Interview with Rob MacGregor
Author of some of the greatest Indiana Jones novels, Rob MacGregor was kind enough to give us an interview with him. His work includes Indiana Jones and the Seven Veils and Indiana Jones and the Genesis Deluge. Our Interview covers many aspects of Mr. MacGregor's involvement in the processes of writing an Indiana Jones novel, including tips for aspiring writers.
What was your first published novel?
I consider Crystal Skull, a mystery based on a myth about the reunion of two ancient crystal skulls, as my first novel. It was published by Ballantine Books in 1991. It was accepted by the first agent who I sent it to, and sold to the first editor who read it. However, it wasn't quite as easy as it sounds, which I'll explain momentarily.
First though, some of you with a sharp eye and a thorough knowledge of the Indy saga probably will wonder how Crystal Skull could be my first novel when Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was published two years earlier, simultaneously with the release of the movie.
Actually, I wrote three novels, all based on scripts, that were published ahead of Crystal Skull. The reason was that I had to completely re-write C.S. twice for the agent before she would submit it, then it took months before an offer was made, and nearly two years before the book was published.
So, going by the actual date published, my first two novels were Private Eye and Private Eye: Flipside, both based on a short-lived television series by the same name.
Crystal Skull, by the way, was out of print for ten years, until just a couple of months ago when it became available again as an e-book through www.fictionwise.com.
What’s your personal favorite Indiana Jones Novel?
The Genesis Deluge is the most popular and best-selling of the series, but my favorite is The Seven Veil.
Why do you think Genesis Deluge was so popular?
From the mail I received, it seems that The Genesis Deluge had a strong following among religious-oriented people, especially fundamentalist Christians. That’s because they tend to take the Noah’s Ark story to heart and think of it as history and archaeological fact, rather than myth. They also see Indy as one of their own, even though he’s actually quite an iconoclast, one who makes fun of the idea that the Earth is 6,000 or so years old, as some Biblical fundamentalists contend. However, Indy follows the trail and indeed finds ‘an ark’ on Mount Ararat.
Why is Seven Veils your favorite novel?
I liked Seven Veils for a number of reasons. I’ve made three trips to the Amazon while I was leading adventure tours to South America in the mid-80s and was familiar with the territory. I also liked creating the mysterious culture of the lost city and connecting it with early Celtic travelers, who actually may have reached the Americas 2,000 years before Columbus. I also liked the link between the second novel, Dance of the Giants and Seven Veils, both of which featured Deirdre Campbell, the great love of Indy’s early years as an archaeologist.
My interest in the Seven Veils story was revived a couple of years ago, when I wrote The Ghost Tribe: Peter Benchley’s Amazon, (Harper-Collins, 2000), a prequel novel based on the defunct TV series. Anyone who reads the two novels will see some connections between stories.
Are you a big fan of the Indiana Jones movies?
I like all the movies, but I was somewhat disappointed with The Last Crusade. That’s because I took the script and expanded it to novel length adding scenes while Spielberg took the same script and trimmed a few scenes to tighten the story. So, for me, it was all very familiar when I saw the movie, but it seemed somehow to be missing something.
Is there a reason you chose to write Indy novels, or were you approached by Lucas to do them?
I was given the opportunity and I took it. I also felt qualified. I’d gone to college with the intent of becoming an archaeologist. Instead, I turned to journalism. But archaeology remained an interest. I would work a while at a newspaper, save money, quit, then travel to archaeological site around the world. I used those experiences, which spanned several years, in my novels.
Is there a particular set formula to writing an Indy novel, or do you just write whatever comes to you? (Question Submitted by Will)
Yes, there is a formula of sorts. First, the stories always include a myth or legend, and George Lucas insisted that they must be existing myths or legends. Usually, it also involved an artifact. In Peril at Delphi, it was the legend was the Oracle of Delphi and the artifact was the omphalus, a sacred stone that holds the key to the power of the oracle. In Genesis Deluge, it was Noah’s Ark. In Seven Veils, it related the legend of Colonel Fawcett and his search for a mysterious Amazonian tribe with incredible abilities.
Second, Indy always hunts for the artifact or the truth behind the myth or legend, but when he gets close to the source and is about to come face-to-face with a greater reality, he backs off. He’s never quite ready to experience that momentous encounter…even though that’s the ultimate goal of his quest. That element of fear is part of what makes him human. On another level, we also see his fears in his encounters with snakes.
When ‘formula writing’ is mentioned, it usually refers to something that is a pattern and implies that a creative element is missing. However, in a sense, virtually all good stories contain a basic formula related to the development of characters. Here it is. There’s a protagonist, an antagonist, a buddy for the protagonist, and a love interest. You’ll see this ‘formula’ in novels and movies over and over again. Also, stories that keep our attention are ones that feature conflict in virtually every scene. That, too, is a formula of sorts. With no conflict or tension brewing in a story, we quickly lose interest.
I was very impressed with the historical accuracy of your novels. When choosing subjects for your novels, did you, choose subjects that you were already knowledgeable about? Or do some heavy research? (Question Submitted by Greg)
As I mentioned in #4, I usually had traveled to the location of the story and in most cases I was already familiar and interested in the related myth or legend. I also spent a few years working as a travel writer and that experience—oddly enough—taught me how to write about a place that I’d never visited. In this series, that was the case in the Genesis Deluge. I’ve yet to visit Turkey, although I’d like to go there. But I think I made Indy’s experience in Turkey sound believable. In fact, one of my international traveling buddies—the real-life Jack Shannon—after reading the novel, asked me when I’d gone to Istanbul. Of course, each story involved extensive research on the artifact and related legend as well as location.
Can you describe the steps that you take when you begin to write the Indiana Jones novels? (Question Submitted by Ralph)
Of course, I begin with Indy. We had decided early on that the series would take place in the 1920s before the movies and involved Indy’s early adventures after graduating from college. So then I looked for a legend or myth to work with and that usually dictated the location.
Then I need an antagonist so we have conflict. If everything moves along too smoothly, it’s not a story worth reading. I can’t emphasize that enough. A lot of beginning writers are nice people and they like their characters to be agreeable, just like they try to live their lives. But that doesn’t work well in a story. You’ve got to dig into your dark side to bring out the antagonist and create tension in scene after scene.
Can you tell us something about the difficulties that come with writing a novel? (Question Submitted by Ralph)
Often times, there’s a challenge to keep the story moving around the middle of the novel. The set up, established in the first few chapters usually is the easiest, once I know what I’m doing. Also, the last quarter of the book leading to the climax sometimes goes very quickly. So the middle can be challenging because there’s a tendency for the action to bog down. Upon completion, usually the last part of the book needs the most work. That’s because it has been re-written the most. When I get stuck in the middle, I go back to the beginning and re-write. But the end is often first draft material and needs work.
I usually work with an outline, both because it’s a good idea and, with the Indy novels, it was required by LucasFilm. However, the outline is just a map. The writing of the book is when I actually drive the roads from beginning to end. And there are often surprises along the way, which is good. When I surprise myself it means the reader will be surprised, too. If a story is completely laid out with iron-clad details in advance, I think the writing would be tedious, and the reader would probably find the story quite predictable
Did you research the Indiana Jones timeline, before you wrote a book? If so, where did you get all the information? (Question Submitted by Ralph)
I created the time-line for Indy in the ‘20s. There was no bible to follow on Indy’s early life. The only guidance I was given was a directive from George Lucas to avoid writing any story with Miriam Ravenwood as a character. Of course, my natural inclination was to do just that. How did Indy meet Miriam? What happened in their earlier encounters? George apparently wanted to keep that for the future. Maybe we’ll find out in Indy IV. But don’t count on it.
Are you a fan of history, if so, did that help you to write Indiana Jones novels?
There are some periods that intrigue me, such as pre-Roman times in Great Britain when the Druids were powerful, the Middle Ages in Europe, the ancient Greeks and Egyptians, also the pre-Columbian era of the Americas, which falls outside of recorded history.
I should add that I’m somewhat suspicious of history, because history is written by the conquerors. For example, we don’t hear much about the role of the Spanish in early America history. Even though they had established early settlements in the Southwest before the pilgrims, American history still focuses on the Anglo-European arrival and presence.
By the way, the writer Terrence McKenna predicted that history will end in 2012, the year that the Mayan calendar runs out. We’ll see if he’s right.
How did you get the job of doing the Last Crusade Novelization?
Being in the right place at the right time. In a sense, I was rewarded the novelization after helping an editor out with another project that needed immediate attention. Interestingly, neither the editor nor the people of LucasFilm were aware of my background and interest in archaeology and adventure travel when they hired me.
How long did it take you to write the Last Crusade Novelization?
They gave me eight weeks to write a 60,000 word novel, basing it on the 125-page script. If I could finish early, there was a bonus involved. I completed it in six weeks, even though I had to write some of it on a laptop in the Gran Sabana region of Venezuela.
Is the Indiana Jones in your novels different from the Indy in the movies?
He’s younger than the Indy in the movies, but I think his character rings true.
What’s your favorite Indiana Jones film?
Probably Raiders. I liked Temple of Doom less, and I was too involved with The Last Crusade story to look at it from a non-biased point of view.
Were you ever approached by Lucas to work on Indy IV?
If you mean, to write the script, the answer is no. Jeffrey Boam, who wrote The Last Crusade script, wrote a script called Indiana Jones and the Sons of Darkness. But apparently it won’t be produced as Indy IV
Have you been asked to do a novelization of Indiana Jones 4?
My agent assures me that I will, but I haven’t seen a contract yet. So I don’t know. I’m open to it, if it’s offered.
Do you plan on writing any more Indy novels?
If there’s an opportunity after Indy IV, I’ll certainly consider it.
How long does it take you to write a novel? – Question submitted by: Dubya
That depends. For my six original Indy novels, I spent about four months on each one and that includes all the research. As soon as I turned one in, another was due four months later. After six of those, I needed a break.
Who was the primary artist for your book covers? (Question Submitted by Sarah)
Drew Struzan. He painted all the Indy posters and book covers. He also painted all the Star War movie posters, and probably the book covers, too. He’s at the top of his field. Someone at LucasFilm suggested I buy one of his paintings of my book covers, especially since my name was part of the painting. I thought it was a good idea until I found out how much Drew was asking. I’ll just look at the cover for now!
Are there any tips you can give aspiring Indy writers on writing Indiana Jones stories?
Make sure your story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised. I’ve often heard new writers say that they‘ve got a great story when what they have is a set up for a story. When I ask what’s going to happen next, or how’s it going to end, they usually don’t know. So at that point, they don’t really have a story.
Also, keep writing, do it for the love of it, and when you’re ready, consider branching out beyond Indy.
Special thanks to Mr. Rob MacGregor for giving his time to answer our questions, and we certainly look forward to his next work.