Q&A with the author behind Intelligence!

For more info on the show:
Here's the short version - John Dixon, debut author of PHOENIX ISLAND (out today) - the book that spark interest from Hollywood and became the premise for INTELLIGENCE a new TV series on CBS (premiers Tuesday, January 7, 2014 at 9:00 pm Eastern/8:00 pm Central).  For information on how this all happened see the Q&A with John for the long version.

Reasons I hate John: The book is fantastic - it's well written, action packed, well crafted characters and satisfying ending.  He has a TV show based on his book - his FIRST book - what a brat, I've 12 books and had no interest from Hollywood.  He's a nice guy - smart, funny, kind to small animals.  He's into boxing and martial arts so he knows his stuff and it shows in the book.

Reasons I love John: See above :)  I met John through the Seton Hill MFA program when he signed up for my Fantastic Fight Scenes workshop.  I brought a bunch of rubber knives to teach the class some self-defense moves.  I asked for a volunteer to be my partner. John promptly volunteered. I hand him a knife and he adjusts into a fighting position and I think, "Oh, S**t, this guy knows what he's doing.  I'm screwed."  Good thing we used rubber knives ;>

John is also offering to give away one signed copy of PHOENIX ISLAND!  Leave a comment and your email addy (Goodreads friends - no need for the addy) by January 14, 2014 and be entered to win. Open to ALL! (yes, that includes international readers).

Here's the cover copy:  A champion boxer with a sharp hook and a short temper, sixteen-year-old Carl Freeman has been shuffled from foster home to foster home. He can’t seem to stay out of trouble—using his fists to defend weaker classmates from bullies. His latest incident sends his opponent to the emergency room, and now the court is sending Carl to the worst place on earth: Phoenix Island.

Classified as a “terminal facility,” it’s the end of the line for delinquents who have no home, no family, and no future. Located somewhere far off the coast of the United States—and immune to its laws—the island is a grueling Spartan-style boot camp run by sadistic drill sergeants who show no mercy to their young, orphan trainees. But that’s nothing compared to what awaits him in the “Chop Shop”—a secret government lab where Carl is given something he never dreamed of.

A new life. . . . A new body. A new brain. Gifts from the fatherly Old Man, who wants to transform Carl into something he’s not sure he wants to become.

For this is no ordinary government project. Phoenix Island is ground zero for the future of combat intelligence.  And for Carl, it’s just the beginning. . . .

Q&A with John Dixon:

1.) What was the inspiration behind PHOENIX ISLAND?

Phoenix Island came at me from a bunch of directions, unconnected experiences and ideas coalescing over time, but the heart of it grew out of two sources: hope and rage. From the get-go, I knew I wanted to write a story about a kid who, like so many people I’ve known, doesn’t really fit into polite society but who nonetheless possesses great strength and potential, given the right circumstances. Then I heard about the unbelievably disgusting “Kids for Cash” case, where judges from my home state of Pennsylvania made money by convicting kids to privately run boot camps for teen offenders. My high hopes for people I’d known met my rage over this unbelievable injustice, and the book blew up in my head.

2.) Let’s talk about your success – your debut novel, PHOENIX ISLAND is the bases for the new TV series, INTELLIGENCE premiering January 7th on CBS at 9:00 p.m., and staring Josh Holloway.  How did that happen? 

I was sitting in Jimmy John's Hot Dogs on Route 202 when the phone rang. It was Tripp Vinson, executive producer of blockbuster movies like Red Dawn, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and The Number 23. My film agent had given him the book, and he'd read it in two days. Could I talk?

Jimmy John's is my favorite restaurant on the planet, but it's also full of toy trains and little kids blowing whistles, so I asked Tripp to hold on, walked out to my truck, and took the call of my life parked along 202, with traffic whizzing by.

Tripp flew to New York, I hopped the train, and we met for lunch. We clicked instantly, and I liked his ideas. He wanted to convert Phoenix Island into a TV series, and we started talking about how to expand subplots and back story, where to end the pilot, where to end the first season, conversations that we would continue later, over the phone and through email. Before leaving that lunch, however, Tripp gave me the best advice ever. There were a million ways for this go wrong, he explained, and told me not to pin my happiness on the ultimate success of the project. “There are a lot of hurdles,” he told me. “Celebrate every hurdle.”

So I did... usually by going to Jimmy John's. When Michael Seitzman came on board, I celebrated. When ABC Studios optioned it, I celebrated. When CBS Network picked up the option, I celebrated. We still had a lot of hurdles in front of us at that point, but following Tripp's advice, I was enjoying the ride. With the addition of director David Semel and actors like Josh Holloway and Marg Helgenberger, we kept clearing hurdles, and we sprung over a tall one when CBS green lighted the pilot. Out of something like 100 dramas optioned that year, they had green lighted only 11. Still, we were up against heavy competition, so the next hurdles -- making a great pilot and getting ordered as an actual show -- reached into the sky, into orbit.

I felt good about the pilot. By this time, the story had changed big time from my book. I was okay with this, and I enjoyed having a role in the transition. I'd read the script and knew it was strong. But honestly, I really didn't think we'd make to order. CBS was kicking butt, and while we were in limbo, they announced they would be reordering almost their entire schedule, leaving room, people thought, for two, maybe three new shows. TV pundits predicted CBS would pick up Beverly Hills Cop and NCIS spin-off, and suggested that Hostages would likely nab any extra slot. We weren't supposed to get the order, according to those-in-the-know. Still, I clung to Tripp's advice and celebrated the green lighting by visiting the Vancouver shoot with my wife, Christina. We had a blast.

When May rolled around, I braced myself for the expected disappointment, telling myself I'd been incredibly blessed just to make it this far. We'd made some money off the pilot, taking off pressure for a time, and the book had sold in a two-book deal to Simon & Schuster. Things were good. And yet I dreaded the announcement. I didn't want the dream to end.

It didn't. On May 10th, five days before the Up Fronts, CBS surprised everyone by announcing its picks early. And there was Intelligence. I didn't believe. I mean that literally. A friend emailed a link, I followed it out, read the headline, and literally did not believe that it was true. A mistake, a hoax, a cruel joke... something. Then I went back to my inbox and saw an email from my film agent. The subject line read, "In Case You Haven't Heard." The email simply said, "So happy for you, John," and there was a link to another article announcing the same news. Cue the chorus of angels....

That evening, Tripp called. I'll never forget pacing the deck, talking to him. It was a beautiful May evening. "Remember when I said we had a lot of hurdles to cross?" he asked. Of course I did. "Well," he said, "we made it over the last one."
For more info on the show:

3.) I love Carl – he’s a strong minded young man who has zero tolerance for bullies.  How did you develop his character?  What do you like the most about him?

As a son, a friend, a caseworker, a teacher, and someone who both boxed against and tutored prisoners, I’ve known dozens of people gifted with extraordinary athleticism, brains, charisma, and courage, whose potential strengths, under the wrong circumstances, ended up becoming liabilities. When I started writing the book, I had a very clear picture of the main character, who during the earliest stages was based physically and to some degree mentally on a former student of mine. This kid was very smart, very tough, and very angry. I liked him a lot. I taught him to box, and he took to it naturally. He had a world of potential in and out of the ring, but he couldn’t stay out of trouble and ended up dying tragically.

Though Carl developed into his own person, he’ll always retain a touch of that boy, and Phoenix Island will remain on one level my attempt to tell a story where my young friend, rather than ending so sadly, followed a different path and used his incredible strengths to become a hero.

My favorite thing about Carl is his absolute intolerance for injustice. He is far from perfect, and I’d hate to go through the things he suffers, but I admire his principled courage.

4.) Did you have to do any special research for this book? What did you learn that you didn't know before?

The most important research came quite unintentionally through osmosis with life: boxing, reading, and working with kids and inmates. Phoenix Island is a contemporary thriller, the story of a tough kid in tough conditions, so these experiences took me a long way, but science is also important – even integral – to the book, so that required additional research, especially in the fascinating area of trans-humanism. Thanks to amazing sources, good people like Dr. Gary Della Zanna and Dr. John Dougherty, both of the National Institutes of Health, and the guidance of Intelligence’s executive producer, Tripp Vinson, who would get in touch, telling me to watch a specific Ted Talk, read a helpful book, or Google some bit of cutting-edge science, research was an absolute blast – as were the purely imaginative brainstorming sessions that helped me go from fact to fiction.

5.) How did you become a writer? Is this what you saw yourself growing up to be? Or did it take you by surprise?

It definitely took me by surprise. I always wrote, but I think of myself as a “writer” until quite recently, when writing started paying the bills. I still feel like an imposter whenever someone asks my occupation.

But again, I always wrote stories, and for that, I thank my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Leann Wolfe, who had us write stories every week and made all the difference in the world by praising mine. She even went so far as typing up one of them, a silly, didactic story about animals in a courtroom, and she told my parents that I would be a writer someday. I was a bad kid, but her praise and support gave me confidence in something more than just my fists. Needless to say, I thank her extensively in my acknowledgements, and I sent her a copy along with a heartfelt thank you. I don’t know if teachers always know the difference they make, even with very young kids, but Mrs. Wolfe was one of the most important people in my life.

6.) What else do you enjoy doing besides writing? Interests? Hobbies?

I love boxing, and though I haven’t been in a ring for almost a decade, I still enjoy the workout and follow the sport pretty closely. I’m an avid reader, of course, and I love chess, building stone walls, and eating torturously hot food.

7.) Do you have a writing routine? Talk process for a moment, how do the words get on the page?

Lately, with the book and show coming out simultaneously, my writing time has been shot full of distractions. It’s a bit maddening. More than a bit, actually. I’m at my best when I start early and isolate myself from the world for long blocks of time. The more I do that, the more “real” the story world becomes and the more easily the words come.

The unfortunate thing about getting the words onto the page, is I never know how it’s going to go. Some days I struggle; other days I fly. My best day ever generated 14,000 words… but it took me an additional three days to whip those into shape, and I lost 5,500 of them in the process. In general, I waste a lot of time overwriting and re-approaching scenes. With Phoenix Island, I wrote over 200,000 words… but the published version has only 93,000. I’d love to learn to be more efficient, but so far, I’m stuck being me.

8.) Office? Closet? Corner of the living room? Do you have a set place to write?  A favorite?

I have a nice office space with a great roll top desk and a computer, but I prefer to work on my Alphasmart Neo word processor at flimsy table in a guestroom upstairs. Stephen King said something similar in On Writing, so I’m in good company, I guess. I like a Spartan workspace. The word processor and off-the-grid guestroom protect me from distractions.

9.) What are you writing now?  What's coming out next?

Right now, I’m having a blast writing DEVIL'S POCKET, the sequel to PHOENIX ISLAND, and I’m excited that “The Laughing Girl of Bora Fanong”, a short story I coauthored with Adam Browne, has shacked up with amazing Australian animator Adam Duncan, who’s planning to develop it into a graphic novel.

Find John Dixon Online:


  1. I can't wait to read it and check out the show! Danielmaiette@att.net

  2. Can't wait! I'm so jealous I can't see this on TV being in the UK. Will have to keep an eye out for it here.

    Will look up the book though! Looks amazing.


  3. I'm so excited for it to air, I made sure to dvr it a few days ago! Congratulations!

    1. Congrats Emmalee! You WON!! I'll be emailing you for your address, although I'm thinking I already have it - that is if you're the same Emmalee who featured me on your blog :)

  4. Wow! Learn something new everyday! I had no idea that Intelligence was based on a novel. A novel that sounds very interesting indeed! So congrats Mr. Dixon!

  5. Oh, and my email is taylerclements94@gmail.com !!

  6. Looking forward to watching the show. The novel has me very interested.

  7. Wow, it sounds really awesome! I will check this book out and can't wait to read it! jyotiramsamoedj96@gmail.com

  8. Liked the show very much and the book sounds great too! Thanks for the interview, John sounds like a very interesting guy. fluteprofm@embarqmail.com

  9. Congrats on both the book and the show. Coincidentally, I just finished watching the show before coming online to read Maria's blog. I was actually quite impressed. (Although I see what you mean about major changes from your original book. Josh Holloway is hardly 16. And there wasn't any boxing, although plenty of fighting.)

    I wish you the best of luck with both! Kudos!

  10. Thanks so much for having me, Maria, and thanks, everyone, for your kind words and enthusiasm. This has been a weird and exciting time!

  11. Excellent interview, and this great success couldn't have happened to a nicer guy!

    Monica gunslngrmjo@yahoo.com

  12. Couldn't be more happy for you mr. Dixon. Not only did you show me that reading and writing could be fun.but as a sixth grader that was very small and bullied you taught me how to box after school on your own time , thanks Mr Dixon you are on stellar human being and deserve this more than anyone. Ray rlavoie22@gmail.com

  13. Congrats to you, Mr. Dixon! I was given a eARC of Phoenix Island for review and couldn't put it down. It was simply amazing. The whole premise was interesting but the character development was phenomenal and I ached for Carl. For this to be your debut book, it kinda blows my mind. :-) You have serious talent and I'm itching for the sequel.

    1. Sorry I forgot my e-mail address. xmelaniexthomasx@aim.com

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