ALL FOUR KIDS: An Interview with John Dixon, author of Phoenix Island

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Today we begin our interview series with OneFour KidLit debut authors by welcoming John Dixon, author of Phoenix Island.

Here’s the official Phoenix Island blurb:

Phoenix IslandThe judge told Carl that one day he’d have to decide exactly what kind of person he would become. But on Phoenix Island, the choice will be made for him.

A champion boxer with a sharp hook and a short temper, sixteen-year-old Carl Freeman has been shuffled from foster home to foster home. He can’t seem to stay out of trouble—using his fists to defend weaker classmates from bullies. His latest incident sends his opponent to the emergency room, and now the court is sending Carl to the worst place on earth: Phoenix Island.

Classified as a “terminal facility,” it’s the end of the line for delinquents who have no home, no family, and no future. Located somewhere far off the coast of the United States—and immune to its laws—the island is a grueling Spartan-style boot camp run by sadistic drill sergeants who show no mercy to their young, orphan trainees. Sentenced to stay until his eighteenth birthday, Carl plans to play by the rules, so he makes friends with his wisecracking bunkmate, Ross, and a mysterious gray-eyed girl named Octavia. But he makes enemies, too, and after a few rough scrapes, he earns himself the nickname “Hollywood” as well as a string of punishments, including a brutal night in the “sweatbox.” But that’s nothing compared to what awaits him in the “Chop Shop”—a secret government lab where Carl is given something he never dreamed of.

A new life. . . .

A new body. A new brain.

Gifts from the fatherly Old Man, who wants to transform Carl into something he’s not sure he wants to become.

For this is no ordinary government project. Phoenix Island is ground zero for the future of combat intelligence.

And for Carl, it’s just the beginning. . . .

Congratulations, John, on your debut! Can you share a little background on where you got/how you developed your idea for Phoenix Island?

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.

CBS’s series Intelligence is an adaptation of Phoenix Island. Can you tell us a little bit about how that happened?

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 Hostages would 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.”

Tell us three fun facts about you.

I’ve broken my nose seven times.

I’m addicted to hot food and grow the world’s hottest pepper, the Moruga scorpion.

Many years ago, I worked full-time as a stone mason and spent an entire summer building stone walls and patios for New York Times bestseller Lisa Scottoline.

Where is your favorite place to write? (Or where did most of Phoenix Island get written?)

I write anytime and anywhere, but I prefer to work on my Alphasmart Neo word processor at a flimsy table in a guestroom upstairs – directly overtop, ironically enough, the dedicated office, where I have a nice roll top desk and computer. I like a Spartan workspace. The word processor and off-the-grid guestroom protect me from distractions.

As most writers are inspired by writers/books who came before, what authors/books inspired you to write?

Since I was just a kid, literary influences have hovered over me, waxing and waning like moons of exquisite beauty. Ray Bradbury always made me feel like writing, and certainly Phoenix Island was influenced by the comic books of my youth and childhood favorites like The Lord of the Flies, The Island of Dr. Moreau, “The Most Dangerous Game,” and the novels and short stories of Jack London, America’s most unfairly and unfortunately pigeon-holed writer. Over the last decade, however, I’ve learned the most from my three favorite authors, Stephen King, Elmore Leonard, and Cormac McCarthy, and a lot from other favorites, like Thomas Harris, Jack Ketchum, S.E. Hinton, and Robert Lipsyte.

As this community is fearless, we’d like to know something you are afraid of and something you are not afraid of.

I fear African wild dogs, those twitchy monochromatic nightmares that skulk and skirt and circle before descending as a pack, then tug prey apart from all directions, eating it as they do so, while it’s still alive…

I do not fear my seventeen-year-old cat.

Thanks, John, for stopping by! And best wishes for the success of both Phoenix Island and Intelligence!

John DixonJohn Dixon is a former Golden Gloves boxer, youth services caseworker, prison tutor, and middle school English teacher. His debut novel, Phoenix Island, inspired the CBS TV series Intelligence.  John now writes full time and serves as a consultant to ABC Studios. He lives in West Chester, PA, with his wife, Christina, and their freeloading pets.

For more on John, visit his Website, Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

For more on Intelligence, visit CBS’s official site, or tune in to your CBS station tonight, 1/7/14, at 9 p.m. for the premiere.

To purchase Phoenix Island, visit IndieBound, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s, Books-a-Million, The Book Depository.

Jen BrooksJen Brooks is the author of IN A WORLD JUST RIGHT, releasing from Simon and Schuster’s Books For Young Readers in the spring of 2015. Learn more at www.jenbrookswriter.com.
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