John August is best known as a Hollywood screenwriter, with such feature film credits as Big Fish, Go, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Since 2011 he has been producing a weekly podcast called Scriptnotes with fellow screenwriter Craig Mazin, in which the duo discusses their profession and “things that are interesting to screenwriters.” Though he has previously branched out into television and theater, August most recently stepped into the world of children’s publishing and will see his first middle grade novel, Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire, to be released on February 6. He has been chronicling his experience in this new field in a podcast called Launch, which debuted January 23 and cracked the iTunes Top 10 Podcasts list on that day. We spoke with August about the genesis of his two newest projects.
What was the driver behind wanting to write a children’s book? Was it something you had always wanted to do?
This is going to sound really naïve, but I’m a person who gets sent these kinds of books a lot, to adapt into movies. I had this great conversation with Kenneth Oppel who had written The Nest, which I had been sent to consider for a potential movie project. In our conversation, he really talked through what middle grade fiction was, in the sense that it’s not really about the language in the books, but it’s about the age of the hero in the books, and he spoke about why he loves writing middle grade. He made such a compelling case for middle grade fiction that by the end of the phone call I said, “You know what? Maybe I won’t write the movie version of your book, but I think I’m going to actually write a book that I’ve been thinking about for a long time.” I had had this nascent idea, and I wasn’t quite sure where it fit, and he helped me understand, “Oh, that really is a middle grade idea,” and that a book could be the right way to do it.
Where did you go from there? How did you get serious about publishing a book?
The life of a screenwriter is you’re generally working for other people. You’re turning in drafts and work gets stacked up and you get really busy. But I found myself, about two years ago [in 2015], with everything turned in and nothing due for about a month. That was November, two years ago, and I thought, if I’m ever going to have a chance to do this, this feels like the time, so I just started writing. I wrote the first six chapters during that month, and it felt like the start of a book. I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do with it, but I knew I wanted to get it out and see it all together and then make a decision once I had something that wasn’t just a vague idea, but a real thing that I could show to some other folks.
You have worked with an agent for your screenwriting for a long time. Was that the same agent you went to when you were looking for representation for the book project?
Absolutely. David Kramer [at United Talent Agency] has been my feature film agent for 20 years, so he knows my writing really well. And he’s been supportive as I’ve gone off and done a bunch of other things—I did a Broadway show [the musical of Big Fish], I directed a movie [The Nines].
He read through the chapters and he said, “I think these are really good, but I’m not the person who can best tell you what you’ve got here, so we need to find you a book agent.” Internally [at UTA] they made a list, and Jodi Reamer at Writers House was at the top of that list. We sent the chapters to her to see whether she would feel like representing me.
She read the chapters, got it, understood it, and felt like it really was a book. She surprised me by saying she thought she could sell it just off the six chapters plus the proposal, which lays out the rest of the book and the series.
It’s planned as a trilogy, right?
Yes, that’s right.
Jodi made a list of editors she thought would be right for it and we were really lucky to have Macmillan come back and express great enthusiasm and make a pre-emptive offer for the book. That part of the process was fantastic, and a surprise. There was a sense that multiple people would be interested, but we weren’t necessarily expecting a pre-emptive offer. In screenwriting, sometimes you will write a spec script where you have an idea for a movie—you write the script, you sell the script. It used to be more common, it’s not very common now and it’s not something I’ve normally done. So to have someone say, “We want this thing,” and now to be doing it, was exciting, and it took me back to my first days as a new screenwriter. It was a chance to be a beginner again. I think that was one of the things that appealed to me most about writing a book.
Who is your editor at Macmillan?
Connie Hsu at Roaring Brook. She’s been phenomenal. They make the offer, but it’s contingent on a phone call. You want to make sure it’s a good match, that you have the same vision for the series, for what your working relationship is going to be. It’s like you’re getting married over a phone call.
Can you give your nutshell summary of Arlo Finch and maybe a hint for what the journey through the next two books might entail?
Arlo Finch is the story of a 12-year-old boy who moves to the mountains of Colorado, to a tiny town called Pine Mountain. There, he joins the equivalent of scouts, called the Rangers, and he quickly learns that the Rangers can do some kind of magical things because the forest outside their town is magic. He also discovers that he has a pretty crucial role to play in a bigger narrative he doesn’t quite understand that is happening there. So, it’s Arlo, his best friends, Indra and Woo, and the adventures of his patrol as they go through scout kinds of things, but also magical things. It’s very much my experience growing up in Colorado as a kid. I was in scouts and we were running around every month in the mountains doing somewhat dangerous things. It’s all that experience kind of pushed into a fantasy place.
Are there other things from your life that you have poured into this project?
I would say that although the book is set in the present day, life in small mountain towns has not changed a lot, so I got to do some time travel every day sitting down at the computer and really remembering what those experiences are like, remembering their physical details but also just what it’s like being a 12-year-old and how serious some things feel—and how you have sort of a parallel life that interacts with the adults in your world but is not driven by the adults in your world. I was incredibly lucky to be in scouts and have the autonomy and the freedom I had. So, some of the stuff that feels like wish fulfillment in this book, in terms of how much freedom the kids had, I actually had that in my youth, and that was really remarkable.
How did writing a book compare with writing a screenplay?
When you’re writing a screenplay you’re ultimately writing a plan for making a movie. So you are picking every word incredibly carefully, you are really obsessing about details, but ultimately you know that no one is going to see your plan necessarily in the finished product. Because it’s a plan, it ends up being a very collaborative process. You’re working with executives and producers, actors, and especially a director, to figure out what that plan is going to be for that movie you hope to make.
Writing a book, the book is the book. It’s a remarkable experience because you’re working on the finished thing. I could really obsess about whether that comma should be there, and it mattered in a way that doesn’t matter in screenwriting. As a novelist I have so many extra powers because I can describe the texture of sheets, I can describe how they smell, I can travel back and forth in time within the course of a paragraph. But because you have so many more choices, it’s a lot more work. Because a sentence can go anywhere in a book, you have to really work to figure out what you need to have happen next. It’s a very different experience building up a whole universe.
You have been working on your Scriptnotes podcast for a while. When did the idea for doing a podcast about the launch of the book come into view?
I’ve always been obsessed with process, and how things work, so I was always the kid who took apart the toaster. In the last four or five years, there’s been a rise in the type of podcast that sort of talks through the process. I was really obsessed with this [National Public Radio] Planet Money show called “Planet Money Makes a T-shirt,” which tracked the whole process of making a t-shirt, and then another podcast called StartUp, where you’re following this guy who’s building a podcast company while listening to his podcast. Those were both in my head as I was having these first conversations with Kenneth Oppel, with my agent, and I realized, I’m going to ask all these questions anyway, I might as well get them on tape so I actually can share these answers with other folks. I think also it gave me an excuse for why I was asking these questions. Because once you make clear that there’s some sort of journalism happening here, I think people are sometimes more willing to dive into the whys and wherefores behind all these things.
How many episodes of Launch have you completed?
On Tuesday [January 23] episodes one and two come out. Episode one follows the idea of the book, me starting to write it, up through Jodi Reamer. Episode 2 follows selling the book but also the context, which is really the shadow of Harry Potter. From the first moment I started writing this book I realized that Harry Potter distorts everything in children’s publishing because it’s such a hugely outside success and that comparisons are sort of inevitable. So we really look into Harry Potter as a phenomenon and how a children’s book author feels about those comparisons for better or for worse. A week later [January 30] we go into Episode 3, “A Book by Its Cover,” which is what we’re editing right now, which is the whole process of figuring out the cover for the book, talking with the cover artist, and we deal with the copyediting, which is a phase that I just loved to death.
Yeah. As a screenwriter there’s no copyeditor, no one’s going through and arguing with you about your grammar, but I loved those conversations, and I had an amazing copyeditor.
Also in that same episode we talk about the audiobook and that whole process. With Arlo Finch we had some challenges finding the right typeface for it, but in many ways the narrator of the audiobook is like the typeface of a book. It adds this quality to it and it has to be just the right voice. And we found the right voice.
Who’s going to narrate?
It’s James Patrick Cronin. He’s done a lot of great stuff. He’s in L.A. so we were able to talk through his process there and he taught me a lot about that whole world. The audiobook comes out the same day as the print book and I’m eager for the world to see both of those.
In the fourth episode of Launch, I go to the book publishing plant and see the whole book being printed. I travel to Harrisonburg, Virginia, behind the scenes on the production line to see every step of the process. It was amazing. It was literally the chocolate factory. One of the top 10 life experiences that I’ve had. It comes out the day the book comes out [February 6].
The final two episodes—it’s a six-episode series—will track the book tour and wrap up about what did I learn, how did it do, how do you measure success. We’ll try to get into more of those meta questions and answer listener questions that have come up along the way.
What are the marketing plans thus far?
I’ll be doing a two-week tour, seven cities. Lots of school visits and some live shows in San Francisco, L.A., Chicago, Denver, and New York, where we’ll have an audience and we can talk through stuff.
What’s your biggest takeaway from the publishing experience to this point?
In high school and in college I had a print background, I did the school newspaper and college magazine, so I thought I understood how publishing would work. I thought, oh, it’s like movies but it’s printed out. But it’s not; it’s its own separate system. And to be able to talk with everybody in different parts of this ecosystem has been amazing, from agents, to editors, to Bruno, the guy who’s on the print run. And talking to booksellers was the most fascinating thing because what I had not expected was how incredibly important both booksellers and librarians are in how people discover books. Some of my best conversations from this whole time have been talking to those people about how they see their job as both a gatekeeper and a cheerleader. And those are the folks who are the frontline heroes of getting books in the hands, especially, of young readers. That whole ecosystem has been great to explore.
Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire by John August. Roaring Brook, $16.99 Feb. 6 ISBN 978-1-62672-814-1