• Gaby Triana

A Chat with Powerhouse Storyteller, D.J. MacHALE

On today’s Witch Haunt, I’m super excited to be sitting down with the co-creator of the Nickelodeon series, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, writer and director of ABC’s Wonderful World of Disney’s “Tower of Terror” movie based on the park attraction, and bestselling author of the PENDRADON and MORPHEUS ROAD series for young readers. Please welcome DJ MacHALE!

WH: Hey, DJ! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself in your own words?

I’ve worn a lot of hats, but if I were to describe my professional-self in one word in would be: storyteller. I’ve written books and short stories; and made lots of TV shows and movies. It’s a great career. I get to do what I love and I most of the time I don’t have to wear socks. I highly recommend it.

WH: I’m sold on the non-wearing of socks alone. You’ve created and produced dozens of wonderful shows for kids through Nickelodeon, ABC Disney, and other studios. Which do you love more—screenwriting/producing or novel writing?

I love them both but the answer changes, depending on when you ask me. After working in kid’s TV for so long, I was ready for a change and was fortunate that my novel-writing career took off and I was able to focus on that for many years. Now that I’ve published 20-plus books, I’m getting antsy with the solitary existence of a novel-writer and ready to get back on the set. I did have a wonderful three-year period where I was producing a show for six months out of the year and writing a novel for the other six months. That was an ideal best-of-both-worlds scenario. Hopefully I’ll get the chance to live that life again.

WH: I can see how you would flip-flop based on your social needs. I often find myself wishing I would do something besides write novels for the simple sake of seeing other people. DJ, your bestselling PENDRAGON series is considered middle grade fantasy, then you wrote the wonderful MORPHEUS ROAD books, which were more horror/spooky in nature. Which genre can we expect to see more stories from you in the future?

My natural inclination is to write in the “stranger than truth” space which includes supernatural, fantasy, adventure, and sometimes even sci-fi. But I also try to keep my stories grounded in reality. For example: yes, Pendragon is considered fantasy. But the fantasy element is just the device to set up the individual stories. Once the characters are in the story, the action is very much real-world, where the known rules of science and nature are in effect. Even when I’m writing supernatural stories, a large part of the time there’s nothing supernatural going on. Ghosts aren’t doing their haunting-thing in every scene. I believe this is one way for readers and viewers to relate to the characters for they can imagine themselves in the familiar and normal situations. I think Stephen King is a master of that. So I guess for me, what you can expect coming up are more stories that are generally characterized as depicting the unreal intruding on the real.

WH: After one reviewer said that my books are not entirely paranormal and not entirely real-world, that is what I wish I could’ve told them. So, I’m curious to know which series has sold better—PENDRAGON or MORPHEUS ROAD?

Book series? That’s easy. Pendragon. After all, there were ten books! The first book was published in 2002 and they’re all still selling like crazy.

WH: Both are wonderful, though I’m partial to MORPHEUS ROAD for its spooky elements. What other career would you have if not writing/producing?

When I was a kid I wanted to be an astronaut. But I was terrible in math and had bad eyes. So I became a writer. (Not sure if there’s a direct correlation there or not) But realistically speaking, I think I would have loved to be a teacher. Probably high school.

WH: It takes a special person who understands the soul of kids to be a good teacher. You would’ve made a great one. Which of your creations, either from your books or TV productions, are you most proud of?

“Most” is a tricky word. I think anyone who creates will tell you that they are proud of different projects for different reasons. (And embarrassed about others for lots of reasons)

It would be easy for me to name my two most popular projects: In books: Pendragon; in TV: Are You Afraid of the Dark? But it’s not necessarily true because that would mean I consider commercial success as the most important litmus test for having pride in a project. The truth is I’ve created several TV shows and written many books that I’m equally proud of that for whatever reason, didn’t achieve the same level of notoriety. I’ll give two examples. One in books the other in TV.

I’m incredibly proud of my book trilogy: Morpheus Road. (Thanks for mentioning it before) It’s a supernatural tale that starts as a small ghost story and grows to become the battle between heaven and hell. I did some interesting and risky things with point-of-view so that readers experience the same events through different character’s perspectives. It’s the kind of story that just when you think you know where it’s going, it doesn’t. And I really enjoyed writing my take on what the afterlife might be like. Though it does get quite dark, it’s ultimately very optimistic for it depicts a reality where death isn’t the end for anyone’s spirit.

In TV I made a show that was barely a blip in the history of television. Between being on an obscure cable network and being scheduled at the worst possible times, I think about four people actually saw it. If you caught this show, it was probably by accident. The title is Flight 29 Down. It’s a drama about a group of high school kids who crash land on a deserted tropical island and must figure out how to survive the elements…and each other. You could call it a cross between Lord of the Flies and Gilligan’s Island. But it was a really good show! We had an incredible cast, compelling stories and a talented production team that got every penny of value out of an embarrassingly low budget. It’s a shame that more people didn’t see it, but it is available on DVD…and probably YouTube for thieving pirates.

WH: It’s always amazing to me which projects catch the public’s (and studio budgets’) eyes and which ones hide just under the ferns like hidden gems. I will definitely buy it on DVD. JIf you could interview any fantasy/horror author, gone or alive, who would it be?

I’m taking some liberty here but I consider this guy a fantasy writer: Ian Fleming. In my young teens I read all the Bond books. My own writing was greatly influenced by the way he constructed his stories and characters. And from what I’ve read about him, many of his stories were inspired by his own experiences as a spy during WWII. I’d love to hear those stories.

WH: That’s one I haven’t heard yet! What a fascinating interview that would be. Okay, quick food break (I can tell a lot from what people like to eat and drink). How do you like your coffee? Do you have a favorite libation? What’s your favorite dessert?

Coffee: black. Though lately I’ve taken to cutting it with a touch of milk. ( I think it’s an age-thing) I’m a Peet’s guy but I’ll pretty much drink anything.

Libation: In winter: Johnny Walker Black. In summer months: I recently started drinking gin and tonics. And I’ll admit something here: I absolutely hate beer. (My college buddies will be aghast because I certainly drank more than my share. I blame it on peer pressure that I no longer succumb to)

Favorite dessert: This is a very long list, but I’ll narrow it down to pie. Blueberry, cherry, apple, strawberry rhubarb and that once a year slice of pumpkin.

WH: If you were on death row, what would your last meal be?

Hands down: Thanksgiving dinner. It’s comfort food for the least-comfortable possible situation.

WH: Based on these answers, you seem to be a very balanced individual who appreciates the good things in life while staying reasonable Monday thru Friday. Am I right? Also, what’s your favorite Halloween tradition?

That has evolved over the years, as has the holiday itself. When I was a kid, nobody decorated their houses other than to maybe carve a jack-o-lantern. Now, the whole decorating thing rivals Christmas! It’s fun, but I can’t help but be cynical about it. It’s a good thing I love all things scary, so I try to overlook the over-commercialization.

When I was a kid it was all about going out the night before. “Doorbell night” we called it because we’d ring doorbells and run away. My daughter now calls it “ding-dong-ditch”. We’d occasionally TP a house, but we’d never egg anybody’s house. (I depicted this “doorbell night” tradition in the pilot episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark?)

Then on Halloween night we’d trek from house to house for trick-or-treat. We truly earned that candy because where I grew up the houses were far apart, and you had to cover some serious ground. When you finally got to a house you had to ring the doorbell where somebody would have to get up off their couch, open the door, marvel at your costume and give you candy. Nowadays where I live people go to specific areas where the houses are close together and streets are closed off so that it looks like a Halloween Mall. People sit outside on their doorsteps giving out candy because there’s a steady stream of kids. It’s all fun and safe but as far as I’m concerned, these kids have it way too easy.

That leads to our current tradition. We don’t live on one of those anointed streets, so nobody ever comes to our door to trick-or-treat. So we don’t decorate (humbug, or whatever the Halloween equivalent of “humbug” is) and don’t even bother buying candy because nobody would come to get it and I’d end up eating it all myself. (See earlier comment about the long list of favorite desserts) So we all get in costume, (my go-to is the Grim Reaper), walk our daughter to one of these busy neighborhoods, stroll around for a bit to see the decorations and say hi to neighbors, then inevitably land at somebody’s house for cocktails and to give out candy while waiting for the kids to return with their booty. (Gotta love living in Southern California!)

WH: I love this! It is sad, though, how Halloween has changed. I don’t mind the over-decorating, though. For a girl who lives in eternal heat all year round (Miami), the overabundance of Halloween decorations makes me feel like I’m living up north. We strive to be the “Halloween house” of the neighborhood. Now that we’ve moved to a new neighborhood, I’m curious to see what kind of participation we’ll get.

So, back to storytelling. What do you feel MUST be included for a middle grade novel to be compelling?

Like with any story, no matter who it’s targeted to, it’s all about interesting characters. I try to create and write about a character or characters who are going through some sort of real-world dilemma that readers/viewers can relate to and want to know how it will come out….even if the ultimate adventure aspect of the story is bigger-than-life. Simple as that. I start with the baseline of realistic conflict and characters, THEN add the supernatural/fantasy/whatever gimmick.

WH: It’s all about feeling like you’re living that character’s life, isn’t it? Everything else is secondary. What’s next for you? We can’t wait to see what you have coming up!

My next book in The Library series called: The Oracle of Doom will publish in October. I also have several TV projects that are bubbling just below the surface that my fingers are crossed will go to series. I don’t want to jinx any of them by being more specific than that. But I’m pretty optimistic.

Thank you so much, DJ, for spending time with me today! I look forward to The Oracle of Doom and all your other bubbling projects. Have a great rest of summer, Halloween, Thanksgiving dinner, and Christmas, or as I call it, HallowThanksMasKah! :) To follow DJ MacHale, visit the following links:

* Website: http://www.djmachalebooks.com

* Amazon Author page: https://www.amazon.com/author/djmachale

* Latest release: The Equinox Curiosity Shop (An Audible Original Audio book)

* Facebook: D.J. MacHale

* Twitter: DJMacHale

* Instagram: djmachale

D.J. MacHale is a writer, director, executive producer and creator of several television series, specials and movies that entertain both the young and the young at heart. He is also a best-selling author who has published more than twenty novels filled with adventure, science fiction and the supernatural.

Some career highlights:

As co-creator of the Nickelodeon series: Are You Afraid of the Dark?he was the Executive Producer of all 91 episodes over 7 seasons while writing and directing dozens. It was one of the longest running live-action family programs on television. The series received several Gemini and CableAce award nominations and won the Gemini for “Best Youth Series”.

D.J. wrote and directed the TV movie “Tower of Terror” for ABC’s Wonderful World of Disneybased on the Walt Disney World theme park attraction. The Showtime series Chris Crosswas co-created and written by D.J. He also served as Executive Producer. This series received the CableAce award for Best Youth Series.

D.J. created and produced the Discovery Kids/NBC television series Flight 29 Down. Over three seasons he wrote every episode and directed most including the TV movie: “The Hotel Tango”. For his work on Flight 29 Down, D.J. received the WGA Award for excellence in writing as well as a second WGA Award nomination and a DGA Award nomination. Other notable writing credits include several ABC Afterschool Specials; the pilot for the long-running PBS/CBS series Ghostwriter; and the HBO series Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detectivefor which he received a CableAce nomination.

In print, D.J. has authored the ten-book series of adventure novels: PENDRAGON – Journal of an Adventure Through Time and Space. The series spent 78 weeks on the NYT Bestseller list with one title reaching #1. The PENDRAGON series has been translated into over 20 different languages and has launched a spinoff series, an illustrated guide and a graphic novel. D.J. also penned the spooky YA trilogy MORPHEUS ROAD and the YA Sci-fi trilogy The SYLO Chronicles. D.J. has also written the charming picture book: The Monster Princess with illustrations by Alexandra Boiger.

Also in print, D.J. wrote the first installment of the popular Voyagers series and is currently publishing a series of supernatural novels titled The Library. Finally, D.J. is the author of the Audible Original fantasy-adventure: The Equinox Curiosity Shop.

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