Interview with Robison Wells, author of VARIANT and FEEDBACK

Today I’m hosting an interview with Robison Wells, author of Variant and the forthcoming sequel, Feedback. Rob and I share both an agent AND an editor. I’m not sure how popular this is in publishing (I’m guessing very rare), so I’m gonna call us Super Special Agent-Publisher-Editor siblings. Even cooler than that, are Rob’s YA novels.

Both follow Benson Fischer who heads to Maxwell Academy only to find his every move monitored by cameras, the halls teaming with students split into various gangs, and barbed-wire fences surrounding the grounds. When he stumbles upon a hideous secret the school’s been hiding, he realizes escape may be impossible.

VARIANT by Robison WellsMaxwell Academy and the world of VARIANT is both terrifying and thrilling. What was your inspiration for the story?

Variant was essentially written on a dare. I’d finished grad school in the spring of 2009, getting an MBA in marketing, and it was about the lowest point of the recession—no one was hiring. I was 30-something years old and had to move out of student housing (with my wife and three kids) and back into my parents house. It sucked. I was depressed and unemployed, with mounting debt.

My brother, fellow author Dan Wells, came to me in August with a proposition: if I had a book ready to pitch, he’d pay my way to the World Fantasy Convention. There were only two catches: first, the book needed to be science fiction or fantasy (which I’d never written before), and second, the convention was only two months away.

So, I brainstormed for literally about half an hour. The only real idea I had was that I wanted to write a book where there were no adults whatsoever. I built a very loose story around that, and then spent the next eleven days pounding out the first draft. (I only wish I could write that fast again!)

How cool! (Although I know what you mean about writing speeds—I seem to get slower with each new novel I take on.) So your first draft was speedy. What about the road to publication?

Well, after spending the next six weeks polishing the manuscript I went to World Fantasy, and I made an utter fool of myself trying to pitch to agents. I had no idea what I was doing. I left the conference with one agent who requested a partial, and that was it. Fortunately, Dan came to my rescue again, introducing me to his agent, Sara Crowe. I sent the manuscript to her, she loved it, and she signed me about a week later!

Then came the submission process, which was painful. The first round was all rejections, all for the same reason—everybody hated the ending. So, I rewrote the ending. The second round was good and bad. One editor wrote a big email saying how much they loved it, but it needed a new plot and new characters. (Awesome.) But Erica Sussman at Harper really liked it, and said that if I made some revisions that she’d be willing to take a second look at it. I rewrote almost the entire second half of the book, removing one of the central characters and shifting some things around (and cutting 10k words), and we sent it out for a third round of submissions. This time we got four offers, and went with Harper.

And I lived happily ever after. 🙂

What a journey! Variant has now been out for a year and Feedback comes out in a few days. Sequels seem to give many writers a hard time. Did you hit any snags writing it? What was your biggest challenge?

There was one big story challenge, which was that I injured a character at the end of Variant really severely—much too severely—without really thinking about the consequences. So I had to do some major revisions to my Feedback outline to accommodate that. But it all worked out.

The bigger challenge was that it was while writing Feedback that I was diagnosed with not just one, but a great big ball of mental illnesses. The main one was a severe panic disorder (which led to agoraphobia, which led to OCD, which led to depression). It was really the hardest year of my life, and it made writing nearly impossible. Fortunately, I have an amazing, supportive wife who helped me through it, and a great set of doctors. I’m still sick—I’ll probably be sick for a long time—but I’m WAY better than I was a year ago.

FEEDBACK by Robison WellsI’ve found your honesty about this topic (via your blog/Twitter) both brave and inspiring. I can’t imagine the challenges it poses on the writing front. Speaking of writing, what’s a typical day like for you?

I rent a small office in a building full of lawyers. I usually go into the office as soon as I wake up (usually around 7:00am), and I’ll stay there until about six or seven at night. Part of this long schedule is due to the mental illness; I always have to keep my mind occupied, so I’m healthier when I work than when I “relax.”

I used to have a home office (I still do) but I find that I’m much more productive when I have a place to go that feels like a job. It’s easier to stay focused.

Totally know what you mean. So what happens when you’ve got an ms in good shape? Do you use critique partners or betas?

I technically have a writing group, but in the last year I moved an hour and a half away from them. They’re all fantastic, but I don’t get to go to the weekly meetings as much anymore.

I also have a handful of online critique partners: Ally Condie and Krista Jensen both critique everything I write and I critique everything they write.

Thank goodness for critique partners! (I’d be lost without mine.) Switching gears entirely: If you could spend a night at the pub with any three authors (alive or dead) who would you pick?

First, I’d have to pick Samuel Clemens. Partly because Huckleberry Finn is one of my favorite books, but mostly because he’d probably be a hilarious drunk. I’d also take Ray Bradbury, because he was always opinionated, and I’m sure a little liquor would help to get the complaints flowing. Finally, JD Salinger, because we agoraphobes need to stick together.

Hilarious drunks, opinionated drunks, and fellow agoraphobes. Nice. Now what if this pub you’re at was yours? What would you name it?

The Slush Pile.

Ooh, I love a good literary joke 🙂 Thanks so much for stopping by, Rob!

And now, to celebrate the release of Feedback this coming Tuesday (October 2), I’m giving away a finished copy! (The winner will have to option to request a paperback copy of Variant instead of Feedback if they haven’t yet read the first installment of the series.)

To enter to win a copy of Feedback, just use the handy form below. We’ll announce a winner a week from today, but please note: this giveaway is US only.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Robison WellsVariant was named one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of 2011, as well as one of  YALSA’s Picks for Reluctant Readers. For more on Rob, check out his blog or follow him on Twitter.


16 Responses to Interview with Robison Wells, author of VARIANT and FEEDBACK

  1. Jessica Silverstein Sep 27 2012 at 8:17 am #

    Eek! I don’t know if I’d have it in me to pitch like that–but if/when I get something to the level where I think it might actually be publishable, I guess I’ll see what lengths I’ll go to 🙂

    Can’t wait to read FEEDBACK–I just had a former student email me to ask the title and author of “that really awesome book you told me to read? It started with a V? I want to get the sequel when it comes out!”

  2. ellie Moreton Sep 27 2012 at 8:50 am #

    I’ve never been to a writing conference , so of course I haven’t, but if I did, I htink I might be too shy! XD

  3. Heather Marsten Sep 27 2012 at 9:29 am #

    nope, never pitched a book at a conference. Have started thinking about how to pitch it though. I did boggle one at a class when an editor asked me about my book, I gave my testimony, not a pitch, and the editor said that was the story I should write, not the book I wrote and submitted. So I’ve been working on my memoir.

  4. Julie Eshbaugh Sep 27 2012 at 9:44 am #

    Rob and Erin, What a FANTASTIC interview!!! Rob, thank you so much for the details of your path to publication and the efforts you’ve gone to with both of your books. I will definitely be picking them up! 🙂

  5. Kateri Ransom Sep 27 2012 at 9:48 am #

    Heading over to goodreads RIGHT NOW!

  6. Christina K. Sep 27 2012 at 10:01 am #

    Haven’t pitched but it sounds like some sort of torture to me. Queries are hard enough, doing all that in person, live, is even worse!!

    Great interview and the books sound awesome:)

    Thank you:)

  7. Gwen Cole Sep 27 2012 at 10:36 am #

    I’ve actually never been to a conference, but I would LOVE to one day. Stories like yours give me hope. 😀

  8. Angelica R. Jackson Sep 27 2012 at 10:59 am #

    I’ve never partaken in the pitch sessions at the conferences I’ve gone to, but in a workshop on 1-sentence pitches with Brian Farrey of Flux books I volunteered my example and he really liked it. But overall, I do better with written queries than elevator pitches. I also did quite a few videos during Pitch University’s Pitchfests, with good request rates. There are some marvelous tips on pitching on the Pitch U site, by the way. I recommend that people take the time to go through the archives before they pitch.

  9. alicia marie Sep 27 2012 at 11:24 am #

    I’ve never been to a book conference and I’m more of a reader than a writer, so I don’t think I would ever have a reason to pitch a book for myself.

  10. Carl Sep 27 2012 at 12:29 pm #

    I don’t think I’d ever have the nerve to pitch something I’d written that way. Maybe if I really believed in it I could muster up the courage but it certainly wouldn’t be easy.

  11. Christa Sep 27 2012 at 3:42 pm #

    Sadly, I’ve never even gotten to attend a conference… but I’d definitely love to! As for pitching a book there, well it sounds overwhelming, but sometimes your chances of being remember are better when you meet someone face to face… so I might make myself be brave enough to try it!
    Thanks for the giveaway!

  12. Vivien Sep 27 2012 at 5:12 pm #

    No I haven’t!! I don’t think I’d have the bollocks to do it myself!!!!! gah…

    So brave of him 😀

  13. Alysia Sep 27 2012 at 7:06 pm #

    I don’t know if I’m one of those people who has a “book inside” waiting to get out. Maybe, but the bug hasn’t bit me yet. Though, I do love hearing other peoples efforts to write and publish. I find it fascinating, and love when somebody succeeds. It is even better when someone writes something I enjoy reading that way.

  14. Alexa Loves Books Sep 27 2012 at 9:09 pm #

    I love the dedication to your writing! It’s so cool that you rent your own office to do your writing work – I think I’d have to do the same when I finally get the opportunity to write full-time.

  15. Jaime Lester Sep 28 2012 at 3:10 am #

    Well I am not an author so I have never pitched a book before. But if I WAS an author, I don’t know if I could do it. I am terrified of public speaking. To the point of throwing up. tears, knees knocking, passing out. I would try though, if it meant something I worked so hard on got out in the world.

  16. Emily Sep 29 2012 at 2:38 am #

    No, I have not. I’m not an author – yet, if it ever happens. Even if I was, I don’t think I could handle the pressure. I’m a babbler. So people would start throwing rotten vegetables and boo-ing. Hahaha!

    Thanks for the giveaway!

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