First novel by ex-Democrat-Gazette writer set to go to TV

Author and former Democrat-Gazette reporter Van Jensen.
(Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Mary Catherine Watts)
Author and former Democrat-Gazette reporter Van Jensen. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Mary Catherine Watts)

A giant alien -- really giant, like, three miles tall -- has touched down near the small western Nebraska town of Little Springs. The mysterious being, believed to be dead and stretched across the landscape like a mountain range, has turned life in Little Springs upside down. The once sleepy community has been overrun by thousands of newcomers -- government officials, FBI agents, soldiers, scientists, entrepreneurs and religious cultists among them.

There's also a serial killer on the loose, one whose gruesome, bloody slayings may have a connection to the alien and a young, beleaguered sheriff trying to hold it all together.

All of this takes place in "Godfall," the debut novel from former Democrat-Gazette crime reporter Van Jensen that was published Nov. 1 by Flyover Fiction, an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press.

Even before "Godfall" came out it was getting attention from Hollywood studios eager to buy the rights to the story. A bidding war ensued, according to The Hollywood Reporter, and was won by Imagine TV, the company owned by director Ron Howard and Brian Grazer. Howard is set to direct the series and Jensen is signed on as an executive producer.

"I'm honored to be a part of bringing Van's incredible story to the screen," Howard told The Hollywood Reporter. "He's built such an expansive, enthralling world that is deeply universal in its themes."

The Atlanta-based Jensen, who grew up in the small town of Lewellen, Neb., worked for the Democrat-Gazette from 2005-2007. He left the glamorous world of newspaper journalism to write comics and has written for DC titles including The Flash, Superman, Wonder Woman and the Green Lantern Corps. He wrote "Two Dead," the 2019 graphic novel illustrated by Nate Powell and based on events in late-1940s Little Rock that Jensen learned about while working for the paper, and created the "Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer" series with then-Democrat-Gazette graphic artist Dusty Higgins.

We talked to the 41-year-old Jensen recently about "Godfall," Hollywood and lazy agents. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What are you doing today?

I'm working, mostly on the sequel to "Godfall." Now that it's a thing, I've got to do the next book (laughs).

How many books are planned? Will it be a trilogy?

For now it's just two, but it could certainly expand from there.

Can you tell me about the origin of the story and the process of writing the novel?

It was probably about six years ago. I had this vision, kind of out of nowhere, of this giant alien coming out of the sky and landing in western Nebraska. I have no idea where that came from. Sometimes I just see pieces of stories or scenes, and I have to figure them out. I probably spent about three months on a first draft and sent it to my literary agent at the time who never read it (laughs).

Oh. Nice, agent! (laughs)

Yeah. It sat on his desk for about a year and a half, so I fired him and I got a new agent. She read it right away and really liked it and then I rewrote it after that. It's been a six-year process, but I only spent six or seven months working on the book.

One of the most intriguing aspects of "Godfall" is what happens to this small town after the alien lands. This insular community is now coping with all of these outsiders. I was reminded of the Tom Perrotta novel and HBO series "The Leftovers," where people are dealing with the aftermath of a rapture-style event. Did that story or any others have an influence on you?

"The Leftovers" for sure. That's a show that I love. It's about this huge thing that happens but it's really about everything that happens after the huge thing, which I think is such an interesting place to explore. Also, that show has a lot of mystery to it. Stuff happens and you never get an answer or an explanation.

A lot of classic crime fiction, too, like Elmore Leonard and the character studies and crime stories he tells. And I love a good Agatha Christie story. As much as the book has a sci-fi element it's really a murder mystery.

Did being a former crime reporter help with creating some of the characters and law enforcement elements?

Absolutely. It helped to know the way police work and go about their lives. It's not like the stuff you see on TV. A lot of it is slow, methodical work and then you have these moments where you are catching people on their worst day and that takes a huge toll on you. Coming from a background as a journalist, I hope my work feels genuine.

It's not surprising that there was so much attention from Hollywood. From the first page, "Godfall" feels cinematic and it really grabs the reader. Was there any thought early on that it might become a series or film?

I'm a very visual thinker and I guess I describe stuff in a very visual way. My intention was to write a book. I certainly had no thought that I would sell this to be a TV show or a movie.

How did the manuscript make it to Hollywood?

I have a manager in Los Angeles who is really good at his job (laughs). That's the main takeaway. People in L.A. trust him and they know if he is sending them something that it's worth checking out. And it seems like everyone in L.A. was looking for grounded sci-fi and from what I've heard it resonated because it's about a small town but it's not stereotypical in the way that it shows rural America. There's a compelling visual element and the characters are fleshed out and there is a real, emotional journey with each one.

So you had all these studios interested. How does that process work and what was it like?

Offers started to come in and at that point I was doing a lot of meetings. Some of it is about the money, some of it is about working with people you want to work with. It's a big undertaking to do a TV show.

I got to meet Ron and, I don't know, I just couldn't say no to Ron Howard. I'm such a fan of his work and he was so down to earth and kind and delightful. It seems like it can't possibly be real life, yet somehow it is.

Any idea of when work begins and where the show will land?

It will get going next year. We still need to talk to all of the channels and streamers and figure out who wants it and weigh those offers and find the right home for it.

How involved will you be in the series?

One thing that came about from all of the competition for the show is that I will be an executive producer. It's kind of wild, so I will be pretty involved. I'm not planning to move to L.A. I don't want to raise my family there, but we are already building out the team. Once the work gets going they want me to be involved in the storytelling side and to be on set. It's going to be super exciting to be there and learn from some of the best people in the business.

  photo  "Godfall," the debut novel from Van Jensen