Most people know bestselling author John Gilstrap for his thrillers, especially his Jonathan Grave novels (No Mercy, Hostage Zero, High Treason, Damage Control, End Game, Threat Warning). But fewer know that he is also an accomplished screenwriter, writing screen adaptations of novels by Nelson DeMille, Thomas Harris, Norman McLean, and of course his own work. Outside of his writing, John has an extensive background in hazardous waste management, fire behavior, and explosives—knowledge that he has incorporated at times in his fiction.
John welcomed an interview for Suspense Magazine, and I thoroughly enjoyed our Q&A session!
Let’s start with your screenwriting. Your first screenplay was an adaptation of your own novel, Nathan’s Run. Apparently, you knew nothing about screenwriting before taking on the job. Yet you wrote the screenplay in, what, less than a week? What did you do to get up-to-speed on that project?
Two years after I’d sold the movie rights to Nathan’s Run, my film agent at CAA called with the bad news that Warner Bros was putting Nathan’s Run in turn-around—the first in a complex series of steps that generally lead to a movie’s death. All because of script problems. I told my agent that the previous scriptwriters were missing the point of the story; that I could do better, if only given the chance. Important Hollywood Lesson: Be careful what you say.
“Hmm,” my agent said. “Do you think you could do it by next week?” The word “sure” escaped my lips before the filter in my brain had a chance to stop it. Sure I could write a screenplay in a week. Why should I let a little detail like never having seen a screenplay—let alone write one—stand in my way? Bravado, baby.
So, with so little time to deal with the deadline, what did you do?
I dashed out to my local bookstore and picked up a copy of William Goldman’s book, Adventures in the Screen Trade, and read it cover to cover in a day. In it, he’s got the complete script for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and when I finished it, I thought I had a handle on this screenwriting thing, so I started writing. Three days later, I had a completed script for Nathan’s Run.
Wow, three days? How did it go over?
My agent loved it. The executives at Warner Bros. loved it—enough to pull it out of turn-around and back into active development. But best of all, I had a decent writing sample for my agent to shop around Hollywood, in search of additional screenwriting work. And, of course, Nathan’s Run is back in turn-around, where it has languished for 20 years now.
You’ve also adapted the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean, and Thomas Harris. I can’t imagine taking an 800-page DeMille novel and squeezing it into a two-hour movie. Can you share a little bit about your adaptation process?
The first thing a screenwriter needs to remember—and it wouldn’t hurt for authors to remember this, too—is that a film adaptation of a book is an entirely different work of art than the book from which it is adapted. As a screenwriter, my job is to tell an engaging story on the screen that captures the feel and the throughline of story I’m adapting. It’s much easier to do with an author like Thomas Harris because Red Dragon, the book I adapted, is written very cinematically. That is to say it’s written with a scene structure that lends itself to direct adaptation.
With an author like DeMille, whose stories are less structured with lots of flashbacks and character development—all of which add page count—tougher decisions have to be made. The book of his that I adapted, Word of Honor, was very long, and while very rich in detail (DeMille is one of my favorite authors), there were a number of plot lines, mostly dealing with protesting the Vietnam War, that had lost their social relevance, so those were fairly simple to excise.
I guess what I’m saying is, it’s a balancing act.
Joe Lansdale’s novel, Savage Seasons, was recently produced as a TV series, Hap and Leonard, for Sundance TV. Would you consider writing a short-run series of one of your books for television?
If asked, I would be delighted to.
Is it difficult to switch gears between writing a novel and writing a screenplay? Or is the process pretty much the same for you—creatively speaking?
It’s not so much a matter of shifting gears as it is driving entirely different vehicles that share the same shift pattern. Story is story, character is character, and pacing is pacing. The major difference for me is that the specific detail that makes novels complete drag a screenplay down. In a Jonathan Grave novel, for example, readers will find detailed descriptions of Jonathan’s office and home and the locations where he plies his trade. In a screenplay, it’s perfectly acceptable (some would say preferred) to write merely, “INT.—OFFICE—DAY” then add something like, “It’s opulent, more gentleman’s club than business office.” The production designer takes it from there.
The other big difference between novels and screenplays is the inability to convey thoughts and inner-monologue in film. Those thoughts need to come through, but it’s done in an entirely different way.
Do you outline, do you just wing it, or do you have a different approach when beginning a novel?
Before I start a novel, I know the premise, the ending, and a couple of set pieces in the middle. After that, I work it out on the fly. When I first started, I was an obsessive outliner, but not anymore. Maybe again in the future?
Do you have any rituals/habits you must do when you sit down to write?
I don’t have rituals in the OCD sense, no. My typical day starts with a two-mile walk that ends at my local Starbucks, where I read the paper and catch up on local gossip with the other gentlemen of a certain age. I’m generally in my office by 11 a.m., and I take care of email and social media stuff. Around 1:00, I’m ready to move on to the writing. I start every writing session by rewriting what I wrote during the previous session, and then move on with the goal of finishing a scene. It’s mid-March as I write this, and with a mid-September deadline, I feel no immediate pressure to drive myself too hard, but when mid-August comes, I'll be pretty crazed.
Do you have annual production goals? Say, one novel and one screenplay each year?
With the exception of an occasional short story, I only write fiction when it is under contract. That applies for novels, novellas, and screen projects. 2015 was a two-book year, so this year will be less hectic than last—unless the phone rings with an offer I can’t refuse.
We first met at the Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity conference a few years ago. You often speak at such literary events. What is the value of these events for you? And, perhaps more important, what is the value for writers new to the industry?
I’m very much a Type-A extrovert. I draw energy from being around other people. Since writing is by definition a pretty solitary endeavor, I welcome the opportunity to step out and hang with other writers. As a group, I find writers to an engaging, unusually intelligent lot.
I’ve always found networking at conferences to be perhaps the most valuable aspect. I’m always surprised at how approachable most writers are.
As for the value of conferences to new writers, well, let’s come at it from a different angle: Among the biggest mistakes I’ve seen made by new writers, the most devastating is to forget that publishing is first and foremost a business. Like any business, it has key players, it has mentors and it has rules. Without going to conferences, I don’t know how anyone would even know what they don’t know.
You’ve also taught in writing seminars and workshops. What have you learned from teaching other writers?
When I teach writing workshops, I do learn a great deal, if only because teaching forces me to articulate things that have evolved unnoticed over the years. While I’m more a pantser than a plotter, I’ve come to realize that there is method to what feels like merely winging it.
Also, my sessions almost always include writing exercises for students, and I’m am continually amazed by the quality and quantity that they can put out in just five-minute bursts of creativity.
What are you reading now?
At the moment, I am reading the page proofs for my next Grave book, Friendly Fire, as well as two manuscripts sent to me by publishers in search of cover blurbs.
Two more questions, just for fun. Who is your favorite superhero and why?
No question here. It’s Captain Underpants. I don’t think there’s a novelist on the planet who can’t identify with a man whose superpowers are largely imaginary, yet he’s protected by others who don’t want to shatter the dream.
Magnum, P.I. or McGyver?
This one’s tougher. Magnum’s got the car and the girls and the ’stache, but McGyver’s technical expertise make up for the crazy mullet. I’ve got to go with McGyver, just as a hedge against the time I find myself held hostage in a submarine with access only to a pocketknife and dental floss.
I’d probably have to agree with you. Thanks, John, for a great interview!