After serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico, Robison Wells, who lives in Holladay, fell in love with both the area and the people he served. When he wrote his newest book, “Dark Energy” (HarperTeen, $17.99, ages 13 and up), which features several Native American characters and is scheduled to be released March 29, he worried about portraying them in the correct way.
“I wanted to show respect for the culture,” he said. “I didn’t want to appropriate their culture or their traditions.”
He sent his manuscript out to a lot of Navajo readers to get their reactions and tried to adjust his book accordingly. He knew writing a story centering on Native American characters and history would be a difficult and controversial thing to do, but he felt that it was such a compelling story that he had to tell it.
It’s hard to tell that Wells’ novel is about Native Americans at first glance. In the beginning, the story focuses on an alien spaceship that has crash-landed in the Midwest. A young girl named Alice is then forced to leave her warm home in Florida behind to attend a boarding school in Minnesota so her father, who works for NASA, can have fun learning all about the aliens. But Alice is also half Navajo, and her culture and heritage end up playing a large role in the story later on.
“There is a surprising lack of diversity in young adult literature,” Wells said. “I think that’s something we should push back on. We should use whatever influence we have to make what is right, right, and what is wrong, wrong. I feel as a writer I do have influence and I should make my main character Navajo and make that something that affects her on a big scale.”
Wells is also trying to bring more diversity to the world of literature with the next novel he’s working on, which features a main character who struggles with mental illness while trying to survive the apocalypse. This story is close to Wells’ heart as he’s giving the character all the same illnesses he himself has, including panic disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
“I like being able to give a voice to groups that wouldn’t normally get a voice,” Wells said. “I feel like mental illness has been Hollywood-ized. When you think of OCD, you think of someone who washes his hands five times or won’t step on cracks in the sidewalk, which are all very superficial traits of the illness. People with OCD are seen as quirky characters who do funny things. I think it’s given people a false image of what it is to have a mental illness.”
In 2014, Wells helped edit and publish the anthology “Altered Perceptions,” which raised money to help Wells pay off debt, including medical bills. According to Wells, the anthology was meant to be “DVD bonus features and deleted scenes” from the books of successful authors, including Brandon Sanderson and Wells’ brother, Dan Wells. Along with their additions, the authors were asked to submit a page talking about how mental illness has affected their lives.
“That book is a masterpiece of mental illness and the triumph over it,” Robison Wells said. “Every single person that we reached out to had some form of mental illness themselves or in their immediate family. I was brought to tears by the struggles that people wrote about so openly.”
He can look back, he said, and see that that book helped both the people who wrote it and those who have read it.
“Dark Energy” contains some moderate instances of language and violence, but no sexual content.
If you go ...
What: Robison Wells book signing
When: Tuesday, March 29, 7 p.m.
Where: The King’s English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City
Note: Places in the signing line are reserved for those who purchase a copy of the featured book from The King’s English.