A Debut Novel from a Storied Screenwriter: Talking with David Koepp about COLD STORAGE

David Koepp

One day last summer, I was working studiously (read: scrolling social media feeds, maybe looking for cover trends, maybe just procrastinating) at my home office desk beneath a framed 1993 movie poster for Jurassic Park—which I have argued and will never not argue is the best movie ever made—when Twitter gave me some of the best news of my life: Jurassic Park screenwriter David Koepp was writing a novel.

Koepp has worked as a screenwriter for 30 years, mostly on obscure, sort of niche projects like Carlito’s Way (1993), Mission: Impossible (1996), Spider-Man (2002), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), War of the Worlds (2005), Angels & Demons (2009), and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)—oh and, two films most dear to my heart, both Jurassic Park (1993) and The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997).

After a year of anticipation, that debut novel has arrived, and it is, in a word, awesome. Cold Storage (which received a Booklist starred review ahead of its September 3 release) follows three strangers—a Pentagon bioterror operative called out of retirement, and two millennial night-shift workers, one a hardworking single mother and the other a charming ex-con—as they battle a highly contagious and deadly fungus. Koepp’s thriller is written very much in the vein of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park and has also earned comparisons to Robin Cook and Richard Preston. But two unexpected things that stand out about this tightly paced, scientifically detailed, and horror-packed thriller are its riotous sense of humor and vivid characters. In his review for the New York Times, Douglas Preston said Koepp’s “characters are so keenly, intelligently and even movingly drawn that they might have stepped out of a literary novel.”

Needless to say, I was so thrilled when Koepp agreed to chat with me about Cold Storage. So enough of this introduction stuff, onto that part!

This iconic line is a gift to the modern lexicon from David Koepp

ROTH: There’s some serious science in Cold Storage. What was your research like for this project? What was your favorite thing you learned or did during that process?

KOEPP: For the first draft of the book, I wanted the story and characters to be able to drive the text, rather than letting research dictate too much. It’s not, after all, a science textbook. My rule of thumb at that point was that I would only use research that I could find myself, either on the Internet or through books and magazines that I was able to track down. Listening to advisers too much early on can lead to some accurate but very drab storytelling.

After I finished the first draft, my editor, Zach Wagman, helped me find a microbiologist who was willing to read and talk. I gave him the manuscript and said, “Please read this, and have a good laugh. But when you’re done, if you’re still speaking to me, let’s talk about how to make it all a bit more plausible.” I was delighted that, when he finished reading, he actually wrote a note that started with “Well . . . the science isn’t terrible.” I took that as great encouragement, and then we went to work, going through and correcting things, twisting the story here and there to make the impossible possible, and generally bringing the science as much into reality as possible.

You use multiple perspectives in this novel, slipping easily between characters (and even the fungus!). In some ways, that made the story read more cinematically than fiction told through single or multiple but rotating perspectives. At the same time, you were also able to access parts of the characters on the written page that a camera can’t. How do you think your background in visual storytelling affected not just how you wrote this novel, but how you thought about and approached its delivery?

There is no question that thirty years of screenwriting have affected the ways in which I like to absorb or tell stories. Everything in screenwriting is about concision—how can we use fewer words or, even better, NO words to express this character detail or story point? What I found intoxicating about writing this book, perhaps unsurprisingly, was the sudden and liberating ability to digress. For the first time in several decades, I had the freedom to delve into a character’s thoughts and inner feelings, rather than being limited to only what they say, do, or see. I was positively giddy, and I think some of that delight shows in my more whimsical passages, where I presume to go inside the “mind” of the fungus, or when I indulge that freedom by spending three pages on the journey of a cockroach out from a 200-foot-deep subbasement. 

You talked in a Big Idea piece for John Scalzi’s blog, Whatever, about where Travis (“Teacake”) came from and, really, how he was central to this story’s genesis. Can you talk about how you found and developed two other key characters, Naomi and Roberto? Like Teacake, they’re unique and sort of unexpected but successful choices for their roles.

I think that all three of the main characters contain parts of my own personality and experiences, and from what I gather that’s true of most writers’ characters. A pure act of creation or projection of oneself into the mind of another isn’t, in my opinion, truly possible; I think we necessarily imagine all that we conceive of others through the lens of ourselves. So, Naomi’s character’s feelings of being overwhelmed by parenthood might come from my own similar feelings, having four kids as I do. Same with her occasional periods of darkness and hopelessness—who hasn’t felt those? And Roberto’s intense love of his wife and desire to spend peaceful years in the home he built with her, and the push/pull of his professional life, which seems in direct conflict with his personal desires—those are directly lifted from my own life and feelings.

That said, I am not a 24-year-old African American woman or a 68-year-old Mexican American man, so anything else I invented about those characters was just guesswork on my part. But my feeling was that if I got enough of the specifics of those characters right, their humanity would be universally relatable.

A movie is an incredibly collaborative processthere are so many people who have creative roles in bringing the story to life, and whose own visions build on and interpret the words the screenwriter has put to the page. What was it like to tell a story in a medium where you had much more control over the final product?

For the first time, I felt like I was working with people who viewed the writing as essentially mine, rather than essentially theirs. The difference was beyond compare. There are many joys to be had in collaboration, and movies are nothing if not ruthlessly, relentless collaborative. When there’s creative success, it is often far beyond the abilities of any single one of the collaborators. Likewise, when there’s creative failure, it is the sum total of the failings of numerous people. Nobody does anything alone on a movie. A book isn’t completely a solo endeavor—researchers, editors, early readers, friends and family members who listen to your complaining and help you puzzle things out are all vital contributors—but it is FAR more solitary than movie writing. And ultimately the story’s success or failure all rests on the writer’s shoulders. For this experience, that was the way I liked it.

As a screenwriter, you’ve done a number of book-to-film adaptations. Did those experiences in de- and reconstruction give you any insight or perspectives that were then helpful when you sat down to write Cold Storage? And on the flip side, how do you think the experience of being a novelist yourself will affect any future adaptations you work on?

One of the first things I do when I adapt someone’s novel is to sit down and write out scene cards for every single scene or chapter in the book. I then lay them out on a big table and just stare at them for a while, trying to understand and internalize the structure of the novel. It’s a fascinating process, and after a while you start to grasp not just what happens and when, but why it happens, and why it happens where it happens. Years of breaking down novels in this way unquestionably helped me understand better how they’re put together. When it was time to structure my own book, I didn’t feel like a complete novice, even though I was.

As for future adaptations, I don’t think the experience of writing a novel myself actually changes anything at all. In fact, it confirms even more than I suspected that the screenwriter must discard the structure of the novel and invent their own. They are two completely different media, with wholly separate rules and rigors.

It was announced last summer that Paramount had landed the film rights to Cold Storage, and you’re set to produce and write the script. You said in a 2016 interview with Collider, “I think it’s really hard for a novelist to adapt their own book.” Can you elaborate on that now that you’re actually in, or approaching, that position yourself?

I think I understated even better how difficult it is. I knew, but I didn’t KNOW. I’ve just finished my first draft of the movie version of Cold Storage, and while I certainly had major advantages as the author of the novel—my research was done, and I had an innate understanding of the characters and the science involved—I was taxed in that all the novelistic techniques I’d relied on to tell the story were no longer applicable. It’s true that this is the case for any screenwriter adapting a novel, but my situation was different because all my first, best ideas for how to express something had already been used in the writing of the book.

I therefore had to dig a bit deeper, creatively speaking, than I ordinarily would in writing an adaptation. I had to come up with fresh ideas to say something I’d already said once before. It doesn’t sound all that terrible, as I say it now, but it was certainly a different kind of challenge.

Ecco, your publisher, bought Cold Storage in a two-book deal, and I know readers who devour this one will be excited to learn another is in the pipeline. Can you tell us anything about what that next book might be?

I think talking about things before you write them is destructive, in that it tends to sap some of the desire to get the story out. Why type it if you’ve already told it? But I can say that the next book is another character-based thriller that relies heavily on interesting and inventive science. More than that I’ll have to save for the page!Y

You can and should follow David Koepp on Instagram, where his handle is @dgkoepp.Cold Storage is available now, wherever books are sold!

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About the Author:

A former Booklist intern and current Booklist reviewer, Ellie is a reader and writer based in Chicago. She holds a BA in writing from Wheaton College (IL) and is the assistant to the president at Browne & Miller Literary Associates.

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