Interview: Jamie Ponti
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From the desk of author Jamie Ponti:
In one twenty-four hour period, I submitted the manuscript for Sea of Love, which will come out from Simon Pulse this December, my new book Prama was released in bookstores, and I got my first interview with Little Willow. That's pretty heady stuff for a guy who only got a 3 on the AP English test. I have dubbed it the YA Triple Play.
. . . and now, the interview, filled with references to Sea World, Shelby Woo, and serendipity.
The title of Prama makes me smile because I enjoy witty wordplay. Did you attend your high school prom?
I too enjoy witty wordplay and wish that I had come up with the title. I got it from my editor and I think she got it from her husband. I went to prom my junior and senior years. Both times I went with a friend and ended up having a good but not particularly memorable night. The main storyline in Prama was inspired by a formal I attended in college. It was the 80's and the theme was Moonlighting. I was set up on a blind date with a girl named Denise who had just broken up with her boyfriend. I agreed to go, but then considered backing out when I found out how much the tux rental was. It was college and $75 was a whole lot of money. My friend Eric was with me at the time and said, "But what if she's the one?" That, of course, made it impossible for me to back out.
Eric turned out to be something of an oracle, because I went, had a great time, and, this November, Denise and I will be celebrating our 19th wedding anniversary. It also created good karma for Eric who subsequently met his wife on a blind date. His wife is the actress Ming Na, so that's really good karma.
Wow! Congratulations! Which of the Prama characters would you most like to befriend?
I would love to know Rachel Buchanan. In the book, she is the editor of the school paper who did not plan on attending prom because she recently came to the realization that she was gay. But, much to her amazement, she is selected to prom court and feels like she should go. I like that the character is gay, but not in an After School Special kind of way. Her storyline is not about her sexuality; it is a universal teen story about self-identity and fitting in.
(This was something I liked about writing for the Mystery Files of Shelby Woo on Nickelodeon. Shelby was Chinese, but the show wasn't about a Chinese girl, it was just about a teenaged girl.)
So many of my friends and co-workers are gay, and it breaks my heart when they talk about the added difficulties they faced in high school. Their sexuality doesn't define them as adults and I'm sure it didn't as teenagers. But I'm also sure that, at times, it felt like it did. I wanted to write a character that they would recognize and, hopefully, one that gay teens might positively identify with. Likewise, I didn't want Rachel's sexuality to define her. I would love to know her because her personality is the one that is most in line with my own, only she is so much cooler than I ever was.
Animal Attraction was, in part, inspired by your past employment at Sea World. How long did you work there? What was the best part of your job?
My first ever real job was working at Sea World the summer after high school graduation. I worked at the Snack Encounter (next to the Shark Encounter) where I sold nachos and soft drinks. Despite the participation of Shamu, it was not what you'd call a whale of a job. Animal Attraction was actually much more inspired by the three summers I spent working at Walt Disney World. I worked in Frontierland where I dressed up like Davy Crockett and told jokes from the front of a 1,600 pound concrete/fiberglass canoe. It was a blast! I made great friends, got to flirt with girls from around the country and learned a lot about writing comedy.
During my three summers, I went around the Rivers of America and did my spiel over a thousand times - telling basically the same set of jokes each time. To keep from going crazy, I re-wrote them, added new ones, moved the punch lines around and tried different set ups. And, since I had a built in audience literally waiting in line, I was able to find out right away what worked and what didn't. I was also able to develop a conversational tone that I found made the jokes work much better than the Fozzie Bear here comes a punch line approach. That said, Fozzie is still one of my major influences. That conversational tone is the same one I write with today.
Somewhere between working at amusement parks and gracing the bookshelves, you traveled on Jojo's Circus, relived Clifford's Puppy Days, and wrote for The Mickey Mouse Show, The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo, and The History Channel. What led you to television?
It was never my intention to write books at all. I was not a good reader growing up and didn't think I could read an entire book much less write one. I loved movies and TV and went straight from high school to the screenwriting program at USC. Atlantic Beach, Florida to South Central Los Angeles was quite the instant adjustment. I loved it and thought I would make a go at writing movies. Unfortunately, I graduated during a writer's strike. There was no work to be had and my loans were quickly coming due. I couldn't find work in LA and wound up coming back to Florida, where I co-wrote a screenplay that got optioned by Tri-Star. The movie never got made, but it opened up the doors for some TV work and I found that I was suited for television. Here's the secret: In television, the writers have more of a say, which makes it more fun.
The Mickey Mouse Club taped at Disney MGM so that was a natural and then Shelby Woo came through locally with Nickelodeon. Suddenly, I was a children's television writer. Much of the children's TV on the East Coast is animation, so I became a children's animation writer too. Friends go from show to show and bring their friends along. It's a really small writing community out here. Unfortunately, most of the TV work has left Florida, but I'm really not interested in moving anywhere else.
Are you still writing scripts and screenplays?
Not really. I think I've only written one screenplay since the one that got optioned to start my career. I get my TV production fix by working as a producer at the Golf Channel and really enjoy that. (Odd, when you consider I don't play golf.) For the last couple years, the writing I have focused on has been fiction writing. I think it is incredibly fun and I think it's well suited for my lifestyle.
How did you make the transition from television to books?
When I was writing for The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo, I asked our network executive to see if the editors doing the Shelby books would consider using me. He laughed and told me something along the lines of they get real writers to do that. I persisted and eventually they said they'd look at a couple of chapters and an outline. I sent my sample to the lovely Julie Komorn at Simon and Schuster. Not only did she like it, we became really good friends. Unfortunately, she left publishing soon after but she has really been the one throughout who has put me in touch with people. I ended up writing three Shelby books and another for Allen Strange.
(A quick note about Shelby Woo: Woo hoo to Adam Busch!)
What or who encouraged you to write original novels?
A couple of years ago, Nickelodeon completely pulled out of Florida and I thought that I might just be at the end of my writing career. It was November, so I knew no one would be hiring before the start of the new year and I needed something to do so that when my wife and kids came home they didn't find me playing PlayStation. I decided to write Animal Attraction - which I originally called My Life as a Giant Beaver - about a girl whose summer job is to dress up like a giant beaver in a theme park. I wrote the first four chapters, put them in the mail, and celebrated Christmas with my family. In January, I got a call that they wanted me to write the book and I was a writer again.
Why publish as Jamie, rather than James? Was it your choice or the suggestion of an editor/publisher?
The thinking is that girls read much more than boys and are more likely to want a book written by a woman. This is especially true of the Ro-Coms, so my editor suggested I find something different than James. I didn't really want to come up with some ridiculous femme nom-de-plume like Veronica Kensington, so I went for Jamie because I thought it sounded kind of young and could be a woman's name or short for James. I also am a big fan of the movie Love, Actually and in the movie Colin Firth plays a writer named Jamie, so I thought, why not?
I try to have fun with it, especially in the About the Author blurbs. As I mentioned, the main storyline of Prama was inspired by my first date with my wife. With that in mind, I wrote about that in the About the Author and included the first photo ever taken of us. In it I'm wearing the $75 tux. But, since both of us are in the picture, I think most people will assume that she is Jamie and not me.
Your next Simon Pulse romantic comedy comes out in December. Who is sailing on Sea of Love?
Sea of Love is about a girl who had the great Upper East Side life only to have her father suffer a mid-life crisis, quit his job and use all the family money to buy a rundown hotel on a Florida beach. The story follows her during the six weeks from a New Year's Eve she spends all alone hiding out on the roof of the hotel to a Valentine's Day that is memorable to say the least.
What are your ten all-time favorite books?
Remember the part when I said I wasn't a good reader as a kid? It comes back to haunt me here. I did not read enough and I have never been able to catch up. To further complicate matters, I have trouble reading fiction while I'm writing and wind up reading a lot more non-fiction. I don't know if all of these are favorites, but they're all ones I'd gladly recommend.
Tourist Season by Carl Hiaasen - His books are unbelievably hilarious.
The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe - I think he redefined non-fiction writing. As for his fiction, I'm a big fan of A Man in Full.
Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman - the all-time best explanation of Hollywood by a top screenwriter/novelist.
Encyclopedia Brown Boy Detective by Donald J. Sobol - Okay, it's not a novel, but this is the book that hooked me on writing. My all time favorite memories of elementary school involve the Scholastic book orders coming in and my teacher handing me my newest Encyclopedia Brown book.
From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by EL Konigsburg - Another kids book and probably my all-time favorite for sentimental reasons.
Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger - It is beyond wonderful.
All the President's Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward - Watergate confused me while it was happening and as a ten year old I tried to check it out of the library. They wouldn't let me, but when I finally did get to read it ,it changed everything for me.
Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon - I am envious of his vocabulary.
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck - For me he is the quintessential American author. I could cheat and say Grapes of Wrath, but the truth is I never finished it.
Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand - I got stuck with it on a business trip and fell in love.
Just for the fun of it, here are my top 10 movies. I'm much better versed in film history and can provide a more compelling list.
All the President's Men
The Godfather (Parts I and II)
Some Like it Hot
The Bicycle Thieves
Raiders of the Lost Ark
The 400 Blows
The Philadelphia Story
Visit Jamie's website.