Thursday, October 8, 2009

An Interview with John Brown!

John Brown is the author of Servant of a Dark God, which I just reviewed on Tuesday. His site doubles as a blog, and he is a frequent poster. He has won the Writers of the Future contest, and has been published in Orson Scott Card's Intergalatic Medicine Show and Lady Churchhill's Rosebud Wristlet.

Q. Please briefly describe what Servant of a Dark God is about.

It's about a young man named Talen and young woman named Sugar who live in a world where humans are ranched by beings of immense power. Not for their flesh, but soul. Often we think of souls and spirits as insubstantial. But I thought, well, if souls exist, they're physical things. And there would probably be a food web based on them. So the core idea of the book started with that idea. Except it's not that straight-forward because if you were going to ranch intelligent creatures, you certainly wouldn't want them to know it. They'd be much easier to manage if they thought they were governing themselves. So the truth is hidden deep. And the human overseers are merciless in rooting out and destroying anyone who gets on the trail of the truth or tries to thwart their control. The problem in this story occurs when Sugar's family becomes the target of one of these hunts.

Q. Tell us a little about your inspiration for Servant of a Dark God.

Cows were the inspiration. I live up in the hinterlands of Utah. It's all ranch land for miles and miles. Now, I'm a city boy, so everything up here was new to me. And one day I was hiking up a canyon and came across a small herd of cattle on their summer range. The bull was bellowing. Being of supreme intelligence, I bellowed back because, hey, isn't it everyone's dream to talk to animals? We went back and forth a few times. I thought we were having a fine conversation until he began to charge through the willows at me. I suddenly realized I was telling him I was going to take one of his women. He had a slight size advantage on me, and because I'm not attracted to cow I hightailed it out of there. But I began to think: humans, cows, ranching--what if humans were ranched? So it was cows that gave me the idea.

Q. I loved how the entire family gets swept up in the story--no farm boy running off to go on an adventure. Instead, adventure comes to the farm! What was your inspiration for this particular twist and was it difficult to pull off?

I'm so glad that resonated with you. It was one of the more enjoyable parts of the story for me as well. Many moons ago my sister pointed out that many stories feature heroes with the Superman syndrome--they're single men, no attachments. That insight stuck with me. Now, I don't think there's anything wrong with heroes out on their own. After all, in many situations a man or woman must leave safety to go face some danger to protect the family or group. They have to do it alone. But I knew when I began to write this I wanted to explore what would happen when family was in the thick of it.

And your question is interesting because there was indeed one tricky aspect to this. See, normally, if mom and dad are around, they will take the hero's role. Unless they're schmucks or disabled in some way. But the parents in this story are all strong. And I wanted it that way. I wanted to write about strong adults with good relationships with their kids. So I had to figure out a way to let these two young adults take the lead and act on their own. At the same time, I didn't want to just kill all the parents off immediately because they were interesting to me as well. So it was a balancing act.

Q. Please tell us about your favorite part of Servant of a Dark God.

It's going to sound stupid, but I enjoyed every scene and story line I've got in there. Some for one reason, some for others. You're making me choose my favorite child, darn it! I was sad to see some go that weren't really contributing to the story. One scene, where Talen was being chased by these drunk dogs, made it to the last edit, but Hartwell and Hague-Hill convinced me it wasn't doing anything for the story. So out it went. But let me see. If I had to choose, I would say, well, no, it's just too hard. Except, I did love writing the opening scenes with Hunger. He was such a lovely discovery.

Q. What about any parts that were difficult to write?

The beginning. I just couldn't figure out the right sequence for the chapters. In fact, the opening three chapters originally didn't come until page 40 or 50. All of the first drafts started with Sugar. And then I tried cutting back and forth between Talen and Sugar. But we realized that in both instances the structure was leading the reader to invest too much into Sugar too early. Hartwell came up with the current sequencing, and I am very pleased with it.

Q. Please tell us what's coming next and when--the paperback release? How about the second book, Curse of a Dark God? Do you have any plans for extending the series beyond a trilogy?

No plans right now to do more than three books. I know Tor decided against using "trilogy" precisely because they wanted to leave it open for more books in this world. So it's the Dark God Saga. And it's a rich world, I think, and could supply a lot of stories. But I know that I don't want to extend this story beyond three books. It's going to end on book three. I'm plotting that book right now, and I'm telling you, it will end there come heck or high water. That's not to say I won't write another book in this world or start another trilogy like Robin Hobb did with her Farseer books, but I have other projects I'm excited about and want to move to them when I'm done with Dark God's Glory.

As for the second book, Curse of a Dark God, it's slated for release a year after this one. That is if we finish on time. We're running a bit behind. I planned a 170k word book and it ended up at 230k words. That's a bit large and so we'll probably have to cut, which is going to change a lot of things. You can't just cut 60k words without changing core parts of the story. We'll see how long the story editing takes. But I hope we stay on track. And that would mean the paperback would come out a month or so before the release of book two next fall.

As for the story, I can tell you that the creatures ranching humans consider it a red alert when their human subjects rise up in rebellion. It's as dire as slave revolts are to slave owners. You're going to call out the big guns. Old enemies will band together to deal with the common threat. And so the problems for our characters only magnify in book two.

Q. Please tell us about your growth as a writer. Do you have any journeyman novels sitting in a closet, somewhere? Have you had any short fiction published?

I started out writing drek. Naturally, I didn't even think about writing professionally. Why would I? That was lofty dream stuff, and I was diddling in creative writing classes. Then I took a workshop from David Wolverton who was at that time the coordinating judge for the Writers of the Future contest. For the first time in my life I thought that maybe I could write for publication. Wolverton was so encouraging to all of us. So I submitted to the contest and, on the second try, won a quarterly first prize. That was back in 1997. It was my first publication. I sold a few other pieces of short fiction after that. My last sale was a reprint to Year's Best Fantasy 9 that came out this summer. It's about a golem who is a thief.

But my big problem in the early years, and there were quite a few years, was making time. My mind is like a furnace. If all I do is write a few hours every week or write like a madman for a few weeks and then take a long break, then I found what I'm really doing is spending all my time warming up the furnace. It makes it impossible to finish anything. I need consistent hours. I also didn't know how to deal with writer's block. I've since learned it's a gift. It's not a block at all. Once I saw those two issues for what they were, I was able to produce. It took me about five years from that point to make my sale. I don't have a journeyman novel in a trunk anywhere. All the early stuff, while there were some very nice parts, was broken on arrival. So it went into the trash.

Q. Please share with us the story of how Servant of a Dark God came to be published--how long did it take to write, about your agent search, and finally getting the call about the publication.

I did not get a call, dang it. I got an email instead. I also got an email when my fab agent, Caitlin Blasdell, indicated she'd like to talk about representing me. In fact, I remember wondering for a time, because I'm so used to face-to-face, if the whole thing was a hoax. Yeah, I'd talked to Caitlin on the phone. But almost all our communication was email. I guess I'm old school. I needed some flesh and blood to shake hands with and look in the eye. For a few weeks I started wondering if it really was Caitlin Blasdell I'd hooked up with or some poser who said she was Blasdell. How was I to know? I hadn't seen any office. And there ARE a lot of women out there, you know.

I still haven't been to New York. Haven't met Caitlin or Stacy Hague-Hill (who is the other editor working with David Hartwell on these books) in person. But that's just how this business works. However, I have had the chance to meet a bunch of other wonderful folks.

As for the breaking in. The novel took seven months to write. I took another month or so to edit. I think I took a whole month coming up with the query letter and synopsis. Then I submitted to the publishers who said they'd look at unsolicited stuff. I hadn't made any contacts with editors personally yet. Was planning on doing so. But I'm not one for waiting around. So I began to send queries out to fifty agents.

When I tell some people that, they look at me all weird. Fifty? Yes, fifty. Of course, I had an A, B, and C list and sent them out in batches. And I made sure to check all of them out for complaints etc. I know a lot of people say you don't need an agent. But the fact is they have more access than I do. A good one would know which editors to approach better than I. And that proved true in my case.

So of the fifty, eight never responded, thirty-three eventually passed (and almost all were very timely in their replies), but nine wanted to see more. Nine. But that was more than double the number that had asked for more with the first novel I wrote. I was very excited to hear from Caitlin. I was impressed with her resume, and have found her to be wonderful to work with. There were two other agents looking at the full manuscript when I signed with her (yes, I made sure both knew they weren't getting an exclusive before sending).

But we didn't submit immediately. Caitlin wanted me to make a few edits. And this is one of the reasons I was so interested in her. She'd been a senior editor at Avon. So she had more than a sales resume. And while some writers don't want that, I did. So I think we did two rounds of edits. And then in October of 2007 she began submitting. We had a lot of good response, then she told me Hartwell was interested. I was thrilled. Tor is such a great publisher and Hartwell knows his stuff. A few months later I signed a very nice three book deal with Tor. But remember, most of this was in email. So between notice of Tor's interest and receiving the actual contract I began to have those odd doubts about the Blasdell poser again. Why? I don't know. Maybe because pinching myself wasn't enough to convince me I wasn't dreaming. But I'm fairly convinced it's all real now :P

Q. Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Two things. First, is just to say thanks, Tia. I appreciate the time and effort you make to highlight debut authors. I'm glad you reached out to me. Second, is to let anyone who reads the book know I'd love to hear the report of your experience with it. Come on over to and contact me.


Tia Nevitt said...

One thing I found interesting about this interview was the whole cattle inspiration was not evident through most of the book. So don't approach the book thinking that humans are penned up and milked or anything like that. It is all very subtle. It comes out in the form of character speculations toward the very end of the novel.

I found this a very engaging interview. Thank you, John!

Unknown said...

Hi Tia & John :)
Thank you for the engaging interview.
All the best,
PS - Is John Brown on Twitter?

John Brown said...

John Brown's bird died on Twitter. But the zombie will come to life here in a few days... :)

Tia Nevitt said...

John, let me know what it is and I'll include it in my Debut Showcase for Servant of a Dark God.

John Brown said...


If you're a facebooker then I've got a page here:

Raven said...

Great interview. The whole family's involvement in the adventure particularly intrigues me. I looked for the book at Borders today, forgetting that it releases tomorrow. :(