Dan Wells Talks the I Am Not a Serial Killer Movie and Critiques Stranger Things in His Reddit AMA

Like Windwitch author Susan Dennard, Dan Wells recently swung by Reddit’s r/fantasy for an AMA (Ask Me Anything) thread to raise awareness for The Pixel Project, a virtual nonprofit devoted to raising awareness as well as funds and volunteer power to end violence against women. For Wells, this AMA was exceptionally well-timed with the release of I Am Not a Serial Killer, the indie movie adaptation of his novel about teenage sociopath John Wayne Cleaver. The movie, starring Where the Wild Things Are‘s Max Records and Christopher Lloyd, comes to limited theaters and Video OnDemand today; check out the trailer.

Of the movie, Wells said, “I have seen it four times, including the premiere at SXSW, and I say without any bias or exaggeration that it is the sum of all human achievement. I love it, and so will you.” If that’s not enough to convince you, our highlights of Wells’ Reddit AMA include plenty of talk about the movie and the books that inspired it. Plus, as one-quarter of the Writing Excuses podcast, Wells discusses how he would approach second-world fantasy and near-future sci-fi, while ribbing his co-host and longtime buddy Brandon Sanderson, who drops in for the AMA. Read all of the highlights below!


Let’s just get the best exchange of the thread out of the way:

Monkeysloth: On a scale of 1 to James Dashner how does it feel to have a movie out before /u/mistborn?

mistborn: Ladies and gentlemen, my brother.

DW: Ive known Brandon Sanderson for 18 years, long before either of us were published, and I consider him one of my closest friends. I’ve cheered at his successes, I’ve rejoiced wih each of his publications, and I will be first in line when one of his books finally becomes a movie. On the other hand, he’s a jillion times more successful than I am, so I rub this movie in his face pretty much every time I see him :)


The majority of the thread focused on I Am Not a Serial Killer—both the movie adaptation, with questions about translating Wells’ novel to the screen, and the overall series, with Wells sharing information about the “strange” sixth book, Nothing Left to Lose:

agnosticnord: What part of the process of writing the book to having the movie did you enjoy, and which did you hate the most.

DW: The worst part was raising the money. Go to any Hollywood producer and say “We have this great idea for a movie based on an unclassifiable book that’s kind of horror but totally isn’t, and sold okay but you’ve never heard of it, and the main characters are 15 and 75 years old so we can’t put any big headliners in either role,” and they will laugh in your face. It’s pretty demoralizing when it goes on for five and a half years.

The best part was actually seeing it come together. Writing is incredibly solitary, and that’s part of why I love it, but movie making is intensely collaborative, and even a short scene where nothing happens can take thirty or forty people just outside of camera range. I loved meeting them, watching them work, and helping bring their vision of my story to life. It was a blast, and I’d love to do it again.

Imperialgecko: How graphic is the movie? I really want to see it but anything with hearts/exposed organs makes me a little queasy

DW: If you can watch CSI, you can watch this movie. There’s no sex or nudity, very little swearing, and the gore is all primetime TV. It’s kind of shockingly clean for a horror movie, actually. The ending might squick you a bit, but that will mostly be emotional, not because of gore.

Monkeysloth:the worse parts are during prepping a body at the funeral home. You’ll see organs but there’s not really any gore.

It’s an suspenseful movie, not a slasher movie.

DW: This exactly. It’s all about atmosphere and character and tension, not blood.

0ffice_Zombie: Dan, I’ve heard you say on Writing Excuses before that one issue that readers often have with IANASK is that they don’t realise there are paranormal elements until late into the book. I’ve caught one of the ads for the movie and it seemed to have the same issue—I’d like to hear your thoughts on that.

DW: It was a big deal with the book, and I’ve been watching with humor and trepidation as the movie promotional stuff falls into a lot of the same traps that we did. That trailer I linked to, for example, doesn’t really include any sense that there will be supernatural elements in the movie. But movies are a very different medium, and the time investment is much less, and I think people are willing to accept more unexpectedness in them—or, at least, movies are more open to interpretation in some ways. Some of the early reviews think the monster is an alien, and some think it’s purely a metaphor for the main character’s mental state. No one’s really been bothered by it, at any rate, so … yay?

ExiledinElysium: how far do you plan to take John Cleaver’s story? Finish the current storyline with a third book then it’s done? Occasional trilogies? Just an ongoing serial a la Dresden Files?

DW: There will be six total books, and that’s it. Of course, that’s kind of what I said after book three, so what do I know? But I’ve finished the sixth one already, and don’t have any idea how I could possibly continue the story after it, so maybe it will stick this time :)

undeclaredmilk: Do you have a title or release date for the last John Cleaver book?

I’m honestly dreading it, since there doesn’t appear to be any chance of a happy ending for John that doesn’t end in his death, but as the master of his destiny, it’s in your hands. You know what’s best for him.

DW: The sixth book is called NOTHING LEFT TO LOSE, which might help feed your trepidation anout where it’s going :)

It is scheduled to come out next May, though I don’t have an exact date yet.

It’s a weird book, as they have all been, and I honestly don’t know how people are going to react. One of my beta readers finished it and then had to think about it, trying to decide what she thought, and then she decided she liked it, and THEN she cried. That’s an interesting reaction, but one that doesn’t seem totally crazy to me. It’s a strange book, and I do some horrible things in it, and I do something to John probably no one thinks I’ll ever do. We’ll see.


We got some behind-the-scenes intel on Writing Excuses, including even more proof that Mary Robinette Kowal is badass:

Polar_Chap: What’s a topic that hasn’t been covered on Writing Excuses that you would love to cover?

DW: I would really love to do an episode or series of episodes where we interview subject matter experts instead of writers. Want to write about police? Then here’s a police officer to give you some real experience and advice. Want to write about a zookeeper or a steam engineer or a pilot or a programmer or a whatever? Then here it is. We’ve kind of flirted with that before a couple of times, but I’d love to get really deep and granular with it.

bobthereddituser: If the writing excuses group had a brawl, who would win and why would it be Mary?

DW: The rest of us would be too straightforward about it: we’d challenge everyone to a brawl, set a time and place, and then she’d know where we’re going to be and when and murder us in our sleep.


Wells also discussed how he would approach both fantasy and sci-fi in future hypothetical projects:

NoNoNota1: I’ve heard from Sanderson that you were originally writing epic fantasy like he was before either of you were published. Do you have any interest in doing more traditional fantasy? And if not would you ever consider releasing some of your trunk novels freely like Sanderson has done.

DW: I have a fantasy novel I want to write, and someday when I have time I’ll write it, but it’s not really “traditional” in any sense. More of an epic second-world fantasy than any of my other books, certainly, but still very, very Dan Wells-ish.

extropy_rising: You’ve complained in the past about how hard it is to get a book out before the “futuristic” technology becomes real. What are your favorite sources for keeping up with technology? Any recommendations for others having the same problem?

DW: Writing in the near future, it’s almost impossible to come up with a plausible technology, or use for that technology, that hasn’t already been posited or actually accomplished somewhere in the world. What I’ve discovered is far more doable, and in many ways far more interesting, is to steer more toward the social side of science fiction, and try to theorize what the world will be like once those technologies are already in place. We already have self driving cars, for example, but what will a world of self-driving cars actually look like? What will it be like to live in one? How will it change cities and suburbs and travel and shipping and jobs and pollution and economics? What problems will it solve, and what unexpected problems might it create?


And the reason for the AMA—insight into Wells’ personal connection to The Pixel Project, and his experience writing realistic female characters:

IGuessItsMe: I am keenly interested in the End Violence Against Women Campaign. What is this group doing, in real life with real women and girls, that we should know about? How can we help? Are there volunteer opportunities here and why are you involved with this specific group over all the rest, if it’s not too personal to ask?

DW: Thanks for your interest! One of the things I love about the Pixel Project, ironically, is what they’re doing not with girls and women but with men and boys–and I know that sounds bad, but hear me out. It’s the whole “Fence or Ambulance” question; we want to help women who’ve been abused, yes, but we also want to stop them from being abused in the first place, and if we can do a good enough job on the latter problem then the former one will disappear compeltely. I’m a firm believer in prevention through self defense, but even more important, and even more effective, is to go right to the source and teach men and boys to not abuse people in the first place. The Pixel Project’s main focus is called the Celebrity Male Role Model Campaign (http://reveal.thepixelproject.net), designed to encourage and demonstrate good behaviors: respecting women, standing up for women, fighting FOR them instead of WITH them. The idea is that men–and young men especially–will see what we’re doing and emulate that behavior, and preliminary research shows that this is working, at least in its early stages.

If you want to get involved, definitely follow that link I posted and see what you can do.

ThePixelProject: It’s not always easy portraying well-round female characters in novels. There are so many instances where woman are stereotyped to be/act a certain way, just because she is female. How do you work around that to create a strong female character, one who is empowered enough to know and claim her rights? Is it especially challenging to do so as a male author?

DW: When I first started writing Kira, in the Partials series, I was struggling a lot with this question, and I didn’t like any of the answers I came up with. Every version of her I tried felt too trite, or too obvious, or too cliche. Eventually I realized that when I write men I don’t try to make them male, I just make them interesting. I went back to Kira, stripped out all the obviously “this is a girl” cues I’d been putting into it, and just made her interesting, and it worked. She is not defined by her gender any more than the rest of us are: we’re just people, with things we like and things we hate and things we’re trying to do better at.


And, of course, Reddit had to know why Wells wasn’t blown away by Netflix’s nostalgic summer hit Stranger Things:

aaronwright: I would definitely be interested in your critique of Stranger Things, since I loved it. Is the Spielbergian / Stephen Kingly nostalgia factor blinding me to larger story problems?

DW: This has become a Whole Thing on social media, once I admitted to only kind of liking it instead of wildly adoring it. For starters, describing something as a loving recreation of an 80s Spielberg movie just makes me roll my eyes and do a gagging sound—not because I hate Spielberg, I love Spielberg (I do an entire How to Scare People class using only clips from his movies), but because stylistic nostalgia rarely works for me. If I had watched the first episode of Stranger Things back when it came out, instead of weeks later after people raved about it, I would have bounced off of it completely and never gone back. It’s trying SO HARD to look like a certain thing, and it’s really distracting from the actual story.

Now, the story itself is great, and I’m glad I stuck with it because the second episode was much better than the first, so I’m excited to see the rest and I’m grateful to everyone for telling me it was good. But! In my very informal polls on facebook and twitter I see a massive correlation between “I love this show” and “the 80s vibe super works for me.” Obviously there are other people with other opinions, but I do think that the people who love it do primarily for the style. Which is not to say that the story or characters have problems, but that they are getting a huge boost from the nostalgia. For people like me, who don’t really dig the nostalgia angle, please understand that we’re not watching the same show you’re watching. You’re seeing your childhoods reborn in fire and glory, and we’re seeing a pretty good but not outstanding paranormal show, somewhere way south of X-Files but still better than, say, Reaper.

And just to answer the next inevitable question, I’m 39. Born and bred in America’s heartland, a Cold War kid who saw ET in the theater during its opening run and owns three different copies of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s not that I don’t have the background this nostalgia requires, I just don’t care about the nostalgia.


And we haven’t even cracked all of the Overwatch questions! Read the rest of the thread on r/fantasy.

Wells’ Read for Pixels Q&A will take place on September 9 at 7:30 p.m. EST on Google Hangout. Check out the full Read for Pixels schedule to find out when your favorite authors will be reading and answering reader questions.


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