Chuck Hogan’s literary agent called him a few years back and asked, "Do you know who Guillermo del Toro is?"
"Sure. Hellboy! Awesome!" was Hogan’s response.
Encouraged by Hogan’s enthusiasm, the agent went on to tell him that del Toro had an idea for a book about a virus that turns people into vampires (we're talking scary, grotesque creatures, by the way, not the sexy vampires we so often see), and he wanted an experienced novelist to help him write it. "Guillermo wanted to take the horror aspect of it, which he’s more known for, and marry that to a crime procedural, which is me," says Hogan, best known as the author of The Prince of Thieves: A Novel, which Ben Affleck made into the feature film The Town.
Hogan was curious and asked for more information. He got only a page-and-a-half into a 12-page outline that del Toro had written when he knew he had to say yes to the project. Soon after, Hogan met del Toro for breakfast during The New York Film Festival, and the two men began a collaboration that would result in the three novels that make up The Strain trilogy—The Strain, The Fall, and The Night Eternal—as well as The Strain television series, premiering on FX Sunday, July 13 at 10 p.m. EST. (There is also a comic book adaption of The Strain published by Dark Horse Comics and written by David Lapham and illustrated by Mike Huddleston.)
Co.Create talked to Hogan about how he and del Toro forged a creative partnership (breakfasts were key) and what intense collaboration has been like for a novelist used to working by himself and calling all the shots when it comes to characters and plot.
Co.Create: Writing a book with someone else seems like it could be a daunting task, especially when it comes to fiction. My novelist friends tend to be pretty regimented about when they write, where they write, everything to do with writing. I guess what I’m saying is that not every novelist would be able to write a book with someone else.
Hogan: People in TV and movies generally say that they’re surprised that I could do that. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like working alone by myself for so long, I was really open to doing different things. Being able to go back and forth, collaborating with other people and then doing something totally on my own, I think that’s the perfect combination. I think if I were locked in to one or the other, it would feel a little stifling. There are huge advantages to each of way of working.
Can you talk a little bit more about your first meeting with Guillermo over breakfast during The New York Film Festival? Did you actually make a plan as to how you would write together, or did the process develop naturally?
That’s a great question. We met for a breakfast. We probably were supposed to meet for about an hour, and it turned into three hours. He was expanding on this idea, which, obviously, he had been carrying around for a while. I can’t say that I was really suggesting and adding stuff. At the time, I was really just sort of just listening to it and thinking it through and seeing it.
But we didn’t make a plan. I put some of his thoughts and some of my thoughts down on paper. Later, he added some stuff, sent it back to me, and we grew out a little treatment from there that grew into more of an outline, and then we literally started writing it.
I understand you devoted yourself to this project without any guarantee of anything coming from it.
It was a good year before we showed anything to publishers or even had any sort of contract. We were just going with it, and it seemed to be working. Once we were sure that we had something that was going to work, we decided to show some other people to make sure we were right.
It was really kind of wonderfully organic in the sense that the story really started to grow.
Did you know in the beginning that you would write three books together?
We knew all along that it was going to be three books. It was a trilogy. It was a beginning, middle and an end. It was kind of cool in that sense that it wasn’t open-ended. We knew where we were going.
When you look back on writing that first book, what do you think you think you got out of working with Guillermo?
Well, it was clear for me, having Guillermo as a resource was like having this giant book of facts. One place where I wasn’t really strong was in the creatures’ biology, which he was very strong on. I had this idea that vampires would be kind of cold-blooded and all this stuff, and then I would go to him, and he’d be like, "No, no, Chuck, they’re warm-blooded. Their metabolism runs at three times…" and he would go into this whole description. It was almost like he was reading a page from a manual. He had some very clear, awesomely clear, ideas in his head.
And Guillermo definitely trusts his instincts, and he shoots from the hip. Now, I have a lot more faith in the day-to-day process and in finding something, even if I don’t know exactly what it is, I trust that I can find it.
It’s interesting how you took vampires, creatures we think we already know very well, and reinvented them. Your version is pretty freaky and gross, but in a good way, of course.
Yeah, that was probably the first thing that I really clicked into in terms of Guillermo’s vision was taking vampires back from this romantic, even Dracula was sort of a romanticized version, going back to these really brutal primal beasts.
Guillermo had originally envisioned The Strain as a television series when he first came up with the concept, but when he didn’t find a network willing to make it, he switched gears and decided to tell the story in book form. Given his original intention, did you two write The Strain trilogy with an eye toward circling back around and seeing if you could get this story told on television?
No. In fact, that’s why we waited until we wrote all three books and had them come out before Guillermo went in and pitched it again as TV. He wanted the books to be the books, which is totally the right thing to do. The great thing about writing the books, and as I think Guillermo found, is there’s no budget problems, there’s no casting problems, there’s no location problems. You can really go for it. So we did.
The books were definitely meant to be books. I think that’s also why it’s been fun reimagining them in a sense for television now.
How long did it take you two to write the first book?
It took about two years. I was working on a book of my own for some of that time. The first year we kind of took our time and wrote our way into it. We got about halfway through it, and then we showed it to publishers. Then we buckled down and spent another year or so writing. It was actually between 18 months and two years to write the first book and about a year for each of the other two books.
After you finished the first book, did you get into a groove? I am wondering if the way you worked together changed because of things you learned from writing the first book together, or was it like you had found the magic formula as to how to collaborate and just continued doing it the same way for books two and three?
It was the latter. We got together again when we wrote the other books. It was more like a series of breakfasts, maybe three days in a row we’d meet for breakfast.
You and Guillermo sure do enjoy breakfast.
We do! A three-hour breakfast is the best thing ever. After you eat, you have tea, and you sit around. We’d usually meet at a hotel restaurant. We would meet and just really talk, just have an open-ended conversation talking about our thoughts and plans for the book, and then we’d go away. I’d generally get the ball rolling, do a little outline, kind of summarize what we talked about and put it into some form. He’d throw it back to me, and we’d keep growing that and growing that until we felt like we were ready to start writing.
Since you weren’t actually sitting together writing the books, was having at least some face time at those breakfasts helpful? Was it important for you two to connect in person from time to time?
I’ve learned that it’s hugely important. I think it’s incredibly important, definitely at the beginning of the process, just to get together and to not have any sort of barrier to conversation and just let the ideas fly.
Let’s talk about adapting the books for TV. Will season one of The Strain faithfully follow the story told in the first book?
We decided that the first season was basically going to track the first book. It begins and ends very similarly to the way the book begins and ends. There are definitely signposts that we hit along the way, but there had to be a lot of invention also. There is a character who is introduced halfway through the season that doesn’t appear in the books at all. By the same token, there are a couple of things from the first book that we didn’t do that I think we’re going to save and work into the second season. It just seemed thematically better to hold off on them.
You and Guillermo co-wrote the pilot together, but beyond that, how active will you personally be in writing the TV series?
I’ve been writing a ton. I co-wrote the pilot. I’ve written two other episodes myself, and I’ve co-written two other episodes, including the last one—Carlton [Cuse, the showrunner for The Strain] and I wrote that together. So you’ll see my name a lot, I think more than anyone else as it turns out.
The Strain marks your first time writing for television. What has that experience been like for someone used to writing prose?
It’s been a blast. I’ve gone from sitting in a room by myself writing books to collaborating with Guillermo, to the writers’ room with all the other great writers that we have on the show. Each process is different, but each one is really good.
I’ve got to say, it’s a lot more fun to try to break stories with other people. Writing a novel is the hardest thing that I’ll probably ever do. You’re on your own. You’re committing a year or two, sometimes three to this one story. So being able to share the load, initially, with someone else and bouncing ideas off them is really seductive. I get why people get into television and stay there because you’re creative, but it’s not all resting on your shoulders every single day.
That’s nice. To me, that’s a luxury to be able to team up with other people and try to figure things out together. At the same time, as I said, then it’s a little more fun to go back on my own and really try to bang my head against the wall but do it myself and keep those muscles active.