“It’s kind of a lifelong dream for an author,” laughs Ben Sherwood. “To see comments posted on Twitter and on the web about how people who bought your book at the store wanna lick the cover!”
Sherwood, who made The New York Times Bestsellers List, was responsible for penning Charlie St. Cloud, a made-to-film novel starring heartthrob Zac Efron. (Sherwood doubles as Executive Producer.)
Moreover, he is a renowned journalist and has produced award-winning segments for ABC’s Good Morning America (2004-2006), NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw(1997-2001) and ABC News’ Primetime Live with Diane Sawyer and Sam Donaldson (1989-1993).
FanBolt had the honor of chatting with Ben Sherwood, surrounded by sailboats, in Marina Del Rey, Calif. He talks about the casting of Efron and why tragically losing his father paved the way for the story of Charlie St. Cloud.
Are you a sailor?
[Laughs.] I’m definitely not a sailor. I’ve learned a lot about sailing in Marblehead, Massachusetts from a lot of great folks.
What’s your connection to Marblehead?
I went to college back east and spent a lot of holidays in the Marblehead, Massachusetts area. It’s a wonderful, historical place.
I was an extremely bad sailor as a little boy and had a couple of lessons. We could go out [onto the water], but never get back. So we quickly gave up the sailing part because it didn’t work. But I sailed once after writing this book. I went back to Marblehead and my friends, who taught me about sailing up there, took me out and said they wanted me to be in a race and experience what racing was all about. I was extremely excited and thought, “This is great” until I discovered they were using me as malice. My entire purpose in this race was to move from one side of the boat to the other without getting hit by that thing that swings across.
I ripped my shirt, I cut my knee open—we won and I retired immediately! [Laughs.] So I’m undefeated!
Was the story of Charlie St. Cloud based on a personal experience?
I think we all experience loss and the lucky ones experience it much later. I lost my dad when I was 29, very suddenly. So that was a long time ago, 17 years ago. I thought I was okay and I thought everything was alright. I didn’t realize for many years after it happened that I was stuck and frozen in place. I did all the things that made me feel like I was moving forward, but, in fact, I think I wasn’t.
Then I met my now wife. My experience is not unique or special. It’s what happens to so many people. It’s the liberating power of falling in love and it broke me out of that trap I’ve been in.
The novel is not autobiographical. It’s just about what most people go through at some point, which is they lose someone very important to them and they may or may not realize how they keep holding on after someone’s gone.
I began to think about, the question of, as I held on so hard to my dad, I wondered what on some other side is happening? In some way, do we in holding onto them, do we hold them back from where they’re supposed to be?
That’s where a lot of these ideas [came from]. That promise that these boys made to each other and by holding onto each other, Sam doesn’t get to go where he’s supposed to be, wherever that is, depending on your belief system, and Charlie’s not where he’s supposed to be and living his life.
There were changes from the book when it was being made into a film. Was there something you wished had made the cut?
I’m delighted at the details that made it in. When I got to go to Vancouver a couple of times [to see the set], my jaw dropped when I saw the sailboat that Tess sails. I couldn’t believe the mitt that Sam plays with from The Red Sox and the glade, which is the magical place they play ball.
There’s a really big thing that I wish had been in the film, but I understand the reasons why it’s not and that’s called Marblehead, Massachusetts. [Laughs.]
I fell in love with Marblehead and the people at Marblehead and the feeling of Marblehead. But I absolutely understood the filmmaker’s decisions and the realities.
With that said, this is an honest reaction: I fell in love with the Pacific Northwest when I saw the movie. I wanted to go there, learn to sail and go to those woods and see those places. The Pacific Northwest is a character and is a place that is so inviting in the ways I always thought Marblehead was.
How about Charlie, the central character who is an adult in your book? In the film, he’s younger and instead, making the transition into adulthood.
They’re different media. In the book, it can be much more inner. The book is about overcoming loss and about losing time. It’s about an adult man who has lost a lot of precious time in his life.
The brilliance of casting a young man [is he is] filled with promise and potential for life. I think the brilliance with that is it becomes not a story about loss, but a story about rescue and potential. Can this man be saved in time, so he can live a full life and reach the promise that he showed as a young person?
Your background is really surprising. You’re in our business, you’re a news producer.
Yes, I’m a recovering journalist. [Laughs.]
I’ve done a bunch of different things, but this is my second novel. Technically, my third, but it’s really the second under my name. I wrote one under a synonym a long time ago, which is parenthetically a compendium of every first time writer’s mistakes. It’s the almanac of errors that first time writers make.
What made you want to transition from journalism to creative writing?
I love journalism and I have come in and out of it. I’ve been lucky enough to be in it, leave it, go back in, leave it and back in again. I love journalism. Above all, I love storytelling. There are some stories that fiction captures better than non-fiction. I’m a total non-fiction person. In my DNA, I’m a non-fiction person.
I grew up driving around Los Angeles with my dad and we’d listen to news radio. Our game, when I was a boy, was to know the names of all CBS news correspondence. So I’m a non-fiction person, but I discovered fiction really late in life and started writing 15 years ago.
There are some things where you can get to more truth through make believe; it’s that paradox.
You grew up in LA, so before you wrote the novel, did you anticipate that this could become a film?
I wish I were a good enough writer to be able to do that. I’m going to be honest, but I was sweating it out with every page. The story of this book and how it was born, it had a near death experience. [Laughs.] It was very hard, so I wish I had been imagining the movie version but I was not. I was imagining completion and publication. [Laughs.]
Because you’re writing for a specific medium, you don’t want to be influenced by others…
The last book I wrote was a sort of quirky, romantic novel called The Man Who Ate the 747. It was a funny novel about a guy who loves a girl so much in Nebraska that he sets about eating an airplane to prove his love for her. This airplane has landed in his field and he’s a farmer and starts to eat it. The guy from The Guinness Book of World Records comes to authenticate this outlandish act because it would be a world record and he falls in love with the same girl.
That book was optioned as a movie, so I knew it was possible. I know that these things happen, but it wasn’t what I was thinking about.
Once it did get optioned, were there some castings that went on in your own head?
I have respect for movie professionals. There’s a little note on the back of the book, and I said that Zac Efron is a surprise to me because Charlie is older as you pointed out earlier. In my mind, he’s darker, sadder and definitely not as dashing and handsome. [Laughs.]
So it was a surprise. I came to understand the vision for it and what they were doing. I immediately understood that was a brilliant decision. As I wrote a little note on back of the book, “Thank goodness, I’m not a movie producer!”
Did you know who Zac Efron was when you found out he was casted as Charlie St. Cloud?
I did know who he was. I had seen him on Broadway and in Hairspray. Look, within 30 seconds of this news happening, I was the movies with my wife. I had moved back from California and I was no longer producing for Good Morning America/, I left that. I got an email while sitting at the movies and it said, “Congratulations!” It was from a friend of mine, and I didn’t know what that was about.
The news had just emerged that Zac was gonna be Charlie St. Cloud. Then the next 100 emails were from mothers of young women that I know. [Laughs.]
You’ve since written another novel, right?
Since Charlie St. Cloud, I wrote a non-fiction book called The Survivors Club, which came out last year.
And you have a website…
It’s called SurvivorsClub.org, which is a resource for people who are facing all kinds of adversities in life.
The themes of how people handle adversity and how people handle the toughest stuff in life, those are the things I’ve always been interested in. So how do you handle the crushing loss of your little brother? How you handle an airplane crash, a mountain lion attack, unemployment, foreclosure, how you handle tough stuff in life. So that’s what Survivors Club is about. It’s a non-fiction book, and that’s what the website is about.
We’re actually relaunching and partnering up with a big New York media company in a couple weeks to help people deal with adversity.
Have readers shared their stories or said how the site has helped them? Have people poured their hearts out to you?
It typically doesn’t happen in person, but it happens online because there’s a lot of ways people can use the site and communicate with us. It’s the same feeling, actually, when people reach out about this book. It’s surprising how many people reach out about the loss in their own lives and how they have been stuck or frozen and how this book gave them a little bit of comfort.
It’s the same feeling—it makes life worth living. It’s the fuel to keep doing what you do and to keep working harder to make the site better and helpful to people.
I would say in the context of the book and movie, to me, it’s a story about a young man and his kid brother and about all of us who inevitably lose somebody we love, and the choice we make whether to hold on or move forward. We all make that choice and part of what’s fascinating to me about the movie version is so many young people live as I did when I was in my teens and 20s and untouched by loss.
I saw a new statistic last week: One in seven young people loses a parent or close family member. It’s still a relatively small percentage, so it’s something that’s unfamiliar to young people, but something we all inevitably face.
So I think a lot of the themes are, the question you raised earlier, themes that are relevant and interesting to young people, but they’re also relevant to the parents and all of us.
A new study just came out last week that quantified what I had always intuited. Everybody deals with this, including young people and the one in seven number sort of struck me as it’s not a large number, but it still means it’s quite prevalent.
What is the breakdown in terms of your readership?
I don’t know. The movie business has much more information on demographics, stats and research. The publishing business, they’ve been publishing books for over 600 years, but nobody has ever called me up and said, “We’ve looked at your readership and it is 32 percent women.” But I can tell you from the emails I get about the book that it’s overwhelmingly women.
To the men who read it, I know that a lot of women have given it to men with brothers. The confessional emails that come are very startling. I would be surprised if men saw Charlie and Sam, and if it did not hit them right in the hearts in terms of their relationship, not just with their brothers, but their dads, which is where this came from for me.
We’ve come full circle because this really started out in the context of losing your dad, and it’s also about making a choice and how you live your life.
Interview by Jeanette Nguyen