A.J. Devlin on his New Novel ROLLING THUNDER and What he Learned at the AFI Conservatory – American Film Institute

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A.J. Devlin on his New Novel ROLLING THUNDER and What he Learned at the AFI Conservatory

Inspired by detective novelists such as Michael Connelly, Robert Crais and Carl Hiaasen, writer A.J. Devlin (AFI Class of 2004) published his first novel COBRA CLUTCH in 2018, which won the Arthur Ellis Award for best debut. Devlin combined his passion for crime fiction with his family’s love of sports – his dad is a former Olympian, in crafting the character, “Hammerhead” Jed – an ex-pro wrestler turned private investigator at the center of the mystery/comedy series.

In 2020, Devlin published ROLLING THUNDER, which continues Jed’s story with the same humor and intrigue, but sees the protagonist leave behind the world of professional wrestling for women’s flat-track roller derby. AFI spoke with Devlin about working with Oscar® nominated screenwriter Leonard Schrader who became his mentor, pivoting to a virtual book tour due to the pandemic and what he learned at the AFI Conservatory.

AFI: How did you first embark on your path as a writer and what led you to AFI?

Devlin: I started looking at film schools all over North America. And then I found Chapman University, which at the time was one of the few colleges that offered a bachelor’s degree in Screenwriting, so you could specialize as an undergraduate. I applied and got in.

My senior year, I took an Advanced Screenwriting class with Leonard Schrader – who would eventually go on to be the Screenwriting Chair at AFI. He became my mentor and friend, and I studied very closely under him. He and his wife Chieko never had children, but they used to refer to me as their literary son. Leonard just taught me everything about writing, and the way he structured stories was just ingenious. He was nominated for the Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award® for KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN, he was an accomplished novelist and he studied under Kurt Vonnegut Jr. at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It was so humbling to be around him. That was a real turning point for me, and then we start collaborating and writing screenplays together, which was just an unbelievably amazing experience.

Then I enrolled at AFI – and that first year was a rollercoaster of classes and shooting films because you’ve got to double as the crew for everyone. And then in my second year I got doubly lucky because I was placed in Anna Thomas’ class and that year Leonard also came to AFI as the Head of Screenwriting. And I just became endlessly fascinated with the craft of writing, particularly crime fiction.

I had some success – I entered screenplays and teleplays in competitions and won awards and had meetings with agents, but I could never get that one produced credit.  Leonard always said, “Screenwriters often go one of two ways. One – they get frustrated and start directing their own work. Or two – they get frustrated, and they go and write a book.” Writing a book is a completed work, whereas writing a screenplay is blueprint where a bunch of people are going to have their hands in the pot. So that’s what led me to writing my first novel.

AFI: Coming off of writing COBRA CLUTCH, can you talk about the challenges approaching your second novel?

Devlin: When COBRA CLUTCH came out, it was exhilarating and thrilling, but then you always worry about that sophomore slump. The idea for the series was always to have this ex-wrestler take on cases that draw him into unique subcultures and quirky environments. Having it revolve around roller derby was an easy transition because, like professional wrestling, there’s a lot of theatricality. There’s a lot of over-the-top antics. The biggest difference being that roller derby doesn’t have a scripted outcome unlike wrestling, which is a live-action dramatic stunt show.

I was also fortunate enough to connect with a friend who played roller derby in Vancouver for years. She was a big roller-derby-star-turned journalist, so she was the perfect person to advise me. She helped me familiarize myself with that world, which is very anti-establishment, very punk rock, very renegade, because I wanted to capture that and do it justice.

In my first book, it is a bit gritty, and there is some violence. And “Hammerhead” Jed goes up against some heavies. So with my second book, I wanted to go in an entirely different direction and make my villain more cerebral to challenge my protagonist.

AFI: Were you trying to lean into established tropes of the detective novel or subvert them?

Devlin: I’d say a little bit of both. I was a big [Raymond] Chandler fan. I read all the classic pulp noir fiction, so that was definitely an influence. But there’s almost a subgenre within detective fiction where you have all of these athlete detectives. It seemed like every sport under the sun had been covered in a detective novel, but, to the best of my knowledge, nobody had ever done pro wrestling. I was drawn to the behind-the-scenes aspects of it, which is actually quite dark and intense. It felt like fertile ground to mine where you have this over-the-top theatricality in the ring, but then also this dark underbelly. It seemed like an interesting contrast that I wanted to explore more.

Once I started writing, I didn’t realize humor would be such an intrinsic part of the series, but then, as I was writing COBRA CLUTCH, I realized you can’t really do justice to professional wrestling without embracing humor to a certain degree, while also addressing the darker aspects and sacrifices of the business.

AFI: It’s the one-year anniversary of publishing ROLLING THUNDER. What were the advantages and/or disadvantages of releasing your second novel in such an unconventional year during the pandemic?

Devlin: I was feeling good at the beginning of 2020 heading into the Spring to release ROLLING THUNDER, especially since I’d been through it before with COBRA CLUTCH. It was a big learning curve, but my first book was well-received. For my next novel, I set up a book tour and signings all across Canada. And then, suddenly, we’re on lockdown and my publisher told me that we were going to have to pivot to a virtual tour. Still, I was fortunate because, since it was my second book, I’d made a lot of contacts that I could reach out to and everyone was really supportive. And even though I released the second book from home, I still got a lot of exposure. ROLLING THUNDER was featured in a number of outlets, including The Globe and Mail and on CBC radio.

Honestly, it’s been so much fun, and I consider it a successful run. Even if we hit a reset button tomorrow and everything is back to the way it was pre-COVID, I think that, yes, there will still be traditional book events, but you’re also going to start seeing an online component because virtual events have been very popular, it’s convenient and it’s great exposure.

AFI: What lessons did you take away from attending AFI that you use as a novelist?

Devlin: Wow, so much. Daryl Nickens was my workshop teacher in first year. He challenged all of us to be better and to step outside our comfort zones. Also, Gloria Gifford – she taught a class called Acting for Screenwriters, which helped so much with crafting characters. And then I also learned how people in the industry read screenplays differently. For instance, actors often focus mostly on the dialogue for their character, whereas a director might look at the overall vision and the producer might be thinking about logistics. So it opened my eyes to how a story can be interpreted differently by different people.

And that carried over into writing novels and creating a clear, definitive vision. Anna challenged me many times and, because I was 24 years-old at the time and writing a lot of scripts centered on alpha-male types, she challenged me not to be so afraid of writing female characters. And one of the things I’m most proud of in COBRA CLUTCH and ROLLING THUNDER is that there’s a female Vancouver police detective who works homicide, and she’s one of my favorite characters in the series. She’s very fleshed out. She’s very complex. And without Anna pushing me and teaching me that year, I don’t think I would have been able to create someone as three-dimensional.

Overall, I learned all the foundations of screenwriting – pacing, structure, dialogue. I mean, when you’re surrounded by greatness, it’s easy to go into sponge mode. I ended my time at AFI focusing on writing for television, particularly on sitcoms. That interest in humor led to a natural transition of writing a novel like COBRA CLUTCH, which was my breakout vehicle in terms of becoming a professional writer. My whole experience at AFI was incredibly well-rounded, and I was so fortunate to be there and to be surrounded by such incredible teachers.

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