Skip to content

Alex Wells’s novel take on the world of mega corporations. Author interview

January 23, 2018

Cover for Blood Binds the Pack

I was fortunate enough to catch Alex Wells, the author of Hunger Makes the Wolf and Blood Binds the Pack, at the Angry Robot offices. Alex had landed from a transatlantic flight only a few hours before, but still made time to talk with me, despite Nottingham not being the final destination and jet-lag beginning to kick in.

What came out of the interview was not only the inspiration behind the creation of the world of Tanegawa and the Trans Rift corporation, but also a great many useful insights into the process of writing a first novel and gathering up steam to create a sequel.

How did you get into writing?

I first started writing this book in 2010 – 2011, before I had even gone back to university. I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember.  I wrote fan fiction for a long time and was writing novel-length stuff. I finally got to the point where my original ideas were more interesting than what I was doing for fan fiction, so I started writing my own original stuff.

I’d originally bought into the notion that I should start with short stories and that somehow if I wrote enough short stories an agent would parachute down my chimney and offer to represent me. This is not actually how it works.

This is why I started out by attempting to write short stories. But I really suck at short stories. Everyone would say when I wrote that was supposed to be a short story “Well that’s great, but where’s the rest of this book?”

I wrote what Mothership Zeta published as “Fire in the Belly” about seven years ago. This was actually the first chapter of the proto Hunger Makes the Wolf. It was about Hob arriving on the planet Tanegawa and all the stuff that happened to her. The next year I wrote another short story which was another chapter of the book. By that point everyone was telling me to get on and write the book. That’s why I finally sat down and wrote the book.

At that point I had done National Novel Writing Month a couple of times more. So I knew I could write something as long as a novel and pretty quickly.

Why do you think you have so much trouble with short stories?

I think it’s because short stories have to be so self-contained. You need to have a beginning, middle and end in about 5000 words, as well as complete characters and have a plot. They can only be a single arc with not many sub-plots. It has to be very direct and straightforward. I just don’t like that, because most of the time I’m writing in second world or near-future, far-future scifi. I do such intense world building that there’s so much other stuff going on I just can’t fit it into a short story.

Even when I try to write short stories I generally end up with 7500 to 8000 words, which is no longer a short story at that point.

I was looking at my eligibility this year for short stories. I technically have two. But it was really hard for me to keep them that short. Everything else I have is longer than that. It’s basically because I can’t come up with anything that fits neatly into a compact space. The biggest challenge I have ever faced is writing flash fiction. It’s cool because I sold flash fiction to Shimmer which is a venue that doesn’t generally like flash fiction.

I don’t agree that you need to write lots of short stories to practice for writing novels, because they’re completely different animals.

I think all writers have a length they naturally gravitate towards, which for me is longer than about 9000 words.

Book cover for Hunger Makes the Wolf

How did the idea for Hunger Makes the Wolf come about?

I have a hard time remembering because that was so long ago. I can tell you that when I wrote it I was at a writer’s retreat with some friends of mine in Utah. It was where I wrote the first story that I got professionally published which was “The Book of Autumn”. I wrote that because it was an idea that was in my way, which was “Fire in the Belly”. I wrote that because I had this idea of a little girl coming down on a kind of Wild West planet and meeting an evil, old bastard of a man, called Old Nick.

But I can’t say exactly where that came from, although the reader might see influence from Dune, Firefly and other stuff. I really love westerns, particularly modern deconstructed westerns. But at this point I couldn’t tell you exactly where it came from because I’ve rewritten it so many times.

There is also your professional life as a geologist influencing both Hunger Makes the Wolf and Blood Binds the Pack.

I have a Masters in Geology. There are two things I’ve fitted into the two novels that are really important to me, geology and the history of Colorado. I didn’t even realise the importance of geology in the storyline until I thought back to the earlier drafts I had written which were about the classic tan sand deserts. That’s when I thought “If all these rocks are black then they obviously have a lot of iron in them, so all the sand should be orange from the rust.”

The history of Colorado is something American readers will probably be more aware of, because all of the towns are named in the books are named after mining towns in Colorado which were active during the Colorado coalfield wars. That’s why all the action in Blood Binds the Pack takes place in Ludlow, because that’s the site of the Ludlow Massacre, which was one of the major American labour events of the early twentieth century. It was where Colorado Fuel & Iron, under JD Rockefeller, Jr, convinced the governor of Colorado to call up the Colorado National Guard and basically set them against the striking coal miners. A group of miners, along with women and children in the strike camp were killed by guardsmen and Baldwin-Felts agents. I grew up immersed in Colorado history and particularly Colorado labour history because I grew up in a Union household. It’s stuff that no one really talks about anymore.

That is really more relevant to the novels than the geology, which is incidental and hard rock isn’t even my thing.

Describe the society in Hunger Makes the Wolf and Blood Binds the Pack.

I basically wanted to recreate the idea of a company town, because it’s obviously something we no longer quite have in the modern era. But I think there’s also a real concern we could be heading back into that way of life.

These sorts of towns were in the gilded age when the robber barons who ran the corporations had so much overwhelming power that basically if you were an employee at one of these places you didn’t have any other options and no legal rights. If you got black-listed you were just done.

The idea of having a planet that was completely cut off from the government because of corporate power was my way of going back to the company town idea. I’ve had so many friends who’ve said, “Oh I don’t think it would be that bad an idea to live on the Amazon campus where they just take care of you.”

It’s a situation where maybe that sounds good, but at some point that’s not going to be great, because it’s not good to have a corporation in charge of your life, because they don’t care about you.

In my books it was about trying to create a situation where those sorts of issues made sense of what might happen.

Your writing has very strong characterisation. The main protagonists interact extensively with one another and work very well as an ensemble cast. Tell me about the characters, how you created and developed them and how you worked out their relationships.

The major characters are Hob and Mag, who are effectively sisters. Hob is my ideal character that I felt I wanted to read about. She’s super badass and solves everything by shooting it. She was really someone I could identify with at the time.

When I was initially writing her, she was a little girl and all her friends were little boys. I felt she should have a friend who was a little girl, because I was looking at the relationship between me and my best friend. The relationships between women are just so undervalued. This is why I wanted Hob to have a best friend who was a girl. But she had to be someone with whom there would be no jealousy in the relationship.

This was when I realised that if Old Nick, the unpleasant and abusive older male character of Hunger Makes the Wolf, had a use. I decided the two girls could be raised together like sisters. I wanted to have a character whose strengths were Hob’s weaknesses. This is why Mag can’t shoot or punch people, but she’s incredibly manipulative in her own way, planning and thinking ahead, and very subtle. Whereas Hob has none of that.

The other main character is Shige. In Hunger Makes the Wolf he actually started out as a MacGuffin, and served the purpose of a character who would come in and tell Hob things that are useful answers, because another key character, the Bone Collector, does not tell her anything useful. Hob’s frustration over this quirk of the Bone Collector is why there is literally a scene where Hobs punches the Bone Collector in the face. This is because I’ve always wanted to punch characters like the Bone Collector in the face, because they won’t give straightforward answers to straightforward questions, and are always giving mysterious replies to questions.

Shige needed to give her answers that were actually concrete, as well as data that would be helpful. But he ended up getting developed much more because he is his own person. I wanted to know why he was telling her these things find out what his purpose was. Obviously if he were just a loyal employee of the company he wouldn’t be giving her all that information. This is how he developed into something far more interesting. When I got to Blood Binds the Pack he just became a main character in his own right because there was so much stuff that he was doing. He is also Coyote’s brother (one of Hob’s crew, who has some rather gruesome dietary needs). That’s when I began to think about the family history behind the two brothers. I hadn’t initially planned for all of that and it just developed organically, and I really liked the way this happened.

Do you think this was because you’d became so connected with the characters that they began to write themselves?

Maybe a little, because I want my characters, even if they’re in there only for a little while, to be like real people. When I was attempting to write my short stories, Ed Bryant, the founder of the Northern Colorado Writer’s Workshop, always said where I’m happiest is when I’m focusing on character relationships and how they interact with each other. I’m interested in how people interact. In order to figure out how people interact you have to know where they’re coming from and what their background is and what they want. Because if you don’t know what they want, or what they think they want, you can’t make any sense of what they’re doing.

So, if I make someone because I just want them to be the MacGuffin, I can’t help wondering what they might want, what do they think they’re doing and what do they think they’re actually doing. Then you end up developing a character just because that’s the way you think about it.

You said you can write quickly, yet Hunger Makes the Wolf took a long time from you starting it to getting the book published. Why did it take that long?

It took that because it went through seven different drafts between when I initially started writing it in 2010 and getting bought in 2016. One of the drafts I had Molly Tanzer professionally edit. That was the point where I had to make the choice to cut about 25000 words off the front and replace it with some other stuff. Hunger Makes the Wolf went through a lot of evolution.

In contrast, writing Blood Binds the Pack went through one month to write the outline, which was 13000 words. Then three and half months to write the text, after which I had to cull 12000 words out of the text because I always overwrite.

Did the experience of writing your first novel, then having it edited, make the process easier with the second?

Yes. And it was also easier to write once I’d started it. I had 14 months to write it, but I didn’t start until about four and a half months before it was due, because I kept putting it off.

When you’ve only written one novel, the second is really scary. The only reason I eventually started was because my agent kept asking “So have you started the thing. You should probably start writing the thing. How’s that going?” Eventually I said “Fine. Here’s my outline. I’m writing the book now. Okay? Are you happy now?”

Having a deadline was so important, because it got me over that fear and got me writing again.

Why is writing the second book so intimidating?

Because you’re sitting there thinking that the first novel was obviously good enough for someone to publish it. What if the second novel sucks?

How can I follow this act, because everything is going to be terrible? What if I can’t do it? If it’s been some time since I crafted something in that universe, what if the characters don’t sound like themselves anymore? What if I send it and the publisher thinks it bad? What if the readers don’t like the book? I write such long stuff anyway, what if it looks like it’s only one part of a two-parter or a series? What if I’ve written a load of books that are all novels I can’t take any further?

Before I sold Hunger Makes the Wolf, I had written seven first novels, because my state of mind was that I was not going to write a second novel for something I haven’t yet sold.

Yes, writing a second novel was intimidating because I’d never done it before.

Part of the problem for many authors with the style of book you have written would be getting the plot right. There are several threads, which at some point all need to come together, and an ensemble cast. Was there ever a point where you wrote yourself into a plot hole?

The whole point of outlining is to prevent this. I’ve always been an outliner. I have a screenwriting certificate through UCLA. That taught me how to outline really well. I used a screen writing outline process when I wrote Blood Binds the Pack.

I wrote a log line. Which meant I wrote a one sentence summary. Then I wrote the three page summary. Then I wrote the 13000 word outline.

I went through three or four drafts of the outline, which I had my agent, DongWon Song, look at. I wanted him to read my book at that stage because this was the place to catch the plot structure. As I was writing it there was some adjustment that happened, because the characters will suddenly go off in their own direction that you didn’t expect. But for the most part I pretty much had most of the structure plotted before I started writing the rough draft. I’ll be flexible and change things as they need to be changed and know where I’m going, so I can make sure all the parts of the plot come together. That’s a lot easier than trying to pants it, which I’m really not good at.

You mentioned that you had to shave off 25000 words from Hunger Makes the Wolf. Have you found there is still something you would like to develop from material that you haven’t been able to use?

I would love to do something with it, but I just have to figure out where it can fit. The stuff I had to take off the front of Hunger Makes the Wolf covers the time from when Hob arrives on the planet to when she makes her really bad mistake and has to start over. It’s a story arc that would work as a novella.

I still have all the chapters I had to cut out of Blood Binds the Pack, because they’re all good chapters and at some point I’ll hopefully get to share them with people, because they were fun to write, but they weren’t necessary to move the plot along. There was a whole chapter with Coyote and Hob having a knife fight. It was fun, but didn’t really add anything to the overall story arc.

Do you think you’ll take the world of Hunger Makes the Wolf and Blood Binds the Pack further?

If all the gods smile and someone is willing to give money for it, I’ve got a whole idea for a story about Coyote and Dambala as murder husbands, covering how they met and ended up on Tanegawa’s World.

After the end of Blood Binds the Pack I put down all the questions related to what I have now done to this universe and these are the questions I need to see answered. All I have to do is figure out what plot would give me the answers. This is a really weird way for me to work because I’ve never started out with a list of questions.

I could certainly write another book after Blood Binds the Pack where we leave Tanegawa’s world and have to deal with all the issues of interstellar travel. I would like to know if it is possible to have interstellar travel without needing a breed of genetically engineered monster humans (the Weathermen) to do it, and who gets to decide whether that is a good sacrifice for a human to make for the good of humanity.

You have invested so much time in these first two novels, is it difficult pull out of them and look at a completely different writing project?

The fantasy novel I wrote after Hunger Makes the Wolf, was the novel my agent picked me up on, rather than Hunger Makes the Wolf. The story is different as well as the world. I’ve also done some other writing under another name that has a weird banana pants space opera universe.

There are so many things I can do in other worlds that I don’t find it difficult to write about something else.

I know authors who have been picked up for a book and yet it is a completely different book that is the one which is finally published.

When I started talking with DongWon to pitch books, I sent him Hunger Makes the Wolf. He sent me a really thoughtful rejection e-mail back which said, “I like this, but here are all of these major issues which need to be fixed, before I can sell it to anyone.” I agreed with him 100%. So I said “That’s great, I’ll work on re-writing it as you’ve suggested. But how do you feel about epic fantasy?” He told me to send the full manuscript. It was that book and not Hunger Makes the Wolf he picked me up for. He’s still trying to sell the epic fantasy. The hilarious thing was that was the week that Angry Robot said “Hi. We want to buy Hunger Makes the Wolf,” which I had submitted on my own because I had pitched it to Phil (Jourdan), who thought it was really interesting. That day I e-mailed DW to say I wanted him to be my agent, I told him “Hi you’re my agent. I’m going to forward you this e-mail from Angry Robot. This is your problem now.”

The cool thing was that we talked to Mark (Gascoigne) and Phil about stuff that DongWon had picked out as things he thought were problems with the plot, and asked them if I could do a complete re-write, and send the manuscript again. If they didn’t like it, we would go from what I first submitted and keep going. But I took everything DW suggested and I rewrote the book again. Once I did that Phil got back to me and told me we were going to rewrite it again. That was a really great process because Phil’s an awesome editor.

It would seem that, despite having to re-write Hunger Makes the Wolf more than once, you didn’t find the process demoralising.

I think it depends on the writer. Some people really hate editing. I really hate writing. For me writing the rough draft is the worst thing in the world, because I find it so difficult. As soon as I’m editing I’m happy, because I know I can fix my writing.

The first editing phone call I ever had with Phil was demoralising because I’d never had one before and didn’t know what to expect. When he called me he told me “I’m going to destroy your soul in single Skype call, and then I’m going to build you back up again. So it’ll be fine. Here are all these things that need to be fixed, but I think you can do it. Here are some places for you to start.”

I was nearly crying because everything felt so overwhelming and terrible. But I sat down and did the work and sent it back to him. I just needed that first experience of letting me know I could do it. It was very different when I had my editing phone call for Blood Binds the Pack which didn’t feel so soul destroying, because I knew I could do it.

I really like editing anyway because if someone told me there was a problem, I would know how to fix it.

Are there other projects you are currently working on?

I have a fantasy series I’m currently working on that will hopefully sell to a publisher. I have also finished a rough draft of another sci-fi book I’m currently editing.

Photograph of Alex Wells

Alex Wells


Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: