James Crowley shields himself from the midday sun beneath his Houston Astros hat as he sips a cold Topo Chico at Progress Coffee. The headgear serves a purpose, but it's also a reminder of a life spent working on movies. The 41-year-old held onto the hat following his time as locations manager on 2004's "The Rookie." Call it a professional perk.
The Anderson High School graduate first started working on movies in Austin in 1993 during his senior year at St. Edward's University, where he studied creative writing and English.
During the next decade, Crowley's work led him around the world, as he helped bring other people's stories to the big screen. During his down time, Crowley wrote screenplays, but he said he always wanted to revisit the idea of writing a novel.
He found inspiration while working on the movie "Hidalgo," which shot on the Blackfeet reservation in Montana. Although he did not initially know what he would do with the story he had started writing, after 30 pages, Crowley realized he had the beginnings of his first novel.
Set in the early 20th century, "Starfish" tells the story of Beatrice, 12, and her brother Lionel, 9, American Indian children attending the Chalk Bluff Boarding School on the Blackfeet reservation. When Beatrice tires of the antagonizing rule of the clergy and U.S. military officers on the reservation, she and her brother escape to the rugged wilderness of Montana. The young-adult novel follows the two on an exciting adventure across a gorgeous terrain depicted vividly by the experienced filmmaker.
"I worked with probably 50 crew members who were Blackfeet. Some were my age, some younger and some were older guys who had actually attended the boarding schools," Crowley said. "So that kind of opened my eyes. We all know about reservations and the history of it, but sometimes when you're standing there looking at it, it obviously has a lot more impact."
Though he knew the story he wanted to tell, the writing process had to accommodate his busy working schedule. The locations manager, who has worked Austin's triumvirate of big-name directors — Mike Judge, Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez — said he would work on a movie for eight or nine months, save up some money and then take a month or two to work on the book before returning to film work. He continued this cycle for five years before finishing the book in 2010.
The writing life proved to be a study in contrasts from his work on movies. Instead of weeks spent dotting the globe, working with large groups of people to achieve a single goal, Crowley would spend countless hours alone, crafting the novel. The change of pace, Crowley said, posed challenges and also offered its own set of rewards.
"Writing is just so much less complicated. Basically I only worked with my editor ... I solicited notes from other people, but it's just one person you're talking to," Crowley said. "With movies you're dealing with so many people and personalities ... Everyone has their two cents every step of the way ... So, yeah, it's a lot cleaner. Some of it's scary because anything that somebody didn't like in that book, I'm the only one to blame. So that's a little intimidating. I like the balance of it. Having (books) and the more collaborative aspect of moviemaking."
"Starfish" does not mark the first time Crowley has seen his written work produced. He wrote and directed a Western titled "The Journeyman" in 2001, but tailoring his work for a younger audience seems to have brought Crowley — who spent time during his college years working at camp for at-risk youth — a unique kind of satisfaction.
"I always thought someday I would teach," said Crowley, who comes from a family of teachers. "It's really cool talking to kids about (the book) and seeing what they're getting out of it. A friend of mine's sister's son wasn't doing real well in school and he read it and was talking about it at breakfast the next day, and his mom was so excited that he was excited about something. They went and got in the car and he left it in his room and he ran back to get it. That's so cool. If you can get a kid excited about reading, excited about going out into the wilderness and respecting it, and then learning something about our history and what we've done to this people, that's great."
Crowley says he is working on another book geared toward the young adult crowd, a group whose avid reading habits have impressed the first-time novelist. Following the historical fiction of "Starfish," Crowley says his next book will be a less weighty in tone. The film veteran, who is in the early stages of helping fellow Texan Luke Wilson produce a movie about the Mexican baseball leagues, has no interest in abandoning his career in film. In a perfect world, he says, he would direct a movie every two or three years and work on screenplays and books in his downtime.
So what would the business card read for the multihyphenate — novelist, screenwriter, director and locations manager?
"Storyteller," Crowley said. "But that would sound a little 'Where's my flute?' But that's what I love. Whether it's sitting' around with friends or listening to some great old guy at a bar, I just love hearing people's stories, and I love telling them."
"Starfish" hometown release party
When: Friday, 7 p.m.
Where: Bookpeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd.