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While Utah author Dan Wells was writing his supernatural thriller “I Am Not A Serial Killer,” his daily commute took him past Utah Lake.
It’s not the kind of lake that people build resorts around or sail on, he said; rather, it’s a lonely and desolate area, especially in the fall and winter.
In particular, Wells said he often noticed people parked on the side of the road, standing next to their cars and simply staring at the lake.
It’s a scene that “absolutely made it into the book,” Wells said. When his protagonist feels out of place in his small town, he retreats to nearby “Freak Lake,” where he feels more at ease among the other “freaks” who do nothing but look at the water.
“I am one of the freaks who would park my car and get out and just kind of stare at this emptiness,” Wells said.
Wells’ “I Am Not A Serial Killer” follows 15-year-old John Wayne Cleaver, a sociopath who works desperately hard to control the monster inside of him. John knows he has the capacity to be a serial killer — he has all the tells, from a lack of empathy to a preoccupation with fire — and so he religiously follows a set of strict rules designed to keep his darkest impulses at bay.
But when a serial killer begins picking off locals, John realizes that letting his inner monster out might be the only way to save his community.
The story has its fair share of blood and gore, but Wells never lets his descriptions become gratuitous. The prose is engaging and punctuated with John’s dark, dry humor, while the narrative asks difficult questions about what makes someone — or something — truly human.
Before you join the freaks at Utah Lake to find out if John lives up to the book’s title, read what Wells told The Salt Lake Tribune about his writing process and about why people are so interested in serial killers.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What inspired “I Am Not A Serial Killer”?
I am really fascinated by serial killers. I grew up in Salt Lake City, and this is where Ted Bundy was first caught. My mom used to take us shopping at Cottonwood Mall all the time, which is where he caught Carol DaRonch and locked her in his van. We would drive past the street corner where she threw herself out of the car. We’re kind of surrounded here by a lot of this serial killer lore, for lack of a better term.
I’ve always kind of been an armchair enthusiast of different things, including abnormal psychology and criminal profiling. So while I was writing a bunch of fantasy novels, they would get increasingly dark. Finally, my writing group said, “Well, why don’t you just bite the bullet and write a horror novel and see how that goes?” And “Serial Killer” is the book that came out.
Why do you think people are fascinated by serial killers?
One thing I have noticed as I travel around talking to readers is that the fact that serial killers are real makes them much more frightening than monsters are. They are our culture’s Boogeyman. We don’t need to talk about werewolves and vampires because we have serial killers.
American culture is only about 200 years old. We still borrow a lot of legends from wherever we came from, but we don’t really have our own native ones. And I think that serial killers have filled that role for us culturally. The fact that we know that they’re real is part of what makes them much more frightening, but at the same time, when you look at tv shows like “Criminal Minds,” they kind of treat serial killers as these nearly mystical beings — they have incredible powers, they’re incredibly brilliant. That’s one of the tropes we see all the time in our media: the super genius serial killer who can get into any location and who can solve any problem.
In some ways, John Wayne Cleaver is a typical 15-year-old kid, but he’s also battling some dark, dangerous impulses. How did you develop his voice?
This is where I start embarrassing myself, I guess, because it was really easy. There was about a year of thinking and planning before I actually figured out what kind of story I wanted to tell, and in that time, the voice just started to develop. This very dark, very dry humor that he has almost as a defense mechanism — it flowed very naturally.
(Jokingly) It kind of raises questions about who I am. My mother-in-law read the early manuscripts for book one and book two in the “Serial Killer” trilogy, and she actually called my wife in secret and said, “Hey, do you feel safe at home? Is he going to hurt you or my grandchildren?” I guess there’s enough recognizable Dan Wells in John Cleaver’s voice that it kind of freaked her out.
The book’s themes include what makes us human and the importance of deliberately making good choices. Did you plan to write about those ideas or did they emerge as you wrote the book?
I think it’s a mix of both. I’ve got 19 published books now, and I’m able to look back at all of them and see that a lot of who I am and what I believe creeps into them, whether I’m intending to put it in there or not. I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and one of our scriptures says “the natural man is an enemy to God.” This idea that we have to overcome that nature and become more godlike — that is everywhere in the John Cleaver books, and I did not put it in there on purpose.
Some readers might be surprised by the supernatural elements found in “I Am Not A Serial Killer.” Why did you choose to go that direction with the story?
A lot of it, I think, just came from my own preferences. There’s absolutely a version of this book that could be written — probably a very good version of this book — that doesn’t have a monster in it. One of the early publishers that I tried to sell this to said, “This is great. Cut out all the supernatural stuff and I’ll buy it.” But that’s not the story that I wanted to tell.
It was very important for me to have the monster in this, particularly because a lot of where the drama comes from is that John Cleaver does not feel that he is part of the human race. He feels kind of inexorably separate from the people around him, and that is a hallmark of a lot of sociopaths. So it was very interesting for me to introduce this literally inhuman character who is, in many ways, much more human than John is. The monster feels connected to society, he has people who love him and who he loves back. He’s experiencing human nature in a way that John is blocked off from because of the way his brain works. And so take away the supernatural stuff, and a lot of what got me excited about the story would just disappear.
Have you ever taken criticism for writing about a teenager with the capacity to be a serial killer?
I have definitely had adults tell me that “Serial Killer” is too much, it’s too dark, and I should not have a 15-year-old kid in these situations. I’ve never actually had a kid say that to me. Kids know more about the world than we give them credit for. So I don’t feel like “Serial Killer” is boundary stretching at all. I think it is, for a lot of kids, just reflecting their actual life experience.
I do a lot of school visits, and for the most part, what I find in regular high schools is that the kids love the story and that they think it’s really exciting. But about half of the school visits I do are to alternative high schools, places where the students have dealt with trauma or with mental illness or whatever other aspects have made it difficult for them to be in a standard high school. And those kids, across the board, love and identify with John Cleaver so much more than the others. It’s an opportunity for them to see themselves depicted in a way that they usually aren’t, so it actually feels much more real and welcoming to them to have those dark elements in the story.
There are two John Cleaver trilogies plus a novella linking them together. Were you ever surprised by the direction these books went as you wrote them?
The first trilogy went more or less where I expected it to go. John Cleaver’s arc and who he is and where he ends up — that was kind of planned from the beginning. The one that took me by surprise, though, was the second trilogy. I had only intended to write three books. I had gotten John to a place that felt like not necessarily a happy ending for him, but a closed ending (a lot of people disagree with me).
Then I moved to Germany and I lived there for two years. And something about being in a different place, something about being still solidly myself despite being in a completely different situation, got me thinking about John Cleaver again. That second character arc of taking him in a new direction and watching him follow a completely different path kind of came out of nowhere, and it was a delight to discover it.
You’ve been hosting the “Writing Excuses” podcast with Brandon Sanderson for 13 years now. What have you learned about writing in that time?
One of the big things I’ve learned is that writers tend to expect much more success out of the gate than other artists do. We write our very first book, and then we’re surprised that nobody wants to buy it. So my advice that I give to new writers or to people who want to be published writers is, first of all, allow yourself to write a bad book. Don’t insist that that first one be perfect, and don’t insist that it sell, because it probably won’t. It will probably be terrible. I wrote five awful fantasy novels before I ended up publishing “Serial Killer,” which was book number six for me. The purpose of your first book is not to sell. The purpose of your first book is to teach you how to write your second book, and that one will teach you how to write your third book, and so on. Maybe it’ll take five or six books, maybe it’ll take 13 books, but eventually, you will hone your skills to the point that you can do what you want with your fiction.
Are there any new projects on your horizon?
I have another podcast that I do with Brandon Sanderson called “Intentionally Blank,” which is the two of us talking about writing and pop culture. I am also working on another collaboration with Brandon Sanderson right now for a multi-novel project called “Dark One,” which is kind of a portal fantasy. A kid from our world goes into a fantasy world and finds that it’s broken and disastrous, and an evil sorcerer from the fantasy world comes into our world. I am writing that book right now based on an outline of Brandon’s. Then I just finished a prequel novella to that called “Dark One Forgotten” that is going to be released as a series of six mockumentary podcasts in the style of serials, something like a true crime podcast, about the investigation that captures that evil sorcerer who comes into our world.
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