Dan Wells is the acclaimed author of the John Cleaver series: I Am Not a Serial Killer, Mr. Monster, and I Don’t Want to Kill You. He has been nominated for both the Hugo and the Campbell Award and has won two Parsec Awards for his podcast Writing Excuses. Robison Wells, Dan’s younger brother, is the author of Variant, which Publishers Weekly called “a chilling, masterful debut” in a starred review, and its sequel, Feedback (available Fall 2012). Here, Robison interviews his brother about Partials, Dan’s pulse-pounding first book in his post-apocalyptic series that questions the very concept of what it means to be human.
Robison: Dan is my brother, exactly 13 months older than me. He and I shared a room our entire childhood, took the same classes, even dated the same girls. Dan got me into writing about twelve years ago, and ever since we’ve critiqued each other’s work, brainstormed new ideas, and told each other how terrible he is. So, with such a long background together, I’m particularly interested to see if I can learn anything new in this interview.
I’ve read so much of your writing over the years, from your poem about turkeys in the fifth grade to your first epic fantasy to your literary farce to your horror, and now your YA post-apocalyptic Partials. Is there anything you’ve written that I’d be surprised to hear about?
Dan: I wrote some Rifts fan fiction in high school—I don’t know if you knew about that. I actually reused a part of it for Partials.
Dan: I won’t say, but it’s in the first third.
Robison: You’ve written in all these different genres: Is it because you’re still looking for the perfect fit? Or are you just interested in writing lots of different things?
Dan: Almost every book I write is a new genre, or a weird combination of genres, because I like to branch out and try new things. I never would have imagined that I’d write a horror series, but that was the first book I published. I never would have found that character, or the audience that loves him, if I’d forced myself to stick to one thing.
Robison: How was the transition from supernatural to sci-fi?
Dan: Not too bad, since I see them as very connected—the only real difference between fantasy and SF is the explanation of where the weird stuff comes from. SF ended up being a lot harder, in some ways, because I had to make those explanations scientifically sound. In my horror series I could just say, “It’s a monster!” With SF I had to do a ton of research into genetics, biology, and the science of decay.
Robison: How did you do your research?
Dan: A lot of my research started online, including Wikipedia—people make fun of it as a research tool, and I admit that it’s a terrible place to end your research, but it’s a fantastic place to start. From there I found more detailed websites, and eventually some great connections to books. One of the most useful books I read was The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, about what would happen to the things we leave behind if we suddenly weren’t there to take care of them. It’s a very detailed combination of scientific research and thought experiment.
In Partials, the apocalypse wasn’t a bomb or a war or anything physically destructive, just a disease: We died, but all our stuff is still just sitting there. It was a fun situation to study, and a blast to depict in a book.
Robison: So, having done all that research, what tips would you give for surviving an apocalyptic pandemic? Let’s assume you’re immune to the virus.
Dan: I don’t know how you’re going to work that out, but there you go. Once you have that taken care of, you live in a combination of paradise and medieval squalor. You will have no electricity or running water, but almost everything else will be free. Canned food can last for a decade or more before going bad, so you can live at a subsistence level just by scavenging the local stores.
Robison: Why do you think your society of survivors ended up being organized and civil and less Mad Max-ish?
Dan: A big part of it is the scarcity issue. Mad Max and similar apocalyptic scenarios start with the premise that everything is destroyed. The survivors have to fight tooth and nail for what little resources are left. In Partials, everything you could ever want is just there for the taking.
Robison: What books/movies/music/TV influenced Partials?
Dan: Some of the influences are obvious, like Battlestar Galactica and Children of Men. Others are harder to spot. I listened to a steady diet of protest songs and revolutionary music while writing, stuff like “Uprising” by Muse, because they got my blood going and helped me get into the main character’s fiery personality. And some of my influences didn’t really end up in the book, though I still count them—things like Mad Max and A Canticle for Leibowitz that inspired my love of post-apocalyptic stories, but which didn’t really apply in this case.
The biggest influence may have been our own history and current events. Partials is, at times, a very angry book, and that’s a reflection of my own feelings about a lot of the stuff I see going on in the world.
Robison: Let’s talk about that. You’ve said before that you think one of the reasons dystopia is so popular right now is because our world is becoming more dystopian. What current events influenced you in Partials?
Dan: For example, the story is set eleven years after a devastating catastrophe—and in 2012, my readers are also eleven years after their own devastating catastrophe. The events of 9/11 changed the way we do almost everything in this country, and to a lesser extent the rest of the world. One of the things I tried to do in the book was show that the adults, who remember what life was like before the end of the world, have a very different attitude about it than the kids who’ve never really known any other life.
I also tried to throw in a lot of the extreme measures our government and our culture in general have taken in response to terrorism—reduced privacy, indefinite detention, torture, and so on. I think there are arguments on both sides of all these issues, and I tried to give each side a fair shake. Kira, the main character, has very strong ideas about what’s justifiable and what’s not, and just because she’s the main character doesn’t mean she’s always right. If anyone’s actually “right” at all.
Robison: So, on a happier note, why do you think I’m so awesome?
Dan: Because you take after your brother.