Tuesday, April 6, 2010
Q and A with Jeffrey Stepakoff, author of Fireworks Over Toccoa
In 2002, my family and I had just moved into a new home north of Los Angeles which overlooked the Six Flags park there, Magic Mountain. We had a two year-old and we’d just had our second child, and in the summers, pretty much every evening, we would all sit on our front porch and watch the fireworks over the park. The displays were extensive and really quite magnificent, filling the skies over the Santa Clarita Valley with these breathtaking displays of light.
I had such warm feelings about the nightly event, the four of us, this new family, sitting there in our new home, watching together like it was our own private display. I think fireworks just got into my heart that summer.
At the same time, along with working on the writing staff at DAWSON’S CREEK, I had a pilot deal with Twentieth Century. So I was searching for new ideas to develop for a TV series, and I lit upon the world of fireworks. I started developing the idea of a fireworks family, and learning about the wonderful history of fireworks and the old Italian pyrotechnics traditions.
I flew to Pittsburgh and visited the Vitales at Pyrotechnico and the Zambellis at Zambelli Fireworks Internationale. I even had dinner with George “Boom-Boom” Zambelli, one of the great Italian-American fireworks masters, just weeks before he passed away.
I learned there was this inherently dramatic world about these first generation Italian families who really brought fireworks to this country at the turn of the century, switched their plants over to munitions factories during World War II, sent their sons to fight in the war – often against Italy! – and were still rounded up, arrested and sent away to internment camps.
As often happens with pilots, that project did not move forward in Hollywood, and it went into a manila folder and onto a pile with all the other manila folders on the back of my credenza.
A few years ago, in search of a more family friendly lifestyle, I moved back to Atlanta with my wife and our young children. My wife and I were both raised in Atlanta, though we didn’t know each other until meeting in Los Angeles.
My wife’s family is from Toccoa, Georgia, where her grandfather was once mayor and owned the local car dealership, Tabor Motor Company. I visited Toccoa several times and simply fell in love with it. So, when I decided I wanted to finally write my first novel, I dug out that fireworks folder, and for a setting, started thinking about Toccoa.
I knew from my years sitting in story rooms that I wanted to construct a compelling story, a page-turn, if you will. Similarly, by this point in my career, I was very clear that I wanted to write what I love to write most, a love story. So I had fireworks, Toccoa, and I found a beautiful, smart, young southern girl named Lily Davis Woodward, and I was off.
You’re a debut novelist. Tell us how your novel came to be published.
I also teach dramatic writing at Kennesaw State University and my students will tell you that I am nothing short of obsessive about story structure. Again, I suspect this comes from years of designing story under insanely tight deadlines. So I spent nearly a year outlining and developing the novel, and when I finally had a structure that I felt worked, I sat down and wrote most of it in the winter of ‘08. My wife was pregnant at the time with our third, and I have such fond memories of sitting at our dining room table and writing that winter, often late into the evening, while she sat nearby in the living room, sewing and reading.
I took some great notes from my publishing agent, Daniel Greenberg, and when we were satisfied with the draft we put it on the market. Katie Gilligan at Thomas Dunne, and imprint of St. Martin’s Press, responded to the material, got some in-house reads, and we made a two-book deal. I can’t even begin to tell you how fortunate I feel to be working with Katie and everyone at SMP. This is one of the most amazingly smart and supportive teams an author could ever even begin to hope to work with.
You have a television writing background. What were some challenges you faced when you switched to writing a novel?
You know what the biggest challenge I’m finding is? Letting go. Letting go of this project that I love so much and these characters that I have so deeply imbedded in my core. You don’t have that issue so much when you write TV. I suppose after many years on a particular staff, you have to switch gears and learn the characters and world of another series. But my experience in TV was that after several seasons spent writing about the lives of the same people, I was generally ready to move on. It was hard to let FIREWORKS OVER TOCCOA go, hard to stop writing it, living in that world, living with the characters rattling around in my head day and night. But at the same time, it’s been so thrilling now to start sharing it with readers.
On a craft level, I’ve learned, and am still enjoying learning, some of the more fundamental aspects of fiction writing. Really painting a scene and a moment with words. Filling in the subtext and the inner emotions with language. And at the same time, still dramatizing and not just telling.
Remember, a screenplay is really a map of a story, the bones, if you will. Everything from emotional subtext to the details of the scenery are delegated. The cool thing about writing a novel is that you are not only the writer, you’re also the director, the actors, the set and lighting designer, etc. To have that kind of absolute control over story is a wonderfully satisfying creative experience. To really get it just right. Which of course is something difficult to do in TV because of the speed of production and the collaborative nature of the process, a nature which, of course, often extends well beyond the story room and into executive suites.
So in order to fulfill all that novel writing affords an author, I’m constantly asking myself: Is this scene painted as well as it can be? Are my characters emotions dramatized as much as they can be? Am I still moving the story along as compellingly as possible?
Who are some of your literary influences?
I read a lot of different writers. I love popular fiction and I’m a sucker for Stephen King. The man knows how to tell a tale. Likewise, I appreciate the cinematic nature of what Michael Crichton was doing with his fiction.
People have been making comparisons of my work to Nicholas Sparks. I have read nearly all of his books, and I think I have an understanding, as well as a respect, for what he does as well as his appeal. I have some things to say, and some ways I’d like to say them, that I think go beyond what he’s doing right now. While I think love stories tend to be universal and often classic in nature, I like to dig, and keep digging until I really feel I’ve gotten to the true emotional center of a character. Continue to peel away the onion, if you will. I also think that while there are inevitable payoffs to our inciting incidents, they should be unexpected. If they’re not, I don’t think I’ve done my job well. I like to turn story over and over until I find a fresh way to do something. One of the senior editors at SMP called my work “Nicholas Sparks 2.0.” That makes me smile.
I also have to say, I was greatly moved, and I suppose influenced, by Cormac McCarthy’s last book, THE ROAD. His profoundly precise use of language and his ability to stir is something that got into my soul.
What is the most surprising thing you learned about the publishing industry? I imagine it’s quite different from television.
How nice everyone is, and more to the point, how much they genuinely love and respect writers.
You’re novel is set during World War II. Why did you choose to do a period piece?
I set out to write a love story. Could there be a more romantic time?! Really, when I did my research and learned about the close relationship between munitions and fireworks, how Italians were treated in this country during the war, and what was going on in the south during that time, it seemed a like a naturally dramatic period to me.
What’s your best advice for aspiring novelists?
I wish I could find something truly insightful and new to say here because it’s such an honor to be in a position where someone is asking me that. The truth from my heart is still what I always hear: write. Write, write and write some more. Also, of course, read.
As I mentioned, I’m a bit of a zealot about structure, so I think it’s important to master the fundamentals of story. I also think you must carve out time for yourself every single day of your life for your work. Time that is yours, specifically for writing. And even if you spend that time staring at your shoes, daydreaming about your story, or just daydreaming, you must cut that time out for yourself. It’s critical.
I also want to say, thank you again for asking me these questions. You know, when you write television and movies, tens of millions of people see your work, but rarely do they write to you, or come to hear you read, or ask your thoughts about what you wrote or why you wrote it. It’s such a commitment to pick up a book and listen to the dreams and whispers and heartache of another person. In so many ways, it’s an act of faith, an act of connection.
So I suppose that’s been the greatest thing for me in writing this book, in becoming a novelist, connecting with people this way. Thanks for taking the time to listen to my thoughts.
Jeffrey Stepakoff was raised in Atlanta, Georgia. He attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he received a BA in Journalism. In 1988, the day after getting his MFA in Playwriting from Carnegie Mellon, he drove to Hollywood where he began writing for film and television. Jeffrey has “written by” or “story by” credits on thirty-six television episodes, has written for fourteen different series and has worked on seven primetime staffs, producing hundreds of hours of internationally-recognized television, including the Emmy-winning THE WONDER YEARS, SISTERS, WILD CARD, HYPERION BAY, THE MAGIC SCHOOL, C16: FBI, ROBIN’S HOODS, LAND’S END, FLIPPER, SONS & DAUGHTERS, MAJOR DAD, THE YAKOV SMIRNOFF SHOW, BEAUTY & THE BEAST, HAVE FAITH, SIMON& SIMON, and DAWSON’S CREEK where he was Co-Executive Producer. Stepakoff has also created and developed pilots for many of the major studios and networks, including 20th Century, Paramount, MTM, Fox and ABC. And he has developed and written major motion pictures, including Disney’s TARZAN and BROTHER BEAR, and EM Entertainment’s LAPITCH, THE LITTLE SHOEMAKER, Croatia’s selection for the 1998 Academy Awards.
A few years ago, Stepakoff returned to Atlanta, where he lives with his wife and three young children, and began writing fiction. FIREWORKS OVER TOCCOA is his first novel. Presently, he speaks around the country, teaches dramatic writing at Kennesaw State University, and is hard at work on his second novel for St. Martin’s Press. In his spare time, he builds forts in living room with sofa cushions.A Spring 2010 SIBA Okra Pick, An April 2010 Indie Next List Notable