West Chester writer's true Hollywood story

Posted: January 08, 2014

* INTELLIGENCE. 9 tonight, CBS3. Moves to 10 p.m. Mondays next week.

JOHN DIXON'S probably had worse days. The West Chester writer's first novel, a young-adult thriller called Phoenix Island, is being published by Simon & Schuster today.

Tonight, CBS launches "Intelligence," a drama inspired by the former middle-school teacher's book, which stars Josh Holloway ("Lost") as a federal agent with a chip in his brain that makes him, among other things, a walking, talking search engine. Like Jonny Lee Miller's Sherlock Holmes in CBS' "Elementary," Holloway's character has been paired with a female companion - in this case, Meghan Ory - who's supposed to help keep him out of trouble.

You'd have to read pretty closely, honestly, to find the seeds of that in "Phoenix Island," a gripping, but very different, story that was partly inspired by Pennsylvania's kids-for-cash scandal, in which judges were paid to steer youthful offenders, some who'd committed only minor infractions, to certain private detention facilities.

The book's main character is an orphaned teenage boxer who finds himself sentenced to an offshore juvenile detention facility where U.S. laws don't apply.

Not every writer would be happy to see his story transformed, but Dixon's not complaining.

"As a writer, you hear all these stories about how, oh, Hollywood's so cutthroat and you can't trust anybody," he said in a phone interview. "And while I'm sure that's often true, this experience has been completely the opposite."

In the summer of 2011, Dixon pitched his manuscript to prospective agents during a session of the ThrillerFest writers conference, in New York, and got a warmer reception than he'd expected.

"It totally blew me away, because I was just hoping that some agent would allow me to send more pages," he said. "But I think because of that buzz, it caught the attention of film scouts, and by the time I had chosen my agent, maybe two weeks after the convention, film scouts were already getting in touch with her."

That led him to Tripp Vinson, now one of the executive producers of "Intelligence."

"My film agent had gotten the book into his hands and he loved it. And he wanted to do the story as the story, but as time went on and as other people got involved, and then as we started looking at it as a TV series first, and then as a big network series, it started making more sense that we would adapt that," said Dixon, who said he acted as a consultant to Vinson and to executive producer and series creator Michael Seitzman during the show's early development.

The first decision was to make the main character an adult. More changes followed when CBS entered the picture and Holloway was cast.

The process represented a steep learning curve for someone who'd always preferred books to television, hadn't seen "Chuck" or "Jake 2.0" - two of the past shows that "Intelligence" has been compared to - and only started watching "Lost" on Netflix after Holloway was cast.

"Right from the beginning, [Vinson] was completely honest with me," Dixon said. "He said, 'Look, it's a real long shot. There are so many hurdles we have to get over. So, just celebrate every hurdle and don't pin your hopes on whether the show actually happens. Because there are way too many ways things can go wrong.' "

In May, when it was announced that CBS was picking up the show, Vinson, he said, called to tell him that "we cleared the last hurdle."

Dixon, who, like Carl, his book's main character, was a Golden Gloves boxer, taught English at Springton Lake Middle School, in Media, for about 18 years before leaving two years ago to write full time.

He's now at work on the second installment of his two-book deal, but when he left teaching, "I hadn't sold the book yet," though he did have an agent.

"Teaching had changed an awful lot since I'd started," he said. "And as I told them during my exit meeting, I got into it for kids and books, and I felt like education cared a lot more about standardized tests. I figured I would try my luck and see what happened. It was just a blessing things worked out as well as they did."

As a teacher, he'd noticed a hole in the young-adult market (YA).

"Thank goodness there are a lot more strong female characters now than there used to be in YA, but ironically, you get to that age, high-school age, and you keep hearing that boys don't read, but there aren't a lot of really strong male leads," Dixon said. "I know the boys who do read . . . a lot of them skip straight from middle grade, where you do have strong male characters, up to adult reads."

Male lead or not, Dixon's book shares something with that YA blockbuster The Hunger Games: It doesn't pull its punches just because its characters are teens. No one is safe on Phoenix Island and the main character is in some ways more mature than the adults around him.

"One friend of mine in publishing told me when he read it, 'This is good. It's going to piss off parents and you're going to force librarians to fight for it,' " Dixon said, laughing.

Phone: 215-854-5950

On Twitter: @elgray

Blog: ph.ly/EllenGray

comments powered by Disqus