Five years ago, Brandon Mull went through a divorce.
The bestselling author from Utah was supposed to start work on his “Dragonwatch” series, a continuation of his successful “Fablehaven” series. Shadow Mountain Publishing and millions of readers eagerly anticipated the next volume.
But Mull, then the author of nearly 20 books and a regular visitor to The New York Times bestseller list, had a problem:
He couldn’t write.
“He didn’t want a life without his family. These were dark days for him and I was worried about his well-being,” said Chris Schoebinger, Shadow Mountain’s publishing director. “I told him not to worry about his book deadline. He had lost his muse and frankly was in no position to write.”
What do you do when your life feels shattered? The fantasy writer who had started so many characters on hero’s journeys was now facing his own difficult quest, and this was no fantasy. People were counting on him. How would he navigate and overcome this adversity?
“Sometimes things we don’t want still happen. I was really crushed,” Mull said. “For me, it was having to figure out how to go forward.” Call it writing a new chapter with no idea how the story would end.
The journey begins: Brandon Mull’s backstory
Mull credited the works of three authors for inspiring his imagination when he was young.
“The book that got me reading was ‘Narnia. It changed the whole trajectory of my life,” he said.
“Oh, you can write a story with a young main character, make it smart and twisty in a cool world, and you can get parents, kids, adults — the whole family,” he said. “That helped define the kind of books I wanted to write.”
Mull practiced writing short fiction during high school and college. He served a mission in Chile for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While practicing and learning his craft, Mull worked as a comedian, a filing clerk, a piano installer, a movie promoter and marketing copywriter. He also has fond memories of stacking frozen chickens.
“One of those character-building odd jobs,” he says now with a laugh.
As a marketing copywriter for entertainment products, Mull wrote the short description for book covers and movies that are intended to capture the interest of customers.
“It was frustrating,” he said. “I was writing the blurbs for the back of the book when I wanted to be the guy writing the book.”
Brandon Mull’s first published novel
Mull started working on his first full-length novel after graduating from Brigham Young University in 2000.
His manuscript, originally titled, “The Other End of the Hippo,” was rejected by many agents and publishers before it landed on the desk of Chris Schoebinger, publishing director of Shadow Mountain Publishing, an imprint of Deseret Book.
Schoebinger ultimately rejected the “Hippo” manuscript, which was later rewritten and became Mull’s “Beyonders” series, but he liked his writing style and asked if he had anything else to offer?
“Brandon mentioned a story about a preserve for mythical and magical creatures,” Schoebinger said. “I liked the premise and five months later he sent me ‘Fablehaven.’”
The first book in the “Fablehaven” series was published in 2006. Mull even wrote the blurb.
In the story, there are magical preserves scattered around the world where mythical creatures have gathered in order to avoid becoming extinct. Kendra and Seth, the two young protagonists, are amazed to learn that their grandfather runs one such preserve, which they soon discover, is being threatened by growing forces of evil.
Mull’s first novel immediately generated a buzz among fantasy readers. The paperback version of “Fablehaven” was Mull’s first No. 1 bestseller and was so popular internationally that it became required reading for schools in Poland. The author with a new career was surprised at how quickly “Fablehaven” found an audience.
“Stuff like that you don’t see coming,” he said.
Mr. Bestseller list
More than 15 years after publishing the first book in the “Fablehaven” series, Mull has placed four series — 18 books — on The New York Times bestseller list, including:
- “Fablehaven” series (five books).
- “Beyonders” series (three books).
- “Five Kingdoms” series (five books).
- “Dragonwatch” series (five books).
His latest book, “Return of the Dragon Slayers,” was released on Oct. 26 and is the fifth and final book in his “Dragonwatch” series, which is a continuation of his five-book series “Fablehaven.” The combined series has sold more than two million copies and has been published in more than 30 languages.
“Dragonwatch” spent a few weeks this month on The New York Times bestsellers children’s series list at No. 3, just below “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and “Harry Potter.”
Schoebinger attributes Mull’s success to several factors, but primarily it’s the fruit of hard work. When the author isn’t writing, he’s visiting hundreds of schools a year to get kids excited about reading. Mull has traveled as far as Russia, China and Singapore to promote his books.
“Few authors, if any, have visited more schools nationwide,” Schoebinger said. “Success doesn’t happen overnight. I think it’s important for readers and writers to appreciate that Brandon Mull, or any successful writer, has worked very hard and made many sacrifices to get where they are.”
Schoebinger believes Mull’s greatest strength as a writer is his “simmering process” — his ability to imagine, nurture and formulate a story over time, sometimes years.
“He’s able to somehow compartmentalize several stories in his brain, bouncing back and forth, always simmering,” the publishing director said. “I think the best stories are the ones that have had the necessary time to age and ripen until they’re ready to be picked or hatched.”
Christopher Paolini, author of “Eragon,” is a Mull fan. He endorsed one of Mull’s books like this: “Kept me turning the pages until 4:40 in the morning ... deep, intriguing, magical ... one of the most enjoyable fantasies I’ve read.”
Reflecting on his literary success, Mull is more relieved than anything.
“I needed it to be at least kind of successful because that’s what provides for the family,” he said. “As I finish ‘Dragonwatch’ and look back on the whole thing, it’s a big relief that I got it done.”
‘Brought back to life’
Soon after Mull started “Dragonwatch,” Shadow Mountain put the series on hold as the author struggled to deal with his pending divorce.
How did he reconcile the pain and find a way to move forward?
Mull said prayer and his faith in God carried him through.
“(The divorce) felt like it crushed me spiritually. ... There was a moment when I got specific help from God that confirmed my faith and sort of brought me back to life. After that day, I had energy to go back and keep trying,” Mull said. “Because of that help, I still write books.”
Then a new friend entered his life.
Mull resumed writing and met Erlyn, an English major at BYU, and herself, also divorced. He said he was a little intimidated to find out she had seven children, but he also discovered she was a “brilliant, interesting person.” Her emotional support and editorial insight helped Mull continue his “Dragonwatch” series. He said the last book, 600 pages thick, is his best work to date.
Brandon and Erlyn fell in love and married in the summer of 2020. With Mull’s four kids, the new couple suddenly had a home with 11 children.
“It’s a Brady Bunch of biblical proportions,” Mull said. “Blending families is a challenge every day, but it’s also an amazing adventure. It’s probably the craziest adventure I’ve ever undertaken.”
Like the heroes in his books, Mull emerged from his journey a changed man with a new perspective.
“It was a true journey through pain that brought me closer to God. It also deepened my appreciation and awareness of my family,” Mull said. “I can say I’m happy to be alive. I’m happy to have my job. I feel like life is sometimes so brutally hard, and it’s also good.”
Continuing the ‘Hero’s journey’
After pausing for the COVID-19 pandemic, Mull has resumed visiting schools, particularly in Idaho, Arizona and Utah, to introduce his books, enlighten young imaginations and inspire a love of reading.
Kids coming through the book signing line will often tell Mull that his books got them or their whole family reading together.
“Those are my two grand slams,” Mull said.
Lately his presentations have included a new message. Mull has talked about his divorce and wants students to know that although life can sometimes be full of trials, there is always a reason to keep going.
“I think we all live hero’s journeys, that’s what life is,” he said. “We leave comfortable circumstances and go on these journeys where we learn and grow, where we are challenged. Sometimes we rise to meet it and sometimes we crumble or really wipe out. We learn and we return from it changed. Sometimes those are the most interesting stories — if someone can then pick themselves up and try again.”
Mull continued: “In my life I’ve tasted lots of aspects of challenging journeys and I expect we have more coming. Our country is facing uniquely hard times, things we’ve never faced before. ... Heroes will be needed.”