An Interview With John Gilstrap

Question: What compelled you to write Scott Free?

Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been fascinated by survival stories. There’s something very compelling about the notion of one person stranded in the wilderness, pitted against impossible odds, somehow triumphing over it all. The premise of Scott Free—surviving long enough to seek help from the only other human being within a hundred miles, only to have that person turn out to be a psychopath—came to me more or less fully formed one morning. I was compelled to write it because I became obsessed with the idea.

Question: That’s a recurring theme in all of your stories, isn’t it? One person or one group of people surviving against all odds?

I guess it is, yes. Then again, that’s the theme of all good thrillers, don’t you think? The difference with my books in general is, whereas many thriller writers create characters with enormous physical or technical abilities to meet the dangers they face, I like to put people I know—you know, just ordinary people—into the crucible and see how they come out on the other end.

In the past, I’ve pitted good people against bad people, but here, with Scott Free, I raised the ante. Scott has to prevail first against the raw elements of the Rocky Mountains, and only then does he face the man who wants to kill him.

Question: Your books also tend to feature children in danger. Why is that such a driving theme to your work?

I get that question a lot, but to me, the stories are not so much about children in jeopardy as they are about families trying to cope with extraordinary, dangerous, divisive issues. Sure, in Scott Free, Scott is a sixteen-year-old, but a large portion of the story involve his estranged parents trying to declare a truce long enough to keep the officials from giving up the search for their son.

And let’s face it, the most compelling part of any family crisis—from divorce to death—is the impact that the crisis has on those least prepared to handle it: the kids.

Question: You’re pretty tough on the character, Sherry Carrigan O’Toole. She’s career driven, and very successful, and you blame her for dissolution of the family. Do you not think it’s possible to be both a good business woman and a good mother?

I think it’s possible for anyone to be anything they want to be, and more times than not, I think that working parents—mothers and fathers both—bend over backwards to keep their kids’ lives as the priority that they should be. But sometimes they don’t. When I was a kid, mothers stayed home and fathers were gone all day at the office, and most evenings and weekends at the club or out with the guys. In my neighborhood growing up, you never saw fathers hanging out in the park or going to baseball practice or doing the kinds of things that we’ve come to associate these days with being a “good” parent. If there was a divorce, it was just assumed that the kids would go with the mother.

In Scott Free, those roles are reversed. Sherry is the self-obsessed one who gives up custody. Father and son together form Team Bachelor, and the bond between them is rock-solid, and as Sherry observes that bond, she becomes jealous, which I think is often the case in cases of split-custody. The non-custodial parent becomes envious of the child’s relationship with the other parent, even if they’re not so envious of all the work that it takes to cultivate that relationship.

And not to make too fine a point, but I don’t hold Sherry responsible for the dissolution of the family; Brandon and Scott do.

Question: So, you don’t have anything against two-income families?

God, no. I live in one, although my wife did take six years off during our son’s adolescent years. Here’s what I object to: parents who let their kids languish in day care for twelve, fourteen hours a day just so they can afford a BMW instead of a Dodge. I recognize that sometimes people are dealt a bad hand in life and they have to make ends meet, but where I live, there are a lot of parents who just don’t seem to get the responsibility that comes with the title Mom or Dad.

Question: Does that mean—

Let me tell you a true story. Years ago, when I was in the fire service, we got a call at, like, five in the morning for a daycare center on fire. I was the officer on the first arriving engine company, and when we got there, smoke was pushing out of every crack in the structure. Because it was before hours, I wasn’t too concerned about the life hazard, but the structure was no-shit on fire.

I went in with my hose crew and we got the flames knocked down in just a couple of minutes. The fire damage was limited to a utility room, as it turned out, but there really was quite a lot of smoke that had to be removed. About 45 minutes into the operation, I got a call on the radio asking me if I thought that we’d be able to turn the building back over to the owner that morning. I said yes, I thought that we would.

About a half hour after that, I emerged from the building for the first time since I’d entered, and I swear to God there was a line of kids that had been dropped off by their parents. I mean, we had fire trucks lined up from here to there, with charged handlines and smoke being blown out of the building, and probably a dozen parents had dropped their kids off so they could go to work.

About John’s Career Before Writing

Question: You were a firefighter?

And an EMT. For fifteen years.

Question: Well, that’s a transition worth talking about. How does a firefighter/EMT become a novelist/screenwriter?

Don’t forget about the parallel careers of explosives safety and hazardous waste expert. That transition is actually a long and complicated story, but the short version is, I always wanted to write. In fact, writing has always been my means of relaxation. Some people tinker with cars, some work in their garden. I wrote.

After years and years of hit and miss writing, I finally found myself with a manuscript that I really liked, as did a lot of others. It became Nathan’s Run, my first published novel, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Question: Does the firefighting and explosives experience influence your writing?

I’m sure it does. How could it not? I mean, not in the sense that I set out to dramatize specific incidents that I witnessed in the field, but certainly those years formed a big chunk of who I am.

Question: I notice that you dedicated Scott Free to the firefighters from September 11. Why?

I dedicated the book to them because of what they did. We throw around the phrase “American heroes” pretty freely, but those men and women who charged into the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon are the real thing. A good number of them had to know that they’d never come out again. Yet, they went in anyway because civilians needed help, and that’s what cops and firefighters do. I’m forever in awe of their sacrifice.

About Winter Survival

Question: Let’s shift gears for a moment. In Scott Free, the main character survives alone in frigid temperatures without any equipment or survival gear. How possible is that to do in real life?

It’s very possible—probable, even—if people use their heads and don’t panic. In cold-weather survival, shelter is your single highest priority. You’ve got to get out of the wind and into an environment where the temperature can be controlled. Of course, the best snow cave in the world won’t help unless people are at least a little prepared.

Question: How can people prepare for a cold weather emergency? Who would even expect such a problem to occur?

No one expects emergencies of any kind, but anyone who lives even in a moderately cold environment should anticipate them. Suppose your car runs off an icy road at night and you’re trapped inside? Or suppose you simply break down in a remote area? Preparation means the difference between survival and death. Here are the essentials if you’re setting out on even a short trip in winter conditions: Adequate clothing (coats, hats and footwear); a cell phone; water and emergency food.

I know this all sounds very obvious, but think of the times you leave a coat behind, or you wear your expensive yet flimsy Italian loafers even on a snowy day, because you know that between your garage at home and your garage at the office, you’ll never be exposed to the elements.

Just toss a blanket, a pair of boots and some granola bars in the trunk of your car. And like your mother used to tell you, don’t forget your gloves.

About John’s Work in Hollywood

Question: How did you get involved in screenwriting?

Through the back door. Film rights to my first two novels, Nathan’s Run and At All Costs were both purchased by major studios, so that cracked the door for me. My real break came when Warner Brothers was about to abandon Nathan’s Run, after two screenwriters failed to capture the heart of the story. My agent called and told me that the project was headed for “turn-around”—the first step in a movie’s death-spiral, and it angered me. The studio had just cut the heart out of the story. I told my agent that I could write a better screenplay than the screenwriters had, and I’d never even seen what a screenplay looked like. My agent asked if I could finish it in a week.

I said sure. Hey, if you’re gonna be a dog, be a big dog, right? So, I hammered out a draft of the Nathan’s Run screenplay over about five days, submitted it, and everybody loved it.

Not enough to make the movie, of course, but they loved it.

Question: So, that led to other projects?

As any fledgling screenwriter knows, the secret to getting a job in Hollywood is to have a writing sample. Nathan’s Run gave me that. My agent shopped it around and I ended up getting the gig to adapt Nelson DeMille’s book Word of Honor for film legend Dino DeLaurentiis.

Question: And you were the first writer on the new Hannibal Lecter film, Red Dragon, right?

Exactly. I love working for Dino and Martha DeLaurentiis. We got to know each other’s styles, I think, so after I finished Word of Honor, they hired me right away to adapt Red Dragon, which for my money is one of the most perfect novels ever written. I knocked that out in about eight or ten weeks.

With the box office success of Hannibal, Universal committed to Red Dragon and then hired Ted Tally to rewrite my script. Screen credit is assigned through a very imperfect arbitration process, and as luck would have it, he got sole writing credit.

Question: Do I detect a note of bitterness?

You probably detect a note of something, but I’m not sure it’s bitterness as much as it is frustration. There are precious few words or scenes in that film that did not first appear in my script. To bitch about it just sounds like sour grapes, so unless people ask, I just keep my mouth shut about it. Still, it’s a little galling to read in the entertainment news about how brilliant Ted Tally’s script is—and I’m not denigrating his writing in the least—but I want to jump up and down, waving my arms. “Look at me! Look at me! I wrote it first!”

My wife tells me that it’s a maturity issue on my part.

Question: I’ve heard the Hollywood is a tough town.

It’s a brutal town. Years ago, when I was heading out for my first meetings in Tinseltown, I asked a writer-buddy of mine who has deep roots in Hollywood what I should expect. We were in the bar of the old Hotel Roberts in Muncie, Indiana, and this friend of mine leaned way back in his chair and took a dramatic sip of his drink. “They’re gonna fuck you,” he said. “But they’re gonna kiss you really nicely first.” No one could put it better.

Question: So, are you finished with Hollywood?

God, I hope not. For all its frustrations and ugliness, Hollywood’s a sexy place to work. The kisses are really very good. And let’s face it, more people see a bad movie than read the number-one book on the Times bestseller list. And it pays really, really well. It’s because it’s so sexy, I think, that the players can get away with treating people the way they do.

The good news is, unlike the writers who depend solely on Hollywood as their source of income, I can always escape back to the relatively pristine world of publishing.