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Interview: January 6, 2014

Being sent to a military-style detention center would be hard enough --- intense physical labor, rigid schedules and hardcore discipline --- but what if that was the least of your worries, because there was something dark and sinister going on in the background? Just ask John Dixon, whose book PHOENIX ISLAND explores this very premise. In this interview, John goes behind the scenes of his suspenseful thriller, telling us the inspiration for his characters, his personal opinion on boot camps and his fascination with transhumanism. Plus, he shares details on PHOENIX ISLAND’s transformation to the small screen --- it’s the muse for the new CBS show "Intelligence"! Be sure to read PHOENIX ISLAND and check out the show to see how they compare. Where did you draw your inspiration for PHOENIX ISLAND?

John Dixon: PHOENIX ISLAND came at me from a bunch of directions, unconnected experiences and ideas coalescing over time, but the heart of it grew out of two sources: hope and rage. From the get-go, I knew I wanted to write a story about a kid who, like so many people I’ve known, doesn’t really fit into polite society but who nonetheless possesses great strength and potential, given the right circumstances. Then I heard about the unbelievably disgusting Kids for Cash case, where judges from my home state of Pennsylvania made money by convicting kids to privately run boot camps for teen offenders. My high hopes for people I’d known met my rage over this unbelievable injustice, and the book blew up in my head.

TRC: What kind of research did you do when writing PHOENIX ISLAND? Did you go to any military style detention centers, yourself?

JD: Research for PHOENIX ISLAND was a blast, though most of it came not during writing but during revision, and later, when I was consulting for the switchover from book to show. During the actual writing of the book, I mostly relied on life experience and sky blue imagination…and thank goodness! Research is a dangerous wilderness to me, every tree fascinating, every path tempting, and it’s oh so easy to lose my way into whole forests of cool stuff. I’m better off bookending research, loading some of it up front and doing the rest after the story is down on the page. Less risky that way…

There is one notable exception, though, and that was with the military stuff. I did not visit any military detention centers, but I read about them, and I talked a lot with three friends --- Don Bentley, Bill Fay and Horace Jonson, who are all combat vets. They were a huge help.

TRC: What do you think of these kinds of detention camps as a solution for youth offenders? Is there success or do they just drive more animosity and anger?

JD:As with all aspects of counseling and corrections --- and education, I might argue --- there are no simple answers. For some kids, boot camps offer real value through structure, challenge, earned positive reinforcement and the always valuable chance to escape a destructive home environment and/or peer group for a time. For other kids, however, these camps are a nightmare --- far more destructive than constructive. Of course, Phoenix Island would be a positive placement for no one, and any camp that abuses kids should be shut down forever. One of the shocking things I learned during research is that there really are detention centers outside the US open for American business --- and immune to US laws. That’s crazy, and I can’t imagine who would send a kid there. 

TRC: PHOENIX ISLAND is a gripping read dealing with many complex issues. What do you hope readers will come away with after finishing the book?

JD: Thanks. First and foremost, I hope they come away entertained. I hope they enjoy the story. Beyond that, I’m not sure, but in a perfect world, I’d love for people to draw strength from Carl the way I’ve always drawn strength from strong characters in fiction. Through different stages of my life, I’ve been encouraged by lots of characters, including Conan, Atticus Finch, John Blackthorne of SHOGUN and John Grady Cole of ALL THE PRETTY HORSES.

TRC: Why did you decide to write about teenage characters, rather than adult characters?

JD: I taught English for many years, and for a long time, I’d wished there was a strong contemporary male hero, who, when bad things happened, wouldn’t just get snarky or wait for adults or his pack of pals to save the day, but who would stand up and fight injustice, no matter the cost to himself. Eventually, I gave up waiting and decided to write him myself.

Additionally, I’ve always been interested in how polite society can turn a person’s native strengths into liabilities and how a breaking down of order could turn polite society upside down, giving new context to that person, allowing him or her to rise heroically based on liabilities-become-strengths. This dynamic works for adult or teen characters, but I was more interested in telling the story of a teen rising, as they so often do, during a crisis. A real-world example of this is Jabbar Gibson. At 18, Gibson had a lengthy criminal record, including a conviction for possessing a stolen vehicle. Then, during the Hurricane Katrina disaster, he commandeered a bus and drove around 70 people to safety.

TRC: PHOENIX ISLAND is mostly told from Carl’s perspective, but we see some of Octavia’s perspective, too. Why did you decide to include both? Did you find one of the characters more difficult to write?

JD: As a reader, I love reading multiple points of view, and as a writer, it’s fun to tell the story from different perspectives. I think this is especially true with a thriller, where you use rotating points of view to deliver information to one character (and the readers) but not the other character(s). If the reader and Character B know that there’s a tiger in the barn a thousand miles away, and a scene cuts to a dewy morning, which starts with Character A strolling out to the barn to put out some hay, who’s not going to turn the page?

Octavia was definitely harder to write. Carl was easy. It all started with Carl, and I can identify with him in many ways. There’s the question of gender, of course, but there’s also the question of time on the page. By the time we step into Octavia’s point of view, we already know Carl. The story was up and running, so I didn’t want to slow it down with excessive back story.

Here’s some unsolicited trivia, since we’re talking point of view. The original draft also contained several chapters from the point of view of Decker. We eventually decided to cut those scenes because of word count, but I’ll always miss the dark window Decker’s perspective opened onto the story. Decker had more impact on the story than is revealed in the published version. He still does --- none of the events have changed --- but readers will never know it. Strange, huh?

TRC: Your bio says that you are “a former Golden Gloves boxer, youth services caseworker, prison tutor, and middle school English teacher.” Sounds like all of these could have worked as background for PHOENIX ISLAND. Were you thinking of any particular incidents from your life as you were writing the book?

JD: All of those experiences, especially fighting, helped me write the book. One incident worth mentioning, not only because it’s based on truth but also because it was part of the first 18 pages of the book I ever wrote, was tucked into Carl’s back story. Carl’s father, a police officer, answers a call where a schizophrenic kills his own children and two neighbor boys who were just visiting the other kids to play video games. Though Carl’s dad and his side of the story are wholly fictional, the rest, sadly, is not. Two of my former students, brothers Michael and Aaron Faulk, went to the apartment next door to play video games one day and never made it home. Even now, many years on, just thinking about it puts a lump in my throat and makes my knuckles ache. Those boys were excellent human beings. Michael was a renaissance man of many talents and great popularity, a track star and one of my stronger chess players. His younger brother, Aaron, was shy yet friendly, a skilled artist and a dedicated chess player who had one of the greatest laughs I’ve ever heard. Such a heartbreaking tragedy. 

TRC: You said in an interview with The Big Thrill that PHOENIX ISLAND deals with transhumanism, which fascinates you. Can you tell us a little bit more about transhumanism, and why you find it so interesting?

JD: All across the globe, very smart people are working together to embrace the “posthuman age.” Through drugs and technological augmentation, they’re looking to make us more than human by a kind of unnatural evolution. Meanwhile, we live in the age of self-improvement: self-help books, diet pills, 24-hour gyms, plastic surgery etc. Some of this stuff intrigues me; other aspects terrify; all of it fascinates. This is a dynamic time, raising questions about not only technological and pharmaceutical possibilities but also what it means to be human in an augmented age. 

TRC: Can you tell us a bit about your writing process? Did you use an outline while writing PHOENIX ISLAND, or did you just start writing and see where the story took you?

JD: I started the book without realizing I was starting it. One day I sat down, started typing, and bang… out came 18 pages, Carl’s back story. At that point, I had no story and was working on other stuff, so I just shoved it in a drawer. It wasn’t until much later --- when the Kids for Cash case punched me in the face and I started doing research into boot camps and discovered the nasty truth about those offshore facilities --- that Carl came back to me. What would happen if I took a kid that tough, that principled, and that intolerant of injustice, and dropped him into a camp like that?

Then it was off to the races.

A funny thing happened, though, after I’d written maybe 40 pages or so. I sat down one day with a clear image in my head… Carl at some later point, all banged up, limping out of the jungle, carrying something strange (if you’ve read the book, you know what it was, but I don’t want to spoil my own story). I didn’t know what had happened up to this point or what he was doing with that thing, but I kept writing, and a few hours later, I had one of my favorite scenes from the climax --- and a scene, strangely enough, that has changed very little from that original rough draft.

At that point, I thought I was onto something, and I became really excited about the book. That’s also when I decided I should put together the rough outline that ended up serving as a thin latticework between those opening chapters and that dramatic scene that had dropped wholesale out of the sky and into my brain. I’d never used an outline before, but it helped to keep me on track, and I’m using one now with the sequel.

TRC: PHOENIX ISLAND is a thriller, and filled with action scenes and suspense. Have you written stories with these elements in the past, or was this your first?

JD: Before tackling PHOENIX ISLAND, I published thirty-some stories, mostly horror and science fiction tales. I learned a lot from writing them and from reading the work of my favorite authors: Stephen King, Elmore Leonard and Cormac McCarthy. 

TRC: PHOENIX ISLAND is the inspiration for the upcoming CBS show “Intelligence”, which is so exciting! How did you feel when you learned that it was going to be a TV show? Are you involved with the show at all?

JD: Thanks. As you might imagine, I was over-the-top happy. It wasn’t something that happened overnight, though, so it was really a series of happy moments that stretched over a period of almost exactly one year, from the day that executive producer Tripp Vinson first expressed interest --- originally it was being considered as a feature film --- to the moment, around 350 days later, when CBS announced that they’d ordered “Intelligence.”

The story has changed significantly from book to show. PHOENIX ISLAND is where it all started, and anyone who reads the book and watches the show will have fun, identifying the similarities. Josh Holloway’s character is obviously based on the version of Carl that I pitched from day one --- a teen thriller hero who would eventually go on to do things similar to what Holloway’s character does in the show --- and other aspects, like chase scenes, fight scenes and Octavia’s back story, are recycled in new context. In the end, I’m very excited to have both versions out in the world, and of course I’m excited at the idea that if PHOENIX ISLAND pleases enough readers, we could still make that one-to-one feature film down the road.

I’m a consultant for “Intelligence”, and it was fun working with Tripp Vinson as we went from book to show. Originally, when “Intelligence” was going to be very close to the book, we worked on adding subplots and deepening back story and figuring out where to end the pilot, the first season, etc. Then Tripp decided to do a two-hour pilot that would tell the entire story of PHOENIX ISLAND and would set up a series based on Carl’s further adventures as a government agent --- which was still a couple books downstream, novel-wise. Around this same time, we started looking at the big networks and were considering different, less physical types of augmentation for Carl and other characters. Then the writers came on board, and things morphed again.

I had fun and learned a lot, and I’m glad both versions are out in the world, especially because I didn’t have to change PHOENIX ISLAND or its sequel to match the show. I’m hoping that fans of the show will come to the book understanding that it’s very different and will be excited to read the story that started it all.

TRC: I heard you were writing a sequel to PHOENIX ISLAND! Can you give us any hints about Carl’s and Octavia’s next adventures?

JD: Thanks! I’d love to tell you all about it, but I’m afraid I’d end up with broken legs in a dark alley somewhere with my editor, Adam Wilson, and a pack of goons swaggering off into the fog, chortling. For now, I’ll risk a lighter beating by sharing three things. It’s called DEVIL’S POCKET, I think of it as “THE HUNGER GAMES meets MISSION IMPOSSIBLE” and I love the cover concept we’ve been kicking around.

Thanks so much for having me!