Thursday, 12 March 2009

Author Interview: Dan Wells

Dan Wells is the debut author of I Am Not A Serial Killer, which is currently published in the UK by Headline, and is scheduled for a US release in Spring 2010. He was kind enough to answer some questions for me, and talks about all things Serial Killer.


Is writing something you've always wanted to do?

Yes. I told my parents in second grade that I wanted to be an author, and I wrote constantly. In fourth grade we had to write a story every other week, and I turned in four or five per week—eventually my teacher had to ask my parents to please reign me in a little, because she couldn’t keep up. In high school I was somehow convinced by the grim realities of life that writing was a hobby, not a career, but that didn’t last long—in college, in a writing class with Dave Wolverton, he told me the greatest thing I’d ever heard: “you can make a living as a writer.” I jumped in with both feet and never looked back.

What inspired you to write this story?

One day, on the way home from my writing group, I was talking to a friend about my secret hobby: serial killer research. Specifically, I was talking about the McDonald triad, which are three things in common to 95% of all serial killers. My friend mentioned that this would be a great hook for a book: a kid who has all the predictors for serial killer behavior and has to try to avoid his fate. I loved the idea, tweaked it, changed all the pieces around, and one year later finally sat down and wrote it. It turned into something much more, but that was the core idea that sparked it all.

The main character, John, is obsessed with serial killers. Do you have an interest in the subject?

Absolutely. I don’t know how it started, but I’ve had a long, long fascination with serial killers and serial killer psychology. This book is not an autobiography by any means, but a lot of John’s interests are just reflections of my own—like him, I find the question of sociopathic motive absolutely engrossing. What causes people to do this? Why do they kill at all, and why are their methods so specific? Most people who commit crimes are doing it for money or love or anger, but serial killers have reasons all their own, which often don’t make any sense outside of their own skewed perspective. I find that fascinating.

I Am Not A Serial Killer
is quite gory and violent. Did any problems arise from this when it came to editing, or were your publishers happy with the mature content?

Neither of my editors, in the US or the UK, had any problems with the mature content of the book; we’ll see what they say about books 2 and 3, which they are reading now. I think the first chapter is the key: if you can get past the embalming scene, it prepares you for everything else.

Taking the subject matter into account, what made you write this book for a YA audience?

Part of the reason was, like I said, that original concept of “a developing serial killer”—that is inherently a child’s story, a dark reflection of the coming-of-age archetype, and I couldn’t possibly tell it the same way with character whose mind and personality were already fixed by age. There’s also the fact that it’s just plain creepier to hear a 15-year-old talk about this stuff. In the end, though, I think the reason it works so well as YA is the nature of sociopathy itself: you feel disconnected from other people, you feel alone, you don’t understand why they do what they do…which is also a great description of adolescence. I think teens will identify with John very readily, because the problems he faces are extreme exaggerations of their own.

Although John is a sociopath, I connected with, and liked, his character. Did you always intend for the reader to be on his side?

From the instant I started working on this book, I knew that the foundation to the entire thing would be John’s character, and specifically the reader’s ability to identify with him—as a sociopath he can’t connect with you, so how will you ever connect with him? The first step was to make him funny, because it is the quickest and most effective bridge between people. You can connect much more easily with people who make you laugh; that’s why public speakers tend to start with a joke. The next step was simply to give John problems, because humans are natural problem solvers, and we have an innate desire—a kind of pack mentality—to help people solve their problems. Check out my blog this Friday where I talk about this same principle in the movie Psycho. The third element, of course, is first person: the reader is inside of John’s head from beginning to end, good or bad, and we start to see things through his eyes whether we want to or not. One of my very favorite things to hear about the book is when people say they connected to John and wanted him to win even when he was doing something terrible—that’s when I know I’ve succeeded as a writer, when I can help people to experience a viewpoint so far away from their own.

The title of the book is very clever, as John does have the potential to be a serial killer. Are the thoughts and feelings of his inner demon something you found difficult to write about? Did you do any research into psych reports of real killers?

I did research serial killer psychology quite extensively, though the portrayal in this books is necessarily simplified and, obviously, non-standard. Using an established psychology template actually made a lot of the book much easier to write, though there were certain scenes that were incredibly hard to write—John has one scene in particular, with his mother, that completely shook me up for a couple of days afterward. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know which scene I’m talking about.

You included quite a few female characters in the book. Was this to appeal to female readers?

I didn’t set out to specifically appeal to any particular gender; the mix of characters came more from the needs of the story. First is the statistical nature of serial killer’s families: a vast majority come from dysfunctional homes, usually with at least one parent missing; in many cases the father is gone and the killer has a very bad relationship with his mother, so I went with that.

A few people, myself included, were wondering if you see any similarities between Serial Killer and the TV show/adult book series Dexter? Are you a fan of the show?

I am a fan, though I didn’t hear about it until after I’d sold my book—it was just getting really popular right about the time I got my first offer on my manuscript. I was initially very worried that this guy had beaten me to the punch, but once I watched it I realized that despite some surface similarities the two stories, and especially the two characters, are very different: John and Dexter are in similar situations, but they react to them very differently, and are headed in very different directions. That said, I love Dexter and I continue to be flattered by the comparisons. I think fans of Dexter will really love I Am Not a Serial Killer.

Can you tell us anything about the forthcoming sequels, or any other projects you're working on?

I don’t want to give too much away, but remember: John’s greatest fear in book 1 was not the Clayton Killer, but himself.


Thanks, Dan! I really hope some of you will read this book, as it is definitely worth it. (you can read my review here). For more information on both the book and author, you can visit: Dan's site, Headline's Bword site, read Dan's posts over at the Bword blog, or read the first chapter of the book here.


Lenore said...

I'm glad you addressed the Dexter question. Good thing my local bookstore orders books from the UK so I can get this sooner rather than later :)

Chicklish said...

This is a really fascinating interview. Thanks for a great read, both of you.

So Many Books, So Little Time said...

Hmm, I'm not sure about this one. It's sounds very creepy all though I watched the first series of Dexter and really enjoed it, so maybe I'll read it at some point.

Marie Hansen said...

2010? Oh no!

H said...

I wasn't sure about reading this, but I love the subtitle, 'a sickly-disturbing, darkly-comic thriller.' It makes me want to try it!

Sadako said...

This sounds super creepy! and I hadn't heard of it. I'm so checking it out.

Also love the subtitle. Sounds just like something I'd adore. Although I didn't like American Psycho, another look into the mind of a sociopath, hopefully this one will be better!

Steve said...

Having read the book (and all three for that matter) I can say that if you are on the fence, you should take the plunge. While there are some delightfully disturbing scenes, there is also a good amount of dark humor, and a fantastically crafted character.

Being a fan of Dexter myself, I can see where similarities are drawn. However, there are a huge number of differences that make Dan Wells' novel an entirely different animal which I can't get enough of.

You will love this novel and the novels that follow.

Arlene said...

I was able to be at a reading by Dan Wells and was completely delighted. He himself is funny, intelligent and completely humble about his keyboard prowess. I'd read anything by this guy. He knows what he's doing!