September 6, 2022
Alumni Spotlight: James Ponti '88
By Olivia Kuhn
James Ponti '88 is a New York Times bestselling middle grade author. He has penned three middle grade book series, including City Spies, the Dead City trilogy, and The Edgar Award-winning Framed! series. Prior to becoming an author, James graduated from SCA with a degree in Screenwriting and went on to work in television, writing for programs on Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, and PBS. James joins us today to discuss his post-film school journey, from working in television to transitioning into the publishing industry.
How did your childhood inspire your love of writing?
I grew up with two great loves: writing and movies. I was lucky in that my mother and teachers thoroughly encouraged me to dive into both. I started writing stories in the second grade. By fifth grade, I decided that I wanted to write for a living. That was also the same year I saw All the President’s Men, which was maybe an odd movie for a ten-year-old, but I was hooked and made my family sit through it twice. The writers were the heroes and that resonated with me.
What SCA classes and experiences were the most impactful for you?
There are so many. Drew Casper’s Hitchcock class was AMAZING and taught me to examine the changes and developments over an artist’s career. Les Novros taught a design class that was great for me, because I was all about words and the class was all about visuals. He made me think outside of my comfort zone and that was key.
The teacher who inspired me the most was Abraham Polonsky. I took his Directing for Writers class and I was a terrible director, which he was more than happy to point out on multiple occasions. But I learned so much from him in that class that I still use today. He taught us to think like artists. I was also his teaching assistant and driver. I had truly fascinating one-on-one conversations with him as we drove back and forth between campus and his home in Beverly Hills. We covered everything from growing up with Bernard Hermann to testifying in front of the House Committee on Unamerican Activities. I happened to be at the school one day long after I’d graduated and I ran into him—we had a great talk about what he had meant to me and what I learned from him. And, as fate would have it, it was his last day teaching. He passed away later that week and I am so happy that I got the chance to thank him.
On a humorous side note, I still have the super-8 camera that I used in 290 and I have used it throughout my television career. I was doing a documentary for the History Channel and shot footage of the George Washington Bridge with it and then had the film transferred to video. Everyone wanted to know where I got the great old footage and I never had the heart to tell them that it wasn’t old.
How did receiving a degree in Screenwriting influence you as a fiction writer?
My screenwriting education and background is imprinted on every page of my books. This is most evident in the pace and dialogue, but also in the structure. My tendency is to tell stories with the same three-act structure that we studied in Syd Field’s screenwriting class. I even draw out my little paradigms just like he had us do. (I also insist on making all my own book trailers, which is like 290 for old dudes.)
You’ve worked in television for 25 years. Have you found there to be overlap in the skillsets required for working in television and fiction writing?
There’s a great deal of crossover between my TV work and my fiction writing. The most obvious is that I write book series and I think it’s because my story brain was developed thinking from a series point of view (I’m currently writing my third series and about to start my fourth.) As far as technique, there are obvious overlaps in regard to pace, imagery, and dialogue. But my production background has crossed over in unexpected ways.
My books are set in real and specific places and often have set pieces at famous locations (this is something I really picked up from that Hitchcock class.) I scout them the same way I would when I was producing a television show. I go to the location, try to figure out how I would block the action, and take a ton of photographs. Then, when I write—especially chapters that are action heavy—I pull up the photos on my computer and try to “shoot the scene” on the page.
Also, when I worked as a writer at Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, we often had big casts and I was in quite a few discussions about cast members who were upset they weren’t being better utilized. As a staff, we would try to remedy that and I find myself thinking the same thing about the characters in my books. I want to make sure no one’s getting overlooked because I know each character is some reader’s favorite.
How did you navigate entering the publishing industry?
It was a total fluke. I was writing a show for Nickelodeon and Simon & Schuster decided to do a book series based on the show. I begged and pleaded and eventually convinced them that I could maybe, just maybe write one. At the time, it was a lark, but a few years later I found myself in between shows and decided to reach out to those people. I’ve been with Simon & Schuster ever since.
On top of your television career, why did you decide to pursue writing middle grade fiction?
My career has never followed a straight path. I ended up in Florida working for Disney and Nickelodeon and thought I would return to LA. But my eldest son had serious health issues and it was best for him not to have his life uprooted, so I spent twenty-plus years working in cable TV as a writer and producer based in Florida. At a certain point, I thought it would be best if I could always work from home so that I could care for him during the day and write at night, so I decided to transition from television to books. I am so happy that I made the transition and that I get to write books. My son passed away seven years ago, but I feel like he lives on in the books that I write.
Because you cater to such a specific audience, what elements do you look for to inspire you when crafting stories for younger viewers and readers?
First and foremost, I start with respect. I know my readers are smart and care about the world. I try to find plots that will not only entertain and engage, but also inspire. I write mystery and spy stories; much of the appeal to me, and hopefully to the reader, is that there’s fun and adventure but also problem solving that sees the value in a young person’s point of view.
It's also essential for young readers to identify with the characters. So even when my characters are dealing with complicated spy plots, they’re also trying to get along with their siblings and deal with kids in school.
One of the reasons I chose to write spy books is that I think being a spy is the perfect analogy for being a middle schooler: you kind of lurk around in the shadows trying to figure out the world and solve the codes that people use, all while trying on different identities so that you can blend in better.
How is children’s literature becoming more cinematic?
As young people continue to become more and more visually literate, I think they look for similar experiences in all kinds of storytelling. They want stories told in a fast pace against a large backdrop. Many of the biggest names in middle grade fiction got their starts in film and television or with a film background. Shannon Messenger, Victoria Aveyard, Ransom Riggs, and Eugene Yelchin are all bestselling, award-winning authors, and all of them graduated from SCA. I also have publishing colleagues who went to other film programs all over the country. I think a little part of it may be the fact that most of us started writing scripts with strict budgets and learned a lot of discipline to do that. Now, our budgets are limited only by imagination; it is liberating and exciting.
To you, why is children’s literature important?
I’m honored that I get to be a part of someone’s introduction to books and longform storytelling. My books are around 300-400 pages long and I know that the kids who read them often devote valuable time to rereading them. If I’m doing my job right, I’m sparking something and giving them characters and a story in which they develop empathy and creativity. And hopefully, I’m entertaining them in a meaningful way. My readers live in a world that often overlooks them, I think it’s essential to tell them that they matter.
Because you took a less conventional direction in your post-film school career, what advice would you offer to current students as they plan their futures?
My advice is always to focus on what you want to do, more than what you want to be. That may seem semantic, but to me it’s a crucial distinction. When I was in school, I thought about jobs I wanted to have, positions and titles, and other benchmarks of success. It's tricky because your view of those professions is often limited and the arts and entertainment industry is constantly changing and evolving. You may target something and achieve it, only to find that it’s not what you’d thought it would be.
What I’ve discovered, at least for me, is that it’s more important to think about the things I want to do. I wanted to write for a living, to be creative, and to work with incredibly clever and humorous people. In doing that, I’ve taken so many unexpected turns, but have loved it at every step. And in the process, I’ve reached many of those goals.
I like to say, “It’s about verbs not nouns.” Nouns are things and verbs are experiences. If you devote yourself to the verbs, the nouns will surely follow.
More about James and his work can be found at JamesPonti.com.