Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

Writing Excuses 10.48: Project in Depth, The Devil’s Only Friend

Spoiler Alert! We’ll be discussing the latest John Cleaver book from Dan Wells with author, podcaster, and unrepentant bacon-lover Dan Wells! If you haven’t read it, and you want to be surprised by it, stop listening and grab a copy now!

If you have read it, we apologize on Dan’s behalf for any emotional scarring you may have experienced. Now… give the episode a listen, and learn how Dan managed to do that to you.

This episode was engineered aboard The Independence of the Seas by Bert Grimm, and mastered in an orbital communications array by Alex Jackson.

Homework: We are on a ship. Set a story that doesn’t really fit on a ship onto a ship.

Thing of the week: The Devil’s Only Friend, by Dan Wells, narrated by Kirby Heyborne.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Let’s put Dan and John Cleaver on the chopping block today! (Was that a pun, Dan?) The Devil’s Only Friend is book four, but think of it as book one of the second John Cleaver trilogy! The second trilogy is about John Cleaver finding out that having emotions hurts. John Cleaver is only about a year older, which helps readers because he is so different emotionally. In this book, John has a team from the FBI, but he is still lonely and isolated. Next of Kin and The Devil’s Only Friend are concurrent, but told from a demon’s POV and from John Cleaver’s POV. Dan did not pull a Buffy with Elijah. Death of a favorite character means something to the readers. The focus of this book was intended to be disassociative identity disorder, but with Elijah and memories, it became a book about Alzheimer’s. When John gets a pet, most readers are scared.
[Mary] Season 10, Episode 48.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Project in Depth, The Devil’s Only Friend.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And I’m not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] And I’m on the chopping block today.
[Howard] Mwahahahaha.

[Brandon] It’s only fair, considering how many people you have put on that chopping block. We are going to talk about The Devil’s Only Friend, a John Cleaver novel. John Cleaver four? Are my numbers right?
[Howard] Five.
[Dan] That’s correct, it is number four. Or as I prefer to think of it, it is book one of a second John Cleaver trilogy.
[Brandon] Yes. Now, as with all of the Project In Depth episodes, we are going to dig deeply into the story. Hopefully give you a lot of insight about how we wrote them. We really, really, really recommend that you read this story first or listen to it. The audible version is done by Kirby Heyborne. You should do this now. Pause the episode, come back after you’ve read it. Because we are going to give huge spoilers.
[Dan] Let me be clear. I’m not… It’s not just lip service when I say that it is book one of a new series. It will spoil the first series for you, but it is designed to be read alone. So if you haven’t read the first three, you can jump in on this one and be totally fine. In fact, I’ve had several reviewers not know…
[Howard] Except…
[Dan] It was book four.
[Howard] Except for the fact that it’s just horrific, and you won’t sleep well.
[Brandon] Right, right. It’s gotten worse and worse, Dan. In a good way.
[Mary] By worse and worse, he does mean better and better.
[Dan] But…
[Brandon] Like when you wrote…
[Dan] They’re relative.
[Brandon] The first one, the first John Cleaver book, I’m like, “This is probably the most horrifying thing I’ve ever read.” Then you…
[Dan] Then you read the second one.
[Brandon] Have consistently one-upped it.
[Mary] Yup. I am convinced that the Devil’s Only Friend is actually referring to you.
[Brandon] So, Dan, second John Cleaver trilogy. I remember when you finished the first trilogy and I asked you, “Are you going to do more?” You were really kind of iffy. You’re like, “Aagh.”
[Dan] I had never intended to do more because John’s character arc concluded in what I thought was a very satisfying way. The plot was certainly open for more things. Book 3 ends with him essentially cutting a deal with the FBI. I’ve exposed myself, you hide that and I’ll help you hunt these things.
[Brandon] Right. See, that sounds like a story launch off to me.
[Dan] It does.
[Howard] It sounds like it’s a superhero origins story.
[Dan] It absolutely does. Which is why my editors kept saying, “Please write more stuff.” But for me, the character… John’s character had concluded so firmly that I didn’t want to do anything else. What convinced me is actually the kind of weird ex-patriot vibe that I got from moving to Germany.
[Brandon] Oh, cool.
[Dan] And realizing I am still me, but I’m me in a different place. So the experiences that I’m having are being filtered differently, and…
[Howard] What did you do in Germany? Oh, my gosh.
[Mary] Seriously. Save some sausage.
[Dan] So I decided I… Basically, what it took was me figuring out if I write more about John, where is it going to go? The first trilogy is him basically learning how to feel again. The second trilogy is him saying, “I’ve got emotions and that sucks.” Because emotions are painful. The basic character hook of “I have to take care of Brooke now” is what drives most of this second trilogy.

[Brandon] Okay. Excellent. Now, I expected John to be older in this than he ended up being. Like, when I had talk to you, like I remember, you talked about maybe we will come back and visit him in 10 years and something. No, it kind of goes writing from the other ones, even though there is that separation.
[Dan] There’s about one year. You get some brief back story of him saying, “Yeah, over the past year, since I’ve hooked up with these guys, we’ve killed a couple of demons and things.” The reason for that… Because I had intended to kind of age him up, maybe send him through mortuary school or something. He is so different emotionally now than he was before, that keeping him as a teenager helped him feel familiar to readers.
[Brandon] That’s a good point.
[Dan] So that he could still be the John they loved, even though he was different.
[Brandon] That was a really good observation of you to make.
[Howard] It also… When you ended the first trilogy, I said jokingly, it was a superhero origins story. This is where I hooked up with my super team at the FBI.
[Brandon] Whom you murdered.
[Dan] They didn’t last very long, did they?

[Howard] They did not last very long. But the salient point is that when you begin this story, I am expecting John to be in a position where he has a little bit more power over his own fate. That’s not the position he’s in. He’s kind of downtrodden by the folks around him. He’s respected for one thing, but he’s not really respected very much. Anytime they go out in public, who’s this kid?
[Dan] They don’t let him ever drive the car, which shapes him a lot. He… I remember there was a review of book 3 where they said they really didn’t like the ending where the FBI kind of comes in and says, “Okay, you’re going to work for us now.” For this reviewer, that was kind of undermining the sense of loneliness that John has, because now he’s got this team backing him up. In my mind, it was always a case of no. If you know John, you know that he has never reacted well to authority. Now that he has to constantly be working with other people, he has to take orders from people, it’s… The relationship he had with his mom, only amped way up because it’s also his boss and it’s the government. John does not like that. So…
[Brandon] Well, it plays into horror tropes. Horror is you are isolated even when you are surrounded by people. By not being able to trust them, by not being able to trust yourself, by not being able to trust what’s going on around you. This plays very much into that.

[Mary] One of the things that I liked that you did with that, again giving us the sense of familiarity with John… From the previous books is that he’s constantly thinking about how to kill them.
[Dan] Yes. He has… That’s somewhat inspired by the joke about Batman, that he’s got a secret plan to kill everyone on the Justice League if he needs to. John totally has one of those for everyone on his team. He thinks about them to keep his edges honed.
[Dan] Which is always the chapter that I read when I do readings because it’s so great to have him sit there having a conversation with people, but then also thinking Howard’s not even looking at me right now. I could snap his neck.
[Brandon] [inaudible]
[Dan] Oh, can I tell this really quick story? I don’t want to take too much time.
[Brandon] Go for it. It’s your time to take.
[Dan] I was writing this while I lived in Germany. My daughter, 13-year-old daughter’s bedroom is just down the hall. So I was writing that scene where he sitting in the car and one of the members of the team is driving… I think it’s Kelly. He’s looking at her, thinking, “This is how I could kill her right now. Just slide a knife right there into her neck between those…” I was about to write vertebra. Then I thought, “Wait a minute. Is that the best way?” “Hey, Audrey, come in here…”
[Dan] I had her sit on a chair facing away from me so I could look at the back of her neck, and she said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m just looking at your neck.” “Why?” “I want to know where to stick a knife.” “Dad!”
[Dan] “What’s wrong with you?”
[Howard] Ooooh.
[Brandon] Yes. You’re exactly the person we’re going to argue can’t tell their story. Instead, we’re going to scoot our chairs away. No…
[Mary] Are we done with this podcast now?

[Brandon] Did you do anything different in the plotting or writing of this book that you haven’t done before? [Long pause] Oo, on the spot. I hope will keep him [garbled] from thinking about killing us.
[Mary] It was nice. When he looked at the ceiling like that. Totally exposed the jugular.
[Dan] Totally exposed all the major arteries.
[Howard] I would still have to lean toward him in order to strike the throat. That might telegraph the punch.
[Dan] That’s the trick.
[Brandon] Dan, why don’t you think about that question while I tell people about the book of the week?
[Dan] Okay.

[Brandon] The book of the week is The Devil’s Only Friend, by Dan Wells. This is a fantastic story that will keep you on the edge of your seat. It is some of the finest writing Dan has ever done, and he is an amazing writer. It is really cool to see how he is rebooting without rebooting the John Cleaver books. It was really cool to see him trying some new things with the series. It was really heartbreaking to see some of the stuff that he did.
[Howard] Before I tell you how to go get this book… I know Brandon already told you to go get the book, so you should have gone and gotten the book. But in truest horror film fashion, we screamed, “Don’t go down in the basement!” Here you are, in the basement. So here are your instructions for getting out of the basement., start a 30-day free trial membership, and have somebody read about the basement to you.
[Dan] There is a basement in this book and it’s pretty dark and terrible.
[Howard] It’s a great place.

[Dan] Okay. So, one of the interesting things that I did with this book is I have always wanted to do a John Cleaver story from a demon’s point of view. Because… Mostly because I loved the kind of dramatic irony of the rea… Of the main character noticing this kid who’s kind of slowly inserting himself into his life and the reader going, “No, no, no. If that guy’s making friends with you and mowing your lawn, you’re dead.”
[Dan] So I did. What I did was a novella that I self published called Next of Kin that is about a character named Elijah who is a demon who steals other people’s memories.
[Brandon] He’s kind of a nice demon.
[Dan] He is.
[Brandon] Compared to the others, he’s a very…
[Dan] Because he has essentially lived 10,000 years with human memory. He identifies more with us than he does with them. He is one of the good guys, so to speak, in The Devil’s Only Friend. This novella takes place concurrently with it, with a lot of scenes from the opposite point of view. So I wrote one of them first and then in writing the other one, sat there with the first one open…
[Brandon] Ooooh. That’s so cool.
[Dan] On a separate thing, so I could make sure the dialogue was exact and the actions were exact, but that you’re perceiving them differently. In particular, the scene where they very first meet and have a little conversation in the lobby of a rest home. They are doing the exact same things and interpreting them so differently. Elijah is watching this kid and thinking, “What is wrong with him? You can tell he is messed up. Something has gone horribly wrong with his life. I wonder if I can help him?” John is looking at him saying, “Why is he saying that? Is he trying to kill me? Is that a trick? How can I kill him?” You just kind of see two sides of that same conversation, which was a lot of fun to do.
[Mary] What I actually love about the way that scene is handled in The Devil’s Only Friend, because I have not read the Next of Kin. I haven’t read that one. But I could see that they were having two different conversations. I could totally tell that John was like completely jumping to the worst possible things and that Elijah was just… So, waiting for someone? That was… That was this…
[Dan] Innocent questions, but…

[Brandon] I really liked Elijah. Partially because of the novella. Partially because of the book. But it led me down a road where I thought you were going to pull a Buffy. Meaning Buffy kills vampires, she ends up with a vampire best friend, well, and lover. Right? So I was expecting that this is the point where “Oh, you’ve humanized Elijah so much that Elijah is going to become the sidekick or the mentor or something.” For those who have read the book, that doesn’t happen. So…
[Dan] My wife still has not forgiven me for killing Elijah. She was super pissed.
[Brandon] Is that why you did it?
[Dan] In part.
[Howard] Your answer there needs to be no.
[Brandon] Are you consciously avoiding the trope? Because that is a trope, or is it just what the story… That you felt like it needed?
[Dan] Part of it is that I want to avoid the trope, part of it is because… I mean, since this is the spoilertastic episode. It’s the same reason that I killed Marci. Because I love Marci, she is my favorite character in the series, and that meant her death would mean something to the reader.
[Brandon] You and Joss Whedon.

[Howard] Very much, when Kelly Ishida dies so early. I had, up to that point, very much felt like she was the heart of the team from John’s point of view. Now that she was gone, all bets were off. Invoking Joss Whedon, that was a “Well, I could live” sort of moment where no. The answer is no. Any of you at this point could die. Is that why she died first? Was that your reasoning or…
[Dan] That was more of a lucky accident, in that I needed her to die first because somebody had to and I wanted to make sure people liked her when she died. Which didn’t give me a lot of time to make you like her. So I made her extra extra lovable.
[Howard] To John.
[Dan] Yeah. She is one of the ones who is nicest to John on the team. He always responds better to women than men anyway. Because that’s just part of who he is. Before we get too far away from Elijah…
[Brandon] Uh huh.
[Howard] Sorry.

[Dan] There’s one thing that I want to make sure to talk about. I… With every book in the series, have tried to focus on a different aspect of mental illness. With this one, and with Brooke, I thought I’m going to write a book that’s about disassociative identity disorder. Where here is a girl who has so many memories of so many other people, 10,000 years of other girls stuck in her head. So she’ll flip back and forth and she’ll forget who she is and she’ll think she’s one of the other ones. That was my intention. That comes across a little bit. But that aspect of memory, and especially with Elijah, who does not have a memory of his own and essentially has to steal memories from other people, this became a book about Alzheimer’s. There are parts in this book where… When I first got married 16 years ago, for the first nine months, my wife and I lived with my grandfather who had Alzheimer’s. My grandfather half raised me. I spent every day at his house. Loved him like a second father. To watch his mind degrade… To be in a position where this man locked me out of the house because he forgot who I was and thought I was scary… I didn’t realize how badly that experience messed me up until I started writing a book about loss of memory. There are sections of this book, and sections of Next of Kin, that are just gaping open wounds, this big glance into here’s all of Dan’s messed up fears of Alzheimer’s disease that I had not intended. But that’s really kind of what this book turned into.
[Howard] I’m glad that the messed up parts of you are not the parts where Potash is holding a machete. That makes me feel marginally safer.
[Dan] Well. That’s good.
[Howard] No.
[Brandon] You should be even more scared.

[Mary] So I actually want to ask about a different character, which is Boy Dog.
[Dan] Yes.
[Mary] Why is that… So, you’ve got this dog who’s obnoxious. Like pees on everything. Was this something that you… So to give John something else to nurture? Or… Why… What was the decision to give John a dog?
[Brandon] You give John a pet and I’m scared. I’m just going to say that. Right out.
[Mary] Because we’ve seen what he does to cats.
[Dan] Well. Yes. That reaction is part of the reason. There was someone on twit… It was actually Jessica Day George on twitter who said, “Dan, I’m reading your book and if you kill Boy Dog, I am never going to forgive you.” I wrote back and said, “I love Boy Dog. He’s great.” She said, “That does not make me feel better.” But… That is… It goes back to the origination of John Cleaver as a character, was my conversation with Brandon about the McDonald triad. One of those classic sociopathic traits is animal cruelty. John has never allowed himself even to interact with animal, let alone be mean to them. So…
[Mary] Except for the cat.
[Dan] Well, that was when he broke down and became Mr. Monster for a while, was the cat. I kind of wanted to make up for the cat. I relished the opportunity to make people super nervous about another animal. But mostly, I wanted to give John another painful thing. Part of it is the nurturing thing. I remember in ET where ET has made this very powerful kind of psychic connection to Elliott. But he has also made a psychic connection with a little yellow flower. You get to watch both of them. When ET get sick, Elliott and the flower both get sick. When ET feels better, Elliott and the flower both get better. It’s this really minor thing, but I like that idea of mirroring. John has to take care of Brooke. Well, let’s also have him take care of a dog. And see if that can help put him in a position where he’ll be able to, in book 5, actually take care of Brooke a little better than he could otherwise.
[Brandon] This has been a great discussion. The book is fascinating. Your psychology is fascinating, at least from over here.
[Mary] Why did we bring him on a boat?
[Brandon] I know. Because there’s lots of other people for him to…
[Dan] I do know where all of your rooms are, by the way.

[Brandon] But I’m going to give you a writing prompt. Not you, Dan. But the audience. Because we are actually still on the boat. We don’t have the audience with us for this one, but we are on the Writing Excuses cruise. So I was thinking about how environment shapes stories. I wanted to give you a writing prompt to take a story that doesn’t really belong on a boat and set it on a boat. Or even one that you’d never considered and see what kind of… I should say ship because this is a ship.
[Howard] You should say ship.
[Brandon] You set it on a ship, and you see how that environment tweaks your story. I’ve found this a very useful way of conceptualizing stories that I’m working on. So, this has been Writing Excuses. Dan, thank you for being in the hot seat.
[Dan] Thank you very much for spending the whole episode talking about how great I am.
[Brandon] You listeners, you’re out of excuses. Now go write a book as good as Dan’s.