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After a successful career as a screenwriter, Alcatraz showrunner Daniel Pyne returned to his youthful ambition to become a novelist, and has found success with his first two books, 2010’s Twentynine Palms and the just published A Hole in the Ground Owned by a Liar.
Pyne’s writing credits range from episodes of Miami Vice to the screenplays for Doc Hollywood and the Manchurian Candidate remake. But in 2010, Pyne published Twentynine Palms, his first novel, to strong reviews. He has followed it up this month with the equally accomplished A Hole in the Ground Owned by a Liar.
The novel is about Lee, a high shop teacher, who buys an abandoned gold mine as an antidote to his mid-life crisis and a distraction from his divorce. Along the way he picks up a motley crew of helpers, reunites with his just-paroled brother, falls in love again and crosses paths with a pair of Pakistani prospectors who will stop at nothing to gain control of his mine.
Pyne is a deft writer, better than most screenwriters who try their hand at novels, and A Hole in the Ground is a great read. The characters are three dimensional, the settings are believably rendered, and the plot moves forward with the kind of propulsive energy that keeps a reader hooked until the end. Pyne’s experience as a screenwriter has given him a real understanding for how to pace a story but he balances that with a novelist’s flair for evocative description. Fans of twisty character-driven capers like David Mamet’s specializes in will really enjoy it.
The great offbeat title comes from a quote attributed to Mark Twain that he may have borrowed from someone else. Pyne’s use of an alleged Twain quote is a great metaphor for both the way he wants to keep readers slightly uncertain about the main character’s motives and for the get-rich-quick schemes that lead people to take up mining.
Pyne talked with The Hollywood Reporter about the inspiration for A Hole in the Ground, setting the novel in his native Colorado and the differences between writing scripts and novels. He also talks about Alcatraz, the new Fox show from J.J. Abrams that Pyne joined as showrunner in November, a couple of months before its mid-season debut. Read a condensed version of the our conversation below:
The Hollywood Reporter: Where did the idea for the novel come from?
Daniel Pyne: I never get single inspirations. The most obvious one is my brother actually bought a goldmine back in the nineties near a ski area. For some reason he decided to buy this gold mine and he opened it up and he sort of puttered around inside, he didn’t mine, but the mechanics of it and finding relics of things was cool. I went to visit him and went up there and saw and it sort of stuck in my mind that it was an interesting idea for a story. Then I read a few years ago, there was a guy down in Thailand, a gold speculator who tossed himself out of a helicopter on the way to examine one of his gold sites that turned out to be fraudulent and they didn’t know if he was tossed out of the helicopter or pushed out of the helicopter, and that was. So I kind of take disparate elements and shove them together, but it was a little bit of a homage to my brother and a little bit of a story about brothers, although it doesn’t resemble our relationship at all. But it’s that kind of complicated relationship that people have when they love each other, but they’re also incredible rivals.
THR: In some ways A Hole in the Ground calls to mind the work of David Mamet. Was he an inspiration?
Pyne: I didn’t think of that. But the voice that it pulls with it is a slightly ironic voice that’s a slightly muscular, macho voice that he loves. I didn’t think of him as inspiration, but I can see how you would think that. Anytime time you’re writing about men in real relationships he’s one of the masters of doing that. It still has the twisty caper element to it and the woman caught between two men.
THR: The Colorado setting of the novel functions almost like another character in the novel. Is that a familiar part of the country for you?
Pyne: I spent the first 18 years of my life in Colorado, never leaving. Growing up, my brother’s a lot older than I am and he would take me jeeping, so I knew that territory, I know it really well. It has a very specific feel to it. Not like anywhere in the world. And the altitude, it’s so high, and you’re just overwhelmed by the size of those mountains.
When I write I like to locate things. It’s very important for me to put my stories in a place. The place becomes a part of the story. Because I think that’s true, I think we’re affected by our environment and where we grow up. There’s this whole thing in the book about how people who grow up in Colorado, me included, and certainly my family, there is a boom-bust mentality that you grow up with, that you think you’ll strike it rich. And it’s weird, you don’t think about it until you leave, then you realize ‘oh this is the personality that has personified this place for 150 years.’ It was founded by people who think that way, who think that they’re just one shovel full away from that strike that’s gonna make them rich.
THR: Has writing novels changed the way you look at screenplays?
Pyne: I have a little less patience for screenplays than I used to because when I finally realized after the first book, when I had it in my hands and I opened it up and I said, “Oh my God, those are my words.” I’m not used to that experience with a screenplay, where I hear my words being spoken by someone else, but no one really reads my screenplays, they see the movie that’s based on them. That experience sort of made me less patient with the screenplay process. The collaborative thing is great, but at the same time you’re sort of the invisible glue that holds everyone else together and sometimes it’s fun to know that you get unmitigated access to the reader, to your audience, and they’re seeing what you wrote.
THR: Has your screenwriting experience influenced your work as a novelist?
Pyne: I’ve been accused many times with my screenplays of over-writing them. I’ve been lucky to overcome that, because early in my career I got that a lot, “why don’t you just go write novels because you’re wasting your time writing these prose heavy screenplays.” The good news was I learned to write really concisely, which I now enjoy very much. I enjoy that I don’t have to use a whole paragraph to create an image in somebody’s head that’s clear. The other thing is I also recognize that some of these pop novels have a motor in them that’s been defined by movies or my television, so I have tried to take what I’ve learned as a dramatic writer, as a film writer, and bring it back to the novel, the kinds of novels that I love and give them the kind of narrative drive that we’ve come to expect from any of our entertainment or story-telling now. You can’t deny that movies have affected the way we read. I’ve been trying to do that. It’s sort of a long-term goal is to see how I can bring back some of the things that I’ve learned and put them into the novel and maybe do a very tiny sort of advancing form of that.
THR: Pyne also talked about Alcatraz, the new sci-fi procedural on Fox about convicts from the famed San Francisco Bay prison who disappeared into thin air in 1962 and are now mysteriously reappearing in 2012 without having aged a day in fifty years.What do you enjoy about the show?
Pyne: It’s a show that has a great balance between the Alcatraz stuff, which functions kind of like a short story inside of the story. We try to link the mythology more to the story at hand than just random pieces that come flying out. So if you’ve seen a piece of mythology you can expect it to have more story involved with it than just be a question that’s gonna hang out there forever. But we build on the spine of catching a bad guy so it, to a certain extent, it’s not so much a procedural as it is a chase show, a fugitive chase show.
THR: So far each episode has had a similar structure in terms of identifying and capturing a newly returned Alcatraz convict. Will the structure of the show vary some going forward?
Pyne: There will be some shows that won’t be at all what anybody’s seen yet, and they’re coming up quick. We’re gonna mix it up. We’re gonna make it so it won’t always be “oh a guy shows up, he’s committing crimes, let’s get him.”
THR: Will we ever learn get stories that fill in the years between 1963 and 2012 for the characters like Hauser who didn’t jump in time?
Pyne: I can’t say, but basically our plan is to toggle right now between 1963 and 2012.
THR: What’s on tap for the rest of the season?
Pyne: We hope to reveal more about what’s going on, more about what happened maybe, and deepen our understanding of the characters and what their relationships are with the island. As we go along a minor character that you might see in one flashback may become a major character in a story in the future, and occasionally a character that we’ve dealt with has information or has an interface later with our characters.
THR: And where will the first season end up?
Pyne: The plan is to answer a bunch of things that have been raised in the first season without answering everything, and then also prepare and pose questions that will carry into the next run.
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