Exclusive: PJ Haarsma, author and designer of Dr. Horrible remote

During the Dr. Horrible panel at Comic-Con, Nathan Fillion revealed that a friend of his, SF author PJ Haarsma had designed the iPhone car “remote” used for the heist of the Wonderflonium van in Act I.

In this exclusive interview for WhedonAge, we find out about the non-profit he started with Fillion, Kids Need To Read, how he got involved with Dr. Horrible and what the future holds for him.

PJ Haarsma is the award-winning author of The Softwire series of books. These books create a whole new world and are set in a future time. They are sci-fi books but they have very broad appeal (I certainly really enjoyed them!).  The pacing and action make them a sure choice for tempting even the most reluctant reader to give them a try. The first two books of the series have been released: The Softwire: Virus on Orbis One and The Softwire: Betrayal on Orbis Two. PJ is currently writing the eagerly-awaited book three.

In addition to his writing, Haarsma also co-founded the non-profit Kids Need To Read with Nathan Fillion (Firefly, Dr Horrible). This is a literacy program that is delivering much-needed books and resources to libraries and schools across America. They depend entirely on donations and the proceeds from the many fabulous auctions that they have. KNTR is making a big impact on the schools and foundations they help – see the ‘Donation Stories’ to find out more. The California Browncoats sold Limited Edition Serenity: Better Days #1 comics during the convention, with 100% of the profits going to KNTR

WoH: How did you first meet Nathan? How did ‘Kids Need To Read’ come about?

PJH: I met Nathan in LA. He came to a birthday party I was throwing for a friend. We were both Canadian, we both played Halo, what more do you need in a friendship?

KNTR came about from a group of Serenity fans who were writing my publisher to convince them to have Nathan record the rest of The Softwire. You can hear his three chapters here:  http://comics.ign.com/articles/746/746949p1.html

The letters were falling on deaf ears as my publisher doesn’t actually produce the audio. At the same time I had just finished a book tour of inner city schools. I was stunned to find schools struggling to put even one book on their shelves, so I pitched the idea of a charity to Nate. He loved it and we asked the fans to turn their attention to buying books for libraries instead of getting audio book made. They jumped all over it.

Visiting schools as part of your community work seems to be really important to you – what aspect of this do you enjoy the most?

Watching a child light up over a book. It’s tough for kids. Because of marketing they know what movies they want to see, what television shows they want to watch and watch video games they want to play, sometimes month before they are released. Yet, with books they are expected to walk into a bookstore with 100,000 titles spined out and pick up a book they’ll love. That is impossible without proper marketing and publishers just don’t connect with kids. Instead they market to the booksellers and educators who simply can’t keep up with the number of new titles every year. On top of that, as kids get older and try to carve out their own identities and tastes, they begin to rebel from the very people recommending the books to them. It’s a paradigm that needs to be changed and the only “crack” that I have been able to push through is to go directly to the schools and show the kids how fun a book can be.

As co-founder of Kids Need To Read you work hard to promote reading for all. Why do you think reading is so important?  Do you think reading is given the prominence it deserves?

It’s actually quite simple; reading leads to self education. If you are a person who believes that your education is finished when your schooling is finished then you’re in for a big surprise. The world changes at a break-neck pace. If we create generations of kids who can pick up a book and teach themselves something at any point in their lives, then we will be ahead of the game.

PJ Haarsma and Nathan Fillion at the KNTR signing, Comic-Con 08

How did you first become involved in Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog?

Nathan called me one night and asked me if I could make a “thing” that would work on his iPhone. He was vague and I really didn’t understand what he was doing. He mentioned something about a remote, Joss, and a musical. I remember thinking, “I hope you’re not singing.”

Did you meet with Joss Whedon and the rest of the team or was the design done remotely?

Nathan and I did this ourselves. We went back and forth together on the design a few times. I don’t have an iPhone so I would call Nathan to keep testing it out. I tried to make it as interactive as possible. All I knew was that someone was going to push a button to make a van move. When Nathan showed Joss he loved it. He just wanted the GAS and BRAKE buttons to be bigger.

Did you visit the set to see your remote control in action?

Again no. Remember, I’m the guy who didn’t see Firefly until just last year. The whole process was very informal. My friend called and asked for help and I did my best for him. Next thing I know I hear servers are crashing from his project. I’m just glad to have been a part of it. After Nathan announced it at Comic-Con, over 28,000 people clicked on the Softwire link in just 24 hours. I housed the remote on the Softwire server because that just happened to be the one I was working on when Nathan called.

Have you been following the intense Internet coverage of Dr Horrible and have you been surprised at the amount of interest in it?

I watched the whole thing at Nate’s house laughing the entire time, but I did not expect the enormous response at all. Before the con Nathan called and told me about the strain on the servers from the popularity. He thought if he announced it he might crash my game servers but I told him do it anyway.

Do you think Dr Horrible will change the way future entertainment is produced?

I don’t know. I would like to think the case of Dr. Horrible illustrates the success artists can obtain when they control their own content, but the suits in Hollywood are a pretty formidable bunch.

You are an award-winning writer and yet you’ve also designed a wonderful, free, online game on your website that is based on the Softwire books, the Rings of Orbis. Which came first for you – an interest in writing or computers/programming?

The writing was first. A friend told me that I needed a web presence since I was now an author. I browsed several author sites and thought to myself, “why would anyone ever come back to this site more than once?” I wanted to create a place fans could hang out between books, but I had no experience with computer programming or web design. I also didn’t have any money to pay people. I was forced to learn code by trial and error. It was one of the toughest things I have ever done but I’m very proud of the results. There are people who have been playing on the Rings of Orbis since the game’s inception almost two years ago. We also have a writing section where kids post short stories about their knudniks and I have expanded the Softwire universe way beyond the boundaries of the books. I just love it.

You have designed your books so that they appeal to a wide audience particularly boys who are ‘reluctant readers’. What sparked your interest in this group and why?

It wasn’t done on purpose. I simply set out to write a book I would read as a kid. A book that was short on description but packed with action and intrigue. I get so many emails from people telling me that their kid will only read The Softwire or adults who tell me they’ve never finished a book accept The Softwire. Just at this year’s Comic Con a fan told me that The Softwire was the book that finally got his son reading. It’s an extremely rewarding experience.

I did, however, approach the sci-fi genre in a particular manner. I wanted The Softwire to be a starting point for kids unfamiliar to the sci-fi genre. I love reading sci-fi, but I have to admit that some books make me feel dumb after a few pages. There are too many exotic terms or situations that prevent me from connecting to the story right away. But having read a ton of sci-fi I know that if I struggle through the beginning and stick with it, the story will start to click. I don’t think kids will do that and therefore they give up on some sci-fi books to soon. Sometimes they give up on the entire genre. By pushing the science to the back and keeping the story and characters upfront, I thought kids might spend a little more time with book. So far it’s worked. Lots of people tell me that they don’t read sci-fi but they love The Softwire.

What are you working on at the moment?  

I’m working on The Softwire series as a Manga comic in Japan. I’ve started a gaming company with my friend and author Frank Beddor, and I’m writing a new series about witches.

Do you a have release date for book three yet? And I have to ask: will we find out more about JT’s father in Book Three?

Book three will come out in March 2009 and book four the following year. Book three will tell us something about Ketheria. You’ll have to wait until book 4 to find out who JT’s dad is. Sorry. :)

A big thank you to PJ for taking the time to answer these questions and we wish him all the best for his future projects.

International Geek of Mystery, WoH was born in England and moved to the Fraser Valley, near Vancouver 12 months ago. Currently writing under this pseudonym to protect the innocent, she can also be found on her regular blog ‘the last geek bus home‘ and her irregular blog ‘Worldofhiglet’s Weblog

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