On Writing In The Company Of Angels
David Farland is an award-winning New York Times best-selling author with nearly fifty novels published for both children and adults. He has been published in more than twenty languages and his readership numbers in the millions. To date, nearly all of his works have been in the science fiction and fantasy genres, where in addition to his own original stories he has worked with some of the world’s largest franchises.
Carolyn: Why switch genres? Why write a historical novel?
David Farland: I’m a fan of several genres. When I first began writing, I won several writing contests in literary fiction, but when I won the Writers of The Future contest with my short story “On My Way to Paradise,” my career just sort of took off without me. I got a three-novel contract from Bantam Books, and my first novel was a cutting-edge science fiction piece that won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Special Award as one of the outstanding novels of the year.
After the novel was finished, my editor asked what I wanted to write next, and I suggested that I wanted to do a fantasy novel. She said, “But, you’re a best-selling science fiction author. Most people take twenty years to get as high on the bestseller lists as you are now. We don’t want any fantasy from you.” So I worked for ten years writing science fiction novels. But on my tenth year, I gave myself a birthday present and began writing my first fantasy novel. I turned it in to my publisher, and they loved it. Suddenly I’m a fantasy author—and my publishers don’t want science fiction!
The moral of the story is that if you’re a writer and your work is successful, your publishers will often pressure you to write more of the same. When you’re a new writer, you have to pick your rut carefully, because you’ll be stuck in it for many a mile.
So I’ve written mainly in science fiction and fantasy, but I read mainstream literature and thrillers for fun, along with historical novels and poetry. I get ideas for stories in other genres all of the time, and usually I resist the idea to write those novels. But when I considered writing In The Company Of Angels, it just felt sort of special.
Carolyn: So how did you get the idea?
David Farland: Let’s go back a bit. In The Company Of Angels tells the story of some Mormon pioneers who crossed the United States in 1856, pulling all that they owned in handcarts. Along the way they had to endure persecution, raging storms, buffalo stampedes, rampaging Indians, starvation, and then got caught in one of the coldest winters in U.S. history.
A few years ago my wife’s foster parents, Larry and Jeannie Walker, were asked to serve as missionaries at Sixth Crossing in Wyoming, the final base camp that the handcart pioneers used before they had to cross Rocky Ridge in a blizzard. This was the most taxing part of the pioneers’ journey, and the most costly in lives.
As the Walkers developed expertise about the pioneers, they asked me several times to come up and visit the place. Finally, in 2006 I took my family up there for a vacation and found that the story of the Willie Handcart Company fascinated me. I just couldn’t let the idea of writing about it go.
There are a number of reasons for that, I suspect. I joined the Mormon Church as a teen, and I became interested in its history at an early age, reading about the lives of various church leaders like Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff, Parley P. Pratt, and so on.
But in this case, it was the pioneers themselves who caught my attention. They came from the ranks of the “poorest of the poor” in the Mormon Church—the widows and orphans, the chronically ill. Many of the people who sought to take this trek were in terrible physical condition. Some were starvelings, cripples, the elderly or insane. When I was a child, my family was very poor. I was shocked at the age of 12 when I learned that we were living at 1/3 the poverty level. So I felt a kinship to these people.
My wife’s great grandfather happened to be one of the handcart pioneers, and I knew from his journals just how much he had suffered after he joined the church in Denmark. Yes, he was impoverished, but he hadn’t always been. Like many early converts to the church, he’d suffered a good deal of persecution. Many of these people found that they were fired from their jobs after they converted, or if they had their own businesses, they would lose their clients. Some had their homes and businesses burned. Under those conditions, it’s hard not to be indigent.
As I began to study these people’s stories, I soon recognized that there were just too many fascinating characters that came on this journey. I couldn’t write about them all. But one name stood out for me above all the rest: Eliza Gadd. I really wanted to understand why a woman who was not a Mormon would take this dangerous journey. The fact that she lost so much during the course of it and then experienced a spiritual transformation only piqued my curiosity.
Other people also intrigued me. I considered using Levi Savage as a main character. His decency and determination really made him stand out.
I’d wanted to chronicle the exploits of a younger man on the journey, but Captain Willie himself was such a pivotal character—a man who gave up all he owned in order to help bring hundreds of these destitute Mormons across the plains. So I chose him.
Last of all, I wrote about Bodil Mortensen for a number of reasons. The Danish connection tied her in to my wife’s family, and I was intrigued as to why her parents would send a nine-year-old child across the plains, some seven thousand miles from home.
Carolyn: Wow, it sounds like you really did some research!
David Farland: The book took over a year, full time, just for research. Then I had to spend another nine months writing and rewriting it.
There are hundreds of biographies and autobiographies to read of course. Most of the biographical accounts are fairly short, just a few pages long. But I was surprised at how much information I was able to glean by combining accounts from various people.
Most of the stories dove-tailed nicely, but some of the accounts were written years after the event, and the storytellers’ memories were fuzzy—or just plain wrong. I had to study the tale out as best I could, and then work from there.
Yet there are more than just the Mormon biographies to study. The Civil War was about to break out, and that needed to be taken into account. There were running gun battles going on in Kansas at the time, and this drew troops in off the plains. The Cheyenne and some renegade Sioux began attacking wagon trains, taking vengeance for atrocities that the U.S. Army had committed. Then of course I needed to look into the Crimean War; it’s advent had caused a huge delay in the departure of the handcart pioneers from England, which ultimately led to the loss of many of the pioneers’ lives.
Last of all, I needed to actually travel the route that I was writing about.
In Iowa and Nebraska, the landscape has changed in the past hundred years, of course. The various breeds of “buffalo grass” have been replaced. The plains aren’t burned off every year by the Indians anymore, so trees have grown where none stood back then. But once you get up into Wyoming, the land is still much as it was.
I wanted to make sure that I journeyed at the same time of the year that the handcart pioneers did, so I made my first trip along the old Mormon Trail in late August, following their path for about a thousand miles. In some pivotal spots, such as where the buffalo stampede occurred, I did my best to get as close to the location as possible.
In many cases, understanding the lay of the land helped me figure out exactly why Captain Willie made the choices that he did.
Much of my time was spent just studying the plants and animals along the trail, trying to re-create the scene in my mind.
I took several trips in order to write this novel, including one where I went up to Rock Creek just as a snowstorm hit, with 50 mph winds. I asked some missionaries there if I could go out and get a picture of me pulling a handcart through the snow as I forded the river in bare feet. They wouldn’t do it; they were too worried about getting sued if I died.
So instead I went up on top of Rock Creek to see what it was like up there. A kindly police officer blocked my path and tried to send me back, lest I get stranded, so I just turned around and took a back road.
I think I got a great idea what these early pioneers went through.
Carolyn: You’ve been published by many of the largest companies in the world, yet you’re self-publishing this book. Why?
David Farland: It’s an odd book, in that it’s about Mormons but it isn’t necessarily just for Mormon market. So the question is, Where do you publish it?
I submitted it to Covenant Books, my normal publisher for the Mormon market, and they were very enthusiastic about it. I like them very much, but in today’s tough economic times, they were concerned that the book was too long. They have a limit of 100,000 words per novel. So they wanted to cut it down, but several people who’d read it wanted it to be longer.
I felt that cutting a third of the book out would have really hurt the manuscript.
I had strong interest by a couple of other companies, but at about this time, my mother fell ill with cancer. I gave the book to her in November of 2008, and she loved it. My mother likes historical novels, and she felt that this was her favorite book of all time. That kind of surprised me. My mother was a Baptist, and I hadn’t been certain how she would feel about this book.
In any case, as her condition worsened she kept asking me when I would get the book published. My wife suggested that I publish it myself, and my mother was very excited by the idea. When she passed away, I decided that I would use part of my inheritance to make the book a reality.
Carolyn: How have other fans reacted to it?
David Farland: Very positively. I hired one fellow to help edit the book, and he said that he’d never had such a profoundly emotional experience while reading. He said, “At one point, I just bent over and cried for half an hour, wracked with sobs. I’ve always known this story. In fact, I acted in a play about it, doing some sixty performances. But I’d never been touched so profoundly, either in the play, or in reading any other book.”
Time and time again, I’ve gotten similar response. One editor called it my “magnum opus.”