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Screenwriter Geoff Rodkey on His New Children's Book, 'Deadweather and Sunrise'

Admittedly skeptical of another Harry Potteresque series, I ended up enjoying screenwriter Geoff Rodkey's first book for young readers tremendously. Because the book was so much fun, I figured an interview with its creator would be fun too.
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Writing a children's book seems to be a popular endeavor among those better known in other areas. Models, iconic musical comedy performers, television stars, and comics have all taken a stab at it with varying results. Now along comes screenwriter (of Daddy Day Care, among others) Geoff Rodkey with his first book for young readers, Deadweather and Sunrise, the first volume in the Chronicles of EGG. Admittedly skeptical of yet another Harry Potteresque series, I ended up enjoying it tremendously, as have many others, including Rick Riordan, who described it as "... Lemony Snicket meets Pirates of the Caribbean, with a sprinkling of Tom Sawyer for good measure." And because the book was so much fun, I figured an interview with its creator would be fun too.

How would you describe your book to those who aren't terribly interested in it or you? That is, to those folks taking a quick look at this post and wondering if they should read on. What can you say to encourage them?

"This is the greatest book supposedly written for kids since Roald Dahl kicked the bucket."

Too much?

How about, "if you loved The Princess Bride -- not matter how old you are -- you will love this book, too?"

I'd go with "Buy this book! We went to college together!" But at this point, I've already made that appeal to everyone I went to college with. And high school. And elementary school. Say what you will about Facebook -- it's a very effective tool for forcing things on your friends. Or, in this case, your friends' kids.

What was the inspiration for the book (beyond the mercenary one)? What led you in the direction of an alternate past, islands, and pirates, and grand adventure? Instead of, say, a contemporary story about an... er... cute kid turning into a dog? Or just a story about a cute dog?

For one thing, I'm allergic to dogs, which means my kids can't have one -- and if I wrote a story about a dog, I'd just make them angry, and I take enough abuse already when we walk past pet store windows.

But I've also never been all that interested in the magical or the supernatural, either as a reader or a writer. I'd rather create a world that's just slightly more screwed up than the real one (which is increasingly challenging, considering the state of the real world).

In the case of the book, an idea popped into my head for a character who was a pirate, and I just sort of followed that where it led, which was to the Caribbean of the 17th and 18th century. But as I researched that era, the reality of it quickly became constraining. Not only did I not want to deal with issues like African slavery and epidemic disease -- both of which were rampant and incredibly depressing -- but early on, I came up with a plot point involving a hot air balloon, and those weren't invented until the 19th century.

So I figured I could save myself a lot of grief by just making everything up. And while I'd like to think it makes the book more fun for the reader, I'm certain it made the book more fun to write. I was able to cherry-pick the best parts of the historical research I did without killing myself trying to answer questions like how much a leg of mutton cost in Port Royal in 1675, which would have felt like homework, and probably read that way on the page.

What are some of your favorite books for kids? Favorite books in general?

There are way too many to list... but as far as kids' books go, some of my favorites growing up were The Westing Game, The Pushcart War, E.W. Hildick's McGurk mysteries, and a biography of Geronimo that I must have checked out from my elementary school library at least five times. And Bridge to Terabithia, which wrecked me emotionally when I was 11 like nothing else I've ever read. I was inconsolable for days after I finished that book. Which, now that I think of it, may not be an endorsement. But it was definitely an experience that stayed with me.

As an adult, three novels that stand out over the past few years were David Benioff's City of Thieves, Josh Bazell's Beat the Reaper, and Steve Hely's How I Became a Famous Novelist.

One thing many have noticed about the book is the excellent pacing -- do you think your screenwriting background helped with this? Are there other aspects of screenwriting that helped or hinder you when switching to this form of writing?

My screenwriting experience was invaluable. If you take away the dialogue, scripts are just pure structure. So when I finally sat down to write a book, I had fifteen years' worth of story structure pounded into my head, and that made it a lot easier to keep the plot on the rails.

But there's a downside risk, which is that if you plot a novel too carefully, you'll not only create something that feels formulaic, but you'll stifle the input of your subconscious, which is where all the best material comes from. Stephen King wrote a memoir (On Writing) in which he talks about this at length -- while it's possible, and maybe even preferable, to start a novel without knowing where you're going, I'd never try to write a screenplay without outlining a three-act structure in advance.

When I wrote the book, I tried to split the difference -- I had a general idea of where I was going to end up, but I wasn't sure how I was going to get there. For example, there's a (somewhat mysterious) treasure the villain in the book is looking for, and I was halfway through the first draft before I figured out what it was.

I was particularly intrigued by the occasional mentions of the indigenous people of this alternate world of yours, those natives who were toiling away in the far-off silver mine. I'm eager to see where you take this in the next book and wondering if you are finding any challenges as you do.

The biggest challenge with the natives has been reconciling the constraints of writing for a middle-grade audience with the reality of what indigenous Central American cultures were actually like. By modern standards, the Aztecs were just ridiculously violent -- their whole religion was centered around human sacrifice, particularly the sacrifice of children--and they oppressed the lesser tribes in the area so ruthlessly that when the Spaniards showed up, a lot of the tribes not only welcomed them but allied with them to overthrow the Aztecs. It didn't wind up working out so well for the other tribes -- the Spaniards were no prize, either -- but that's what happened.

And while the world of the series is an imagined one, I wanted it to be fairly realistic -- and I particularly wanted to avoid turning the natives into some kind of noble savages, when the truth was that they could be every bit as unpleasant as the colonialists. And it's an adventure story, so human sacrifice seemed like a real plus.

But when you're writing for ten-year-olds, people get very skittish about things like ritual disembowelment -- not so much the kids themselves (who I think not only can handle that kind of thing but are eager to read it), but the adult gatekeepers, from editors and booksellers all the way down to parents. So the challenge has been to write a story I think is faithful to the setting while rendering it in language that's oblique enough that it won't offend more delicate sensibilities.

I had a similar challenge with the pirates in Deadweather and Sunrise. I wanted them to act like actual pirates rather than some sanitized, Walt Disney version of pirates -- and while I mostly managed to do that, there was one chapter in particular that I must have rewritten eight times. I never changed the fundamentals of what happened, but each time, I made the description a little less explicit and more indirect, so it's possible to read it without fully grasping what's going on.

Now I actually remember eating ugly fruit years ago, but I bet few who read your book will know they are real. What attracted you to them --- the name? And pirates, why them?

The name was 95 percent of it. A grocery store near my house used to stock ugly fruit (technically, it's Ugli fruit, which I believe is trademarked), and it seemed like an appropriately absurd-sounding-yet-real plantation crop. Plus it's indigenous to the Caribbean, so there's that.

The pirate thing just sort of happened -- like I said, I had an idea for a character who was a pirate, and everything went from there. Oddly enough, that original character isn't in the book. He was pirate who all the other pirates thought was cursed, so they wouldn't let him on their ships, and the only work he could get was as a waiter in a pirate-themed restaurant. I still really like that idea, but as the world of the book developed, it got much less jokey and more realistic, so in the end, there just wasn't a place for a pirate-themed restaurant.

Tell us a bit about your three central kid characters. What was your thinking as you shaped Egg, Millicent, and Guts?

I don't know. My original idea for the main character was a snotty, obnoxious, recently orphaned rich kid. In the couple of years I spent thinking about the story off and on, he somehow turned into Egg -- but I can't remember how or why. Part of it must have been that it's tough to build an engaging series around a main character who's a jerk.

Guts is the same way -- looking back, I'm not sure where he came from. I've definitely never met a one-handed, semi-deranged cabin boy with undiagnosed Tourette's.

Millicent's easier -- she's the girl I would have fallen in love at first sight with if I'd met her when I was thirteen. Which is not to say she's perfect -- in fact, in a lot of ways, she's a pain in the neck. But so are most thirteen-year-olds.

The book is chock full of one escapade after another, almost non-stop action. Did you have more ideas for these than you were able to put in the book? Any favorites that had to be ditched? And if so, why were they cut?

There's very little in the way of action sequences that got cut--mostly because I'm not that good at coming up with them, so almost everything I thought of got thrown in. But a lot of dialogue and little jokey bits got cut, because those are not only much easier to write, but tend not to be important to the story -- so if you cut them, nobody notices, and the story moves that much faster.

What sort of research did you do and are you doing for the series?

I've done a lot of reading about that period of Caribbean and New World history. Some of the better books I've come across are Charles Mann's 1491 and 1493 (about the pre-Colombian Americas and the consequences of European colonization, respectively); Michael Wood's Conquistadors (about the conquest of the Aztecs and Incas); Henry Kamen's Empire (a history of Spanish colonialism); and Matthew Parker's The Sugar Barons (covering British plantations in the Caribbean).

As for books about pirates, the best recent one I've read is Stephan Talty's Empire of Blue Water. David Cordingly's Under the Black Flag and Colin Woodard's The Republic of Pirates are also very good.

As it is a series you will be busy writing it for a while, but once you finish do you have any other ideas for kid books?

I have a lot of ideas, including a few for extending the Egg series beyond the current trilogy. But they're all more vague aspirations than concrete plans at this point, so they're probably best left undiscussed for now.

Anything else you want to communicate to this blog's readers before we finish?

Thanks for reading this far! Feel free to click over to the celebrity swimsuit slideshow now.

And please buy my book. You won't regret it.