(photo via https://twitter.com/nbsalert/)
On Sunday, I got to chat with New York Times bestselling author James Frey and was quite surprised to find that he was a jeans-and-shirt kind of guy, joking around with his fans (some of whom he was already on a first-name basis with!) and gamely signing books for the waitress that served our coffee.
While his reputation precedes him, I admittedly I have never read any of James Frey’s books (“A Million Little Pieces,” “My Friend Leonard,” and “Bright Shiny Morning,” nor any of the Pittacus Lore books). I read the first of his new YA trilogy “Endgame: The Calling” (which he co-wrote with Nils Johnson-Shelton) and found it quite enjoyable.
In “Endgame,” the fate of the human race rests on the hands of 12 teens from around the world. Each representing an ancient culture, the twelve have been chosen by the sky gods to play a game that will determine their continued existence.
The book is entertaining — I have no doubt it will translate well on the big screen — with compelling characters and a fast-paced plot. Making the book even more interesting is the interactive component (like The 39 Clues but for an older audience), allowing the reader to search for clues in the book and play the game (executed by no less than Google!) for a cool $500,000 prize.
Here’s the transcript of my interview with James Frey, where we talk about the series, Filipino fans, his favorite books, and more:
Q: How did this visit to the Philippines come about?
A: National Book Store invited me to come, I said, sure, I had never been here before and I was excited to come for a visit.
Filipino readers are legendarily enthusiastic and devoted. The publisher, HarperCollins, showed me pictures of previous readings, even videos, and I thought it was amazing. And so far the fans have lived up to the hype: I’ve gotten fifteen hundred Facebook requests, hundreds of messages. I was just in Cebu, and it was incredible. Then I saw that there were sixty people camping out by the bookstore last night so we bought six boxes of doughnuts and dropped them off.
Q: As an established author, what made you decide to explore the YA genre?
A: I liked the books. I didn’t want to do the same thing over and over again so I decided I would write some new style of books. I would probably go back to more adult writing at some point, but I’m mostly doing what I feel like doing.
Q. Why do you think YA enjoys immense popularity today, transcending the age of its target audience?
A: Because the books are good. The books are fun. Because they’re fun to read and the stories are great, and that’s it. People really want to read books that get them excited, and keep them turning pages and have awesome characters. A ton of YA books do that.
Q. What was the inspiration for Endgame?
A: The inspiration is a book I read when I was a ten-year old boy; it’s called “Masquerade” (n.b. possibly this one). That was a really simple children’s picture book that had a puzzle in it and it was awesome. I thought I would try to do something like it, so here we are.
Q: Which came first, the book or the game?
A: The idea all came at the same time, but I definitely wrote the book before anything else. The book was always the most important part of it and everything sort of grows off the book. Like you’re wearing a Harry Potter pendant (note: I was wearing my 3D-printed Deathly Hallows necklace that day) — Harry Potter is a massive universe of books and movies and games, and it all starts with the book. We hope to do the same thing with this, and build out a whole deep universe.
Q: And how is the game being received? Do you have any data on the readers who play the game?
A: We’ve got millions of hits, and there’s about a hundred thousand people who play it everyday. It’s doing great.
Q: How did you determine which cultures to include in the book?
A: We wanted to look for the oldest cultures around the world, also the cultures that were most mysterious. So these are the cultures that were extinct, those that had large monuments or pyramids or temples or writing of some kind. We wanted to use the coolest, most mysterious ones.
Q: How do you think the series fits in with the recent clamor for diversity in literature, especially in YA?
A: We didn’t do it just for diversity’s sake but I guess in part, I did — I got tired of writing white, American characters. As a writer, I wanted to make characters from all over the world that recognize the global audience for my books. The old way is boring, so let’s try to make some cool characters who aren’t [all] Americans.
Q: How did you come up with the mythology behind Endgame?
A: A lot of that is from history and ancient cultures. A lot of them talk about sky gods, [beings] who came down from the sky and brought smoke and fire and created man and gave us rules to live by and then left. It was awesome because we didn’t have to make things up — it all exists in ancient mythology from all over the planet. What’s cool is you see this ancient mythologies in Asia, Middle East, Europe, North America, South America, and they’re 8 to 10,000 years old. These cultures have no contact with each other — they weren’t texting or emailing each other — but they have remarkably similar origin myths. Then you ask the question, is that accidental or is that because something happened?
Q: What’s in store for the rest of the series?
A: The next book is coming out in October. Bigger prizes — the prize for this book is $500,000; the prize for the next book is $1 million. Hopefully more fun, and mayhem and action and excitement. We’re doing three novels and thirty novellas.
Q: What is your writing process like, and how does co-authorship work out for you?
A: I just go to work everyday and sit in front of the computer. It’s pretty boring. Readers think it’s terribly exciting, or that it’s mythical, but it’s not. You sit in front of the computer and work hard.
[When working with another writer] We usually take turns. For “Endgame” I wrote the outline, Nils wrote the first draft, and then I did all the revisions and then the subsequent drafts. We’re both doing it, and it works the same way for “I Am Number Four.” In some ways it’s easier — it’s less lonely, it’s faster, and you don’t get as tired.
Q: Who are your favorite authors and what are the books that have made an impact on your life?
A: “Tropic of Cancer” by Henry Miller; the Tolkien books. Alexandre Dumas, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Lao Tzu, Herman Hesse, Jack Kerouac.
Q: What is your advice for aspiring writers?
A: Just work hard. I always say anyone can be a writer if you work hard enough. There’s no magic or formula. If I can do it, anybody can do it.
And this is me, on my first author interview for the year, woo hoo!
Endgame, 3.5/5 stars, hardcover, review copy
Many thanks to National Book Store for arranging this interview.