Adam Jay Epstein and Andrew Jacobson are two guys in Los Angeles who have been writing screenplays together for a long time. More recently, they started collaborating on a fantasy book series for middle-grade readers called The Familiars, about a cat, a bluejay, and a tree frog in a wizarding world. I spent a little time with them at Wordstock and talked to them about their influences, writing together, and their upcoming projects.
GeekDad: What inspired you to write The Familiars? You’ve both been writing TV and movie scripts, so why a children’s book?
Adam Jay Epstein: Well, I grew up loving fantasy books. When I was kid there weren’t as many middle-grade or YA fantasy books. You had to read adult fantasy books, like the Dungeons & Dragons handbooks, or play video games. Those are the sources of my fantasy growing up. Then when we got older, after writing teen comedies for a while, we kind of wanted to go back to the things that got us excited about writing in the first place, which were fantasy and science fiction. And now the best fantasy and science fiction is middle reader and young adult, so that’s what we wanted to do.
Andrew Jacobson: I grew up less of a fantasy geek, and more just a lover of the Spielberg ’80s, from E.T., Raiders to Star Wars, G.I. Joe figures. Just sitting in a corner, playing with my superheroes for all hours of the day, coming up with stories with them before I ever wrote anything down on paper.
GD: How come there’s no dog in the story? It says in Andrew’s bio that he has a dog, so I know at least you’re a dog person.
AE: When thinking about the iconic familiars, the black cat on the Halloween posters, it just felt like we really needed a cat. Also, there are a lot of classic bird familiars, whether they be owls or crows. But we wanted to put a spin on that. For Skylar, our bird character, we wanted a really stuck-up character, and we though, yeah, bluejays, they’re really stuck-up. That’d be great. We do actually have a smaller role for a dog character in the book, which is Kalstaff’s old familiar that had passed away. But that becomes more prevalent in book three.
AJ: The tree frog was our comedic relief. We really were thinking what would be an animal that would make us laugh, make us smile whenever we wrote him. And just looking at that picture of a tree frog made us smile, so that became Gilbert.
AE: And the alley cat is actually based on a cat that lives in my backyard, a black-and-white alley cat that has a bite taken out of his left ear. And that was the inspiration for Aldwyn.
GD: Do you have an idea of how far your series will go? Did you have it planned out from the start, or do you work it out as you go?
AJ: We were originally signed on to do three books, so we conceived of The Familiars as a trilogy. And the trilogy is going to play itself out, with one villain and one adventure that spans the three books. Now we’ve been signed for a fourth book, and possibly a fifth and sixth. So in the third book we actually are now planting subtly some seeds for a second trilogy.
GD: Are you guys writing the script for the upcoming movie of The Famliars as well?
AE: We have been, yes. We’ve written many drafts of the screenplay.
AJ: Several prior to, and then several since hiring a director. The director came aboard about a year ago, Doug Sweetland, who has worked for Pixar for about fifteen years. He directed the short called “Presto” which played before “Wall-E” and was nominated for an Academy Award. Since he’s come aboard we’ve worked with him very closely on several drafts, and now he and the team of storyboard artists and conceptual artists and the rest of the animators at Sony Animation are busy turning it into the early days of what will be the animated film.
GD: What’s it like working on the screenplay? Obviously you’re familiar writing screenplays, but is it easier turning your book into a movie, or is it easier starting on a screenplay from scratch?
AE: Well, what’s great about starting with a book and then adapting it into a screenplay is that we always have the book there. Our original vision, that we’re proud of, is there on a shelf, and we know that this is exactly how we intended it to be. That’s two people’s opinions, working together, and they’re usually pretty close. When you’re working on a movie, you have literally hundreds of opinions: the director, the art director, the producers, the studio — everyone has an opinion. Everyone wants their opinion, at least a little bit of their opinion, in the project.
So it’s actually kind of freeing to have the book there, knowing that’s how we always intended for it to be. Sometimes when you start with a screenplay, you have a vision for what it’s going to be, and you know that vision’s going to get kind of lost and nobody’s going to ever see that original vision. So doing the adaptation is very freeing.
AJ: It changes the way that the studio, the producer, the director, all of those creative entities on the movie side of it, view the project. If we had started with it as an original screenplay, they may have questioned…
AE: … every single decision. But after kids read it and are excited about it and enjoy it, it changes the way they view it. With whatever changes they make, there’s always Aldwyn, Skylar, and Gilbert. You write a screenplay, and Aldywin, Skylar, and Gilbert could end up being Joe, Dick, and Harry, you know? It’s completely different characters, and they wouldn’t bat an eyelash. But this keeps it a little more precious.
GD: How do you write a book together? I’ve only read a few books that have multiple authors, and I’ve always wondered how that works.
AJ: Adam and I sit together, in the same room, or we talk on the phone…
AE: Teleconferencing, even though we live four blocks away from each other…
AJ: … but I sit at the computer, and I type. He sits across from me or across the phone line, and we just talk.
AE: From 9:30 every day until 5. And we talk every sentence out.
AE: So I know some writing pairs will switch off; one will write one chapter and one will write the next chapter. We write everything together, and it’s hard to conceive of not doing it that way. Because when you’re writing very detail-oriented work, you want to make sure that everything has pay-offs, that everything connects fluidly. We just write everything together. We started off as screenwriters and that’s how we did our screenwriting, and that’s how we do our books.
AJ: Having a partner is a blessing in a lot of ways. We’ve both written alone and writing alone … it can be lonely.
AE: And it can be lonely and more life-consuming that writing with a partner. We have set hours, from 9:30 to 5, that we’ve given ourselves. At 5 o’clock we can turn off our writing brains. We can play video games and watch movies and hang out with our families and do the other stuff we love to do, without thinking and hearing those characters in our heads. Because those characters are only supposed to come alive between the hours of 9:30 and 5.
GD: So don’t go sneak off and write a few paragraphs at night sometimes?
AE: We try not to. We do some reading at night, but not writing.
GD: Speaking of reading, what do you guys like to read now?
AJ: I have a stack of young adult and middle grade books sitting next to my bed, things like Jonathan Auxier’s Peter Nimble and Maile Meloy’s The Apothecary. I’ve got The Night Circus, which I know skews a bit older, but it’s also in that magical realm. Ready Player One. It’s a world that I wasn’t too familiar with two or three years ago before we started writing it. I didn’t even know there was something called “middle grade.” I just thought there were adult books, and books for kids, and that was it. Now I know there’s this whole world and I’ve gotten a lot more familiar with it, the kinds of works that share the shelf space with us.
AE: I just read Leviathan and Hugo Cabret. And I still like to read the books and authors that I read growing up. Like I read the Stainless Steel Rat series by Harry Harrison. Growing up I was a big fan of Piers Anthony’s Xanth books. Those, and Ray Bradbury, were like my kid bread-and-butter. Those were the things I grew up loving, and still they’re on my bookshelf and I can pull them off and re-read them. The Illustrated Man I can pick up and read any story from that anytime and that gets me excited.
GD: Who decided what order your names would appear on the cover?
AE: That would probably be blamed on me.
AJ: We went alphabetical.
GD: Are you going to switch every other book, change it up?
AJ: We haven’t, no, as much as I think it would benefit us in some cases. My last name is far better situated alphabetically, with other authors that would be more appropriate for our books, but we still haven’t done it.
GD: Maybe you should just try to get shelved in both places, right?
AE: We should!
AJ: Makes sense. Maybe the next one.
GD: When is the next book coming out?
AE: The Familiars: Circle of Heroes comes out next September. We’re aiming to have one coming out every September until the series is completed. And we’re starting a brand-new series as well that should be coming out in the spring of 2013, called the Starbounder series.
I went to Space Camp when I was younger, and I loved it, and we thought it would be cool to tell the story of a regular kid who goes to Space Camp, but not an ordinary Space Camp. It’s one that actually teaches them to be Starbounders, which are space pilots that go and keep Earth safe.
GD: So this one is sci-fi. Does it have fantasy elements?
AE: It does. Well, we’re definitely on the fantasy end of sci-fi, if that makes sense.
GD: Like the Star Wars end of sci-fi versus the Star Trek end of it.
GD: Anything else you have going on?
AE: Well, there’s a comic book called Lions, Tigers, and Bears. We’re actually writing the movie version of that for Paramount. I think we’re just becoming the magical animal guys.
GD: Do you guys have kids?
AE: We do. I have a four-and-a-half-year-old daughter named Penny and a 19-month-old daughter named Olive.
AJ: I have a 9-month-old son named Rider.
GD: So you don’t sleep.
AJ: My wife less than me, even.
GD: Well, now that I’ve read the first book and I’ve okayed it for my daughter, she’s going to plow through these first two books, so you’re going to have to get to work on the next few books and get them out quickly!
Thanks again for talking with me today!
For more about The Familiars, visit the official website at www.TheFamiliars.com.