John August is the acclaimed writer behind Go, Big Fish, Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, Frankenweenie, and other films. August has expanded beyond screenwriting to create the Writer Emergency Pack and built the software company, Quote-Unquote Apps. August has recently published his first novel, Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire, which is a middle-grade fantasy novel that has been incredibly well received. Wanting to learn more about his career and his latest book, I am deeply grateful that I could interview August for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: When you were growing up, what were some stories you loved? Are there any you enjoy revisiting?
John August: Up until I was twelve or so, the things I read most were series like The Three Investigators or Encyclopedia Brown. I also distinctly remember loving My Side of the Mountain, which I’m happy to report holds up. I wrote a bit about it here.
Yanes: When did you realize that you wanted to make a career in a creative industry? Was there a single moment in which this goal crystallized for you?
August: I always knew I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t know what kind. My undergraduate degree was in journalism. It wasn’t until I was well into college that I understood movies were actually written and that screenwriting was a job. Steven Soderbergh’s screenplay for Sex, Lies and Videotape was the first real script I read, and it was a lightbulb moment. Line by line, scene by scene, I could see how film stories were constructed.
Yanes: You were born and raised in Colorado, and you went to college in Iowa. How did the landscape of these states influence the stories you like to tell?
August: Colorado had an indelible impact on me. I was in Scouts, and spent a weekend every month in the mountains on campouts. We were given an astonishing amount of independence, along with knives, hatchets and matches. But we were also stomping around in the wilderness, and I learned to appreciate how the forest doesn’t know or care about the human world. It’s like a parallel dimension right next to our own.
I went to college in Des Moines, which compared to Boulder was a big city. But it’s the safest big city imaginable. It was like training wheels for Los Angeles.
Yanes: Your novel, Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire, was recently published. What was the inspiration of this story?
August: Arlo Finch is basically the story of 10-year-old me pushed into a fantasy realm. He’s an ordinary kid who joins the Rangers. They’re like the Scouts I grew up in, with just a little bit of magic. The town he lives in, Pine Mountain, is inspired by all the little mountain towns we passed through on our way to campouts each month.
Yanes: As Arlo Finch evolved from idea to novel, were there any characters who took on a life of their own? Are there any supporting characters you’ve grown to love?
August: It’s important to me that the adult characters have their own motivations and inner life so that they’re not just there to service the kids’ storylines. Uncle Wade is probably the best example of this in Arlo Finch. He’s grumpy and immature, and has a complicated relationship with Arlo’s mom and everyone he meets. But he’s a delight to write for exactly those reasons.
Yanes: Your novel is set in Colorado, which is a state that has some amazing folklore and interesting local histories. Do you plan on incorporating any of these stories into Arlo Finch’s sequels?
August: There’s quite a bit of mountain mythology in the series, from spirits to shapeshifters to tommyknockers. It’s also been fun to put a Colorado spin on creatures from European traditions like witches and will-o-wisps.
Yanes: You are the writer of several incredible movies; Big Fish being my favorite. How did it feel to be able to tell a story in the form of a novel? Did you find it liberating to be free of the screenplay format?
August: Screenplays are always a plan for making something else. The amazing thing about writing a novel is that you’re writing the final document itself. Every word and every comma is exactly where you want it to be. Of course, the cost of that kind of control is that you have to write every word and every comma. It’s an order of magnitude more work to complete a book than a screenplay. But for Arlo Finch, I knew I wanted it to exist as a book — or at least, a book first.
Yanes: Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire has an incredible sense of atmosphere. How did you go about figuring which words and style to use in order communicate the emotional environment of a setting to the reader?
August: I can only write from the inside out. In my head, I build the environments, place myself inside them, then write what I see and hear and feel. The craft comes in picking the words and structure of details that bring the reader into the environment with you. You’re always balancing the urge to describe with the need to keep the story moving.
Yanes: When people finish reading Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire, what do you hope that they take away from the experience?
August: I hope they feel like they went on an adventure with Arlo and his patrol. To me, the best books are the ones where you feel like you weren’t just watching, but actually participating in the story. One of the great strengths of books over movies is that the author can let you see inside the characters’ heads to examine what they’re thinking and feeling. That can make the experience feel much more personal.
Yanes: Finally, what are you working on that people can look forward to?
August: The second book in the series, Arlo Finch in the Lake of the Moon, comes out in February. It’s quite ambitious in terms of the narrative ground it covers and the growth of Arlo’s character. Some of my favorite movies are sequels, including Empire Strikes Back and Aliens. There’s something great about taking characters you’ve already established and pushing them in surprising ways.