Episode #4: Published Oct 31, 2018
In the fourth episode of All In, host Erin Hallstrom talks with the author of the Fablehaven and Dragonwatch series, Brandon Mull, who reveals his past jobs and how he became a fantasy author. Brandon also discusses what creating a fantasy world has taught him about God and parenting.
Read a full transcript of the episode below.
ERIN HALLSTROM: 0:00
What do dragons, juggling, and world-building have in common? Are you wondering what chicken stacking is? Curious how an aspiring comedian turns into a New York Times best-selling author? Today we're talking with fantasy author, Brandon Mull. Brandon gives us some insight into his writing career, what motivates him and how his faith influences the stories he tells.
This is All In, an LDS Living podcast where we ask the question, what does it really mean to be all in the Gospel of Jesus Christ? I'm Erin Hallstrom and I'm excited to talk to Brandon Mull, author of Fablehaven and the companion series, Dragonwatch. Brandon, thank you so much for joining me.
BRANDON MULL: 0:42
I am really happy to be here.
Okay, first off, I read the bio on your website, brandonmull.com is your website.
I have some questions.
It says you worked as a comedian, a filing clerk, a patio installer, a movie promoter, a copywriter and briefly as a "chicken stacker." So please explain to me what a chicken stacker is.
A chicken stacker is, like in the circus sometimes they build pyramids that have chickens, and that's not true. A chicken stacker was Tyson's frozen chickens when they would have sales on chickens in grocery stores, I would be the guy that stacked the dead, frozen chickens while they were on sale and selling fast to keep the bin full. And it was exactly as glamorous as it sounds.
I honestly had no idea what that answer was going to be. I was going to Google it, and I chose not to because I wanted to hear it just from you.
It's a difficult job title, it's an accurate job title. That's all I did was stack chickens. Like that was my exclusive job was to stack chickens.
When chicken was on sale.
When it was on sale. And I would go to different grocery stores, depending on the sales, as a representative from Tyson's chicken to stack them.
Okay, Interesting. Comedian. Are we talking stand-up?
I ran a comedy troupe in college called "Divine Comedy" at BYU. I was the president and one of the head writers for a long time. And then I also did stand-up, but mostly sketch comedy.
That's so cool. What's your best joke?
Oh my gosh, it was like skits. There's a skit called "Lord of the Engagement Rings." And if you look that up online, you could probably find it and it's reasonably funny.
So the bio goes on to say that for a couple of years, you lived in that Atacama, did I say that, right?
Atacama Desert of northern Chile, where you learned Spanish and juggling. So because I speak fluent Latter-day Saints, I'm guessing that was a mission?
Yes, that was a mission. I was there for two years. It's the driest desert in the world. I think there's like a spot in Antarctica that's drier that's technically a desert. But like, of like a normal, traditional, what we think of as a desert, it's the driest desert in the world. I didn't see rain the whole time there. I had a mission companion who taught me how to juggle while we were there. We were like teaching at an orphanage, you know, we had like service time we had to fill on our mission, besides just proselyting time. And one of the services we did was teach values classes at an orphanage, and we tried to teach them the value of hard work. And as our object lesson, he taught me how to juggle and we'd come back and learn— like I'd start from not being able to juggle and show them how, through practice, I learned how to juggle. I don't know, it made sense at the time.
Do you still juggle?
Yeah, I mean, like, not professionally. Yeah, I can juggle.
You found some other talents than that.
I can, I can comfortably juggle, like, you know, if it's like, hey, Uncle Brandon, juggle these three oranges. I can be like, all day long. Sure.
You have clearly found writing or a calling, I should say, as a writer.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I've always wanted to be a writer since I was a little kid. Well, I've always made up stories in my head, ever since I was a little kid. I didn't know I wanted to be a writer necessarily, but I knew I loved to daydream and imagine. When I read The Chronicles of Narnia, when I read "the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" at around 10, that was the book that made me love to read. And that was the book that kind of broke my brain and opened up all the possibilities of what a story could be. And from then on out, I daydreamed about fantasy stories kind of all growing up, but I lived in my head, it sort of became my coping mechanism. If I was bored in class, if I was, as I got older, if I was stuck in traffic, I would invent stories in my mind to entertain myself. So by sharing these stories, I'm sort of sharing my coping mechanism with everyone.
So when you were younger, it was your imagination that went crazy. When did you start putting pen to paper about it? Did you start playing around with that earlier?
I played around with it as a kid and was very frustrated by how what I saw in my head seemed so vibrant, and cool and amazing. And what I wrote on paper just looked like terrible and boring, and nothing like the stories I loved. And it took time for me to learn that there was a craft involved in taking what I saw in my mind and communicating it in a way a reader could enjoy.
I remember when Harry Potter came out, my mom says to me, "You're a good writer, you could-- why don't you just write a Harry Potter book?" And I, you know, had to say to her, "Well, that's a little harder than mom," because it seems so simple, right? And I think there's some people, I mean, maybe it doesn't seem so simple. But in some ways you think oh you have this vivid view of what is happening in your head, you can easily write it down. But it's trickier than that.
It can seem simple because it's not that hard to think of something cool, you know what I mean? You're like, Oh, I thought of something cool, I could write a good book. And one of the things I have had to learn as I matured as a writer, is that there's kind of always a better story to tell, always a better way to tell it. There's a lot of craft involved in how you build and communicate a scene. And over the years, by paying attention to how my favorite authors built their scenes, and by practicing writing my own scenes, I've gradually gotten better at it. I think I still have room to improve.
So you've always been a fan of fantasy then, from a young age. Has that been your primary focus? Or do you read other genres?
I read other genres. But like, for me, fantasy always kind of had the special sauce. Like I loved the big imagination and the kind of storytelling you could do with fantasy. Books, like "Narnia" and "Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter" are some of my favorites, and help shape the kind of stories I wanted to tell. But I've read, you know, I like some of the classics, and I like sci-fi, and I like just adventure stories. If I had to make a theme through the kind of stories I like, it probably would be adventure. Like, I just want a big adventure when I read.
Why do you think stories are important?
Well, Stephen King has a fairly famous quote, where he said, "Fiction is the truth inside the lie." Which I think sums up a lot of the practical value of stories, which is that you know, through these made-up stories, we can say true things, right? Even with a made-up fantasy story, you can say true things about life or about all sorts of things. So there's some practical value there. If you wanted to do what's the most effective study of the human heart and mind, you can make a pretty good argument for good fiction is the most effective study of the human heart and mind. Because if you study biographies, you get someone's guesses as to who somebody is. If you study an autobiography, you get somebody pretending who they are. It's very hard to be honest about yourself. But you get fiction, and you get talented artists, who are trying very hard to bring people to life and show how people behave in different scenarios. And when it's done well, it comes pretty close to being a study of the human heart and mind. As far as for fun though, like, for me, part of the value of stories is it's a way to escape, a way to experience things you'll never experience in your own life. Fiction can be a mirror teaching you about yourself, it can be a window, teaching you about others.
And you specifically write to the middle-age reader. I mean, is that the target you would say? I mean, although I think Fablehaven, in particular, has found a wider audience than that.
Yeah, I mean, the name of the category is "middle grade," which means it's, you know, kind of some of the middle grades in school. But a lot of middle grade, especially when it's done well, could fall into this category that I would call "Harry Potter middle grade," because "Harry Potter" is technically middle grade. And "Harry Potter middle grade," the kind of books I write tend to be thicker than traditional middle grade. They're thicker, they're more complicated, it's telling a story than an adult could enjoy, but it's got a young main character. And that "Harry Potter middle grade" is one of the most broadly read categories in all of fiction, it gets read from 10 to 100. You know what I mean? Anyone who's open to a good fantasy story and doesn't mind young main character can connect to that category when it's done right. And not all middle grade is for adults, but mine is definitely the Harry Potter variety, where I get lots of adults, lots of teens who read my stuff along with, you know, 10-year-olds, 12-year-olds.
Were you influenced by JK Rowling?
I was heavily influenced by JK Rowling. If I had to pick the books that most influenced me, it was "the Lion the witch and the Wardrobe," taught me how imaginative the story could be. "Lord of the Rings" taught me how realistic you can make a fantasy world feel. And JK Rowling taught me you could write a story with the young main character, but make it really smart and twisty so an adult could connect to.
Cool. So I want to talk about Fablehaven. Was that your first novel?
Fablehaven was my first published novel. I wrote one other novel before then that turned into the first in my "Beyonder" series, which was the series that came out after Fablehaven. But I'm glad Fablehaven was my first published novel because that first in the "Beyonder" series when I first wrote it, it was definitely a practice run. When I rewrote that book, after "Fablehaven," it changed quite a bit. And I'm glad it had some time to incubate and change before it came out. But yeah, Fablehaven, so that was the first the world ever saw of me was me writing and Fablehaben book one. And that was the book that let me become a professional writer,
Which is amazing to me. You had so much success with your first, was that just really satisfying that people responded so well to your first offering?
It was enormous relief. Because you're really hoping that people will like it and connect to it. And you have no idea how to gauge if that will be the case, except for putting it out there. And so yeah, I mean, it was an enormous relief. All my adult life I've wanted to be a professional author, it's what I felt pretty sure was my best talent. And I knew that realistically, it might not happen, you know, like, it's not everybody gets to pay the bill's writing books. It's a pretty niche kind of job. And so I felt enormous relief that the book connected in a way that let me quit my day job and, and devote my time to writing fiction.
I mean you can always fall back on chicken stacking.
I could always go back to chicken stacking. I did not learn patio installing very completely, I was definitely an apprentice. But you know.
I read that Fablehaven has been published in more than 30 languages.
That is true.
What is that like, to have people of different cultures, who receive it?
It's a fun thought experiment for me to realize there are people that I cannot communicate with, verbally, who have my stories and characters in their minds. One of the things that hit that home was I got invited to Poland. And I went to Poland and had spoke to a gigantic audience of people who were all wearing headsets, the headsets had the translation of what it was saying. Which was very odd, because you tell a joke, and have to wait a weird amount of time to see if it landed or not. You're somewhat going, "How long do I wait?" You know, and then you get a laugh sometimes. And, it had big signing lines, and like people really came out, like I didn't know what to expect and I found out yeah, it's like their bestselling novels in Poland and very popular and that was interesting and strange and cool, you know, to see that you could write a story and, you know, hats off to the Polish translator because it takes a good translator to make that possible. And yeah, I mean, they've been bestsellers and France or different, you know, they've done really well in certain countries. And the idea that it's out in lots of languages is cool to me. People can visit my little, secret wildlife park for magical creatures, no matter what language they speak, I guess.
So clearly that speaks to universal principles that the book addresses. But what do you think are the universal principles that people most cling to or respond to?
I mean, the hardest Fablehaven is a brother and sister. You've got a brother, Seth, and a sister, Kendra, their Grandparents are the caretakers of these secret wildlife parks. The grandparents have a very love-hate relationship of whether they should introduce the kids to this dangerous place. They probably want someone to carry on operating on these preserves, they also know that these preserves can be dangerous and deadly. And so the discovery of a place where these creatures exist on these secret wildlife parks is, I think, a big part of what lures readers in.
And so, is they're going to be a Fablehaven movie?
There could be. There's been interest several times, we've optioned it before, and there's currently some stuff going on with an option perhaps now. And I've learned not to hold my breath. It just kind of like, eventually the right team, hopefully, will get involved and get a good movie on screen. And we're working with some people now who could be that right team, and we'll just kind of see how it unfolds.
That's really cool. Are you excited about that? Or is it one of those things where you think it's fine if it lives just as a book?
I was excited about it the first time it almost happened. And since then, I decided to-- I didn't like decide to I just kind of like let myself get a little more calm about it. And there is the reality that whatever movie gets made, is going to be how people envision Fablehaven in their heads probably in the future. And I don't like that. So I like that right now, there's a million different Fablehavens in a million different brains. To me that's cooler than seeing "Harry Potter" as Daniel Radcliffe or whatever, right? Like I liked it better when I saw him my way. And there's something about a movie that kind of almost pollutes your ability to see it your own way. And so that side of it, you know, like that doesn't excite me too much to see that part of the book sort of ruined. But also, it'd be really fun to see how somebody else dramatizes the story, to see it done as a movie, the increased awareness that would create for the story, like that those things would be positive enough that I'm willing to do it, if we can, you know, have the right team.
How do you see the characters then? Did you have specific people in mind when you wrote them?
You know, like some of the characters in my stories remind me of people that I knew. I don't completely lift someone from my life and put them into the story. But the character, Seth, has some things in common with my brother Bryson. Both were recklessly curious, both could make the same mistake 10 different ways and just, you know, keep not learning the general principle. It's very hard for me to communicate how I see them beyond the words, I don't have the visual talent to show. It's like when an illustrator does a picture, it's never exactly how I saw it, but it's often a cool way to see it, you know? And that's what hopefully, what the movie would be like. It's not going to be exactly how I see it, but hopefully, it'll be a cool way to see it, right?
Yeah, I kind of hope they redo the "Harry Potter" movies in like 10 years, and then it's something completely different.
Yeah! Someone else's vision of that same movie that could be really fun. For me, it's very-- like if I could, I would totally peek into everybody's minds and see their different Fablehavens, because I bet many of them would have come up with things that they visually see that are cooler than what I had in my own mind. That happens all the time when my illustrator, Brendan Dorman, will show me a picture and they'll be like, "Is that how you saw it?"
I'd be like, "No, that's a little better than how I saw it."
I like it.
I don't have the mind of an illustrator. I didn't see like the Seder quite that vividly. But yeah, so like, that's yeah, it would be really fun to peek in other people's brains if I could.
One phrase I know that gets used a lot when people talk about fantasy is the phrase "world-building."
And I can't help but see parallels with that concept of world-building with gospel principles, right? Creating worlds. So do see those parallels? I mean, do they have a correlation between what you write and what you believe in that way?
Yeah, yeah, I can see that. Like, I mean, I think we worship a God who is a creator, right? And like, you could say, you know, like, I think there's a line in "Rent," like, "the opposite of wars isn't peace. The opposite of war is creation," right? You can think of it that way, if war is destruction, then the opposite might be creation. And I know we worship a God who is a creator. And so anything creative seems to, in some way, kind of pay homage to that heritage, if that makes sense, right?
Whenever we write a book, we're going to do world-building, it's just creating a story world where characters can live. The world-building of, you know, a realistic novel, you might just be creating an illusion of a high school out of words, right? For me, for fantasy, or sci-fi, that world-building tends to be an exaggerated element of the story, because sometimes we're changing the rules of reality. And I totally think about, as I build story worlds, like yeah, maybe someday, like, you know, like in the forever future, if you ever got to be, have an opportunity to help create your own spirit family or your own world someday, like that would be like, I'm having weird practice sessions or something, making up these crazy worlds.
You have a little leg up on everyone else.
It makes me wonder how much latitude we'll have, you know, to me, let's talk about centaurs. But yeah, it crosses my mind that God is a world creator and that we're his children, and he wants us to become like him. So maybe someday we could be doing something similar, right?
How does your faith or does your faith manifest itself in your writing?
So my faith is an enormous part of who I am, right? Like, my faith isn't just something I believe it's largely who I am and who I'm trying to be. And so, because of that, it influences my writing indirectly all the time. You know, I don't write books that are overtly for or about, you know, Latter-day Saints, but I do write books that have good principles in them and people grappling with right and wrong. And my idea of truth, and my idea of right and wrong, which is informed by my faith, those things certainly can be found in my fiction, as I have conscientious characters face difficult problems. Naturally, you're going to have themes bubble up, and those themes are influenced by what I believe I'm sure. A lot of readers will see elements, they'ss point out elements that harmonize with gospel truth in my books, and I am glad that they do and glad that they can
Do you have an example of a gospel principle?
A simple one would be like in Fablehaven, book one. Kendra and Seth, our main characters, have to learn a lot about choice and consequences. They have to learn a lot about what happens as we break rules and how sometimes you can make the choice, but you can't always choose the consequence. And we see that play out in a variety of ways throughout that book, and throughout the series. And then in Dragonwatch, which is the sequel series to Fablehaven, you find that they find themselves with greater responsibility than they used to have. And so you see ideas of like being a good steward, right? And you see ideas of good versus evil throughout. Like fantasy usually does a really good job of tackling good versus evil. And then different ways that might look, right?
I always think fantasy's so interesting because it's this fantastical world, but at its root, it really is talking about, ultimately, good versus evil. It's like kind of a really great way of having a simplistic look at the world.
It gives us an exaggerated reality, right? Where we can contemplate some real-world things. And that's a useful thing that fantasy does. It's neat, because you can, in fantasy, because you can change the rules of reality, and you can have creatures and monsters, you can sometimes create a reality that better emphasizes the point you're trying to make in the story than reality would emphasize those points.
So interesting, yeah.
Like you can create these representations of evil in these monsters that are, you know, metaphors, sometimes, in certain ways, right?
Has it been fun to revisit these characters when you're writing Dragonwatch?
Dragonwatch features the same cast as Fablehaven, the same main characters. And so for me, it's like a blast, it's taken out some of my very favorite characters to write and being able to bring them back to life and tell new stories with them. I have a friend who sometimes says he feels like at the end of the book, no matter what happens, the stories are, the characters are kind of dead, because they don't get to live anymore and there's no more story where we get to see them live, we don't get to spend more time with them. And so it was fun to make Dragonwatch, it's a five-book sequel series to Fablehaven, essentially, doubling, you know, what Fablehaven was. Fablehaven was five books now Dragonwatch will be five books. And so it lets me let my characters live on stage for a lot longer and give them new challenges to try to overcome.
Do you know how it ends?
You've got it all planned out?
I've got a lot of it planned out. You know, I can't say I have every little detail, but I have a lot of the main events and the main things that happen. I daydream about my stories for a long time before I start writing them. One of the things I like in a series is if things happen in book one, and book two that pay off in interesting ways later on in this series, in book four or book five. And for me, that usually takes some planning and some forethought to have a complicated story that will, you know, feel like it was deliberately told.
I'm guessing in your writing, you learn things about people, maybe as you're exploring how to write people and how to create people. I'm just wondering people learned anything about how God feels about us?
Interesting. I'll give you this, like, I'll have to answer-- let me answer that question a couple ways. Definitely, when I'm writing a story, it's a good exercise in empathy. Because to write those characters well, I have to try to understand how they're thinking and feeling, and it puts me outside myself. Sometimes by putting myself outside myself, I will learn things I might not have learned without trying to think in someone else's brain. I had a character named Warren, who would take risks, but calculated risks. And he said, "Luck tends to disappear if you lean on it." And looking through his eyes, I was able to see that though, looking through my eyes, I don't think I would ever seen it. Or I had a character named "the Sphinx," who was semi-immortal. And he had been laying plans for a long time and he had the thought that "Patience mimics the power of infinity." And that was a thought I might not have had if I hadn't put on immortal shoes, right?
Now as to understanding how much God loves us, or how God sees us, for me, that's come more from my life than from my writings. But I can say that I strongly feel that God loves us and sees us. In fact, I feel like God knows me better than I know myself. He knows my present self, he can see my future self, which I don't know. He can see my past self, elements of my past self that I've forgotten, or that is before I can remember. And so I think about how well he knows me, and I know that he loves me. And when I remember those things, it makes me want to trust him so much. Trust Him to guide me, he knows what it looks like. If I'm going to heaven, He knows what that looks like, He knows how I can get there. When I think about Him sending His Son to die for us, that that witnesses of His love, almost maybe thinking of that Gospel story, like a story, right? I know, like when I think of the story of Abraham, and when I look at Abraham, I remember thinking that sacrifice, being asked to sacrifice his son seems like maybe the hardest thing I could think of in scriptures, except maybe for what the Savior did. And I would sometimes listen to that story and be like, "Goodness! How did he do that, for one, and why would it be asked of him, for two," right? And I remember when I had the aha moment of "Oh, yeah, but Abraham didn't have to drop the knife." But there was one person who did have to drop the knife in scriptures, and that was our Heavenly Father, right? He didn't just almost sacrifice his son, he had to carry it through. And when I think of it in those terms, it increases the power of scriptures like, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son," right? Like, let his beloved firstborn suffer and die for the rest of us, that's like, okay, he loves us a lot.
Yeah. So you're a father?
Four kids, correct?
So is it tricky to balance your writing, your church service, fatherhood?
It's one of the hardest things I do. And this is true for a lot of adults, right? Like, I mean, we're, you know, anyone who's a parent, anyone who's just an adult, there's things to balance in life, right? Like you're trying to balance work, you're trying to balance relationships, you're trying to balance family. For me, writing is the kind of job that can be absolutely all-consuming. It will take as much time as you're willing to give it, you know. Like the way I've been successful in publishing, and that means publishers will take whatever I write, which means however much I care to write, I can sell it and share it, which is so satisfying. And I can make money from it, which helps the practical side of life, you know, like the not starving part. And so it was tricky, I think I've erred in the past sometimes on letting-- you know, if you'd ever told me to write down your priorities, I would say, you know, God and family are top of my list and I meant that I'm not sure I was living it my whole life. You know, I think there's been times when I let in all practical terms, writing became the top of that list. And that's something that, you know, I've had to learn and adjust and I'm not sure there is a perfect balance, but I'm always striving for some balance there.
So our podcast is called "All In," which is a phrase that means different things to different people. And specifically, in a gospel context, what's does "all in" mean to you?
"All in" speaks to consecration. And when I say consecration, I don't just mean like the law of consecration from the old church of like united order kind of stuff. I mean, consecrating yourself to the gospel and to the Savior. If I was going to define what "all in" means to me, I would say it means you've decided that you're going to serve God no matter what. And how would I articulate that? There is nothing you can take from me and nothing you can withhold from me that will make me stop serving you. And there's nothing you can ask of me that I won't try my best to do, that I won't strive to do. Recognizing that my capacity is limited, but trying to let my desire be completely there. That's a really hard place to be. I've gone through some things in my life and sometimes when the hard things happen, there's a reaction that says, well, because this happened, God must not love me. Because this happened, I'm out, forget it, you know? And it's interesting because that cuts us off from the source of healing right when we most need it, and for some reason, it's a human reflex. I feel like being "all in," if we can reach this state of consecration, where we're fully committed, you know, even though we're imperfect, and we lack the capacity to be perfect, we can be fully committed to trying, right, where I'll never leave. And everything is, it's sort of like everything is pre-obeyed and everything is pre-sacrificed like you ask it, it's already, I don't have to sacrifice it's pre-sacrificed. I'm all in, I'm consecrated, right? I think that enables God to lead us. Remember I mentioned how, you know, God knows how to lead us to heaven, right? He knows exactly how to lead you. That road is different for every heart. Every heart is a different mix of strengths and weaknesses. There's personal tutoring necessary for each of us to learn to become someone who belongs in heaven. And as we consecrate ourselves, as we're all in, we free Heavenly Father to teach us those lessons that will get us there. When we're not consecrated, some of those lessons would break us and we would quit. Does that make sense? Also, when we're not consecrated, what we want is for the Savior to change our hearts, right? Like, like the heart I have right now, you know, it's a good heart, and I'm doing my best. It's not a perfect heart, right? If I was like, in the Celestial Kingdom, in this moment, it's fallen Brandon Mull in the Celestial Kingdom, and I wouldn't really belong there. Like, it would be weird when I yelled at my kids or something. Like I would do something that was wrong, or I'd have desires that were wrong. We're asking Christ to heal our hearts, to change our hearts. He can't change our hearts unless we're consecrated, that would violate agency, right? Like if He changed my heart, if He changes who I fundamentally was, that violates my agency unless, I'm all in. If I'm all in, if I'm trying to be what He changes me to, then I'm choosing it. But if He changes who I fundamentally am without me being all in, He is changing me without my permission, really, right? And so I mean, that idea of trying to reach being all in, I mean, that's a huge part of coming to Christ.
Thank you. Thank you for joining us today.
Thanks for the opportunity to talk to you.
Oh, please, thank you so much for coming in. Loved chatting with you.
Thank you to Brandon Mull, and you, the listener, for joining us. We hope you enjoyed this podcast. Look for book two in the Dragonwatch series, "Wrath of the Dragon King," which is available now at Desert Book stores, or wherever books are sold. To listen to more episodes of All In, visit LDSliving.com/allin