Robison Wells did not aspire to be an author. In fact, as a teen, he hated English class and hated books. “I never wanted anything to do with writing,” he says now with a laugh. “Unlike so many of my colleagues, I was not born with a pencil in my hand.”
It wasn’t until college, while heading off to visit his mother in the hospital, that he grabbed Huckleberry Finn and proceeded to read it straight through—twice. Finally, he’d discovered what all those teachers meant about the enjoyment of reading.
Still, it never occurred to Wells to try his hand at writing. He’d graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in political science and was working toward an M.B.A. in marketing when he stumbled upon a WWII documentary that triggered an idea for an epic fantasy. He pitched it to his brother, Dan Wells, author of I Am Not a Serial Killer, who urged him to write the story himself. So he did.
Though Wells will readily admit that it wasn’t his best work, it altered the course of his career. And made him fall in love with writing. Which is fortunate for the many new fans of his recent YA debut novel, Variant (HarperTeen, Oct.). This fast-paced thriller, about a school of imprisoned teens who must fight to survive in a world where the rules change daily, and the punishment for breaking those rules is death, might never have come about had it not been for a challenge from brother Dan.
In spring 2009, Dan approached Robison with an idea: the World Fantasy Convention was two months away. If Robison could have something ready to pitch, Dan would introduce him to the editors he knew at the convention.
“The economy was terrible,” Wells recalls. “I had just completed graduate school. My family had moved back in with my parents while I looked for a job.” So he put his nose to the grindstone. He outlined the entire story in half an hour—and wrote it in just 11 days.
“I only knew that I wanted to write a book where there were no adults,” he says. From there, he did what he calls “discovery writing”—letting the story lead him. “It was an amazing experience that I wish I could repeat.”
After frantically revising his draft, Wells headed to the convention with his brother, where “I pitched it horribly,” he admits, “and embarrassed myself and it was awful!” Fortunately, Dan connected him with Sara Crowe at the Harvey Klinger Agency, who fell in love with the manuscript and signed him. “Sara just seemed to get it,” Wells says. “Her comments were spot-on and she could anticipate what editors would say.”
Variant went out on three rounds of submissions, which predictably led to more revisions. “We’d get long letters, three-page long rejection letters that said that they loved the story but that it needed certain changes,” Wells recalls. Those comments helped him rewrite the final third of the book and strengthen themes that are now integral to the story, such as the tension between the school authorities and the students, and the rising paranoia among the teens as they learn the truth about some of their classmates.
One of those long rejection letters came from Erica Sussman at HarperCollins, who suggested (among other things) trimming it down quite a bit, and said she’d be happy to take a second look. Wells cut, rewrote, and re-sent, and a few months later, Sussman signed Wells to a three-book deal, including Variant and its sequel.
Today, in addition to being a husband and a father of three, Wells is a fulltime writer, often holing up in the basement storage room in his Holladay, Utah, home that serves as his office. With the room darkened and all extraneous sound cut off (he sometimes plays music but only tracks he knows really well), he’ll throw on a hoodie, and dive into his writing.
That sequel, tentatively titled Feedback, is due out in fall 2012, and Wells is already happily anticipating getting to work on his third book, which he calls modern-day fiction with a science fiction twist. A perfect genre, really, for someone who once dreamed of working for the CIA and who never really fancied himself a writer.