By Marty Mulrooney
I recently reviewed a fantastic book by Dan Wells called I Am Not A Serial Killer. His debut novel, I found the whole thing a wonderfully dark and thrilling look at serial killers, from the surprisingly effective viewpoint of a 15 year old sociopathic boy!
The novel gives the relatively stale monster/horror genres a much-needed injection of originality as well, which of course makes me very excited to read the sequel, which is due out early next month (entitled Mr Monster). Therefore, I am proud to present a recent chat between myself and Dan Wells, self-admitted armchair killerologist…
Thank you for your time! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself please?
My name is Dan Wells, and I’ve been writing since I was a kid. I grew up in Utah, in the US, and except for a few years in Mexico I’ve lived in Utah my whole life. Despite writing creepy books about sociopathic killers, I’m actually a pretty normal guy with a wife and kids. I love to read and eat and play board games.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I announced to my parents in Second Grade that I was officially an author; my first book was a “Choose-your-own-adventure”-style book about being trapped in a maze. I remember in fourth grade, when we had to write one 1-page story every week, I usually wrote at least three or more stories per week, all them much, much longer than was necessary. It was the only time in my life that a teacher has told me to stop doing so much homework.
I Am Not A Serial Killer is your debut novel. Did you decide early on to make it a horror based narrative?
It’s my first published novel, but the sixth novel I’ve written. My earliest novels were epic fantasy, and as I wrote more and tried new things I made a nice little step-by-step journey through historical fantasy, historical horror, and now finally modern horror. I never used to read a lot of horror (I do now), but I did read a lot of “true crime,” so I kind of got into horror by combining that side door with my old love of fantasy.
How would you sell/sum the story up to a potential new reader?
It’s a story about a 15-year-old sociopath who thinks he’s turning into a serial killer, so he sets strict rules to keep himself from hurting anyone. Then a real monster comes to town and he has to break all of his rules in order to stop it.
Who would you say is the target audience? I am 22 and loved it!
The target audience for all of my books is me: I write what sounds cool to me, and from day to day that can be anything from serial killers to dragons to dark corporate satire. I Am Not a Serial Killer is about the crossroads of sociopathic development–the turning point where a potential killer has to choose to be good or to be bad–and that meant my main character was going to be a teenager, because that’s almost invariably when that choice takes place. In publishing terms, a teenager protagonist means the book is YA (young adult), but my book is “adult” enough that different markets are treating it very differently: in the UK it’s a YA horror, in Germany it’s an adult thriller, and in the US it’s being marketed to both audiences. What I’ve seen so far, and what I hope continues, is that the book works well for pretty much anyone.
Were you ever worried that the subject matter would prove controversial?
In some ways I’m kind of HOPING it gets controversial, because I think the resulting conversation could say some really interesting things about the nature of violence and the way we depict it in our media. Consider Luke Skywalker for a minute: even setting aside all the people he shot with a laser or chopped with a sword, he killed hundreds of thousands of people just by blowing up the Death Star. He’s a mass murderer, yet most of us think he was justified and call him a hero.
My protagonist, on the other hand, spends the whole book trying to decide if it’s morally right to kill one single person, who’s incredibly dangerous and not even really human, and yet some readers are getting very freaked out. What is the difference between Luke Skywalker and John Cleaver–is it the way they’re portrayed? Their reasons for acting? The genre they’re in? How can something be horrible in one situation and praiseworthy in another? I think that’s a really big issue, and one that our cultures are struggling with more and more every day. Nothing forces us to confront a sticky issue like a good controversy.
On the other hand, I do worry, and continue to worry, that people will think I’m making light of serial killers, which is a real problem, and one that I definitely don’t want to make light of. This was easy to avoid in the books, because depicting the realities and consequences of violence was part of the whole point, but I’ve had to very careful as the books are marketed, because it’s far too easy to fall into the “collectible serial killer baseball cards” kind of mentality.
I occasionally talk about serial killers on my blog [www.fearfulsymmetry.net], for example, but I never have poll questions like “who’s your favourite serial killer?” That kind of thing is wrong-headed, and insensitive to the families of the victims, and yet…there are killers who fascinate me, and I want to talk about them. So it’s a thin line, and I try to walk it carefully, and I try to find ways to depict killers without glorifying them. But I keep worrying that someone has placed that line in a different place than I have, and will accuse of me of something I’m trying very hard not to do.
Why do you think we are fascinated as a society with serial killers?
Serial killers are the modern boogey men–vampires and werewolves and ghosts and whatnot have all been disproven by science, and emasculated by the media, and they don’t have the capacity to scare us anymore. Serial killers are more frightening than our other monsters because they’re real, and they’re harder to detect, and they can’t be disproven or laughed away. Ask anyone in our culture how a vampire works and they’ll tell you, without any hesitation, but ask them how a serial killer works–how does a person become one, and why do they do what they do?–and unless you’re talking to a criminal psychologist no one will have a good answer. We are fascinated by serial killers because they are real, living monsters, right here in our society, empirically provable and yet somehow impossible to understand. Our legends of vampires and werewolves–inhuman humans who walk among us and hunt us in the dark–were almost certainly based on ancient serial killers; our modern fascination is just the same old ghost story thrill, updated to the modern era.
Dexter (the book & TV series) deals with some similar issues regarding killers that are present in your own book: are you a fan of either of these?
I am a very big fan of Jeff Lindsay and Dexter, though I didn’t hear about them until after I’d sold my book about three years ago, right as the TV show was really starting to get popular. My editor and I checked it out, nervous that we’d been scooped, but we discovered to our delight that the ideas were actually very different. Who would have thought that the “heroic serial killer” genre had so much room in it? And there are plenty of other examples of it; in particular I’d recommend Hack/Slash, a comic book series about a young woman who hunts down and kills slasher-movie-style villains.
How much research was required for the book? The protagonist John Cleaver mentions plenty of real life killers throughout the book that I assume exist in real life?
Most of the research for this book was focused on the mortuary and the embalming, because that’s the part I didn’t really know anything about. The serial killers in the book, and the serial killer psychology, were very easy to write because I’ve been an armchair killerologist for years–I’m a lot like my main character in that way, though not to the same level of obsession. My pre-existing knowledge of serial killers is a large part of why I wrote the book in the first place. Of course, the first book used up a lot of that knowledge, and the later books required a lot more research on how killers think and how we hunt them.
How accurate are the passages set in the mortuary? It all seemed pretty real based upon the vivid descriptions about dealing with dead bodies!
I tried several times to get into one of the local funeral homes to observe an embalming, and they all said no–not because it was against the rules or anything, as far as I could tell, but because they were worried that this crazy author was going to write some kind of expose about their methods or something. Maybe there was a big shake-up in the local mortician community? I don’t know. Fortunately, there is a wealth of information available on how mortuaries work, and how an embalming is performed, and I was able to give myself a pretty solid hands-off education. I’ve even heard from a mortician who read the book and wrote to compliment me on my depiction of it, so that was very gratifying. Here’s a note for all those morticians out there: yes, the methods used in my book are a couple of years behind the times. That’s deliberate, to reflect the the fact that this is a very small operation in a very small town, and they simply don’t have the money to update their tools and systems. Of course, with a couple of dangerous killers in town, business is booming…
The next chapter in the franchise, Mr Monster, is due out next month. Was a sequel always planned, or was this more something that just grew organically out of the first book?
The first book was intended to stand alone if necessary, with the potential to be a series if it worked, but I didn’t really consider any sequels until I sold the first one and my US editor told me he wanted two more. I had to re-examine the whole thing and tweak the ending and figure out not just what COULD happen next, but what SHOULD happen next. Why would there be another killer in the same small town? Where could I take John Cleaver that I hadn’t taken him yet? This turned out to be a great infusion of energy into the basic premise, and both of the sequels are (in my mind) far superior to the first one. So if you like I Am Not a Serial Killer, I think you’ll like Mr. Monster even more.
Was it difficult to write John Cleaver without him becoming too horrific to the reader? Some things he does are on the brink of no return but he always pulls back just in time…
John Cleaver is absolutely, from the beginning, the core idea that sparked the entire book: “what would a person be like who had all the predictors of serial killer behaviour, but tried to be good instead?” Starting from that base, I knew I was asking for trouble, because how could I get the audience to relate to a character who, by nature, can’t relate to anyone? How could I make a sociopath empathetic, when that is the opposite of his nature?
I solved that problem by making it my goal, and building everything around it, using two basic principles as my foundation: 1) John has a horrible life. Humans are inherently social creatures, and when we see someone in trouble we have a built-in response to try to help them. We want losers to succeed, because helping one individual helps the entire society. Naturally, John doesn’t feel this for you, because that’s practically the definition of a sociopath, but in the right circumstances you can’t help feeling it for him. I just created the right circumstances (John is sad, friendless, fatherless, etc.) and let your natural psychology take over. 2) John is funny. When someone makes us laugh, we like them, and while John usually makes you laugh about something creepy, he still makes you laugh. You get the feeling that you’d like him, and that you’d get along with him, which is exactly what people said about Ted Bundy.
So, returning to your original question, how did I keep him from getting too horrific? I didn’t. He’s far too horrific, and most of the people who read the book would never read about that kind of character doing those kinds of things under any other circumstances. But I invested hundreds of pages making you love him, so when he does horrible things you’re right there with him, and you like him, and I don’t have to justify his actions because you’re already doing it for him in your head. That aspect is my favourite part of the whole book.
Was the slightly fantastical nature of Mr Crowley always intended? I found it interesting how the lines between the protagonist and antagonist were so blurred…
I started, like I said, with the basic idea of making you identify with a sociopath. When I started looking for a villain for him to fight, I realized very quickly that I wanted to do the same thing with him–a likable, identifiable person who could be a nice guy and a monster at the same time. There was really no other way to do it: if I made the villain all bad, the gray areas I built so carefully for the hero would be destroyed, because the questions would be too easy to answer.
The next step was to figure out how to weave these two conflicted characters together, and I quickly realized that a non-human monster would be a delicious counterpoint to sociopathic John, who sees himself (as many sociopaths do) as being somehow inhuman and disconnected anyway. One publisher actually offered me a substantially higher advance if I took all the supernatural elements out of the book, but I just couldn’t do it–the monster who can love and the human who can’t had become so central to the story, I couldn’t see any way to make it work without it.
Do you plan to continue as a horror writer or would you like to try out other genres?
Like I said, I write what interests me, and right now I’m working on a science fiction story, but the next project I have planned is a full-blooded return to horror. I’m very excited about both projects.
Where does Mr Monster pick up after I Am Not A Serial Killer? How much has John Cleaver changed during the time between?
The first book is about John letting his inner monster loose. The second book starts about three or four months later, realizing that inner monsters are very hard to lock back up again. It’s a very interesting book, because it’s about half as gory as the first book, but at least twice as creepy. It was loads of wicked fun to take his skewed inner turmoil and just run with it.
What can we expect next from you after the release of Mr Monster?
Coming next year is the third and final (for now) John Cleaver book, Full of Holes, which ramps up a lot of the tension (and which has my favourite character of the series) (aside from John). There will be future books in the same universe, but I can’t tell you who will be in them because, well, then you’d know who lives. Between now and then I’m writing a science fiction book (present day, technology-goes-wrong kind of social SF) and I’m currently shopping a historical dark comedy that I hope someone picks up. It’s very weird, so we’ll have to see.
Thank you for such a great interview Mr Wells!
You can read Alternative Magazine Online’s review of I Am Not A Serial Killer here. We shall also be reviewing the follow-up, Mr Monster, later next month!
Dan Wells – Official Site: http://www.fearfulsymmetry.net/
Dan Wells – Official Twitter: http://twitter.com/johncleaver
Dan Wells will be in Brighton next month for the World Horror Convention and would love any fans to come down for a chat/book singing! He is also planning a short UK book tour so stay tuned!