Thursday, March 21, 2013

An Interview with Robison Wells

It's been forever since I've posted, but I had to post this interview I did with my friend, Robison Wells.  This interview was done as an assignment for my Creativity and Cognition class, and it was an absolute delight.  I hope you have as much fun reading as I did interviewing Rob and writing this mini-biography. 


 Robison Wells, Compulsive Creator

            I met Rob Wells at a book signing, back when writing was his hobby instead of his full-time job.  He was personable and funny, and I liked him immediately.  Since his writing and characters were also funny and personable, I ignored my budget, bought his books, and became an instant fan.   

            His newer novel, “Variant,” has been nominated for a Children’s Literature Association of Utah Beehive Award for Young Adult Fiction, 2013.  The book has a different tone than the books I bought all those years ago—the humor is more edgy and sarcastic, the characters are manipulated and deceived, and devastating things happen to them.  “Variant” lingers in the recesses of the mind, and is particularly poignant for its teenaged audience.  My niece is a big fan of Rob’s work, and visibly shivered with excitement when I told her I had an advanced copy of his sequel, “Feedback.” 

            It’s every author’s dream to affect a reader in this way—to have them practically ache to read more of the story that bounces around in your head for months.  Rob kind of fell into the writer’s dream.  Though his family was supportive of the arts—his brother was a writer, his sister danced, and Rob took oil painting classes from the age of ten—Rob never even considered becoming a writer.  It wasn’t until he was studying history in college that something sparked an idea.  He approached his brother, Dan (who is also a published author and quite successful) and suggested he put the idea into a story.  Dan told Rob to do it himself. 

            Dan Wells, author of the “I am not a Serial Killer” series, and Brandon Sanderson, author of “The Wheel of Time” series, were members of a writer’s group.  This wasn’t the feel-good “ooh, I like your story,” type of writing group.  These men took their work seriously, and Rob probably didn’t know what he was getting into when he started attending their meetings.  “They nearly beat the love of writing out of me,” Rob said.  “They made it very clear how terrible I was.” 

            The first book Rob wrote was “a weird kind of historical semi-fantasy thing, and I never really felt like it was a good fit for me.”  So, he took some age-old advice that writers have discussed for generations.  He decided to write what he knew.  “I wrote a very autobiographical book about a small town where I used to live.  When I finished it I thought I might as well try to get it published.  I literally just picked up a book my wife was reading, checked the spine to see who the publisher was, and then sent the book to them.”  This was one of the books published by Covenant—one of the books that made me laugh and spend outside my budget. 

            Though he was clearly a good writer, the idea of writing full-time and making a living still hadn’t crossed his mind.  He continued school, changed his major five times, and finally told people he was studying architecture just to have an answer to their questions.  Rob was interested in theater as well, and while he attended the University of Utah, he had his first paying gig writing for RED Magazine.  The biggest perk to the job was free tickets to plays.  He learned quickly that he was more interested in theater than he was in journalism.  “…it was great when I got to watch good stuff, but I also had to report on industry news and do feature stories about experimental stuff, and I just didn’t enjoy it.  It wasn’t a particularly creative kind of writing, and it wasn’t a subject I was interested in.” 

            That affinity for theater shows in his rich, realistic dialogue.  I love good characters with flaws and vulnerabilities, and Rob’s characters are strikingly realistic.  When I asked him how he accomplishes this, his reply amazed me, as it demonstrates an approach I had never considered.  “I used to base my characters on real people, and then I realized that was hampering me more than helping—I wasn’t really creating characters; I was fitting clunky impersonations into my book.  I think with me, it all comes down to conflict.  I look at the setting or the plot first and then I try to come up with characters who will come into the most conflict with that.  I also spend a lot of time—the biggest amount of my writing time, I think—focusing on voice.  If I can get the dialogue moving smoothly, then I know that my characters will feel realistic.” 

            As I interviewed Rob, I thought of a lecture from my Creativity and Cognition course at the U, and saw many textbook creative traits in him.  Rob is definitely a risk-taker.  The average person wouldn’t complete a novel and send it to the publisher of his wife’s current paperback.  He is definitely quiet and self-reflective, as is shown in his hundreds of blog posts contemplating everything from books to food to road trips.  Rob clearly has intrinsic motivation, and has become a hard-working, prolific author. 

            Rob also associates closely with the creative person who suffers from anxiety issues and mental illness.  For the past two years, Rob has suffered with Panic Disorder, Agoraphobia, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  Despite the challenges, Rob continues to publish.  Writing with the intent to publish requires a totally different approach than writing just for the joy of it.  Still, the pressure a contracted author feels has been therapeutic for Rob.  “I work a lot, partly because I’m writing full-time and partly because I’m mentally ill.  I have OCD, and one of the problems I face is an inability to relax—I always need to feel like I’m doing something, or else I get sick.  Consequently, I head to my office as soon as I wake up—usually around 5:30 A.M., and I’ll stay until 6:30 or 7 P.M.  I also work Saturdays and almost all holidays.”

As a result of his hard work, Rob writes roughly six to seven thousand words a day.  According to word count, that translates into a novel roughly every two weeks.  Of course, much of his writing includes blog entries, book reviews, essays and novellas.  He has also created several podcasts about writing.  Rob is an avid tweeter, as well, and will often blog about hot topics on Twitter.  He reads a lot of books, and he reviews the books he feels strongest about.  Somehow, Rob has found the balance between writing for pleasure and writing to publish. 

“I think [writing for pleasure and writing for publication] can definitely co-exist.  I still write because I love it.  But I also write because I have deadlines to meet and bills to pay.  It’s a different mindset.  I think I have to be more practical.”  His practicality takes the form of dedicating a few months to one project before he must return to another in order to make his deadline.  He seems to work well under this kind of pressure.  “I work quickly and deadlines motivate me.  But I think that’s a learned skill.  I think the idea of ‘writer’s block’ is something a full-time writer can’t afford to have—you have to learn how to write anyway.  That said, I like writing fast.  I feel like it more fully immerses me in the story.  It gives me a better idea of what the bigger picture is.”

Despite his need to spend hours writing, Rob still makes the time, sacrifice, and effort to book public appearances and signings.  Often, these events are required by publisher contract, and cause anxiety for any author.  I can only imagine the challenge they present for Rob.  Yet, he perseveres, even when the events are out of state. 

            “My mental illness is the first thing I bring up in any presentation, just to get it out of the way.”  Rob warns the people he is speaking for that he needs an open door nearby should he feel the need to step outside, and he carries his meds in his pocket, just in case.  “Generally, there aren’t major problems.  I just finished a week where I flew to Virginia to speak at a private school, and then went to a convention where I was on five panels.  I only had to leave one of the panels early—the last one, because I’d kind of burned out and could tell a panic attack was starting.” 

            Rob is remarkably open about his illness, and his fierce desire to get the care he needs.  In a recent blog entry, he discussed a weekend visit to a mental hospital.  He admitted himself, feeling a compulsive desire to self-injure. (robisonwells.com, October 23, 2012)  Because of his position as a published author with a widening audience, Rob has become an inadvertent advocate for people with mental illnesses, and he is adamant about the need for health care coverage for the mentally ill.  Rob’s voice will reach people far beyond his sight and understanding, and he may be a strong force for change in this important issue.  This is especially true since his favorite public appearances involve schools.  I doubt he spends much time talking about his illness in that setting, but he still exposes youth to someone who is talented, artistic, personable, funny, and mentally ill.  “Schools are the best, because it’s just so much fun to talk to eager young readers.  They’re generally a more receptive audience, and more willing to engage and interact than adults.”

  In a recent essay about being LDS and having a mental illness (Deseret News, February 20, 2013), Rob wrote, “I firmly believe that as in other areas of life, conveying the truth is the key to banishing ignorance, stigma and prejudice that surround mental illness.” I asked him how his openness has been received.  “…it’s been very positive,” he said.  “I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from people who are glad that I’m talking about it because they have similar problems and they’ve been afraid to talk about them.  Ever since then I’ve tried to be as open as possible—even about the scariest stuff—because I think it helps to reduce the stigma.  It shows people that you can be really sick and still be successful.” In another effort to express the truth, he wrote an essay in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, which addresses the importance of understanding the mentally ill and providing proper help.  (robisonwells.com, December 16, 2012)

When I asked Rob where creativity comes from, he replied, “For that, I rely heavily on Malcolm Gladwell’s research: talent gets someone interested in a topic, and that helps, but only hard work makes anyone good at it.  Anyone who puts in the effort can, I believe, be creative and successful.”  Creative people apply their creativity to every facet of their lives, and Robison Wells is a prime example of this.  He faces his trials with determination and a great tenderness and appreciation toward his wife and the way his illnesses affect her.  Somehow, he strives to create, pay his bills, be an advocate for others who also suffer from mental illness, and teach people how to love reading and writing.  I was honored to interview this amazing man, and I look forward to his continued success.

References:

Deseret News, February 20, 2013, “Mormon Author Talks About His Mental Illness and Faith,” http://www.deseretnews.com/article/765622942/Mormon-author-talks-about-his-mental-illness-and-faith.html?pg=1           




 

Applicable links:

Robison Wells’ website and blog http://www.robisonwells.com/