Monday, July 5, 2021

Geoff Rodkey

Geoff Rodkey is the New York Times best-selling author of many children’s books, including the Tapper Twins and Chronicles of Egg series; We’re Not From Here; and Marcus Makes a Movie, a collaboration with actor Kevin Hart. He’s also the Emmy-nominated screenwriter of Daddy Day Care and RV, among other films.

Rodkey's new book, Lights Out in Lincolnwood, is his first novel for adults.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

Lights Out in Lincolnwood is about as on-the-nose as a title gets. On an otherwise unremarkable Tuesday morning, the lights go out in the wealthy fictional suburb of Lincolnwood, New Jersey. And it’s not just the lights: phones, laptops, cars, and anything else with a circuit board suddenly stops working. With no warning or explanation, the modern world grinds to a halt.

This instantly upends the lives of everyone in the community, including the four members of the Altman family through whose eyes we experience the three days that follow. Disaffected marketing consultant (and clandestine day-drinker) Jen, her lawyer-turned-TV-writer husband Dan, overachieving high school senior Chloe, and underachieving freshman Max all struggle to figure out whether what just happened is a civilization-ending catastrophe, a temporary pain in the neck, or something in between. At what point should they quit worrying about their usual day-to-day problems and start focusing on more existential questions, like where to find food and drinking water? Should they try to flee town, or dig in and ride out the storm? And if their neighbors are already doing it, is it okay to loot the Whole Foods?

It’s this juxtaposition of the mundane and the catastrophic that hopefully makes the story equal parts funny and unsettling for its audience.

What's in a name?

Dan and Jen Altman are just past fifty years old, and I gave them both the commonest possible names for their age cohort (“Jennifer” was the most popular baby name of 1971, and “Daniel” was in the top twenty) partly because I wanted to encourage readers to see themselves in the characters’ shoes.

One of the things that makes Lights Out in Lincolnwood not just fun but thought-provoking is the way the story’s main conceit prompts readers to wonder how they and their community would react to a similar situation. If the complex, society-wide systems that we rely on for our basic needs suddenly quit working, how would you handle it?

Are you prepared for that kind of crisis? What about your larger community? Would your neighbors be a source of aid and comfort? Or are they more likely to slit your throat over a box of uncooked pasta?

I didn’t want my main characters to have any more than the average emotional and social resources to meet this challenge, and one way of doing that—while still giving them very specific, three-dimensional personalities and life histories—was to saddle them with statistically common names.

Also, and I wish I was kidding about this: I wanted short names. If I have to type a character’s name hundreds of times over the course of a manuscript, three letters is a lot easier than ten.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

I think my teenage self would find Lights Out in Lincolnwood to be very in character with both my reading habits and my creative aspirations.

That said, he’d be chagrined to the point of horror to find out that it took me this long to write a novel for adults, and that I’d previously spent most of the last two decades either writing books for kids (The Tapper Twins, We’re Not From Here, Marcus Makes a Movie) or family films (Daddy Day Care, RV, The Shaggy Dog).

Those aren’t the fields I thought I’d be plowing when I first fantasized about becoming a writer. But ever since I quit my day job in 1995, I’ve had to balance the pursuit of creative satisfaction with the need to earn enough money to provide my kids with food and health insurance. And it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I felt like I had the resources to spend a full year writing the kind of dark comedy for adults that I love to read, but that isn’t necessarily a mass-market taste.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Beginnings are a lot more labor-intensive: they usually get rewritten about a hundred times, both because they’re the most important pages in the book (in that if you don’t land the opening, nobody’s going to make it to the end) and because they’re the first thing you see every time you open the manuscript.

But endings are harder in the sense that a really good ending is much more rare and difficult to pull off than a really good beginning. As a reader, even some of my favorite novels don’t stick the landing.

In the case of Lincolnwood, the ending was particularly tricky, because the story arc is one of disintegration, but it’s also a comedy—and even a dark comedy won’t feel satisfying if the ending isn’t at least arguably happy. So I had to find a note of optimism in the face of chaos. I’d like to think I succeeded, but that’s up to the reader.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

Almost all of my characters, across a dozen books and twenty-five screenplays, have some element of me in them. But the percentages vary widely, and I’m not sure I can even identify which parts are me for any given character. It’s easier to discern that stuff at the beginning of the process, but at some point in the writing, they just end up being themselves. Either that, or they’re just badly written.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Real life is a constant source of inspiration. Lights Out in Lincolnwood came out of my family’s experience after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, when we lost power and water for five days. Because we never doubted whether it was a short-term problem, it wasn’t traumatic so much as annoying. But ever since then, I’ve wondered what would happen if the outages were more widespread or less temporary, and Lincolnwood was my attempt to answer that question.
Visit Geoff Rodkey's website.

--Marshal Zeringue