Monday, July 20, 2009

Dave Farland Interview

Several years ago at a writers conference at BYU, I was fortunate to attend a class taught by Dave Wolverton aka Dave Farland. He was so inspiring and made me think I just might be able to have one of my books published. When he joined one of the internet loops I participate in, I immediately asked him if he would like to be interviewed for my blog. To my surprise he said yes! Please take the time to read about this prolific and best selling author.

You’ve written a lot for the mainstream markets with your science fiction and fantasy. In fact, you’re up to about fifty novels now, and you’ve made a career of writing. But your novel In the Company of Angels will be coming out soon, and it is a historical. Do you plan on switching genres?
Actually, I’ve made it a practice to write what I want to write. As a teenager I wrote nonfiction books on mammals and the development of nuclear weapons. That’s back when I was mainly interested in science. Later I moved to fiction. I started my career as a prize writer, writing poetry and stories for literary magazines. I realized in college that I just wasn’t having fun with it, so I began to write science fiction and fantasy, and that suited me better.
But I’ve always had a knack for research and an interest in it, and as a young man I always imagined that I would become a physician, working in research. But I’ve also always been an avid genealogist, with a strong interest in history. So I wrote a historical novel, and in fact I’ve also been working on a thriller.

So why write about the Willie Handcart Company?
When I began studying the handcart pioneers, I was determined not to write anything about them. I felt that enough had been said. I’d heard the stories of pioneers freezing in the Rockies, of miraculous rescues, and of saints in a couple of cases being raised from the dead.
Yet as I began to study, I realized that a lot of stories about individual families had been gathered, but each of those stories were like pieces to a large tapestry that had never been sewn together, and when I began to try to fit the pieces together, I realized that many of them were missing, or were just the wrong color. By that I mean, I began to ask questions like, “Why did the handcart pioneers cross the Platte on this day, when the river was in flood stages?” “Why did they get up and march at two in the morning on this day?” “Why didn’t they stop at the forts to buy food?” and so on.
So I began reading through all of the biographical sketches that I could find, looking for answers, until I could make sense out of what had been said. What I discovered was that the story was larger, more engrossing, and more powerful than any of the individual accounts.
In particular, I became fascinated by Eliza Gadd, the only non-Mormon to cross the plains with the Willie Handcart Company. She went through so many trials, and suffered so much—with the deaths of her husband and children, and her own snow blindness.
Yet she and many others came out of the experience transformed, and that was what interested me most of all: the way that the ordeal helped so many of these people to grow, to transcend.

Does writing a historical novel present you with any particular challenges?
Fortunately, with the Willie Handcart Company, we have a lot of historical references. The company had its official record keeper, and Levi Savage wrote in his own journal. Dozens of other people left autobiographical accounts. If you add those to military records kept by scouts and non-Church sources of records, a fascinating picture emerges.
But no matter what records you have to base your story on, you have to deal with the fact that you really don’t know what people thought or what they said during most of the trip. We have a few quotes from Captain Willie and others that were written down after important meetings, but there’s not much.
So it introduces some uncertainty into the tale. Added to that, we have some unreliable witnesses. A couple of people wrote autobiographies thirty or forty years after the event, when their memories were hazy. One young man, for example, wrote about a huge encounter with some Indians that threatened the handcart train. It never happened. He was, I believe, mixing it up with an event that he witnessed two years after the trip.
In creating my story, I tried to be true to what I knew about the people in the story, but there are places where you just have to make an educated guess as to people’s motives and feelings.

Just how much research did you do for In the Company of Angels?
I started out by reading and rereading the biographies and autobiographies from every person that I could find. As I did, I charted out the progress of the company day by day.
Then I went to secondary sources—other books written on the topic, for example. But a lot was happening on the plains in 1856. The Republican Party had just been formed with the mandate to “stamp out those twin relics of barbarism—slavery and polygamy.”
So the country was on the brink of Civil War. In Kansas, a lot of abolitionists had moved in from the north, hoping to add it as an abolitionist state. So slavers from Missouri crossed the river and began hanging people and shooting abolitionists at the polls when they went to vote. The federal government sent troops from all across the west to put down the rebellion, and even threw the governor in prison, charging him with treason.
But when the US military pulled out of the mid-West, it left a gap in our defenses, one that hostile Indians took advantage of. The US military had committed some outrageous atrocities in the previous couple of years, and so the Cheyenne, along with some Sioux, decided that it was a perfect time to go to war.
Thus, our handcart pioneers were stepping into a much bigger mess than they knew.
So I had to study a bit about the conflicts going on around our pioneers.
Last of all, I made several trips in order to follow the trek of the pioneers during the season that they traveled. In other words, I wanted to see what it was like crossing the Missouri in mid-August, and crossing the Rocky Ridge in a snow storm.
All in all, it took the better part of two years to do the research.

Do you have any regrets after doing all that work?
In the Willie Handcart Company alone there were more than 500 people. I found at least half a dozen people who would have made excellent protagonists. I tried to include the stories of most of those people within the book in some way, but I could easily see myself writing the book again, telling the same story, but from the points of view of different characters, some that were hardly touched on.

How did your writing career get started?
Actually, I began writing heavily in college, and my career took off after I started winning writing contests. I entered my first short story in a little contest and won third place. When I was done, I thought, "Wow, I spent ten hours on this story, and I won $50. That's $5 an hour. Maybe if I worked a little harder, I could win first place in a contest."
So I spent some time thinking about how to win writing contests, and then wrote several short stories. I entered six different contests, and won first place in each of them, including the Writers of The Future. When we went to New York for the awards ceremony, a number of the judges had already gushed to various editors about how good I was (Thank you Robert Silverberg, Orson Scott Card, Algis Budrys, and Roger Zelazny). Half a dozen editors approached me, asking if I was interested in submitting novels. Not only was I interested, I'd packed a novel proposal in my suitcase! Within a week, I had a three-novel contract with Bantam Books.

What was the single most significant step you took to advance your career?
You know, I realized after I'd written my second book that my real last name, Wolverton, always put my books on the bottom shelf at the end of the rack. That was terrible placement. So I decided to begin writing under a pseudonym. That was tough to do, given that I was hitting at the top of the bestseller lists for science fiction. But when I moved to fantasy, my publisher allowed me to write under the name of David Farland (Farland was my great-great grandmother’s last name). I think it was a smart move.

What other books do you have coming out soon?
My next novel in September is Freaky Fly Day, book three of my Ravenspell series for middlre-graders. It’s a zany story about an evil fly that concocts a plan to take over the world using a multi-level marketing scam that involves selling makeup to flies. In order to put an end to the fly’s evil reign, my mice join forces with the governor of California. . . .
For those who are interested in In the Company of Angels, I have a link for people who would like to order signed and numbered copies in advance at http://davidfarland.zenfront.com/books/in-the-company-of-angels.html.
I also have the eighth book in the Runelords series coming out in October, called Berserker Lord. You can see the cover in the art section at http://www.runelords.com/, and you can order a signed/numbered copy of the book by emailing davidfarland@xmission.com.

How did you react to rejections when you started writing? How has that changed over the years?
My reaction has always been the same. I try to figure out why I got rejected, and then I rewrite and try harder!

You've given aspiring writers endless tips to help get their careers started. If you could only give a single piece of advice, what would it be?
Be persistent. It's your career. If you really want to be a writer, make time to practice, to hone your craft, and just do it.
(Note: Dave sends out a daily advice column to aspiring writers. To get on his list, go to http://www.runelords.com/.)

You also teach writing classes. You’ve taught at Brigham Young University, and you often give seminars. Do you have anything coming up soon?
I just have one little seminar coming up on June 12th and 13th. I’ll be teaching a novel-writing seminar in Salt Lake City on a Friday night and all day Saturday. I’ll also be putting one on in October in Dallas/Fort Worth. For those who are interested, you can learn more at http://www.davidfarland.net/, then go to “workshops.”


I thought you might enjoy this trailer where Dave talks about whether a writer needs an agent.


1 comment:

  1. Enjoyed your interview with Dave. I have printed off all of his "Kick in the Pants" advice and it has been a good source.

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