EXCLUSIVE: Author Jacob Trussell Talks About His New Book ‘The Binge Watcher’s Guide to The Twilight Zone: An Unofficial Journey’

“There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call The Twilight Zone.”

Genre fans are no doubt familiar with those words, spoken by the legendary creator of The Twilight Zone himself, Rod Serling. The show has clearly stood the test of time since its debut on CBS in August 1959, nearly 62 years ago. And while there have been other permutations of The Twilight Zone (various other series, a film, comics and more), there’s no question that it’s the original that has weaved its way into the pop culture vernacular.

Author Jacob Trussell recently released The Binge Watcher’s Guide to The Twilight Zone: An Official Journey, part of Riverdale Avenue Books’ ongoing Binge Watcher’s Guide series, which also includes titles about Riverdale (the series), Black Mirror, and other works. A contributor to One Perfect Shot, Film School Rejects, and Rue Morgue (where I was lucky to work as a Staff Writer for a few years), Trussell dives deep into Serling’s creation, combing through the classic series and the themes that ran through its 156 episodes.

As a long time fan of the show in its various interactions, I was happy to talk to Jacob Trussell over email about how The Binge Watcher’s Guide to The Twilight Zone: An Official Journey came to be and his love of Rod Serling’s enduring work.

Andy Burns: Congrats on a great book – first off, tell folks how you discovered the Twilight Zone? What about it resonated so much for you?

Jacob Trussell: Thank you! I first discovered The Twilight Zone like many people did: through annual holiday marathons. My parents were big fans of the show, and would always tune in whenever a marathon was on for Thanksgiving or New Years. Five-year-old me would be glued to the TV, enamored by these stories that I found both fascinating and incomprehensible at that age. But even though I didn’t grasp the themes and subtext, I still found myself gravitating towards the show, whether it was in Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone novelizations, on The Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror”, or in that iconic pinball machine from the early 1990s. In a lot of ways, The Twilight Zone has always been a part of my life, lingering in the back of my imagination, and it feels like fate that my first published book would be about this influential series. I always knew it was popular, but I never knew just how important the show was until I started writing this guide.

Andy Burns: How did you wind up writing The Binge Watcher’s Guide to The Twilight Zone?

Jacob Trussell: A few weeks into the pandemic a website I write for, Film School Rejects, launched a March Madness style bracket called “One Perfect Binge” (FSR also operates the One Perfect Shot Twitter account). The goal for each writer was to make a case for why a certain show would make the perfect binge watch. My mind immediately went to The Twilight Zone, namely because of those holiday marathons. I realized that we’ve been binge watching The Twilight Zone long before we even knew what “binge watching” was. After I wrote this article, Lori Perkins from Riverdale Avenue Books reached out to me because in January of 2020, they launched a book series called “The Binge Watcher’s Guide,” and she felt, based on the strength of my article, that I would be the right person for the job. I’m both very lucky, and very grateful, that she gave me this opportunity.

Andy Burns: This is your first book, but you’ve written for well-known properties like One Perfect Shot and Rue Morgue. How was it writing something longform vs shorter pieces?

Jacob Trussell: The biggest difference between the two is the sense of scale. If you are writing a 1,200 word article, you have to narrow your focus and kill your darlings wisely because you only have so much space to make your case. With a long form piece like this guide, what you want to say has room to breathe and take on more nuances because you can cover your topic in far greater detail.

But on the other hand, long form pieces usually mean a lot more information and research you have to parse through, which can get overwhelming fast. So even though books have more room for minutiae, you still have to retain a similar pointed focus, especially if you are in a time crunch. I could have written volumes about the 1980s revival of The Twilight Zone that I mention in the “After You Watch” section of the guide, but I had to scale back because it would have eaten up a lot of time, and it ultimately wasn’t what this book was about.

There’s also a lot more freedom you have writing outside of the digital space. I moonlight from 9-5 as a content marketer, so I’m very in tune with the hyper specific parameters you have to write in to get your work seen when publishing blogs and other online content. With writing a book, I didn’t need to worry so much about shorter sentence structures, 150 word paragraphs, and streamlined language, because Google’s search engine wouldn’t be indexing this book in the way they index online articles. That gave me the freedom to really develop my own voice, free from the confines of search engine optimization.

Andy Burns: Tell me about your process when it came to writing your book – go deep, if you wouldn’t mind? Did you watch episodes and then write each entry? Did you carve out specific time each day to write?

Jacob Trussell: Between signing a contract and submitting my finished manuscript, my turnaround time was about five months, which meant I had to work fast. I had never written a book, but I had written complete episode guides for TV shows before so while I was a little intimidated by the scope of the project, I felt like I had already developed a framework for writing this type of content. Did that give me confidence I could do it? Absolutely! Was I still anxious AF? Absolutely!

What helped immensely starting out was that Lori wanted each of the Binge Watcher Guides to have certain sections in common, like “Before You Watch”, “If You Only Watch One Episode”, and “The Zeitgeist.” Because of these clear cut sections, I was able to quickly sketch out a loose skeleton and give myself a clear starting point.

Lori really wanted me to inject my own opinions and perspectives on the show into the book, which, as every writer knows, we’re always more than happy to do. Because I was writing this book at an important socio-political moment in history, I allowed that to inform my work, but even if last year hadn’t been what it was, this guide would still be the same. Rod Serling wrote The Twilight Zone to openly discuss hot-button social issues, and that fact is baked into the DNA of the show. He wrote The Twilight Zone because he had something to say, and I wanted to honour that legacy in this book.

Nuts and bolts though, my process for the actual writing of this guide isn’t that much different than my process for writing shorter pieces. I would watch a handful of episodes every day, and take detailed notes throughout on the themes, subtexts, ideas that really jumped out to me as unique, or modern. I would craft those notes into entries that would become my first rough draft of a season. As I completed one season, I would move onto the next, and once I had a rough draft of all five seasons, I would immediately go back and start revising. After those second round of revisions, I felt that the core of the guide was in a good place for me to move onto the other sections that would require more research, like into Rod Serling’s life, and the countless other revivals and related movies that sprung up in the wake of the original series.

I don’t know if I’ve ever met a writer who doesn’t get a little obsessed by their word count, but as this was my first book, let’s just say I was a little consumed by hitting my minimum. So much so that I broke down how many words I needed to write, section by section, episode by episode so I could give myself some clear metrics to hit, like 500 words for each entry, or 3,000 words for one section. This was purely a way for me to mitigate anxiety, but it worked and helped me blow past my minimum and write more words on one subject than I ever thought I could.

Two last important parts of my process. First, I put a high premium on writing at least five to six days a week, and most importantly, getting that daily writing done the first moment you can. If that’s in the morning, perfect, on your lunch break, dope, if that’s after work, you go you rockstar. Even if it’s 250 words, that’s 250 more than you had the day before. It’s no secret that writers dread writing, so sidestep that feeling and just get it over with. This will give you mental space to live your life, and not resent your passions.

Second, prioritize rest. I’ll typically write until I can’t think straight (be that 500 words or 2500 words) and then shelve what I’m working on for the following day or later in the week. Most likely that space will allow you time to forget some of what you wrote, so when you return to it you’ll have a little more objectivity than if you tried to edit when you were tapped out.

Andy Burns: What, if anything, did you discover about The Twilight Zone while delving into the series so thoroughly that you didn’t know before?

Jacob Trussell: It’s the fact that Rod Serling created The Twilight Zone specifically so he could discuss social issues, like racism and xenophobia, without being censored by television sponsors. There is an incredible 60 Minutes interview between Mike Wallace and Serling right before The Twilight Zone premiered where Wallace, essentially, challenged Serling that he was selling out by creating a genre series. But Serling had cut his teeth in live television dramas where he was always under threat of censorship by sponsors who didn’t want him writing about controversial subjects like McCarthyism or the murder of Emmett Till. With The Twilight Zone, he found his loophole. By using genre tropes like monsters and alien invaders, he was able to talk freely about important issues happening in the world, because he hid those messages within the show’s subtext. Compared to his other TV dramas like Patterns and A Town Has Turned to Dust, The Twilight Zone was relatively censor-proof. And because of that he was able to tell stories that no one else would, or could, at the time.

Andy Burns: If you could recommend one episode of The Twilight Zone to someone who hasn’t ever seen the series, which would it be and why?

Jacob Trussell: I lay out an argument in the guide for why “To Serve Man” is the best introduction to The Twilight Zone since it encompasses everything there is to love about the series, but I want to offer a different entry point: season three’s “Little Girl Lost”. Written by Richard Matheson, it’s the one episode that I think truly captures that sense of traveling into another dimension, that leverages science and superstition to create an incredibly simple story brimming with huge, existential ideas. Plus you’ll notice it bears more than a striking resemblance to Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist, one of my absolute favorite horror films.

Andy Burns: Finally, where can readers find your and your latest works?

Jacob Trussell: Best place to find me is on Twitter at @JE_TRUSSELL. I’m constantly sharing and retweeting all of my latest work, and dropping any news about upcoming projects!

Thanks to Jacob Trussell for taking the time to talk to Biff Bam Pop!, and to Alyssa Tognetti at Riverdale Avenue Books for helping make it happen. You can order The Binge Watcher’s Guide to The Twilight Zone: An Unofficial Journey here.

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