Dan Wells is the author of the terrifying Partials, in which a virus developed by a race of genetically engineered super soldiers has wiped out almost the entire human population. With only thousands of humans left, the remaining members of the species struggle to protect themselves. Equal parts horror, science fiction, and rousing dystopian lit, the story centers on Kira, a 16-year-old desperately working to prevent humankind’s extinction. In his Q&A, Dan discusses the difficulty of writing a character of the opposite gender, his love of poetry, and why modern technology can be seriously freaky.
Describe Partials in five words.
Rebuilding after the world ends.
Was it hard to write from the perspective of a teenage girl? How did you get yourself in that mindset?
I thought it would be hard, and my first several attempts were dismal failures, but then I realized I was approaching it the wrong way. I was trying to write “a girl,” when what I really needed to write was “a full and interesting character.” Characters in books aren’t defined by their gender any more than we are: I’m a guy, but I’m also a reader, a traveler, a gamer, a father, and a million other things. I took some time to really think about Kira, to figure out who she was and what made her tick, and then just wrote that. She doesn’t just say what a girl would say, she says what Kira would say. It seems so simple in hindsight, but it made all the difference in the world.
You mention on your website that you thought for a long time you’d end up as a poet. What made you switch from poetry to prose writing? Do you think you’ll ever go back?
I love poetry, but I don’t know. I still try to read a lot of it, and to use poetic language in my books (where possible—I haven’t dared write an epic poem or anything like that). Maybe someday I’ll do some poetry again, we’ll have to wait and see what fires up my enthusiasm.
In Partials, the antagonists aren’t aliens or robots, but biological creatures of our own creation. Did an inherent fear of manmade technology shape this plot? Do you cringe at the sight of your toaster oven or iPhone?
It’s funny you mention this, because I have a book coming out in July about a character who’s terrified of technology—he literally freaks out every time he sees a cell phone. And now that I think about it, the other science-fiction book I’m writing right now is about how technology we created but can’t control ends up destroying the world. So yes, that’s a big issue for me, going all the way back to my childhood in the Cold War, but it’s been an issue for everyone, since the dawn of modern technology: the very first sci-fi book ever written was Frankenstein, a book all about humanity’s fear of our own creations. I think there’s something very human about this fear, something core to our natures. The Partials are humanity’s children, in a sense—we made them, we tried to raise them right, but we failed, and that failure cost us everything. It’s not enough to just make things, whether they’re children or phones or bombs or whatever; we have amazing powers, and its our responsibility to use those powers wisely.
What made you choose Long Island as the setting for humanity’s last stand?
It was my editor’s suggestion, actually: I needed a closed environment, with good access to fish and arable land, but still close enough to some major landmarks so we could have some good post-apocalypse fun, and Long Island was perfect. The more I researched it, the more it offered to the story—it’s such an affluent place, especially as you go further east, which made it that much more interesting to contrast the dismal, almost medieval state of the characters’ society with the giant homes and gardens and country clubs of the old world. Everyone lives in a big house, everyone has the nicest clothes, because it’s all just sitting there, discarded by a civilization that was very rich and very proud and now very, very dead.
You’ve said that, although you write horror, it’s not a genre you have much previous experience in. Now that you’re firmly entrenched in the genre with your I Am Not a Serial Killer books, have you begun to consider yourself a horror writer?
What I’ve come to realize, more than anything, is that horror is less of a genre than a flavor you can apply to any genre—there are horror sci-fi stories, horror fantasy stories, horror historical stories, and so on. There are a couple of scenes of pureblood horror in Partials, and I’m putting more in the sequel. One of the most common comments I get from people is, “I don’t read horror, but I loved your books,” and that’s because they’ve defined horror in their minds as something incredibly narrow—”horror” to them means slasher movies or 1970s Stephen King or something like that. In reality, horror is everywhere. Detective novels are about the horror of not knowing who killed whom, and the tense race to figure it out before the killer strikes again. Romance novels are about the horror of loving someone who might not love you back—possibly the most horrific example of all. Do I consider myself a horror writer? Absolutely, and I’m proud to claim it.
Partials is the first book in your second trilogy. You’ve also written a freestanding novel, A Night of Blacker Darkness. How is the writing process for a series different from that for a single book?
In some ways the process is the same: you need to introduce your characters and your conflict, you need to tell a good story, and you need to wrap it up in a satisfying way that will have your readers telling everyone how much they loved it. That experience should be the same, whether there are more books coming or not. But there are still a lot of differences: writing a standalone gives you the freedom to not hold anything back: you can do anything, you can change anything, you can kill off any characters you want, because you know you don’t have to save anything for the next book. That can be very liberating. On the other hand, writing a series lets you tell so much more story: you can plant seeds in one book that won’t be paid off until another; you can take your time with certain plots or characters, developing them deeply over time, letting them simmer for a while and then pulling them to the forefront when the time is right, and that is also very liberating. This is why I love writing—it is seriously one of the funnest things ever.
In Partials, the government, in a desperate effort to repopulate Earth, has begun to force girls to get pregnant. Is that scenario based on something you’ve observed in our world?
It’s more of a reversal—you hear so much about contraception, and teenage pregnancy, and how controversial it all is, so I decided to create an environment in which teenage pregnancy is actually a good thing. A society in which a 16-year-old getting pregnant is not being irresponsible, but actually doing her part to save the world. Why did I want to do this? Because that’s what science fiction does best: it takes our preconceptions, asks “What if . . . ?” and turns them on their heads. It challenges our ideas and makes us see the world through from a different point of view.
You mention that you’re a big tabletop gamer. How did you get into that? Does it help with writer’s block?
I got into gaming as another form of storytelling, and my favorite games are the ones that tell good stories—games with characters and conflicts and really meaty themes. A good game will present you with difficult choices: do I move here or there? Do I press my advantage or hold back? A really great game, at least for me, will attach those decisions to some kind of emotion, to a face or a name or an action. Playing those games, and navigating the rules, and seeing what situations pop up that I wasn’t expecting, will always give me new ideas for my writing.
You have a major Internet presence, including forums, a podcast, and an active blog. What do you get out of having such a direct connection to your fans? Or is it all an elaborate procrastination system?
My procrastination system is called “Star Trek Online,” and it does a very good job. Everything else I take very seriously as a way to interact with readers. I schedule blogging time because I want to make sure my blog is active and full of content; I want it to be a place people can visit regularly to see how I think, and maybe join a conversation about something fun. I use Twitter and Facebook to make announcements, but also to help illustrate my personality, so people can see the man behind the writing. The Internet is the best communication opportunity in the history of human interaction; it gives us access to more thoughts, and more ways of thinking, and more differing perspectives, than any other system we’ve ever created. When I was a kid reading everything I could get my hands on, I would have loved to be able to talk to those authors and ask them questions, and now that I have readers of my own and the perfect means of talking to them, how could I do anything less?