John Stephens spent the last ten years writing and producing for some of the most popular shows on television--Gilmore Girls, The O.C. and Gossip Girls--but he gave up Hollywood to write The Emerald Atlas, the first book in a new fantasy trilogy for middle grade readers (available April 5). Touted as one of the most buzzed about books at the Bologna Children's Book Fair last year, The Emerald Atlas is fast-paced, funny, vividly rendered, and reminiscent of some of my fantasy favorites--The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit--with an original time-travel twist. We caught up with Stephens earlier this year, and he graciously agreed to write a guest post for us--did I mention that he's a funny guy? Enjoy his post below, and you can check out some cool videos for The Emerald Atlas and read an excerpt, here.
"You're an Idiot!"
By John Stephens
My first day as a paid writer in Hollywood, I was tooling around the Warner Bros lot in a golf cart and nearly ran down Martin Sheen, who was then starring as President Bartlett on The West Wing. Killing a president, even a fictional one, is a bad first-day-on-the-job move. Luckily, Martin Sheen is very nimble, and I was neither fired nor shot by fictional Secret Service.
I had arrived in Los Angeles from the University of Virginia where I had gotten an MFA in creative writing. Now, when you live in Virginia and you tell people you're moving to Hollywood to be a writer, the most common response is, "Don't give up your apartment." The second most common response is, "You're an idiot." This one is most often spoken by people related to you.
Flash-forward two years and that same idiot is nearly running down Martin Sheen in a golf cart. Yes, he's still an idiot, but now he's employed! Getting paid to write in Hollywood! My second week on the lot, I saw Arnold Schwarzenegger, as he was shooting a movie called Collateral Damage. My friend and I peeked into a sound stage and saw the soon-to-be-Governor destroying the craft service table. Ho-ho's, ding-dongs, Twizzlers, nothing stood a chance. It was a true Hollywood moment.
But being a television writer wasn't just about running down fictional Commander-in-Chiefs or seeing Arnold demolish the snack table; there was the job itself, which mostly involved sitting around a table with your friends, making each other laugh, and getting a free lunch. Or having real actors "“ actors you've seen on actual TV "“ say lines you've written! Or writing a line in a script like, "So and So goes to the Harvest Festival, and there are twelve jugglers in lederhosen and a dog riding a bike," and then you show up on set and there in front of you are twelve jugglers wearing lederhosen and an animal wrangler trying to jam a schnauzer onto a tricycle. You put words on a page, and a small army of people make them happen. It was surreal and amazing and a lot of fun. At its best, writing for television was like putting on a play in high school with your friends. You get the costumes! I'll write the script! Mike will be the actor because he's the best-looking! And you got to do it week after week, get paid for it, and as long as Martin Sheen was safe in his trailer, you got to drive the golf cart.
So why would you ever leave that? Why did I?
Because one day I read The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, and I thought, "Holy Crud, this guy" and by 'this guy' I mean P.P., that's what I call him, P.P., "is doing what I want to be doing." Not only that, it was as if I'd wanted to do it for years and years but just hadn't realized it because I'd been too busy stalking Arnold S. And suddenly I knew that I was going to have to leave the lederhosen-wearing jugglers and the bicycle-riding dogs and the hanging out in the writers' room and the running-down of Martin Sheen to someone else. I was going to write children's fantasy books.
And of course, when I told my friends in Virginia that I was quitting my television writing jobs to write children's books, they said, "You're an idiot."
"Yes," I said, smiling, "I know."