The X-Files Lexicon's exclusive interview with Howard Gordon
Conducted by Matt Allair 01/24/2011
Page Editor: XScribe
His name needs no further introduction to X-Files fans, he has already secured his place as a part of television history. We had already spoken with him just a few years ago.
I first became aware of Mr. Gordon's new book nearly a year ago. Back then, it was going under the title: The Obelisk. Upon glancing at the book's jacket, and reading the bio description on the back, I saw that the biography noted the two shows he will always be associated with, 24 and The X-Files. While his involvement with The X-Files took place many years ago, his association with the show is still very potent with many fans. But creative individuals and artists cannot rest on their laurels, and Mr. Gordon has ventured into the publishing world with his first novel, an espionage thriller titled Gideon's War.
The interview happened with a rapid succession of events; I corresponded with Mr. Gordon this past Sunday, and his assistant, Jose Cabrera, contacted me to arrange a proper time by Monday morning. Personally speaking with Mr. Gordon, I found him to be gracious, approachable, candid, and self reflective. The interview unfolded as follows...
Matt Allair: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me.
Howard Gordon: I'm so glad that you remembered. I remember pitching this to you a year ago. I'm so glad you had the presence of mind to ask.
Matt: In your new novel, the character, Gideon Davis is a pacifist negotiator who has to take a stand against his brother, Tillman, a rouge Special Forces agent who's taken an oil rig hostage. How much of this novel was a reaction to the kind of work you have been doing with 24?
Howard: It was a reaction in a positive way. On one hand, I've become so well versed as a fan [of] thrillers, that when I thought about writing a novel, that was the first thing that came to mind. I guess, in some ways, that's where I've built up those muscles. It felt very natural for me to do a story like that, but I also wanted to be careful not to just create a character who was a proxy for Jack Bauer. I really felt that I had to find a character [that] could define itself differently. One of the stock characters, Jack shares some more characteristics in a more similar drive, and a similar point of view to some other characters that have been really well defined—[character] **Scott Harvath, [author] *Brad Thor--and so I really want to strike out some new territory, and in some ways test the better angel or the optimist in me, with the realist I sometimes aspire to become. I found with the two brothers, to take those two points of view and to hash it out basically.
Matt: How long was the idea in development?
Howard: The idea of brothers has always been interesting to me, from the time I was a kid I was fascinated by Cain and Abel, by Joseph's Bible stories, The Godfather, Shakespeare, the sibling relationship is fascinating. I also happen to be the oldest of three brothers, and so I'm intimately aware of the combination of love and competition, and the strange alchemy that happens between brothers is a very charged relationship, so I've always been very personally interested in brothers. In fact I wrote a college novel, my thesis, and it involved two brothers as well. It's a theme I've been carrying; this particular story was one that was hatched during the writers' strike in 2007, so that's really where it began.
Matt: Was there an adjustment to writing by yourself, compared to collaborating with others?
Howard: Yes, it was a big adjustment, but also the requirements of what works in fiction and what works in screen writing was an adjustment that I had to make on the fly, and figure out, as I was drawing what might have worked on the TV show, but it doesn't work in a very pared down, naked relationship between the author and his readership…
Matt: Which prose writers, novelists, have had an influence on you?
Howard: I just did a piece in the Wall Street Journal about my five favorite thrillers. One cited there was Thomas Harris' Black Sunday, [which] was a very seminal book for me. Do you remember that? I thought that his creation of Michael Lander, was one of the great villains of all time. I thought it was a literary thriller and it was just very inspiring to me. I read it many, many times. I loved John Le Carré. Most recently I liked his Most Wanted Man. I also like William Goldman's Marathon Man, which was pretty seminal for me.
Matt: There seems to be a trend with television writers taking up novel-writing. Do you find the intellectual, or the creative aspect, of working in this genre more satisfying?
Howard: The one thing (and this is sort of an answer to both of your questions) is that a blank page is equally as terrifying whether you're writing a teleplay or novel. This same kind of fear and uncertainty or excitement, certainly I suspect [exists in] most processes I share, and I've said this [before in regards to] most projects. In terms of other writers doing it, it's really interesting. I don't know if it's a marketing ploy on the side of the publishers, or whether all writers are frustrated with the process of writing for television. I think it's a confluence of events. I'm unclear, but certainly television is a writers' medium, so I don't think TV writers complain about that; they just have the autonomy or the power there. But it's still a group effort. A book is a much more solitary adventure, so it certainly has it's own set of satisfactions that are unique to writing a book.
Matt: What prompted the title change from The Obelisk?
Howard: You know, it's so funny. My incredible publisher, Stacy Cramer, called me just as the book was ready and the artwork was due. I had gotten to that point with people saying: “Oh, The Obelisk.” People were never quite certain with how to pronounce it; some people were not even certain what an obelisk was. So, it always was something that never quite landed or worked, yet no one really did anything about it, and similarly we had a book cover that was kind of dark. There was a guy in a tunnel, running down, silhouetted, so the title and the book cover were two things we kind of lived with, [but] were never in love with, and Stacy at the very last moment had an epiphany, and said to me, “Are you near your computer?” and she sent me a new book jacket with a new title, which was Gideon's War, which was a much more colorful, evocative title. This is probably the fruit of her long time in the publishing business where she understood the importance of a good title and a good cover, and I got both at the last minute. I only knew how strongly I felt about it after I saw the new cover, so I'm eternally grateful for Stacy.
Matt: You have been working in the Espionage genre for a while now. Is this a genre that you have a strong connection with? Do you feel well suited for writing in this genre?
Howard: I do. I've had a life long interest in Foreign affairs, and in American power, and American Hegemony, and an interest in American exceptional. So, I guess I am a patriot in all of the most hopeful ways, but also a citizen, hopefully in the responsible way, which includes educating oneself on issues, exercising that power as a citizen responsibly and so I've always been interested in foreign policy, and the thriller is such a great way, because the stakes are so high, to tell those big stories, against sometimes, some very personal stories. So, I've always enjoyed [the fact that] the actions of a few people can affect so many.
Matt: Are there any characters in Gideon's War that you feel X-Files fans would have a real connection towards?
Howard: You know, in a way, I think Gideon is in some ways closer to Fox Mulder than to Jack Bauer, whereas this idea that if maybe Jack Bauer and Fox Mulder had a child, had a son, maybe it would be Gideon. Because Gideon is kind of a heady guy, he's kind of an intellectual, he's curious in a way. You know Jack was a very action-oriented, results-oriented character. I think Gideon has Fox Mulder's inquisitiveness. In many ways, they might like Gideon Davis.
Matt: You were involved with the Paley Festival X-Files panel in 2008. How did you feel about the experience?
Howard: You know what? It was a fantastic experience. It was great to see the old gang again. We're all a little bit older. I was surprised by how moved I was with seeing everybody. Chris took everybody out, we had a little party afterwards from Fox, I can't remember who hosted it, but it was really nice to see everybody again.
Matt: You commented at the time, at that X-Files panel, that your fourteen-year-old son was watching The X-Files; did he have any personal favorites that you worked on? Did it give you a new perspective?
Howard: It absolutely did give me a new perspective; it was so much fun to see him... I always associate him in particular with the show because he was born the week before I started on it. Now, he's going to college next year, I can't believe how long it's been. He really loved Clyde Bruckman, he loved the pilot episode. He just really dug it, and it was amazing to me how he really came of age after the show had been off the air, so he came to it completely new, and just went through the first five seasons pretty quickly.
Matt: Now that you've written in the Espionage genre, could you envision yourself writing someday in the Science Fiction or Horror genre?
Howard: Absolutely. I think they really do share a lot, I would say one muscle. One skill I learned on The X-Files was really telling a spare narrative, really, a to-the-point kind of storytelling. I love horror and science fiction; I would love to try something again in that arena. It's all so difficult when you think about it, and I feel the same a little about 24. You get to work on something that was so definitive, and iconic, in a genre. It's challenging to find the right story and the right characters, to do it again without it feeling like it's something that has been done already.
Matt: The last time we chatted, you mentioned that you found it difficult to settle on an idea, in reference to a question over if story ideas come from personal experience. Has this issue become easier as you've gained more experience? How do you overcome writer's block?
Howard: Well, writer's block is unfortunately [something] you [don't] have the luxury to indulge, in your work as a television writer, or frankly, even as a novelist on deadline, so the way you write is you write through it. It's really just an incretion of effort, you put in your time, and even if your day turns into what appears to be a fruitless one, you at least know not to do that tomorrow, so even if it turns out to not be a productive day, it's probably productive in it's negative capabilities. The answer to your question is that it was very difficult, I think the older you get, the more faith you gain that your experience will get you through it. That just the application of effort will yield something, and it won't always be perfect, it will seldom be perfect, it might even be good, but it will be something that your experience, your professionalism, will make acceptable. Here's the thing too is that it always gets better, I mean writing is re-writing, so getting it down is really just a step in the right direction.
Matt: You obviously read a lot of material. What's the biggest mistake first time screen writers make?
Howard: I think the biggest mistake is that they fall in love with what they've done, their material, I find a fair dose of self loathing to be a pretty helpful tool, of a filter. I mean I probably do a little too much of that, but I think that first time writers shouldn't be very attached to their material, and I think you have to be very fluid, and allow real criticism, good criticism to improve your work.
Matt: Has there ever been a particular feature film that has left a great influence or impact on you, growing up?
Howard: Manhattan is something I watched again and again. It's such a cliché but The Godfather. I think 2001 was profound for me. Coming Home still sticks in my mind. The Conversation was a real seminal one for me, also.
Matt: Were there any directors that had an influence on you?
Howard: I would say Woody Allen, I felt for me was the guy who could consistently be counted on to make you laugh and think, and changed the way you looked at the world. Kubrick was just great, and Coppola.
Matt: Are you considering adapting this book into a film?
Howard: Thank you for reminding me, yes, I promised my publisher I'd send it to my agent.
Matt: What is the status with the project, Homeland?
Howard: We're shooting it right now in Charlotte, North Carolina, I just got back from there, and I'm probably heading back next week. We're finishing it in early February, and we'll find out hopefully by early March if it's going to be on next year..
Matt: How do you feel about the commercial or market landscape for network vs. cable? Is cable allowing for more creative freedom? Or is it about the same?
Howard: I think that because the requirements for an audience are smaller, you don't have to appeal to as broad of an audience. By definition you're going to have more freedom on a cable network. I think Breaking Bad is probably the most brilliant show on, as far as closing in on Mad Men, but I don't think those would necessarily work on a broadcast format.
Matt: To segue into one more question, are there any current TV shows that you are not involved with that you wished you were involved with?
Howard: I love Breaking Bad, I love Dexter, and I love The Office.
Howard: Well Matt, thank you so much for doing this, I so appreciate it.
Matt: Certainly, I appreciate your [taking the] time to do this.
Howard: My pleasure.
Once again I must thank Mr. Gordon for his graciousness and willingness to make time for this interview, and Jose Cabrera for helping to make it happen. Please take a look at Gideon's War, as it looks to be a thrilling and accessible read. I wish all of the best luck to Mr. Gordon for his future endeavors in film, as well as literature.
*Brad Thor: Author of the Athena Project, Foreign Influence, and The Last Patriot, Mr. Thor served as a member of the Department of Homeland Security's Analytic Red Cell Program.
**Scott Harvath: Lead character in a series of Brad Thor thrillers.
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