Snappy Dialog With John Scalzi at LATFOB: ‘Redshirts’

by Laura Davis, managing editor

At the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books (LATFOB) this past weekend, I got a chance to sit in on a panel moderated by Pamela Ribon (writer and producer of Mind of Mencia, screenwriter, actress, and best-selling author), with John Scalzi and Jon Shestack (film and television producer, executive producer, and actor) discussing the progression of Redshirts from John Scalzi’s brain to the pages of a book and on to its upcoming iteration as a limited television series on FX. Or, as Ribon put it, “I’m here with two johns. Yeah, I picked up a couple of johns on the way to the book festival.”

If you’re not familiar with Redshirts, Shestack explained, “When Redshirts came out, I thought it was going to be about Bolsheviks. I didn’t really understand.” After a burst of hysterical laughter from the audience, he continued sheepishly, “That’s true! I really did think that … It was about a group of young recruits on a starship who discover that they’re dying at an alarmingly fast pace, and they don’t really understand why. Then, they think they understand why; they think, ‘Oh, if you go on an away mission, you’re going to die. If you go on an away mission with a senior officer, you’re definitely going to die.’ They keep thinking they know what it is, and that they can trick it, maybe, and game it and not die. But that really is, sadly, not that possible. And then, they start to discover – well, somebody tells them actually –  that [their] lives are linked to a science fiction television show made 300 years ago. That’s quite bad news, but then on top of it, you’re not even the main characters, you’re the extras!”

Scalzi adds, “Even worse is that that television show? It kind of sucks!”

It’s always a pleasure to hear John Scalzi talk about writing, because he has such a great attitude and a really nuts-and-bolts-level understanding of both the business and the craft of writing. As he puts it, he is a “real, working writer,” and he’s “not precious about himself.” He understands that while it’s fantastic and amazing for someone to give you money to write novels, most working writers also do their fair share of copywriting, movie reviews, and whatever else pays the bills. And he’s really open in his acknowledgement that luck has had a hand in his success. He told last year’s LATFOB audience, “Yes, I am a good writer. Yes, I have good business sense, but one of the prime drivers for where I am now was luck. All these other things matter, but let’s not pretend luck didn’t have something to do with it. As with many things, luck favors the prepared mind.”

Scalzi explained how the novel Redshirts came to be. “It was almost accidental. I had gotten in my brain that I wanted to write three very short novels: like 40,000-word novels. Which was about the size of a novel back in the 1950’s and 60’s, back when they were all produced in pulp and put into supermarket racks. So, I was going to put three of them together, and I was going to call it Triple Feature. Two things happened. I started writing the Redshirts one … It ended up at over 40,000 words; it ended up at 50,000 words and then I wrote the three codas [these are essentially short stories that build on the reader’s experience of the novel]. So it became its own novel.”


Ribon asked whether Scalzi wrote his books with adaptation in mind, and he said,  “You have to be kind of careful about that. Because if you are writing something with the assumption that [you’ll be selling it] to movies or to television, then usually, you are either a little bit delusional or a little bit of a jerk. If you’re looking too far ahead on what you think should be happening to the story, you’re not actually paying attention to crafting the story. The first thing you have to do is make it a really good novel. Because if it’s a really good novel, then someone will want to buy it and adapt it … hopefully. But unless you have everything that needs to be in that book to tell a really good story in that particular medium, it’s going to fail. You will not have written a good book, and that will not recommend you to be adapted to any other medium. I’m mindful of the possibility, obviously that would be great, but the first thing really has to be first; you really have to write the novel first.”

Pamela Ribon, John Scalzi, and Jon Shestack at LATFOB ‘Redshirts’ panel.

So, how is the transition of Redshirts from novel to television series going to play out and how true to the book will the TV series be? Scalzi continues, “The book is the book. It will always be the book. It’s not going to change. I own the book. I own the copyright on the book, and everything in the book is as it’s going to be. But the book is designed for this medium: to be a novel … What will come out of this will not be Redshirts [the novel], because it’s going to get turned upside down and inside out.

“You have to understand when you get on a Hollywood train, that your book is a source; it is not the TV series … If you don’t understand that, in the words of South Park, ‘You’re gonna have a bad time,’ right? [Some authors] are like, ‘Why are you destroying my art?’ Well, your art is not meant to be the same in all media. It’s just impossible to have that happen, and it is going to change. What you want to do, in my opinion, is to manage the change so that what you get in the TV series … is something where all the high points of the book are addressed, all the themes are addressed, the characters are important and we care about them, so that when you get through the experience of Redshirts the television show, you have had a very similar emotional experience like you’ve had of Redshirts the book, with all the realization maximized for all the advantages of the television medium.”

So, now the book has a TV deal, and the television series has an Executive Producer (Scalzi), a Producer (Shestack), a Director (Ken Kwapis), and a small group of writers in contention for the show. Scalzi notes, “So, it’s like a group of six finalists, and then they go after each other with Sharpies. Because I’m not gonna lie: that would be awesome. That’s a limited edition reality series right there.”

Have they made any casting decisions, yet? Scalzi rolls his eyes. “I love it when people ask me ‘Hey, did you know you sold something to Hollywood?’ Did I know? Well, yeah, actually, I did. And then immediately after that, they’re like, ‘Oh. So, who’s going to be in it?’ And they have casting notes all ready for you. That’s a thing that authors always get. ‘You should have this person or this person.’ You realize, right, that these aren’t just fictional characters that you can just sort of slot in? ‘Oh, you should have Brad Pitt as Jenkins.’ Right. He’d really have to come to us. [He does his Brad Pitt voice] ‘Dude, so you guys are doing this Redshirts thing? Dude, that’s cool. I wanna do that.’ And I’d be like, ‘Oh, Brad. Fine. Fine. We’ll find some way to get you in if you really want.’ [heavy sigh].” He can barely get the last line out, he’s trying so hard not to laugh.

John Scalzi and Pamela Ribon at LATFOB book signing.

The interplay among the three of them was very entertaining all the way through the discussion, but the hilarity reached a peak when Ribon asked, “If you went back in time to talk to people controlling your narrative, and you met your doppelgänger, would you have sex with yourself?”

Scalzi barely missed a beat. “See, I know me. Right?” He pauses. “There’s not a lot of surprises there.”

Ribon shoots back, “I thought you were commenting on your abilities.”

The panel and audience are all in fits of giggles.

“Oh, no. Don’t get me wrong, it would be fantastic. But … no, I don’t think so. I mean quite honestly. Mmm … no.”

“Even you wouldn’t have sex with you!” Ribon is bright red by this point.

Scalzi is cracking up. “NO! I would find some way to let myself down gently. I would Friend Zone me … I don’t know that I would actually like myself. And I don’t mean that I’m a disagreeable person, but if you meet you, you know all your own tricks and ticks and everything else like that. I think that seeing me would be really unsettling and some part of my brain would be like, ‘Is that really me? Am I really that annoying? Is that what I really say and do? Am I that really that way? Why hasn’t anyone frickin’ killed me, yet? Because I should be dead. I should be pushed in front of a bus.”

Oh, please, no.

Referring to the yeti who roams around the ship in Redshirts, an audience member asked Scalzi, “Why a yeti?”

“The person I had in mind as the physical model of Jenkins was fantasy author, Patrick Rothfuss, and if you’ve ever seen Patrick Rothfuss, he looks like a yeti. He looks like a yeti crossed with a Muppet, crossed with Brian Blessed from Flash, you know the hot guy. Patrick has this jaw that hinges all the way back here [points behind his ear], it’s like a reticulated jaw, and he can swallow up a Mini, and you can see all 700 of his teeth. So, when I think of Jenkins, I think of Patrick Rothfuss, and he’s a beard-y, hairy dude. The short term for someone like that would be a yeti, so that would be the answer.”

I wonder if the TV series will include the yeti? Or possibly a cameo from Patrick Rothfuss? I really hope they go ahead with the screenwriter Sharpie melee … and post video … or at least photos! Details on the series release haven’t been announced yet, but I’m sure when it airs, it will have premium geek appeal, and be every bit as entertaining and satisfying as the novel.


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