Give a Wednesday welcome today to John Dixon. His first book, “Phoenix Island” inspired the CBS television show, Intelligence. He’s sharing today about the journey to the book, the TV show, and more.
DIXON: Phoenix Island came at me from a bunch of directions, unconnected experiences and ideas coalescing over time, but the heart of it grew out of two sources: hope and rage.
From the get-go, I knew I wanted to write a story about a kid who, like so many people I’ve known, doesn’t really fit into polite society but who nonetheless possesses great strength and potential, given the right circumstances. Then I heard about the unbelievably disgusting “Kids for Cash” case, where judges from my home state of Pennsylvania made money by convicting kids to privately run boot camps for teen offenders. My high hopes for people I’d known met my rage over this unbelievable injustice, and the book blew up in my head.
The main character, Carl Freeman, is a sixteen-year-old orphan and boxing champ. He’s tough, street smart, fiercely loyal, highly principled, and incredibly courageous. Unfortunately, these strengths have become paradoxical weaknesses, creating a “perfect storm” for Carl. If bullies start pushing someone around, he must step in, even if it means big trouble. The book opens in a courtroom, with Carl in handcuffs. He’s just done it again, this time busting up a bunch of football players who were picking on a helpless kid Carl didn’t even know. The judge sentences him to Phoenix Island, an “isolated boot camp for teens” that turns out to be much, much more than that.
As a son, a friend, a caseworker, a teacher, and someone who both boxed against and tutored prisoners, I’ve known dozens of people gifted with extraordinary athleticism, brains, charisma, and courage, whose potential strengths, under the wrong circumstances, ended up becoming liabilities. When I started writing the book, I had a very clear picture of the main character, who during the earliest stages was based physically and to some degree mentally on a former student of mine. This kid was very smart, very tough, and very angry. I liked him a lot. I taught him to box, and he took to it naturally. He had a world of potential in and out of the ring, but he couldn’t stay out of trouble and ended up dying tragically.
Though Carl developed into his own person, he’ll always retain a touch of that boy, and Phoenix Island will remain on one level my attempt to tell a story where my young friend, rather than ending so sadly, followed a different path and used his incredible strengths to become a hero.
WN: How has being a boxer, a teacher and a stone mason influenced your writing?
DIXON: I couldn’t have written PHOENIX ISLAND without having lived the life I’ve lived, but I’m not always cognizant of the way my experiences come to bear on the things that I write. Sometimes, it’s obvious, whether its drawing upon my experiences as a boxer when writing a fight scene or drawing on classroom memories to conjure young characters, their motivations, conversations, and extreme aversion to injustice. Other times, though it’s not so obvious – even when it should be.
My good friend Jeff Wood just got in touch saying he’d read the book and chuckling over one of the creepy lines, “I’m the sheriff, and I can do anything I want.” I’d forgotten that line was in there – not to mention the real life source behind it. Many years ago, during our early twenties, Jeff and I were hitchhiking in the absolute boonies. This car load of what turned out to be coke-tweaked psychopaths picked us up. One of the guys – the nicest, honestly, had just gotten out of prison after serving time for manslaughter. Another guy was completely out of his mind and kept pounding his fists on the roof of the car. The scariest one, though, was very quiet and kept saying, “I’m the sheriff, and I can do any damned thing I want.” It was a crazy night. These guys took us to this bar in the middle of nowhere. At one point, we were all around this pool table – and I can still remember it was Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” on the jukebox – and the ceiling-pounder leaned over to the nice man-slaughterer and said, unaware that we could hear him, “We’re going to take these guys out in the woods and shoot them.” Then the Sheriff started acting all friendly, saying we all had to leave the bar together and go out in the words, where they were going to jack-light deer. We bolted out a side door and into the woods, and I ended up running into a fence and slashing my stomach. I still have the scar, and people always mistake it for the echo of an appendectomy.
The thing is, I had forgotten the connection between line and memory until Jeff reminded me. It’s funny the way life can sneak up on you like that.
Of the three professions you mention, the one that influenced my writing the least was stone masonry, but even that has had an impact. I love building dry stack walls and once spent an entire summer building a huge one for New York Times bestseller Lisa Scottoline. She was kind to me, and when she learned that I had written a book – an admittedly awful story that remains in the trunk to this day – she offered to put me in touch with her agent. I said thanks but no thanks. To this day, she smiles at the memory, saying, “No one says no. You’re the only one who ever said no.” Last weekend, when I went to a signing in Doylestown, PA, an hour and a half from my house, I met with a wonderful surprise: a stack of six books that Lisa had ordered for herself and her family. She’s a great writer and a great person, and I’ve learned a lot from her genuine nature, warmth, and encouragement.
WN: The book influenced the new TV series, “Intelligence.” What’s that journey been like from debut novel to TV?
DIXON: I was sitting in Jimmy John’s Hot Dogs on Route 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?
Jimmy John’s is my favorite restaurant on the planet, but it’s also full of toy 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 traffic 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 Hostageswould likely nab any 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 to Simon & Schuster. 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.”
Since then, it’s been an exciting ride, with the INTELLIGENCE pilot drawing nearly 17 million viewers on January 7th, the night of its premier and pub day for PHOENIX ISLAND. Book and show are very, very different now, but I’m happy to have both versions out in the world, and it’s been really exciting hearing from hundreds of people with whom I’d fallen out of contact and, occasionally, from people with whom I never would have imagined personal contact – such as earlier this week, when Marg Helgenberger got in touch to wish me a happy birthday. Sureal…
WN: What was the best piece of writing advice you received and why was it so helpful?
DIXON: The best writing advice is of course to read a lot and write a lot, but that came naturally to me, so I didn’t need anyone to suggest it. The best piece of writing advice came inside one of the 500 rejection slips I earned as a short story writer. An editor – I think it was David L. Felts – rejected one of my short stories with the advice to keep my main character in the driver’s seat. The protagonist’s actions should drive the plot, he explained, not the other way around. That piece of advice instantly changed the way I wrote, and I started selling more stories right away. When I talk with aspiring writers, I tell them to avoid passive protagonists to whom stuff just happens. People like to watch characters try. They don’t have to succeed, but they have to do something. They have to act. These actions, whether successful or unsuccessful, should develop the story through a series of conflicts, creating a plot. Basic stuff, but useful, too, and I like the memorable simplicity of the mantra “Keep your main character in the driver’s seat.”
WN: What books have captured your attention lately?
DIXON: I do a lot of rereading and just finished reading THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS for the sixth or seventh time. An amazing book, that. It blows me away every time I read it.
The two best books I’ve read in the last year or two are GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn – you can imagine my elation when I found out that Kirby Heyborne, the narrator the GONE GIRL audiobook, was reading PHOENIX ISLAND – and the incredibly affecting WESTLAKE SOUL by Rio Youers. Youers’s book might be unfamiliar to you – it’s from a smaller press called ChiZine – but since it was recently optioned for film with Stephen Susco, writer of THE GRUDGE, at the helm, I think it will soon reach a much wider audience. Do yourself a favor and read it now. That way, you’ll look cool and smart when everyone else comes on board.
Looking ahead, I’m excited for the release of two great books I read in ARC form. NEARLY GONE by debut novelist Elle Cosimano, is a razor sharp thriller and very smart thriller that should appeal to teens and adults of both genders. Craig DiLouie’s SUFFER THE CHILDREN completely blew my mind. Due out soon from Simon & Schuster, SUFFER THE CHILDREN is a brilliantly written apocalyptic tale peopled with three dimensional characters. Dark stuff, utterly compelling, and perhaps the most frightening book I’ve ever read.
Finally, I’m looking forward to a few other books that either just came out or will be hitting the shelves in the near future: ENDERS by Lissa Price, RED RISING by Pierce Brown – a.k.a. “THE HUNGER GAMES for adults” – and HEXED by Michelle Krys. I’ve started an ARC of HEXED, and although it’s not my standard fare – it’s about high school teenagers, who also happen to be witches – I’m loving it. Great writing, excellent characters, and that rarest of gems, genuinely funny humor.
WN: What’s next for you as a writer?
DIXON: Currently, I’m having fun writing DEVIL’S POCKET, the sequel to PHOENIX ISLAND, and I’m looking forward to a collaboration with a pair of wildly talented Australians. Artist Adam Duncan is developing “The Laughing Girl of Bora Fanong”, one of several stories I’ve coauthored with Adam Browne, into a graphic novel. I’ve seen the initial artwork, and it’s fantastic. This is going to be fun!