John Hulme, author and filmmaker on new book series “The Seems”
(originally published in Bootleg magazine, September 2008)
By Brian Tucker
Author and independent filmmaker John Hulme was once a local on the streets of Wrightsville Beach. He wrote and created independent film projects while working as a professional movie extra on the television series Matlock and the George Lucas produced movie Radioland Murders. Currently, he is the co-author, along with Michael Wexler, of a book series that exists in a magical realm known as The Seems.
From the Department of Weather to the Department of Time, The Seems watches over every aspect of the real world, yet it also exists as an independent realm of its own, complete with holidays and histories as extravagant as our own. The first novel, The Seems: the Glitch in Sleep, details the first mission of Becker Drane, a 12-year-old boy from the real world who takes a job as a Fixer, righting problems that occur within The Seems.
As the title suggests, his job is to fix a glitch that has caused the world insomnia – a huge endeavor for such a young boy. Alongside Becker are a slew of interesting characters, including a charming but uptight sidekick named Simly and an attractive Fixer on the rise named Casey Lake.
The Glitch in Sleep was released last fall and its sequel, The Split Second is set for release this October.
Below Hulme discusses the inner details of The Seems, the publishing process, enthusiasm for children’s literature, and the series getting optioned by film director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum).
You’ve had prior work as an envelope stuffer, professional movie extra, and independent blood delivery contractor. And now writing.
Hulme: I think I’d always wanted to be a writer since I was a kid. I really didn’t do very much of it until the early 90s when I bumped into a guy I went to high school with named Michael Wexler up here in New Jersey, and together we came up with the idea for the first book we did called Voices of the Xiled. It’s a collection of short stories we edited.
We decided to put ads in newspapers across the country reaching out to unpublished writers. We ended up with about 3,000 stories, picked the best twenty, put a couple of already published writers in there, and published the book. We only wrote the introduction for that, but that got me started, and that’s how I ended up moving down to North Carolina. We finished and we were like, now what do we do?
A couple of friends of ours, the Pate brothers (The Grave, Surface) came down to Wilmington and made a bunch of movies. That was when the studio had first started, and Matlock was shooting there. I had never been to North Carolina before, and the next thing I knew, I was in a house at Wrightsville Beach. The weather was nice for nine months of the year, and I immediately fell in love with Wrightsville Beach and Wilmington. Essentially what we did down there, once we started writing, was a number of different kinds of projects, and we supported ourselves by being extras in movies and TV shows.
We were constantly on Matlock, but our biggest cash cat was from the movie Radioland Murders. It just kept going on and on and on. Michael and I weren’t able to con our way into being in the (film’s) band—which instead of $50 bucks a day, got you $125 bucks a day—because neither of us had any useful talent. The movie kept going over-schedule, so we just brought our laptops and wrote and got fed everyday.
About that time we created a show down there called Vanishing Point. It was like a not-very-old-time radio drama like the Lone Ranger or The Shadow. We did it with all local actors, and we did it on a cable radio station, started doing Sunday night concerts, and ended up being on NPR. So Wilmington was really the place where I started taking all this stuff seriously. It’s a great community to be a part of because so many people have moved there for the same reason – to try to break into films and other things. We were very supportive of each other so it was a really good time.
What drew you to children’s fantasy?
It was sort of accidental. It actually happened around the mid-90s. We were working on Vanishing Point, doing a bunch of other projects, and someone introduced us to this really talented illustrator. His name is Gideon Kendall, he does the illustration for our book. He was looking for a story to do an illustrated kid’s book.
So we worked up this story for him. It was about a little kid who has nothing to do on a weekend, and his friends are gone and he has no one to play with, so he decides to build himself a big pillow fort. He does that and climbs inside and finds this pillow that doesn’t look like anything in his house. He moves it out of the way and crawls through this hole and he discovers a whole other world on the other side. That took about a half-hour to come up with, and we were all excited.
The only problem was finding out what was on the other side of the pillow, and that took eleven years. It just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and we really tried to jam this big story into a kid’s book for many years and it just didn’t work.
We decided that we had to take it and turn it into a novel, and neither of us had ever written like that. We had always written things that we could divvy up. With the radio show, we would flip-flop off the script. This we had to write together, and having never done that, we were intimidated by it. But in the long run it turned out to be the right fit. Once we got into the novel form, everything started to breathe and come to life. It was a really satisfying thing. After eleven years it’s a fine line between passion and self-delusion. We doubted it, but it worked out and we feel pretty fortunate.
When did you first began writing the novel?
When we came up with the idea we were still in Wrightsville Beach, but when we made the shift into a novel we were back in New Jersey, where I’m from. I had gotten married and I was caught up for about four years making a documentary film that had to do with my life. When that was done I went back and tried to pick up The Seems again.
The interesting thing that happened at that time was Harry Potter becoming a phenomenon, and although the whole kid’s marketplace was ultra-competitive, there were more people willing to take chances on series books. So I had just bought a house, just had my first kid, and I was in the world of children a lot, neighbors, hanging out with other people and their kids, so it was really perfect timing.
What frustrations evolved as the novel progressed and what high points motivated you to keep pressing forward?
Two big frustrations. One, being locked in a room with Michael Wexler for a long period of time. We have known each other since we were twelve years old, but no matter how much you like somebody, if you’re in that small of a space writing a novel, especially if you’ve never written a novel before, the anxiety leads to stress which leads to anger which leads to fighting. If you’ve known each other for that long, you get a little irritated sometimes. So that was trouble number one. Then, most book series start like Harry Potter does: normal kid who finds out about this magical world, gets the ticket or the magical key, and then goes there and has an adventure.
We wanted to do something different. We wanted it to be like the very first James Bond book, Casino Royale, which started out with a spy named James Bond on a mission. It starts out with him having already become the heroic character, and we wanted The Seems to start that way too. Throw the reader right in the midst of something already happening. It was a great theory, but really challenging to not lose people. So that was the hardest part creatively.
I think when we got frustrated we always retreated back to, “If this isn’t fun, then why are we doing it?” Because I could go work on Wall Street or shovel rocks for a living. But when we were able to remember what we loved about the character and the world and what we were trying to hopefully convey with the story, what made us happiest about it, then we were able to pound through the hard times.
Talk about co-writing a novel. What qualities did each of you add?
I think that generally the way it works is I’ll plot out the story. I’ll come up with the basics—here’s what happens in this scene or chapter. Then Michael will take on writing the actual wordplay, because Michael’s best skill is having a great sense of wordplay and natural talent. We try to stumble our way through it, so we can go over it again and again and again.
The hardest thing was getting through that first draft. Once we got that first draft out, we were able to knead it and shape it. But it’s very hard to figure out who was good at what. We just worked. He would write for a half-hour, then he would get burned out and I’d get in there for an hour. Then he’d throw me out of the office and he’d get in there. We just bounced back and forth, and in some weird way, we became one author working.
The book mentions the “Powers that Be” and having faith in “the Plan,” is there intentional religious symbolism present?
There is no intentional religious symbolism. In most of the stories similar to this, like The Matrix or Dark City where the real world isn’t what you think it is, the world ends up being bad. We wanted to do the flip side of that. We wanted our story to say that the world isn’t what you think it is, it’s actually something much better. It’s a magical place, where forces work behind the scenes on our behalf.
A lot of that comes from Michael and I going through real struggles – personal problems, career struggles. We were trying to use those times to craft a worldview that was somewhat hopeful. We wanted to impart something good, especially in a post-9/11 world. We really want the reader to be able to be close it, walk outside, and try the good on for size. I have a four year-old son, and the world is the most magical thing to him. It’s a place of adventure and mystery and wonder. We often get caught up in our lives and forget that.
People in The Seems think the world is the greatest place ever. But when we were on the road touring with the kids, they were asking questions about why there are people being killed in Darfur, and why there is war, and where salvation is. You offer an idea, and you have to grapple with it. The book series is centering on a character that has a lot of self-doubts about why the world is the way it is. Hopefully the book will track his and our feelings about that.
If there is any actual symbolism in there, some of it is probably unconscious. I didn’t really do anything consciously, but we definitely wanted to address certain questions. I remember when I was six years old, and my father was killed when I was three weeks old, I never really understood what that meant and I would ask my mom what it means that he’s dead. If he’s not here, where is he? If I was going to die. And my mother, who was still grieving over his death, had no answers on that subject. So a lot of the questions we are trying to answer come from that place.
Can we expect to see more of the main characters in the upcoming novel?
Yes. Everyone comes back, but there will be a lot of new characters as well. We’re trying to craft an anthology of characters and we want to create the kind of book series that I would love to read. Book two is called The Split Second and it takes place in the Department of Time and book three is called The Lost Train of Thought.
Are you under contract to write a set number of books? Do you have each plot planned out?
We are contracted to do three. We’ve got it pretty much plotted out through five. But after three, I’m going to be pretty burned out. I should probably take a break, but book four is shaping up to be pretty cool, so I might change that opinion. Book three is turning out to be our favorite so far in the writing process, but each one is getting more enjoyable than the one before it. But I guess as far as how long they’ll go on will depend on how they sell and if a movie comes out.
In your pre-publication tour, one of the kids suggested the Department of Language go haywire in a future novel. Do you think you’ll take ideas from kids?
Definitely. We’ve already put a few ideas they came up with into book three. You’ve got to understand that after eleven years, to be in a room with a bunch of kids who had read the books and loved it, I can’t tell you what that felt like. Incredible. Joyful. So if a couple of kids had some really killer ideas, or if we can name a character after a kid, it would really move them, and we’re definitely going to take that up.
What was it like to discuss your novel for the first time?
It was intimidating at first. Mostly because when you are surrounded by twelve year-old kids, I’d say three hundred of them, you start to feel like you are twelve years old again. You get embarrassed easily. I felt very nervous about how we would be received, but we just tried to have as much fun as we possibly could. After a while we realized that we really did know what we were talking about, remembered that we wrote the book and came up with the world. So it was just a great feeling.
We would usually go to places where most of the kids hadn’t read the book, but we went to this one place in Chicago where every one of the kids had read it. Several hundred of them. Not only were they there to talk about what they liked about the book, but they had made food and drinks within the book. Like Uncertain Tea, Dazzleberry Pie, and they made us each individual toolkits. They had just gone so overboard to thank us for coming, and I felt so choked up. I couldn’t believe it.
There were so many times we just paraded through, and the difficult parts were those ten years where we weren’t sure what was going to happen. It feels like all your work is nothing, but suddenly, you’re in a room where two hundred kids are standing on their chairs shouting “Live to Fix, Fix to Live.” It’s freaky. It was fun.
The reactions of the kids were different from what you had initially expected?
Yeah. We were always blown away by how quickly they took to the novel. Our expectations were to come in ready to talk about the book, let them ask some questions, show some pictures, and then we would be out of there. I remember sitting at this round table of like twenty kids, and one of the very first questions asked was “Do you have plans to deal with Death and the concept thereof?” and there second question was “When will we be going to the Edge of Sanity?” and Michael and I were wowed. We couldn’t believe that they knew the story down to every detail and wanted to tackle the heavy subjects right away.
Then they would suggest something to happen for book three and we were shocked because those were things we had already thought about for it. They are such veracious readers at that age. They gobble it up, and they have such an understanding of story structure. What they want to see is generally what the cool thing to do is. Because of the boom in fantasy right now, literature in general, I think a whole generation of young writers are going to come up, and that’s something to really look forward to.
What was it like to sign the Fixer Motto onto the door at Hicklebee’s?
It’s a pressurized thing. Every great kid’s book’s author has a signature up there. Unfortunately, I think that is the one where we totally botched it. We tried to draw the Fixer Motto, and we’re not illustrators. So we will forever go down as the ones with the botched Fixer Motto followed by the real Fixer Motto, but it was great.
What process did you go through to publish the novel?
We were fortunate enough to have a literary agent in place from previous projects. And that was one of the most crucial things. It’s very hard to publish anything without an agent, and it’s hard to get one in the first place. Generally, you have to work every connection you can to try to get your project into the hands of the right person and have them like it. We had a good literary agent. Essentially we went out with the first five chapters of The Glitch in Sleep.
Bloomsbury was interested and wanted to see more. So we went back in with the first nine chapters, and a bunch of people got interested. We always wanted to go to Bloomsbury because we really connected with the editor. She was very interested and really understood it. Having published in the past helped us, but the kid’s industry is its own world. It’s a tricky process, but the one thing you have in your control is your own perseverance. If you keep running into a wall, smash your head against it enough times and something could happen. I did that. I’ve got a lot of bruises, but it worked out.
How many revisions did the novel go through?
Countless. Like I said, we really struggled with getting it started. I got so sick of writing that first chapter. I wanted that feeling from the beginning of The Matrix, where a chase scene is happening or a fight is going on. I love movies that begin that way, but it was very hard to write. I knew what was happening, but we didn’t know what amount of knowledge to impart to the reader. We must have rewritten that first chapter hundreds of times. That’s not recommended.
It also went through countless revisions as a picture book. I moved out of Wilmington in 1996, and I have folders on my computer of The Seems that I wrote at Cape Fear Coffee & Tea Company. I don’t even know if that’s still there, but that shows how many times we went through it. Fortunately, now that we are on deadline, we aren’t allowed to revise it that many times. They take it from us eventually. So that’s good.
Were there any major changes that your editor made?
No. She really didn’t make any major changes. She just made suggestions. She’s been driving off the main character and his challenging the authority of the Powers That Be and we’ve been really inspired by that direction. She’ll tell us if things aren’t clear or if there are plot holes. She’s like a third creative voice. Sometimes when Michael and I get so deeply inside of what we’re doing, she’s there to pull us out and give direction. But there are never any changes that we don’t want to make.
What involvement did you have in the novel’s illustration?
The original illustrator, Gideon, still does the interiors. We go over that. I give him ideas for what to draw. He’s really fast, easy to work with, but I am very involved in the illustration. I think it’s crucial. We don’t want to put too much of the picture in your head because we want to leave it to the imagination, but we want to give enough for the readers to build on. I’m really happy with the way the illustrations turned out.
How did The Seems turn from book to a possible movie?
After we finished book one we had imagined trying to get a movie version. We have agents in L.A. from other projects because we’ve both done a lot of work in television. Essentially, a guy named Shawn Levy, who directed Night at the Museum, hooked up with us. He was interested, and we thought it was important to throw ourselves into the ring as screenwriters since it was the world we had created. They were into that, so it took off from there. We got set up with Twentieth Century Fox, and we’ve been writing the screenplay.
The cool thing from our conversation is that the screenplay evolved into a prequel to the first book. It contains everything that happens before the book started with some things from the first book as well. After eleven years you get tired of writing the same story over and over again, and this way we could take all the extra plot points from book one and bring them to life. It gets into the relationship between Becker and Thibadeau and Becker and Simly and puts a lot of the back story into place. So we’re pretty happy with where we are at.
That’s huge, Shawn Levy wanting the rights to your book?
I was thrilled. It was definitely something that we dreamed of doing. From a personal standpoint, being a screenwriter allowed us to get into the Writer’s Guild, which allowed me to provide health insurance for my family for the first time ever. I’ve been an independent filmmaker and writer for fifteen years or so, and it was nice for my wife to decide not to kick me out of the house. It was weird because we just got in and immediately, there’s the writer’s strike. So it was kind of tricky, but it was a huge thrill.
He’s a really fun guy to talk with. Everyone involved really wants it to be good. No one wants to take control of it and make a bad movie. So his ideas have been really good ones. It’s kind of the same feeling as when we went on the road and saw kids getting involved in The Seems. It’s very interesting for Michael and I because suddenly it’s not just the two of us. We’re in a situation where a lot of other people are getting involved and emotionally invested in the names and places that we’ve created and that feels fantastic.
How different is writing a screenplay from prose?
They both have their own challenges and trials. For me, what made the book fun is that you can go off as a writer. You can take tangents and weird turns, and if we ever come up with a cool idea that just doesn’t fit the flow, we can always slap it into a footnote. You can find a home for all your good ideas. With a screenplay, you have less of a challenge in terms of authorial voice, but on the other hand you can’t take the indulgences that you can in a novel. I like both styles of writing. Flopping back and forth has been a challenge though, because normally I’ll write a story and then a screenplay. We’ve been writing both at the same time, and while they are in the same story world, they’re in a different timeline. But screenwriting is definitely more taxing on the brain, more like a mathematical equation.
And the process of translating what’s in the book into a screenplay?
Initially, I’d hoped I could just cut and paste large sections. That didn’t work out so well. But I tend to write fiction like I would describe a movie in my brain. So it’s not that different for me. I write fiction somewhat thematically, so I just have to boil it down when writing a screenplay. As far as the process, I wouldn’t say I do anything special. It’s hard because it’s an anthology that we’ve created, and we have an assortment of characters. I’m a freak for Lord of the Rings, and some of my favorite parts are the appendages and character lineages and all of that.
We want our series to be very similar. We want a real hardcore fan to be able to figure out which character went on which missions or which characters had relationships with each other. When you make the movie, you have to make changes because you can’t have so many characters. You have to chop scenes and get there quicker, and it’s challenging. I wasn’t really able to embrace it until I started to imagine it as if I were hired to adapt someone else’s book. It was very hard for me. It took a while, and made the first few chapters very stressful.
Is the movie scheduled to begin production?
That’s still up in the air. First everyone has to approve where the script is at, and then they have to find actors who would be interested in being it. So hopefully sooner than later, but you never know. You never count on that. A lot of books get picked up for movies, so we are just going to do our best and hope for the best.
Will you have much say in the development of the film as writer/creator of the novel?
Probably not much. I’ll fight for as much as I can get, but it depends on the situation. It’s uncharted territory for us. When I made my documentary for HBO, it was a very personal project, and they were very hands-off. They felt that it was my movie and they just wanted to help me make it. That was a great situation to be in, and they were amazing to work with. I was the director. This would be a much bigger budget production. I would like to have a lot of say-so, but we’ll see what happens. I don’t anticipate a lot. Usually screenwriters’ input is just in the script and not the actual production, because that is where the director’s vision lies. So hopefully we’ll have already put our stamp in by that time.
So far, does the vision for the movie parallel your vision for the book?
Yes, definitely. So far, so good. It’s been very faithful to the book series. There have been a few minor changes, but nothing that I can’t live with. So if it goes down the road we are going now, I’ll be very excited.