First Draft, Ep. 91: D.J. MacHale (Transcript)
The original post for this episode can be found here.
[Theme music plays]
Welcome to First Draft with me Sarah Enni. Today I’m talking to D.J. MacHale, author of the New York Times bestselling Pendragon and Morpheus Road Series. D.J. just released CURSE OF THE BOGGIN the first book in his new middle grade series, THE LIBRARY. D.J. was also the creator and writer of ARE YOU AFRAID OF THE DARK? A Nickelodean TV show that ran in the 90’s that I was a HUGE fan of…huge. D.J. was kind enough to invite me to his shared office space, where he works in Los Angeles, to tell me his almost accidental journey into writing stories for kids and teens. So brew a fresh pot of coffee, imagine you’re looking over a bustling Hollywood movie lot, and enjoy the conversation.
ENNI: Okay! How are you?
D.J. MACHALE: I am awesome. Thank you for coming to see me.
ENNI: Oh, my gosh, thank you for having me at your offices here in LA. Well, are we technically in LA?
MACHALE: We are in Manhattan Beach.
ENNI: Let’s start there. The first question I always ask is where were you born and raised.
MACHALE: Born in Portchester, New York, raised in Greenwich, Connecticut. And I hesitate to say Greenwich Connecticut because, I don’t know if you know that town, but it’s like the snootiest, rich-iest , schmancy-est town – maybe not in the country - but it’s right up there in that pantheon. However, I am not one of the snootiest, rich-iest… I was raised in lower middle class. The area of town where I grew up was like growing up in Mayberry. I walked to school. I was an altar boy at the church that I walked to. My first job was working at a poultry farm collecting eggs. I fished in the stream that went through the center of town. I mean, this could have been in North Carolina as far as I knew. It wasn’t until I started getting older that I started to expand a little bit. My house that I grew up in was part of a gas station. That’s how lower middle class we were. But also, there were fields, and now all those fields are apartment buildings, I think. But there were fields that were crisscrossed with stone walls that were made by Irish immigrants back in the 1600’s. So that was my playground. It was really like growing up in a really small town, even though it was like schmancy, fancy-pants Greenwich, Connecticut. And I lived there until I moved out here to Los Angeles in 1991.
ENNI: I don’t exactly know how to phrase this question, but a lot of your career is about supernatural, weird, spooky stuff. And I feel like some of that has to come from small town wandering. People who grew up near forests, [and] playing pretend in an environment like that. I think it feeds the imagination in some way.
MACHALE: You are spot on. I think that’s huge. You would have to ask my therapist [pauses], first I’d have to get a therapist!
ENNI: Let’s bring her in!
MACHALE: I have two older sisters, who are a lot older than me, like five and eight years older than I am. So, I wasn’t an only child, but I was on my own a lot. I had the Bridge to Terabithia behind my house. It was amazing, even though we lived in kind of a crummy house that was right next to a gas station. My grandfather – who was my favorite person of all time - was born in Italy, and he’s this green thumb type guy. You [would] kind of go through these parking lots, cheesy tobacco road type of a thing, and you go through these hedges into a wonderland that my grandfather built of flowers, and trellises, and so it’s like, “Oh my god!” And that was just our yard. And then beyond the yard was those woods I mentioned before, which we said was the forest of no-return. So, you are absolutely right. I would spend a lot of time up there, my dog and I usually, just playing and imagining. And whether it was super natural or not, certainly the story telling came from living inside your head and making shit up [laughing].
ENNI: And being outside. It sounds like you were not sitting, watching TV.
MACHALE: Oh, I did plenty of that too!
MACHALE: I was a TV kid but, yeah, it was the best of both. It was almost like I’d get fed by this stupid boob-tube, and then I’d go out and imagine how I would do it. It was the perfect blend of imagination and reality that formulated the kind of writer I am, or, the kind of things I write anyway.
ENNI: Were you reading a bunch at the time also?
MACHALE: My standard joke…yes, I was a big reader. My mother read to me. I can still hear her voice reading to me. She had this deep, kind of scotch and cigarette lit voice, and I can still hear her voice reading me stories. So, I grew up in the 60’s, the wealth of fiction that kids have today just didn’t exist. It was there, certainly, but not to the extent that it is today. And I was always kind of an advanced reader. The joke I always say is that my reading tastes went from Dr. Seuss straight to Dr. No [laughing]. I skipped over all that kind of stuff that was designed for a young reader, a tween reader, and an older reader, and went right to adult novels.
I always read adventure stories. I also read, again, this goes back to why do I write super natural and spooky stuff? When I started high school, I was in 10th grade – they had 10th, 11th and 12th in high school - all of the kids were really advanced, and I was always in the Advanced English classes. I was in the remedial math class, but I was in the Advanced English classes. And it was the first day of English class and the teacher said, “Well, go around the room and let’s talk about what we read this summer.” Oh, okay. So, I’m listening to what everyone is saying and they were all like: “Oh I read Thoreau. And I read Walden. And I was reading the [mumbles]….” Oh, okay that’s fine. Then they came to me and I said, “I read all of Alfred Hitchcock’s compilations of scary short stories.” And I’ll never forget, this kid sitting next to me snickered…. Just [imitates the sound of snickering]. And suddenly I felt: “Oh my gosh, am I an idiot? Should I have been reading something weightier than this? What’s wrong with me?” Suddenly I felt like I was reading comic books while everyone else was reading Kierkegaard or something, you know? And I felt so inferior at that moment. I want to talk to that guy today! [Laughing] Because ,“I’ve made an okay living writing that kind of stuff, so did you write Walden Mr. Snickerman?”
ENNI: So, avid reading, and reading that kind of thing – spooky, scary, supernatural genre - were you writing too?
MACHALE: Yes and no. I do have vague memories of when I was younger trying to write some science fiction things. I speak at schools all the time, and this is my main thrust of my presentation - is that when I was young I hated to write.
MACHALE: What I really hated - in retrospect what I really hated was the discipline of writing, which I still hate to this day - but writing was hard. I hated the concept of having to sit still in the chair. Ironically, I remember, I think I was in the third grade, where we had to take this test. It was one of those hundred question, random question tests and based on the questions it was supposed to tell you what you should do for a living.
MACHALE: So, I took this test and it came back writer. And then [I]… snickered! “What are you, crazy?” “I’m going to be an astronaut! Dude, that’s not going to happen!” Because… I just hated to write. But I was always a story teller, mostly verbally. The route that took in terms of writing in junior high and high school was making videos and films. So when a report had to be done, rather than writing that three page report - where you sat down and got the encyclopedia - my friends and I would get together and we’d make videos about it. And there’s just as much writing involved. You’ve got to get the concept, and get the facts, and put them together in a palatable form or whatnot, but we did it with video and film rather than writing. Which is what lead me to go to film school too, so yes, I always wrote but not in the traditional sense where, “Here’s this piece of literature that I just wrote. Would you read it?” It was more like, “Hey let’s pop this in the machine and take a look at it.”
ENNI: I’d love to hear what made you think of film and movies? How did it develop to actually going from watching and consuming, to be like, “I want to do this myself”?
MACHALE: Oh, that’s a good question. I don’t remember making a conscious decision of saying, “Oh, that’s what I want to do!” I mean, I did a little bit later, but earlier on, this was literally like in eighth grade. I don’t know when I finally said, “Oh, this is a route.” I think it was to get out of writing it. And then the school got this video recorder in and…
ENNI: I was going to say, cause it [was] harder [then].
MACHALE: Not like today.
ENNI: This is pre-iPhones. This is pre-where it’s at your fingertips and anyone can do this. You had to make an effort to do that.
MACHALE: You had to make an effort. Our school got some video recorder and the media specialist there said, “Hey we got this in, do you want to use it?” To this day, I’m not so sure why he came to me to say that.
ENNI: That’s kind of cool.
MACHALE: It really is. If not for this guy, we probably might not be sitting here right now. And I immediately said, “Naw, I don’t want to use that.” But then I kind of put two and two together and said, “Oh, that might be fun.” So, I don’t know if that just sprang from – because, as I said before, I was such a consumer of media and television - that it’s, “Oh, let me try doing that as well.” And we did all sorts of things. We did informational videos, and documentaries, and comedies. We made [chuckles] we made an original 90-minute-long Marx Brother’s movie.
ENNI: [Laughs] Really?
MACHALE: It took nine months to make. It was horrible. But [pauses] it was ambitious. If nothing else, it was ambitious. We wrote it, we acted in it, we directed it, and it was phenomenal. It almost killed me from wanting to ever make any movie again. Because here I am at fourteen years old, and I’m already getting an ulcer from production hassles.
MACHALE: It knocked it out of me for a couple of years. But yeah, I think it was more just emulating what I liked to consume.
ENNI: And you’re saying “we”. What’s striking to me, is that not only is this not writing in the traditional sense - because like you said, it involves a lot of the same skills, or it involves a lot of writing on its own - but it’s also collaborative.
MACHALE: It’s very collaborative.
ENNI: Which is kind of another way around, sitting by yourself, [and] writing.
MACHALE: Exactly. Though ironically, when I write, whether it’s a teleplay or a book, I need to have solitude. I’m not a good collaborator. But when you add in the film element, I’m a great collaborator. I’m the first person to say - when I’m directing something that I wrote – I’m the first person to sit down, and look at the script, and goes: “Who wrote this crap! This is terrible. Throw this away! You have an Idea? Let’s make this better. Let’s do whatever!” But when I’m writing, it’s got to be [makes a swiping sound] solitary and it’s got to be in my head. And I think probably – here I’m analyzing myself – it probably goes back to being alone in the woods all those times, cause that’s how I operated when I was a little kid. And I think that’s just the rhythm and style that I use.
ENNI: I love the discussion about being a storyteller. I’ve thought a lot about this recently, about what’s the difference, or is there one, between a good storyteller and a good writer? And I think people come at it from two different sides of the spectrum. Obviously, storytelling is natural to you. I would say that for me, I am terrible at telling stories. I ramble. I don’t get to the point. I give too many details. But, I’m a great writer. So, I think I’m trying to develop the other side of the skill, which is coming from the total opposite angle as you.
MACHALE: And I’ll take it a step further. I think you’re right. I don’t consider myself a great writer. I really consider myself a really good storyteller. And what I really mean by that – and my writing is fine, it’s spelled correctly, it’s grammatically correct, more-or-less - but no one has ever accused me of writing wonderful prose. It just doesn’t happen.
ENNI: Accused you [laughing]!
MACHALE: No one has accused me [laughing]. It’s just not going to happen! And it’s probably one of the reasons that I write for kids a lot too. I write the way I talk. And people don’t speak, unless you’re in an Aaron Sorkin story, people don’t speak that way [laughing]. They speak like they’re saying. So my Pendragon Series was about a kid writing journals, cause basically he was talking to his friends and telling them what’s going on. And that’s not great prose. It’s not great literature. But it is good storytelling.
ENNI: Yeah, it doesn’t have to be great prose to be engaging and compelling.
MACHALE: I think? I’m sticking to that theory [laughing]. I’m hanging on to that theory by the skin of my teeth! I read things that other people write, even in the genre that I write, and I’m like, “Wow that was really well written!” Whether or not it’s a good story is a whole other ballgame.
But I know characters. I know how to create characters. I know how to get them [to] talk the way they should talk. I know how to describe things. People often say about my writing, “Oh I can see what you’ve written” and the literary person would say, “Oh it’s written like a screenplay [disdainfully]”, like that’s the worst thing in the world. And I’m like, “Thank you!” [Laughing] and I think part of that is cause I’ve written so many screenplays. You can use very few words to paint a picture. You’ve got to get it in a line, a sentence.
ENNI: Like economical…
MACHALE: There’s an economy of words that you have to use. It’s like if you read Hemmingway. Hemmingway, his dialogues are ridiculous. [Laughing] But at the time, it was probably fine! But his descriptions are so economical, and so visual, and so perfect. That’s kind of like screenplay writing. You’ve got to paint that picture in one line. And so that’s the way I write. When people read what I write, they are like, “Oh, I can really see what you’re writing.” You may not get lost in the wonder of the words, but you got it in your head what you’re seeing.
ENNI: I love that, and I wanted to ask about that, about visual. My guess would be, based on what you do, that stories come to you in [a] highly, visually articulated [format]. Do you see them right away?
MACHALE: You know, not necessarily. I operate from high concept, and high character, and find the melding between the two. The visuals come later, and they come very naturally too. And that’s one of the fun things to me. I have a theme of my story. And I have something I’m trying to get across. Something I’m trying to say, whether it’s about the character, or the situation, or whatever. The fun part comes in [trying] to visualize it. That’s the part that is the easiest for me. Probably based on what we’re talking about. Okay, I’ve got two people sitting in a room. And what I’m really struggling with, is what do I want them to say? Not how they’re going to say it, but what I want them to say. What’s the point of this? What am I trying to get across? But… I can have a blimp come in there, and then… [laughing and unintelligible]. That’s the fun stuff. That’s the sizzle that is easy for me to come up with.
ENNI: I like that you have a theme that you want to get to. You have a point for your story from the very beginning. I [have] realized that writers can get into a Microsoft Word document and just [pauses] go! For four hundred thousand words, and then be like: “Alright, but what am I trying to say? What’s going on?” But screenwriters are like, “No.” Before you even put one word on the page you have to know everything in order to actually make anything that makes sense.
MACHALE: Well you don’t know everything. That’s the beauty of it. But you have to know the broad strokes. The stuff that I write is heavily plotted, and because it’s supernatural fantasy, or whatever, I’m making up rules. And I want to be sure that those rules work before I write those four hundred thousand words. Because the last thing you want to do is spend two months just going free-form, and then hit some fatal flaw of logic. So, I think a story through. It’s a big debate between writers: “Outline? Or not outline?” And the ‘O’ word is really a misnomer because it’s not really an outline. It’s not like: “One. One A. One A Prime.” It’s not an official outline. But I like to think a story through. I like to know where a story is going to end before I know where it’s going to begin. Someone once described it to me as the difference between writing pop and writing jazz. Pop kind of has a formula. A pop song goes along with [the formula] and you can slide in to how it’s going to work. You can figure [it] out and you can structure [it]. And that’s fine. Jazz is much more free form. You just let it go.
MACHALE: Just improvise. I like to think I have the best of both worlds, process-wise. I start writing pop music, where I structure it out. I figure out: “Okay. Here’s my character. Here’s what I’m trying to say. Here’s the theme of my story. Here’s the broad strokes [and] I want this to happen. What’s going to happen to the narrative that’s going to turn them?” All [of] that general stuff. And taking notes that are easy to kind of turn around. You’re not worried about the words, you just kind of move around a little bit, and once you feel like: “Okay, I’ve got the totality. I see where this is gonna go.” I can then start writing the words that people are going to read… and I throw that outline away. And often times I’ll never go back to it. But the thought process had gone through. Then I’ll start writing jazz. Then I’ll just let the story go where it’s gonna go, but it’s within that framework.
ENNI: And the blimp happens.
MACHALE: Exactly! And it goes off in whatever different directions. You may go far afield from what you originally thought, but you always know that you have a solid base. That you know, eventually, you’re gonna end back at that point. So hopefully, you won’t get to that four month point and you say: “Oh my god. Why didn’t I think of this? This is not going to work!” Knock on wood I haven’t [had that happen] yet [knocking].
ENNI: It’s cool to see people who write, and also have other ways that storytelling has been functional for them. Obviously, you were really drawn to [the] visual, so you decided to do that for college. How did you see yourself growing into that field?
MACHALE: Well I didn’t see myself as a writer. That was not in the cards. I never saw myself as a writer until I got to college. I had to take a writing course, and there’s this one professor – I don’t know if she was a professor, probably more of a writing teacher - who basically laughed at me and said: “You know, idiot. You say you don’t write, but all you do is write!” [Laughing] “What are you? You say you got out of writing in high school and made films, but don’t you understand that writing takes many forms?” And as much as I wanted to be a director, I don’t think I ever had the oomph to, or money, back then – you know? Now you can make a huge movie on your iPhone. Back then, as you said before, it’s not that easy.
ENNI: So much more effort.
MACHALE: I just didn’t have the background, or the wherewithal, or the financing to do that kind of thing. So literally I thought the least expensive way of breaking in is to write.
ENNI: I’m curious about what you think the professor, or the writing teacher, meant? Did she just mean that you were telling stories all the time? Or was she talking about that you had reams of….
MACHALE: No, it wasn’t that she was looking at reams of stuff. She was looking at the body of my work. Looking at some of the films I had made, and the film I was about to make. And she read the screenplay, and she was like: “D.J., this is writing. What are you talking about?” And there was another factor too. Actually, this is more about me. We did this writing exercise in this class [and] since [then] I’ve run writing workshops [and] I do this exercise with kids. You just write four lines of dialogue… or no, you’re given four lines of dialogue, between two characters. Characters A and B. And your job, for the next fifteen minutes, is to keep going. Just keep writing it. And there are two rules. Don’t stop, and don’t think. Just let it flow. Let your inner, whatever, just come out onto the page. And I did this, and I ended up with eighty pages. And as much as it was a stupid writing exercise that people do all the time, it was the first time I had looked at these reams of paper and said, “Oh. Maybe I can do this.” It was just that writing exercise that did it. “All of this came out of my head? Maybe I should try this.” And that was in that same class. So those two couple of things helped me say, “Okay, I’ll give this a shot.”
ENNI: When you were at the beginning stages of looking at this career, were you already looking at stories for kids?
MACHALE: Not at all. Absolutely not. It was - and this is something I talk about when I speak at schools - is that the bad news about picking a creative course for your life, or deciding to do something that is creative, is that you can’t necessarily choose what that is. For me, I would love to be a fine artist. I would love to be able to paint. I can barely draw a breath [laughing]! It’s not going to happen.
MACHALE: You have to find out what is in here [tapping head], and what’s supposed to come out, before you can let it come out. When I first started, I started writing plays… when I got out of college. I started writing screenplays and adult, dramatic, important, stories. And they were horrible. Just terrible! No one cared about [them]. I never thought about writing for kids. And there was a friend of mine who worked for a company in New York. In fact, I think [it’s] one of the reasons I got into kid’s production. I was still living in Connecticut at the time. Kid’s television was one of the things – and still is as far as I know - that really was generated out of New York. All of the prime time, adult stuff, was Los Angeles. Kids was still based in New York. So there were opportunities there. And she was working for a company, and she said they were looking for teleplays. They had a series. It wasn’t called After School Specials, they were called Young People Specials. They were half hour things. It was on NBC. And she said they were looking for ideas, “Why don’t you give it a shot?” So, I was like, “Oh, okay [kind of dopey sounding].” So, I wrote this thing and [snaps fingers], it got produced. And I was like, “Whoa!” and it was terrible, oh my god. But, but, but… it was my first professional… Oh, oh, oh, oh, I actually need to take a step back from that.
MACHALE: My [unintelligible] job when I first got out of school… I was fortunate in that it was actually as a filmmaker. I worked making industrial films. Commercials, public service announcements, news films, video news releases, corporate videos. I worked for every major corporation there was, creating these informational films. Some of them were dramas, educating, training films. I made a video that went to every employee of GE explaining to them why their health and pension package was gonna be reduced. But it was a good thing…ha-ha-ha.
ENNI: Oh, my gosh! So, you were doing sci-fi way back!
MACHALE: Yes, exactly! It was total fiction. But what it did for me, is that it taught me how to take a volume of really dry information, and put it into a fashion that’s not only concise and short, but interesting and somewhat compelling. And it also allowed me… I traveled all over the country shooting these things. So, a writer is nothing but what they experience. And so, I filled up my writer’s hard drive of information. Of places, characters, of people, of situations, all over this country that I’ve since called upon in my writing. You know? I’ve been everywhere. You know that Johnny Cash song, “I’ve Been Everywhere Man?” I’ve been everywhere, and I think I’m all the better writer for it.
ENNI: How long was that?
MACHALE: Six or seven years. All the while writing screen plays and trying to get them sold and failing, and then I had that first breakthrough where I got to do the kids thing. And still I was making my main living doing these industrial films. It’s the bottom rung of the film level, believe me, it was not glamorous at all. Nor well paying. But then, little by little, I got a reputation for writing these things. Then I started writing ABC After School Specials and that led to writing a TV series and that led to creating my own TV series.
ENNI: So, all that while you were trying to break in, [it] was the adult, the serious, dramatic. So, seven years of kind of banging your head against the wall with that stuff.
MACHALE: Oh, I wanted to give up so many times. It was just so, so frustrating. So much despair that it’s like: “I really can’t do this. I’m not good at this. This is the plan I had, and it’s a really bad plan. Because I’m just not good enough.”
ENNI: So… you experienced your twenties.
MACHALE: Basically, yeah, that’s pretty much it. That’s exactly what happened. Until I found the right thing. I don’t want to say that I found my voice, I found things I should be saying.
ENNI: Interesting, wait. I want to hear more about that.
MACHALE: Well, meaning the kids… writing for kids.
ENNI: Yeah, but most people would say a voice, and what should you be saying.
MACHALE: Well I think I always had that voice, I just didn’t know how to channel it. I think probably one of the problems with my adult things is that I was writing it in a voice that appeals to kids, which is probably one of the reasons why they were really bad [laughing]. And I should say that when I write, I don’t say that I’m going to write this for kids, I just write what I write. It just happens to appeal to kids.
ENNI: Well, I’m actually interested in that specific phrase of “what you should be saying.” Cause I think that’s interesting. I’m responding to your talking about having something to say as a very fundamental beginning part of your story, and then realizing that maybe what you have to say is important to tell kids. I mean is that what you were…?
MACHALE: I guess. I mean, it’s also a lot of what comes naturally too. Maybe it’s not as calculated as that. It’s just something that I had to say, that I think has some value. And I know how to express it to kids. One thing I think you can say about the writing of my books, going back to my lack of wonderful prose, is that it’s written very simply. A third or fourth grader can decipher my books. But what is very complicated are the themes, and what’s being said. I feel a little bit insidious because if any people really got ahold of what I’m really saying in these books… I might be in big trouble [laughing]. But it’s all in the context of running around and blowing things up, you know?
ENNI: Well it’s like Harry Potter, hide it under magic, but really, we’re talking about [is] liberal, political policies and…
MACHALE: You said [that]! I didn’t say that!
MACHALE: If I told you what PENDRAGON is really about, I would be in [big trouble]. But yeah, I think it just came naturally. One of the things I say to kids all the time is that, and I’ll say this to anyone frankly, but kid’s in particular, they say, “Should I go to college and study writing?” And I say, “Nope. No, you should not.” You can take a writing course, or join a writers group, anything that will help you to write is a good thing, but you don’t need to go to college to study writing. You need to go to college to study everything else. And then write about it. Because anybody can learn how to write. It takes practice, as long as you have the discipline. It takes practice, it takes diligence, it takes a lot of failure. It takes a lot of writing. It’s almost like being a carpenter. You can be a carpenter with an incredible set of gleaming tools at your disposal, and not have anything to build. The other half of the equation is to have something to write about. And you only do that through life experience, through seeing things, through having something to say. And so… I do. It just happens that I say it in a very simplistic way so it appeals to kids. I write “Adult-Lite”.
ENNI: I like that, I like that. The first few kid’s jobs were those adventure story type things?
MACHALE: The first one I wrote was called, “The Great American Music Video.” About a group of kids that got together to make a musical… actually, no! The one that actually got me noticed, and people said, “Oh this guy can write!” was very much a heartfelt story. It was an ABC After School Special. I had this concept, and talk about writing what you know and what you’ve experienced! In my town, in Greenwich Connecticut, and I think it happened in a lot of towns frankly, there was a controversy over this firehouse that traditionally had a Nativity scene in the front at Christmas time. And there were protests saying: “Well, wait a minute. That’s separation of Church and State. You can’t. This is a religious thing. You can’t do that.” So, I thought, “Ooh, that’s an interesting dilemma, and I don’t know the answer to it.” And a lot of times I’ll write stuff that I don’t know the answer [too], but I want to show both sides.
So, I wrote this story called SEASONAL DIFFERENCES. The central character was a high school couple. [A] Jewish girl and a Christian guy. And it took place from Thanksgiving to Christmas. It starts on Thanksgiving where… now they are like T-H-E couple. They were lovey. And everyone loves them. And they’re so perfect. And what not. Until they walk by this firehouse where there is a protest going on. And the boy’s attitude is, “What’s the big deal? It’s Christmas.” And she’s like, “Oh yeah, but it’s a public property, and they’re promoting a religious thing.” And so that broke them up. The personal conflict came from the larger thematic conflict, and it’s very much a heartfelt thing. It starred Uta Hagen . The famous Uta Hagen from the actor’s studio. She played a Holocaust survivor who was the grandmother of the kid. I think she got an Emmy nomination for it too.
MACHALE: So that kind of put me on the map. And this was not an action, or supernatural, this was really a heartfelt story. That very heartfelt, very touching, very well intentioned After School Special, put me on the radar of this guy who’s producing a TV series and was looking for a writer. He called me in and said, “Would you consider writing the pilot for this thing?” And given what the pilot was, I’m thinking, “How did you connect the dots between Seasonal Differences and Encyclopedia Brown Boy Detective?” I’m like, “What? Huh?”
MACHALE: I was like, “Okay?!” He was right, as it turns out, because we did make a great series out of it. But that put me more [in] to a genre, of fun, ‘tween kind of thing. And it was off to the races from there.
ENNI: Encyclopedia Brown is this patch of your career where I’m like, “Ah!” That was exactly my TV wheelhouse, [for] basically four years.
MACHALE: Have you seen that show? You remember seeing that show?
MACHALE: You’re the one!
ENNI: Ghostwriter [laughing].
MACHALE: And Ghostwriter! Well, so we made this Encyclopedia Brown and I was just hired on. I wrote the pilot and then five of the six episodes. We only did a pilot and six episodes because… well. But HBO really didn’t like the guy who owned the rights to the show, and they didn’t want to deal with him anymore. The guy who had hired me, Ned Candle (?) is his name, he had a bad experience making the show too. But we had a really good experience, so we said: “You know, why don’t we just make our own show? Let’s do this.” So, we created two shows. We created “Are You Afraid of the Dark? And the show called Chris Cross which was written by Gary Cohen, which was on Showtime. So, we created those shows. We did a pilot for both those shows. And then I also got this Ghostwriter gig. And I wrote the pilot for that. I had nothing to do with the production. I was still living in Connecticut at the time. So here are these three series, three pilots that I made, that I don’t know what’s going to happen with any of these things. And I thought, “You know, if I’m going to be serious about this television thing, I got to go to Los Angeles.” So, I moved to Los Angeles. All three of the shows went to series. I didn’t do Ghostwriter because I didn’t create that show, and I wouldn’t have had time. They wanted me to come back and be the head writer on that, but I just didn’t have the time to do it. I wanted to work on the shows that I had created. Are You Afraid of the Dark? Was shot in Montreal. Chris Cross was shot in Nottingham, England.
ENNI: Oh wow! Really?
MACHALE: So, I got a lot of frequent flyer miles! If I had just stayed in Connecticut, I would have had a much easier life! [Laughing] But I had moved 3,000 miles away, and then I had to come all the way back to do those shows.
ENNI: And then going to Montreal. The whole thing was filmed in Montreal?
MACHALE: Yeah, yeah that was.
ENNI: Okay and here’s where I’m going to ask you a BUNCH of questions about Are You Afraid of the Dark? because I was obsessed with that show. I think I told you this before, but I made my brother watch it even though he was too young and lost a lot of sleep because of it. But I was like, “I don’t care Seth. Deal with it!”
MACHALE: You just wanted company!
ENNI: Exactly. “You can’t leave, and we are watching it.” I think he is still scarred from it! So what made you want to scare kids?
MACHALE: Again, it just all came out! I can tell you the gestation of Are You Afraid of the Dark? My partner Ned, his background – he was doing a lot of sports videos and things like that - and he had just come off of doing this project. I think it was called “Greatest Sports Legends”, and he was doing it for, of all things, a tobacco company. So, based on that, he said: “Let’s come up with another thing that can be, not with cigarettes, but could be sold. Let’s do a kid thing.” So we came up with this idea which was, we didn’t call it this, but essentially it was…“Bedtime Stories for Lazy Parents.”
MACHALE: And the idea was we would get some guy, some old-time actor who was out of work but everyone recognized, and we’d sit him in a big easy chair. And he’d sit there in front of a fireplace, and was all cozy, comfy, and he’d have a big book that said “Fairy Tales” on it. And he would read the fairy tales and we’d make a video out of this thing. And we’d package it, somehow. It couldn’t be sold on alcohol or tobacco. The idea is [that] parents get this thing, and on those nights that they really didn’t feel like reading to their kid, they’d pop in the video tape. And some old-time actor would be telling a story. Which we thought was a great idea until we came to, “Okay, well, what kind of stories are we going to tell?”
Obviously, it would have to be a public domain thing, and no one cared about original fairy tales. So, we’re not going to write those anyway. So, [then] that gets down to The Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood, and it really didn’t make sense. So, Ned literally asked me this question, he said, “Well what kind of stories did you like when you were a kid?” “I liked scary stories.” So, I was like, “Hm…okay.” So suddenly “Fairy Tales” became “Scary Tales.” But then suddenly, having this guy with a book saying “Scary Tales” was creepy.
ENNI: [laughing] Yeah!
MACHALE: We don’t want the Crypt Keeper to be telling these things. We want the story tellers to be benign. Who tells scary stories? Well, it’s kids sitting around a campfire. Let’s do it like campfire tales. “Ooh, that’s pretty good!” So suddenly we had kids around a campfire. And then we thought: “Well, why are we stopping there? Why don’t we actually see the story play out. Don’t just have them tell the story.” It kept getting bigger, and bigger, and that’s when we realized this actually is a TV Show. It’s not a direct to video, cheap-y thing that we can do. And that’s how it became a TV Show. And we sold it to Nickelodeon and that’s where it [was] created. So, it came from me liking scary stories when I was a kid. And going to horror movies when I was a kid. And the need to find what kind of stories we’re going to tell. What do you like? “I like scary stories!” That’s how we ended up doing scary stories.
ENNI: And it’s one of my favorite questions to ask people who write scary stuff for kids, because kids love scary shit. It’s a universal thing. And there’s definitely a prevalence of parents who are nervous about that. They don’t want their kids’ stories to be scary. But when you let a kid choose the spooky stuff, the weird twisted things [pauses] kid’s brains are like…
MACHALE: As long as it’s not too scary. You can’t like go to the “saw” level.
ENNI: Oh, no, no, no!
MACHALE: And we didn’t. But there is something that’s fun about getting creeped out. And you’re not going to see anything really gooshy, so hopefully you’re not going to be demented. To this day, it’s unbelievable, to this day I speak at schools - to middle school kids - and I go through my career. The things I’ve written, and whatnot, and I’ll talk about Are You Afraid of the Dark? It gets gasps to this day. Mostly thanks to You Tube because they are pirating the show and not paying anybody for it [pauses] but, okay fine! [laughing] And now it’s back on Teen Nick. They do this thing called “Splat.” I never thought, 25 years ago, we’d be sitting here talking about Are You Afraid of the Dark? I’m grateful. It’s great! I talk about it more today than I did when I was making it!
ENNI: Which is crazy and cool!
MACHALE: The scares are the stuff you remember. And that’s what I’m proud of with Are You Afraid of the Dark? We weren’t there to be kitschy and make you laugh. It wasn’t goose bumpy kind of silliness. These were dramas. This translates to writing my books now. We didn’t have a writing staff, I was the writing staff. But I’d buy scripts. I’d hire writers to write particular episodes based on the episodes, the stories they would pitch me. So, every year, inevitably, what would happen… I’d say, “Okay. We’re looking for new scripts.” And writers would come in and pitch me ideas. And a typical, I’ll make this up, but it’s typical, I’d say, “What’s your story idea?” and he says, “I have a story about a haunted microphone.” And I’m like: “Hm. That’s kind of cool. Who are the kids?” “I don’t know. A couple of kids. Anyway… the microphone, whenever you spoke into it, it would change your voice. You actually sounded like a dead…” “Oh, that sounds kind of cool. Who are the kids?” “Well, who cares?” I’m like, “No!”
No, I want a story about a couple of kids who we care about, who we are going to be interested in. Even if they never find a haunted microphone. So then, when they do find the haunted microphone, then we’re really with them. I’d say that our stories were about people battling. Kids battling their own demons as well as demons that sprang from a crypt. And I think that’s what resonates. That’s the thing about scary stories too, it’s not just about being constantly bombarded with scary stuff. There’s always a mystery involved. Whatever the supernatural thing that’s happening, it’s happening for a reason. And so, you get to play along with it. And there are clues. “Why is that boogey man doing what that boogey man is doing?” So that’s the base of it. Even though the scares are what you remember or stick with you. You’re in it. You’re involved in it, because you want to know what’s going on. What is the solution to this dilemma these kids are going through?
ENNI: And we care about who is getting scared.
MACHALE: And we care about who is getting scared. And that applies to all scary movies too. I mean it’s Jack Torrance and the Overlook Hotel. He’s got to deal with his son. He’s not a good dad… he’s a good dad, but he’s got demons that he’s battling. And that is as compelling as it is about whatever the ghosts may, or may not, be haunting the Overlook Hotel in THE SHINING. That’s where I think a lot of scary stuff really resonates with people too. Besides, I’m not a horror fan.
ENNI: The straight slasher….
MACHALE: Yeah, that’s… why?
ENNI: Yeah. I would agree with that. Scary, yeah. Scary stories do have to kind of tug at you. You have to care. I’m thinking like, “The Ring” is scary.
MACHALE: That was really scary. That was good.
ENNI: And I think part of the reason that “The Ring” is scary is because you’re the one getting scared. They show the video to you so it kind of cut out the middle man.
MACHALE: Yeah, and you never think you’re going to see it, and then you see it and you’re like, “Oh my god! What’s going to happen to me?”
ENNI: The other day someone brought up that Naomi Watts is in that, and I was like, “Oh yeah! There were people in that.” I mostly remember watching…
MACHALE: Oh yeah, yeah, right. Wasn’t the girl with the jaw that came out of … but you’re right. It was the mystery. What was it about this thing? And then, what was it about this family. Naomi Watts and there was … was there a little girl or a little boy?
ENNI: A little boy.
MACHALE: A little boy. How are they going to solve this thing? How are they going to get out of this thing? And I will say that a lot of horror movies, or a lot of scary stories, are disappointing, ultimately, because… scary is all about what you think is going to happen, as much as what happens.
MACHALE: Hitchcock gave this example once, and he was talking about movies in this case. He said: Picture the same scene done two different ways. Imagine you come upon a scene of people eating at an outdoor bistro and you zoom in on them, and suddenly a bomb goes off underneath the table. And ooh! It’s a big jump. And everybody jumps. And oh, their heart races! [Now] imagine the same scene. You zoom in on these people eating lunch at a bistro, and you reveal that there’s a bomb under the table. And then, for the next five minutes, they’re talking about the weather. That’s terrifying! Because you’re like: “When’s it going to go off? Are they gonna find it? Are they not gonna find it? Are they gonna [words start running together in excited pitch] … oh my god, look under the table!” That’s what gets you crazy. That’s really good horror. Not the payoff.
And that’s what we were able to do with Are You Afraid of the Dark? We couldn’t have big payoffs. We couldn’t have big, gooshy, things. It was all about, “What’s behind that door?” or “What could be there?” or “How are they going to get out of this thing?” And with a lot of horror stories, if you’re reading this stuff, it means you’ve got a good imagination to begin with. People who don’t have good imaginations aren’t interested in these kinds of stories. They’re too like: “Well wait a minute. He’s a ghost, but then he can be seen…?” You know, it doesn’t work. You’ve got to let your imagination flow. And if, once your imagination flows, then you’re into the story, which means you’re also kind of speculating as to what’s actually gonna come at …
ENNI: You try and solve it.
MACHALE: Try and solve it. And I found, at least with myself, often times the resolution isn’t anywhere near as satisfying as the buildup to what happened before. And not that I even had a better solution. But it’s just like, “Oh really? That’s what it’s all about?”
ENNI: It’s the journey. It’s the whole…
MACHALE: It’s the journey. Yeah.
ENNI: There’s a couple different ways that I want to go from Are You Afraid of the Dark? One half is how you then decided to go towards books.
MACHALE: What got me into writing books was I saw the writing on the wall. Kids programmers weren’t making the kind of shows I was making anymore. I, well along with a fellow named Alec Griffith, he and I created a show that was going to take the place of Are You Afraid of the Dark? It was called, The Strange Legacy of Cameron Cruz, for Nickelodeon. Obviously, taking place of Are You Afraid of the Dark? It starred Jesse McCartney. You probably know who he is. He was an actor …
ENNI: The singer guy? Yeah.
MACHALE: He was Cameron Cruz. And from the time we pitched that show, and Nickelodeon said, “Yeah let’s develop this thing.” Through negotiation, through development, through script, through pilot, through casting, through testing, testing, testing – before they finally said: “D.J. we’re not making dramas anymore. We’re not going to do your show.”
MACHALE: it was two years.
MACHALE: And it’s like…what? And when you sign on to do a show, when you create a show, the thing you sign is… if the show gets made, you will make it for two years. Which is fine if the show gets made – quickly. It’s also fine if the show DOESN’T get made - quickly. You move on to something else. But I was tied to this thing, waiting for them to make a decision for so long.
ENNI: Kind of Suspended animation…
MACHALE: Yeah, it’s like, “I gotta work. I gotta do something!” And I can’t really create another show because I’m tied to this show. That’s when I got the idea for PENDRAGON. And I thought, “But I got to write a book.” I actually had a lot of different ideas, and I couldn’t decide which one to write. So, I wrote them all!
ENNI: Yeah [laughing].
MACHALE: Unlike the MIDNIGHT SOCIETY, which is a stand-alone with an overarching story that tied the whole thing together. It really was following the story of Bobby and Saint Dane. The good guy and the bad guy, throughout all these stories. And the evolution of their battle. Though each individual story was completely different place, universe, theme, style, you name it.
ENNI: It has a Dr. Who feel, is what I was thinking of.
ENNI: And interestingly episodic. I mean it feels - it has that kind of TV type of…
MACHALE: It does. And one of the reasons it does [is] that I outlined that thing in about a week. Ten books. But, I mean, that sounds more impressive than it was [laughing] because… “You outlined ten books in a week!”
ENNI: It does sound impressive.
MACHALE: But it was more conceptualized in a week, where I figured out what type of story I’m gonna tell. And I already had some of the ideas anyway. So, okay, book two is going to be this water world. Book three’s going to go back in time. I knew, generally, what was going to happen in each book. What the theme was for each book. But what I did beat out was the overall story. I looked at it as ten chapters, ten episodes if you want. Okay, this is where Bobby first leaves home. This is where –oh, I’m not going to give away any spoilers because people are still finding it to this day- it’s amazing! This is where he’s going to give up. This is where so-and-so is going to be revealed. And this is where so-and-so is going to die.
ENNI: You had three acts over …
MACHALE: The global journey… beginning, middle and end. This kid is going from fourteen to eighteen years old. I did outline as one story, divided up into ten chapters. So, in that way, yeah, it was very much TV like. Hence the outline working again! It did make sense.
ENNI: Well, and it must have been very frustrating. I saw that, and I was like, “Wow! This is so neat.” Because there are so many people who write Young Adult and are doing trilogies, and longer series. I think the challenge for them is some of the sameness, and the repetition, that comes with being – I mean you’re talking about maybe six years of your life. Four to six years of your life, for that kind of thing?
MACHALE: Yeah, seven, something like that. Well that’s true. That is a challenge. Not only because of what you want people to read, but also for yourself too. You don’t want to keep writing the same thing over and over again. There’s a balance between giving them what they want and expect, versus not giving them too much of what they want and expect. Because you can’t go so totally far afield that it’s just like: “What? This is crazy! What are you talking about?” They still want some of those touchstones that they’re comfortable [with]. And oh, that’s the story. Without relying on them too much that you feel like you’re writing the same story over and over again.
Sometimes I find myself doing things differently, just for differences sake. There may have even been a better idea that I came up with, but it was too much like something I came up with before. So, it’s like, “No, I don’t want to keep repeating myself.” The third PENDRAGON book was called THE NEVER WAR. It was different. The first book was like a medieval [thing], [with] big tribal battles going on. And the second book was this complete water world, which is everyone’s favorite book. It was such an amazing, huge water world. Big floating cities, and underwater, and submarines, and all that kind of stuff. Suddenly we go back to 1937 in New York, which is very much smaller. It’s much more of a mystery. And I remember my mother read it and she goes, “There wasn’t enough action in this book.”
[Laughing and claps hand]
MACHALE: I’m like, “Oh great!”
ENNI: Thanks mom!
MACHALE: Thanks mom. You can’t constantly be – it’s like the problem that James Bond fell into at the movies. They’re always trying to up the ante, and it all blends into one. You try to do something different. You want a different kind of story, just within the context of the overall story. And some people say that’s their favorite book. Other people say there’s not enough action in that book.
ENNI: Well it does seem neat, actually, that you have a series that is that varied. You can sort of have camps. [It’s] almost like you get kids with certain types of stories, and you get to then pull them through all of it. That’s neat.
MACHALE: Well that’s what it was like with Are You Afraid of the Dark? too. Not everyone loved all of the episodes.
ENNI: I haven’t gone on You Tube and illegally watched these. I’ll have to check out SPLAT, cause that sounds awesome. But the one that I think I remember most vividly is like a doll house? Like they were in the doll house and all that kind of thing. I mean, that was my jam.
MACHALE: I get that all the time, talking about that episode.
ENNI: It’s so insular. I mean, there’s not much too that really.
MACHALE: No! It’s an attic with a doll house, that a girl disappears. And she actually went…
ENNI: And creepy!
MACHALE: And it’s really creepy! And when she takes her hand off, because it’s a porcelain hand, [makes shuddering sound].
MACHALE: And it’s a very small story. It’s a very slow story. But here you are twenty years later, and you remember it.
ENNI: I see it still. Yeah.
MACHALE: Now other people will say, “Ah that was a boring… that was a girl in a doll house.” There’s one episode we did – I’ve been talking to a lot of guys about this. I’ve been doing a podcast about Are You Afraid of the Dark? And I just did a podcast for them. [Are You Afraid of the Snark?]
MACHALE: And then this book we’re talking about. So, I’m talking more about this dang show! There’s one episode we did that was too big for us. We bit off more than we could chew. Some of it worked, and some of it didn’t. But a lot of it was kind of cheesy cause we just couldn’t pull it off, was the problem. It was about a guy that gets trapped in this pinball machine, or this video game that was like a pinball machine. And we shot it in a mall. And the mall was made to look like different levels of a pinball [game]. It was a really cool concept that we had no ability to pull off with any kind of ability.
ENNI: It’s kind of coming back to me now.
MACHALE: The last image of the tale, before we go back to the Midnight Society, this kid thinks he’s beaten the game and he’s ready to go again. But then there’s this shot of the guy who owns the pinball machine, and he’s looking over this game and he realizes this kid is in the game. It’s one of the stories that had a bad ending. And he’s like, “Well, you’re going to play again.” And he goes to reach down to pull the plunger on the pinball machine and the kid looks up, cause he’s in a mall, and this mall is the pinball game, and he looks up to this escalator, and at the top of this escalator, this giant silver pinball comes over the top as if the game is going to play again.
ENNI: Oh, my god.
MACHALE: And there was a guy who worked for Nickelodeon at the time, not a nice guy. I saw him at this party at the end of the season, and he wasn’t a nice guy to begin with, but he didn’t say: “Oh, D.J. Congratulations. Good season. Nice show. Way to go. I like…” all he… looked at me, rolled his eyes and said, “A giant pinball? Really?” [Laughing and claps hand]
MACHALE: I’m like, “What’s wrong with a giant pinball?” But case in point, that giant pinball, he thought that was the most ridiculous thing in the world. Twenty-five years later I’m talking to these guys who are saying, “When that pinball came out it was the coolest thing!”
MACHALE: Which, and I’ll say this to writers who are hearing this everywhere, you can’t write what you think people are going to like. You have to write what you like. Cause some people are going to like it, and some people aren’t going to like it. You just have to write what’s true, and then hopefully, enough people will like it [so] that you can do it again.
ENNI: That’s so true. And actually, even as an unpublished author, I’ve had several friends read the same manuscript, and every single one of them will come back and be like, “This was the best part of it.” And it’s different for every person.
MACHALE: Different for every person. There’s an art to note giving. There’s also an art to note taking. Because it’s so easy to say, “Oh, really, that part about Kelly (?) …change that part.” Or, “You liked that part? That’s really good.” And then someone else says, “That part’s bad.” Okay, now it’s bad. It’s easy to do that. You have to get a consensus. And if you start hearing things over and over again, then you can start to realize, “Okay there’s some validity to it.” But you can’t automatically assume what everyone says is true. It may be true for them. But it may not be true for your story. So that’s one of the challenges any writer has as a writer. Writing anything, for that matter.
ENNI: Totally. And it comes down to a bit of your own confidence in about what story you want to tell. Sometimes you’ll hear from several people, “Well it would be better if this happened.” And you’re like, “Well that’s not the story that I’m trying to tell.”
MACHALE: I’m going through that right now. I might be working on a new TV show actually. And I didn’t create it. Another writer created it. And this thing’s been in development for ten years.
ENNI: Oh, wow.
MACHALE: And one of the problems – it’s a really good concept, and I don’t say what it is because I don’t know where it’s gonna go - but one of the problems is, there are too many cooks in the kitchen giving advice. And this writer didn’t have the confidence in the show enough to say, “No. This is what it’s gotta be.” And so, by the time it got to me to read, it’s just like: “This is all over the place. It’s a great concept, but it’s all over the place.” It’s kind of my task to find that vision and make sure it gets narrowed [down], because this is [how it] really should be. Good, bad, or indifferent, it’s gotta be one thing – or it’s nothing.
ENNI: It sounds like [with] PENDRAGON, there wasn’t someone knocking… being like: “Hey, Hey! Have you thought about books? Have you thought about books?” Was that happening at all?
MACHALE: No, not at all. Though it’s kind of funny, writers always say: “How did you get your first book published? How did it work?” And I say: “I can tell you exactly how to do it. You follow these easy steps… you too can get your book published. First, create a hit TV show.”
ENNI: Got it, got it. That’s step one.
MACHALE: Step one, it’s easy. Then make sure that there’s a spinoff book series that’s written about that show. That’s step two. Then make sure you work with the editor of said book series, and maybe write one of them, you know? But give notes just to show that you’re a good person, and you’re responsible, and you’re professional, and all that kind of stuff. Because five years later, when you have your own idea for a book, you can go back to that same editor and say, “Hey I have an idea for a book.” At that point the editor will say, “Sure!”
[Laughs and claps hand]
MACHALE: It was just that easy.
ENNI: We cracked the code!
MACHALEL: We cracked the code. Do that and it’s fine. And that’s what happened. I mean, all of my rejection came with TV. I told you, we were trying to write, trying to do all this stuff. I was ready to give up. Oh, it was horrible. But I had built up enough cred as a writer, and notoriety as a writer for kids. That when I did have that book idea, and it sprang because I didn’t see myself writing kids TV anymore, because it just wasn’t being done. If I wanted to write the kind of stuff I wanted to write, it would have to be with books.
This was just when, this being when PENDRAGON first started coming out, HARRY POTTER was a thing. But the flood of these books had not come. I was like the second behind the wave of massive flood of these books that came out. In fact, when I wrote the first PENDRAGON book and I turned in the manuscript to my agent, he freaked out. He said: “What are you, crazy? What are you talking about?” He goes, “It’s too long!” “What do you mean it’s too long?” This is what I said. I was going to write a novel. And he goes, “No, no, they’re expecting, you know, like a Goosebumps type of thing.” I’m like, “No. That’s not what I sold them.” He said, “They’re going to reject this.” So, we actually had a plan that if the editor rejected the manuscript, we were going to say, “No this isn’t one…this is three books. What are you crazy? No, oh no this is… ”
MACHALE: Publishers already knew. They saw the writing on the wall. They saw the HARRY POTTER phenomenon. [And] that kids are reading more than ANIMORPHS, and the more detailed stories, and that’s all HARRY POTTER.
ENNI: That so interesting. We do talk a lot about, especially in YA, middle grade really has been around forever. But it was in those little, chapter grade, level.
MACHALE: Uh-hum, exactly.
ENNI: So that’s now a really interesting perspective… that middle grade got longer.
MACHALE: HARRY POTTER is middle grade. That’s not a YA book. That’s a middle grade book. And they were tomes. And it’s because of HARRY POTTER that the floodgates opened up. And to the benefit of authors, and kids, because there is so much great literature out there. Some real great stories, mine’s not great literature [laughing]. There are choices. There are a lot of choices and it’s not just disposable, throw away paperbacks. Not to say that there’s anything wrong with those, but now there’s something more for kids.
ENNI: I’d love to hear you talk about VOYAGER and then the new series. VOYAGER is so interesting. I’ll have you describe it because it’s an interesting concept in the way you rolled it out.
MACHALE: And I didn’t roll it out. I didn’t create it. A fellow by the name of Pat Carman created this idea where it’s essentially STAR TREK for kids. And he had this fully flushed out idea of what it’s all about. The premise is that the Earth is running out of energy, which it is. And these scientists have figured out that on the far side of the universe there are these six planets where, on each of these planets is an element. [And] if they sent astronauts to collect these elements, they can fuse these elements together and it will create a power source that will power earth forever. So that’s the basic premise of it. The next level premise, is the technology that allows these astronauts to go across the other side of the universe. [It] is such that if you’re over fifteen years old, it will kill you.
ENNI: Oh interesting! Okay.
MACHALE: So, the astronauts have to be kids. But a kind of fun element also adds a ticking clock, which is they are starting to get older and they got to get back - or they’ll die. So, Pat came up with this thing, these six books. Six planets, six books… convenient how that worked out. And he approached five different authors. I’m not going to write all these things. I’m going to have six different authors write, including myself. Because they wanted to have them come out quickly. Because they came out every two months.
ENNI: Which is…really interesting!
MACHALE: Just bang, bang, bang. It’s amazing. In order to do that… no writer, I don’t care if you’re Steven King, James Patterson, or R.L. Stine, you cannot write these complex novels that quickly. The publisher approached me and… I wasn’t so sure about it because I’m not used to doing something that I haven’t created. And I thought, “Well, you know, it might be kind of fun.” I said, “I’ll do it, if I can write the first book.” Because I can set the tone. A lot of the stuff was already set.
ENNI: It’s the pilot.
MACHALE: I did the pilot. And they were like, “No, we want you to write the first book!” So, it was great. The way I describe it, it’s like going to somebody’s house, playing in their sandbox, playing with all their toys, making as big a mess as you want to make, and then you don’t have to clean it up. “You figure out how this is going to end! Goodbye.” It was a fun experience.
ENNI: It’s really a neat process.
MACHALE: And this is going to be out in September. By September, the sixth and final book will be out. All six books will be out within one year, which is the length of the mission. If you picked it up from the beginning, you can actually follow along simultaneously, almost in real time, with the mission. Every book actually takes place two months after the last book took place. And then there’s on-line stuff where you can go on-line and see the world, and you can see the characters, and there’s apps where you can play the game. It’s a huge, mega thing of which I’m only a small part of.
ENNI: Let’s talk about THE LIBRARY. I’d love to know how this came about. Give us the spiel.
MACHALE: As I’m sitting here in May - set the time machine back to May - I don’t know if it’s going to be called THE LIBRARY or not [laughing]. It’s been called THE LIBRARY for a couple of years now. Going back to what we were talking about before, all of the books I’ve written - most of the books. Not some of the standalones, but most of the big books that I’ve written - are finite. Whether it’s PENDRAGON with ten books, or MORPHEOUS ROAD, or SYLO, which are trilogies… this is the end. At the end, there is an arc of the series. Trilogies are interesting in that… trilogy is the typical structure of the story. It’s the beginning, the middle and the end, and there’s a natural arc to it. And it’s over, and it’s done and it’s finished. I wanted to write something that didn’t have that arc. I wanted to write something that was open-ended. Especially, as I said before, I wanted to go back to doing middle grade. I wanted to write something that could be read out of order. That didn’t have to be read one after the other. It didn’t necessarily tie into the next one. More like Are You Afraid of the Dark? THE LIBRARY was more like Are You Afraid of the Dark? than anything else. Probably the only one you need to read in order is the first book [laughing] cause that sets it up. After then it’s off to the races. The premise is, there’s a thirteen year old kid who has a key, and how he gets this key is what the first book is about… it’s the setup. This key works on any door. You could go to this door that’s in front of us right now, you put the key to the door, it will open this door into the library. And this library is this kind of old-fashioned, gas lamp library full of thousands of books that are unfinished. And they’re all supernatural stories. They’re all about people who, whether in the present, or in the past, they’ve had disruptions in their lives. Unexplainable disruptions in their lives. And this kid becomes an agent of the library.
ENNI: An agent of the library.
MACHALE: An agent of the library.
ENNI: Ooh, that’s cool.
MACHALE: Why he’s an agent of the library, again, is what the first book is all about. But what will happen over the course of the series is that these kids that are his friends - he brings some friends along - can enter these books and become part of the story and solve these mysteries.
ENNI: And solve it. It’s Quantum Leap!
MACHALE: It’s kind of like Quantum Leap! Frankly it’s kind of like Magic Tree House
MACHALE: It’s like Are You Afraid of the Dark? … if the Midnight Society were able to go into the stories. So, it’s not just anthology, they are continuing characters. These three kids, and there’s also a librarian there who doesn’t enter the stories. But these three kids are able to go into these stories and take part in them, and solve the mystery. And it’s wide open as to what kind of stories they can be. They can be vampires and mummies, the premise is that all of the supernatural stuff is real, and there will be plenty of ghost stories. So, right now, I’m gonna be doing four books. Ideally, it could keep going. I would love, in success – hopefully, knock on wood - hopefully people will go out and buy LIBRARY books. I’d get other authors to write some of these books.
ENNI: Bring it in and make it this on-going thing.
MACHALE: Exactly. So, if, I’ll say this to authors right now, assuming I get this opportunity, if you have that supernatural story that you’re dying to write – if you can write it in the context of THE LIBRARY - I got a book for you to write. Give me a call and we’ll do it. Hopefully it will come to that. We won’t know that for a while because the first book is publishing in September 2016 and they’ll be coming out every nine months or something like that.
ENNI: It reminds me of when I was a kid. The Voyagers is touching on this, and you mentioned R.L. Stein, and Goosebumps, and all that stuff … I mean, I was obsessed with that stuff when I was a kid. If I got into something, I wanted ninety versions of it. Like the Babysitter’s Club. And to see a whole shelf of that thing… it was nothing but exciting.
MACHALE: Well hopefully THE LIBRARY will be the best of both worlds. Again, every story is going to be completely different. I mean, completely different. With a cast of characters that are completely different because when they enter these stories, they have to meet these new characters. They have to learn, to find out, they have to figure out whose story it is. It’s all brand new. However, it’s also about these kids who are doing it and their story. And they have continuing stories. They have their own relationships. So, we’ll be able to follow these kids. It’s the familiar. Again, people loved Are You Afraid of the Dark? And THE MIDNIGHT SOCIETY, but they were just in the beginning and the end. These kids are intimately involved in these stories. And they are in jeopardy in these stories. Things can go wrong. They’re in danger in these stories. So hopefully, it’s the best of both worlds. You can get a variety, but then there’s enough of the familiar that you’re like, “But ah, it’s really Marcus who’s still doing this!” So hopefully it will do well. It’s writing what I love to write, and I love writing ironic, strange, Twilight Zone type stories.
ENNI: So, really quick, I would love to have you give advice to people who are maybe starting out. What would you tell a young writer?
MACHALE: Um [pauses] probably the same thing that everyone else says. The obvious ones are you have to read a lot, and you have to write a lot. You only get good writing by doing it. Then the other thing I said earlier in this talk, was that you have to have something interesting to write about, that people care about. And the only way you can do that is to experience life. To do things, to meet people, to be observant, to get in trouble, to get out of trouble, to help people, to do whatever it is – experience life. And that’s what you’re gonna base your stories on because even if you’re writing supernatural fiction, bigger-than-life explosions, or whatnot, at the heart of your story you have to have something real that readers will relate to.
ENNI: Something to say.
MACHALE: Something to say, something to relate to. Something that you’re going to read and you’re going to care about the characters, and you’re going to care about their journey beyond whatever the science fiction craziness they get involved in. That’s the sizzle on the steak. You need the steak and the only way you can have that steak, is you have to be able to have something to write about. Also, don’t worry about getting published. That’s partially about what I said before. Don’t write things of what you think people want. Write a good story. I can’t tell you how many times someone will come to me, not just kids, adults too, and it’s like, “I have this… essentially, I have this really good idea for a book. How do I get a publishing deal?” Well, first write the book. You cannot NOT write the book.
ENNI: Ah, that’s awesome!
MACHALE: See there’s more advice, oh my gosh, I’m loaded with advice today.
ENNI: See! This is great. This is awesome! Thank you so much, this was a total delight.
MACHALE: It was my pleasure. Thank you for doing this. This was fun.
[Closing music plays]
Thank you so much to D.J. Follow him @djmachale and follow the show @firstdraftpod and me @sarahenni. You can find the show on Facebook as well, and get sneak peaks at upcoming interviews by following First Draft on Instagram. But for show notes with links to everything D.J. and I talked about in this show, as well as archives for the more than eighty previous episodes, AND the chance to sign up for the First Draft newsletter, check out FirstDraftPod.com
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