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

paranormal twist.

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

was missing.

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 genre."

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

disagreed with.

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."

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."

E-mail: [email protected]