From quirky Star’s Hollow to The O.C., John Stephens is no stranger to imagining convincing fictional communities. He is incredibly successful in his career as a writer for television, having been involved with at least three transatlantic hit programmes. When he turned his hand to writing fiction for children, the quality of the work spoke for itself, with the buzz about the first of his ‘Books of Beginning’ trilogy, The Emerald Atlas, doing the rounds at the Bologna Book festival in 2010. Indeed, it had the reputation of being the most talked-about book that year, with Random House getting the publishing rights. The Morrison hotel lobby was the scene of my lengthy chat with John over coffee. His publicist informed me that he had had a busy schedule, and I got there just as a photo shoot with The Sunday Business Post was wrapping up. I expected to meet a man who was on a whirlwind publicity tour, probably tired and a little drained from answering the same questions. Yet John Stephens is a man who defies expectation; he arrived as fresh and enthusiastic as though I were the first interview of the day, with warmth of character, positive energy and sense of humour all immediately infectious.
John’s career to date impresses as a curriculum vitae. He has been writer, producer and story editor on programmes such as The Gilmore Girls, Gossip Girl and The O.C. They are known for being modern, plot-driven shows, with snappy dialogue and youthful, sassy characters. I was interested in how John had made what seemed to me to be a leap from script writing/ editing/ executive producing high rating television to writing children’s fantasy fiction.
‘I often wonder how I ended up in TV writing instead of being a novelist!’ is the honest reply. ‘As a child, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d always say writer or dinosaur!’ The idea of television writing as a career he says came to him whilst watching an episode of E.R. at home in 1998. ‘I thought, I could do this,’ he says. ‘I went, I moved and made it happen. I was involved with The Gilmore Girls from the beginning.’
In the course of my research into John and his work, I was amazed at the response the programmes he has been involved with elicit from fans. The Gilmore Girls has many fan websites and has generated a great deal of fan fiction. Some have praised it for promoting values such as family, friendship, and academic achievement. It has been called a literary programme, with fans pointing out that many episodes mention a book or author, in a similar way to Seinfeld episodes referencing Superman. John is pleased at the popularity of the programme, and says that this wasn’t evident from the beginning. ‘It was a slow burner, it didn’t reach a popular audience for a couple of years.’ It even attracted Norman Mailer as a guest star (in an episode intriguingly entitled ‘Norman Mailer, I’m Pregnant!’). John points out that Mailer’s son is an actor, and that he also starred in the episode (as the journalist interviewing Mailer), which may have been an incentive. Of the amount of work involved in script writing and story editing, John’s positive attitude is again evident. ‘Writing scripts is an ideal job, you get to hone your craft as a writer, you learn what works and what doesn’t, and you learn the discipline needed to write. Plus you get to sit around all day with your friends and laugh. It isn’t like going to work, it’s fun!’
It is clear that the discipline John alluded to paid off. I couldn’t understand where he got the time to write The Emerald Atlas, and he explained that it necessitated getting up at 4.30 every morning, and sacrificing a social life for the three and a half years that the book took to complete. The Emerald Atlas is a fantasy about three young children, seemingly alone in the world, who are moved from orphanage to orphanage until they find themselves in the strange community of Cambridge Falls where they encounter magic and time travel, and begin to learn the secrets about their parentage and identity. It is very self aware, it pokes gentle fun at the genre and will be welcomed by young readers. John Stephens is very well read, and speaking about his own work leads to conversation about genre fiction, inspiration and about other writers.
‘I think the books that stay with one through life are very often the children’s books that we first encounter and love, and the authors who first touched and inspired me were C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien, the giants of fantasy literature. I became a writer from reading those books. Of course fantasy fiction can be derivative. I was very aware that I needed to breathe new life into the conventions. And for me adding a sense of humour became very important, and I also wanted to make sure that there was enough substance to the book for an adult to appreciate it too. I wanted emotional intensity, to make it real, to twist expectations.’ We discuss Lewis, and the religious tones and misogyny colouring the Narnia series, which became more blatant in his adult fiction.
‘There’s something very wrong with Lewis refusing Susan entry to Paradise. He punishes her. And The Last Battle becomes almost didactic. You don’t see it so much as a child, you concentrate on the magical quality. It’s amazing. It makes every child who reads it check the back of wardrobes, just in case! He made the ordinary world seem magical, and that is priceless. But in Lewis the children don’t get to solve the mystery or save the day, a deus ex machina in the form of Aslan steps in instead and I felt that this robbed the children of ability. It was something I wanted my characters to do, to work things out, no matter how difficult, for themselves.’
No discussion of children’s books would be complete without pondering the question of whether or not children’s literature has a place in the literary canon, and John falls directly into the camp of those who believe that all well-crafted fiction is deserving of serious critical attention. He cites the example of Philip Pullman, whose books fulfil the literary criteria we expect of ‘serious’ fiction. ‘Pullman is a skilled writer, his books are deeply philosophical’. This reminds me of the first time I read Pullman, and when I recount the story of how I picked Northern Lights up in a shop, drawn into the story immediately by the fascinating first line, ‘Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall,’ Stephens enthusiastically completes the quote, and tells of seeing the painting by Da Vinci which inspired Pullman’s idea of daemons.
The conversation moves to the skill of the late Diana Wynne Jones, and John talks about her subversions of traditional fairy tales, and the general importance of the Brothers Grimm as source material in children’s fiction, and how the same ideas are reworked with very different outcomes. If there could be said to be a canon of children’s books, I ask, who would John believe deserving of a place and why? ‘Wynne Jones, Nesbit, Carroll and Dickens – they all deserve a place in the canon.’ He says that many of Dickens’s works are essentially novels for children but that they often get overlooked as such. He wryly notes the absence of American authors in his list, and moves on to discussing the emerging Irish children’s literary scene, praising Eoin Colfer for his humour. ‘Humour was important for me in writing the book,’ he says, pointing to the dark humour of Martin McDonough, an influence on the character of Abraham in The Emerald Atlas.
In order to balance the humour and subvert expectations, Stephens decided to include some genuinely unpleasant characters. The children at times exhibit a Lord of the Flies–esque attitude to justice and self governance, while the villainess of the piece, The Countess, is young, only a few years older than heroine Kate, on the edge of childhood. ‘I wanted to make her a different kind of witch,’ he explains. ‘I like the idea of the bad guy who is charming and intriguing, it makes the badness all the more shocking when it happens.’
Writing The Emerald Atlas was for John a private and deeply personal experience. He says that he was told that the book had created a stir at the 2010 Bologna festival, but that it meant little to him at the time. ‘To me, it was still just the many loose pages that I’d written. I couldn’t visualise it as a book. By 2011 the excitement was very real and present… Writing for television has been my job, it has allowed me to write this book, but the most gratifying part of my career to date has been getting to meet the readers. Going to schools and libraries and meeting the children who have read and enjoyed the book, that has been the most amazing experience.’
Stephens is a bibliophile passionate about writing, an enthusiastic, positive person who combines energy with philosophy. He is a person born to be busy, brimming with projects and ideas, indeed he says his wife brought him to stay in Italy for a few months to encourage him to embrace the Mediterranean lifestyle, and to live more in the moment. ‘It didn’t really work,’ he says with a grin. In conversation, he is erudite and entertaining, and cares deeply about the craft of writing for children. The Emerald Atlas is currently receiving world-wide acclaim, and I am looking forward to the story unfolding in the second book of the trilogy. PMcG