriding themes of this series is behavior versus temptation. John Cleaver fascinates me, because he has this dark side, an almost classic formula for sociopathic behavior, but he chooses to live by rules that will keep him from embracing that side. Henceforth, despite his urges, he isn’t a serial killer, because he chooses not to be. Do you feel that society’s almost obsessive need to label people can actually push people into antisocial behavior? Was this a theme you deliberately pursued when writing this series?

Dan: I’ve actually been much more conscious about societal labeling after finishing the books than I was before them. There are some fairly big controversies out there right now regarding the definitions of mental illness, and how those definitions are devised and applied and how very subtle changes can drastically alter people’s lives: we actually have a test in the psychological community to help determine sociopathy, and if you fail the test you’re branded a sociopath; in some cases it works really well, and in others it seems to be keeping people in jail who might more productively be set free. Shifting definitions of clinical depression, as another example, can knock people in and out of disability benefits, whether or not their actual ability to hold a job has been changed in any way. These issues fascinate me, and I find myself more and more becoming an activist for some of them, but they weren’t really anywhere in my head while I was writing the books.

On the other hand, the idea of a man trying to be good while his nature pulls him relentlessly in the other direction was a big deal for me while writing, and I actually sat down before writing to brainstorm a series of situations where that conflict could be explored. I tried very hard to avoid moralizing in the series, but if you’ll permit me a bit of it here, I think we have a tendency in our society to avoid blame and responsibility to a dangerous degree. Court cases crop up constantly in which the primary defense is "I couldn’t help myself because of these issues in my past," and while I admit that this is occasionally true, far more often we just need to step up and take responsibility for what we do. John Cleaver is hero because he stops monsters, but the obstacles he has to overcome, and the self control he has to show in order to do it, are far more heroic, and that’s  really what people are responding to.

Bob: Now, of course, on to the audiobooks. I often use I am Not a Serial Killer as an example of how poor narrating casting can almost ruin an audiobook. Luckily, the first book had such an engaging premise and characters, that despite 15 year old John sounding like Robert Stack, I wanted to continue the series. Luckily, Kirby Heybourne took over for Mr. Monster and was simply brilliant. How have you felt about the audio versions of your books, and did you have any interaction with the team at Tantor or the narrator himself along the way?

Dan: I have had literally no interaction with the team that made the books, up until last month when I saw Heyborne on facebook and wrote him a quick letter to thank him for doing such a great job. The first audiobook is bad enough that people keep asking me if Tantor’s going to remake it with Heyborne as the narrator; I doubt it, but it would be awesome if they did.

Bob: You are one of the new generation of writers who has seemed to really embrace the use of social media and your personal blog to reach out to your readers. How do you feel things like Twitter has impacted the publishing industry? How has your online presence influenced you as a writer?

Dan: I got on board with blogging in 2000, when I left college. I’d worked on a student SF magazine and started doing game reviews, and when I graduated I wanted to keep it up but didn’t want the expense of actually publishing something, so I started a site called The Official Time-Waster’s Guide and wrote three or four articles a week about games and gaming. When I finally got published as a novelist, it was easy to make the transition into other kinds of blogging (and I still occasionally review board games, both on my site and on My other significant web presence, perhaps more so than my blog and twitter, is Writing Excuses, a how-to-write podcast that I host with three other writers: Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, and recently Mary Robinette Kowal. the podcast has won two Parsecs, been nominated for a Hugo, and has recorded with us and with special writing guests at events all over the continent. I can definitely say that a big chunk of whatever popularity I have comes from the visibility I get from that podcast.

As for how social media has impacted the book industry, I don’t know. In some ways it’s a lot more transparent now, but most of that comes from other forms of online media–corporate websites and industry blogs and so on. What you get from twitter is more personal, like a window into the lives of your favorite authors, and I find that fascinating. I also think that most authors don’t use social media very well. The people I follow on twitter are not the ones who are actively trying to leverage their social media as a promotional tool: those people are boring, and I don’t want to sign up for a voluntary advertisement feed, I want to learn about the people behind the books, and be entertained by them. To borrow my friend’s analogy, imagine that the social media sphere is a giant watercooler, and we’re all hanging out talking to each other. The first guy talks about the game he watched last night, the second guy tells a joke, and the third guy tells you he has merchandise for sale in his cubicle.. Nobody wants to talk to the third guy; most people don’t even want to be around him. The best use for social media is to entertain: to make people laugh and think and talk to each other. If you can do that in 140 characters, you’re advertising your writing ability better than any mercenary post about how awesome your books are.

Bob:  If you could choose any author to write The Biography of Dan Wells, who would it be, and who would you like to like to narrate the audio version of the book?

Dan: My biography would be written by Victor Hugo, because I want every scene of my life to be presented in exquisite melodramatic detail. The audio version would be read by the Queen of England, because seriously: the Queen of England. That would be awesome.

Bob: Finally, what upcoming projects are you working on that you are able to talk about? What should Dan Well’s fans be looking for in the future?

Dan: I have a lot going on. Last month I released an ebook called A NIGHT OF BLACKER DARKNESS, and just this week we sold the audio rights to it, which I’m very excited about. In October I have a novella in the MORMONS AND MONSTERS anthology, which is kind of a Robert E. Howard-ish pulp-style adventure anthology, but with Mormons. My story’s about a mormon pioneer who turns into a monster and fights zombies; it’s ridiculous and awesome at the same time. Next year I have two books coming out: a YA dystopia called PARTIALS, coming in late February, and a supernatural thriller called THE HOLLOW CITY, coming in July.

The Audiobook versions of The John Cleaver Trilogy are produced by Tantor Media, and are available for download through The print versions are produced by Tor Books and are available through your local bookseller.

Check out my reviews of Dan Wells Audiobooks:

Mr. Monster

I Don’t Want to Kill You

Reviews of I Am Not a Serial Killer:

Jenn’s Bookshelves



One response

3 10 2011
Jenn's Bookshelves

Fascinating interview! Dan Wells is one of the authors I just recently (in the past year and a half or so) discovered. It’s great to learn more about him, his writing, and what we can expect in the future. Thanks!!

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