Saturday, July 17, 2010

A Visit With Robert Liparulo

Three of Robert Liparulo's novels are in various stages of development for the big screen: the film rights to Comes a Horseman were purchased by the producer of Tom Clancy’s movies; and Liparulo is penning the screenplays for Germ and Deadfall for two top producers. He's also working with the director Andrew Davis on a political thriller. His novels have been called “A brilliantly crafted thriller” and “Best of high-octane suspense.”

His bestselling young adult series, Dreamhouse Kings, debuted last year with House of Dark Shadows and Watcher in the Woods followed by Gatekeepers and  Timescape.

Robert, how difficult was it to make the transition from journalism to novels to screenplays?

Years ago, I wrote short stories, and fiction has always been my preference. When the fiction market dried up for writers whose names weren’t Ray Bradbury, John Updike, and the like, I switched to journalism, primarily magazine articles. I thought then that I’d someday get back to fiction and that my time writing nonfiction would have been a waste. But when I started writing Comes a Horseman, my first novel, I realized that writing nonfiction had taught me incredibly valuable skills, which made me a better fiction writer.

Primarily, I’d learned how to research, to find that brilliant nugget of information buried under all the stuff everyone had already heard about; all the interviews I’d done gave me an ear for authentic dialog; it taught me to write concise, tight prose; and I knew how to write every day and meet a deadline. Also, my magazine articles tended to be filled with metaphors and vignettes, which brought to life some topics that would otherwise have been dry and boring. So moving from journalism to novels wasn’t too much of a stretch. I loved that I was able to create my own worlds, to tell the stories I wanted to tell, develop interesting characters, and explore themes that interested me. Of course, journalism and fiction are two vastly different disciplines, but my heart has always beat for fiction, so I was ready.

I started out in college as a motion picture production major. I was comfortable with the screenplay format and all of its limitations, as compared to novels. With screenplays, everything has to be shown, not told, which is a good rule-of-thumb for novel writing anyway. The story is pared down to its core, with fewer digressions, backstories, and internal motivations—again, it’s a good place to start as a novelist, as well. I’m a very visual storyteller, and a lot of reviewers have commented on the fact that they could “see” my scenes as though they were watching a movie. For me, switching from writing novels to screenplays isn’t much different from reading a book, then watching a movie. It seems natural to me.

When and why did you decide to write for young adults? Tell us briefly about your Dreamhouse Kings series.

After my third novel, Deadfall came out, some schools started reading my second novel, Germ. I got a chance to speak to high-schoolers and middle-schoolers about it. I thoroughly enjoyed addressing these kids. They didn’t care a bit about the business of writing—how to get an agent, how much money you can make. But they were passionate about story—why characters did certain things, how the plot turned this way instead of that way. For them, it’s all about the love of stories, which is exactly why I wanted to be a writer.

About this time, my publisher called and asked if I’d ever consider writing for young adults. Of course, I jumped at the chance.

In the Dreamhouse Kings series, a family moves to a small town in northern California, so Dad could take a job as principal of the local middle and high school. They move into a run-down Victorian home, where they find a hidden hallway of doors. Each door leads to a portal to a different time in history. But not only can they go from the house to the past, people from the past can come through into their house. Someone does—and kidnaps Mom, taking her into some unknown place in the past. The family—primarily brothers David and Xander—begin a quest for Mom, which takes them to all sorts of dangerous and fascinating places throughout time. We slowly learn that the Kings are in the house for a very specific purpose, and they must do much more than “simply” find their mother.

The entire story—less some details and where in history the Kings go—came to me in a dream when I was eleven years old.

What do you enjoy more, writing novels or screenplays? And why?

Each has its own pros and cons, but overall I like novel-writing better. I like exploring characters’ thoughts and delving into their motivations and backstories in greater detail than screenplays allow. There are those who’d argue with me, but I believe you can create a much richer tapestry with novels than you can with movies. There’s a reason most people who’ve read a book and seen the movie based on it will tell you they like the book better. It doesn’t mean the movie was bad, typically; it’s just that they enjoyed the depth of the novel and partnering with the author through their imaginations to tell the story.

I also like the control a novelist has over his story. Editors make suggestions, but in the end, it’s the author’s story, if not 100%, then 99% or 98%. Filmmaking, on the other hand, is a collaborative effort. The movie that hits the screen may be, at most, 50% of the original writer’s vision. The rest is from other writers brought into the project, the director’s interpretation, even producers’ demands for changes based on what they think the audience wants to see, what best suits the market.

Why did you decide to incorporate supernatural elements into your thriller novels?

I’ve felt nudged in that direction for the very beginning. Comes a Horseman has hints of the supernatural—things that may or may not end up being supernatural. Readers really responded to that. But at the time—and through the writing of Germ, Deadfall, and Deadlock—I wanted to stay true to what I thought of as a pure thriller story: suspense set in a solidly real world in which the events could actually happen.

When I conceived of The 13th Tribe, it was like that, a thriller set in the real world. Then I realized I could explore its theme—which is primarily vigilantism, frontier justice—even better if I stretched reality just a bit. It opened up all kinds of storytelling possibilities that I think readers will find entertaining and at the same time intriguing and thought-provoking. I’d already written the Dreamhouse Kings, which showed me just how fun a tinge of fantasy could be (through the family’s time traveling). Readers made it a bestselling series, so I knew my fans would follow me into that genre, as long as I gave them the other elements that make up a Robert Liparulo story—lots of action, adventure, and realistic characters who fight and love and have strong emotions.

It was never my intention to use the supernatural as a gimmick, as a way to circumvent quality storytelling. I strove to create a character-driven story with an interesting plot and a visual, active writing style. The supernatural element simply adds another layer, another color I could use to paint my story.

Tell us about your latest film project and your latest novel.

Right now, I have several projects inching toward production. All of my novels are with producers associated with major studios. They’re talking big budgets, which is gratifying because they’ll have the money to do it right, theoretically. But the problem with big budgets is they add layers of red tape and decision-making.

Mace Neufeld, the producer of Tom Clancy’s movies, hasn’t been happy with the scripts he’s commissioned for Comes a Horseman. Whether he’ll move forward and keep investing is scripts, I don’t know. Eric Garcia, who wrote the novel on which the film "Matchstick Man" (with Nicolas Cage) was based and the screenplay for the recent "Repo Men" (with Jude Law), is writing the script for the Dreamhouse Kings. He really gets the story and I love what he’s doing with it. Both Germ and Deadfall are in the script-writing stage, as well. I’m working on the "Deadfall" script for David Zelon at Mandalay. I’m also writing an original script for a thriller with Andrew Davis, the director of The Fugitive, The Guardian, and Holes. Phoenix Pictures will produce it. Between our schedules, it’s been slow going, but I’m totally psyched about the story. It’s an ambitious project that tackles some pressing issues at play in society today.

As far as my next novel, we’re still about eight months from the publication of The 13th Tribe, and since it’s a slight departure from the kinds of stories readers are used to from me, I don’t want to give away too much yet; I’d like it to be a surprise. I can say it takes a close look at vigilantes and how they do what a lot of us would condone or even do ourselves if we had the guts. They go after the child abusers, murderers and thieves who somehow escaped justice, whether through their own deviousness or loopholes in the law. I didn’t want to mimic what’s already been done so well with this topic—in books like Death Wish and even Batman, so I decided to explore two aspects of vigilantism that I felt have been underserved in literature: the cultural/societal conditions that could allow vigilantism to flourish—and have in specific times in history; and the feelings vigilantism stirs in people who aren’t the vigilante or the criminal, but average bystanders. How do they sort through the moral implications, especially if they become the victims of unpunished crime?

What are the best and worst aspects of writing?

The best aspect is simply being able to do what I love to do. That can be applied to any vocation, so to be more writing specific: I love creating characters, setting them in motion, and watching what they do. I can’t think of a better way to explore your own emotions, or to tackle a subject that interests you. I get to say, “What if...” and then spend months figuring out the answer. A close second is hearing from readers who enjoyed my story. It’s a great feeling to know I was able to take someone out of the hustle and bustle of life for a little while and entertain them.

I think for worst aspect, it’s a toss-up between the subjectivity of storytelling and the “business” of writing. There are so many ways to spin a tale, I think most writers are constantly asking themselves, “Is this right? Will this entertain and communicate my message in the best possible way?” It’s the infinite possibilities that keep writers guessing, and sitting down to choose one, to commit it to paper, can be both exhilarating and terrifying.

The business end of things is the least appealing to me. Contracts, marketing, publicity—these are necessary evils, but certainly not what made me want to be a storyteller. I love meeting readers and talking shop with other writers, but the rest of it I could do without.

How do you go about defining your characters in a new novel? Do you write brief bios of each one before you start?

I don’t write bios or bibles for my characters. I prefer to “know” them, to have walked in their shoes. Once I’ve decided a few basics—their gender, their occupation, for instance—I try to live their lives for a while. It’s sort of like the method approach to acting: I listen to the music they would listen to and figure out why they like it. I think their thoughts, even when they’re opinions are contrary to my own. I speak the way they would. I go to businesses where they would work and learn their trade as much as time allows. I order what they would at restaurants. Once I start writing, I usually don’t refer to character cheat sheets because I know them so well—where they went to college, what their favorite book is, as well as I know my own tastes and background.

How important are conflict and emotion in a thriller novel? And humor.

Thrillers have a rap for being plot-driven, but nowadays most are character-driven. Without sympathy for the characters, readers don’t care about their fate, which makes for a weak thriller. So most thriller writers invest a lot in character development, and that naturally drives the plot. And where there are compelling characters, you’ll have conflict and emotion. Conflict ratchets up tension, while emotion gives readers some commonality with characters who may be otherwise quirky or caught up in crazy scenarios that are completely alien to readers. Combined, they can pull a reader into a story and hold them in a state of tension that keeps the pages turning.

Good writers use humor to give readers a breather. Depending on how it’s used, it can give gruff characters more charm or tell readers, “Yeah, this is crazy stuff. I know it, you know it, let’s have fun.” Like the supernatural, it’s another color on our palette. Some writers use it sparingly, wryly—someone like Thomas Perry—and others like Carl Hiaasen seem to build their stories around laugh-out-loud situations and characters. My own writing leans toward the Thomas Perry approach to humor.

Advice to fledgling thriller and screenwriters.

Read everything you can get your hands on and finish every writing project you start. Reading exposes you to people and things outside your own little world. It helps teach you about the way other people behave and think and talk. It gives you glimmers of other places and ideas—all things you can incorporate into your own stories. On top of that, you learn what works and what doesn’t in storytelling.

“Finish things” is simple to say, but not so simple to do. Discipline is essential to all writers, but as creative people, we’re easily distracted, often by other stories we want to tell. But if we get in the habit of finishing things, then we have products to show agents, editors, and publishers when the opportunity comes up. The ability to finish is a big question people in the publishing business has for wannabe writers. They’ve seen so many people with great ideas who either can’t finish a story or can’t execute it well. Prove you can right off the bat.

Thanks for taking part in the series, Robert!

Robert's main website is
His Dreamhouse Kings site is
He also has a blog of tips for new writers @


Jean Henry Mead said...


It's great to have you here this coming week. I don't think I've ever heard of anyone with three of his/her novels in various stages of production at the same time. That's mind-boggling. :)

Anonymous said...

Great interview - thanks!
Alex Knight

Anonymous said...

Wow! Absolutely can't wait for the movies!
Rhonda Ferguson

JoePike said...

Robert is the man! What a great storyteller. I always judge a book by it's ending...and I haven't been disappointed yet with a Liparulo novel.

Anonymous said...

Great Interview. Thanks

Anonymous said...

Loved all the books and can't wait for the movie. Robert is one of my favorite authors. I'm so happy for you and your family. Mysteries are my favorite, I'm thrilled to have found this page.

MePlusFour said...

Great interview! LOVE your books! and the kids love the Dreamhouse Kings series. I am anxious to read it myself. Thanks to Jean Henry Mead for doing the interview!

Robert Liparulo said...

Thank you, Jean, for all you're doing to spread the word about mysteries and the authors writing them. I appreciate your doing this interview...great questions. And thanks, everyone, for the comments!

Jean Henry Mead said...

Believe me, it's my pleasure to showcase my fellow mystery/suspense/thriller/crime novelists.

Helen Ginger said...

Really enjoyed this interview. A lot of information for both writers and screenwriters. I'd recommend any fiction writer take a class or course in screenwriting, even if you don't plan on writing scripts. And you can see why by reading this interview.

N. R. Williams said...

Fabulous...I am following Robert. I read a very discouraging post about portal stories recently and left thinking this person doesn't get it. Since I have a complex portal story, I am thrilled to see someone of Robert's caliber talk about his.

Anonymous said...

I would like to exchange links with your site
Is this possible?

Anonymous said...

great intervieww!!...
and i just read the "House of Dark Shadows".. and i loved it.. after i finish with this book im realllyyy looking forward to reading the next book "watcher in the woods" !!

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