Interview With Lou Diamond Phillips, Author of The Tinderbox: Soldier of Indira

A steampunk Star Wars meets Romeo and Juliet, The Tinderbox: Soldier of Indira is set on warring planets and propelled by a prophesy, a love story, and a series of power plays from which not every character will emerge unscathed. Also! It’s written by Lou Diamond Phillips.

Everson is an Indiran prince, untested until he finds himself stranded on Mano after a failed invasion and desperate for shelter. Allegra, princess of Mano, dreams of a life outside her father’s compound, while the king tries to dismantle a prophesy that will end his reign. When Everson is captured and tasked with retrieving an ancient and powerful object, a tinderbox, his purpose becomes clear: find a way to bring peace so he and Allegra can be together—before everything falls apart.

Phillips brings years of experience and a deep love of storytelling to this fast-paced, action packed sci-fi novel. And he was nice enough to field my questions about writing, acting, wading into the deep water, and keeping a straight face next to Andy Samberg.

Inspired by the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, the hardcover novel includes illustrations by Yvonne Phillips. The story draws from her artwork, and it’s a transporting example of how we bring what moves us into what we create.

Big thanks to LDP from this TV/movie/book nerd for the stories and characters that he’s brought into being and for the ways they help us get through. If you’re hitting a rut in month 917 of the year 2020, this will help. 

Sara Shukla: Your novel was inspired by a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale in which a soldier outsmarts a witch and gains possession of a small wooden box with big powers. But this novel is so much more. How did you develop it?

Lou Diamond Phillips: It’s interesting because so many people just sort of assume, oh, hey, okay, he wrote this book and he put it out there, and it all happened in a short amount of time. But that’s not the case whatsoever. It’s like how people show up on a film set and go, wow, it takes so much time and so many people. There’s always a big mountain behind overnight successes.

So the original inspiration was actually my wife, Yvonne, who had done a series of illustrations that were the beginning of a graphic novel. She had done them in the manga style, although the majority of her work was the German wood cut pen and ink style. Because of the manga style it had this kind of Japanese feudalism, almost a fantasy element to it, and it just evoked an apocalyptic, otherworldly fantasy universe to me, and that’s what my jumping off place was.

I actually envisioned it as a film first, so I wrote the screenplay. When I finished, I realized that they weren’t gonna say, “Here’s 60 million dollars, go make a sci-fi opus.” And this was ten years ago. Who knows what it would cost now. We talked about it and agreed, let’s write the novel. Let’s create that world, have a little more authorship over it, just in case James Cameron wants to buy it out from under us. And all the influences that went into the movie went into the book, plus more.

Our production company is actually called Frabjous Day, from the Jabberwocky poem. Lewis Carroll is a huge touchstone. So if I was going to world build, I wanted it to have a little bit of whimsy, I wanted it to have this through the looking glass feel to it.

As you explored the setting and characters—the worldbuilding—how did you keep everything straight? I always wonder this about science fiction. I imagined you with a Homeland style map of worlds and connections on one of your walls.

Fortunately for me my mind is extremely cluttered but I know where everything is. My friend Craig Johnson, who writes the Longmire mysteries on which the Netflix series was based, he said a bunch of times, “Man, not only did Lou decide to write a novel, he went and had to create a whole universe.” He says he always had a hard enough time just describing Wyoming.

Ignorance has always been a very dear friend of mine. And I never thought about how hard this was going to be. The process in and of itself was about ten years because my day job kept getting in the way. I kept acting. Thank goodness, I kept getting gigs. And so the writing was a little more sporadic, and every time I’d pick it up I’d have to go back and reread. And as a result, I was able to layer in a lot of things. There were times when I would come up with a nice little piece of business a few chapters in and go, ah, I need to lay the groundwork for this a few chapters back.

Some of the unexpected difficulties were, and once again, Craig Johnson, God bless him, he always tells young writers: stay away from the typical metaphors. The one he uses is, “The red hot gun barrel swung around to the looming mountains.” You’ve seen those a million times.

Then I realized, I’ve set this in another universe. So none of my metaphors can be earth based! Nobody can move like a cat. Nobody can sleep like a bear. For the most part, all of the creatures are created, except for the DOGS, which—are not really dogs. I can’t even refer to earth—“he grabbed a handful of earth”— so that was a constant process of saying, what’s the technology? What are they capable of?

Even my editor was like, “What? She’s holding a candle and they have a spaceship?” It’s like, “Dude, Yoda cooks over an open flame and the Death Star is in the same universe. Okay?”

There can be fire everywhere.

Yeah, you know, these things can exist concurrently. [Laughs] So there’s a real steampunk approach to it. Then you look at obviously Star Wars, where they’re living in Adobe huts out in the desert on one planet, and there’s this huge technology in others. And then you’ve got Mad Max. There are all of these sci fi touchstones where the world is this sort of hybrid of things coming together.

I think we often imagine art taking place in a vacuum, like as something the writer or filmmaker can just conjure out of nowhere. But so often it’s connected to something personal or something that’s come before it. What was it like collaborating with Yvonne, whose illustrations first set this story in motion? 

It’s funny because we butted heads—quite a bit. [Laughs] When it became a book, I basically backed her into a corner where she had to illustrate things that were not things that interest her. She’s not a sci-fi illustrator; she doesn’t do hardware. She yelled at me a bunch of times: “I don’t do spaceships! I don’t create fantastical creatures!” [Laughing]

But it’s interesting, she saw an interview with David Bowie who recommended that you get out of your comfort zone, that you wade far enough out into the water that you can’t feel the bottom anymore. And she took that to heart. There will be thirty of her illustrations in the hardcover, and she did do some sci-fi stuff, she did do some creature stuff, and it’s just brilliant.

And getting back to the whole concept of it, I took a lot of cues from other pieces of art that were inspired by original source material. West Side Story is from Romeo and Juliet. The Magnificent Seven is the Seven Samurai. Even something like Don McLean’s “Starry Starry Night” is inspired by Vincent Van Gogh’s painting and his life. So you have all of these art-begets-art kinds of examples. And that’s very much where I wanted to go. I wanted to create a story that stood on its own but constantly pays homage to the source material in a way that I hoped people would find clever.

I would love to hear how, for you, writing a novel compared to other kinds of storytelling that you’ve done. I hear you’ve done a little bit, over the years. There’s screenwriting, but I’m thinking of acting, or maybe directing—how you’re in a character’s head, telling a story through that character. But it must be different to be at the helm.  

This was one of my biggest stumbling blocks. The first draft of the novel, I almost approached just like a film director. And some of the stuff I’ve done recently was very instructive, whether it was Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or Fear the Walking Dead, in sort of putting me into a fantastical landscape. I think it helped a lot in the edits.

But as a film director, whenever I have a scene with six characters in it, I care about what every one of those characters is doing. I wonder what they’re thinking, I wonder about their behavior, and as a result I made the mistake of head hopping within a chapter, jumping from one person’s perspective to another. So I went back and cleaned that up a lot. It really helped with the narrative. It made it so much more clear.

Interestingly enough, somebody says, well, how do you direct, and how do you write, and how do you act, and it’s the same thing as looking at the difference between theater acting and film acting. You’d like to say that good acting is good acting, and that there are just some real technicalities that you have to overcome.

You know, in film it just gets pulled into a close up some times, just in your eyes, and it’s so subtle that some people wouldn’t even see what you’re doing from six feet away. Whereas on stage you have to project to the back row. What’s interesting is that a film actor who’s never been trained in theater doesn’t know how to create a character from the bottom of his feet to the top of his head—how he looks, how he walks, how he dresses, all of that. They so concentrate on the inner life that they miss it.

And so, I’ve always said all of these things that I do—first of all, they help keep me employed [laughs]—but second of all, are just branches of the same creative tree. And as you mentioned earlier, it all falls under the umbrella of being a storyteller. An interpreter, if you will.

Then it’s simply applying and learning—quite honestly, learning the basics and going back and reviewing them and applying them. It’s one of the reasons why I still love to lecture acting students. I love to pop into acting classes and guest direct. It’s what I love about directing, over and over again. It’s why I still write screenplays. I’m constantly going back to ground zero and reviewing the basics because a lot of times the fundamentals are what get you through, no matter how complicated it gets.

This is my favorite question. I loved your role as Romero, the inmate who hides meth in lemon verbena soap (blizz!), on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. I have to ask if it was as fun to pop onto that show as we’d all assume. But I will also stick to the book! The Tinderbox has epic battles and human conflict, but also comic beats. And I’ll note that your current show, Prodigal Son, is also darkly funny at times.

I had a professor in college—for a class about sci-fi novels, actually—who wore electric purple suits and said that shared humor was at the root of all human connection. How do you think humor helps us tell stories?

Just writing in general, if you get pedantic, if you get so dour or one note, it just makes people numb. It just washes over them. I think with novel writing, especially the ones I’ve enjoyed have painted with the entire set of crayons. The first rule of almost anything that I do is, I’m here to entertain. I want you to enjoy the project that I’m in: television show, film, whatever. I think the way into a lot of people’s hearts is through humor, and through that humanity. If we can laugh, if we can relate to something that we’re seeing and it touches us, then it helps the other things land better.

And I think having written for the stage, it helped a lot. The play that I recently did at Seven Angels Theater in Connecticut, is a play of mine called Burning Desire. It’s very philosophical, but it’s a romantic comedy. And I wrote a romantic comedy because nobody casts me in romantic comedies. I’m either gonna make you cry or you’re scared that I’m gonna kill you, you know? One of the two. [Laughing]

So I enjoy comedy a lot. It was actually my very first professional gig—a comedy troupe. That same group of people, called the Zero Hour, in Fort Worth, became the Front Room Company, and we did the classics: we did Shakespeare, we did Faustus, we did Christopher Fry. And in those classics, there is a great deal of humor.

So once again, it’s smoke and mirrors. It’s like, I’m gonna teach you something, I’m gonna tell you something, but I’m going to make you laugh while I’m doing it. So that’s why it’s always been important to me.

Awesome. Agreed, and Romero is my favorite.  

By the way, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, it’s as fun as I thought it was going to be.

[Interviewer beams like a kid on Christmas] Really?

Yeah, oh my gosh. That. Psyche—I did an episode of Psyche. And in both cases, I’m almost the straight guy, you know? And on both of those sets, I don’t know if I got through a complete take without cracking up. James Roday Rodriguez and Andy Samberg, both of those guys are so ridiculously funny and they both have the license to ad-lib, to improv, so they would throw stuff at me in the middle of a take that I didn’t see coming. In one of them I’m a federal agent, in Psyche, and in Brooklyn Nine-Nine I’m this badass prisoner, and in both of them, I’m not supposed to crack up. It’s so hard not to, because they’re just so funny. I had a great time too, because these are such over the top characters. One of my favorite characters, of mine, of all time was in The Big Hit.

Yes! Love that one.

So over the top, crazy ridiculous character and movie, and I happen to love them both.

That gives me faith in humanity to hear that it’s just as I think it would be. We need that this year; we need the funny.  

Oh, it’s HUGE. 

So that’s my last question, too. I think storytelling is huge this year. I think it helps with… everything. And so I’m curious what kinds of books or movies or shows have stuck with you lately. 

Oh my gosh, so many. It’s been an absolute cornucopia of great things, and from so many different genres. The usual, for my wife and I, Killing Eve and Better Call Saul—those are favorite shows of ours. And interestingly enough, it’s like you were saying too, even Prodigal Son, even the dark, edgy shows these days have this great, twisted sense of humor about them. You know, like Killing Eve, where you just go, “WHAT!” So much fun. Some great limited series this year.

We’ve discovered some things that we missed the first time around. We binged all of the Alienist, Snowpiercer. Big fans of the recent Perry Mason. We’re big BBC watchers, big Downton Abbey types, and Call the Midwife was such a surprise. It’s old fashioned. It’s classic. It’s beautifully shot; it’s beautifully acted. But it is so—obviously it’s about childbirth—but every episode is a little different, and it’s so life affirming. It is so sweet. The voiceover by Vanessa Redgrave; it’s just poetry.

And I’ve been reading a lot. My good friend Chris Bohjalian; I’ve read two books of his this year: The Red Lotus, which just came out, and then the 25th anniversary of Water Witches. He’s a dear friend, and he was instrumental in getting this book out, too. Just did a bunch of Zoom bookstore events with Craig Johnson for his novel Next to Last Stand. I read The Hobbit! I’d never read The Hobbit before. Crazy. So good. Because I’m actually working on the sequel for The Tinderbox right now.

Speaking of worldbuilding…

Yeah. Massive. Huge. I’m reading the latest Cormoran Strike, then as soon as I’m finished with that I’m going to read the Follet precursor, The Evening and the Morning, which is a prequel to The Pillars of the Earth, which is one of my favorite books of all time. 

Lou Diamond Phillips currently stars in the FOX series Prodigal Son. He recently starred in the Netflix series Longmire and has also appeared in Stargate Universe, Blue Bloods, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. He’s directed episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Fear the Walking Dead. On stage, Phillips was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance in The King and I. He wrote and directed Burning Desire which premiered at the Seven Angels Theater. He’s known for roles in a wide range of films, including La Bamba, Stand and Deliver, Young Guns, Courage Under Fire, Brokedown Palace, and The Big Hit. The Tinderbox: Soldier of Indira is available on October 20, from Aethon Books.

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