The Big Idea: John Brown

Here’s a question for you: When you’re confronted by a large, angry animal that could squash you like a grape, is the first thing that comes to your mind, hey, now that gives me an idea for a story? If the answer is “yes, of course it does,” then you may be an author. Or more specifically, you may be John Brown, whose debut novel Servant of a Dark God was inspired by just such an event. What was the large, angry animal that acted as a muse for Brown? And what was the idea it inspired? Mr. Brown lays it down:


The big idea for this epic fantasy was cows. Let me explain.

I live up in the hinterlands of Rich County, Utah. It’s all ranch land for miles and miles. Now, I’m a city boy, so everything up here was new to me when we came up a few years ago. It was late summer. I had just written a novel and realized that while it had a lot of cool things in it and a number of fine scenes, the story, as a whole, was busted beyond repair. No salvaging it. I just needed a new idea. So, as I often do, I went walking with a pencil and two sheets of paper stapled together to generate ideas.

My route led me up a small canyon that lay about a half mile from our place. The ranchers here push their cattle out of the fields and up into the hills to graze during the summer. This lets them use their fields to grow the hay they’ll need for winter. So it’s not uncommon to encounter cattle in the uplands. On one of those walks I came across a small herd eating and lazing about the aspen, sagebrush, and willow growing along the brook running down the center of that canyon. One of the cattle was making an odd sound. It was not saying “moo” or anything like unto it. It was a bull, hidden in the river willows.

Now, I’m a bit impulsive. I’m curious about a lot of things. And ever since I was a wee lad I’ve wanted to talk to animals. So, without thinking, I mimicked his call.

The bull in the willows responded in kind.

I didn’t know what we were talking about, but I figured it wasn’t every day you got to talk to a sizeable beef. Being of supreme intelligence (not quite the word my wife uses to describe it), I brayed back again. He made another grunt. I called out again, delighted with our chat. It was at about that point when the bull began to kick up dust. He then changed his tone and charged through the willows.

A mature bull averages around 2,000 pounds. A solid ton. They don’t slip through the brush all silent like. They crash. This one was crashing in my direction. As he progressed, the tops of the willows along his path shuddered and shook.

I began to be alarmed. Then I suddenly realized what we’d been chatting about. I’d been saying something like, “Hey, geek! I’m taking one of your women. What are you going to do about it?”

And he was saying something like, “I’m gonna kill you.”

And I was saying, “Bring it, I’m taking a woman.”

I was now on red alert and looking around for a tree, but anything that might support me stood hundreds of yards away. I had only a few seconds before the big galoot would break from the willows. Maybe if I could make it back down the trail and around the bend, maybe he wouldn’t see me. So I decided it was expedient that I should flee.

Luckily, my round the corner trick worked, and the cranky polygamist did not follow. However, thoughts of cattle did. And during one of my walks later that week (yes, I went back up that canyon. No, I did not have any more bovine chats. Well, not long ones. Just a few short practical joker ones. I figured that guy with his two dozen women needed to loosen up a bit) I suddenly looked around and thought: ranchers, cattle, beef—what if humans were being ranched?

But not for their flesh. I wanted something different. What about soul? I reasoned if soul did exist, then it would be physical. So what if a food chain were based upon it? And if you were going to ranch intelligent beings, you wouldn’t want them to know it. No, you’d want them to think they governed themselves. And so the truth would have to be buried deep. In this world the human overseers (who would be humans themselves) would have to mercilessly hunt anyone who began sniffing around the trail to the truth. They’d have to have a huge propaganda machine. They’d also have powers that would lift them above other men.

Boom. Lightning struck.

I wrote it all up on my little sheets of paper out there in the Western summer sun amidst the sagebrush and fields of hay. The idea grew, and after a lot of work I finished Servant of a Dark God. It focuses on a teenage boy and girl. The problems start when the girl’s family becomes the target of one of the overlord hunts.

It ended up being a blast to write. It also landed me my agent and first book contract (a three-book deal, actually; thank you, Tor Books).

And I owe it all to a cow.


Servant of a Dark God: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt (PDF link).

30 Comments on “The Big Idea: John Brown”

  1. I think I find more books to add tomy “Must-Read” list from The Big Idea threads than I do from any other source.

    Excellent interview, I want to read this book immediately.

  2. Wow, great big idea! And yes, I have bought 90% of all book featured.
    One comment, though…. Is it just me, or does the animal in the cover art look like a very large, very angry woodchuck?
    I’m just sayin’.

  3. We had a woman attacked by a cow out here in Boulder County open space last year. She broke a hip, had some permanent damage, I think. It’s no joke. Good thing you got out of that okay!

  4. I too live in Utah and, being a city boy with a penchant for hiking, have encountered cows in the hills.

    Never encountered a bull.

    But I must say even lady cows, when several dozen of them are staring fixedly at you at once out in the middle of nowhere, can be distinctly unnerving.

  5. Very interesting. I’ve been alerted to this book since Mr. Brown guest starred on Sanderson’s Writing Excuses Podcast. I’m definitely going to have to check this out.

  6. I don’t usually like fantasy, but this sounds very interesting. Besides, if the whole book is as entertaining as his description of the idea, it will be great.

  7. If I didn’t have the common sense not to taunt a bellowing bull, I wouldn’t necessarily admit it.

  8. I agree strongly with Rob– The Big Idea is a great way to find new authors to read, and I’ve used it frequently.

    One problem, though: there’s no compact collection of links to all the BI posts. I can follow the Big Idea link, but from there I have to scroll down through all the posts– a bit time-consuming if I’m looking for a book that looked interesting when I read about it two or three months ago. It’d be nice to have a collection of links to individual posts: author-title; author-title; author-title; &c.

    Right. Like JS isn’t doing enough for other authors already… For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t be asking this if I weren’t already completely up to date on the Scalzi oeuvre and in need of something new.

  9. Scalzi, damn it, stop talking about books I will want to read. I have already hit my monthly book $ limit and I still havent gotten that “girl” one from a few weeks ago because it isnt on Sony’s list of ebooks … wait, this one isnt either… crap and thank heavens at the same time.

  10. I have the book and just started reading and I really can’t put it down. It’s on the furthest edge of my desk now after a very long lunch break and 12 chapters. It is still calling to me and I may have to hide it somewhere or nothing will get done today.

    I am not typically a fantasy fan but this one has me.

  11. Thanks for the “Big Idea” series. I enjoy learning about new books, but I’m most intrigued by the insights into the writing process as shared by the featured authors. Cows. Go figure.

  12. Surely Brown owes it all to a bull, not a cow?

    And Skar (@9), I’d hate to think what a bunch of unladylike cows would be like!

  13. Hah.

    My wife’s late uncle ranched longhorn cattle in Texas. They had to (at the time) buy big ole US made pickups. Because the little Toyota and Datsun (at the time) pickups were seen as “prey animal” sized – not for eating, but something to be beaten up and driven away. Not so with the GMC and Ford pickups.

    The current Tundra’s big enough, but you have to admire cattle large enough to feel up to driving away potential competitor vehicles.

  14. Another book from the “Big Idea” that sounds like a great read. Thanks for all the new books that I find out about here.

  15. The artwork of the cover, specifically, the woman with the dagger, reminds me a lot of the cover of another book you put in the “Big Idea” list. It had a woman in a pomegranate tree, I think she was hanging upside down.

    I can’t seem to find it though.

    Is there a list of all the “big idea” books somewhere?

  16. Just in case anyone wanted to know…yeah, it’s a great book. Read it about a month and a half ago, really got into it. Well worth adding to your collection.

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