Friday, January 13, 2017

Interview: Fred Holmes, author of The Ugly Teapot

After reading The Ugly Teapot, I had the privilege of interviewing the talented author Fred Holmes about his inspiration, influences, daily life, advice for writers, and much more! And be sure to check out my review for The Ugly Teapot if you haven't done so and are interested!
You can also find out more about Fred Holmes and his work here

1. Your day job is directing/screenwriting. What drew you to begin writing a book? Have you always enjoyed writing, or was this a new experience?

Actually, I didn’t start out to be a writer. I started out to be a director of television and films. I did pretty well—earned a couple of Emmys and a bunch of other awards—but I was often disappointed with some of the scripts I was given to direct. So one day I decided to start writing my own scripts, and one of those scripts was called FIREFLIES. My agent shopped it all over Hollywood and it was very well received. Several high profile producers optioned it, including Gerald R. Molen who had won the Academy Award for producing SCHINDLER’S LIST (along with Spielberg and Branko Lustig). Jerry tried to get FIREFLIES made into a movie for several years, but he was known for producing big budgeted blockbusters and FIREFLIES was a sweet, small budgeted film, so he was never able to get it off the ground. Then a friend of mine at Disney read it, loved it, and suggested I turn it into a novel. I’d always been intrigued by the idea of writing a novel, so I gave it a shot, and the result was THE UGLY TEAPOT.

2. Are there any particular authors that influenced your journey to becoming a writer?

I have so many favorite authors it would be impossible to name them all. I will say that I’m a huge fan of Neil Gaiman, Patrick Rothfuss, George R. R. Martin, J K Rowling, Stephen King, Ken Follet, Orson Scott Card, Stephanie Meyer, and Terry Pratchett, along with a whole long list of others. But perhaps my favorite author of all is Ray Bradbury. He wrote my favorite novel of all time, DANDELION WINE. Why I connect with that book so viscerally, I have no idea. It is about a time in which I did not live and a place I’ve never been, and yet I absolutely adore it. A big reason why is Ray’s use of language. His writing is about as close to poetry as one can get. As a side note: Years ago, before Ray died, he was working with my friend, Jerry Molen, on the movie version of THE MARTIAN CHRONOCLES for Universal. I told Jerry what a huge fan I was of DANDELION WINE, and when I showed up in his office at DreamWorks the next day he handed me an autographed copy of DANDELION WINE. On the inside of the cover, Ray had drawn a picture of a dandelion and written, “Fred, this dandelion is for you!” And it remains one of my most prized possessions.

3. What drew you to create children’s television and books?

Truth is, I’m just a big kid. I still love Disney movies, and I’m a huge fan of children’s literature. The way I got started writing and directing children’s programming was that a friend of mine created a TV show called WISHBONE for PBS. He was looking for a director who had done single-camera, film-style directing (like you do in movies) and asked me to direct the pilot. After that I directed several more episodes, then the parent company that owned WISHBONE asked me to direct another one of their PBS shows, BARNEY & FRIENDS. All of their BARNEY directors were TV directors, and the producers were looking for someone who could do both single-camera, film-style directing, as well as multiple-camera, TV-style directing. I was one of the few people who had experience doing both, so they asked me to direct a bunch of shows, which also led to me writing a bunch of them. After that I was on everyone’s radar as a children’s director. Mary Lou Retton (who had won the All-Around gold medal in gymnastics at the 1984 Olympics) asked me to produce and direct her TV show, then other people did as well, and to date I’ve written and/or directed over 250 episodes of TV. It’s been a lot of fun, and I really enjoy working with kids. And if I ever need a break, I direct other projects. I’ve directed several shows with NASA and have worked with some really cool astronauts like Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Charlie Duke, and Sally Ride, plus I’ve shot on the Space Shuttle and been to two launches. I’ve also directed three feature films: DAKOTA, starring Lou Diamond Phillips, for Miramax; HARLEY, starring Lou Diamond Phillips, for Lionsgate; and HEART LAND, a Bollywood feature film that I directed in India that starred Indian superstars Divya Dutta and Prem Chopra. I’ve also enjoyed directing TV documentaries, and doing so has allowed me to travel the world on someone else’s nickel, which is great for someone whose hobby is travel.

4. What made you choose to write fantasy?

I’ve never been a big fan of real life. I love believing that magic exists. I especially love magical realism and urban fantasy because I want to believe that magic exists all around us...if we just open our hearts enough to see it. Life can be harsh, and when it is, it’s nice to think that there is something more out there—something good and kind and loving. My novel, THE UGLY TEAPOT, reflects this belief. My heroine has experienced a terrible trauma in her life and it drives her to seek solace in a fantasy world. If you enjoy books like THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE, THE BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA, etc., then THE UGLY TEAPOT is for you.

5. Did you start writing The Ugly Teapot with a specific message in mind that you wanted to share with readers?

I did indeed. THE UGLY TEAPOT sprang from tragedy. My brother, Jim, died at a very young age and I had a hard time handling it; so I wanted to write a story that would help others who had experienced something similar. However, I didn’t want to write something depressing. My goal was to create a fun (and occasionally funny) action/adventure story that, in the end, would provide comfort to those who had suffered a painful trauma in their life.

6. What is one of your favorite aspects about directing/writing?

There are many things I enjoy about both. What’s great about directing is that you’re in charge of a huge collaboration between many different artists working in a variety of areas—actors, painters, photographers, editors, costumers, etc—and as the director, you must know a little about all of those areas. And I love the social side of directing. Every day is a battle, and you must work with others to overcome tremendous odds. Fortunately, you’re in the trenches with some incredibly talented people, all of whom are focused on doing the best show possible. It’s a noisy, rushed, highly pressurized environment, much like being in the midst of a battle, except people aren’t trying to kill you...usually. ☺  For me, writing is the total opposite of this. It is a quiet, often lonely, experience where you have no collaborators. Everything is up to you. You begin each day with a blank page and you must draw the story out of yourself. It helps that I am by nature a loner, so I do not mind being alone...and when I get lonely, I go direct something!

7. Are there any particular aspects of directing/screenwriting that you think prepared you well for writing a book?

There were several. Directing and screenwriting both teach you discipline. You must show up and do the work. They also teach you what a story looks like and how to craft it. But perhaps the most helpful aspect of both is that they teach you to use your imagination. When you start out to direct a film or a TV show, or even to write a screenplay, you have to imagine something that does not exist—the same thing you must do when you write a novel. I actually love the challenge of this. You’re creating worlds and people that have never existed, and there are no rules. You get to decide what happens. I remember when I directed the pilot episode for WISHBONE we built the protagonist’s bedroom on a sound stage. That bedroom was supposed to be on the second floor of a house, and on our first day of shooting I was blocking a scene where my protagonist (Joe) was supposed to climb the stairs and walk into his room. There was no way for me to know whether Joe should enter his room from the left or the right because we didn’t build the stairs, so I asked my production designer which direction he should enter from. The designer said, “Hmmm, we never thought about that. You decide.” So I decided the stairs were on the right and I brought Joe from the right. Yes, I know, that’s a tiny, inconsequential decision, but it’s illustrative of all the decisions you make as a director. You’re deciding what millions of people all over the world will know and understand about a story, and that’s pretty cool.

8. Did you know from the start that you would want to independently publish your book?

I did. One of the hard lessons I’ve learned over the years is that the most unappreciated person in the entertainment business is the writer. They’re respected less and paid less than the actors and directors and producers, who wouldn’t have a job without the writer! That’s ridiculous. Writers should be at the top of the food chain. When I decided to write my first novel, I discovered the same thing was true (to a certain extent) in the literature business. Yes, writers are more respected in literature, but they are still grossly underpaid for the work they invest. Occasionally someone breaks out like JK Rowling, but most writers struggle to get by. Does this mean my only goal is making money? Absolutely not. I write because I love to write, and my number one goal is to become the best writer I can. But the hard, painful truth is this—if you don’t make money, you can’t afford to follow your dream. The Amazon model does offer some hope. They not only pay more, they also give writers more control over their work. Traditional publishers control many aspects of your book—title, cover, etc., and they can take two years to turn out your book; so I thought for my first novel I would give the independent model a try. What I have discovered is that it’s a tough, uphill slog. Unfortunately, when Amazon first offered their plan, millions of people dumped a lot of garbage into the system, then attacked any reviewer who dared call their work garbage. That seriously undermined the system for everyone. Some reviewers won’t review independent books for fear of being attacked, and most librarians and teachers won’t read them because they’ve read so much garbage in the past. However, I still have hope for the future. We’ll have to see what happens as more and more professional people choose the independent route.

9. Much of your day job seems to involve travel - does that provide a lot of influence and inspiration for your own writing?

Absolutely. It’s been my good fortune to see a large portion of this planet, and my travels played a big role in my first novel. A lot of the places my protagonist visits are places I’ve been, and a lot of her experiences, are my experiences. The father in the story is based (loosely) on me. For example, when he talks about working in Africa, that’s straight from me. I’ve been there five times. So all of those experiences bled into my writing. I highly recommend travel, by the way. It makes you realize it’s a great big world out there with diverse ways of thinking and believing, which makes you a better, more well-rounded human being.

10. What is the transition like when moving back and forth between writing and your day job? Is it difficult to find the time for everything?

It is a challenge, but it’s a challenge I enjoy. As I said earlier, I love the social aspect of directing, especially after spending so much time alone writing; but it is difficult to find time to do both. I do most of my writing at night and on weekends, in hotel rooms and on planes, and I work pretty much seven days a week for around fifty weeks a year.

11. This book features a classic idea - Aladdin’s lamp - and molds it into something exciting and fresh. Is there anything in particular that drew you to that idea?

I’ve always loved the Aladdin story. Who hasn’t wished they could have three wishes? And I adore Disney’s ALADDIN. It is one of their best animated movies, and I was fortunate enough to attend the premier at the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood with my good friend Lou Diamond Phillips. The El Capitan is Disney’s flagship theater where they premier most of their movies and they really go all-out when premiering a new one. At the ALADDIN premier they had people dressed like Disney characters on the stage in front of the screen leading everyone in a sing-a-long of Disney songs. Meanwhile, a calliope up on one of the balconies was pumping out both music and bubbles that filled the auditorium. It was a magical night.

12. The Ugly Teapot centers around death of a young girl’s father, something that I have personally experienced and thus found very relatable - is this topic more personal or challenging for you to write about than other projects you’ve worked on?

It was indeed, as its inspiration was the death of my brother. They diagnosed him with Hodgkin’s disease and told him he had six months to live. My parents refused to accept that and took him to M.D. Anderson in Houston where he underwent chemo treatments, radiation, and surgery. He wanted to live so badly he managed to survive for another seven years. I was with him through it all and it was awful, especially toward the end. He hung on for as long as he could, but once the pain became too much, the only solution the doctors could offer was to give him so much morphine he would sleep until he died. That meant we all had to say goodbye. They brought each of us in one by one and I cannot tell you how terrible it was. Even now, after all these years, I have tears in my eyes as I write this. Everyone tells you death is a part of life, but that doesn’t make it any easier. I hate, hate, HATE goodbyes...and perhaps that’s why THE UGLY TEAPOT has sequels. I can’t stand to kill off my characters.

13. Do you have any advice for those who want to work in areas similar to yours?

Have a tough skin, take criticism with an open heart and mind, and keep your sense of humor. When I first started in the film business, I got to be friends with Samuel Bronston. Sam was an old-school, Hollywood producer, built like a fireplug, who chained smoked huge, very expensive cigars. He had produced EL CID, KING OF KINGS, CIRCUS WORLD (with John Wayne), and a bunch of other big budgeted films. I was a young kid, fresh out of college, desperate to be a director, and I once asked Sam if he had any advice for an aspiring director. He thought about my question for a long moment while puffing on his cigar, then took it out and said, “Never hire a stuntman with a limp or a special effects guy with only one hand.” Best advice I ever got.

14. How would you encourage others to find inspiration when trying to write?

If you have to “find” your inspiration, you’ve already lost the battle. Inspiration comes from within you. It keeps you awake at night and pesters you throughout dinner and follows you around during the day, whispering in your ear. Inspiration refuses to be ignored. It will stay after you, harping at you day and night, until you finally break down and create whatever it is driving you to create. Inspiration is always there. It’s within you at this very moment, begging you to let it out. The only thing stopping it is you. So no, you don’t have to find your inspiration. You just have to relax and let it out. Some people think they lack inspiration when what they really lack is confidence. And how do you gain confidence? You start by saying to yourself, “This is my story and no one else can write it but me.” Don’t worry whether you have the experience or the talent or the opportunity to write. Just write. Start right now. This very minute. Take an idea you have and turn it into a story. And when you’re done, you might not have a Nobel Prize winner, but who cares? You will have the very best of YOU.

15. And lastly - do you have any tips for those who are also trying to get their own books out and into the hands of other readers?

Boy, that’s a tough one, cause here’s the problem. I alluded to this earlier, but the truth is the independent model for releasing a book (Amazon, etc.) still isn’t perfect. There is still a lot of prejudice out there against independently published books—and for good reason. A lot of the books that came out initially (and are still coming out) aren’t professionally edited, etc. Forget the fact that traditionally published books also have typos, etc., cause everyone ignores that. And by everyone, I mean primarily teachers and librarians. For the most part, they won’t read or review independent books, and for someone like me who writes middle grade fiction, that makes my job very difficult. If my genres were romance or thrillers, Amazon would work great for me because the people who frequent Amazon are adults. Unfortunately, very few kids find their next novel on Amazon. They find their books through the recommendations of peers, or from parents, librarians, and teachers, and access to those folks is dominated by the traditional publishers like Scholastic. Does this mean I won’t independently publish my next book? Honestly, I don’t know. I write to be read, and whatever it takes to do that, I will do. So what is my advice to those who are trying to get their own books out there? First, write the absolute best book you can write. Next, make sure it is professionally edited, etc. Then finally, decide what release route is best for your novel. If it’s a children’s book, you might want to seriously consider getting an agent and a publisher. But whatever you decide to do, resolve to be in this business for the long haul. Do something every day toward meeting your goal of writing the best novel possible, and never, ever give up. The only people who fail are those who accept failure as an option. And know this. You have my very best wishes. Oh yes, if I had Aladdin’s Lamp, I would give you all three of my wishes. Why? Because you are attempting something good and noble and honorable. You are writing something that future generations will grow up reading. You are making the world a better  place.

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