As you may recall, I adored Jeffrey Stepakoff’s book, Billion-Dollar Kiss: The Kiss That Saved Dawson’s Creek and Other Adventures in TV Writing. The title alone sold me but I relished learning not just about the inner-workings of one of my favorite TV shows but also about the industry in general.
Stepakoff and I have been in touch on and off the past few years, and I was thrilled when he contacted me a few months ago to let me know about his upcoming novel, Fireworks Over Toccoa, which will be released Tuesday.
In our recent chat, Stepakoff discussed his book and shared the lessons he learned from his days writing and producing Dawson’s Creek.
TeenDramaWhore: For those that don’t know, what was your title on Dawson’s Creek and how long were you there for?
Jeffrey Stepakoff: I was on Dawson’s for three years, seasons 3, 4 and 5. My last title there was co-executive producer.
TDW: What were you responsible for?
Stepakoff: Like most writer-producers, I was responsible for writing, of course, sometimes supervising writing, story development and I had producorial responsibilities, which meant going to the set and participating in making the production.
TDW: When did it occur to you write a book about your experience in television and have one of the focal points be specifically about your time on Dawson’s Creek?
Stepakoff: Well, the book, of course, is not just about Dawson’s Creek. It’s really about my experience as a television writer during what was arguably the most tumultuous period and one of the most thrilling periods in television history. There was a book that I very much loved that came out in the late-80s by Michael Lewis called Liar’s Poker. Liar’s Poker was Michael Lewis talking about what went on during the bond trading era of the 80s , and while I was working in television during this remarkable period of time, I thought, “You know what? Someone should track what’s going on here. Someone should track the rise of television, the rise of creative content, this explosion of new networks, this explosion for new venues for television programming.” As we got closer to the reality television era, it became clear to me that this was a really remarkable untold story in the history of television and much of it centered around the television writer. So, to answer your question, it was something I had thought about for quite a while, actually, and it wasn’t until that I kind of had one foot out of the story room that I was able to really focus on it. So it’s not really just a story about Dawson’s Creek. It’s a story about television and, moreover, the history of the television writer during this remarkable period of time in television history.
TDW: This is your first novel. Can you give a little synopsis?
Stepakoff: Fireworks Over Toccoa is a love story set in Toccoa, Georgia–which is a small town about two hours north of Atlanta–in 1945. It follows the life of a young girl, Lily, who at 17-years-old marries a young man, who two weeks after ships off to war in 1942. Three-and-a-half years later, in the last week of June 1945, right before the Fourth of July, she’s preparing for her husband to return home and the entire small town of Toccoa has a fireworks display they’re preparing for. For the display, they’ve hired this young pyrotechnician, an Italian boy or a boy of Italian heritage, from Pennsylvania to come down and put on the show. Nobody has seen fireworks in the area in almost a decade because of the war. During the war, anyone who made pyrotechnics, any of the small family-run factories, were actually making munitions during World War II. So this is a big deal for the town in many ways. And while this young Italian man comes to town, Lily meets him, sees his fireworks and discovers that her feelings about what she wants in the world are not what they were three-and-a-half years ago when she committed to her husband. She falls in love with this young Italian man and has to make some very hard, challenging and, ultimately, dramatic decisions about what she wants to do with the rest of her life. So it’s a love story and a story about what’s going on in the world in this period of time.
TDW: Why have a character at 17, versus someone older than that, with a husband in the war?
Stepakoff: During the 1940s people married earlier. Right before World War II, young women were marrying, as were young men, because the boys were shipping off to war. It was an incredible time in American history and world history, where people were making all kinds of life-changing decisions because no on really knew what tomorrow would bring. At 17, people were thinking about today. They weren’t thinking about three-and-a-half years later. I also think 17 is a very dramatic period of time for people. It’s a great time in the life of a character to tell a story.
TDW: Is there anything you learned from working on Dawson’s Creek or one of the other shows you worked on that you were able to apply to working on this novel?
Stepakoff: It’s funny that you ask because I’m actually sitting here working on my second book. I’m taking my understanding of classic story structure, Aristotelian story structure, which is what we use in television and motion pictures, to craft my novels as well. These are stories that are meant to touch, move and entertain in a very traditional form. So did I learn anything from working on Dawson’s or other shows? Yeah, I learned story structure. I learned how to craft a story first on the fly and then later with a degree of richness that I think comes from sitting in a story room and working on television and also motion pictures. I spent several years, a couple of years, in Disney feature animation doing a very similar thing, which was designing this kind of story structure. My work in Hollywood has very much informed the current work that I’m doing in fiction writing. The difference is that when you write television or a motion picture, you’re really laying out the outline or the blueprint for a story. You’re writing dialogue, you’re writing very direct action. But when you write a novel, you’re the writer, the director, the characters, the set designer, the lighting designer–you lay all of it out. You lay out the arc of the story, the subtext, what the characters are thinking, you describe what everything looks like. Obviously it’s a much longer process but in many ways it’s a greatly satisfying process because you get everything just the way you want it, ideally. But it’s very much like the television and motion picture writing and production experience.
TDW: I’m particularly interested in some of your earlier background because I, too, have an interest in television writing and novel writing but I recently finished journalism school and I know you were a journalism major for undergrad.
Stepakoff: That’s right. You were at Northwestern, right?
TDW: Yes, I was.
Stepakoff: Excellent. It’s a great school.
TDW: I really enjoyed it but I do have questions about transitioning to other things. I’m wondering what from your journalism education you’ve been able to apply to this.
Stepakoff: It’s a very good question, Shari. I like rich and authentic worlds. I like to put myself into a world that’s real. I like to learn about worlds. In journalism, of course, we learn to really delve into a story, to look for facts, to look for the story. The difference, I suppose, is that in journalism, you’re looking for the real facts to tell whereas in fiction or dramatic writing, you want to make a story satisfying and you can fictionalize things. But journalism is great to dig in and find out information that really took place. A lot of what I wrote in Fireworks Over Toccoa is about the war and what people were doing, everything from how women wore their hair to what was going on with the Coca Cola company to race relations to how men and women were dealing with each other–all of that is research is that I did, journalistic research, that helped me render a world. So the journalism background was very helpful.
TDW: Is your second novel a sequel or something independent?
Stepakoff: It’s a new story. The same kind of structure and, I suppose, the same sort of storytelling voice but it’s a new story.
TDW: I can’t let you go without asking the age-old Dawson’s Creek question: Dawson and Joey or Pacey and Joey?
Stepakoff: I like whatever is best for the story. Typically, what’s best for the story is to keep things dynamic. That’s the best way I can answer you.
TDW: What is dynamic to you?
Stepakoff: Fluid. It means that people, just like we do in real life, can change their minds and change their hearts based on how a story unfolds.
TDW: So, to you, there isn’t necessarily an endgame.
Stepakoff: I think that’s a good way to put it, yes.
TDW: I think quite a few people will be happy to hear that!
To learn more about Fireworks of Toccoa, including how you can win a related sweepstakes, visit FireworksOverToccoa.com.
Come back next Sunday for another exclusive interview!