Chris Columbus and Ned Vizzini open up about 'House of Secrets'

Film director Chris Columbus' arms are full. He's carrying a 496-page book, "House of Secrets," which he co-wrote with Ned Vizzini, bestselling young adult author of "It's Kind of a Funny Story."

Columbus, known for directing "Home Alone" and the first two "Harry Potter" films (as well as a screenplay for "The Goonies"), is making his first foray into print with "House of Secrets" (Balzer + Bray, $17.99), an adventure story for ages 8 eight and older -- the first of a planned series -- about three siblings and a magic house that includes giant dragonflies, walking skeletons and pirates. After the William Morris Agency set them up, they collaborated mostly by e-mail.

The two sat down in West Hollywood to talk about their writing process. Below are edited highlights of their conversation, which was fast-moving and circular.

Chris Columbus: There was a point when I realized this wouldn't be a movie or a TV series -- it was too expensive and too big -- and I wanted to turn it into a novel. There's a real plus to being able to write with someone.... I would get so excited when he sent me a chapter. I don't think we've ever had a fight about anything.

Ned Vizzini: Early on, you realize you're trying to build a work, so it's not about ego, it's about what's going to be best for the book.

Columbus: We were constantly pushing the degree of jeopardy we could put the kids into in the book, and we had to pull back a little in the edit.

Vizzini: A lot of the books that I grew up reading were pretty brutal, like the "Redwall" books. "Redwall" is a series about warrior mice written by Brian Jacques; he wrote 22 of the books. When I came upon challenges in my own life, I thought about the bravery the characters exhibited in the books that I read growing up.

Columbus: My side of the story about "House of Secrets" is [that it has a] thematic connection to "Goonies." That spirit of things is what fueled my excitement about writing this.... The book enabled me to go off on tangents that I couldn't do in a movie.

Vizzini: A novel wouldn't be a book if there weren't some flights of fancy on the part of the author, stopping time to examine things, or to tell a joke. We certainly indulged in that.

Columbus: With something like "House of Secrets," which you want, hopefully, kids to be reading 20 years from now, we made a distinct choice not to use references that we felt might not be around.

Vizzini: There was a conscious attempt to use classic reference points, and we of course used people that we like, who mean something to us.

Columbus: That reminds me, I wanted to ask you. In one of the chapters, you came down really hard on Charles Dickens. Do you hate Charles Dickens?

Vizzini: I ... tried. It is weird, because this book owes a tremendous debt to the tradition of serialized writing that Dickens was a part of....

Columbus: We haven't even socialized -- we haven't really gone out for a dinner. Which we're going to have to do on a book tour.

Vizzini: If you were to really unpeel our relationship, what you'd find is hundreds of emails back and forth about "House of Secrets." That's what the relationship started as, and we stay focused. This book is long; it didn't write itself. We had to put a lot of work into it. When I write an email to you, Chris, I try to keep it all business. Sometimes I'm tempted [to get personal], but I don't. Here's an example: The person who made me want to be a writer when I was a kid was Michael Crichton. I thought, maybe Chris met him. And I always wanted to ask him. If I were Chris, I'd be annoyed if Ned's working on 'House of Secrets' then calls me up and says, 'By the way, did you ever meet Michael Crichton?'"

Columbus: That wouldn't be the case, by the way. I don't think I did meet him. Maybe when I was at Amblin, I was this young kid, [Steven] Spielberg had a parade of celebrities. You'd see Warren Beatty walk by, Richard Dreyfuss -- maybe Michael Crichton walked by, but I don't think so. Here's the thing: His books had that cliffhanger aspect too.

Vizzini: I think a little of Crichton got into "House of Secrets'" DNA.

Festival of Books

What: Chris Columbus and Ned Vizzini in conversation with Rebecca Keegan
Where: Ronald Tutor Campus Center, USC
When: Noon Saturday
Price: Free. Tickets are available online. There is a $1 service fee applied to each ticket reserved.

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