Which Novelists Are Writing for TV in 2017?
From Fargo to American Gods, The Leftovers to Legion, find out which of your favorite shows are employing your favorite novelists
Maybe it’s the insatiable appetites of online behemoths Amazon and Netflix, gobbling up IP and talent like the studios of yesteryear. Maybe novel advances are down or ambition is up, or maybe it’s just been a cold string of winters in New York and hell, Los Angeles looks pretty damn good from that fourth-floor walk-up in Bed-Stuy. Whatever the reason, it seems like every year we do this list, there are more and more novelists making a go of it in TV-land. And this year the writers aren’t just hired hands for showrunner visionaries. Increasingly, novelists are coming to the fore, whether it’s Richard Price or Noah Hawley continuing a run of excellence, crime fiction legend Leonardo Padura trying his hand, or Philipp Meyer’s production company placing a Texas-sized gamble on a frontier epic for AMC. And it’s not just a boys’ club, either. (Although, let’s be frank here — it’s still mostly a (white) boys’ club, unfortunately.) This year, two of the brightest stars in crime fiction, Megan Abbott and Lisa Lutz, join the David Simon universe, while Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects looks to pick up where Big Little Lies left off, with another female-led mystery drama for HBO Sunday nights.
TV isn’t going to replace the novel anytime soon, but with barriers to entry dropping and audience demand for new content on the rise — and not just content, but well-crafted, narratively ambitious story—there’s no reason to think this is a passing trend. Now, at some point, yes, there’s a chance that the old-fashioned novel-writing industry will experience some significant brain drain, since TV is where the money and the audiences reside. But for the time being, let’s assume that a well-told story is a worthwhile thing no matter the form, and that the two media are actually somewhat simpatico and maybe even mutually-nourishing. Are you a fan of Westworld? Guess what? You’re gonna love the books of Charles Yu, one of the show’s writers. Or take the reverse. Are you a crime fiction devotee but every once in a while you’d like to put down the book and turn on the tube? Good news! Quarry and Four Seasons in Havana are every bit as good as you dreamed.
So, here’s our 2017 list of novelists and other literary types writing for TV. Have we missed some people? Almost certainly. Let us know and we’ll keep things up-to-date. Now let’s all give thanks for Ian McShane & Neil Gaiman.
David Benioff & DB Weiss, Game of Thrones (HBO)
For two more glorious (slightly abbreviated) seasons, Benioff & Weiss will reign atop just about every list-icle and think piece about TV’s continued run of pop culture excellence. Why should this one be an exception? Benioff (author of The 25th Hour) and Weiss (author of Lucky Wander Boy) are still at the head of TV’s most beloved and critically-acclaimed show, and who knows, after it’s all done, maybe they’ll go back to their novelistic roots. In the meantime, here’s to another 16 episodes of what American Gods’ Ian McShane lovingly referred to as ‘the greatest literary adaptation of our time’…oh wait, no, he said it was a show about ‘tits and dragons.’ Our bad.
Carson Mell — Silicon Valley (HBO), Tarantula (TBS)
Mell is a longtime Electric Literature favorite — we even published the eBook of his brilliant Saguaro. Nowadays we enjoy his work on HBO’s hit comedy, Silicon Valley, where he serves as a story editor with several episode credits. And pretty soon his original creation — Tarantula, an animated series about an unlicensed tattoo artist in a residential hotel — will be on TBS. In short, Carson Mell is a lowdown crazy genius and we can’t get enough of his work.
Max Allan Collins — Quarry (Cinemax)
For a two-month stretch at the end of 2016, Cinemax’s Quarry had a perfectly legitimate claim to the title of best crime series on TV. At press time, the show’s cast and crew are still waiting for the go-ahead on a second season, but if Cinemax has any good sense (and given its Banshee track record, it would appear the network most likely does), it will quickly pony up while the gang is still together. Max Allan Collins, the author of the beloved series of Quarry novels (beloved might be the wrong word for material this dark, but you catch our meaning), published by Hard Case Crime, is on staff and deeply involved in the show, with writing credits on the teleplays for all eight episodes of the series. Collins is an incredibly prolific writer — we’re talking multiple novels, graphic novels, and comics each year — yet somehow Quarry seems to be gaining new life all the time.
Noah Hawley — Fargo, Legion (FX)
Noah Hawley is giving the late James Brown a run for the title of hardest working man in show business. In addition to publishing a new novel (Before the Fall), Hawley has also kept busy writing season 3 of the hit FX show, Fargo, and season 1 of the network’s new X-Men-universe pyschological thriller, Legion. All three projects have received critical acclaim, and Hawley shows no signs of letting up. Just as Fargo season 3 hits screens, Hawley is reportedly pushing for a quick turnaround on season 2 of Legion, aiming for a 10-episode arc set to air in spring 2018. FX seems entirely happy to oblige.
Leonardo Padura — Four Seasons in Havana (Netflix)
Netflix hasn’t given this limited series the push it deserves in the US market, but hidden away in the Spanish-language section of your account is a gem: Four Seasons in Havana. Leonardo Padura is an icon of Latin American crime fiction, with a voice and style all his own: gritty, sensual, learned, cynical in one breath, sentimental the next, all with a vast affection for Cuba and Cubans that permeates every page. Four Seasons in Havana adapts Padura’s most famous quartet — one book per episode (episodes run at about 90 minutes). The author created the series alongside his wife, the screenwriter Lucia López Col. They managed to film on location in Havana, and the show has some of the most poignant, rich cinematography you’ll find anywhere on TV. No word yet on whether Padura will be adpating more work for Netflix.
Philipp Meyer — The Son (AMC)
Meyer is directly involved in the adaptation of his 2013 novel, The Son, a multi-generation Texas epic that premiered this weekend (April 22nd) on AMC. According to a recent article in The New York Times, the author is on-set and even overseeing accent work and Comanche bow technique. (Pierce Brosnan praised Meyer for his “swagger” — pretty good notch in the belt right there.) The series is being produced by newcomer El Jefe, the company Meyer founded in 2014 along with old UT-MFA classmates Brian McGreevy and Lee Shipman. There’s a lot riding on the success of The Son — El Jefe is currently working on TV adaptations of Meyer’s American Rust, Wil Hylton’s Vanished, and Smith Henderson’s Fourth of July Creek. The company’s goal is to make sure even more novelists are able to stay involved in the screen adaptations of their work.
Joe Lansdale — Hap & Leonard (Sundance)
It warms the heart of crime fiction aficionados everywhere that Joe Lansdale’s Hap & Leonard has found a home on TV, and with a damn impressive cast, too — Michael Kenneth Williams, James Purefoy and Christina Hendricks. 2017 is still young, but we’ve already seen two Hap & Leonard novellas — Coco Butternut and Rusty Puppy — and the debut of season 2 of the Sundance series, based on Mucho Mojo. The show is helmed by Nick Damici and Jim Mickle, but Lansdale is a big presence — reviewing scripts, offering up ideas and notes, and even finding time to be on set during filming. His vision of East Texas is a distinct one, so it’s no wonder the showrunners have been eager to keep him involved in the adaptation.
Neil Gaiman — American Gods (Starz)
Gaiman isn’t an fixture in the writers’ room on American Gods. He describes himself as “a kibitzy sort of executive producer. What I can do is read scripts, comment on them, give notes, talk to things in general terms.” The new show, set to premiere April 30th on Starz, is one of the most highly-anticipated programs of 2017 — thanks to the beloved source material, some badass poster work, and the presence of Ian McShane. Meanwhile, Gaiman is doing some teleplay writing of his own: he’s reportedly working on a 6-part limited series script for Good Omens, the fantasy novel Gaiman wrote in collaboration with the legendary Terry Pratchett. The adaptation was recently picked up by Amazon Studios and is on target for a 2018 release.
George Pelecanos, Richard Price, Megan Abbott & Lisa Lutz — The Deuce (HBO)
When it comes to novelist bona fides in TV writers’ rooms, The Deuce is in a class of its own. Going back to The Wire and Treme, David Simon has always had a knack for assembling literary talent. With The Deuce, he’s back to working with crime fiction icons George Pelecanos and Richard Price (now a TV heavyweight in his own right, after co-creating HBO’s 2016 hit The Night Of) and brought on board two of the reigning queens of literary noir: Megan Abbott (whose most recent novel, You Will Know Me, you can read about here) and Lisa Lutz (author of The Passengers and the Spellman series). The Deuce is shaping up to be one of the year’s most talked-about shows. It’s 1970’s NYC in all its seedy glory — a story about smut-peddlers, prostitutes and Times Square, starring James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal. HBO has said we can expect a 2017 premiere date; rest assured, Electric Lit is on it.
Tom Perrotta, Tamara P. Carter & Patrick Somerville — The Leftovers (HBO)
In addition to Tom Perrotta, who wrote the source material and co-created the TV adaptation along with Damon Lindelof, HBO’s The Leftovers has an impressive roster of fiction writers on-staff, including Tamara P. Carter (Lovestoned and Behind Those Eyes) and Patrick Somerville (The Cradle, This Bright River and two short story collections). Somerville was also recently signed to write The Maniac, Netflix’ upcoming half-hour prestige project, starring Jonah Hill and Emma Stone, with Cary Fukunaga slated to direct. The Leftovers, which has moved well beyond the action of Perrotta’s novel, just started its third and final season, Sunday nights on HBO.
Nic Pizzolatto —True Detective…Season 3 (HBO)
You really thought Frank Semyon, a badass moustache and some Molly binanca could kill True Detective? Well, for a while it looked like you were right, but the new report is that none other than David Milch (HBO OG and, since we’re on the topic of novelists, former Robert Penn Warren protégé) is coming in to help Pizzolatto write a new season of the once-and-future king of TV crime fiction. Will Milch convince the author of Galveston to return to his Texas roots? Or will season 3 deliver on Pizzolatto’s old promise to write about “hard women, bad men and the secret occult history of the United States transportation system”? Couldn’t we get both of those things? And, please, if Milch does us this solid, could HBO throw him a couple bones and (1) jumpstart his long-gestating Faulkner adatations, and (2) give us the Deadwood movie we all deserve? Oh, and Pizoalatto is also supposedly developing a Perry Mason show for Robert Downey, Jr. (*mic drop*)
Nick Antosca — Channel Zero (Syfy)
Antosca, the author of Fires (2006), Midnight Picnic (2009), and The Girlfriend Game (2013) has been handed the keys to Syfy’s kingdom: Channel Zero, a horror anthology with episodes based on creepypastas. Antosca is the creator and showrunner, and with SyFy already committing to a second, third and fourth season, he’s going to be at full-writing-employment for quite some time. New episodes are slated for fall 2017.
Jonathan Ames, World’s End (TBS), Blunt Talk (Starz)
Ames — the bard of Brooklyn, or one of them anyway — is now a TV veteran, with three seasons of Bored to Death and two seasons of Blunt Talk under his belt. His newest creation, World’s End, is signed up for a TBS pilot, with Ames at the helm and Hamish Linklater and Wanda Sykes set to star. The show’s about an English professor (obviously) leading a mental institution revolt (a little less obviously, but not that far outside Ames’ wheelhouse).
Charles Yu — Westworld (HBO)
Charles Yu, the author of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Third Class Superhero and Sorry Please Thank You is a bit of a polymath. Besides his gig writing fiction, Yu was also, until recently, serving as in-house counsel for the consumer electronics company, Belkin. But that was until Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy and HBO came calling, inviting Yu to join the Westworld writers’ room. Yu serves as a “story editor” for HBO’s high concept Sunday night mind-fuck; over the course of season 1 he earned three writing credits, so you’d have to expect he’ll be back for season 2 — Samurai World!
Gillian Flynn — Sharp Objects (HBO)
This long-awaited HBO series is finally coming together. A year after HBO first announced a straight-to-series order, filming on Sharp Objects has finally begun in Los Angeles. Amy Adams and Chris Messina will star, with Jean Marc Vallée directing, Marti Noxon serving as showrunner, and of course Gillian Flynn writing episodes (along with Noxon). The series adapts Flynn’s bestelling mystery novel. The story follows a journalist just out of a mental hospital who returns to her hometown to investigate a string of murders. After a series of rumored projects, Sharp Objects will be Flynn’s first script to hit screens since penning David Fincher’s 2014 Gone Girl film adaptation.