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Utah author Robison Wells on schizophrenia and co-writing with James Patterson

After a decline in his writing production due to mental illness, Robison Wells kept his craft going by co-writing a new science fiction thriller with James Patterson.

Robison Wells is the co-author of “The Warning.”
Provided by Robison Wells

SALT LAKE CITY — Though local author Robison Wells has been struggling with mental illness for nearly a decade, it was three years ago that he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and his writing production took a serious decline.

His agent helped him out during this time by getting him work-for-hire gigs, including ghost-writing.

”I was really struggling to get my own ideas down on paper and really struggling with the creative side of things,” Wells said in an interview. “But I could still do the craft. I could still do the work and I could pound out the words.”

When his agent found out James Patterson was looking for another co-writer, she submitted one of Wells’ previously published books, “Blackout,” for Patterson’s consideration.

Patterson loved the book, and took Wells on as a co-writer for “The Warning” (Little, Brown, & Company, 336 pages), a science fiction thriller released Aug. 13. It tells the story of Maggie and Jordan who return to their small southern hometown after it’s evacuated for a power plant accident and find strange things happening. Animals are attacking humans, cell service is still down and the power plant is under military lockdown. As they work to find out what is behind these mysteries, they discover a darker danger than they could have imagined.

Known as “the world’s best-selling author,” Patterson is a prolific writer of multiple genres and age categories who co-authors many of his novels and has his own children’s book imprint at Little, Brown, and Company called JIMMY Patterson.

The first time Wells had a phone call with Patterson, Patterson’s editor, Jenny Bak, prepped Wells beforehand.

“The Warning” is by James Patterson and Robison Wells.
Little, Brown & Company

”She said, ‘He’s a very busy man, he works very hard, he’s very smart, he’s good at what he does,’” Wells said. “‘Just listen to him, don’t ask a lot of questions, write everything down.’ So I did.”

Especially after some negative ghost-writing experiences, Wells said he found Patterson’s experienced, practiced approach to co-writing to be refreshing.

”He has this process in place and he’s done this a million times,” he said. “It was very affable and a very good working relationship. I enjoyed it.”

First, Patterson gave Wells a paragraph of details he wanted in the story then asked Wells to write up a 50-page outline from that.

”So I had total freedom to do whatever I wanted for that 50-page outline,” Wells said.

Patterson then critiqued the outline with Wells over the phone. Once Wells had the outline how Patterson wanted it, he had to stick to it strictly.

”He does that for quality control,” Wells said. “He wants to know beforehand what I’m going to do, so he sets up the outline so that he and I are on the same page completely and he has approved everything that I’m going to do before I write the draft.”

Wells said he even tried to make a somewhat major change in the novel’s big twist further along in the process, and Patterson shut that idea down right away.

In the end, Wells said he turned in a draft one day and he was told, “Thanks, here’s your money. We’ll talk to you when the book comes out.” He never saw the final product until right before it hit shelves.

”I was very nervous about it because I knew that (Patterson) was making changes and I didn’t know what they were going to be, and my name was on the book,” Wells said. “But I’m pleased with the book overall.”

After working with Patterson, Wells learned things that have changed his writing process. He discovered he liked writing from Patterson’s detailed outlines, so now he duplicates them for his own novels. He also learned a lot about pacing.

”(Patterson) is a guy who writes really fast-paced books,” Wells said. “While I don’t think we need a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter, learning his technique has very much made me able to control the pacing in my books a lot better because I know how he does it, and he is a master at roller-coaster books.”

Up next, Wells is finishing up a book he’s writing with another Utah author, Emily King, called “Black Dawn.” Wells originally wrote a book about a girl with schizophrenia who has survived a pandemic in a post-apocalyptic world. Then, at the Life, The Universe, and Everything conference in Provo this year, King approached Wells saying she had an idea for a science fiction book that she wanted him to co-write with her. It turned out, her idea was very similar to the book he’d already written. So, they combined the books.

Part of why Wells wanted to write a book about a girl with schizophrenia is because he’s seen a lot of romanticized ideas about the disease in popular culture. This includes the trope of tortured artists who need mental illness to fuel their masterpieces.

”I think that’s just total baloney,” he said. Mental illness in almost all circumstances, for him, “has always been a detriment.”

Ironically, though schizophrenia sounds like a scary disease, it’s the depression he also deals with that he considers the real productivity killer.

”It makes you hate what you’re doing,” he said. “It makes you think you’re terrible and that everyone else thinks you’re terrible.”

But at the moment, he’s overall doing much better.

”I’m in a really good place right now,” he said. “I’m on really good medicine that has turned things around 180 degrees.”

Now, he can get back to writing his own books again.

If you go …

What: Robison Wells book signing

When: Thursday, Aug. 22, 7 p.m.

Where: The King’s English, 1511 S. 1500 East


Note: Places in the signing line are reserved for those who purchase a copy of the featured book from The King’s English.