Though published in the early 1300s, the flames of Dante’s Inferno continue to inspire authors, from poets like T.S. Eliot to pop-culture favorites such as Dan Brown. Brendan Deneen, comic book writer and executive editor at Macmillan Entertainment, is the latest in a long line of authors to draw inspiration from Dante’s epic poem. His debut novel The Ninth Circle is the coming-of-age story of a misfit who runs away to join the circus, only to uncover dark secrets as he journeys with them across nine states. Here, we talk with Deneen about Dante’s influence on the novel, the trick to a book’s successful adaptation, and which circle of hell he’d likely find himself in.
Bookish: As the executive editor of Macmillan Entertainment, you create ideas for books that can be written and then pitched to film and TV agents for adaptations. What makes for a good adaptation?
Brendan Deneen: That’s a good question and hard to answer because I often think I know the answer and am proven wrong… or am surprised by the result. For instance, I thought American Bloodwas going to make a great TV show. Lo and behold, Warner Brothers optioned it for Bradley Cooper. I thought Stay was going to make a killer movie, and it just got optioned by a major television network. But I do think it comes down to character. Great characters always work, whether it’s a book, movie, TV show, video game, or happy meal. Especially a happy meal.
Bookish: Do you have a title that hasn’t been picked up yet for adaptation, but that you’re really excited about?
BD: I think I have to say the book that got Macmillan Entertainment started, way back in 2010. Technically, it was picked up but Summit Entertainment let the option lapse, so I’m going to use it anyway. It’s Tempest by Julie Cross, and it’s a kick-ass young adult time travel trilogy. It is such an obvious movie or TV show. Someday, somewhere, somehow, I’m going to get it made.
Bookish: As a kid you wrote an impressive 20 issues of a comic book called Marvel Man—have you ever considered reviving that project? Or have elements of that appeared in other comic work you’ve done?
BD: I loved writing Marvel Man as a kid! I was a horrible artist though. But it had multi-issue arcs, villains who would vanish for half a dozen issues and come back, often further mutated and even more evil/insane. I’ve been working with an artist named Tony Wolf to reboot it for the modern age. And am waiting to get sued by Marvel Comics.
Bookish: Your next graphic novel is The Island of Misfit Toys, coming out just in-time to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Of the original from the Christmas special, who is your favorite misfit toy?
BD: It’s funny, I watched that special every year as a kid and always loved the Misfit Toys, but never particularly thought of them individually. When I landed the writing assignment, that changed, obviously, and I ended up creating backstories for several of them, which in and of itself was a treat. I really dig Cowboy, but King Moonracer is also a total badass.
Bookish: The Ninth Circle is a love letter to Dante’s Divine Comedy. When did you first read Dante’s book and what did you think of it then?
BD: I read Dante’s Inferno in 1995, which is when I started plotting the novel. I thought it was amazing. It’s fundamentally about Italian politics during Dante’s life, which is hard for someone in the 20th or 21st century to really grasp without doing a ton of research, but I read a copy with fantastic footnotes and was able to craft a story that can be read independent of Inferno but also becomes much deeper when you’ve read Dante.
Bookish: If you found yourself in Dante’s version of hell, what circle do you think you’d be in?
BD: Ha, my lawyer advised me not to answer that question.
Bookish: You’re the editor of The Walking Dead novels. What are three things you learned as an editor that have helped you as a writer?
BD: The number one thing I’ve learned is to pare my language way down. Back in high school and college, I was kind of obsessed with Faulkner, so my sentences were way, way too long. I’ve learned to enjoy the beauty of simplicity. I know that’s only one thing, not three, but it is huge and has changed my writing in a significant way, hopefully for the better.
Brendan Deneen has been a professional comic book writer since 2006, when his critically acclaimed series Scatterbrain was released. Since then, he has worked on Flash Gordon, Casper the Friendly Ghost, and many others, including the upcoming The Island of Misfit Toys original graphic novel. By day, he is an Executive Editor at Macmillan Entertainment, where he edits The Walking Dead novels, among many others. He also has film and TV projects set up at MGM, Legendary Pictures, The Weinstein Company, and others. The Ninth Circle is his debut prose novel.