The 'Big Fish' and 'Corpse Bride' writer makes his literary debut with 'Arlo Finch and the Valley of Fire'
John August is the master of two worlds.
As a screenwriter, he often bridges the gap between reality and a more fantastical universe, whether it be the underworld (The Corpse Bride), a chocolate factory (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), or a town where kids can resurrect their dead pets (Frankenweenie). He’s also an expert in uniting the worlds of children and their parents, telling stories that both appeal to younger audiences and reach deeper to speak to themes and concerns relevant to their parents.
It’s a skill he took with him when he set out to write his debut novel, Arlo Finch and the Valley of Fire, a middle-grade story about a young boy who becomes a “Ranger” in the Colorado mountains and finds himself battling unseen supernatural forces. “I wanted to write a book that an 8-year-old would love, but that an adult who was reading the book would also love,” August tells EW. “A lot of times these books are read by a parent a chapter a night. So you want to make sure that experience has something for the kids and also something for the parents.”
August cites To Kill a Mockingbird as a primary inspiration in this tactic. “You read it in junior high when it was assigned, you understood the story, but you go back and read it as an adult [and] you recognize how much Scout herself is not really appreciating about stuff that’s happening in the town and with the adults,” he explains.
Though more than anything, it’s his own childhood that inspired the book and his common refrain of being stuck between two worlds. “I grew up in Colorado. I was in Scouts, and we were running through the mountains every month, camping and doing all sorts of adventure-y boy things. I had all this memory, all this material, but I didn’t really know what to do with it,” he says. “I just started and it was the process of remembering what all that stuff was like, but just translating it to the fantastical things. Most of the movies I’ve written are characters who are sort of caught between two worlds, and I realized my experience of being 8, 10, and 12 was like being caught between two worlds. My normal life and then the life I was leading out in the woods.”
August generally translates his ideas into feature film scripts, but this time he says he never considered anything but a novel for the story. The idea to write a book came from a conversation he had with author Kenneth Oppel about adapting his book The Nest for the big screen. “He was talking about what it was like to write that book and what writing middle-grade fiction was like, and I decided by the end of the phone call, You know what? Rather than adapt his book, I think I want to write my own” he recounts. “So that night I started writing Arlo Finch. I wrote the first chapter and it’s still the first chapter.”
For August, it was the chance to revisit old memories, craft a story from his own childhood, and deliver the type of work that had inspired him to be a writer in the first place. While he cites The Chronicles of Narnia and My Side of the Mountain as the two biggest influences on his story, he eventually circles back to Roald Dahl — the author who started it all for him.
In third grade, August was asked to write a letter to a famous person for a school assignment. While his classmates penned fan letters to Joe Namath and Farrah Fawcett, he wrote to Roald Dahl. “I wrote to Roald Dahl because he wrote my favorite book and Roald Dahl wrote me a postcard back,” he remembers. “It was a form postcard, but I still have it to this day. It was amazing to me that there was a person behind that — that there was a guy whose whole job it was to imagine these different worlds. Part of the reason why I tend to write a lot of stuff that involves kids or veers towards kids in movies is because that was the moment at which writing became a real thing to me.”
Changing mediums is no simple task though, and August faced a lot of challenges and surprises while writing his first novel. A project he thought would take him four months took a little over six because of the greater degree of introspection for the characters. “Screenplays are just ruthlessly efficient,” he explains. “It’s only what you see and what you hear and what the characters are saying. With books, you have the ability to dig inside a character’s head and you can go off in any different direction with every sentence. So, figuring out a way to use those powers for good and to keep your story on track — that takes a lot of time.”
August, though, is a lover of process — he breaks down screenwriting and its convoluted ins and outs with fellow screenwriter Craig Mazin on a weekly podcast called Scriptnotes, which now totals over 300 episodes. For him, then, writing Arlo Finch wasn’t merely a chance to write a novel, but an opportunity to explore the production of novels on a bigger scale. Alongside the book, August dug into the nitty-gritty of the book-making journey and has cataloged it in a new podcast called Launch. From the first phone call with Oppel, August recorded his ventures into the literary world and even went so far as to visit the printing factory where the book was made.
August says what surprised him most was the sheer amount of people it takes to bring a book into the world, as he had assumed it would be a far more solitary pursuit than filmmaking. “There are thousands of people responsible for the book – from agents to editors to designers to artists to the people whose job it is to make sure the ink is appropriately dense on page 46 to the guys who had to box it and ship it and the booksellers who have to figure out where to shelve it and how to feature it and stick it in the hands of a kid who might like it. It’s given me a great appreciation for how many people are responsible for the creation of a book,” he says.
But more than that, the podcast and the book gave him the opportunity do one of his favorite things — ask a lot of questions. “The podcast gave me an excuse to ask all those really nosy questions that would be kind of weird for anyone, even an author, to ask,” he says. “It did make me do more introspection on why I was actually doing this and where did the story really come from, what were the things that were driving me to write this story which was so autobiographical and personal.”
This inevitably led to asking a lot of questions of himself and his family as well. “I had this memory of getting lost in the woods when I was a little boy, but I wasn’t sure if it was real or if it was something I read in a book. So I ended up talking with my mom and my brother,” he says. “Their recollection of events was vastly different than my recollection. They perceived it as me being a helpless little kid who had gotten lost and they had found me; I perceived it as I knew exactly where I was the whole time and they were freaking out unnecessarily.”
For August, this proved to be a significant moment of introspection for himself, mirroring the journey of his character, Arlo Finch. “In many ways, [that moment] formed a very good idea of who I was going to be as an adult,” he explains. “I’ve always been that person who sees something that looks really interesting, whether it’s a new genre or a new form of storytelling or going off and doing a book. I’m always like, ‘Oh that seems really interesting, let me start wandering that direction and see what I find.'”
In this case, it was a series of novels.
Arlo Finch and the Valley of Fire hits shelves on Feb. 6.