Lou Diamond Phillips adds sci-fi writer to his long list of talents

Golden Globe nominated actor Lou Diamond Phillips was already a renaissance man. He acts, writes screenplays, and directs. He also does advocacy work and is an accomplished poker player. Now, the multitalented Phillips can add science fiction author to his resume.

His debut novel, Tinderbox: Soldier of Indira, is a unique retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen story of the same name. He was inspired by drawings his wife Yvonne had drawn for a potential graphic novel that was scrapped years prior. The novel is a terrific first effort from Phillips and the behind-the-scenes story of Tinderbox is equally enthralling.

Debutiful spoke with Phillips about what inspired this book, how he collaborated with his wife, and what’s next in his long, storied career.

Author photo by Manfred Baumann

 What about telling stories drives you?

 That’s what I call myself. People say I’m such a hyphenate because I act, I write, and I direct. Regardless of the format, the catch-all designation is a storyteller. I go back to my theatre days at the University of Texas – Arlington where that was exactly my aim and hope. I wanted to tell stories and interpreted them to actualize them for an audience.

 Early on, I wanted to be a writer first. I wanted to be a writer before I wanted to be an actor. The acting thing worked out. I never abandoned my passion for putting words on paper. I’m at a point in my acting career where I have a little more time and have the experience behind me where I can venture out into these different directions.

 How long had you been thinking about writing a novel?

 I’ve always thought about writing a novel. I wrote something in high school that was really terrible. I think two people read it: my English teacher and my dad. It was a really piss poor attempt at a Stephen King thriller. In college, I wrote a short novel that is something my wife Yvonne has read and liked. I maybe will revisit that one day. It was my take on Richard Bach.

 It’s always been in my mind to do something like that but it’s always been a function of time. Writing is a huge commitment. Tinderbox grew out of a seed that was for something completely different. This really is an extrapolation of Hans Christen Andersen’s fairy tale. It also came from drawings that Yvonne had done. 

When we first started dating, she was showing me a lot of her artwork and a lot of it was this German, woodcut, classic take on stories she had heard growing up as a little girl in Germany. Some of the art also leaned toward the manga and anime influences she had in the 1990s. A group of the paintings was influenced by the Tinderbox.

 They were her original concept for a graphic novel that she never followed up with. I thought it could be a book or a movie. With her permission, I hijacked her idea and I wrote a screenplay first because that’s what I was used to doing. Then I realized it was far more expensive than anybody would give me money for then the decision was to write the novel to take more authorship and creative control of the world. It’s been a long process of about 10 years from beginning to end.

 When you took your wife’s idea, did you always see Tinderbox being in a sci-fi realm?

It was interesting and it took some marinating. Because there was this feudal, post-apocalyptic feel to the graphic novel, and that we both grew up on Star Wars that had that Japanese influence in space, my mind automatically went to that. Game of Thrones wasn’t as big as it was and it was just beginning [on HBO]. 

 I knew sci-fi was the way to go. Sci-fi is our current fairy tale and our current western. It’s an arena that you can create a morality tale without being too pedantic about it. You can create kings and queens with magic and prophesies in that genre.

 Was your wife giving her input during the screenplay or the novel?

 It’s really interesting because she 100% signed off on the screenplay. She is a sci-fi cinephile. She dug the screenplay. When I started writing the book, I was backing her into a corner to draw stuff that she never intended to draw. She’s not a sci-fi artists, but all of a sudden she was getting requests to create things for the book. She is a very important sounding board for me as a creator. I would read what I wrote that day out loud to her. She’d give me her thoughts to help me form mine. 

 Her work is throughout the entire book.

 There are 30 illustrations that go throughout the entire book. There are little things like the tinderbox itself to a full-fledged battle scene. She got out of her comfort zone and created some stuff that were a hybrid of her original fairy tale illustrations mixed with a retro sci-fi approach.

 I’m super interested in writing the screenplay first then going back and fleshing it out as a novel. What was that like?

 It is 100% evolved into something deeper and richer [than the original screenplay]. The novel had to take on a life of its own with a backstory and more articulation with its thoughts. Even the dialogue got adjusted to move the plot along or be more revelatory. With a screenplay, everyone from the cinematography to the costume designer has input. With a novel, you fill it all in yourself. Creating the world with more detail and specificity was fun for me.

For me, it was going back to the fundamentals to put into the different points of view. The novel is third-person omniscient with different passages from different points of view and as a result, you get about the worldview of the conflicts.

 As a storyteller who has been primarily on screen or stage, or writing for them, what was it like getting into the heads of these characters?

 I think developing characters, and this goes back to theatre training, is something I’ve been doing my entire life. It’s all about being able to understand someone’s world view and adopt their motivations even if it’s a 17-year-old girl like in the book. From the beginning, that was the exercise in building characters and that involves understanding place, context, and influences. That lends itself greatly to creating these characters as three dimensional, believable, and relatable as I could. I looked at them like I was playing them to make them real.

 Even though the book is fantastical, one of the things I did was stand up and act it out to make it realistic. Can I really pull out a sword while doing this? Those types of questions were the ones I had to ask myself.

 You mentioned Stephen King, Richard Bach, and Star Wars. What else influenced this book?

 There are so many easter eggs in there. The wordplay in the book was influenced by Lewis Carroll and Richard Adams. Adams created a language and belief system for rabbits and that was a definite touchstone for me. There are obvious references to Shakespeare as well as other pieces of culture. There’s one line where Emerson looks around and there isn’t a chair with is a reference to “Norwegian Wood” by the Beatles. There are little things in there that are also for Yvonne and me. The King is the 47th because I was 47-years-old when I started the story. Princess Allegra is called that because our first date was in the Allegra Cafe in Vancouver. There are little things in there for our own entertainment.

 This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Please subscribe to Debutiful’s podcast, which releases once a month with an in-depth interview with one debut author.

Adam Vitcavage is the founder of Debutiful. His interviews and criticism have also appeared in Electric Literature, The Millions, Paste Magazine, and more.

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