I first met John Dixon when he joined the Brandywine Valley Writers Group over a year ago, and it’s been exciting to watch the amazing path his novel PHOENIX ISLAND has taken – and it hasn’t even been released yet! John’s novel follows a sixteen year old troublemaker named Carl Freeman who is sent to a “terminal facility” called Phoenix Island. After standing up to defend weaker teens, and enduring several rounds of harsh punishment, Carl is finally tapped to take part in a secret government project, where he will become the prototype for combat intelligence.
PHOENIX ISLAND is also the inspiration for the new CBS television series INTELLIGENCE. If you’ve watched CBS in the past month, you’ve definitely seen the ads. The book and the television show will be making a big splash with a Release Party in New York City on January 7. The other night, John just informed our writing group about a special book signing/television pilot preview that he has coordinated right here in his hometown of West Chester. I wanted to ask John about the novel, the television series, and his adventures in dealing with publishers, agents, television executives and more.
Jim: I know the original title of the novel was DISSIDENT before being updated to PHOENIX ISLAND. What was your inspiration for the novel? And did it come to you in a flash or was it a long time in writing?
John: Actually, the original title was PHOENIX ISLAND, which then switched to DISSIDENT, before ultimately circling back around to PHOENIX ISLAND again. This made me happy, as I’d always thought of it as PHOENIX ISLAND.
I started the book without knowing I’d started it. I sat down one day, banged out an eighteen-page character sketch out-of-the-blue, and there was my main character, Carl, a sixteen-year-old boxing champ and orphan, the son of a fallen Philadelphia police officer. I loved him instantly, and his personal history affected me, but I didn’t have a story, and I was busy writing other stuff, so I put him away. A year or two passed. Every now and then, Carl would tap me on the shoulder, but I still didn’t have a story.
Then I heard about the Kids for Cash case, where two Pennsylvania judges sent juveniles to privately-owned detention centers in return for massive kickbacks. I was outraged, of course — as a teacher and a former youth services case worker, I’d spent two decades trying to help kids like the ones these judges had exploited — and further research led me to a horrifying truth: there exist outside the United States privately owned detention centers open for American business and immune to US laws. Anything would be possible in a place like that, I thought, especially if the kids in question were all orphans. That’s when I remembered Carl….
Once those two previously unrelated things collided, the story blew up in my head, and it was all I could do to keep up with it. Ten months later, it was finished.
Jim: In my opinion, the Kids for Cash scandal is one of the most terrifying American stories of the last decade. Your idea of expanding on that is very intriguing. To get a novel optioned for television is a big deal, but often those novels never make it to the screen. The fact that your series is hitting the same day as the book is awesome. How did the TV show deal unfold?
John: I was sitting in Jimmy John’s Hot Dogs on 202 when the phone rang. It was Tripp Vinson, executive producer of blockbuster movies like RED DAWN, JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, and THE NUMBER 23. My film agent had given him the book, and he’d read it in two days. Could I talk?
If you’ve ever been to Jimmy John’s — which is my favorite restaurant on the planet, for the record — it’s full of trains and little kids blowing whistles, so I asked Tripp to hold on, walked out to my truck, and took the call of my life parked along 202, with trucks whizzing by.
Tripp flew to New York, I hopped the train, and we met for lunch. We clicked instantly, and I liked his ideas. He wanted to convert PHOENIX ISLAND into a TV series, and we started talking about how to expand subplots and back story, where to end the pilot, where to end the first season, conversations that we would continue later, over the phone and through email. Before leaving that lunch, however, Tripp gave me the best advice ever. There were a million ways for this go wrong, he explained, and told me not to pin my happiness on the ultimate success of the project. There are a lot of hurdles, he told me. Celebrate every hurdle.
So I did… usually by going to Jimmy John’s. When Michael Seitzman came on board, I celebrated. When ABC Studios optioned it, I celebrated. When CBS Network picked up the option, I celebrated. We still had a lot of hurdles in front of us at that point, but following Tripp’s advice, I was enjoying the ride. With the addition of director David Semel and actors like Josh Holloway and Marg Helgenberger, we kept clearing hurdles, and we sprung over a tall one when CBS green lighted the pilot. Out of something like 100 dramas optioned that year, they had green lighted only 11. Still, we were up against heavy competition, so the next hurdles — making a great pilot and getting ordered as an actual show — reached into the sky, into orbit.
I felt good about the pilot. By this time, the story had changed big time from my book. I was okay with this, and I enjoyed having a role in the transition. I’d read the script and knew it was strong. But honestly, I really didn’t think we’d make to order. CBS was kicking butt, and while we were in limbo, they announced they would be reordering almost their entire schedule, leaving room, people thought for two, maybe three new shows. TV pundits predicted CBS would pick up BEVERLY HILLS COP and NCIS spin-off, and suggested that HOSTAGES and THE ADVOCATES were possibilities if thee was an extra slot. We weren’t supposed to get the order, according to those-in-the-know. Still, I clung to Tripp’s advice and celebrated the green lighting by visiting the Vancouver shoot with my wife, Christina. We had a blast.
When May rolled around, I braced myself for the expected disappointment, telling myself I’d been incredibly blessed just to make it this far. We’d made some money off the pilot, taking off pressure for a time, and the book had sold in a two-book deal. Things were good. And yet I dreaded the announcement. I didn’t want the dream to end.
It didn’t. On May 10th, five days before the Up Fronts, CBS surprised everyone by announcing its picks early. And there was INTELLIGENCE. I didn’t believe. I mean that literally. A friend emailed a link, I followed it out, read the headline, and literally did not believe that it was true. A mistake, a hoax, a cruel joke… something. Then I went back to my inbox and saw an email from my film agent. The subject line read, “In Case You Haven’t Heard.” The email simply said, “So happy for you, John,” and there was a link to another article announcing the same news. Cue the chorus of angels….
That evening, Tripp called. I’ll never forget pacing the deck, talking to him. It was a beautiful May evening. “Remember when I said we had a lot of hurdles to cross?” he asked. Of course I did. “Well,” he said, “we made it over the last one.”
Jim: Jimmy John’s for the win! I love that. So you’ve made the transition from middle school English teacher to full time writer. What’s the best writing advice you’ve heard? And can you tell us your writing habits? Do you have a certain time of day you like to write, or a certain spot?
John: The best writing advice, of course, is read a lot, write a lot, but the most valuable advice I ever received came from editor David L. Felts, in his rejection of a short story I’d sent him. “Always keep your main character in the driver’s seat.” The idea — to have my main character’s choices and actions forcing the plot rather than having the plot forcing reactions out of my main character — changed the way I wrote and helped me to start selling more stories.
Right now, with so much going on with the build up to the release of the book and show, my writing habits are wonky, but I prefer to write every day, and when I’m at my best, I get at it early and stay at it for 6 to 8 hours, and sometimes 10 or 12. I love writing, and I’ve never looked back on a day and said, “Gee, I spent too much time writing today.” I have a nice roll top desk, but I usually write on a folding table in an upstairs guest room, using my little Alphasmart NEO word processor. That keeps me away from the deadly distractions of the internet!
Jim: Thanks for taking time to be interviewed. Good luck with the book launch and the television show!
John: Thanks so much for having me, Jim!
The book launch of John’s novel PHOENIX ISLAND, along with a sneak preview showing of his CBS show INTELLIGENCE, is being held at the Chester County Historical Society on January 5 at 2p.m. The event is free and open to the public. Chester County Book Company will have copies of the novel for sale at the event. Click here for more details.
Updated: January 7th, 2014: John Dixon’s PHOENIX ISLAND Book Launch in West Chester was a huge success. Much fun was had and the books sold out rather quickly. I was thrilled to get my autographed copy and a photo taken with John. The crowd also enjoyed seeing the pilot for CBS’s Intelligence. Congratulations!
Jim Breslin’s new comedic novel, SHOPLANDIA, follows the lives of show hosts and producers at a home shopping channel as they deal with reality TV stars, motivational gurus, aging movie icons and romance book cover icons. SHOPLANDIA will be published in May 2014. Sign up to learn about the release of SHOPLANDIA by clicking HERE.