While Joel Eisenberg has decades of experience in the entertainment industry and Steve Hillard is just beginning, their first project together is already making headlines. This project being the co-authored fantasy series called The Chronicles of Ara. Since the publication of the first novel, Creation, in November 2014, the series has been optioned for a television show. The second installment of this series, Perdition, came out in October 2015. Wanting to learn more about their background, the inspiration for and approach to writing this series, I reached out to Joel and Steve for an interview.
To stay up to date on about The Chronicles of Ara like its facebook page. To learn more Joel and Steve you can visit their homepage. And if you feel like tweeting Joel, reach out to him @joel_eisenberg.
Nicholas Yanes: You both have substantial careers in the entertainment industry. Why do you two think you’ve managed to survive when so many get washed out?
Joel Eisenberg: Actually, I’m the bonehead who never learned how to take “no” for an answer, had door after door close…only to re-open when the powers-that-be finally realized I wasn’t going away anytime soon. Persistence met opportunity, and one day the law of averages effectuated a “tipping point.” I recognized that and took advantage of the opportunity, only to realize in hindsight that I really had one opportunity after another over the years…and I just didn’t recognize them until later.
Steve Hillard: What he said. I run a private equity firm. However, like any other business, Joel is right. There is always a “tipping point” – which is a good way to put it – that you need to act upon right away in order to make that difference in your career, and your life.
Nicholas Yanes: Joel, you used to be a Special Education teacher, and Steve, you were a teacher at Rikers. How have your backgrounds as educators shaped your approach to entertainment production?
Joel: For me, and this may come across as a facetious response but I assure you it’s not, dealing with varying populations of physical and emotional disabilities for ten years has enabled me to deal with many of the personalities I encounter in the film business. My students, who were all special to me, were drug addicts, alcoholics, gang members…on another spectrum I worked with autistic children and adults for two years…I may have learned more from the collective of my students, than they have from me. I learned how to see things from varying perspectives and also, which at the time never failed to surprise me, creativity among all of the above populations was exceedingly high.
Watching a young boy or girl, for example, born into gang culture that is unimaginable for most of us in its values and its violence…watching them compose poetry about their lives, and then reading it after, you can’t help but become emotionally involved. You may need to hide it to maintain your professionalism, but once home it becomes time to vent. Or play some very heavy racquetball, one or the other. In either case, my teaching experience informed me that art spoke to everyone, which is a theme in our Chronicles of Ara books.
Steve: My experience was similar. When you work with inmates in such disciplines as creative writing, it’s easy to recognize that you are the one walking into their world, wearing chains. Your life is not their life. When I taught, I also had the goal of bringing out – and I’ll also use the word students” here – of bringing out the students’ creativity. It’s a whole other outlet that, if communicated honestly and without pandering, certainly helps one to better handle frustration and resentment. Regarding entertainment production, I’m the same. It’s all about accepting and working with the various personalities. That’s the key.
Yanes: On this note, how do you think your experiences as educators made you better fantasy writers?
Joel: As an educator, if your intent is true, you need to test your students. Here’s what I mean. My hobby since I was a kid was collecting all things horror, science fiction and fantasy. I am the ultimate Star Wars geek and comic books television and film became my best friend for years. Thing is, I realized that most of my students also loved Star Wars, as an example, yet they were afraid to admit it. Many of them loved comic books. Many loved fantasy stories. And so on.
There are themes in our favorite genre works that speak a universal language. By extension, as to my own fantasy writing – or even writing in general – I would assign projects based on much of the above, fan fiction and so on which the students loved. And, frequently, their perspectives to me were just astounding. For example, one student agreed with George Lucas: Han didn’t shoot first. But the student’s reason: Greedo was a “gangsta,” and a “real” gangsta would have unpowered Han’s gun first, knowing what he was possibly getting into. So Greedo would have shot first, Han in reality would have flipped the table at the same time because he wasn’t a fool either, and he would have fought Greedo for control of the working blaster. I never forgot that. Silly as hell, maybe, but such original thinking! I learned a lot that day. Stories are always a matter of perspective, and I use varying perspectives in my writing.
Steve: Sometimes, coming up, I feel Joel and I lived the same life. I call him my “twin” on occasion, though we’re polar opposites in so many ways. But for this question, once more I couldn’t agree more.
Yanes: Where did the inspiration for the Chronicles of Ara come from?
Steve: I’ll take this. I used to read books to my children when they were young. On the day I finished The Hobbit, my daughter turns to me and says, innocently, “Dad, how come there aren’t more heroines in Tolkien’s work?” That was a heck of a question for someone not yet a teen, and I couldn’t answer it. So I actually wrote a book – my first – in response. It was called “Mirkwood” and it was a fictional novel about J.R.R. Tolkien. Ara was something of a minor character at the time. I pitched the book as a movie at an event in Los Angeles. I met Joel, we formed a partnership and together we had the idea to blow up this character and go from there. We’re writing the books and have been fortunate to sell to television fairly quickly.
Joel: What he said.
Yanes: When structuring the long term story-arc for this series, how did you break the narrative down to eight parts?
Joel: Very simple, really. We wanted to write a series and honestly had no idea how long to make it. As there are so many themes and motifs here, I went online and looked up biblical symbolism. The number “8” represented “re-birth,” a concept that takes the books full-circle. Hence, the eight books in the series.
Regarding how did we break down the narrative? We had initially prepared an extensive show outline, for the series. We leaned on that a bit but most of the breaking down from there is in our heads and is put on paper without further outlining.
Yanes: You two are co-authors on this novel. What advice could you offer to other writers who want to co-author a novel without killing one another?
Steve: Live far away. The telephone works wonders. I’m kidding. What happens after a minute is writing with a partner becomes almost a dance; there’s a natural rhythm that develops and you recognize it early on. It’s either simpatico, or it’s not.
Joel: A dance, that’s interesting. Well, we haven’t stepped on each other’s toes yet. The reality is we have a healthy respect for one another – this is a requirement – and though we’re very different people (Steve’s a hunter, I’m a near-vegan; Steve is a partner in a very successful private equity firm, I spent many years as a broke independent producer), we have a natural meeting of the minds, an acceptance, that was unpracticed and immediate.
Yanes: Chronicles of Ara is being developed into a TV series. First, how does it feel to know that this series is already garnering this much success? Second, how does this impact how you two develop the narrative? In other words, do you make the story easier for television adaptation?
Steve: Great questions. It is so gratifying to have signed The Chronicles of Ara to Ovation TV. We are looking forward to great things and so far, everything is moving along incredibly well. We’re very excited.
Second, it does impact the narrative a bit. There will be differences, of course, as the two mediums (books and TV) are so different, but sometimes the TV writers will think of something we haven’t considered, and so we file those ideas away to maybe incorporate later. But regarding your last question, no, we don’t make the story any easier – or harder – at all. We let our TV writers take care of that, who are both hugely talented and will be announced shortly.
Joel: I agree with what Steve said but I want to add something. Probably my biggest source of pride regarding this project is that our publisher, Topos Books – a division of Incorgnito Publishing – is a new independent company. The books to date have been print-on-demand, printed digitally, like many self-published books (ours are not self-published, but the manufacturing is the same). I hope this success inspires other independent writers. We have done it, The Martian has certainly done it, 50 Shades of Grey and so on. The barriers have long broken; talent and dogged perseverance are key. As Steve Martin once said, and I’m paraphrasing, “Be so good at something you can’t be ignored.”
Yanes: Part of this series feels like a love letter to J.R.R. Tolkien. Why do you think he still matters to younger fantasy fans who may not be aware of him?
Steve: Because he was that good. Because he was an original whose books became, as intended, a defacto “working mythology of England.” He was among the first world-builders to this degree, and we all owe him a debt.
Joel: Tolkien reworked global mythologies into his narratives and, shouting out to Joseph Campbell, archetypes speak to all of us.
Yanes: When people finish reading Chronicles of Ara what feeling do you hope they leave the story with?
Joel: Steve and I have discussed this and we both have the same answer. Artists build worlds. Human beings are creative by nature, to varying degrees. We have the ability to change our world, and to change our history. It’s up to us. In our books “Ara” is the muse who inspires all of art and invention, and she has become corrupted. It’s a metaphor, of course, as each and every one of us has the power to inspire and influence. How to best use that power is what blurs the lines.
Yanes: Finally, what are some other projects you two are working on that fans should look out for?
Steve: The Lost Chronicles of Ara, with Joel, a spinoff of our regular series, is coming at the end of January. The first volume is titled “The Mirkwood Codex.” Then, more “Ara” books for another few years, a graphic novel, and another novel on JFK forthcoming.
Joel: Ditto all things “Ara,” then a feature film biography of boxer Joe Louis that I co-wrote with Gilbert Adler, to be directed by Bill Duke, and an Alzheimer’s-themed feature I co-wrote with Steve Snyder, entitled “January Rain.” That one is casting now, and features – so far – Anthony Thorne and Joey King.
Steve: In other words, we’re busy.
Joel: Something like that.
Remember, to stay up to date on about The Chronicles of Ara, check out its homepage and like it on facebook page. To learn more Joel and Steve you can visit their homepage. And if you feel like tweeting Joel, reach out to him @joel_eisenberg.