Thursday, January 23, 2014

Interview with John Dixon, author of Phoenix Island - January 23, 2014

Please welcome John Dixon to The Qwillery as part of the 2014 Debut Author Challenge Interviews.  Phoenix Island, John's debut novel, was published on January 7, 2014 by Gallery Books.

TQ:  Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?

John:  My third grade teacher, Mrs. Wolfe, had us write stories and made all the difference in the world by praising mine. She even went so far as typing up one of them, a silly, didactic story about animals in a courtroom, and she told my parents that I would be a writer someday. I was a bad kid, but her praise and support gave me confidence in something more than just my fists. Needless to say, I thank her extensively in my acknowledgements, and I sent her a copy along with a heartfelt thank you. I don’t know if teachers always know the difference they make, even with very young kids, but Mrs. Wolfe was one of the most important people in my life.

TQ:  Are you a plotter or a pantser?

John:  I’m a weird hybrid of the two, still trying to figure out his best process. By nature, I’m a pantser all the way, but by imposing plotting with an emphasis on structure, I was able to write Phoenix Island in ten months. With the sequel, I planned perhaps too much initially, felt a waning of excitement, then took a step back, and whoosh – here came the fun again. As I continue to write, hopefully I’ll find my proper balance between the two. Ideally, I think, I would craft a skeletal outline upon which I could hang spontaneous scene work.

TQ:  What is the most challenging thing for you about writing? Where do you write?

John:  Right now, with the book and the show coming out, the most challenging thing for me is protecting my writing time. I write anytime and anywhere, but I prefer to work on my Alphasmart Neo word processor at flimsy table in a guestroom upstairs (directly overtop, ironically enough, the dedicated office, with its roll top desk and PC). I like a Spartan workspace. The word processor and off-the-grid guestroom protect me from distractions.

TQ:  Who are some of your literary influences? Favorite authors?

John:  Since I was just a kid, literary influences have hovered over me, waxing and waning like moons of exquisite beauty. Ray Bradbury always made me feel like writing, and certainly Phoenix Island was influenced by the comic books of my youth and childhood favorites like The Lord of the Flies, The Island of Dr. Moreau, “The Most Dangerous Game”, and the novels and short stories of Jack London, America’s most unfairly and unfortunately pigeon-holed writer. Over the last decade, however, I’ve learned the most from my favorite authors, Stephen King, Elmore Leonard, and Cormac McCarthy, and a lot from other favorites, like Thomas Harris, Jack Ketchum, S.E. Hinton, and Robert Lipsyte.

TQ:  Describe Phoenix Island in 140 characters or less.

JohnPrison Break meets The Lord of the Flies – starring a sixteen-year-old Jason Bourne.

TQ:  Tell us something about Phoenix Island that is not in the book description.

John:  The main character, Carl Freeman, has one fatal flaw: he can’t ignore bullies. He’s a zero tolerance anti-bullying program on two legs, and his inability to dismiss injustice causes him no end of trouble.

TQ:  What inspired you to write Phoenix Island? Why did you choose to write a dystopian thriller? Do you want to write in any other genres?

John:  I have written widely in the short form and will continue to write in other genres.

Dystopian stories are my way of worrying about the future, while still creating characters capable of dealing with darkness. In a sense, I’m creating the mythology of my nightmare future. In terms of society, I suppose I’m a pessimist, but in terms of the human heart, I always be a terminal optimist. If the world goes bust and people must suffer, I believe some people will suffer bravely, even beautifully.

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.

TQ:  What sort of research did you do for Phoenix Island?

John:  The most important research came quite unintentionally through osmosis with life, from my experiences as a boxer, a teacher, a prison tutor, a caseworker for at-risk youth, and, of course, a lifelong reader with too many interests. Phoenix Island is a contemporary thriller, the story of a tough kid in tough conditions, so these experiences took me a long way, but science is important – even integral – to the book, so in that sense it is also science fiction. The book, series, and TV adaptation all deal with the question of trans-humanism, which fascinates me. Thanks to amazing sources, good people like Dr. Gary Della Zanna and Dr. John Dougherty, both of the National Institutes of Health, and the guidance of Intelligence’s executive producer, Tripp Vinson, who would get in touch, telling me to watch a specific Ted Talk, read a helpful book, or Google some bit of cutting-edge science, research was an absolute blast – as were the purely imaginative brainstorming sessions that helped me go from fact to fiction.

TQ:  Who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why? Who is your favorite good guy, bad guy or ethically ambiguous character?

John:  The easiest character to write was Carl, because I knew him so well, almost intuitively, before I’d even started the book. He is in many ways the person I wish I had been, though I would hate to go through the things he suffers.

The most difficult character to write was Carl’s friend Octavia, because she’s a girl, and that’s something I’ve never been. I’ve written comfortably from the point-of-view of women and younger females, but I found myself on sometimes uncertain ground while in the head and heart of a seventeen-year-old girl.

My favorite ethically ambiguous character is Motorcycle Boy from S.E. Hinton’s mind-blowing masterpiece, Rumble Fish, which I’ve read no fewer than twenty times. Francis Ford Coppola, who directed the film version, called Rumble Fish “Camus for kids” – a true enough statement, I reckon, and one predicated primarily upon the things Motorcycle Boy says and does.

TQ:  Give us one of your favorite lines from Phoenix Island.

John:  “With the hard darkness of night, the jungle became a madhouse of sounds: cries and squawks; squeals and snorts; hoots and gibbers; something large bellowing deeper in the woods – and under it all, the constant, deafening chorus of insects pulsed with noise, and this peeping, bleating rhythm was to him the heartbeat of night in the jungle, wild with fear and hunger and menace.”

TQ:  What's next?

John:  Right now, I’m having a blast writing Devil’s Pocket, the sequel to Phoenix Island, and I’m excited that “The Laughing Girl of Bora Fanong”, a short story I coauthored with Adam Browne, has shacked up with amazing Australian animator Adam Duncan, who’s planning to develop it into a graphic novel.

TQ:  Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.

John:  Thanks so much for having me. I had a lot of fun chatting with you.

Phoenix Island

Phoenix Island
Gallery Books, January 7, 2014
Hardcover and eBook, 320 pages

The judge told Carl that one day he’d have to decide exactly what kind of person he would become. But on Phoenix Island, the choice will be made for him.

A champion boxer with a sharp hook and a short temper, sixteen-year-old Carl Freeman has been shuffled from foster home to foster home. He can’t seem to stay out of trouble—using his fists to defend weaker classmates from bullies. His latest incident sends his opponent to the emergency room, and now the court is sending Carl to the worst place on earth: Phoenix Island.

Classified as a “terminal facility,” it’s the end of the line for delinquents who have no home, no family, and no future. Located somewhere far off the coast of the United States—and immune to its laws—the island is a grueling Spartan-style boot camp run by sadistic drill sergeants who show no mercy to their young, orphan trainees. Sentenced to stay until his eighteenth birthday, Carl plans to play by the rules, so he makes friends with his wisecracking bunkmate, Ross, and a mysterious gray-eyed girl named Octavia. But he makes enemies, too, and after a few rough scrapes, he earns himself the nickname “Hollywood” as well as a string of punishments, including a brutal night in the “sweatbox.” But that’s nothing compared to what awaits him in the “Chop Shop”—a secret government lab where Carl is given something he never dreamed of.

A new life. . . .

A new body. A new brain.

Gifts from the fatherly Old Man, who wants to transform Carl into something he’s not sure he wants to become.

For this is no ordinary government project. Phoenix Island is ground zero for the future of combat intelligence.

And for Carl, it’s just the beginning. . . .

About John

Photograph by Andrew McLean
John Dixon’s debut novel, Phoenix Island, inspired the CBS TV series Intelligence. A former boxer, teacher, and stone mason, John now writes full time and serves as a consultant to ABC Studios. He lives in West Chester, PA, with his wife, Christina, and their freeloading pets. When not reading or writing, he obsesses over boxing, chess, and hot peppers.



Twitter @johndixonbooks


  1. Where can we read The Laughing Girl from Bora Fanong?

    1. Thanks for asking, Bobby. It originally appeared in ANDROMEDA SPACEWAYS, was reprinted in a charity antho called HAZARD YET FORWARD, and is set for re-release in a collection from my coauthor, the amazing Adam Browne.

  2. I just finished Phoenix Island, and it was AMAZING. Quite possibly my new favorite novel! I can't wait for the sequel. Keep up the amazing work John!