Dan: You have a book coming out?
Rob: That I do.
Dan: And that book is called?
Dan: Variant, that is a very good title. Tell us a little about the book.
Rob: The book is about a kid from the slums of Pittsburgh—a foster kid that always bounced around all his life—and in the first chapter of the book he gets a scholarship to this boarding school in the middle of nowhere. When he gets there he discovers it is actually some sort of prison or experiment where there are no adults and the kids run everything and it is gang-ridden, but someone is controlling it.
Dan: And they are all locked down, and no one can escape.
Rob: No one can escape, no one can communicate with the outside world. But there is someone watching them; there is surveillance all over the place and the kids have to do all the work. They cook the food, they mow the lawns, they take out the garbage, and they can all earn contract points for doing these things. And so what maintains order is that the gangs in the school have kind of made a truce based on these contracts and that is what kind of keeps people from killing each other.
Dan: So, it is basically our life growing up at home?
Dan: Very nice. Now this is modern day, correct?
Rob: Modern day.
Dan: But with some crazy crap thrown in?
Rob: There is crazy crap.
Dan: How much are you saying about the crazy crap?
Rob: I say little about the crazy crap except that it's science fiction. On my website I label it as dystopian-ish.
Rob: Dystopia has become such a marketing term, and I don't think the book is dystopian, though it is science fiction. But it's funny to read the reviews that are coming out about the book because everyone dances around the genre, because the genre itself is a big spoiler. And so I say it's science fiction, but it is modern day and it's very “science fiction light.”
Dan: Up until the point it becomes “science fiction heavy.”
Rob: Well, even then, it’s a paranoia book. Early in the writing process the bad guys were the school. There were guards, there were crazy things, and I purposely shifted it so it is very much a “Lord of the Flies” situation. Yes, there is science fiction, but the conflict is student against student. It’s very personal and very human. And yes there is this ultimate "bad guy", whoever it is that’s running the school, but the danger comes from gang against gang action at the school.
Dan: Ah ha. Now tell me, because as you know, and some of our readers may know, my first book was plagued by weird genre considerations; it seems a lot of people read it thinking it was a real crime novel and then it goes all supernatural halfway through, which freaked a lot of people out, and it was very interesting to read the responses. Different people would say, "I could tell from the first page that it was going to be supernatural" and other people would say, "this came out of nowhere." How concerned are you about those typse of reactions? Because you have a very similar build up: it’s all paranoia and then halfway there’s a big genre twist.
Rob: Yes, I am not too concerned. The blurb on the cover of the book talks about a big twist, and so I think people see that something is coming. Also, most of the reviews have not seemed to have a problem with it. My favorite "bad" review that I have ever gotten—most of the reviews have been quite good, but this one particular blogger tore the book apart and then said: "I will give him one thing, it is an idea that I have never seen before but maybe that’s because it's not a good idea."
Dan: That is awesome! I am glad you were able to tap into that underused but crappy branch of storytelling. And as for the twist, I think the fact that the book is so weird to begin with puts it into speculative territory from the beginning, so the sudden of appearance of science fiction will seem much more natural.
Rob: Yes. And when the science fiction appears, it appears and then it’s gone. The story isn’t about the twist, it’s about characters responding to the twist, and that makes it less of a stumbling block.
Dan: And the big twist of course is that chickens can talk!
Dan: Tell me a little bit about how you became a writer, because I happen to have known you for the past 33 years, and you spent most of that time hating books. I would not have predicted in our childhood that you would have grown up to be a writer.
Rob: I would not have predicted it either. Yeah, I think it was more that you were my brother and you were a year older than me and I wanted to do everything you didn't do.
Dan: Which worked out well, because I also wanted you to do things that I didn't do.
Rob: Yes, and so you liked reading and you liked writing and so therefore I liked the visual arts. I did a lot of painting and drawing in high school and that kind of thing. I enjoyed sports. Whereas you enjoyed...
Dan: Cool things!
Dan: You're going to knock me for enjoying lethargy when you are currently wrapped in a blanket working from home?
Rob: I have a mental illness.
Dan: Oh, don’t worry; we will get to you having a mental illness later. I’m saving all the good questions.
Rob: Sweet. So as you know, I always had a really intense interest in history.
Dan: We have a lot of “maid and butler” dialog in this interview don't we?
Rob: Yeah we do!
Dan: As you are well aware, we are conducting an interview.
Rob: I actually got back into books thanks to an experience in college. Our Mom was sick, and I had to take her to the hospital, and I knew I needed something to read so I grabbed a book at random from a shelf on the way out the door. It was Huckleberry Finn. I was supposed to read it in high school, and I didn’t, and then when I finally read it out of desperation and boredom I loved it. That’s when I decided that “hey, maybe these books that I was supposed to read in high school were probably good,” so I got interested in reading again. Meanwhile, I very interested in history, and one night I was watching a documentary about Stalingrad and the battle of WWII and what they were talking about is the that soldiers were so afraid of snipers that they would not go outside. So they would burrow from basement to basement to get through the city and I thought that was such a cool idea. From a fantasy perspective especially. So I called you up and I said, “here is a cool idea for a book,” kind of expecting to give you this idea, so you would write it, and you said...
Dan: Authors hate it when people do that.
Rob: Yes we do. Anyway, at the time you were at BYU and you were working on your English and Editing degree and you said, "I'm working on something else, so why don't you write a couple chapters and come down to my writing group?" And I wrote a couple chapters...
Dan: Now, before we move on, for the sake of history, do we want to mark my sage advice to you as the seminal point in your writing career?
Dan: Excellent! I just wanted to make sure the credit was placed where it was due.
Rob: Well, actually we can place credit even further, because the specific advice that you gave me at the time—and I don't know who you were quoting—because obviously YOU did not say something intelligent—
Dan: Obviously I must have been quoting somebody. I bet it was Ray Bradbury.
Dan: I bet even if it wasn't Ray Bradbury, I said it was Ray Bradbury.
Rob: Probably. What you said was that "everybody says they will sit down and write a book, that one day they will write the great American novel, and the difference between writers and everybody else is that writers actually do it."
Dan: That sounds like the kind of thing I would attribute to Ray Bradbury.
Rob: Yeah, it probably was. So Ray Bradbury may have influenced me but via you. And so I wrote it and started going to your writing group which was you, and Brandon Sanderson, who at the time was unpublished, and a couple other guys.
Dan: And just to undo all of the karmic credit I just got by pushing you toward writing, that writing group experience was abysmally poor for you.
Rob: It was not ideal. But I learned the basics of writing. I mean things like you can't change point of view in the middle of a paragraph, that kind of thing. I learned a lot of basic grammar, because I did not pay attention in high school, so I learned a lot of the basics of how to write a story. And the main thing that I got out of it was I wrote 80,000 words of a novel. And so it was very motivational: I can get through this, yes!
Dan: And you looked back and said “this is a crappy novel and that writing group was useless to me, but look: I can finish a novel.”
Rob: Yeah, exactly.
Rob: Basically, what happened is that I said "this is not what I want to do." You guys were all writing kind of epic fantasy, or fantasy of some sort, and so that is what I was writing, even though I didn’t read it. I was writing it because it was what you guys were writing. It was that first idea I had about burrowing from basement to basement; I had that in a fantasy sense, but the book that I was writing was essentially a World War I story. It was an allegory, essentially, where the Germans were elves, and…I can't remember all the details.
Dan: And half the people reading this interview are going to say “ooh! I totally want the World War I fantasy novel.” And that is a cool idea, you should back to that some day.
Rob: It is a cool idea.
Dan: The reason that our writing group was so bad for you was that every single week we would go "Ooh! This is cool except you should do it this way." And the next week we would say "Ooh! This is cool except you should do it this other way." And you would do it, and you ended up with the most schizophrenic novel, constantly changing styles and viewpoints and purpose and everything. But the writing itself was always improving. By the time we got to the last chapter we went "Oh hey! Rob knows how to write".
Rob: But the book itself was a disaster! I changed the focus with every chapter, but I never went back to revise the earlier stuff to match it, so each chapter assumes that the previous chapter fit with it.
Dan: It's awesome. Someday we'll publish it as-is, and no one will ever buy a Rob Wells book again.
Rob: So, I kind of stagnated with that group because of that, but I wanted to keep writing.
Dan: And my writing group is much better now. I feel obligated to point that out. We learned from having killed you how to not kill anyone else.
Rob: I decided to take the old writing advice “write what you know," and I wrote a book based on a little town I used to live in New Mexico and it was a romantic comedy and that was kind of when I left your group. I thought "they've taught me a lot of stuff but I have kind of stagnated here. I don't want to write fantasy anymore. I know for a fact that I wont be much help to them in them writing fantasy, and I know they won't be much help to me in writing a very light romantic comedy."
Dan: Now tell me, on a total side note here, do you think that the advice "write what you know" is useful advice? I mean, you've never been in a weird, science fictional boarding school.
Rob: Right. I think that it was useful for me at the time as a motivator to write something different, but in general I think that "write what you know" means "go out and learn some things and then write them." I think that "write what you know" means to write plausible emotion and human nature, but no, I do not think that I am restricted from writing about a welder from Bulgaria.
Dan: You just gave away the ending of Variant!
Rob: No! Darn it.
Dan: Dangit. I think that is one of the strengths of Variant: it's this very unique situation that you know would not happen in the real world, but everyone's responses to it are immediately recognizable, and you go "oh, well yeah, that is how I would react" or "that is how my friend would react" and you can see the real world in it so in that sense yeah, you're right, write what you know, as long as there is also something awesome. Now, let's leave your origin story as a super hero and move into the future. You've got Variant coming out and I know there is one sequel to that coming out...next year I assume
Dan: It is called Feedback?
Rob: It is called Feedback, and it refers to not criticism but to feedback in the other context.
Dan: The sequel to Variant is just reader mail complaining about Variant. "This turned into science fiction halfway through!"
Rob: What's next, what's after Feedback, it hasn't been decided yet. I have a three book deal with Harper, and the new one will be something very new, but still in the Variant genre: modern day with a science fiction twist. I really enjoy the modern day but not so much Urban Fantasy. I don't even know what you would call Variant; it is like Urban Fantasy but science fiction.
Dan: Like Urban Science Fiction. I think that's an under-served demographic, so that is a very good niche for you to be in. Alright, so I said we would come back to you being crazy, so let's talk about that. Tell us very briefly about your mental state
Rob: My mental state? Three years ago I got my first panic attack; it was while I was in graduate school. I was doing an internship. I was working in Minneapolis for ConAgra Foods; I was doing brand management for Orville Reddenbocker popcorn.
Dan: Then it's no wonder you're crazy.
Rob - I know. Well, it was MBA internships, which are different than a lot of your undergrad interships where you are fetching coffee. I was probably working about 70 hours a week, and it was about 9 or 10 at night, I was the only person in the office and I was just completely overwhelmed all of a sudden. In a panic attack your heart races, you get shortness of breath, and you get chest pain and you think you're dying, and it is just this overwhelming sense of doom. And I was very stressed, obviously, because I was working so much. So I left, I thought: "I need to go relax, I'll go see a movie," and I went to see the Dark Knight. It was the most unpleasant experience I have ever had at a movie. I wanted to die. And in the three years since then it has developed into Severe Panic Disorder, and it really became bad about nine months ago and progressed and progressed to the point that....tOt is hard to explain panic disorder to people who don't understand it and I think it is the same with all mental illness. There are all these people that think you just need to go outside or cheer up.
Dan: If you have ever said that, dear reader, you're an idiot and nobody likes you.
Rob: Panic disorder is crippling!
Dan: Now you described this to me once as having your brain's fight or flight reflex just constantly turned on. A chemical imbalance in your brain is making your brain think you are being chased by a leopard like non stop for nine months.
Rob: That is what is going on: the autonomic nervous system is constantly firing and I think that I am constantly in danger, and so my brain is being filled with all the adrenaline and serotonin and it just makes me think I am going to die. Consequently, when I get a panic attack--and here I am a rational adult and I know that I know I am not going to be eaten by a bear--it is not at all uncommon for me to crawl into a corner under a blanket and sit there and try to breathe things out. Like, the number one place my wife will find me, and I know this sounds weird, is either in the closet or in the little crack between the bed and the wall.
Dan: See that makes perfect sense. Bears can't fit in there.
Rob: I know! Anyway, about three months ago I finally went to the doctor. For a long time, I think with all mental illnesses, you think "this is my fault, why can't I handle this, this is just me being overwhelmed by stress and I just need to muscle my way through this." I think it is the same way with depression or anything else. But I finally went to see the doctor and I've been going the rounds with the medicine. Some medicines have been better than others. For the first two months I was worse on the medicine than I was off. The way the medication works is it has to build up in your system and it's kind of a trial and error thing, so they will try something and then they will give it a month and if at the end of the month it does not work they will try something new. So basically you are getting all these side effects with the medicine--and there are plenty--plus you are having the panic and you have no idea if it is going to work.
Dan: That just sounds delightful
Rob: Oh yeah, it's fantastic. I am on the third round of medicine now and I am optimistic that this is the right one. I think that we are going the right direction.
Dan: That is awesome.
Rob: I still have my issues and I live on a Valium-type medicine, and I take heavy tranquilizers. Your brain thinks you're being chased by a bear so your body is not going to let you sleep, and so insomnia is usually a big part of it and I take some pretty heavy duty sedatives. I am also now seeing a therapist for cognitive therapy, which is therapy to help you talk your way out of an attack. So for example in the therapy you would force yourself to hyperventilate and then the therapist would kind of talk you thought the hyperventilation process as you calm down so that you can understand it and work your way out of it.
Dan: Interesting. And I have to thank you for going through this, because I have a book coming out next year called The Hollow City, about a guy with schizophrenia, a very similar mental disorder that deals with a lot of the same brain chemicals, and he goes through the process of treatment that in a lot of ways is mirroring your own. At every step of this process, whenever you tell me some new awful thing that has happened, I think "Oh, that is so sad for Rob...but it means I got it right!" So you have been doing excellent secondhand research for my novel, so I thank you very much.
Rob: If I start seeing the things that your character sees, then we will know how things are working.
Dan: Just let me know, because I want to sell the "my brother is crazy" movie rights. But that is awesome that you are conquering that, so hooray!
Rob: Yeah, so we are getting over it, but one of the biggest problems with it is that it is very strongly associated with agoraphobia.
Dan: Hence us hiding in your basement wrapped in a blanket.
Rob: Yes. My work has been very good about me working from home, but it is very hard for me to go essentially anywhere. My writing group is on hold. People who listen to my podcast know that I am not podcasting right now, essentially because I cannot get together with my podcast people. With more than one other person in the room I am a mess.
Dan: Because the noise gets too loud and the bears can tell where you are.
Dan: So how are you so certain that this a mental illness, and not that you've been bitten by a radioactive brown recluse spider and you now have a driving need to hide in dark holes?
Rob: I can't be certain. I wish other that other powers had developed.
Dan: Well, that is it: you get a preference for crevices. I don't know--have you bit anyone? You may have necrotic poisoning.
Rob: I should try to bite someone. I do have a launch party coming up.
Dan: Yes, the launch party for Variant is at the Kings English Bookstore in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Thursday, October 6. So if you want to see Rob kind of dazed and high on Valium, trying not to get drool on his book as he tries to sign it, then come on down to King's English.
Rob: Let me just tell you guys: I want you to come. I want you to be there. I am going to be high as a frickin' kite, I will be comatose and zombie-like because I can't handle two people, let alone 80 or 100. So I am looking forward to it, it will be fun!
Dan: At any point did you ever considering hiring someone to be you at public appearances?
Rob: Oh, that is a good idea. Maybe I could teleconference.
Dan: You should Skype in from the space station like that dude from Contact.
Dan: Is there anything else you would like us to know about the launch? Will you have a giveaway? Maybe some Valium?
Rob: Not giveaways, but there will be refreshments. There is going to be fun and joy.
Dan: I will make sure that we have a giveaway.
Rob: We'll give away something, and it will be something RAD! I don't know what it is...
Dan: It will be a surprise.
Rob: Yeah, October? It will be a bag of candy corn.
Dan: Awesome! All the sugar-flavored wax you can eat. Well, Robison, it has been a pleasure speaking to you.
Rob: And it has been a pleasure speaking to you.
Dan: Broadcasting live from the crevice in your basement.
Dan: Good luck with VARIANT, it's a fantastic book and I hope it does very well.
Dan: Excellent. Are there any action figures available for your book?
Rob: No there are not.
Dan: Well screw you then.
Rob: Well pardon the hell out of me.
Dan: Goodnight, folks, from the Wells Brothers. We will see you later.
VARIANT by Robison Wells was published on October 4th by HarperTeen. Dan Wells is the author of the I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER trilogy (Tor), and the forthcoming thriller, THE HOLLOW CITY (Tor, April). His YA debut, PARTIALS, will be published in February by Balzer & Bray/ HarperCollins.