LISTEN: GPB's Peter Biello speaks with Atlanta author Van Jensen about his debut novel, 'Godfall'

Atlanta author Van Jensen's debut novel is 'Godfall'.

Atlanta author Van Jensen's debut novel is 'Godfall'.

Credit: Courtesy

Imagine you look up at the sky and you see a giant object hurtling toward Earth. Collision is inevitable, and you assume human civilization will soon go the way of the dinosaurs. But what hits Earth is not a meteor, but the body of a giant alien made of crystals. And it doesn't slam into Earth, but it sets down softly in a small Nebraska town. Now imagine that you're the sheriff of that town, which is suddenly not so sleepy anymore. That's the premise of the new novel Godfall, by Atlanta author Van Jensen. He spoke with GPB’s Peter Biello.


Peter Biello: So this is — I wouldn't say a sci-fi novel, but it's got elements of sci-fi. It's not a purely "whodunnit," though it’s a murder mystery. And it's not necessarily a romance, although there is some romance in it. So, it encompasses a lot. But let's start with that central premise: A giant alien made of crystals falls out of the sky, landing softly in Nebraska. How did you come up with that premise?

Van Jensen: I kind of find ideas anywhere. I read a lot of nonfiction. I read the news. I just try to be out in the world experiencing life, right? And then sometimes stuff just appears. And this was one of those I think I was half asleep. And it was just this vision of a giant alien thing landing in western Nebraska — and western Nebraska is where I grew up, so, of course, there's always a tether there. But this particular thing about it, that I think made it so evocative, this vision, is that Nebraska is like the flattest place on Earth.

Peter Biello: Good place for a giant alien to land.

Van Jensen: Right, right. Like a big — a big landing zone. But what I saw in my mind's eye is this unbroken horizon, that all of a sudden has this very artificial, very unnatural, very frightening, mountain range. And the plot, the story of it is, is just really me thought-experimenting, like "What would happen, where would this go?" And really, what I think gave me the passion to keep going is it's very much based on my hometown and where I grew up and the experience of this place. I hadn't written about that place before.

Peter Biello: The town in this book, Little Springs, Nebraska, because this alien lands there, changes tremendously. I mean, we jump forward [in the narrative] months after the alien lands, and there are all sorts of newcomers here. And the sheriff, your main focus of this book, Sheriff David [Blunt], starts to see people as people who have been here forever and then the newcomers, right? And that becomes kind of a divide in his head that creates the central theme here of "otherness." Right? And I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about why that theme was important for you in this book.

Van Jensen: I'm a product of a small town. I love rural America. At the same time, I've lived in cities for effectively all of my adult life, and I love cities. But we're at a time, I think, in this country, where those two sides do not interact with each other, or if they do, it's just, like, insults hurled each way. And I think there's a ton of misunderstanding but mostly there's just no interaction. And so I just thought, "Wouldn't it be fascinating to write a book that's a murder mystery, but is also this forced integration of urban and rural life, like these people having to figure out how to talk to each other?" Because, I mean, life is hard. There are disagreements, but you can't do anything about that stuff unless you actually talk to each other.


'Godfall' Author, Van Jensen talks with GPB's Peter Biello about the book's origin.

Credit: GPB

Peter Biello: You've worn many hats over the years. You were a crime reporter at one point in your career. It shouldn't be terribly surprising, I think, that a former crime reporter would write about a law enforcement official. Were you thinking of folks in law enforcement that you met along the way, or were there other influences from your crime reporting days and writing this book?

Van Jensen: The biggest help, I think, in having done journalism, is just like people always ask me how to get over writer's block. And I'm like, "Why? I don't know, I just write. I just sit down and do it." And that's journalism training. It's like, you either write or you don't have a job anymore. So, I'm very grateful for that experience. But relating to crime specifically: it was a very trying experience. I was in Little Rock, Arkansas. Little Rock is a shockingly violent city, to the point that there have been documentaries about how violent it is. So it was a really intense period of my life. It was not a job that I love because, you know, it's like my best day as a reporter is someone else's worst day.

Peter Biello: Which is something the reporter in this book says about her job.

Van Jensen: Right. Like something horrific happens and you get this amazing front-page story and you feel great about it, "oh, I got on the front page!" and you're like, "oh, yeah. But two people died." But with the police, I definitely experienced — like, there are great police. There are people who really care, who really try hard, who are super invested in the community, who want to be good people there. There are struggles against the system that they work within. And there are also bad cops and they do incredible amounts of damage. And so I got to see all of that. And I think really it's just knowing the way that police actually work, like, I always want my writing to be believable and, again, this is a book with a giant dead alien —

Peter Biello: So that almost makes it more important for everything else to be exactly realistic.

Van Jensen: Yeah, yeah. So that that was my goal. And so David's character more than anything is based on my dad. And my dad, he's not a cop. He's a dentist. He retired as a dentist. From childhood, his dream — and he grew up in the same town — his dream was to be the dentist in this town. And then he grew up and he did exactly that. And he loves this town. I mean, his family has been part of it forever. He just he wants it to continue to be the thing that is. And he does just all these incredible things all the time to enrich the community around him. And so that was really the seed of — like, any time I was like, "How would David look at this? Okay, here, here's what my dad would do."

Peter Biello: Godfall is turning into a TV show.

Van Jensen: It is.

Peter Biello: It's in the process. Can you tell us about what that's like, how you think this book is going to translate into a TV show?

Ron Howard and Brian Glazer's Imagine Entertainment has optioned 'Godfall' for a tv series.

A photograph depicts the Sand Hills region of Nebraska, the home state of Atlanta-based author Van Jensen's whose novel, 'Godfall,' blends elements of science fiction, mystery and romance.

Credit: University of Nebraska Press

Van Jensen: Yeah. I mean, it's been very shocking in the best way.

Peter Biello: Ron Howard is—

Van Jensen: Ron Howard is directing it, which is insane. Like, I mean, objectively insane. This is a small press book, right? The first agent that I gave it to, literary agent, just never read it. And so, you know, it's lived many lives and it's taken a long time to get out. And I have someone I work with in LA who wanted to send it out to people. And I had no expectation. I mean, I've done that dance, right? And then all of a sudden it became this thing to where there're like multiple articles in the Hollywood trades about me and about the book, which is just mind-blowing.

Peter Biello: Have you heard anything about what Ron Howard saw in this story that he wanted to bring to a visual audience?

Van Jensen: He saw all the stuff that I've talked about already, the stuff that I love about the book, the stuff that made me want to write the book. He said he always wanted to do sci-fi and hasn't had the chance to do that. He's always wanted to do TV and really hasn't effectively done any TV. And then he just said, "I love that it exists in this rural American space in such a genuine way. And we just we don't see that on TV and in films." And also he loved that it has a lot of heart, even though there's dark stuff that happens. I hope that it comes across that way. But I think it's a very hopeful book.