Jon Land – Photo by Rayzor Bachand

Jon, we want to get into this screenplay that originated with the Station nightclub fire 21 years ago today and a new book you have written — but first, please give us an overview of your extraordinary career. You are the author of more than 40 novels and many have been national bestsellers, correct?

Actually, more than 60 now, fast closing in on 70 if you can believe that—I can’t! The vast majority are fictional thrillers, but a handful are narrative or memoir-style nonfiction, especially since I’ve been doing a lot of ghostwriting. I’d tell you to check out my website, but it’s woefully out-of-date. Better than nothing, I guess.

Have any been adapted for screen?

Close but no cigar, as they say, except for an original screenplay, DIRTY DEEDS, I wrote that was released in 2005. But there’s been a big uptick in activity lately and I have no less than five projects currently being shopped by producers with another two on the way, including that upcoming book we’ll be speaking about later. This is not a business for the impatient or for those not good at getting up off the mat after they’re knocked down. It’s the one business I can think where you’re a star if you go one out of a hundred (submissions). One is all it takes.

Okay, tell us about your upcoming book, “Leave no Trace: A National Parks Thriller.”

 I wrote it under the pseudonym “A. J. Landau” with my friend and fellow author Jeff Ayers. It follows a disabled special agent for the Investigative Services Branch, the FBI of the National Park Service, racing to save the country from catastrophic attacks targeting national symbols like the Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall and the Gateway Arch, launched by a domestic terrorist group intent on overthrowing the government. I think it’s one of the best books I’ve ever done, especially for thriller fans and anyone who loves to visit America’s incredible National Parks. 

We see that you graduated from Brown University and live now in Providence. Tell us some more about your background.

Lifelong Rhode Island resident and I grew up in Barrington before returning to the East Side, where I was born and have no plans on leaving. I remain a very active Brown alum, particularly serving as vice president of the Brown Football Association and Alumni President of my fraternity where I still maintain close ties. Maybe I’ll grow up someday, but I’m not in any particular rush!

OK, now onto your screenplay “Lucky Dog,” It lists a co-author: Nick O’Neill. Who was he?

An immensely talented young man—only 18 and a terrific actor, musician and even writer—who became the youngest victim of the Station Fire.

We understand you became involved in this project after reading a column in The Providence Journal, which was a 2004 Pulitzer Public Service finalist for its coverage of the fire. I was a staff writer with the paper at that time and a member of the team that was so honored.

That coverage was phenomenal and played a big part in what I’m about to tell you. I’m about to share a story I’ve never shared publicly before. I don’t know what your or anyone else’s thoughts are in terms of what happens after our physical lives end, but I’m going to share this in the hope your readers will keep an open mind and to bring something positive out of one of the greatest disasters in Rhode Island history. A couple weeks after the fire, Journal writer Channing Gray wrote a remarkable Sunday column celebrating Nick O’Neill’s life, as the youngest victim of the tragedy. At that point, I had never met Dave Kane, his wife Joanne, or Nicky himself—at least while he was alive.

Nick O’Neill — Photo courtesy of Dave Kane

That all changed, my life all changed, after I read Channing’s incredibly moving article that truly touched me. For weeks after that, I had the sense I wasn’t alone, that someone was in the room, the car, the Brown basketball game with me. What am I talking about in specific? I was finding pennies everywhere. I knew what song would play next on the radio and the electronics in my house—phones, lights, TVs, pretty much everything—would go crazy for absolutely no reason.

So maybe I was the one who was going crazy. Having never had anything even remotely resembling what I started to realize was a psychic experience, I was really off kilter. Nicky became a kind of obsession for me and the only explanation, which I wasn’t ready to accept yet, was that he was reaching out to me to do something he could no longer do on his own.

I finally made contact with Dave, Joanne, and Nicky’s older brother Chris in either late March or early April of 2003, through the head of the All Children’s Theater, where Nicky was a star. We had lunch at Chelo’s and I was blown away to learn I wasn’t the only one getting signs from Nick. Almost all his friends and family members were, too. And it was at that lunch I learned Nicky had written a one-act play called “They Walk Among Us,” which, oddly enough, is about teenagers who die and return as guardian angels. It was beautifully written and as soon as a I read it I was struck by the notion of adapting it into a screenplay. And, at the same time, it dawned on me that this was the reason Nicky had come to me, so I could take his vision of the world to the next level.

What was that process like?

Well, first off, I learned Nicky loved to write late at night—so do I—but I mean really late in Nicky’s case, like 2 a.m. and after. This whole incredible experience has taught me a few things about the mystical elements involved. First, young people who pass before their time, and leave something important unfinished, are the exception to the rule about resting in peace. They’re not ready to rest yet because they don’t want to let go of the work they still have to do, which in Nicky’s case was about much, much more than a single person. Second, if you have a sense of what’s happening and want it to continue, you have to welcome them into your life. And I felt that by writing according to Nicky’s schedule that I’d be inviting him to participate in adapting his stage play into a screenplay. I even tried playing his favorite music, but that didn’t work because I need to write in total silence.

At regular intervals, I’d send his brother Chris, a tremendously talented theater director in his own right, the work we’d been doing. In response, his emails, which I still have printed out, would inevitably ask me how did I know this or that, specifically things from Nicky’s life I couldn’t possibly know . . . unless they came from Nick and not me. For instance, Nicky named his favorite stuffed animal as a kid “Rigby.” Well, the villain of the screenplay, a nameless character adapted from his stage play, was named Rigby Zorn. If you want to call that a coincidence, go ahead. But something else I’ve learned over the years is that coincidence is another word for God. I guess I became a literal ghostwriter before I became a figurative one.

Was there more?

We haven’t got enough space or words to cover it all. I don’t want to give anyone the impression that I was aware of Nicky’s presence in the course of the writing. It wasn’t like he was telling me where to put the periods and the commas. You write from your subconscious, from you imagination, and that became space I was sharing with him. Around this time, I met an incredible psychic medium named Cindy Gilman. She came up to me in a crowd, introduced herself and said, “You need to come see me, don’t you?” “Boy,” I said in response, “do I ever!”

Two days later I was in her office for a session which, again, would take too long to describe. But let me highlight one thing. Almost as soon as we got started, she said, “He’s not happy with you. You took the Station Fire out of his screenplay.” My mouth dropped. What Cindy couldn’t have known, what nobody knew, was that the screenplay version of Nicky’s stage play originally opened with what is clearly the Station Fire. But I was afraid that might be seen as exploitive and too on the nose, so I changed the opening to an equally tragic school bus accident. How could anyone know that? How could Cindy have known that? She couldn’t . . . unless Nicky told her. That confirmed everything for me, driving home the fact all this was really happening, and not at all the product of my supercharged imagination. (I still have that page from the original opening of the script.)

What would say to someone reading this who thinks you’ve fabricated this?

Somewhere around half the people in the country believe in what they call “ghosts”—I prefer “spirits.” [46% of respondents believe, according to a 2019 IPSOS poll. Other polls, including from Gallup, show large numbers of Americans also believe.] So if you believe in ghosts, why is it so hard to believe that there are times they do what Nicky did with me? When you stand back a bit, it makes perfect sense.

Was it just the screenplay or was there more?

I believe writing the script that would become LUCKY DOG established an indelible bond between us to the point that he began giving me messages to pass on to his family. There were, and are, dozens—even hundreds—of examples, the most striking of which happened after Nicky’s mother Joanne burned her hand on a stove that triggered a flashback to the night of the fire. She’d heard that he didn’t feel any pain but in that moment said out loud, “Nicky, please tell me it’s true that you didn’t suffer that night. Is that true?” That very day, Nicky told me to call his mother and tell her the answer to her question was, “Yes.” So I did and that call was immeasurably important to Joanne.

Can you give us a synopsis of “Lucky Dog”?

It’s been through several versions that have all stayed true to the form and message of Nicky’s stage play. But the latest and best by far is about a washed-up rock star who gets a shot at redemption by reuniting with the son he abandoned years before thanks to an angelic being who steers him in the right direction. In his stage play, Nicky wrote that character so he could play him when the play was finally produced. Finding an actor with the comparable looks and charisma to play that role is going to be the biggest challenge once the film gets made.

You’re that confident?

Yes. Yes, I am and so is Nicky. And how great it will be to be able to take something positive out of a senseless, horrible tragedy that destroyed so many lives?

You talk about him in the present.

Because he’s still a big part of my life, still giving me messages to pass on to his loved ones. And, if we had more time, I could tell you some things he’s done that nobody would ever believe. I’ll never lose the ability to be surprised, as well impressed, but nothing he does shocks me anymore.

So are there plans for “Lucky Dog” to be produced today?

We’ve been close on a few occasions, but I guess it wasn’t time yet. That time will come, though, I’m sure of it. It’s a great story with an incredible back story. And it’s a pleasure to share the title page with Nicky after “Written by.”

Is this the only paranormal, or mystical, experience you’ve had?

(chuckles) Well, now that you mention it . . .  Let me answer the question this way: Every great story needs a sequel, right? In other words, stay tuned!

Editor’s note: Author Land’s claimed experiences of his involvement with Nicky O’Neill and his family were brought to the attention of Ocean State Stories by Dave Kane, a comedian, radio talk show host and author of “41 Signs of Hope,” about his late son. In an email, Kane wrote “beginning the day after Nick’s passing, we began to get signs from him, letting us know he was fine. They have continued to this day… I wrote the book in 2005. I have received notes and calls from all over the world, from people who have loved Nick’s story.” Kane has been among the leaders of the movement to preserve the memory of the 100 people who lost their lives in the Station nightclub fire of Feb. 20, 2003 and, he said, “to insure justice for all of the other victims: those who lived but were injured.”

Watch a video of the makeshift memorials erected on the Station site in West Warwick before the Station Fire Memorial Park opened in 2017.