Tuesday, September 1, 2009

My Interview With David Farland

We have a very pleasant surprise today on the Book Nook with having David Farland, well-known Science Fiction and Fantasy writer, here with us. Welcome, Dave. You're well known for your Runeslord books, but you've now ventured into the LDS world to bring us a wonderfully written masterpiece about the Willie Handcart Company. There's been a lot of buzz about this book, which was just released today.

1-Teri-How did this venture come about?

My wife's foster parents, Larry and Jeannie Walker, served as missionaries up at Sixth Crossing. Jeannie suggested a couple of times that "You should really write a book about these handcart pioneers," but for a number of reasons I wasn't interested at all. First, it's well outside my genre. Second, I felt that the world had probably already heard the story of the handcart pioneers. Third, I wasn't really interested.

Yet each summer we have a family reunion, and since the Walkers were up at Sixth Crossing, we decided to have the outing up there. It wasn't until I got there and felt touched by the spirit of the place that I actually developed a strong desire to write the book.

In my writing classes, I often tell students that any two people can take the same material and come out with vastly different books. In other words, sometimes it is okay if you aren't completely original. Yet in this case I felt that as I read some of the wonderful resource material available, that there was a sort of "disconnectedness" that came with the history. We get glimpses of tales here and there, but no sense of the overall journey. So I wanted to write about that--take three characters and follow them over the course of weeks.

Once I began to research, the compulsion just became stronger. In one way, writing the book might have been a mistake. I spent a lot of time working on it that could have been spent making money. Yet I have always felt that an artist must work on the things that inspire them the most. In the longrun, you'll get stronger pieces of art that way.

2-Teri-How long have you been writing and what was your very first venture into writing?

I started writing when I was 17, and I began publishing ten years later. So I've been writing for 35 years now, publishing for 25. Gosh, I feel old.

3-Teri-What places did you go to in order to research In The Company Of Angels?

When I took my first trip to Sixth Crossing, I knew that I had to do some traveling in order to finish my research. I started by making trips to Salt Lake and Cedar City, to look at documents held by the church and by the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers. Then of course there were various trips to museums and bookstores to buy research materials. After that, I wanted to follow the trail of the pioneers, but I wanted to do it at the same time of year that they had traveled so that I could take a closer look at the flora and fauna.

I recognized early on that this was going to be a big book physically. I was hoping to keep it down to 100,000 words (it came out at 176,000). So I decided not to start the story in the pioneers' home countries and take them all the way to Salt Lake. That would have doubled the length of the book. Instead I chose to take a slice of journey--the toughest part, and focus on that.

This meant that I wanted to start in Iowa and carry the tale up to Rocky Ridge in Wyoming. So I took a road trip in August and September along their trail through Iowa, Kansas, and Wyoming.. Then I took another one in September spending most of my time in Wyoming, then coming down to Salt Lake.

A third trip was spent almost entirely just in Wyoming.

4-Teri-How did researching and writing In The Company of Angels affect you personally?

To be honest, I'm not from pioneer stock. I converted to the church at the age of 15. So I've always felt that the stories about the pioneers were "not about me."

Yet as I began to do research . . . how can I say this? To be honest, it was the most intense and prolonged spiritual experience of my life. Now, when I was serving my mission, and again when I taught seminary, i often felt the spirit of the work, but this was different.

First, I saw that there were some fascinating people on that trail that I quire frankly had never heard anything about, and as I studied their stories, I saw how they were relevant to people today. Eliza Gadd's personal journey was epic--the kind of thing that I think will make a great movie. (That's next on my agenda.)

Yet there was more. Despite all of the hardships, it seemed to me that there was a theme to the stories once you looked closer. The theme is this: The power of the priesthood is real, and despite all of their tribulations, the pioneers in the Willie Company were saved by it again and again.

In short, though I joined the church when I was young, I sometimes feel that we're all in a lifelong process of conversion--we're all learning new things, struggling to become more perfect. Now, I feel much more strongly connected to those pioneers than I did before.

5-Teri-Could you share with us your mother's feelings towards this book after reading it?

My mother wasn't LDS, but she'd been a big fan of historical novels for years, so when she found out that I was writing this she asked to read it. I gave her the manuscript with a bit of trepidation, and as she read it she called nearly every day, pretty much overwhelmed by it. Now, you have to understand that the last 100 pages of the manuscript keep readers crying nonstop, so she called several times, too choked up to speak, to tell me that it was the best novel that she'd ever read in her life. I think that it changed her to some degree. She was an active Baptist, but when she passed away last spring, she asked to have her funeral in the Mormon Church. I know that she wasn't praising it just because it was my novel. I've written almost fifty books, and she'd never been affected like this before. She kept saying, "What have you done to get this book published?" Well, my own publisher was afraid that the manuscript was too long. I wasn't sure where to take it outside the church. My mainstream publisher wanted to look at it, but I somehow felt that by taking it to the national market, I'd be ignoring the LDS market too much. So when she passed away, I decided to publish the book myself, and distribute it to both markets.

6-Teri-At the end of the book, you share some very interesting and humorous insights on some of the main people in your book. Can you share a couple of them with us, just to whet our readers' appetites?

Oh, gosh, you could get me going for hours!

Let's just say that there were a lot of stories that didn't quite fit into the bounds of the book. Things happened before the novel began, and these people led fascinating lives in some cases that went well beyond the end of the book.

For example, ANGELS tells the story of Willie Handcart Company, but as most people know, there was an even larger handcart company caught on the plains a couple of weeks behind the Willie Company--the Martin Handcart Company.

Now, when Brigham Young heard that the companies were out on the plains it was in early October, and there was an unusual hot spell going on. Brigham wanted to have Ephraim Hanks, a particularly stalwart frontiersman, lead the rescue effort. Ephraim had often worked as a mail carrier, and had crossed the prairie dozens of times. He was also tougher than shoe leather, but he had a reputation for having a spiritual side to him.

So on the night that Brigham heard of the troubles with the handcart pioneers, Ephraim was fishing at a camp on Utah Lake. In the middle of the night he heard someone in his room say his name, and he woke up. After asking "Who's there?" he looked around and fell back to sleep. A few minutes later, the incident was repeated.

Feeling certain that someone was sneaking around his cabin, he got out his gun and laid it beside the bed. When the voice came the third time, he pulled the gun and aimed it at the sound. At that point, he said that a man appeared in the room and began to glow. The man told him that the handcart pioneers were in trouble out on the plains and asked, "Will you not help them?"

At that point, Ephraim saddled his horse in the dark and walked it for a bit until the moon rose, then took off and rode through the night. At dawn, on the outskirts of Salt Lake, he met a messenger that Brigham had sent, asking him to go help the handcart pioneers.

I thought that that was a wonderful tale, but it didn't quite fit--because when Ephraim traveled up to find the pioneers, he passed the Willie Handcart Company without seeing them. Presumably he was on the wrong side of the river. So I had to have some of the other rescuers tell the pioneers about Hanks's experience and being the "only man in history to draw a gun on an angel."

7-Teri-From reading In The Company of Angels, I felt so strongly that this book would be a great Missionary Tool. In what ways would you feel this would be the case?

You know, I wanted this to be a book for everyone, for Mormons and non-Mormons alike. So I tried to follow characters of both faiths. Eliza Gadd, one of my protagonists, was a nurse. She believed in science and in later years told her children that she had not been able to believe in god and the afterlife because "none of that made any sense to me." So she made an excellent viewpoint character in that way. At the same time, her husband was the Branch President in their home town in England, and all of ther children had converted to the church. She was immersed in the culture.

So a number of people who have read it have felt that it was a tremendously powerful book as a missionary tool.

Yet I think that this book from its outset is a story about mortality, something that each of us must face. I hoped in particular that it would be of comfort to those who are facing death, as my mother was when she read it. If you've got a friend who is facing death, the recent death of a loved one or a terminal illness, then I think that this book would be a great gift. At least, that is what I wrote it for.

8-Teri-How would you have handled the Handcart situation, knowing what you now know?

Well, in hindsight it all seems so clear, doesn't it?

Most of the people who died were men, particularly the elderly. I suspect that at least one of the leaders of the Willie Hancart Company, William Woodward, may have counseled his elderly people to stay behind and winter in Iowa. By doing that, it appears that the hundred saints in his charge fared better.

So the elderly and infirm could have stayed behind, along with mothers who had children under the age of four or five. That alone would have lowered the death-toll dramatically.

The saints at that time were so ignorant of their own nutritional needs. They had too little meat, too little in the way of fruits or vegetables. So more could have been done to create wayposts where the handcart pioneers got fresh supplies. This was part of the original plan, but it did not get implemented. So the handcart pioneers ended up trying to carry all of their food for more than a thousand miles, and that took too heavy a toll on them physically.

More importantly, though, this is a case where the saints were hit with one setback after another after another. I think that perhaps the lesson here is that you should excercise wisdom and know when it's time to change course.

Yet one has to wonder, if the saints had all said, "Hey, let's not go through with this," how would we as a people be different?

I'm going to be honest with you about something. We often want to avert the tragedies in our lives, and yet those tragedies can shape us for the better. Did the handcart pioneers become stronger, more faithful people because of the challenges they faced? Absolutely. Absolutely. Knowing the legacy that these pioneers would leave, the exemplary lives that they would live, one could argue that they did the right thing when they pressed on.

Yes, I would save more lives if I could, but I suspect that I would have encouraged them onward all of the way, regardless of the hardship.

9-Teri-Now, will you share with us your experience of being the Guiness World Record Holder of the longest Book Signing?

Oh, gosh, that was ten years ago. I did a big book release in Hollywood for a novel called A Very Strange Trip, based upon a screenplay by L. Ron Hubbard. It was a fun book about an Army private who transports a time machine across the country. But every time that his jeep hits a bump, he gets thrown back further and further in time. . . . In any case, we got together a launch party, brought in some movie and television stars, got a band to provide music, gave out free rootbeer floats, and invited the public. I signed abou 2800 books in four hours, but the judges for Guinness left a little early, so my award only credits me for about 2200 of those signings. It was a grueling afternoon, but like the handcart pioneers, I am a better man for having done it!

10-Teri-And, for our last question. What do you do in your spare time when you're not writing? How many children and if any grandchildren, how many?

I love to write, and I do that a lot. I have an advice column for people who wnat to write, and I send out columns every day. It's called "David Farland's Daily Kick in the Pants," and you can sign up for it at www.davidfarland.net. I sometimes teach writing workshops, too. Other than that, I like to fish, hike, go camping, and I work out every day. I have five children. My youngest is twelve and my oldes is twenty-three. No grandchildren yet, though. If anyone knows of any young men for my oldest daughters, they are available. . . .

Now, can we all give a big round of thanks for David stopping by The Book Nook. It's been a great pleasure and loads of fun. We wish you great success with In The Company Of Angels. For those who haven't ordered your book yet, you can go to: wwwinthecompanyofangels.net and you'll be glad you did. It will change your life.

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Please forward this email to your friends who might be interested in the Daily Kick and direct them to sign up at http://davidfarland.net/members. Thank you.


Michele Ashman Bell said...

I admire David and his great success and was so pleased to read this interview and learn about him and his new book. I am an avid fan of "David Farland's Daily Kick in the Pants" and appreciate him being willing to share his wealth of knowledge. Thanks Teri.

JoAnn Arnold said...

I enjoyed your inteview with David. Helped me get to know him better. I print off all the "Daily Kid in the Pants" and put them in a 3-ring binder. He gives excellent advice and I appreciate his time in doing so.

Primarymary said...

Thanks for the great interview. I look forward to reading Company of Angels.

Grandma Mitchell said...

Thank you for making me aware of this wonderful book. Great writer. Thanks to this blogsite I own one of the first copies!