Todd Tavolazzi is the author of, Looking Into the Sun; here is a link to his Amazon page:
Q: What is Looking Into the Sun about?
A: It is a novel that follows a freelance war reporter and a young Hollywood movie star, researching his next role, into Syria to rescue Syrian children from a besieged Syrian town.
Q: What is your personal connection to the story?
A: As a military strategic planner, I was tasked with studying the Syrian conflict in 2013. Through open source reporting, both print and video, I found that there was much more going on there than was being reported in the mainstream media. One of the reasons was that the Syrian government had kicked out all of the journalists. But there were still a small group of dedicated journalists, both amateur and professional, who would smuggle themselves across the border of Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey into Syria to report on what was going on.
I saw video reporting from brave reporters from many news agencies, but several from Vice News were harrowing and compelling. They showed a snapshot in a 15-20 minute blocks of what civilians were enduring inside Syria. The biggest shock I discovered was the atrocities not only against civilians, but against children. There were heartbreaking videos of wounded and dying children – suffering every day from the conflict.
I had two small children at home at the time and it made me angry that this sort of situation was not given more global attention. So, I decided that I would formulate a story based on the things I had discovered from those brave journalists and use the story as a vehicle to raise awareness and hopefully funds for charity organizations to help Syrian children.
Q: What makes Angus Conn worth reading about?
A: I created the Angus Conn character from a few different journalist personalities, both men and women, who have a deep connection with the region and are professional war correspondents. The thing that made this type of character interesting to me – and what I wanted to convey in the story – was not only this type of journalist’s dedication – but a sense that there is nothing else these types of people can do in their lives. They were born with a deep desire to find the truth and do everything they can to expose it and make more sense of the world. I also wanted Angus to be desperate that his efforts were not amounting to much – but he pushes on and continues his work, but eventually must decide whether he is going to go against his journalistic principles of “report the story, don’t be the story.” He decides he can no longer stand by and just report…he decides that if he has to “be the story” to save Syrian children from this conflict, then that is what he will do…along with his movie star companion. I thought that would be a compelling story that I’d like to read or see on a movie screen. Hopefully, others feel the same way.
Q: Who inspired the character of Jake Westin?
A: Jake, like Angus, is more of a stereotypical idea of a privileged Hollywood socialite. He’s not really based on any one real person in the world – just the embodiment of typical nihilistic, ignorant youth. And I mean ignorant in the most literal sense – because before I studied the conflict in Syria in depth, I was also ignorant of what was going on there. I needed a character that represented the classic ignorant person who is eventually shown the truth and comes to terms with it in his own way – and, I believe, is formed into a more enlightened and caring person on the other end of the experience.
Q: You are in the Navy; do security clearances and such limit you in terms of what you can write about?
A: My book is a novel and the stories, experiences, information, and impressions that congealed in my brain to form the story all came from unclassified material. I had no knowledge of any classified information or operations that dealt with Syria as I was writing. I purposefully made the story centered on humanitarian issues to get at the heart of what matters most there, the unnecessary violence against civilians, and particularly children.
Q: You are donating proceeds from the book to Save the Children; what made you pick that organization?
A: I wanted to tell the story to raise awareness and more importantly, stimulate action. I wanted people to be know about the situation, get mad, and then take action. For most people, the action part of it is limited. So, I wanted to make the point that even a little bit helps. Even a small donation to a charity that helps Syrian kids or refugee families helps. So, my publisher (Pandamoon Publishing in Austin, Texas) agreed to donate 10% of all profit to Save the Children. To date, I have donated all of my author royalties from the book to Save the Children and will continue to do so. I also had great support from a local book store in Norfolk, VA (The Book Exchange) where they initiated a charity book sale and donated all funds from their book sales (over $1900) to Save the Children for Syrian kids.
I chose Save the Children because they have one of the highest percentages of their revenue go to children’s programs (89%). I wanted to make sure that the money that was raised for Syrian children actually benefitted them and did not go mostly to an organization’s salaries.
Q: Who are some of your writing influences and how can we see that in your work?
A: I have always enjoyed reading Tom Clancy, Frederick Forsythe, John LeCarre, and Robert Ludlum. But I know I can’t write like them. I wanted my writing to be quicker, to the point, and exciting. I enjoy writing dialogue and keeping the chapters short, something I appreciate as a reader (sometimes I don’t have time to get through a twenty or thirty page chapter – my chapters run about 5-8 pages to keep the story nimble and fast). I also try to keep the loose, fresh, and compact styles of Chuck Palahniuk and Ernest Hemingway in my mind as I write – not to emulate them – but to appreciate them and think how I can keep my writing a bit lighter, fearless, and less bogged down.
Q: What have you done to promote your book?
A: I have done a few podcast and local radio interviews, I did several book signings in my local area when the book was published in February 2016, and my publisher has been relentlessly promoting on Facebook and Twitter along with all of their other fabulous titles. I also try to drive people to my blog site (www.toddtavolazzi.com) where I have a few blog posts on why I wrote the book (to help Syrian kids) and who I am (a Navy pilot who got mad about the world situation and wrote a book to try and help). But both the physical book and e-book are available on Amazon.
Q: How did you get your book optioned for a film?
A: As I wrote the novel, I had always seen the story very clearly in my head as a movie. The novel is not structured like a film, but the scenes were very vivid for me as I wrote (probably due to all the video I had watched as I researched the topic). When the book was published, I set out to write a screenplay adapted from the novel. It took me about a month to hammer it into shape (which meant cutting a lot of things out, re-arranging a few important scenes for pacing, creating a few new scenes to show character development, and killing lots of darlings). But in the end, I had a script just short of 120 pages and I shopped it around via query letter to a lot of managers, agents, and producers with very little response (no surprise there). I also posted it on InkTip and noticed that an independent producer downloaded the logline and synopsis. I researched a bit about him, waited a few weeks to follow up and finally contacted him via e-mail. He mentioned that he was, indeed, interested in the premise and asked to read it.
Two short months of pulling my hair out waiting for the verdict, he asked to option it for film. The producer is Eric J. Adams from Sleeperwave Films – he produces award winning features with a conscience. My material was right up his alley and he understood exactly where I wanted to go with the material right away. He too agreed to donate a portion of backend profits to a charity organization.
Recently, we found an award-winning Egyptian director interested in directing the film. We also found a Syrian actor named Mohab Alshocough who is in a refugee camp in Greece. I have a few extraordinary souls, humanitarian volunteers helping refugees in Greece, helping me get our script to him to read. We want him to know that we haven’t forgotten about the Syrian people and we want him to help us tell their story through our film. We hope it will raise his spirits and give him hope in a desperate time.
We are now looking for funding for the film. We believe that this universal type of story will resonate with everyone – but for now – I need it to resonate with investors so we can make it and share it with the movie going public.
I have another novel about 3/4 complete but have put it on hold to write screenplays for a while. I have written three other feature-length screenplays with varying levels of interest from producers and managers (a few are on InkTip now…hint…hint). So, it’s an exciting time for me to be honing my craft (I was recently offered an opportunity from an independent production company to adapt a novel for them…it’s very flattering to have people take notice of my work and hope to keep the momentum going). I’m going to keep writing things that compel me and work to get that passion and emotion on the page through character and story.
Q: If you could have any actor in Hollywood accompany you on a mission who would it be and why?
A: That’s easy…Clint Eastwood…Pale Rider, the Man with No Name, the Outlaw Josey Wales, Gunny Highway, and Dirty Harry all rolled into one…no question…Clint Eastwood.
That’s my frivolous answer…I believe that people like George Clooney (well known for his compassion for this cause – and other worthy causes like Darfur) and Jennifer Garner (already an Ambassador for Save the Children) embody the mind and heart of the compassion I’m trying to foster with this book and film project.
Please note; Eliza’s interviews are done by email. All answers are unedited and come right from the lovely fingertips of her subjects.