By Lee Lindauer
I had the pleasure to serve on a panel last summer at ThrillerFest VIII with John Dixon and from that I got a sense of his talent. Now I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to interview him about his YA thriller, PHOENIX ISLAND, and I came back with a rare insight into his writing and his devotion to the genre.
Tell us a little bit about PHOENIX ISLAND.
PHOENIX ISLAND is being called “a thriller for all ages” and is the inspiration for the upcoming CBS TV series INTELLIGENCE.
When sixteen-year-old boxing champ Carl Freeman’s defense of a helpless stranger lands him in real trouble—a two-year sentence at an isolated boot camp for orphans—he’s determined to tough it out, earn a clean record, and get on with his life.
Then kids start to die.
Realizing PHOENIX ISLAND is actually a Spartan-style mercenary organization turning “throwaway kids” into bloodthirsty super soldiers, Carl risks everything to save his friends and stop a madman bent on global destruction.
You taught middle school English. PHOENIX ISLAND is a YA novel. What is it about teenagers that inspired you to work with that genre?
Kids are cool. They’re discerning and demanding but open minded and really appreciative and enthusiastic if they like what you do. I like the challenge of writing for them. They demand strong characters, fast pacing, and compelling stories that make them feel. Specifically, I wanted to appeal to both females and males. While I’m overjoyed to see an increasing number of strong female characters in teen fiction, most strong male characters are in middle grade and adult fiction. I wanted to provide young readers with a male character who was tough, ethical, and serious.
You mentioned PHOENIX ISLAND was to be your MFA thesis. That sounds as if it had been in the works a long time. Care to elaborate?
When I enrolled in Seton Hill’s wonderful Writing Popular Fiction MFA program, I intended to finish the three-year course, but I knocked out Phoenix Island in 10 months, pitched it at my first ThrillerFest, landed a great agent, and we were off to the races. Though I never earned my MFA, I made a bunch of top-notch friends at Seton Hill, and I’ll always be thankful for them and all that I learned there, working with excellent writers like Tim Waggoner, Victoria Thompson, David Shifren, Swea Nightingale, and Don Bentley.
Did the protagonist, Carl, evolve from someone you knew in the past or is it the fictional concoction of someone with varying attributes?
Carl came at me out of nowhere. I sat down one day, banged out an eighteen-page character sketch out-of-the-blue, and there he was, a sixteen-year-old boxing champ and orphan, the son of a fallen Philadelphia police officer. I loved him instantly, and his personal history affected me, but I didn’t have a story and was busy writing other stuff, so I put him away for a year or two until a particularly horrible news event triggered my story. When I started the book, Carl was based physically and to some degree mentally on a former student of mine. This kid was very smart, very tough, and very angry. I liked him a lot. I taught him to box, and he took to it naturally. He had a world of potential in and out of the ring, but he couldn’t stay out of trouble and ended up dying tragically.
Though Carl developed into his own person, he’ll always retain a touch of that boy, and PHOENIX ISLAND will remain on one level an attempt to tell a story where my young friend, rather than ending so sadly, followed a different path and used his incredible strengths to become a hero.
Where did the concept of the military-style boot camp come from? This reminds me somewhat of the HUNGER GAMES trilogy.
While I’m always flattered by comparisons to the HUNGER GAMES—a fantastic trilogy that killed any doubts that we could write young adult books that pull few if any punches—PHOENIX ISLAND is more about the microcosmic in nature, set in a bad place within the contemporary world, and therefore draws more accurate comparisons to stories like THE LORD OF THE FLIES and THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME.
When I heard about the “Kids for Cash” case, where two Pennsylvania judges sent juveniles to privately-owned detention centers in return for massive kickbacks, I was outraged. Then, after doing further research, I was horrified. I learned that privately-owned detention centers outside the United States are open for American business… and immune to U.S. laws. Anything would be possible in a place like that, I thought, especially if the kids in question were all orphans. This reminded me of Carl, whose sketch had been waiting in the drawer for a year or more, and my story was born. Having worked as a youth services caseworker, I knew about military style teen boot camps, so when I started thinking of the horrible things an offshore facility could doing, I naturally thought of a military-style boot camp… on steroids, so to speak.
There is a bit of sophisticated medical and nano-technology in PHOENIX ISLAND . Do you feel that gives the novel a science fiction bent?
PHOENIX ISLAND is a contemporary thriller, the story of a tough kid in tough conditions, but yes, science is important—even integral—to the book, so in that sense it is science fiction. The book, series, and TV adaptation all deal with the question of trans-humanism, which fascinates me. Thanks to amazing sources and good people like Dr. Gary Della Zanna and Dr. John Dougherty, both of the National Institutes of Health, research was an absolute blast—as were the purely imaginative brainstorming sessions that helped me go from fact to fiction.
What would be the major theme for PHOENIX ISLAND?
Potential… its forms, its modifiers, its implied responsibilities and irrevocable consequences.
Is there a sequel in the works with Carl and Octavia?
Yes, I’m having a blast writing it now and can’t wait to get it into readers’ hands!
John Dixon’s debut novel, Phoenix Island, inspired the CBS TV series Intelligence. A former boxer, teacher, and stone mason, John now writes full time and serves as a consultant to ABC Studios. He lives in West Chester, PA, with his wife, Christina, and their freeloading pets.
If you like books, hot peppers, or boxing, drop by his website.