JOHN STEPHENS Photo

JOHN STEPHENS spent ten years working in television and was executive producer of Gossip Girl and a writer for Gilmore Girls and The O.C. He holds an MFA from the University of Virginia. John and his wife have a dog named Bug and live in Los Angeles.

AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

Author Videos:

A Conversation with John Stephens:

INTERVIEWER: At last year's Bologna Book Fair, everyone was buzzing about THE EMERALD ATLAS. Now it is licensed in over 35 countries, with more on the horizon. As a debut novelist, what has this experience been like for you?

JOHN STEPHENS: Totally bananas. Though honestly, the nice thing about the book selling in so many territories before it's published is that now expectations are so high that there is no way I can meet them. I'm bound to disappoint. It's very freeing knowing that.

Okay, but really honestly— where I've felt it is in the pressure during the writing of the second book. With the first book, I wrote it more or less in secret and there was never much expectation I was going to get anyone besides my wife to read it. So basically, zero pressure. Now, with the second book, there're people waiting, asking how it's going… It's sort of like with the first book, you manage to pull a rabbit out of a hat in the privacy of your own room. With the second book, you have to do it again, only this time you're on stage in front of a thousand people and there's a worldwide rabbit-shortage.

IN: Tell us about THE EMERALD ATLAS, the first book in the Books of Beginning Trilogy.

JS: It's the story of three children, two sisters and a brother, who have been ripped from their parents while babies, and are then shuttled along from orphanage to orphanage for ten years, till they're finally sent to a mysterious mansion where they stumble upon a magic book that allows them to travel through time. Along the way, the children encounter a host of magical creatures (dwarves, wizards, monsters), discover they are at the center of an ancient prophesy, and seek to prevent a tragedy. Looking forward, the books tell the story of how the three children, in the process of trying to put their family back together, end up having to save the world.

There are also a lot of jokes.

IN: The theme of family and the relationship between siblings Kate, Michael and Emma is so central to this story. Can you talk about how your own childhood informed the development of these characters?

Like Michael, the boy in the story, I am the middle brother of two sisters. Like Michael, I was also picked on FOR ABSOLUTELY NO REASON BY MY SISTERS EVEN WHEN I WAS TOTALLY INNOCENT AND HAD DONE NOTHING AT ALL EXCEPT MAYBE THAT ONE TIME WHEN I PUT A DEAD SNAKE IN MY SISTER'S BED AND I TOTALLY TOTALLY APOLOGIZED FOR THAT!!!

Okay, but seriously, I am the middle brother of two sisters, and though we are not as close in age as the children in the book, our dynamic was similar. We'd squabble, argue, and then when it mattered, we'd be there for each other. Then, as soon as the crisis was over, we'd squabble again.

Also, the time I put the dead snake in my sister's bed was actually kinda funny.

IN: Sibling rivalry…tell us about it! Did you let your sisters read the book while you were working on it, or did you hide it from them?

JS: My sisters did not read the book till I was done. Then my older sister read it first and really liked it. My younger sister, whose name is Kate, I sent it to her, waited, waited…she kept promising to read it. Finally, she heard that one of the characters was named Kate, and so she read it, thinking I might have put in incriminating things about her past. Of course, now she goes around telling everyone, “My brother wrote this book. I'm kinda the hero of it.” She's been telling me that she's having her book club read it when the book comes out. But I just learned that there's actually only one other person in her book club, who happens to be our cousin, who I also know happens to hate books, so it's not exactly Oprah.

IN: Finish the sentence – Kate is…

JS: a surrogate mother to her brother and sister. Forced to shoulder responsibility when she's still very young. She's strong, resourceful, brave and extremely loyal. She keeps her word.

IN: Michael is…

JS: bookish. Probably takes himself a bit too seriously. Has a well-document admiration for dwarves. His idea of a great vacation would either involve going to the library or a dwarf castle. Best—a library inside a dwarf castle; he'd be in heaven.

IN: Emma is…

JS: a pint-size brawler, always spoiling for a fight, but she's also got an enormous heart. She's both intensely feisty and intensely vulnerable.

IN: Which character in the book do you identify with most?

JS: If I'm honest, probably Michael, for his studiousness, his desire to document the world around him, his relationship with his sisters, his glasses. Also, I gave him my own love of dwarves which I had when I was his age. Growing up, I'd read fantasy books, and the elves were always described as being so perfect that it annoyed me. Mostly because it was clear I was never going to be an elf. But the dwarves! They sang songs, had feasts, took naps. I felt like being a dwarf would be a lot more fun. So Michael and I share that.

IN: The countess is rather terrifying. Can we ask who inspired that character?

JS: No one in particular. However, my years in television (Gilmore Girls, The O.C., Gossip Girl) gave me a great deal of experience writing evil, heartless teenage girls. It's well known in Hollywood that if you want someone to write a conniving, back-biting seventeen-year-old, you get John Stephens on the phone. The only thing that set the Countess apart from others I've written was that she had magical powers. And there's something else about her too, but I don't want to spoil the story.

IN: What do you hope young readers will come away with when they read THE EMERALD ATLAS?

JS: Number 1: They're not bored. I really really hope that. Number 2: The idea of family. The idea that magic aside, it was these kids love for each other that saw them through. Number 3: That they're not bored. That's like, really important. Did I say that? Number 4: That books can be magic. Whether it's like the book Kate, Michael and Emma find that takes them through time, or a book you read that takes you on an adventure to another world. Number 5: That they're not bored.

IN: Time travel plays into the plot of this book. Did you have to do extensive research so that you could incorporate it, or did you know the ins and outs when you started out?

JS: When I turned in my draft to my agent, he asked me, “So which theory of time travel are you using?” And I had to respond, “Um…the one I'm making up as I go?”

That didn't cut it.

So yes, then I went back and I researched the various theories of time travel. There are, as you probably know, three main theories of time travel that get used in fiction (the multiple strands theory, the single, unmutable time stream theory, and the single, mutable time stream theory). I chose to use the single, mutable time stream theory (which is used to such beautiful effect in the first Back to the Future). The secret of writing a time travel book is (and witness the anecdote above, I learned this the hard way) to decide the theory you're to use, decide whatever new or altered rules you're going to apply to that theory—AND THEN STICK TO IT. Time travel can be extremely confusing, but in the end, your book will not make coherent sense, and the reader will feel cheated, if you're breaking your own rules. And the rules, by the way, can be as bonkersville as you like, but they have to be clear, and you have to hold to them.

The biggest problem with the theory of time travel that I chose was that each time someone goes back in time, the time line changes, and only the time traveler knows what's different, so then I had to have multiple graphs to keep track of how things were changing. Also, there's the real danger of simple information overload with a time travel story, of burying your reader and yourself in exposition. You need to be careful and very selective about what you're going to include and exclude.

IN: You spent many years in television with writing and producing credits including Gilmore Girls, The O.C. and Gossip Girl. How did you make the transition from writing for that audience, to writing a novel for young readers?

JS: It's strange, but when I wrote The Emerald Atlas, the idea that it was a novel for younger readers never played into its composition. I knew I was going to write a fantasy novel that was in the tradition of Narnia and Rowling and Philip Pullman, but after that, I just wrote the book I wanted to write. There was never any sort of adjustment or gauge for the fact that it was intended for younger readers.

If anything, the adjustment in my writing had happened in the other direction, when I'd written television. All of those shows had clear voices and audiences and formats. Each episode was forty-three minutes with five or six commercial breaks. With a novel, you can write whatever you want it to be. Writing television requires a great deal more thought in terms making sure something fits the appropriate template.

I feel like that's a really boring answer. Sorry.

IN: What is your writing process like? Do you already have all three books mapped out?

JS: With The Emerald Atlas, I knew where I was going very early on. I had the ending, more or less, and then I just had a find a way of getting there. It's saying, “I know I have to get to Chicago, but I have no idea where Chicago is or how to get there, and I'm going to start by going south from Dallas.” But eventually you end up in Chicago and then you go back and cut out all the uninteresting detours, so that to someone hearing the story, your trip to Chicago sounds purposeful and exciting with cool twists. Hmm, I think that metaphor kinda got away from me.

But also, sometimes I don't have the ending. I have the character. Or a scene. And I'll write that scene, which will take me somewhere else. At the beginning of a book, I sort of just write a lot of material to see what I have, and then I start to take that and outline it on a big white-board in my office. I like to have a general outline, with the points I know I'm going to hit along the way, but an outline which is still loose enough so that things can surprise me in the writing.

In terms of routine, I like to say that I'm a morning writer. But really that just means mornings are my best time. I write in the afternoons sometimes too, but that's usually garbage. But I get up early, usually 4:30 or 5, have a cup of coffee and start work. I guess the most important part of my schedule is that I work in two hour sessions and during that time don't answer the phone or check email or even go into the kitchen for a donut if I'm hungry. Which can be awful because sometimes when you're writing, you really really want a donut, and in fact you can even convince yourself that if only you had a donut you could figure out that plot hole in Chapter Seven. Those days are hard. Man, those days are hard. Man, I love donuts. You've already begun to hear feedback from your kid readers. Any particularly funny/surprising/off the wall comments to share?

Hm, probably the most surprising question I got was, “Will Emma and Gabriel get married?” To that, I can say, with complete assurance, “No.”

IN: What were your favorite books growing up? How about now?

JS: Growing up, I was a huge fan of Tolkien's books (see my comments on my dwarf affection above). The Narnia books had a huge impact on me. Particularly The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. For me, that book had and still has the feeling of real magic. I loved the Tarzan series when I was young, and I went through a whole phase of trying to convince my mother to let me eat my hamburger raw (she refused). And I was, and remain, a big Roald Dahl fan. I loved his sense of humor and feel for the grotesque and how terrible things did happen to the characters; his books were not safe.

As far as my favorite books now, all of the above with the exception of Tarzan, which has not aged well. To that list in the YA world, I would also add Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy which truly changed my life by convincing me that I wanted to write children's fantasy. I'm a huge Harry Potter fan; given any fictional world to live in, I would choose Hogwarts. I re-read Edith Nesbit's Bastable books frequently. I love the way the children are with each other. Her humor is perfectly nuanced. In the adult world, just to name a few, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Pride and Prejudice, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, The Sun Also Rises, War and Peace (that's right!) and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

Top Ten Movies

  1. His Girl Friday
  2. Casablanca
  3. The Wild Bunch
  4. Badlands TIE The Yakuza Papers
  5. Memories of Murder
  6. Castles in the Skye
  7. Sullivan's Travels TIE Purple Butterfly
  8. Together
  9. Iron Giant TIE Shogun Assassin
  10. The Third Man

Top Ten Books

  1. Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
  2. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
  3. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  4. The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
  5. Great Expectations TIE David Copperfield by Charles “the Man” Dickens
  6. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
  7. Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard
  8. The Biographical Dictionary of Film by David Thompson
  9. Emma by Jane Austen
  10. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

John Stephens Book Tour Events

Tuesday, April 5th at 6:00 PM
Barnes & Noble - El Cerrito
6050 El Cerrito Plaza, El Cerrito, CA
For more information: (510) 524-0087

Wednesday, April 6th at 3:00 PM
Hicklebee's
1378 Lincoln Avenue, San Jose, CA
For more information: (408) 292-8880

Thursday, April 7th at 4:00 PM
University Book Store - Mill Creek Town Center
15311 Main Street, Mill Creek, WA
For more information: (425) 385-3530

Monday, April 11th at 7:00 PM
Tattered Cover Book Store
9315 Dorchester Street, Highlands Ranch, CO
For more information: (303) 470-7050

Friday, April 15th at 4:00 PM
Pudd'nHead Books
37 South Old Orchard Avenue, St. Louis, MO
For more information: (314) 918-1069

Monday, April 18th at 4:00 PM
Book, Bytes & Beyond
197 Rock Road, Glen Rock, NJ
For more information: (201) 670-6766

Saturday, April 16th at 3:00 p.m.
Philadelphia Book Festival at the Free Library
1901 Vine Street, Philadelphia, PA
For more information, http://libwww.freelibrary.org/bookfestival/