It was just a small moment — a glance at a
billboard while driving down the street. But that's all it took to
spark a memory and plot idea for Utah author and BYU graduate Bree
Despain."I don't even remember what the billboard was for," the South Jordan, Utah,
resident told the Deseret News. "But I just looked up at this
billboard, and suddenly a conversation between a brother and sister
popped into my head."
The conversation entailed a brother warning his younger sister about
his friend who had changed and wasn't safe to be around any longer.
Wrapped up in this conversation was Despain's memory of a best
friend from elementary school. The friend had moved away in the second
grade and suddenly returned in the ninth.
"He showed up in my history class," Despain said. "Just completely
out of the blue he was sitting at the desk behind me. I didn't
recognize him at all; he looked completely different, and he had long
hair and messed-up clothes. ... I sat down, and he started goading me and
kind of being a jerk. I finally got sick of it and I turned around and
said, 'Who do you think you are?' And he looked at me and said, 'So you
don't remember me.' I looked at him and I realized this was my old best
friend from growing up. And I was so shocked. He was so different. All
I said was his name."
Class started, and the two were unable to talk further. Before the
day was over, Despain's friend was kicked out of school and she never
saw him again.
"He was just so different, and I think that memory had always kind of haunted me," she said.
That memory in turn became the first chapter of Despain's debut
novel, "The Dark Divine," a retelling of the prodigal son story with a
When Despain — who was law-school bound before changing her college
major to creative writing — very first started the "The Dark Divine,"
she saw it as being a straight-up contemporary novel with no elements
of fantasy, though she felt tempted to add them in.
"I actually fought it (fantasy) at first," she said. "Because before
then, everything that I had written had been humorous chick lit or
straight contemporary. ... But the more I got into it, the more I thought
I could explore the deeper themes and metaphors in the book. And if I
explored them through kinds of this fantasy element ... I would be able
to talk about this stuff without the book getting really preachy."
But even after that realization, it was still hard to turn the book
into a paranormal piece. Despain put hints of something fantastical in
her first draft, but everyone who read it said it felt like something
It was a disappointing response that led Despain to shelve the book
for 18 months. She started working on another book that was pure
paranormal fantasy, and she loved writing it.
It was then that she decided to return to "The Dark Divine," and
with the full support of friends and family, she fully embraced the
fantasy element, rewriting about three-fourths of the book and adding
about 100 new pages.
During the rewriting process, Despain came across a historical
account of man accused of paranormal activity by people in his town,
and they actually put him on trial for it.
The tiny account was only a paragraph long, but strong enough to
spark Despain's imagination. "I took that one little paragraph and
ended up twisting it and developing it and creating my own mythology
based on it," she said. "I just really ran with the idea, made it
something totally different than I think a lot of people are doing with
The paranormal genre has been around for a long time, Despain says,
but because of the Twilight series it's become very popular. "I think
the market got flooded with some really good stuff, but also some
really mediocre paranormal romance," Despain said. "There definitely is
pressure for you stand out. ... You've got to have twist or strong
writing because it's a really tight market at the moment."
And though fantastical elements are certainly what will draw readers
to "The Dark Divine," Despain says it's the elements of religion and
spirituality that help make her book different.
Despain's main character, Grace, is the daughter of a pastor. It's a
situation that Despain can easily identify with. When she was growing
up, Despain's father was always in a church leadership role — LDS
bishop, stake president, etc., and Despain remembers the pressure that
came from people watching what she did or how she behaved.
Adding religion to her story was a risky move. At one point an
editor made an offer on her book, but only if she removed the religious
aspects. The editor suggested changing the father's occupation from
pastor to social worker, a move that Despain and her agent completely
Despain wanted to explore themes of redemption and forgiveness and
grace. "I really felt like in order to do that, religion had to be part
of who the characters were, not just in the background of their lives,"
she said. "Their religion and their faith is attached to them. It's
really a part of who they are. I think that ups the stakes for them,
because people are watching what they're doing."Comment on this story
And people are watching what Despain's doing, too. Sales of "The
Dark Divine" have exceeded expectations, already selling out of its
first run, and Despain's publisher, Egmont, has purchased a sequel,
which is already in the works.
It's a little overwhelming for Despain, who says she's so grateful
for this experience. "I love writing. It's such an outlet," Despain
said. "It totally makes me happy. ... It still feels like such a dream to
me because I feel like I'm just an ordinary person."