Bookshelf: Atlanta author’s sci-fi debut optioned by Ron Howard

Van Jensen’s ‘Godfall’ blends aliens, murder and small-town growing pains.
Van Jensen is author of "Godfall."
University of Nebraska Press

Credit: University of Nebraska Press

Credit: University of Nebraska Press

Van Jensen is author of "Godfall." University of Nebraska Press

It’s not often that someone achieves a pinnacle of success on the first attempt, but that’s what Candler Park resident Van Jensen did. Before his debut novel “Godfall” (University of Nebraska Press, $21.95) published on Nov. 1, the film rights were snatched up in a bidding war by none other than Ron Howard for development as a TV series.

“It was very sudden, very surprising but thrilling,” said Jensen in a recent phone conversation. “One of my aunts let me know she was praying for my humility, which is probably a good prayer to get about now.”

“Godfall” is a wild ride of a book that’s a sci-fi novel on the surface but a murder-mystery at heart. It begins with an unidentified object hurtling toward Earth in what is predicted to be an “extinction-level event.” Then the book jumps forward two years. Earth as a whole is not significantly altered except for Little Springs, a small, politically conservative town in rural, western Nebraska, where the projectile landed.

Stretching three miles long, the object is the body of a humanoid-looking alien that now lays across the landscape like a mountain range. Locals call it Gulliver. From its solar plexus protrudes the spire of a 3,000-foot-high black tower where flocks of birds come to die.

Since Gulliver’s landfall, the little town of 730 residents has transformed into a city of 100,000 as members of the military, NASA, Homeland Security, the CDC, the Department of Energy and FEMA have set up shop. Tour operators and tourists have followed, as well as opportunists looking to stake their claim in the boom town.

But tensions are brewing between the locals and the newcomers, many of whom hold differing religious beliefs and political opinions. The division threatens to turn violent when a group of Muslims initiate plans to build a mosque.

Meanwhile, a serial killer is slicing up victims from both camps.

And that’s not all. There’s a weird cult of men in long black cloaks and tiger masks who gather each day in the town square to pray to Gulliver. Alzheimer’s patients are suddenly becoming lucid for two minutes every day at the same time. And when he’s not trying to keep his hometown safe, protagonist Sheriff David Blunt is plumbing the past to uncover the mysteries of his youth including the fate of his cousin, Ben Junior, who mysteriously disappeared, and details about his parents, who were killed by a tornado when David was a child.

To say there’s a lot going here is an understatement. One thing you won’t be while reading “Godfall” is bored.

Jensen says his goal with the novel was to be both highbrow and lowbrow. “I want to write stuff that is compulsively readable and at the same time have some interesting, nuanced things going on there, too.” Describing his book as “a bit of a trojan horse” with its sci-fi and murder-mystery elements, “it’s actually about the urban-rural divide forcing city and country people to co-exist,” he says.

“Godfall” may be Jensen’s first novel, but he’s a well established writer of comic books and graphic novels, having written for such iconic characters as James Bond, The Flash, Superman and Wonder Woman. He also co-created the series “Two Dead,” “Cryptocracy” and “Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer.”

There aren’t a lot of details about the television adaptation just yet. The book’s rights were purchased by Imagine TV founded by Howard and Brian Grazer. Howard is set to direct, with Jensen serving as executive producer.

Jensen’s role will be “less about making sure that the TV show matches the book, because I don’t think that anything can be adapted exactly, but more focused on the depiction of rural America and especially rural Nebraska,” he says. “Those are really important things for me. I have seen so much super stereotypical iterations of small towns in TV and movies. What was important to me with this book was showing it in a realistic way, both the good parts of it and the bad parts of it.”

Jensen knows about small towns. He grew up in one — Lewellen in western Nebraska. He describes his childhood as idyllic but also lonely.

“I was literally the only kid that read comic books. I was the only kid that liked reading novels. And so, I just didn’t have a peer group that I could connect to … I ended up being like, oh my gosh, I’ve got to get out of here as fast as I can get out of here. But as years go by now, I love to go back. There are all the things I really miss about it.”

Jensen moved to Atlanta in 2007 with his wife, with whom he has two sons. In addition to his work as a writer, he did a stint as publisher for ArtsATL, worked on some TV development deals that didn’t pan out and has made some short films and music videos. “Life would be a lot easier if I would just do one thing,” he said.

What motivates Jensen is story. If an idea “keeps resurfacing in my head and if I start to hear the characters talk or I see evocative imagery, then I think, OK, this is something that I want to pursue. And then at that point it’s just a question of what format does this work the best in.”

For now, that format is novels. He’s currently working on a sequel to “Godfall” and a character-driven sci-fi novel that imagines what could happen if AI went wrong.

A Cappella Books presents Jensen in conversation with writer-director Ruckus Skye at 7 p.m. Dec. 12 at the Auburn Avenue Research Library. For details go to

Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributing editor to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She can be reached at