Interview – Award winning writer and director John Harrison
Self-Publisher’s Showcase: Today we are joined by John Harrison; award winning writer and director in film and television and the author of Destiny Gardens, a novel about a disparate group of abandoned kids in the late 1950′s. Welcome to the Showcase Lounge, John.
John Harrison: So glad you’ve invited me.
SPS: Before we move onto to talk about your novel and your current project; can you let us know about where readers may have seen any of your film and television work?
JH: I’ve been a working screenwriter and director since my 20’s, lucky enough to have worked in both film and television. Most of my career has been in what I’d call speculative fiction, horror and scifi, although I’ve also written and directed straight drama, too. I don’t think anyone would ever call me a comedy guy, however. Before I moved to LA, I started out in my hometown, Pittsburgh, PA. working with partners in our own small production company, and then with famed horror director, George Romero. Those were truly independent filmmaking days and we all did a bit of everything. Acting, writing, directing, producing, whatever was called for. Since I’d been a professional musician most of my youth, I actually composed the score for several of George’s films (CREEPSHOW & DAY OF THE DEAD) as well as for my own work.
I’ve written and/or directed both TV and film some of which people may recognize: TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE, TALES FROM THE CRYPT, the miniseries DUNE and CHILDREN OF DUNE, EARTH 2, PROFILER, LEVERAGE, TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE, THE MOVIE, Clive Barker’s BOOK OF BLOOD and others.
SPS: You are writing a new adaptation of the Cornell Woolrich thriller, BLACK ANGEL for producer Michael Douglas and director Paul Verhoeven. How did the opportunity come about and how is it coming along?
JH: Originally, Michael Douglas and I were talking about a TV version of a movie he’d produced, FLATLINERS. I had a new take on the essential storyline and thought it could really work as a serialized narrative. Ultimately we couldn’t get the thing sorted out with Sony who owned the other half of the rights. But I knew that Michael owned the rights to a lot of Woolrich material. Woolrich is a writer I have always loved. I have all his novels and some collections of his stories. After FLATLINERS fell through, folks at Michael’s company approached me about adapting one of my favourite Woolrich novels, BLACK ANGEL. And when I heard that Paul Verhoeven also loved it and wanted to get involved, it took me about a second and a half to say yes. We’ve been working on it for the better part of a year in between our other assignments, and I think we’ve finally knocked the adaptation. Next step, find a company to support development: screenplay and hopefully a film.
SPS: You have spent a large amount of time involved in the film and television industry, is there anything you have learned there that you have utilised in writing your first novel, Destiny Gardens?
JH: The writing process is completely different, of course. And in a novel a writer can explore the world and characters in more complex detail. On the other hand, the writing skills one hones while working in the novel or short story medium are especially useful when trying to imagine and then convey the story of a film. A screenplay must so often express mood, setting, character behaviour and motivation in such curt and spare imagery that the skills developed writing fiction can really inform and improve one’s screenwriting.
Conversely, I found that writing DESTINY GARDENS was definitely aided by the discipline of trying to tell a story visually, of trying to think structurally, as if I were watching the story instead of just reading words on the page.
SPS: The novel is set in the 50’s and involves a group of kids banding together for survival in a derelict public meeting hall. Can you tell us about why you decided to write your first novel and where the inspiration for the story came from.
JH: I’ve been carrying DG around inside my head for some time. I’ve always been fascinated by stories of young people trying to survive independent of the adult world around them. The Boxcar Children, for example. Lord of the Flies, and countless others. I love those kinds of stories. So the little tribe of Patch, Luther, Veronique and the others simply percolated for a while until it presented itself to me fully alive. I originally thought I’d write it as a film. It was always a very visual narrative for me. I suppose I was following the adage, “Write what you know.” And though DESTINY GARDENS is by no means autobiographical, I used plenty of my own experience to craft the setting, the time, the kinds of people that populated the story. I grew up in Pittsburgh in close proximity to the neighbourhoods described in the book.
SPS: The novel looks at how mature children can be when adult issues are thrust upon them. Is this something you were keen to convey?
JH: As I said earlier, I love stories where the lives and experience of young people collide with the adult world into which they’re inevitably headed. Children and young people are obviously influenced and directed by their elders in society. But they are also apart from them, their mores, their interests and passions, and are thus ‘outside’ the adult world, observing, analysing, judging. Trying to figure out where they fit in…or even if they want to fit in.
I’m also fascinated with how the concept of childhood has changed even through my lifetime. I’m old enough now to remember a time when children had a lot more freedom, and in most cases responsibility. As a parent, I understand the protective wary impulses we have regarding our children. But in trying to purge a kid’s world of risk, we deprive him or her of valuable experience they will ultimately need. So I thought it’d be interesting to explore a world where there were no adults paving the way, or running interference, or even there at all to provide life’s context.
SPS How easy did you find it to write? Did you have perfect writing conditions or was it a case of writing anytime, anywhere?
JH: I’ve had to learn to write pretty much anywhere, but I’m not one who can sit in Starbucks for hours and be productive. I need a space away from distraction. And that means turning off the damned internet. (I also can’t write with music playing, or TV in the background etc.)
I have to be disciplined about my work habits, but I don’t ‘require’ completing a certain number of pages a day. I like to write in the early morning when I’m fresh and no one is calling on the phone or trying to email or text me. I don’t like to write in small bursts. I need to invest hours at a sitting even if I’m getting nothing accomplished but utter crap.
SPS: Is the novel a ‘stand alone’, or do you have plans to revisit any of the characters again in the future?
JH: At first, I thought of DG as its own contained little story. But having finished it, I’ve begun to wonder about what happened to Patch and the others after leaving Destiny Gardens. As I was writing the last chapter, I began to imagine some of these things, and I teased them out a bit through Veronique’s recollection. This was a way of wrapping things up. But ironically, they made the reader in me want to know more, and I can’t help thinking about what the tribe was doing next.
I haven’t committed to this in any way, though. Not yet, anyway.
SPS: Did you encounter many obstacles in your journey into self-publishing?
JH: The decision to go that route was relatively easy to make. After thinking about the time frame involved in getting a literary agent to represent the book, soliciting publishers, imagining that one of them would take it on, going through their editing process then waiting for the physical production and distribution of the book….you see where I’m going with this? So I thought, what the heck, why not go the self-publishing route, get it out there and see if it generates any interest.
Of course, I really had no idea what I was getting into. I got help from some people who had done it themselves, and the actual production of the book for e-books and paperback on demand turned out to be relatively easy. I had a friend who is a wonderful artist to help me with the cover art which I love.
An actually, I found the process to be really fun.
What I’m confronting now, as we all must, is the extreme chasm between publishing the book and marketing it. OK, it’s available on Amazon and through other suppliers, but how do I get people to want it? That’s the biggest challenge. So it’s great there are resources out there like SPS to help.
SPS: Was the Self-Published/Indie-Published route always your preferred route for your work?
JH: Obviously I’d love to have the greatest possible audience for the book. And I suppose having a major publishing house with their advertising and marketing muscle behind it would be exciting. On the other hand, one loses a significant amount of control going that route, and these days if your book doesn’t come out of the gate at a gallop, a publisher’s enthusiasm is going to evaporate pretty fast.
I didn’t write DG to make a quick buck. I wrote it because I had to. So I’m in this for the long run. It’s my blood, sweat and tears. Hopefully I will learn enough along the way to generate awareness of it. Hopefully it will find its audience.
SPS: Moving on, your latest project RESIDUE sounds incredible. Can you tell us more about the ‘Multiplatform Supernatural Crime Thriller’?
JH: RESIDUE began as a pitch to the producers of my last film, Clive Barker’s BOOK OF BLOOD. I’d had a good experience with Matador Pictures and wanted to work with them again, so I pitched them the idea as a film we could do together next. The loved my idea, but they talked me into reconceiving it as a television project since that was an area they were keen to move into. So I developed the concept with TV in mind.
Then earlier this year they called and asked if I could carve out a piece of the story to do as a webseries and, hopefully, generate interest in the whole mythology I was creating, perhaps use it to take us to the next step, a full-blown series.
They sweetened the pitch by saying they could finance such an endeavour right away. And when anyone in this crazy business says your project can be fully financed right now, you jump. So I jumped.
I decided to create a ‘prequel’ story to precede the original story I’d sold Matador, and it’s taken on a real life of its own. Happily, that process has helped me clarify and elaborate upon my original idea.
As to the multiplatform concept, we’re talking about RESIDUE as a web-series, and TV series, and I’m also writing the books. I think the mythology can also accommodate even more media, like graphic novels, gaming, possibly even fan-based fiction down the road. All of these will hopefully exist simultaneously.
SPS: What can we expect from the lead character, Jennifer. What’s her story?
JH: The original story was about Jennifer’s younger sister, Miki, the black sheep of her A-type family who comes to the city to find out what happened to Jennifer who has gone missing. Jennifer was already a successful photo-journalist, documenting the mood of her city in the aftermath of a terrible New Year’s Eve catastrophe, when she mysteriously vanished.
In PARAMENTALS RISING, Jennifer discovers in her photographs evidence of a supernatural phenomenon that has been haunting the city in the aftermath of the New Year’s catastrophe. She is determined to prove it and find out what’s causing it. As we follow her process of discovery, we also learn that the catastrophe may not have been an accident and may, in fact, be the tip of a conspiratorial iceberg that threatens the social fabric of the city.
SPS: Following the initial ‘Catastrophe’ as anxiety grows in the city, The Paramentals grow in numbers and become increasingly powerful – a vicious cycle spiraling out of control. Is there any hope?
JH: Oh, of course, there’s always hope. But it’s going to test our characters mightily as they try to hold on to it.
SPS: The project is starting with 10 Webisodes, how are they coming along and when can we expect their release?
JH: We are in pre-production now in the UK. I’m not directing this one. I’m the Executive Producer, Creator/Writer. We’ve hired a wonderfully talented young Brit director. Alex Garcia (Misfits, Utopia). Our team is really superb, and I’m getting very excited about the cast we’ll have. Suffice to say, the audience is going to be pleasantly surprised by the names we’ve drawn to this project.
SPS: Following these webisodes there are plans for a feature film and a potential trilogy of novels. How can we expect the story to progress?
JH: At present, the ‘feature’ version of RESIDUE will be for Home Video and VOD, although there may be a limited theatrical release as well. But interestingly, before I had the commitment from my producers at Matador Pictures to begin this project, I had stared to write a novel in the RESIDUE world. Whether it would be the middle chapter of a trilogy, or the first book in the series, I hadn’t decided. But I’m definitely going back to that once production on PARAMENTALS RISING is complete. This world is ripe for exploration in a novel or series of novels. There is so much more to the mythology I want investigate and elaborate upon.
SPS: Is there anything else you have planned to work on in the coming months?
JH: I’m also developing another series idea with a producer friend of mine, Ian Valentine, for producer Tim Kring (Heroes/Touch). I also have a wonderful film I want to be my next project, THE MAD KING OF LAS VEGAS, which I co-wrote with the novelist and dear friend, Stephen Billias.
SPS: If you could give one piece of advice for someone looking to get into writing, what would it be?
JH: Start writing. Right now. Don’t think. Just do! Don’t agonize over each and every word, and definitely do not imitate, compare yourself to or be intimidated by other successful writers you admire. Write about something you are fascinated with, not necessarily what you think will sell. And try to be disciplined about work. It is a job, after all. Put in the hours. Writing is like playing a musical instrument. Practice, practice, practice.
Finally, read! A lot!
SPS: Before we bring this fascinating interview to a close, it’s your chance to name-drop. Anyone who you feel is deserving of more recognition at present or someone whose writing you have recently enjoyed? Now is your chance to spread the word…
JH: I just finished Joe Lansdale’s THE BOTTOMS which I really loved. I went on a Lansdale jag a few years back, but I haven’t picked up anything by him in a while, and I was really happy to come back to him. His novels are so often dark and twisted, with wonderful black humor. But THE BOTTOMS is surprisingly emotional. I was captivated by the first page.
The first novel I ever read (when I was about 12) was TO KILL A MOCKINBIRD. Had an enormous effect on me. Lansdale’s THE BOTTOMS treads similar territory. He’s a terrific writer.
And while I’ve been in the UK, I’ve finally caught up with Iain Banks. Have been through about four of his novels over the past couple of months. A very complex and provocative writer. His characters are really compelling.
SPS: Thank you for joining us today John, and good luck in the future.
JH: Well, I think it’s me who should thank SPS for the opportunity to expose my work to more people. Discovering the Self Publishing Showcase was a real pleasure. What a fantastic resource for all of us who love books.
SPS: All of John’s work is available through his Author page here, and if you are looking for something new to read, we highly recommend picking up a copy of young adult novel, Destiny Gardens today.