Everybody has a favorite Lou Diamond Phillips performance—ever since his breakout in 1987's La Bamba, he’s worked steadily in movies and TV, including his current gig on Fox crime drama Prodigal Son. This week, he’s embracing yet another new role: sci-fi novelist, with the release of his first book, The Tinderbox: Soldier of Indira.
Naturally, we had to talk to him all about it, and we somehow made it through the entire interview without mentioning Young Guns or Young Guns II. (However, we could not resist asking about all those pet cats that are always popping up on his delightful Twitter.) Mostly, though, we talked about The Tinderbox—based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of the same name, it’s about two star-crossed royals from warring worlds who fall in love with a little help from the titular magical device—and Phillips’ appreciation of all things science fiction. What follows is a slightly edited version of our phone conversation.
Cheryl Eddy, io9: Obviously, people know you as an actor, but you’ve previously written several screenplays, and The Tinderbox originally started as a screenplay. Take me through what that was like, beginning the project as a screenplay but then deciding to transform it into your first novel instead.
Lou Diamond Phillips: I actually have to go back even beyond that. The original inspiration for the screenplay was actually a series of drawings that my wife had done. Yvonne is an amazing artist; as you may know, she’s done 30 illustrations for the book that are coming out in the hardcover version. She showed me this series of manga-style drawings that she had done that were inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Tinderbox. She had chosen that one because it was one of his more obscure works, not quite as popular or as well-known as, say, The Little Mermaid. In the ‘90s, Yvonne was very much into manga and graphic novels and that sort of thing. She’s a real geek, I mean a real nerd! [Laughs] Back then, you had to search those things out. They weren’t like they are today, on the internet, [so] she was way ahead of the curve. She had done all these drawings and I think she had anticipated that they would become a graphic novel that she would write eventually.
I saw these and I went, “Oh my gosh! These are amazing!” And for me, they were incredibly evocative of a post-apocalyptic, fantastical world. They reminded me of a little bit of the Japanese influence and the Kurosawa influence that you see in Star Wars, with the clothing and the whole samurai-Jedi parallel there. I immediately started thinking about this sort of fantasy world where this would happen, and I said “This would make a great movie!” And she was like, “Yeah! That sounds wonderful, let’s do a movie!” So I wrote the screenplay, and when I finished the screenplay, I realized that it’s going to be a very, very expensive movie [laughs] and nobody’s going to give me the money to direct it. So the best we can do is sell it as a really cool screenplay, but that really wasn’t our intention—my intention was that this was a project that Yvonne and I could do together.
So then it was like, OK, well what can we do to maintain some control over this, to have a hand in it, hopefully to direct it one day and produce it? We hit upon the idea, along with my manager J.P. Roberts, of doing the novel. I’d written narratively in the past—I’d done a really, really bad Stephen King rip-off in high school [laughs] and in college, I’d taken a stab at a Jonathan Livingston Seagull kind of novel, which I actually might revisit because there’s some value in that. So I set about working on the novel, but easier said than done—the process was about 10 years, actually.
The funny thing is, there are all kinds of Easter eggs in the novel itself, and one of them is that Everson, the hero, his father is King Raza the Forty-Seventh. He’s the 47th because I was 47 years old when I started doing this project. [Laughs] And I am now 58! It was a very long, circuitous path; I wasn’t like a real novelist who sits down like Hemingway at seven in the morning—actually, he used to write standing up at his easel—you know, for eight hours a day. I wrote when I had the time. My day job kept working out, you know [laughs], I kept acting and doing films and television and whatnot. And there was really no pressing reason to get the novel down on paper.
Actually, when I was filming Longmire, the series for Netflix, Craig Johnson, who writes the Walt Longmire Mysteries [novel series], and I had become very good friends. I said, “I’m taking a stab at some narrative work...you want to take a look at this?” And he and his wife Judy, who happens to be his editor, they really liked what they read and were so supportive, so encouraging that it really motivated me to finish writing the book. I started writing it in earnest then because I was on location in Santa Fe and spending a lot of my time away from set by myself, and that whole atmosphere in Santa Fe just lends itself to writing. I really put the nose to the grindstone over the next few years working on getting the book out and finished.
io9: How does your background as an actor inform your process as a writer, especially when it came to your characters and worldbuilding?
Phillips: Having written screenplays, I would like to think that I have a very good handle on story, on plot, on pace. But a screenplay is very much a blueprint, but not one that needs to be taken as if it were etched in stone. There has to be a lot of latitude for the communal experience, for the community of artists that come together to make film or television: your cinematographer, your production designer, your wardrobe designer, your editor—all of these people who have input on the final product. When you’re a novelist or an author, you are all of the above. You have to really, really paint that picture for people.
So it’s nice because a number of reviews have talked about how cinematic the novel is, and that’s because I see it. I had intended on directing it. So I could see the world. I could see what I wanted the production team to create, you know, and give them at least really broad strokes about what things should look like or how they should work. And also coming from a production standpoint myself, it had to be very pragmatic: how can we actually do this in a film? So the physical universe of The Tinderbox was really something I had to put my mind to and to fill in the details when it came to writing the novel, and not just saying “Ok, this is a birdun” and letting some creature designer come up with what it looked like. I had to give a very good image of it for the reader. And even there, I think for the reader you want to paint a very vivid picture but you want to give the imagination a little room to grow and expand as well. So that was my mission in translating screenplay-style format into a novel.
And then, as far as the characters go, you know, I’ve played leading characters, I’ve played supporting characters, I’ve played cameos. I’ve played everyone as pure and sweet as Ritchie Valens, to someone as evil as Richard Ramirez, the serial killer. So my journey as an actor has always been to subjugate my own ego to that of the characters’—and to embrace their worldview to really understand where they’re coming from, and why they do the things that they do. That certainly lent itself to my ability to create, hopefully, three-dimensional characters throughout the book. And not just the male characters, but the female characters too. I’m the father of four daughters, I’ve been a husband a few times. I would like to think that I understand that mindset and that point of view as well and to write things that were relevant and that would ring true to that particular demographic.
io9: The Tinderbox is a sci-fi fantasy story, but it’s also a love story, a coming of age story, and has a lot of political intrigue too. How did you approach balancing all these different elements?
Phillips: Some of it is truly conscious, and some of it is just instinct. Which I could say is my approach to acting—you do your homework, you do the nuts and bolts of it, and then you go with the emotion. You let it flow and you let it take you to places that maybe you did not conceive of before. I had a template in going back to the original Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. Those characters are very much in The Tinderbox, but they’re fleshed out. The soldier in the short story, first of all, he’s not very likable, but he doesn’t even have a name! He’s just called “soldier.” Same thing with the king and the queen and the princess, and the witch.
A lot of my influences are things like Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass and Alice in Wonderland, so there’s a bit of whimsy there, and wordplay and use of language. That’s why I take things [from the original fairy tale] like the witch, the dogs, and the tree, and extrapolate them to mean something entirely different, which I hope that fans of the original will find entertaining.
So I had that story, which gives me the basic plot. But I think we have very intelligent, very astute audiences today, not only in the literary world but even in the cinematic world—all the sci-fi geeks, all the people who have elevated taste when it comes to movies. So it could not be simplistic; even though it was going to retain its fairy-tale roots throughout, I felt that it needed to have some relevance in the contemporary world. A recurring motif throughout is the same sort of thing that I think we’re dealing with right now in our world: what makes a good leader? What makes a responsible leader? What happens when power runs amok? Things that I think everybody in the world can relate to right now. So even though you have what is basically a simplistic conceit, and that is a fairy tale or fable, to turn it into a novel it has to have more gravitas and grounding and be more complete.
I’ve often said that sci-fi [works] in a certain way are a bit like Westerns; they are our modern-day morality tales. We can put a story into a setting that’s far enough removed from the mundaneness of everyday life, where you can talk about these big questions. You can talk about these issues of character in a way that the characters themselves can be iconic. They can be larger than life.
io9: Without giving anything specific away about the ending, The Tinderbox is ultimately a hopeful story, which is certainly something we could all use right now. What role do you think science fiction plays in making people feel hopeful about the future?
Phillips: It’s the humanity. I think that’s why there is science fiction. As I said a moment ago, these are our morality tales. These are our Aesop’s Fables, to a certain extent. I think that’s important. Art, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, it came about in the re-examination of what makes us human. What are those qualities that make life worth living. What is your soul, what is your moral compass-all of these things. That sounds like some highfalutin’ conceptualizing there, but it has to be at the heart of even a fantastical story, otherwise, you don’t care.
What’s interesting is that when I originally conceived of the screenplay, I set it in space because that was going to be the most commercial way to go with a movie! [Laughs] Game of Thrones hadn’t happened yet; it happened during the long process of writing the novel. All of a sudden, it was great, because we wanted to hold onto the fairy-tale aspect of it, and here was this fantasy fairy tale thing with kings and queens and witches and whatnot that showed that there was a very large appetite for that out there. So I thought, “Great! Let’s make sure we lean into this!” But like that, we want heroes, we need villains, we need to understand that there’s good and evil in the world, and in the universe, and I think for those of us who care, we yearn for balance in all these things. We want to believe in karma. We want to believe that the universe is just and right and that good deeds result in good rewards, and vice versa.
When I was in the editing process, some of the suggestions I got were to make certain aspects of it more dark or more dour. And not that I set out to write a sci-fi novel, or a fantasy novel, or even a YA novel, since my leads are young people, but I kept telling people: “Don’t forget, it’s a fairy tale! Fairy tales have happy endings!” There is some darkness and some tragedy in the novel, but it always marches toward what is good and what is hopeful. I don’t think I could commit that much time and that much of myself into a story that at least did not give people hope in that respect—an assurance that good can triumph.
io9: It’s pretty rare these days to have a standalone sci-fi story—almost everything is part of a series. Any plans to return to the world of The Tinderbox in the future to continue or expand the story?
Phillips: I’m so glad you asked that! [Laughs] It was fully intended to be a standalone. It was fully intended to be a one-off. But even in the writing of the first one, it was like, “Heyyy, this could possibly have a sequel?” You look at Star Wars, or at James Cameron working on the whole Avatar world now, and you know Game of Thrones was based on a long series of books. You can go back even further than that, and obviously, this is an influence as well, with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. So it was certainly on Yvonne’s and my mind that this was a possibility, but I wasn’t giving it a whole lot of thought. We had a thumbnail sketch in mind based on the end of the book, and also based on certain other touchstones in the fairy tale-fable world that we’d taken a look at and thought, “How can we extrapolate these as much as we’ve extrapolated The Tinderbox?
But I’d like to say that positive reinforcement has its benefits and its rewards. When we started getting the early reviews and people were saying “We love this world, we love this universe, these are compelling characters,” we started going, “Man! Maybe we should put some thought to this sequel!” So I started thinking through what our original concept was, but once again it was Yvonne who just nailed it. She came up with a storyline that was out of left field for me; it’s not something that I had thought of or considered. When she brought it up, I thought, “That is 100% the way to go.” It builds upon some concepts and thoughts that are introduced in the first one but also goes off in a different direction that is just as relevant in the world, but in a different way.
I’m sorry—I don’t mean to be so elliptical about it, but I don’t want to give away the plot just yet. But at any rate. I’m already working on it. I’m 90 pages into it!
io9: This has nothing to do with The Tinderbox, but I had to just say that your Twitter is very good—specifically, all the content featuring your family’s many, many cats. Were you always a cat person?
Phillips: My wife and I talk about this all the time. We were not cat people. We never intended to be cat people. [Laughs] And when [our daughter] Indigo was little, she kept saying she wanted a kitten, but Yvonne is allergic or was allergic. So we would say, “When you go away to college, kid.” I remember there was one day when went to go get cupcakes and there was a lovely little fountain there, and Indigo wanted to make a wish. Yvonne happened to have seven pennies in the bottom of her purse, so she gave them to Indigo, and sure enough with every single penny she wished for a cat.
[Laughs] So this is the lesson where our child learns that not all wishes come true—except, well, few months later, I’m looking out the window while I’m doing dishes, and I see this little thing going “bloomp, bloomp, bloomp” from under this gazebo that we had in the place we were at, at the time. I thought, “My gosh, is that a rat out in broad daylight?” Then I realized it was a kitten. I thought, “Oh man, do I tell Yvonne?” If I do it’s all over because her heart just goes out to animals. Next thing I know, here comes two. And then there’s three. And then there’s four. And now I know I can’t avoid it because they’re under there somewhere, some way, and she’s gonna find out. So I call her, and sure enough, she immediately makes a plan to catch them and to domesticate them. She was going to adopt them out.
Then we found out the next day, by the way, that there were five, because the fifth one hadn’t come out on the first day. So we did just that, but of course, we fell in love [and kept them all].
io9: Your daughter’s wishes came true!
Phillips: Exactly! Now I keep telling her to wish for Daddy’s Oscar. [Laughs] She’s got a little power going on there, man! What’s funny though is that we could not catch the feral parents—so in essence, the wish really did come true because there were seven in all.
The Tinderbox: Soldier of Indira by Lou Diamond Phillips, illustrated by Yvonne Phillips, is available now.
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