Interviews - Dave Wolverton

Hey, Dave. Let's start this party with the fundamentals. You've been writing for a long time; take a moment to give us the low down: number of books published, languages they've been translated into, recognitions, all that publishing stuff.

I began writing seriously while in college in the early 1980s. My first short story that I wrote at Brigham Young University won third place in a little writing contest, so I decided to enter more. Over the next year I entered several contests and won first place in each, including the Gold Award for the L. Ron Hubbard's Writers of the Future Contest for my short story "On My Way to Paradise." At that time, I was winning prizes mostly for my short stories and poetry in the literary markets, but science fiction and fantasy were my first loves, so when I went to New York for the awards ceremony and met several editors who asked to see book proposals, I jumped at the chance. Within the week I got an agent and landed a three-novel contract with Bantam Books. My first novel, based in part upon the earlier short story, hit the science fiction bestseller list and stayed there for months. It got some glowing reviews, and went on to win the Philip K. Dick Memorial Special Award as one of the best paperback novels of the year.

That started a string of bestsellers, and I've now written and edited some 47 books in science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction for both children and adults. Some of these include novels based upon large movie franchises like Star Wars and the Mummy, but most of my books are based upon my own work.

Initially I wrote science fiction under my own name, Dave Wolverton, but when I began writing fantasy, I switched names to David Farland. (I have a distant ancestor my mother's side who was named Farland, and I thought it sounded like a great choice for a fantasy writer).

To tell the truth, I'm not sure how many languages I've been translated into, but I would guess that it is at least twenty. Nor do I have a clue as to how many books I've sold. The number is certainly in the millions, but it's hard to track your readership in countries like Russia and China, let alone Latin America.

Along the way, I set the Guinness Record for the World's largest book signing, and I've worked in every field from children's picture books to books for the middle grades, young adults, and adults.

I want to focus more on your original work, but I'd be remiss (read: crazy!) not to ask you about your work on major franchises like Star Wars. Surely there's a story or two there you can share.

Oh, gosh, it really all started with Star Wars. When the original movie came out, I was a huge fan. I saw it something like 35 times. (This was back in the days before VCRs.) The first couple of time, I just watched it because I loved it. Then I began to study it, trying to figure out WHY I loved it so much.

That film helped change my life. I was already writing (at the age of 19), and I became torn between writing and an interest in working in film, particularly special effects. I began painting with the idea that I might need the skill for background sets, working with photography—particularly in macro—with the idea of filming models, and I bought a computer and began learning how to use it. In fact, I still have some old photos of me somewhere dressed as a Jedi with a lightsaber, back from some experiments I was doing with low-light photography.

In any case, when my first novels began to take off, Bantam purchased a contract with Lucasfilm to write some Star Wars novels back in the early 1990s. My editor called me the next day and asked, "What do you think of Star Wars?" I began to give her an analysis of why it worked so well—dealing with archetypal analysis tied to modern themes—and she said, "No, what I mean is: Would you be interested in writing a Star Wars novel." I remember thinking, What a silly question. Of course I'd be interested.

So I wrote THE COURTSHIP OF PRINCESS LEIA. It really wasn't a difficult process. George Lucas was very easy to work with. Basically, I wrote an outline, my editors and his people read it and asked George's approval on any possible sticking points, and George then gave the approval.

The only real difficulty came to editing. When I got to the last pass, someone broke into my house and stole the manuscript, along with any contracts or papers that had been signed by George Lucas.

In any case, after that came out, Scholastic asked if I would write some Star Wars things for them—young adult and middle-grade books. When the Mummy came out, some editors at Random House had seen the YA book, and so they contacted me and asked me to write some YA adventures for them. Once again, they were easy to work with.

Beyond that, I began working in videogames at about the same time. I approached a little company called Saffire to tell them of my interest, and they were hoping to get a contract for Starcraft's Brood War. The president of the company asked if I was any good at writing proposals, and I told him that I'd had quite a bit of experience at it while working as an editor in college, so he said, "Well, if you write a proposal and help us get this contract, I'll put you on the design team for the game." So I edited the proposal that they had been working on, we faxed it off, and I got called the next day and told that I had a job.

In that capacity, I helped design monsters, character classes, weapons and spaceships for the game, as well as do a little writing and editing. The game went on to become a huge bestseller, and that led to me working with a few other games.

Eventually, though, my own Runelords series took off to the point where I just couldn't work on other franchises very much. I had a lot of fun working in other people's universes, though, and found that I probably enjoy working in such collaborations as much as I do working alone.

Cool stuff! I loved Star Wars. Though I must admit that Rocky—released the year before—hit my buttons a bit more. I'm a sucker for an underdog story, same way with Rudy. But you mention the Runelords. Let's go there. I'm interested in your approach to this fantasy series. Particularly, how you think about balancing what is familiar enough (tropes, don't you know) that readers are gratified, but unique enough that you (hopefully!) avoid that nasty word: derivative.

I really believe that you have to strike a balance. If your story is too original, people don't have anything to compare it to. If you've ever read the poem Jabberwocky, you'll see how the author invents new nouns and pronouns at will, using just enough that is familiar so that the reader barely understands what the poem is about. It's a fun exercise, but the truth is that at some point the reader wants the mystery resolved in the story. We need to see the monster that the director has been hiding in the jungle. We need to find out who the killer is.

Even more importantly, out tastes in literature are shaped by resonance. In literature, the word "resonance" refers to words or passages that gain power based upon what has gone before. For example, if a person reads LORD OF THE RINGS and feels that it's the most wonderful book he's ever picked up, he will immediately begin hoping to find something of similar power, so he will begin looking for a book "just like it," possibly with elves and dwarves and wizards.

So when you're writing in a genre, you have to hearken back to that genre. At the same time, part of the reason that LOTR blew people's minds when it came out was because it was so innovative, so original.

So you as an author have to be both somewhat derivative and at the same time be wildly original.

Given this challenge, I set the Runelords in a medieval world—with knights and magic—and I did a lot of research on the middle ages in order to make it feel accurate. Then I created some wildly new magic systems for my world so that it would be original.

In fact, my strategy was this: I wanted people who picked up the book to feel that it was comfortable, similar to their favorite genre fantasy, and then to have the strangeness grow until by the end they recognized that it was radically different from anything that they've ever read.

Love hearing that, since it's precisely the strategy I used. I'll hope to have even a portion of your success. Now, to shift gears a bit, I often chat up writers about a conversation I had once with David Morrell. He's got an interesting theory about the degree to which all fiction is somewhat autobiographical. While fantasy has some very unrealistic things going on in it, I do often find—once the tale is done and I have some distance—that there's plenty of me in there. Where do you land on that whole topic?

He's absolutely right. Every character is me. They all come from my subconscious. So there can't be anyone so radically different from me that they feel false. All of their ideas, beliefs, and so on tend to originate with me—unless of course I base them on someone else.

That's the technique that you have to employ. Gaborn is definitely me, but Raj Ahten, with his over-the-top rapaciousness, is based upon an acquaintance. Borenson's loyalty comes from tales of ancient samurai, and so on.

So the only way to really break out from your own mold is to base the story on someone else.

Similarly, the themes that you deal with are the ones that fascinate you the most. One editor once said, "The subtext of every novel is 'How to be more like me.'" He's pretty much right. I've only once known an author who wrote a book that completely concealed what she really believed. She won an award for it, but I'd hate to win an award for being so false to myself.

I'm glad you mention themes. I know some writers who cringe to hear the word when talking about their work—maybe scars they have from bad high school English, who knows. But whether taken up from the get-go, or a subconscious artifact left on the page, I tend to find these both in the books I read and the fiction I write. I know some that I love, and return to, both wittingly and unwittingly. What themes find their way into your work?

I tend to deal with things unwittingly. I've always been fascinated by the fine line between right and wrong, and I deal with Good and Evil in capital letters. I often deal with characters who are trying to root out hidden evils, whether it be enemies within their own camp or their own hearts.

I also tend to write about honor and compassion quite a bit.

With my first novel, I was consciously writing about more than a dozen themes at once. But to tell the truth, most of the time I just let them arise from the story.

I often feel that Good and Evil are more richly explored in fantasy than other genres. I have my ideas why, but I'm interested to know if you agree. And if so (or not), why?

I think that Algis Budrys put it well. He said that "Fantasy is the last great bastion of Religious Fiction." He was right. He would point out that the "fantasy" elements almost always hearkened back to priesthood miracles discussed in the Old and New Testaments—such things as healings, revelation, divine investiture of authority, and so on. So the similarities are definitely there. If you think about it, what is the difference between a prophet like Elijah, who bore a staff, performed miracles, foretold the future, and so on—and Gandalf Grayhame from LORD OF THE RINGS.

Orson Scott Card would go on to say that whenever we write fantasy or science fiction, we're writing about the use of power, and when we write about it, it's far more interesting to write about the proper use of power—the moral fallout—than it is to write about how it is acquired. If you think about it, writing about how to cast imaginary spells is rather silly and pointless. It might excite a twelve-year-old, but only until he realizes that the information being
doled out is all a crock of bull.

But the moral lessons learned about how we use power, those are important! Those don't just reflect society, they are indeed an integral part of the makeup of any society. How we perceive our duty to our friends, our family, our government—how we behave in every situation—is intimately tied to our worldview, our notions of right and wrong, and in every society there are some books that inform the entire society. Among the Japanese, for example, the story of the 47 SAMURAI is considered a classic because it deals with issues of honor, the obligations that one has to one's family, employer, and government. Among the Chinese, that information is conveyed through one of the classics called CREATION OF THE GODS, which deal extensively with a lord's obligation to his subjects, the subject's obligations to his emperor, and so on. In Western Society, we look primarily to the Bible, or depending upon where you are, there are other religious texts.

Yet in the most compelling of novels, we can treat such questions and thereby gain tremendous power.

So, this is a bit of a deep and speculative question, but do you think fantasy readers (at least, in general), read the genre because they like the clarity of this right/wrong dichotomy? Or is that an aftereffect to cool magic systems and well-written battle sequences and dragons?

Many fantasy readers are young. They're in that "age of wonder," when they're still discovering the world—and when they are developing a social consciousness. So I suspect that for many of them, they're attracted to the question all in all, but it's the wonder that is the primary draw.

Gosh, I could get deeper into this, but I'd go on for hours!

So, here's an easy one ... I think: What's the one book you actually wish you'd written? I mean, one by someone else, and you just thought, "Dang, I wish I'd written that!"

Do I have to choose just one? Obviously, as a teen I was inspired to write after reading Tolkien's LORD OF THE RINGS, and I struggled to write like Tolkien as a teen. But as an adult, I find that my tastes differ. One of my favorites isn't a book, it's a play: William Shakespeare's "King Henry IV, Part 2". Or maybe I'd suggest taking
several of those historicals and publishing them into one long novel.  

Certainly we'd need parts one and two, but then you would also have to bring in Henry V, and you can't forget the Richard plays! I Then of course you have to look at some of his horror—"Hamlet" and "Macbeth".

It's interesting that you include Shakespeare. I know several writers who, over time, come to list him with increasing frequency. I, for one, got bitten by the bard seeing Mark Singer (the Beastmaster) do Petruchio in Taming of the Shrew. Anyway, on we go. You do a lot of teaching. I, personally, find a lot of value in your Daily Kick (which any reader of this interview should immediately go sign up for). So, in your opinion, what's the simplest things aspiring writers overlook, but would have the most impact in their future success?

The odd thing is that each author is different. One writer might have a very bland and generic style and never see a need to do better, while another author might be blind to the fact that his description is so bad, no one can figure out what anything in the story looks like. Yet I think that the single biggest problem is that each new author generally approaches a story by writing a tale that affects him or her deeply, but that doesn't appeal to others. In short, they write for an audience of one. So I focus on "Writing for a Wide Audience." I've been fascinated by questions like "Why do people read fiction instead of something else?" and "Why do they choose the books that choose to buy?" and "How can a reader reach a global audience?"  

So in my studies, I've come up with a number of my own hypothesis, married them with ideas presented by other authors, editors, and agents, and then also looked at what greenlighting analysts in Hollywood, along with story doctors and screenwriters have said, in an effort to develop new approaches to writing. As a result, quite a few of the young authors that I've taught have gone on to become international bestsellers.

While I'm sure there's far too much to go into in an interview, I'd be slacking as an interviewer if I didn't ask for a least a little more detail on maybe one of these new approaches to writing you mention. Especially since it sounds like they are yielding great success. And please do let us know if there are any full-blown workshops readers can attend.

It takes about four hours to even explain the basics of this, but let's just put it this way. If you look at people as they grow through their lives, we go through different natural stages. As a child, for example, we live in a world of wonder and discovery, where we are learning about the world. A child's interest in literature therefore can be predicted based upon what we call the "emotional draws" in the work—things like wonder, humor, and horror, which are all related to how we are introduced to new experiences in life.  

Later, as we begin reaching sexual maturity, we begin to be drawn more toward things like romance, lust, and adventure. Later, as we mature, suspense and mystery become greater draws.

So you can look at the emotional draws in your work and predict mathematically things like "How large is my potential audience?" "What would it cost to advertise to them?" "What would the results yield?" and so on.

This serves as the basis for just one form of audience analysis, but it can be very effective in helping an author broaden his or her appeal to the global market.

In any case, I do have some workshops coming up. I have my "Writer's Death Camp" in November. This is a workshop for writers who are "Deadly Serious" about making writing their career. Despite the scary name, this is something of a boot camp where you do a lot of writing and get a lot of encouragement and information. It's something of a mentoring program.

I also have the "Million Dollar Outlines" class, which helps authors make the leap toward creating larger, more valuable properties. That one is in March. I announced it a couple of weeks ago, and it is pretty much full. Since it filled up so quickly, I may go ahead and open another one.

I'm currently looking at setting up some workshops in London and Sydney for next spring. Oh, and I will be teaching a Superstars Writing Seminar with Kevin J. Anderson, Rebecca Moesta, Brandon Sanderson, and Eric Flint in January in Salt Lake.

That's a star-studded lineup. I may find myself in Salt Lake ... As we start to wind up, and since I'm a musician, a few music-related questions. Do you write in silence, or are you like other writers (Peter Straub often writes while listening to Jazz) and put on a favorite tune?

I'm an odd writer, I think, in that I do both. I write in silence sometimes, but I also like to write with mood music. I find that soundtracks work well for me—lately I've been listening to Conan and Lord of the Rings—but I also like to listen to light rock, often with symphonic overtones. I do audio-streaming into my laptop, and listen to some rock channels in France and England, primarily, but if the music has words to it, I find that it can be distracting when I write.

Okay, well when you DO listen to music with words, who goes in your CD player or into your Pandora channel? And following on to that, what's the best concert you've ever seen?

I like Dave Matthews Band, Cold Play, Linkin Park, Gorillaz, but I have to admit that I tend to prefer individual titles in most cases to bands. I also like a lot of old stuff: Pink Floyd; Moody Blues; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. I'm something of an audio-phile. I tolerate MP3 players, but I'd prefer to listen to music on vinyl master recordings. I hate to admit it, but I have a $10,000 stereo in my office that I don't get to use often enough.

I'm a big fan of the American Idol show, and I love to hear a great lyricist in action, but I miss the days when a guitar solo was practically required for a song to be a hit. I like bands that have real drummers—not that electronic crap.

I wanted all of my kids to like music, so I paid for piano lessons for my oldest daughter, and voice lessons for my next. When I bought my son a guitar at age 13, I was delighted to come home from work a couple of days later and hear him playing Black Sabbath's Paranoid. (It was the first album that I ever bought. My mother destroyed it  because she thought it was satanic. I loved Black Sabbath back then, and Jethro Tull, and any song that talked about revolutions. (I wish kids today were more incensed by the political bullshit that's going on on both sides of the fence—Republicans, Democrats, who needs 'em? Screw the system. It's broke, and has been for years.) In any case,
my son Spencer has really taken off in music. He plays weird things like tuba and ocarina, but he is struggling to be the best in the world at it, and I recently had a professor tell me that he thought he'd make it. Fortunately, Spencer also plays the guitar and the piano and some more conventional instruments. The only one who doesn't play anything in the family, now that I think about it, is my youngest son Ben. I think I'll go ground him until he learns to play the guitar.


Oh, wow! There's so much to respond to. We share some music tastes; to be honest, with but one exception, I enjoy every genre of music I know. I, too, am an audio-phile. We'll have a listening party someday. Though, we part company at American Idol. I'll jump on my soapbox someday about that one. It won't be pretty. But our rivers rejoin at guitar solos. When done right ... well, it's magic, e.g. Vito Bratta; same goes for drummers, e.g. Mike Portnoy! And hear, hear on kids learning to like music, the two-party system, etc. I'll watch for Spencer, too. And, Dave, you need to answer my favorite concert question, after which I have my final Q for you.

(What I like about American Idol is that it is inspiring so many youngsters to sing. I suspect that we can agree that it has its weaknesses as a system, too, since it doesn't really reward people who have rich and diverse voices, capable of creating whole new genres of music. That's what I miss about the 60s—Rock-n-Roll was really being invented by so many people, going in so many directions. So we got quirky things like organ riffs and symphony backups and all sorts of fascinating fusions.)

Hmmm. . . my favorite concert. That's a tough one. I don't get out to enough of them, and generally speaking I like them all! (It only makes sense, given that I don't go to one unless I really like the artist.) The first one that comes to mind is a Peter Cetera concert that I went to. He did a version of 25 or 6 to 4 that was waaaay heavy on the base—so heavy that the sound blasted you in waves. I love it when you go to a concert and find that it is more intimate and different from what you would have expected. I hate it when a concert sounds just like the album.

When I grew up in Oregon, we used to have the Grateful Dead come up to this nearby goat farm and throw concerts on a regular basis. I loved that.

Yes, we'd agree that if American Idol is inspiring youngsters to sing, it has a redeeming value. And, I'm thinking that I'll write a blog post on the show soon now that I'm really thinking about it, but I'll let out just one _note_ out about it here. In one of the very few episodes I've watched I saw a young girl of about seventeen crying on camera after getting through to another round say through an emotion-choked voice, "I'm happy, because I've paid so many dues as a musician." Ummm ... no. There isn't a seventeen-year-old on the planet who's paid real musician dues. I mean, among other things, dues take time to pay. I know musicians who have been _paying_ dues for longer than that young girl has been drawing breath. The point is, the show short-circuits the process that refines the craft of music. Is there bona-fide talent in the show. Yeah, I think there probably is some. But don't mistake most of these young kids who find themselves swimming at the deep end because of a reality TV show with real musicians. It's primarily flash-in-the-pan celebrity like most reality TV shows create. And it cheapens the whole of musicianship, suggesting the "have it now" sense of entitlement our entire culture (and particular mine and younger generations) seems to have adopted around most of its stuff. Okay, stepping down from the box of soap.

Next question, Dave. Now, you've heard this one before, but do give it a moment of consideration if you will. But what's that one question that you don't ever seem to be asked, whether about craft, the business, or your own work, that you're always anticipating or would _like_ to be asked, but just hasn't found its way into your interviews yet. So, I guess, in some ways, you get to interview yourself.

This is a tough question for me. Because I write my daily "Kick in the Pants" articles, I often tackle questions on writing that, quite frankly, the average new writer is too inexperienced to ask.

For example, for years I struggled with questions like, "Why do people read for entertainment, and how can knowing the answer lead me to better meet people's needs and desires?" "What is resonance in literature, and how can one master its creation?" "How do I make a living in the writing field?" and so on.

So I feel like I get these kinds of questions off of my shoulders pretty easily. To see what I'm thinking about today, you pretty much just need to read my Daily Kick.

One more and we're done. Are there "places" you think fiction writers shouldn't go in their stories? To frame that question, there's this idea of "semantic contagion"—that some ideas shouldn't be written down and shared, since they introduce notions to a public that we are better off not exposed them to. In one example, Stephen King wrote an early story called "Cain Rose Up," about a high school kid who snaps and sets himself up in a tower, more or less, with a high power rifle. King later had that story removed from his Skeleton Crew collection. And the idea of semantic contagion cropped up when someone ran an ad wanting to literally have someone for dinner, meaning eat them—and someone answered that ad. The notion of semantic contagion so fascinated me I wrote a short story on the premise. So, when it comes to writing novels, I'd be interested in your thoughts around whether or not there are taboo topics that should be left un-detailed. Kind of a hefty question, but one worth talking about, I think.

I absolutely believe that there are some things that should not be written. Let's face it, as authors, we design our stories and arguments in ways that profoundly influence others.

For example, in the past I have been asked to write for a number of industries that I don't support—the tobacco industry, the porn industry—and so on. I just don't do it.

There are some people of course who say that the writer bears no responsibility for the actions of others, and I'd say that it's a decent argument, but ultimately it’s wrong. If I teach a teenager how to commit murder and he does it, there is a part of me that says, "Hey, if he hadn't had an IQ of 80, if he hadn't been so easy to manipulate, then he wouldn't have done it." On the other hand, it is because people are stupid, because they are so easy to manipulate, that our stories sometimes do have a negative effect—and people die.

The real problem is that if we as a society decide that censorship is in the best interest of the public, how do we go about it.

Personally, I believe that we should have a national censorship board. I think that it's workable and it’s reasonable. But here are the problems that you run into:

1) What if you have a censor who gives a bad reading? Let's face it, there are a lot of idiots in the world, a lot of control freaks, a lot of religious nutcases and dope-fiends and mobsters with connections to pornography—and all of them would want to be on censorship boards.

2) Censorship boards always get into politics. Would the censors who are appointed by Obama try to suppress negative attacks against Obama?
 Absolutely. In many countries, saying anything that is derogatory of El Presidente brings the death penalty. I don't want that.

3) What about censorship for work that is perceived to be of low quality? I recently read an article from an Australian woman who thought that we should ban "bad" writing. You know what, I've read writing bad enough that it should be banned. When I was judging the Writers of the Future Contest, I actually phoned the contest administrator and said, "Is there any way that we can just make sure that any story that comes from entrant 479 this quarter NEVER makes its way to me again?" Of course, the answer was no. I got to see every bit of inane slithering crap that came my way. The truth is that new writers are often terrible writers, but with practice their skills—and the quality of their work—can increase.

So here's my take on it: Should there be censorship boards in America? Absolutely! The public needs it. It's a national disgrace that we don't have them now.

Do I trust the government to administer a censorship program? Of course not! I'm not an idiot. A censorship board would be a national embarrassment.

Good stuff, Dave, thanks! Folks, Dave Wolverton—who you may know as Dave Farland from his Runelord novels—is the real deal. I mean it. He’s got the chops as a writer, and he’s a gracious and insightful teacher—a rare combination. If you’re a reader and haven’t read him. Do it. If you’re a writer and looking for classes from a professional, make haste to one of his workshops. Really.

Again, thanks Dave!