A Conversation With D.J. MacHale
by Claire E. WhiteBeing a New York Times bestselling author is actually D.J. MacHale's
Raised in Greenwich, Connecticut, D.J. graduated from Greenwich High School. While in school, he had several jobs including collecting eggs at a poultry farm, engraving sports trophies and washing dishes in a steakhouse...in between playing football and running track. D.J. then attended New York University where he received a BFA in film production. His filmmaking career began in New York where he worked as a freelance writer/director, making corporate videos and television commercials. He also taught photography and film production.
D.J. first broke into the entertainment business by writing several tv specials for young people. Shortly thereafter, he moved to Los Angeles and made the fulltime switch from informational films, to entertainment. As co-creator of the popular Nickelodeon series: Are You Afraid of the Dark?, he executive produced all 91 episodes over 8 years, making it one of the longest running live-action family programs on television. He wrote and directed many of the episodes including the CableAce nominated "The Tale of Cutter's Treasure" starring Charles S. Dutton. He was nominated for a Gemini award for directing "The Tale of the Dangerous Soup" starring Neve Campbell.
D.J. also wrote and directed the movie Tower of Terror for the premiere season of ABC's Wonderful World of Disney which starred Kirsten Dunst and Steve Guttenberg. The Showtime series Chris Cross was co-created, written and executive produced by D.J. It received the CableAce award for Best Youth Series. He has also developed several television series including Jack Shadow for the WB; Paradox for CBS; The Strange Legacy of Cameron Cruz for Nickelodeon and Among The Hidden for Showtime. He has written feature films for 20th Century Fox and Paramount Pictures.
Other notable writing credits include several "ABC Afterschool Specials" including the classic "Seasonal Differences." The pilot for the long-running PBS/CBS series Ghostwriter, starring Samuel L. Jackson, was written by D.J., as well as the HBO series Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective for which he received a CableAce nomination for writing.
In 2002, D.J. decided to try his hand at writing a young adult fantasy novel. The result was Merchant of Death (Simon and Schuster), the first book in the wildly popular Pendragon Adventure series. It was followed by The Lost City of Faar, The Never War, The Reality Bug and Black Water (Simon and Schuster).
D.J. lives in Manhattan Beach, California with his wife Evangeline and daughter Keaton. When he's not writing, you might find him backpacking, scuba diving, skiing, or chasing down the family's golden retriever, Maggie, and kitten named Kaboodle. He spoke with us about his move from the collaborative world of television to the solitary world of a novelist and how he created the world of Halla and Bobby Pendragon. He also shares his thoughts about sex and violence on tv for children, and gives some great advice for aspiring writers.
What kind of books did you like to read when you were growing up? What authors made an impression on you?
I had an odd history in that I went from Dr. Seuss, straight to Ian Fleming. I'm sad to say that I missed out on the wealth of terrific "middle reader" literature that was out there. But I believe that reading the adventure thrillers written by Ian Fleming and Alistair McLean developed my love for the genre. I also remember devouring the short-story compilations that were published under the "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" banner. I was exposed to such classics as The Birds and The Tell Tale Heart at a very young age. I'm not sure if reading about adventure and the macabre created the writer I am today, or if I was always that person which is why I was attracted to those books in the first place! Chicken? Egg? Who knows?
What was the first fiction piece that you ever wrote?
It was a science fiction story about a journey to the stars when I was about 9. Nobody ever read it, and with good reason. Jumping over the dozens of movies I made in school, and the myriad of unsold screenplays, TV shows and stage plays, the first piece of fiction I was paid for was a kids TV special called: The Great American Music Video. It wasn't.
The first video you produced?
In school, it was a documentary about fermentation. Again, jumping over all the school work, the first actual film I directed and was paid for was a Public Service Announcement warning about the dangers of Parvo-Virus in dogs. Very glamorous.
What was the reaction you received?
Well, I got an "A" for the video, so I guess I started my career with a bang. As for the PSA, Parvo-Virus is still a big problem so maybe I didn't do such a hot job on that one.
How did you get your start in television production?
With such a successful career in television, what prompted you to sit down and start a young adult novel?
Two reasons. Any screenwriter will tell you that as satisfying and wonderful a career as that is, outside of the people you work with, nobody actually reads what you write. Your writing goes through a process, touched by multiple dozens of people, until it becomes a finished piece of film. As an example on a very simple level, you may write a line of dialog that you absolutely love, but an actor had to speak that line, and music might be there to underscore the line, and the line might be read in a situation where a dozen other things are happening simultaneously. It's all good and the way it is supposed to work, but the overall experience becomes about so much more than the line itself. Writing a book is much more pure than that, and I wanted to experience it.
In some ways, it's scary. I no longer have the advantage of a great actor bringing life to the line and music adding to the drama. It's now all about the words. I have no excuses. Be careful what you wish for.
Secondly, I was working on a TV pilot for a new series that was dragging on forever. It was a very frustrating project where I spent much of my time twiddling my thumbs, waiting for the network to make decisions. I was going out of my mind, so I decided that if there was ever a time to try my hand at writing a book, it would be then. As it turned out, the TV series didn't happen, but the books did. So in a roundabout way, I have procrastinating TV executives to thank for the birth and success of the Pendragon novels.
What was your inspiration for this series?
|"[T]he glut of reality shows has hurt television writers.... I feel there will always be room for terrific reality programming (Hey, I'm a Survivor fan) but the good shows are now few and far between. Will the pendulum swing back toward scripted TV? I think so, but the impediment will be budgets. The economics of TV will have to change drastically or the bottom is going to fall out...for everybody."|
When you sat down to write the first Pendragon book, how much of the story did you have when you started? Did you take the seed of an idea and just go with it -– or are you an outliner, who has everything planned out from A to Z?
I am very much an outliner. I firmly believe that if you are writing an adventure, especially one where there is a "mystery" component, you have to know where your story is going to end before you can decide where it's going to start. With the Pendragon novels, I wrote a brief outline, maybe three pages each, of all ten books. Certainly they are nothing more than thumbnails of how the overall story will progress, but it has become my bible. I know what’s going to happen in the last chapter of Book #10.
With individual books, I also outline in very rough form. In some ways it's my favorite part of the process. I can simply concoct a story, without worrying about how it's written. I'll make a very loose outline, then go back and start from word #1.
Of course, with both the overall outlines and the book-specific outlines, I am constantly making changes as I go along. That's the one danger of working with an outline...you can't allow yourself to be wedded to it and miss opportunities that come up along the way for making the story better. You've got to use the outline when you feel as if you're getting lost, but be open to making changes.
The books have an interesting narrative style, which alternates between first person and the third person point of view. What went into your decision to tell the story as "reports from the front" by Bobby Pendragon, alternating with a third person point of view?
The dialogue in the Pendragon books rings true. How did you learn to write good dialog? And how do you keep up with the current vernacular of pre-teens and teens?
|"Yes, there are the violent cartoons, and as a parent I'm going to do all I can to steer my daughter away from them.... I think the bigger problem is where kids are watching programs and movies aimed at adults. At any time of the day, a child can tune in to a violent movie on cable. I think it all comes down to watching what your kids are watching."|
As for the current vernacular question, sometimes trying to make dialog and phrases too current can be the kiss of death. If the slang used is too contemporary, the story instantly becomes dated. Therefore, I try to shy away from phrases that are popular today, but probably won't be tomorrow. If you analyze the books, you'd find that there is actually very little use of ultra-contemporary slang. I try to go more generic (i.e., the use and over-use of the cross generational adjective..."cool") But the real trick is, it's more about attitude than anything else.
I'd like to talk about Bobby. Far from being a nerd who becomes a hero in another world, Bobby is already popular in his high school. In fact, he has a great life that he really doesn't want to leave. Another interesting characteristic of Bobby is that he isn't a martial arts expert, nor does he have any supernatural powers; he has to rely on his brain to get him out of a tight spot. What went into your thinking process when you wrote Bobby? Was there anything in particular you were trying to avoid with him?
The points you raise are choices I definitely thought through, from the point of view of wanting to create an interesting character, while not going down familiar paths; as well as creating a character who will have legs and grow over the course of ten books. Of course, the classic story arc of "from zero to hero" has been done more times than can be counted. Ahh, the hapless loser who overcomes his own shortcomings to find the hero inside. Great journey, but it had its limitations for me. First, it's been done a zillion times. I wanted to take that convention and turning it on its ear. Bobby starts out as somebody who has it all together. He's popular, he's smart, he's athletic, he's got a girlfriend...basically he represents the classic ideal of what most 14 year old guys wish they were. Then I pulled the rug out from under him. He lost it all. In some ways, it makes him more sympathetic for having lost so much, as opposed to never having it at all. There's another factor here, as much as in the early books Bobby is incredibly reluctant and fearful, he also pulls off some feats that most 14 year olds, no matter how "perfect" they were, would have trouble handling. This plays in to the overall story. Bobby was chosen to be the lead Traveler for a reason. It wasn't arbitrary. So in order to believe Bobby is able to do some of the things he does, we have to believe that he's pretty special to begin with. As much as the Pendragon story is a bigger than life fantasy, I try not to break the rules of reality, where they should apply. I couldn't have Bobby suddenly riding horses and sword fighting and doing all these things that a real kid wouldn't be able to do. It goes back to making him seem to the reader like a kid who could be sitting next to them in class. Also, Bobby's story spans ten books. How long could I possibly, believably, keep him a loser? Everything that has happened in the Pendragon books, character wise, has been baby-steps. I saw some negative criticism after the first book was published that said the characters were one dimensional and didn't grow. Well, that was actually a fair assessment...if you're only looking at the first book. The full character arcs for Bobby, Mark and Courtney will take place over ten books. They make incremental changes in each. By starting Bobby off as somebody who at first had everything he wanted, I actually lengthened the story arc.
Bobby isn't alone in his quest; he has two good friends, Mark and Courtney, who know his secret. In Black Water, Mark and Courtney get to Travel to Eelong, where they experience quite a change of perspective. What was the greatest challenge in creating Mark and Courtney?
The villain of the books is the enigmatic Saint Dane. I must admit, I always love it when he comes into the scene -- he has great dialogue. He talks, but he never really explains anything. (And if he does explain, you don't know whether he's telling the truth.) But you don't realize that until he's left, which makes you want to see that character again. What was the greatest challenge in writing Saint Dane? And are we sure he's totally evil? Some of his actions could be read several different ways.
Oh, he's evil alright. But that's all I'm admitting to. Saint Dane is my favorite character, hands down. The reason goes back to my explanation of why I like to write outlines. Saint Dane always knows what's going on. He knows how the story is supposed to end. Therefore, he knows the misdirections he can throw at Bobby and company to throw them off the track…just like me. As much as I love writing about characters and growing with them, I also love to come up with the plots. The evil plans. The schemes. The twists. That's pretty much what Saint Dane is all about. If you think about it, he's the one whose coming up with all these evil plots...just like me. So in other words...I'm Saint Dane. Muhahahahahaha! But there's more to him, which I'm only now beginning to get in to in Book #6, The Rivers of Zadaa. Ultimately, we have to wonder why he's doing what he's doing. Is he just evil for the sake of it? Or is there something else going on? I'll tell you this much, there's something else going on. Once Bobby discovers it, all his questions and the questions of all readers, will be answered.
What makes a great villain in a story?
I think the best villains are the ones who don't necessarily believe they are villains. They may commit the most atrocious acts, but in their minds they are completely justified. Beyond that, good villains need to be clever. After all, they are the ones who create the story. If not for them, there would be nothing for our hero to do! And finally, a villain has to thoroughly enjoy what he/she is doing. For them, it's not just for the money, or whatever. It's for the thrill of the game. That's a fun villain.
I'd like to talk about the actual creative process for you. Would you take us through a typical writing day?
I have an office in my house. That is my refuge. I've always written at home and though most people are horrified at the thought of working at home, after doing it for so long I know how to resist the temptations of the couch, the TV and the refrigerator. Usually. I'm not great at filtering out extraneous input, though. I was never one of those students who could study with the radio playing. I need to concentrate. I'm too easily distracted. If the radio is on, I listen to the radio. If somebody is in the next room talking, I'm listening to what they're saying. So I really need to be alone. People often ask me about "writers block" My answer is that writers block isn't about not being able to think of ideas, it's about thinking of too many things at once so that your brain can't concentrate on the challenge at hand. That's why, when I'm stumped, I'll often go for a run. It's incredible how that clears my mind and allows me to focus on the problem. When I'm writing (as opposed to shooting) my day is pretty mundane. I can describe it simply: Walk the dog by seven; at my desk by eight; write till noonish; eat lunch and watch CNN for a half hour; back to my desk by 1:30; then, a couple of catnaps later I'll knock off by six. That schedule changed a bit with the birth of my daughter and the success of Pendragon. Now the schedule is: Up at six; answer fan mail until seven; get my daughter up and dressed and out the door for a walk with the dog by eight; back home for breakfast by eight-thirty; at my desk by nine...and the rest of the day is same. Glamorous life, no?
As a director and a writer, you've worked with a number of child actors. What are your thoughts on working with children? Have you seen many of the child actors burn out later?
|"I am very much an outliner. I firmly believe that if you are writing an adventure, especially one where there is a "mystery" component, you have to know where your story is going to end before you can decide where it's going to start."|
As a father, what is your opinion about the amount of sex and/or violence in children's television programming?
It depends on the type of programming you're talking about. I think there is a lot of fantastic kids programming on TV, for all ages of kids. Yes, there are the violent cartoons, and as a parent I'm going to do all I can to steer my daughter away from them. I say that partially because of the violence, and partially because they are mindless and uninteresting. My hope is that my daughter will find them as boring as I do. I think the bigger problem is where kids are watching programs and movies aimed at adults. At any time of the day, a child can tune in to a violent movie on cable. I think it all comes down to watching what your kids are watching.
But right now, since my daughter is only 15 months old, we're just learning about how to count with "The Count". "1...2...3! A ha ha ha!" (She loves to laugh like The Count. I do too.)
Your website has a very active forum for your fans. I also noticed that you allow fan fiction using your characters – something that some other authors are very opposed to. What are your thoughts on fan fiction? Do you have any legal or copyright concerns about fan fiction?
You've accomplished so much so early: screenwriting, directing and now writing novels. How do you juggle the demands of work and family?
This may sound hokey, but I love what I do. I'm very lucky that I've been able to make a living by doing something I love so much, and a family that I love even more. Therefore, it's easy. But I don’t get enough sleep anymore.
How has your screenwriting career affected you as a novelist? Does anyone give you "notes" anymore? Or is it a more solitary process of creation now?
Hah! Great question! When I turned in my first draft of The Merchant of Death, I was all sorts of worried, waiting for the reams of notes to come back. They didn't. My editor made some very helpful overall comments, made some suggestions as to how I might tighten up what I did...and that was that. In subsequent books my editors have given me great insight on how to make my stories better, without over-managing. It's wonderful!
It’s the exact opposite of what it's like to work in TV. Over the years I certainly have had the fortune to work with some executives who were as insightful and helpful as the editors I just described. (In fact, I'm working with one right now at Discovery Kids) Unfortunately, they are the exception. Mostly, I've gotten the infamous "notes" back that simply serve to de-rail the project. Every writer has their own favorite stories. Here's mine: I once submitted a detailed outline of a show to an (unnamed to protect the guilty) network. In a nutshell, the show was a science fiction story about a school for genius/inventor kids. This particular network exec got back to me with the line: "I really love your show! I want to go with this! But do the kids have to be genius and do they have to be inventors?" Uhhh….yeah. My response was: "So, you want a show about a school for kids?" Needless to say, I took the show back very quickly. So I’d have to say that, generally speaking the process of writing a novel is much more rewarding, and creative with less frustration…than the process of making TV.
I'd like to talk about theme. The Pendragon series, to me, really is at heart a great adventure and coming of age story with interesting characters. But I think there are also some themes that run through the work –- such as the value of friendship and most importantly -– making the right choices and the difficulty of that, for both adults and teens. Do you ever consciously think in terms of themes when you write? Are there any issues about which you feel strongly that make their way into your work (consciously or unconsciously)?
Absolutely. I'd rather not go into the specific themes that I've woven through each story because I want readers to interpret them for themselves. However, I will say this: One consistent theme in all of my work, is the notion of self-empowerment. I portray characters, usually kids, kids who are faced with dilemmas, and who do not have an adult around to show them the right thing to do. People often ask me why Uncle Press had to die. Well, that's the main reason. With Uncle Press around, Bobby always had somebody he could run to for advice, or to save him, or to answer questions. I like to create characters who are faced with trouble, instantly look for the easy avenues of escape...and find brick walls. They first look to adults, then to the authorities, then to anybody else who might get them out of the mess they're in, only to find that nobody is around, and they have to look inside themselves to find the answer. More often than not, they succeed. Of course, Pendragon is a much more complicated story than most TV shows where each episode wraps up nicely. So Bobby often makes decisions that aren't the best. But the point is, he makes them. He trusts in himself, and he puts trust in others. Failure is a very real thing, and you have to learn how to deal with it. So, if there is any consistent theme with the books, it's the notion of taking responsibility.
Can you give us a sneak peek into the next book?
Television programming has changed quite a bit in the last few years, with the large number of cable channels and the move towards reality television. Do you think that the trend towards less scripted dramas and comedies and more reality TV will continue? Or will people eventually get tired of shows like Fear Factor? How will this affect the writers?
Second questions first...the glut of reality shows has hurt television writers. That goes without saying. There are fewer scripted shows and therefore fewer jobs. It's as simple as that. Will the trend continue? Probably. The programming is so cheap to produce, and gets such great ratings that I can't imagine the networks abandoning the genre. However, I also feel as if we've reached a saturation point...not only from the perspective of viewers, but from the creators. You only have to see how many truly horrible shows are out there to know that the quality is so poor, people will be tuning out. I feel there will always be room for terrific reality programming (Hey, I'm a Survivor fan) but the good shows are now few and far between. Will the pendulum swing back toward scripted TV? I think so, but the impediment will be budgets. The economics of TV will have to change drastically or the bottom is going to fall out...for everybody.
What are your pet peeves in life?
What is your advice to aspiring television writers? To aspiring novelists?
The classic advice: write about what you know. That way your writing will be real and people will respond to it. It's as simple as that. And never give up. And get a good agent.
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