I'm really excited to be talking to Jeff Norton today. Jeff is the award-winning author, writer, producer, and founder of Awesome, a UK-based production and publishing company. He has written many books from the MetaWars series and the children’s book Stomp School, to his latest release, Alienated: Grounded at Groom Lake. A graduate of Queen’s University, Canada, and Harvard Business School, he currently lives in London with his wife and two sons.
Welcome, Jeff, to “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”
Jeff: Thank you very much. It’s such a pleasure to be here.
Zibby: We are joined today, for the first time ever, by a special guest interviewer named Owen Wright, age eleven, one of your biggest fans. I've brought him along to help me ask you some questions about your amazing new book.
Jeff: I love that because I very much write, Owen, for yourself and people your age in mind. This is such a treat that you are part of the interviewing as well.
Owen: It is a treat. I am treat.
Zibby: Jeff, how did you come up with the idea for Alienated: Grounded at Groom Lake?
Jeff: In a weird way, books for me, and stories, stay with me for a long time. In a way, the concept started way, way back when I was in high school. I definitely remember going from middle school to high school where I felt like a total outsider. I didn’t know how anything worked. It’s daunting. That move from middle school to secondary school is really daunting. The funny thing is it’s the same no matter what you do. You go to university. There's that same thing all over again. You and I went to business school and did the same thing all over again, where are you going sit in the cafeteria, the whole thing.
One of the things I love to do with my books is I love to take the ordinary and make it extreme. In a way, probably a lot of the idea and the gestation came from the ordinary everyday experience of feeling like a new kid at school and then taking it to its hyper-extreme. What if it was not a normal school, but it was school completely populated by people you didn’t understand who weren’t even people? Aliens. What would that be like? I'd ask a lot of “What if?” questions and drill down and ask about what would that actually be like? What would that experience be like? Why would Sherman be there?
I should probably mention that the story, briefly, the story of Alienated, it’s a story of two siblings, Sherman and Jessica, who find themselves to be the only two human students, the human kids, at the high school for aliens at Area 51 in Nevada, which is called Groom Lake, Nevada. That's why the first book is called Grounded at Groom Lake. It’s a fish out of water, bit of a comedy, bit of a science fiction, adventure, bit of a love story. Fundamentally, it’s about feeling like an outside and feeling what it’s like to go from being an outsider or a misfit to trying to find your people, even if your people aren’t people at all.
Zibby: You did such a good job of portraying that feeling of not knowing where to be and that whole unease in your own skin even with other types of skin now in that cafeteria. You did a great job.
Jeff: Even if that skin has scales.
Zibby: Even if that skin has scales.
Owen: Or three heads, three tongues, three mouths.
Zibby: We wanted to know, will this be a series? Are there any future plans for these characters?
Jeff: I would like to do more with them. Having just put the book to bed, the final copy edit and the final proof a few weeks ago, I haven't started a sequel yet. I've started an outline for one. One the things I would love to do is follow the academic years and the experiences that punctuate the academic years.
In this book, we land Sherman and Jess in Groom Lake in the spring. The countdown is on to the end of the school year. It’s the big prom is coming up. It’s the War of the Worlds theme, importantly War of the Worlds the book, not the movie or any of the derivative films or the plays, but the book. In a summer, I think what's going to happen is Nevada is very, very hot. It’s far too hot for the students to stick around. They're all going to get shipped off to some sort of off-planetary sleepaway camp. Hilarity will ensue.
Owen: Sounds good.
Jeff: I can test that out on you, Owen.
Zibby: He likes it.
Jeff: Some kind of space camp.
Zibby: Space camp!
Owen: That's cool.
Zibby: That's cool.
Jeff: But you're not thrilled?
Zibby: [laughs] Tell me more about Awesome Media and this latest venture, Awesome Reads. Will you be writing all the books in this series? Are you getting outside authors?
Jeff: I wear a few hats. I'm an author. I also run a production company. Awesome Media and Entertainment is the production company that grew out of, effectively, the rights to my first book. I wrote a series a few years ago called MetaWars. MetaWars is an action-adventure-tech thriller. Owen, you’d probably dig it. It’s not funny, I wouldn't say. It’s more thrilling and a little bit scary. It’s a good read. There's four of those books.
Zibby: Is it so scary that it will affect bedtime?
Jeff: It has been known to keep people up past their bedtime.
Zibby: We are not going to read that quite yet. I need another year or two before I'm ready for that.
Zibby: Thank you for the clarification.
Jeff: Just being honest. I got to put one of those parental advisories on it, actually. It’s not scary, scary. It is an addictive read. It’s less about nightmares and more about, Owen, you would probably -- your mom would come in and say, “Why are you still reading?” You're like, “I want to find out what happens.” Then she’d walk out of the room. You’d get your flashlight and then keep reading because Zibby probably turned off the light in Owen’s room. It’s that kind of compulsive, addictive read. I'm digressing.
The idea behind Awesome Media and Entertainment was not only to start partnering on the books that I've created but also sometimes I come up with ideas of books and other people write them. Myself and a woman called Julie Sykes, we write this series called Princess Ponies under a pen name which has become really popular. There's twelve of those. There's soon to be sixteen of those. Bizarrely, I'm published now by lots of different publishers, which is great. It’s a real honor. One of the things that drives me nuts is how slow the publishing world goes.
We've launched this initiative called Awesome Reads, which is our own imprint. Now, we’ll be able to publish ourselves using all the same tools and techniques as the big, big publishers but probably be able to do it in about half the time. Alienated is the first of those titles. No, they're not just me. We’re working with different authors and talking to all sorts of different agents. Many of them are authors I've worked with in the past who have also, similarly, been frustrated by the publishing process. We’re trying to do something a little bit different, weave between the legs of the big guys.
The whole idea behind Awesome Reads is to make reading really fun. We’re trying to put books out into the market that are unabashedly fun. I'm very aware that our competition with books are video games and Fortnite and films and television shows. I'm getting a big nod from Owen about Fortnite. I love screen media. I love all that stuff. I don’t see them as bad, necessarily. I am very aware that there's only twenty-four hours in the day. If you're spending time on one thing, maybe you're not doing a lot of reading. I'm trying to make books as competitive and as compelling as those screen-based media.
Zibby: That's great. I would even say that was awesome.
Owen: I heard you a little earlier say you had a partner named Juliet. Is that one of the reasons why you choose the play Romeo and Juliet? Is there a different reason? Why did you?
Jeff: My writing partner on Princess Ponies, her name is actually Julie, Julie Sykes. When I was in grade nine -- same as Sherman, he’s in ninth grade -- we studied Romeo and Juliet when I was in high school. It was my first introduction to Shakespeare. In the book -- for the listeners -- one of the things that happens is Sherman and Jess arrive at this new school. They’ve been ripped out of their old school. Sherman is a rocketry savant. He’s very clever. He’s really an introvert. Jess is vivacious and outgoing. She had the lead in the school play in her previous high school where they lived on a military base in Germany. When it comes to casting the school play, Sherman inadvertently puts his hand up. He doesn't realize he’s doing it. He thinks he’s waving to somebody. He inadvertently puts his hand up and volunteers for the role of Romeo in the school play of Romeo and Juliet. Of course Jess has no intention of being Juliet playing against her brother. She thinks, “I can't do that.”
I wanted to have something, Owen, that would be an obstacle for the characters. I wanted to show character growth. I wanted to have him have to do something that’s so outside of his comfort zone that he would have to grow in confidence and grow in himself in order to be successful at it. As you read it, you know that he's constantly tripping things up. His intentions are really good, but he’s often getting it wrong. That's where that came from.
Zibby: Sounds good. Do you accept that answer?
Owen: Sounds good.
Zibby: You write really poignantly about Sherman’s relationship with his mother who had recent passed away. In fact, your book opens with Sherman sending his mother’s ashes up into space, which was such a heartfelt, emotional revelation in the book. You wrote, “I was determined to grant mom the one thing in death she always dreamed of in life but never achieved, her astronaut wings,” which was so sad.
Was this based on an experience or loss in your own life? Did you use this more as a literary device?
Jeff: Luckily and fortunately, it’s not from my own personal experience. In a weird way I do think everything any writer writes is a synthesis of their own experiences or at least the way they see the world. In this case, it’s not something I've had to draw on, fortunately. My mom’s still alive. Hopefully she’s listening to this podcast.
Zibby: Hi, Jeff’s mom.
Jeff: Shout out to my mom.
Owen: Hello. Are you there, Mrs. Norton?
Jeff: As a writer, as a dramatist, you're trying to find ways to make your characters as compelling as possible. With Sherman, I wanted the reader to empathize and deeply understand why he did something completely boneheaded if you think about the mechanics of what he actually does. We open the book. They're living on a NATO Air Force base in Germany, which is a stone’s throw from Russia. There's a lot of rhetoric going on right now. Even when I started the book, which is a couple of years ago, Russia and the US are adversaries, not allies. We’re not in the Cold War, but you still don’t go launching a missile from an Air Force base on Russia’s doorstep. That's basically what Sherman does.
His mom always wanted to be an astronaut. The backstory is that her parents dissuaded her from going into that line of work. At the time they would have said something like, “That’s not what good girls do,” or something silly like that. We know way better now. That would be the backstory. Sherman wanted to honor her because she went into nursing and became an army nurse and was killed in action. He does this completely stupid thing for the most beautiful reason. It’s the first anniversary of her death. He launches this, what he considers to be a rocket, but of course the military would consider to be a missile. That's ultimately what leads to them being sent away never to be heard from again. The idea’s that with the settlement with the Russians, this family needs to be shunted away the one place where we can never hear from them again. What is that place? Of course, it’s Area 51.
Luckily, not from my personal experience. It is a device that I think all of us as writers try and create the most empathetic characters possible, not necessarily likable, but certainly empathetic.
Zibby: I think we liked Sherman. Did you like Sherman?
Zibby: I think he was a pretty likable guy.
Zibby: He's thinking about it. He’s contemplating that.
I love reading all the acknowledgments sections of books. I would never finish a book and not read the acknowledgments. It’s this little bonus chapter for me. I don’t often see something as kind to the readers as you included in yours.
You wrote, “And lastly, I want to thank you, the reader. I crafted this story for you, to make you laugh, cry, and maybe think. Everything in life is basically high school, groups of people clustering in cliques trying to get by, and if we’re kind to each other, maybe that's the key to peace in the galaxy, or at the very least, in the school cafeteria,” which is great.
What made you thank the reader here? We already touched on how high school is like everything else in life. What made you include that?
Jeff: The process of writing is so solitary. It’s this ridiculously solitary experience where it’s just you and your brain and your heart and your laptop. I'm very aware that when a reader reads a book it’s a big time commitment. I'm particularly aware of that because I'm a really slow reader. Owen, when I was your age, I actually wasn’t a big reader. It took me a long time to gain the confidence. I wasn’t a great reader. I don’t know about you, but you find when you're not that great at something, maybe you don’t naturally want to do it that often.
Owen: Exactly. I agree with you a hundred percent for everything you just said.
Jeff: As you also know, Owen, the problem with that is that when you don’t do something very often, you're not getting any better. It took me a long time to figure out that reading is something you have to practice at. Because I was a very reluctant reader at your age and because even now, to be honest, I'm a pretty slow reader, I'm very aware that it’s a big chunk of somebody's time. If they spend that amount of time with my book, it only seems appropriate that I should acknowledge that, and I should thank them for spending that time with my imagination. If readers aren’t reading, then there isn't a demand for the types of stories that all of us as writers are trying to put out there in the universe.
I write because I want people to feel something and to experience something. I don’t do it for myself. I like the process. It’s also a painful process. I do do it with an end goal in mind, which is to try and move somebody emotionally. I meant what I said in the acknowledgements. One of the things I'm hoping to achieve with the book is there's a scholastic diversity at play that if people can put themselves in somebody else’s scales or somebody else's robot suit and look at the experience that other people are going through, maybe we can all get along a little bit better.
Owen: Hopefully they do not get digitized like -- what’s his name?
Jeff: Houston --
Owen: -- Houston. Yes, Houston.
Jeff: That’s also a bit of sad, slightly poignant --
Owen: -- I remember when that part came on, me and my mom were like, “Whoa.” Especially you were like, “Whoa.”
Zibby: [laughs] That was beautiful.
Tell us more about your writing process. You said it was sort of painful. How do you do it? When do you do it? How long does it take you?
Jeff: I generally write in the mornings. I like to start as early as possible. Sometime life gets in the way a little bit. This book I mostly wrote between the hours of 7:30 and 10:30 every morning. I was pretty disciplined. I earned a lot of stamps on the loyalty card at the local coffee shop with this novel. This one’s been a long time coming. This has been a real long gestating passion project. That's why I mean sometimes it’s painful. You want to get it right.
I'm a big believer in that writing is rewriting. There's a words-on-paper draft. Then there's the next draft and the next draft and the next draft until you finally feel -- I don’t know that it’s ever, ever finished. There's the writer’s cliché, “A book is never finished; it’s just abandoned.” At some point you have to say, “This is the best I can do with my skill set right now.” One of life’s cruel tricks is that maybe in ten years’ time I’ll be a better writer. If I had the chance to go back and do it again, maybe it would be better. You don’t really get that chance. It’s locked in time.
I start early. I like to have an outline. All my books, with the exception of Memoirs of a Neurotic Zombie, I wrote with an outline because I'm a big believer in endings. We won't give it away for your listeners, but hopefully you guys really liked the ending of the book. Did you, Owen?
Owen: Oh, yeah. Exactly.
Zibby: It was good. Don’t give it away.
Owen: I won’t.
Zibby: Don’t say anything.
Jeff: I'm a big believer in the endings that pay off for the reader. You asked them to go on this journey with you. Then, you owe it to them to give them a really fantastic, spectacular ending that's emotionally satisfying. With this book, I absolutely began with the end in mind. I knew what those final scenes were going to be. I know roughly what was going to happen. I didn’t know exactly how I was going to tie everything up. I knew where I wanted, emotionally, the characters to get to. I knew the experience that I wanted the reader to have going on this crazy rollercoaster ride.
I do write to an outline. In this case, I actually wrote very, very detailed chapter by chapter breakdowns, what was going to happen. That allowed me to think about -- because there's so many characters. There's thirty-eight different races of aliens. There's lot of things happening. It’s told through Sherman’s point of view. There's lots of things happening that he’s not privy to. I needed to make sure that the logic always held up, that the logic was internally consistent, and that at any time the reader couldn't go, “Aha! That could never happen.” Owen, correct me if I'm wrong, but I think I've done a pretty good job of it. I've ironed out all the wrinkles of the logic.
Owen: Exactly. After I finished, I asked have you ever wrote any comics? I looked them up on the website with mom. I saw that you had [indiscernible] Cortex. What else you do have in the pipeline?
Jeff: You've done your research. I love it. Cortex is a new project. I've written that as a script. It’s a television pilot. What I've now started to do is I'm now writing it as a graphic novel. It’s what they call a police procedural. It’s got a little bit of a high-tech twist. The closest thing in tone that’s probably been on television lately would be something like Person of Interest, a bit high tech, a bit fun, solving crimes, that sort of thing. That, I'm really excited about.
The next book I'm writing -- which I'm almost done -- is a little bit younger. You'd probably still dig it. Its target readership is probably a little bit younger than you.
Owen: Stomp School?
Jeff: Stomp School’s much younger. Stomp School is a picture book, although I still like reading picture books. I don’t think you're ever too old for picture books. It’s called Dino Knights. Dino Knights is a group of many evil teenage knights who ride into action on the backs of dinosaurs.
Owen: I think Graham would like that?
Owen: If he can read.
Jeff: How old’s Graham?
Owen: Three. I think.
Zibby: [laughs] Not that young. I don’t think it’s targeted that young.
Owen: Sorry. That was a little bit offensive. It’s a good idea for people his age. If they could read, they'd love it.
Jeff: You might be able to read it to him. Definitely he would dig Stomp School. Stomp School is perfect for three- to five-year-olds. Stomp School is daycare for the world’s biggest city-stomping kaiju monsters.
Owen: He would like that. Read it in the morning.
Zibby: We met, obviously, at HBS. How do you think business school has helped you produce books? Do you view words as the product that your business is making similar to -- it could be perfume; it could be shoes or something, that words are the product that you produce? Do you view it in a totally different way? Do you think that business school in this realm has not been particularly helpful?
Jeff: The HBS alumni folks, who are lovely, are probably going to hate me for this, but I'm not totally sure it’s been that helpful.
Zibby: We won't send this along to them.
Jeff: [laughs] I’ll give you a more nuanced answer. When I'm the zone of creating, it’s no help at all. I don’t think about business. I don’t think about the market. I simply think about character. That’s really all I care about is the emotional reaction of the reader. The three ingredients that I feel I can put into the potion are character -- these characters that you want to spend time with -- the story itself, and the story world, the world or the setting.
I'm a big believer in world building. That's one of the reasons why Alienated is so much fun is because it’s a really rich world. That being said, when I stopped writing and I think about where could this book live? How should it be presented? I don’t know that I try to be that smart from a business perspective, but I definitely try not to be stupid.
I do probably have a lens of how is this going to live in the overall marketplace of ideas, which is a competitive marketplace. As I was saying, there's only so many hours in the day. I'd probably be better served by my HBS degree running a hedge fund than writing a novel.
Owen: You've wrotten a lot about the lunch room. At the beginning of the book you were talking about the tables in the high school: the cool seniors, “aka, the jerks” table; the cool juniors, “jerks in waiting;” the yearbook committee, “harmless but plugged in;” and the cafeteria monitors, “or were you just a mere mortal?”
What table did you sit at?
Jeff: I drew a map of the cafeteria at Groom Lake High. I figured out where everybody would sit in the cafeteria. I do remember my own high school experience. I was definitely a floater. I could fit in with most people. I never had a dedicated table or a dedicated tribe, if you will.
Owen: I will.
Jeff: [laughs] Even today I find anytime I'm going about my normal, everyday life, half of me is engaging in the ordinary course of life, and half of me is always observing. When you’re wired that way, when you're observing character and you're observing people as characters and drawing for material, you're always marginally, slightly removed from reality a little bit. Without knowing it, I was probably a little bit like that in high school. I was probably always soaking it all in and taking it all in. I didn’t know it at the time because I didn’t think about writing. I didn’t give myself permission to be creative. I didn’t think about I would ever have a creative career. Without knowing it I was absorbing stuff. I was probably a mere mortal. I was a bit of a floater.
How ‘bout you, Owen? What table are you at?
Owen: I'm at wherever one of my friends sits. I go wherever he goes.
Any advice to aspiring authors?
Jeff: Advice for aspiring authors. I didn’t follow this advice until much, much later. A couple things. One is I think writers write. I do meet a lot of people who say something like, “I've got a great idea for a book.” Then I’ll ask, “Great. That's fantastic. What have you written?” They’re like, “Well, I'm really busy. I haven't had a chance to do it.” My biggest thing for writers is just sit down and write. It actually doesn't have to be that many hours in the day. It doesn't even have to be an hour. Anybody can wake up a half hour earlier, as painful as that sounds. [laughs] Owen’s like, “That is painful.”
Owen: Very, especially with my dog sleeping at the foot of my bed.
Jeff: The biggest advice for people who want to write is just to write. That sounds flippant, but it’s not. I mean it very genuinely, which is you're never going to find the time. Everybody’s got busy lives. Especially if we’ve got kids, life is busy. There's always stuff competing for your attention. The first thing I would say is just write. Just write. The second thing I would say is to read a lot because it’s brain training for your skill set. The more you read, you’ll have a bigger vocabulary. You’ll have a better command of the language. You'll be aware of what works and what doesn't work.
I read for pleasure, but I also read forensically because I'm always aware, how is this affecting me? You're almost doing a meta-analysis of your own experience. You're reading. Are you enjoying it? Why am I enjoying this? Do I want to put this book down? Why do I want to put this book down? What's the author done that starts to bore me? That's what I would say is write and read. There's loads of books out there that tell you how to be an author. You got to write. You got to read.
Zibby: One last question --
Owen: -- No, I want to say something.
Zibby: Hold on.
I saw recently that Netflix is going to start doing more shows where you can choose your own ending. I know that you have adapted the Choose Your Own Adventure series. I wanted to know what you thought about that new initiative on their behalf. What do you think about them?
Jeff: I have two overarching feelings. One is, “That's so cool!” I've long been interested in the concept of branching narrative and having that as a fun experience for a more engaged viewer. Most linear television or film is a very passive experience. Somebody writes something. They produce it. You consume it. It’s very passive. I like the idea of the viewer being part of the storytelling a little bit. That's my overarching feeling.
The second feeling I have is, “Man. I was born ten years too early.” Those are the books that turned me from being a nonreader into a reader. Back in 2003 when I optioned the rights to those books -- the movie came out in 2006 -- there was no iPad. There wasn’t even a Blu-ray. What we were trying to do was to make the technology work on a really dumb setup kit which was the DVD. The DVD player is not a very sophisticated piece of technology. We were trying to do something pretty sophisticated. I sold that enterprise. I don’t actually have those rights anymore. If I had the opportunity to have that brand and be able to wrap my arm around that brand again, something like Netflix or Apple -- the ability to do it digitally would be so seamless.
The DVD’s still out there. You can buy them on Amazon. It’s a load of fun. I now get a lot of emails from some of our colleagues from HBS who will say, “My eleven, twelve, thirteen-year-old child is finally old enough for the DVD. They love it. They watch it over and over and over.” Owen, you might dig it.
Zibby: I see a plan for a weekend here.
Owen: I have two things to say before we depart from this amazing conversation. One is I'm noticing when you pull your shoulder back, I see all these Star Wars toys behind you.
Are your kids Star Wars fans?
Jeff: I'm definitely a child of Star Wars. My kids do dig Star Wars. I'm looking behind me. For the listeners, to set the scene, I'm in my office in London. I've been living in London, England, for exactly twelve years today, actually.
Zibby: Happy twelve-year anniversary.
Jeff: You're in New York. Behind me are some of my -- some of these are new. Some of my figures are from my childhood. My mother has been desperate to try and get me to clear out stuff from my house that I grew up in. They're still in the house that I grew up in, my folks. I'm looking. I don't know if you can see this, Owen, but I've got this framed thing of R2-D2 here that says, “Jeffery is my space friend.” My mom gave that to me. I was probably five or six. The conceit was that it came from R2-D2 himself. I now know that that's not true. I've had that ever since I was about five or six, so about 1981. It’s come with me to London. It’s sitting in my office.
Zibby: What's your second thing?
Owen: My second thing is thank you for coming on our podcast. Visit us at ZibbyOwens.com. Thanks for your time.
Zibby: Thank you for coming on the show. I really, really, really appreciate it.
Jeff: My pleasure. I'm so pleased to be the first guest interviewed by Owen.
Zibby: Unleashed a monster here. He’s going to be comin’ in all the time. [laughs]
Jeff: Are you going to have your own competing podcast?
Owen: I’ll try.
Zibby: That would be good. Good for the college applications. Thanks Jeff.
Jeff: Thanks, guys.
Zibby: Bye. Take care.