Geoff Rodkey is the author of a bestselling children’s series, he co-wrote two books with comedian Kevin Hart, he recently published his first adult novel, and he is a recognized screenwriter; his film scripts include Daddy Day Care starring Eddie Murphy and RV with Robin Williams. He’s come a long way from his first writing gig on his high school newspaper and on today’s episode, he talks about his journey.
Learn more about Geoff at www.geoffrodkey.com or connect with him through social media @jeffrodkey.
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Ep. 21: Geoff Rodkey
Geoff Rodkey, Will Bachman
Will Bachman 00:01
Hello, and welcome to the 90 T report conversations with members of the Harvard and Radcliffe class of 1992. I’m your host, will Bachman. And I am excited to be here today with Jeff rodkey, who is a New York Times bestselling author of lights out in Lincoln wood and 10 books for middle grade kids. We’ll get into that. Jeff, welcome to the show.
Geoff Rodkey 00:27
Thanks, glad to be here.
Will Bachman 00:29
And you not did not necessarily start your writing career. But we were chatting before I hit record about your time as a LinkedIn researcher, and then editor of one of the books. Tell us a little about that. Yeah, let’s go LinkedIn. Like what am i Let’s go I’m sorry. Let’s go. So editor of let’s go Germany and Austria.
Geoff Rodkey 00:53
And Switzerland. Okay,
Will Bachman 00:55
tell us about that.
Geoff Rodkey 00:59
It was it was great. That was, you know, I don’t know if if let’s go is still a thing anymore. I don’t know, either in the age in the age of the internet, but it was. I did, I did a year between junior and senior year as a researcher in Germany. And then, after senior year, I spent the summer in the offices in Cambridge, and was the editor of the of the Germany, Austria and Switzerland guide. And it’s just it was, you know, it was one of these kind of fantastic, I think only at Harvard experiences where you could you could you would write and your writing would actually be, you know, be read by a lot of people, I think let’s let’s go Europe, in particular was was massively popular. In the 1990s. I think it was it was one of the top selling paperbacks, I think, on a on a yearly basis,
Will Bachman 01:46
which is incredible, given given people had no training whatsoever.
Geoff Rodkey 01:51
And, yeah, and it was also it was one of those things where it’s like, you know, once you’ve, we’ve worked in the restaurant, you don’t want to eat the food. Like, there was a lot when I was when I did it as a researcher, I would I would come and plot, you know, upon like hotels that had not existed in years, but were still listed as being in operation. And it was it was a little bit sketchy. But it was a great experience.
Will Bachman 02:13
And they paid so well. I’m a member, I researched the the Great Lakes and in Cape Cod, and I think that they paid $50 a day, and that included all your travel expenses. So you’re supposed to
Geoff Rodkey 02:30
Yeah, it was, it was kind of hard, I will say like I was doing. I did the first year they had expanded Germany, Austria and Switzerland into its own books. So I had a lot of I think I had like, a 42 a day itinerary. And I think there were something like 45 places I had to see in those 42 days. And it and, and I was I was working and a lot of them had never been covered before. So I was having to generate new copy as I was going. And, and I was working so hard that I wasn’t able to spend any of the money. I mean, it was granted, it was just above subsistence. But I had actually, by the end of that 42 days, I actually had money left over because all like, you know, I was staying in youth hostels, and eating shitty food, and literally had no time to do anything except just get up in the morning and go to the next like, quaint little tourist village and find the, you know, the youth hostel and the cheap hotel and the, you know, and the low cost restaurant and then write them all up, you know, while sitting in a youth hostel and getting weird looks from people who didn’t understand what I was doing
Will Bachman 03:40
right with all your slips of paper cut up and glue sticks and so forth.
Geoff Rodkey 03:45
Yeah, and there was and again, there was because there was a lot of I was generating a lot of new copy there was there wasn’t as much cutting and pasting. But there was that weird Yeah, pre pre internet process where we were, you know, we were cutting out old bits of copy and gluing them onto sheets of paper and then mailing them back. It was weird. It was a very pre internet existence.
Will Bachman 04:09
I actually got arrested working at McDonald’s somewhere in the Midwest, when I was reading up the Great Lakes. Well, I didn’t get arrested, but they did have to call the cops on me to tell me to leave. But really, yeah. Yeah. McDonald’s, because I was spending too much time there, I guess. And in any case, that’s a different story. Harsh. Yeah. pretty harsh. But okay, so let’s take a step back. Tell me about your journey since college. So I’m an m&a Emmy nominated screenwriter for films you’ve written for TV written all these books. Tell us a little about your journey.
Geoff Rodkey 04:48
Yeah, there actually had there’s been it’s kind of weird because I’ve been. I’ve been mostly a comedy writer, but I’ve done very little work in TV. The Emmy nomination came out of like it was like In a two week job, I was reading for Al Franken. And he was on politically incorrect when they were recovering the Republican and Democratic conventions in 1996. So that was actually I think that was the least amount of work anyone has ever done to get an Emmy nomination. But but I’d sort of I’d had kind of different different stages, and worked in different fields within the overall kind of umbrella of writing so so in the, in the 90s, after college after college had a couple of like, sort of false starts and dead ends. I went to Los Angeles for your I tried to write for television, it was it was it was a bad fit. Didn’t work out at all. And then I went to, I lived in DC for about a year and I was doing public policy research. And a little bit of editing for a small government sponsored think tank, and then I got a call from my college roommate, Dave Mandel, who probably is one of the I think, one of if not the most successful comedy writer of our generation. He did. He was on SNL and Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Most recently, he was the showrunner of Veep for its last few seasons, and what a couple of Emmys for that. And he had become friends at SNL. This was 95, he’d become friends with Al Franken, who was looking for a research assistant for a book called Rush Limbaugh as a big fat idiot. And so I wound up and I had this weird combination of like, comedy writing and Public Policy Research. So it was it was it was like, the only job in America for which my resume made perfect sense, okay. And so I hired me and I moved to New York for what I thought was just that one three-month job, and then I never left it, and they’re, like, 2027 years ago or something. And so I started out as his research assistant, but then gradually, the thing about owl was he was, he had never written a loan, he would, he’d been part of a writing team, Franken and Davis, and a performing team. And then he was an SNL. And so he had always written with other people in the room. And so he’s he hired me as his research assistant. But sort of, and we started out, like, you know, at opposite ends of the room from each other, kind of with our backs to each other. But he kept turning around and going, like, hey, what do you think about this, and, and my chair was on wheels. And gradually, sort of over the course of the three months, we were writing the book, I just sort of slowly migrated to sitting right behind him. And so by the end of that book, we were kind of working on it together. And, and when the book eventually came out, and it did really, really well. He hired me full time to write for him sort of for anything he was doing. So it wound up including that, that stint on politically incorrect. He also had a hit a sitcom briefly on NBC called Lateline. And I was a staff writer and six episodes of that, but I was also he was doing like a lot of corporate speaking engagements, and sort of other media appearances and some occasional magazine stuff. And whatever he was doing, I would, I would, I would sort of write for him. And what was nice about it, he had me on salary, but I had enough free time that I was able to write on my own. And during that period, I, at first I was trying to I was trying to write sort of what I guess I would call political satire, because that was the thing I’d really wanted to do growing up, I my sort of big influences were tgr work in 1980s, Rolling Stone, and, and Gary Trudeau, Doonesbury, which, which was a huge influence on me. But the problem was, I can’t draw stick figures. So I wasn’t going to be a cartoonist. But I really wanted to kind of be what I guess you’d call a political satirist. The thing that I eventually realized after working for Al for a while was no one had that job in America, except Al, and maybe a very small handful of syndicated columnist who had started out as journalists, and also maybe like Michael Moore, but it just, it wasn’t a thing that you could actually do and make a living at. So. And part of, you know, I wanted I wanted to be a professional writer, which meant I needed to support myself, right, somehow figure out where the point of overlap in the Venn diagram was between, like, what I was good at writing and what people would actually pay money for. And eventually, I wrote a screenplay and sold that to Universal Pictures. This was in 1997, after I’d been working for alpha a couple of years. And and then I just became a screenwriter, because it was, you know, the, the money was actually pretty good. You could, you know, or you could work from sort of anywhere. There was a lot of there were a lot of meetings in Los Angeles, but I was living in New York and and for a while, that was great. Except, initially, the problem was, I wound up having about a 10-year career as a screenwriter, but it lasted for 12 years because nobody told me it was over. And, and it was and the first half of it was sort of like I was I was writing the kinds of scripts that I wanted to see as moved He’s, the problem was that my tastes are not such that like, those were the kind of movies that would get made. You know, like anything anything was satire, and it is just is just box off his death generally. Like you take a movie like like election, which was phenomenal and I loved and made absolutely no money. And if you were trying to write a movie like election like no one would produce it. So So I after, after a few years of writing scripts that I would occasionally sell, but nobody would ever get get made, I kind of I gradually kind of got very cynical about it, and started thinking more like it was less about like, what do I want to write and more about? What is a movie studio going to get to buy? And so I wrote about and also my career had kind of gotten you know, if you spend enough time selling screenplays that don’t get made no movies, eventually your reputation becomes the person who can’t get a movie made. So it becomes much harder to sell the screenplays and and I got to a point where I was just I was really just looking at writing. screenplays is the kind of thing you did to get Writers Guild health insurance. I didn’t think of him as things that actually became movies anymore. And, and I had my wife and I had had just had our first kid. And, and I was sitting and this is ordinarily the absolutely worst way to come up with a movie idea. But I was sitting on the phone with a friend of mine who was who was an independent producer. And we were just trying to come up with movie ideas. And, and I’m sitting at home and I was stuck. We had this situation where like my wife had gone back to work. And she kind of freaked out about the idea of having a nanny. So I wound up staying home with our kid probably about like, like half time I think we had a nanny for about 15 hours a week and and I was stuck on my wasn’t actually doing it entirely willingly. I wasn’t like a you know, enthusiastic stay at home dad, I was more a, my career’s in the doldrums stay at home dad. And, and so I’m sitting on the phone with this with this producer friend of mine, and I’m watching my kid sitting in his bouncy seat. And this idea came to me and I said I have I have an idea for a movie, I don’t want to tell you what it is because you’re gonna make me write it. And he said, What is it and I said, guy loses his job has to open a daycare center in his home. And then I just kind of cringed to myself because it just seemed like such a stupid idea. And it was definitely the kind of thing that I would if somebody else had come up with that idea, I never would have wanted to watch that movie. But he was like, that’s fantastic. And then I wrote it. And it became the movie daddy daycare with Eddie Murphy. And was extremely successful. And which was great, except that I then became the guy who writes, you know, Toothless family films. And that became sort of my, you know, the only thing that people in Hollywood were interested in buying from me, but at that point, you know, we were starting a family. My wife also about a about a year after that 911 happened and she’d been working in American Express, and which was right next door to the Trade Center. And, and had been was was on like the last subway that went into the Trade Center before, you know, after after the first plane hit and was outside the Trade Center. And the second point head was 10 weeks pregnant. And, and was at a point where she’s just like, I don’t actually want to work for a while I just want to stay home. So I kind of suddenly it was like, you know, writing screenplays was actually the thing I really needed to do to sort of, you know, support my family. And the only the only opportunities I was really getting were reading family films. So I wound up with a string of family films that I’m that are credited to me that I’m actually really embarrassed by it No, literally, like, I would not recommend anybody watch. I haven’t even watched all the movies that I have my name. There’s a daddy daycare sequel that I’m told he’s just God awful. And I can’t bring myself to watch it. Because I wrote the first draft. It was then rewritten to the point where it was, you know, I read the shooting script, and it had absolutely nothing in common with the thing that I had originally turned in. And, and my name is on it. But I still I’ve literally never seen that movie. And you know, and then there were other things like there was a Robin Williams movie called RV that there was a version of that I would have been really proud of. And that was not the version that got made. Because the thing about the thing about being a screenwriter in the studio system, particularly of comedies, if you originate the story, this also happened with daddy daycare, if you originate the story and the studio decided we’re going to make the movie The first thing they do is replace you with someone else. Writers for whatever reason are just there. They’re considered like a fungible part in the in the creative process. And so what winds up on the screen can have your name on it, and I have sole credit on both daddy daycare and RV. But those movies are really only about like maybe 70% written by me and the other 30% and some in particular In the case of RV just makes me want to tear my hair out. Because there were changes that were made that just really, you know, kind of destroyed the story structure and just really frustrated the shit out of me. But that became sort of my job for, again, 10 years that eventually turned into 12 years, the last two of which were essentially, you know, a weird form of unemployment, where I was still having plenty of meetings at studios, and everybody was the thing about Hollywood is everybody’s really friendly. So, so they don’t, you know, they’ll still take the meeting with you, and they’ll still talk to you. And they’ll still give you free bottled water and tell you how great you are and how much they love your writing, even though they seldom read the scripts. And, but at the end of the, at the end of the day, they they weren’t, they’d stop sending checks. So, so at some point, and this is around 2000 2008 2009, I kind of realized like, this was not going to be sustainable over the long term, also, because the movie business had become increasingly focused on global box office. And the thing about comedies is they don’t travel overseas very well. Unless they’re animated films, the animated films, because they lack a cultural context. You can dub those into 100 different languages, and they still work like you know, things like Despicable Me and ice age. And the Shrek movies do actually incredibly well overseas. But A cian comedy, like Daddy daycare, or RV, they, they don’t they do about maybe half the business overseas that they do domestically. So those, those became found attractive for movie studios to produce. And those are the only things that was I was, you know, that people were coming to me for so eventually, basically, that that was a big reason why it just stopped working out. And so at that point, you know, I’m like pushing 40 and I and realizing that I kind of, you know, I need to figure out something else to do with my life. And, but I was a comedy writer and the thing that I knew, and that is essentially a truism, like, comic novels do not sell very well, there isn’t really, if you think about, like, you know, really popular novels that are fundamentally comedies, they’re just, they’re really just, there’s like, one a decade, really, in the last decade, there was Where’d You Go, Bernadette? You know, 10 years before that there was Thank You for Smoking. But they’re just it’s just, it’s not really, it’s not a it’s not a viable market. Except it’s in the kids book space. Where comedy is actually a huge plus with you know, things like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which is fundamentally comedy. And then things like, you know, the rick riordan books like The Lightning Thief series, which are adventure stories that have a lot of comedy in them, that’s considered very value added.
So I kind of realized, like, there might be an opportunity, you know, to actually have a, what I guess a business person would call product market fit in, in the kids book space. And so at that point, I had three sons who were, who were all like, 10 years old and under. And so I started writing children’s books. And it actually it was, it was actually really great. For a period of time I had I sold a sort of an adventure comedy trilogy, called it has the worst the worst titles on Earth. It was, it’s the chronicles of egg. But they’re great books with awful titles. And it was it was one of these things where it was a temporary title that just never got changed and became a permanent title. And, to this day, the one thing that keeps me up is wishing that we could go back and rename that first book series to something that sounded more appealing. And then I did I did after that you had a four book series that was more sort of straight comedy called the tapper twins. And then a few other projects, and that wound up taking about a decade of my life. Until it sort of slowly kind of that kind of petered out partly because the, the structure of the book business had changed and the kinds of things that the publishers were looking for change. But also I got, I got older, and more importantly, my kids got older. So I kind of lost the raw material, and the appetite to kind of write for that for that audience. And then, most recently, I finally last year, published my first novel for adults, which is called lights out in Lincoln wood. And it’s sort of a, it’s kind of a dark comedy about the about the apocalypse in the New Jersey suburbs. Basically, it’s sort of on a random Tuesday morning, every the entire technical, technological infrastructure of society just collapses, like everything with a circuit board stops working, and it’s including any car manufactured after about 1975 because they all have electric starters. And so it’s it’s this sort of wealthy suburb that gradually collapses into like, you know, by day two, they’re, you know, the townspeople are looting the Whole Foods. By day three, they started a militia. And it follows this family who were sort of trying to, you know, try to figure out at what point they should do Stop worrying about their daughter’s early decision application to Dartmouth and start worrying about how they’re going to find clean drinking water. And, and it was because, you know, I had I kind of avoided it’s interesting because that was the kind of thing like if you’d asked me when I was like when I first decided I wanted to be a writer, when I was a teenager, like what kind of, you know, what are you going to write, I thought it would be novels for adults. And it took me until I was 50 years old to write it, to write one partly because I was always concerned that like, you can’t actually make a living at that. And I’m still pretty sure you can’t actually make a living. But, but it’s been enormously gratifying to kind of finally be writing something after after years of writing, like, movies that I wasn’t proud of. And then books that I was proud of, but that didn’t do well. And we’re also kind of for 10 year olds, to finally be writing something that is for which I’m actually the target audience. And more importantly, my friends are the target audience like lights out, and Lincoln wood is not sold particularly well. But I think probably about half the copies that were sold were sold to members of the class in 92. And then the other half were probably sold to people I went to high school with. And and I’ve gotten a lot of really, really gratifying feedback from from those people that his kind of made it worth it in, in compensation for the fact that the money’s not great. So that is the extremely long version,
Will Bachman 21:21
you say the structure of the book business changed. That made it more difficult for those middle grade novels say a little bit more about that?
Geoff Rodkey 21:32
Well, part of it, part of it was that there was, you know, in the, in the mid 90s, when I was just starting out, you know, trying to start my career, it never would have occurred to me, or really anybody who, except people had a really strong interest in it to get into children’s books. Because it was it was a very, very sleepy backwater. And books did not, you know, they, they weren’t very prominent, they didn’t sell very well. And then Harry Potter came along. And just essentially, you know, created this massive, massive audience for kids books. Because people would, you know, I mean, it’s really, it’s astronomical, how, you know, how many copies of Harry Potter were in circulation, like, and what that did was it brought along a whole lot of other kinds of books with it. So like the, you know, the rick riordan Lightning Thief, you know, series and all his other series, a lot of other sort of, you know, kind of adventury supernatural kind of stories, and then that, and then in conjunction with that, there came along, like in the YA space, things like, like the Twilight books, which is, you know, those are what your young adult novels, which is kind of sort of the same industry, and then also the Wimpy Kid series, which was also enormous ly successful. And the thing about things, books like that, that are enormous ly successful, they create a lot of imitators, and there’s a period of time where it is it is possible to do really well, kind of drafting in the wake of that. But by this point, a lot of that energy has kind of dissipated. And so publishers are, you know, there was they were spending a lot of money on, you know, on New unproven books from writers like me, thinking that maybe this will be like the next, you know, the next Harry Potter, or maybe this will be the next hour even with the kid. And I benefited from that earlier in my career. But the problem is now, not only has all that energy kind of dissipated from the the industry overall, but I have enough data points, you know, on bookscan, where publishers can actually figure out how many books? How many copies of books written by somebody like me, who’s likely to sell and the answer is not that many. So, and then on top of that, there has also been, there’s been, it’s fundamentally I write, I write humor, and a lot of it, a lot of comedy will sometimes skirt the edge of what’s appropriate for 10 to 12 year olds, and not so much for the 10 to 12 year olds themselves, but for the gatekeepers, like the librarians and the teachers, and, and sort of the sensitivity about what is or isn’t appropriate or offensive has kind of ratcheted up over time. To the point where I don’t think there isn’t there isn’t as much of a fit anymore between the things that I find funny, and the things that publishers are willing to buy and unafraid that they might get angry letters from librarians.
Will Bachman 24:38
What are some, what are some of the areas that are sketchier? Now that you know, 10 or 15 years ago, were were more open season.
Geoff Rodkey 24:49
Well, there’s the most recent example I’ve so I’ve published 1111 books for that kind of middle grade space, but I’ve actually written 12 and the 12th book I wrote last You’re and I haven’t been able to find a publisher for I don’t think I’m going to be able to find a publisher for it. And it’s called Bad princess. And it’s it’s basically historical comedy. In it’s an it’s an imaginary world world, but it’s a realistic one. And it’s very, very similar to like, medieval Europe, I like to like it was a, it was a big debt to like Barbara Tuchman is a distant mirror, which was about 14th century France, as a fantastic work of history that I read, and you know, and medieval France is, it’s weird, right in ways and in particularly medieval France, among royalty. And so this is, this is a book about a kid who is she’s like a 12 year old girl. And, and her her dad, who is sort of an evil king is trying to marry her off to a much older and incredibly disgusting Duke. And, and then at some point, the, her father’s assassinated in her annoying little brother becomes king. And, and is then the subject of an assassination attempt. And she has to sort of like try to, you know, try to save try to figure out who’s trying to kill her brother, who was a terrible king. And while also trying to get out of this arranged marriage, and there was an I, I, and maybe this is just sort of me, as an individual, you know, like, projecting upon an entire kind of market space. But I feel like 10 years ago, if I had written about, you know, a medieval princess, who was, who was trying to get out of an arranged marriage with a much older man, people would have thought that was like, within the realm of something that was okay, because literally, like, medieval France, they were, they were marrying off like four year olds, you know, it was like, it was a very common kind of thing. But, increasingly, there is a sensitivity to anything that might be considered kind of offensive. And the idea of marrying off a 12 year old girl to a seven year old man falls into that category. And so the, the problem we’ve had is nobody wants to publish a book that has that as a plot point, even if it takes place in an historical context in which that kind of thing happened all the time. Does that make sense?
Will Bachman 27:21
Yes. Tell me a bit more about what it’s like to be a screenwriter. And you went through kind of three phases, there was a phase where you were selling screenplays, but no one actually makes films. And then there was this period where you’re actually making films, and then there was a period where you kept working, but no one is making them or or buying them. But what’s the kind of what’s the, the environment like you’re an independent professional, I guess you have an agent. They’re like, what are these meetings that you talk about? Just what’s that life like?
Geoff Rodkey 28:02
Well, I should preface this by saying it’s, it is different depending on the project. And depending on the situation, you’re in, like independent film is different from studio films. It’s also probably gotten, it’s probably pretty different now than it was, you know, back when I was doing it actively, like 10, you know, 10 or 15 years ago, and certainly over that 10 years, the business changed, mostly in ways that made it made it harder. And one, one primary way in which it changed was in the in the mid 1990s. When I was really when I was getting started, there was still a pretty healthy market for for spec scripts, which is essentially, you write the script, and then your agent sends it out. And then you know, studios buy it or don’t buy it. And the first screenplay ever sold was a spec script. Daddy daycare was a spec script. The thing about that is, you know, that’s essentially you’re creating an original story. And then studios are requiring it. And they don’t really make original stories, anywhere near to the extent that they that they used to now almost everything that gets made, and it’s particularly the one movies that are successful, are adaptations of some kind of underlying intellectual property, the primary example being Marvel movies, Star Wars films, like it used to be Disney would make and they make a lot fewer movies than they used to. So Disney, in the 90s would make like 30 or 30 Some movies a year. And a lot of those would be would be original, you know, original, original movies, and now they make about a dozen movies a year. And those movies are three of them are Marvel movies. You know, one of them’s a Star Wars movie. One of them’s a Pixar movie, and then so then what’s left over, is you know, you’re probably going to have some some remakes. Like I worked on a remake of the shaggy dog for Disney and And, and it’s a very different process if if you’re being hired as a screenwriter on a piece of intellectual property that they own, versus you are bringing them an original story. One of the differences being that they’re essentially, they’re starting with their we’re going to make this movie. And now we need to find a screenwriter. So they will, they will set up meetings with like, literally like 15 screenwriters and 15 screenwriters will come in and present their entire take, like their entire three acts take on the movie, and 14 of those people will walk away with nothing, and the 15th person will get the job. And, and that’s just, that’s just hard when you’re when you’re one of those 14 people over a long enough period of time. And that was essentially what kind of broke me on the on the film business. Like the the last thing I really worked at was, I spent months and months trying to trying to get hired as a writer on the adaptation from Mighty Mouse at Paramount. And we pitched it to so many different levels of studio executive, and over so many different months. And there were so many rounds and notes and people and then eventually I just I made nothing on it. Because eventually they hired I think my recollection is they hired a college friend of the head of production. And so that was just it was it was just kind of depressing. And but the really fundamentally kind of depressing thing about the film business is you’re really your job is really to draw up blueprints for a house that most of the time doesn’t get built. So I wrote in that period, probably about 25 screenplays, only five of them got turned into some kind of film, there were four theatrical films and one TV movie that I did for the Disney Channel. So 80% of what I wrote during that period of time, never reached an audience. And, and then the ones that did reach an audience, were rewritten by other people so that what wound up on screen was kind of unrecognizable. And and that was just like, psychically painful. Like, there was a point toward the end of my, my, my screenwriting career where I literally had a year where I just I couldn’t come up with any original ideas like I was. And part of it was also, as when you were writing in the comedy space, what studios were looking for, was not like, an amazing story with great characters, they were looking for a really good movie poster, which meant that they were what they were looking for was a one sentence concept that they could sell to people in sort of the the kind of the, the platonic ideal for that was a movie like Liar Liar with Jim Carrey, which is, he’s an attorney, and he has to tell the truth. And that and you can, you can grasp that very easily on a movie poster, or in a movie trailer. And that was what they were looking for, which was why daddy daycare being like, guy loses his job left open a daycare center in his home. That was like, literally, like 30% of the job was just coming up with that one sentence. And it was a lot of work. And I didn’t make you know, I did many, many drafts of it. And it took a long period of time that like, it was really coming up with that one sentence. So my job eventually started to feel like I was trying to come up with a haiku. You know, like, I wasn’t, I wasn’t trying to write stories, I was just trying to come up with that one sentence. And, and it was also, and I got really burned out. And I had, and so I developed what felt like writer’s block, and, and I started going to a therapist, and which I’d never needed to do before I ever got a movie made. And, and at one point, I remember I remember, you know, I was I was, you know, complaining about my career and telling me everything that happened. And I was like, I can’t, I can’t come up with anything. And this was a point at which my wife didn’t work for eight years. So I was responsible for, you know, all of the family income. And so it was extremely there was it was getting pretty stressful that I couldn’t come up with new ideas. And she said to me, Well, it seems to me that every time you have a movie made, it’s a negative emotional experience. So maybe this writer’s block is your way of preventing yourself from having that negative emotional experience. And I was like, holy shit that is profound. And what am I going to do for a living? You’ve just you basically just told me that I’ve, you know, I’ve thought myself into a corner where I and so it was just, it’s a very difficult psychologically, financially, it can be great when it’s working. But it’s also kind of like hunting buffalo, where it’s like, if you bring down a buffalo you leave for a year and if you don’t bring down a buffalo, you’re, you know, your children will starve. So it’s it was just it was it was it was psychologically it was hard.
Will Bachman 34:51
And you’re an independent, professional. So you know, if you’re, it’s not like you’re getting a salary, right. So if you don’t
Geoff Rodkey 34:58
know there’s no there’s no no job security jobs, there is no job security. And that was actually the awesome thing when I finally when I started writing books is like, you know, I wrote one book and I got a three book contract. And then I wrote one book and I got a four book contract. And that was those periods, it was about two years for each of those cycles. Those are the only times in the 30 years where I’ve had any kind of job security. And that was great while it lasted. But I’ve no other than that, it’s a very, it’s a, it’s a really, it’s a pretty insecure way to make a living.
Will Bachman 35:32
What’s your take on kind of all the options now for people to create other ways, either podcasts or substack, or, you know, the sorts of direct to consumer ways of creating as a writing professional.
Geoff Rodkey 35:51
It’s fantastic if you if you can make it work, I don’t know. You know, from my own, purely selfish, perfect, you know, vantage point, like, I don’t know if what I do make sense for substack. But it’s really great that it exists and I now I spend I spent probably way too much money subscribing to people subsets. And it’s in what’s interesting about it, too, is it is it is really revolutionized the book business in a way that is not visible to most people. Because there were, there were a small number of genres. And like really kind of weird genres like lit RPG, which is basically fiction based on on on role playing like video games, and role and also like role playing games, like I don’t know, if d&d is popular enough to be part of that. But like, there was there was just a very subterranean audience of people who are really into that kind of thing. And, and there are, there are online platforms like Royal Road, which you if you are an extremely prolific kind of writer writing in that very specific kind of genre, you sort of release things for free on Royal Road, and then you sort of build an audience, and then you move them over to Patreon. And you get them to pay you extra to receive, you know, your chapters and you’re releasing it serially, it’s almost like a 19th century model where, you know, people write, write, you know, release, like a chapter a week, or maybe even more frequently than that, and it’s a very difficult pace to sustain. And again, you have to be writing in a very specific genre, I think, there are like, I think romance can work this way, I think certain kinds of science fiction, of which that like lit RPG is one of them. And other things, sort of like paranormal romance, which is kind of like the Twilight kind of stuff. And horror, I think maybe horror, there are certain genres for which that actually, like people can actually make a really good living. And then, and then the New York Times will never know about it, your your, you know, people down your block will not realize you’re a writer, but there’s actually there’s, you know, you can actually make a living from your writing doing that, I don’t actually I don’t write the kind of stuff that, that makes sense for that. And you have to produce, it’s such a, like, it’s kind of a ridiculous pace, like, people are cranking out like 1000s of words a day. And, and I’m lucky if I can write a sec, like, for me, a good day of writing is like 1500 words, and I don’t really I don’t achieve that that often. You know, I’m more like, like an 800 word a day kind of person. And that wouldn’t work for that kind of business model. But there are, but it’s really interesting, there are different. The thing about about fiction is there’s so many different, like, different genres and different markets that are arise from those genres, and so that they’re really, really different. From a business standpoint, they can be very, very different depending on what you’re writing.
Will Bachman 38:56
And do you have other writer friends in the industry who are writing in these different genres? Or? Or how are you kind of keeping tabs on on all these? What’s going on?
Geoff Rodkey 39:12
A lot of that is actually, a lot of what I know about that kind of stuff comes entirely from his substack by a woman named Elle Griffin, I think I’m getting your name, right, who was sort of an aspiring writer of like, I think, like gothic horror or something, which is one of those genres that you know, that isn’t, the mainstream publishers don’t, you know, kind of will sniff that accepting a few exceptions, but you can actually find, you know, kind of an audience online. And she wound up she started out trying to figure out how to, you know, how to get her fiction to reach an audience, but she wound up creating substack that does really deep dives into these different sort of areas. Have a particularly online fiction. And and it’s, it’s, it’s been it’s been really fascinating. I don’t know I don’t personally know a lot of people who do that I have a fair number of writers, one of the writer friends one of the great things about the children’s book space is it was it’s, it’s very collegial. And you know, you wind up doing like book festivals and panel discussions and things and you meet other writers and I’ve made a number of pretty close friends in the children’s book space. And then I also had a lot of friends and particularly like, you know, I wrote for the Lampoon, and a lot of people who were my contemporaries are in, you know, have been lifelong sort of television writers, and some of them in film. So So I have, I have a lot of writer friends, but mostly they’re doing more conventional traditional publishing, or film and TV.
Will Bachman 40:52
Were there any courses or professors that you had at Harvard, that have continued to affect you stay with you shape your thinking?
Geoff Rodkey 41:04
I think this, this sounds so basic, but like EC 10, was was really helpful in like, in allowing me to read like the business section of the newspaper and kind of understand what’s going on. So that has been that has been really useful, particularly the macro economics. On top of that, science, B 29, human behavioral biology was was really was really fascinating. And, and some of that stuff has really stayed with me. And then there was also I was a government major, and I took a junior year, I took a tutorial, I think it was about, I think it was called political psychology. And it was taught, I think, somebody grad student, and I came in remember the guy’s name. But there were things I read in that that really, that really stuck with me, particularly, and kind of modeled, you know, helped me model sort of my understanding of how politics works, in particularly in the sense that, like, most people, as it turns out, aren’t coming up with their political opinions, and then finding a party that subscribes, you know, that agrees with those opinions. People find their party, and then they change their opinions, depending on what their party believes. And it’s an it’s a much more tribal. And, you know, causally it’s, it’s the inverse of what you would, how you would think people would come upon their political, their political views. But that’s in particularly in the last five years, it’s been really helpful to have that base of knowledge to try to understand what the hell’s going on in the world. Yeah, you and I think all of this stuff probably filtered into my writing and varying in varying ways over the years. But I couldn’t tell you how,
Will Bachman 42:55
what about your do? What about the thing that you’re doing now would would surprise you your college age self?
Geoff Rodkey 43:07
It definitely would have surprised me that I spent that I spent that much time either writing family films or children’s books. Because that did not that did not square with myself understanding. But other than that, honestly, maybe not that much. I’ve kind of you know, I’ve been very I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve been, you know, I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and I haven’t had a real job. Although I’m starting to, I’m starting to wonder if maybe that wasn’t a bad idea, because I would like to have a 40 year career. And I’ve gotten to 30. And I’m like, I don’t know, I don’t know how the last 10 is gonna work. But yeah, I think it the fact that I was able to become a professional writer, I think would have would have greatly pleased. 20 year old me and who would have been equally horrified at the kind of stuff I have my name. Because it doesn’t, it’s not really where I thought I was going.
Will Bachman 44:07
You said that you were typically an 800 word a day kind of writer. What’s your, what’s your routine look like? Are you one of these folks? Who says okay, you know, every day at nine o’clock, I’m at my desk, and then I crank out the words until I’m done, or, yeah, what would your typical routine be?
Geoff Rodkey 44:25
It’s basically that I’m, you know, I’m, I’m getting up and then I’m trying to do the work. And until a certain point in the day when I, you know, when I feel like I’ve either I’ve either done enough, or it gets late enough that I have to make dinner. But and usually, you know, it doesn’t take all day to write 800 words, or even 1500 words. But there’s an enormous amount of procrastination built into it, and particularly, you know, the like, again, if somebody was a government major, like the last seven years of American history have been like, just a train wreck that I can’t stop watching. And it’s it’s really like I lost a lot of time to staring at my Twitter feed over the last, you know, when I should have been writing over the past few years, I had a couple of books that took a lot longer than they should have. Because I just couldn’t I couldn’t take my eyes off of the, you know, the train wreck? Definitely. And so it’s a daily pardon.
Will Bachman 45:31
I’ve definitely had days like that. I know what you mean. Yeah. Well, it’s, it’s, it’s
Geoff Rodkey 45:34
really it’s a, it’s a daily structure struggled to like, like, the hardest part of my job is getting started every day. You know, like, like, like, literally like, like turning off the Wi Fi on my laptop. And just focusing is it’s it’s a daily for literally 30 years, it’s been it’s been kind of a daily challenge. But you know, some in somehow the work gets done. And usually at some point, I get to the gym. And so, you know, for the last sort of 10 years, I’ve also been, my wife eventually went back to work. So I and I’ve been the person since then, who’s responsible for getting dinner on the table and doing a lot of the grocery shopping so, so that kind of takes up a certain amount of hours in the day too. Which is actually kind of great, because it is I’ve learned how to cook, at least look sort of passably competently, which is, I never would have believed actually 20 year old me would never would have believed this about myself. Like, I actually take a little bit of pride from being able to cook
Will Bachman 46:42
Geoff Rodkey 46:45
The thing that’s hard is my wife is a picky eater, and so is my youngest kid who’s now 17 and finding the point of intersection with that they both thing they both will are willing to eat is hard, and has usually wound up involving ground turkey. So there’s a white bean turkey chili, and also a turkey bolognese. Alright, are probably the best things I do.
Will Bachman 47:11
And now we’ve covered a lot of this ground. But in our Department of Culture, I ask, are there any books that you regularly recommend to folks, you’ve written a couple and we mentioned those or sub stacks or any other department of culture that you’d like to share?
Geoff Rodkey 47:33
I always blank on this question. And I shouldn’t cuz I, you know, I should have been handed a regular list of things to recommend.
Will Bachman 47:49
You’ve attended a lot of these book festivals with other children’s authors. That’s, that’s one area that’s interesting to me. My My son has did a podcast on the whole world of Rick Riordan, right and, and, as well as Riordan reads that imprint that he has and regret over Croydon presents, I should say to any, any other kind of ya authors that you, you know, like their stuff and help inspire some years.
Geoff Rodkey 48:25
There’s a there’s a there’s a 25 year old novel that is fantastic. It’s more than 25 years old. I think at this point. It’s called Cat. It’s Katherine called birdie. And I can’t remember the name of the woman who wrote it. But I think it was a Newbery winner back then. And it is a it’s it’s it’s historical fiction. And it’s it’s realistic fiction. And I might have been able to get that Princess published if I’d actually made it much more realistic and set it in medieval France instead of a fictional kingdom. But it’s, it’s a great it’s a it’s a first person narrative about, you know, sort of a teenage noble woman in England. In the in the set, that’s medieval and it’s fantastic. Catherine called birdie. I can’t God I wish I could remember the name of the of the author. And then the other thing that I always the one I always recommend to people, because it was it because it was such a formative influence on me when I was a kid growing up is a book called The pushcart war by Jean Merrill, which is it’s one of these very rare children’s books, that in which there are no children. It’s all of the characters are adults, and it’s a story about a war in the streets of New York City between truck drivers and pushcart peddlers. And it essentially functions and I don’t think I had any idea of this is when I was reading it as a kid in the 70s but essentially functions is a parable, the Vietnam War and it’s Just and I went back and reread it a while ago. It’s it’s, it’s fantastic. It just really funny really entertaining, you know. And, and then the other one is I apologize I’m not I’m offering no contemporary authors, the other ones Bridge to Terabithia. Which just like broke me in half when I read it, and that was when I was in sixth grade. And I went back and I reread it again. Probably this is probably about 10 years ago now and I was just starting to write kids books. And that that book by Katherine Paterson is this fantastic, but incredibly, also really sad. Like, it’s there’s it’s not funny. So, you know, if you’re looking for something lighthearted for your kids don’t don’t give him a Bridge to Terabithia.
Will Bachman 50:48
Good recommendations. Jeff, it’s been great having you on the show. Thank you so much for joining for people that want to follow along and keep track of what you’re writing. Where would you point them online?
Geoff Rodkey 51:03
I have a website, Jeff radke.com. And then I’m on sort of all the usual suspects, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook just as Jeff Rocky.
Will Bachman 51:12
Fantastic. We will include those links in the show notes. Jeff, thank you for joining today.
Geoff Rodkey 51:18
Thanks. Well, this was great.