Interview with Hugo and Nebula Award Winning Author David Gerrold

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am honored to be interviewing Nebula and Hugo award winning author David Gerrold. David-GerroldDavid Gerrold is the author of over 50 books, several hundred articles and columns, and over a dozen television episodes. TV credits include episodes of Star Trek, Babylon 5, Twilight Zone, Land Of The Lost, Logan’s Run, and many others. Novels include WHEN HARLIE WAS ONE, THE MAN WHO FOLDED HIMSELF, the “War Against the Chtorr” septology, The “Star Wolf” trilogy, The “Dingilliad” young adult trilogy, and more. The autobiographical tale of his son’s adoption, THE MARTIAN CHILD won the Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novelette of the Year and was the basis for the 2007 movie starring John Cusack, Amanda Peet, and Joan Cusack. His web page is here.

David, you’re probably best known for your first sale, the Star Trek “The Trouble with Tribbles” classic episode (which you’re probably tired of talking about). It’s kind of a Cinderella story for writers, in that your sale would never happen these days. Or would it?

DAVID GERROLD: I think it would be a lot harder for a new writer to break into a prime-time show the way I did. Back then, most shows were written by freelancers. Today, most shows are written by staff writers, and there are less episodes in a season, so there just aren’t as many opportunities. And it’s a lot harder for an unknown writer to get his outline in front of a producer, let alone have it pass the “Is this good enough to take a chance?” test.

Back then, it was a lot easier for a writer to establish a reputation. Guys like Richard Matheson and Robert Bloch and Charles Beaumont and George Clayton Johnson were well-known as go-to guys for a good script. Today, because shows are mostly staff-written, it’s a lot harder for a TV writer to establish a reputation outside of his specific show, until he becomes a producer.

VENTRELLA: You’ve also written for one my favorite shows (Babylon 5), as well as scripts for Logan’s Run, Twilight Zone, and other TV series. star trekHow much control do you have over these scripts? In other words, do they get edited greatly by Hollywood types or are the end results usually what you wanted?

GERROLD: It depends on the producer. Joe Straczynski (Babylon 5) is one of the very best. He knows what a good script looks like and he respects writers who bring their passion to the story. He trusts writers. He doesn’t rewrite scripts unnecessarily.

Other producers (unnamed) can’t drink their coffee without first peeing in it to improve the flavor. Every writer has horror stories.

VENTRELLA: Your novel THE MARTIAN CHILD has to be one of your biggest successes, and that must be very satisfying to you given the biographical aspects of the story. Do you think the personal nature of the story hindered you in any way?

GERROLD: Actually, I think the personal nature of the story was enormously liberating. I didn’t have to make stuff up. It was already there. And because the focus of the story was about the relationship between myself and my son, I had an enormous wealth of material to draw upon. The story was about how much I love my son. Whether he’s a Martian or anything else, he’s my Martian. That’s the point.

I think the success of the story has to be that every parent who read the story or saw the movie recognized the experience of falling in love with their own child. I think it’s the best love story I’ve ever lived.

VENTRELLA: Were you happy with the resulting film–both as a film and given the changes that were made to the main character?

GERROLD: Where the movie stayed true to the love story, I enjoyed it enormously. I felt that there were things added to the movie that were unnecessary—-like all that business with sun block and weight belts.martian child I wanted one sequence from the book included, which I felt would have illustrated the core of the entire relationship-—that’s the “pickled mongoose” sequence, where Dennis learns how to tell jokes. I think it would have been a better movie with that included.

VENTRELLA: Money considerations aside, do you prefer books to scripts?

GERROLD: Scripts make more money, but disappear faster. Books are harder work. They’re a much more personal creation. I view books as a special kind of love affair with one reader at a time.

VENTRELLA: Through Land of The Lost and the Star Trek animated series, you worked with a number of great science fiction writers. Do you see that sort of thing in television today?

GERROLD: There was a moment when a producer (unnamed) who should have known better, said, “Don’t hire science fiction writers. They think they know more about my show than I do.” And based on the evidence, most SF writers do know more about science fiction than most TV producers.

On the other hand, there are brilliantly written shows like Dr. Who that demonstrate that an intelligent writer-producer can push the envelope over and over again.

VENTRELLA: You were originally involved in the first season of Next Generation but left as the lawyers took over … Has TV (and the movies) turned away from the people who know science fiction best to instead rely upon standard television scriptwriters too much? If so, are there exceptions?

GERROLD: See above. The exception is Dr. Who.

VENTRELLA: What’s your opinion on all the various Star Trek incarnations? Which is your favorite? (Not counting the episode where you had a cameo…)

GERROLD: A lot of good people have worked on a lot of different incarnations of Star Trek. But my favorite is still the original series, the episodes produced by Gene Roddenberry and Gene L. Coon—when Star Trek was about exploring a very big, very unknown universe. Book1-AMatterForMen-DavidGerroldIt was about challenging our heroes with the question, “How does this universe work? What is our place in it? What does it mean to be a human being?” Those stories were humane, subversive, disturbing, thoughtful, and ultimately caused a whole generation to think outside the boundaries of what we had previously believed to be possible. To me, that’s what Star Trek should be—a humanistic challenge, not just a franchise for selling toys and tickets.

VENTRELLA: Did you ever have a project you really wanted to do that fell through? Do you have any new ones you’re trying to get done?

GERROLD: The Star Wolf TV series. I think that would have been a wonderful show to work on.

And yes, I have some new projects I’m working on.

VENTRELLA: Most authors agree that they write for themselves, not others. Do you agree with that assessment? Is that a good idea for a starting writer?

GERROLD: I write for myself. I let others pay for the privilege of reading over my shoulder.

VENTRELLA: I remember reading your novel THE MAN WHO FOLDED HIMSELF when it first came out, and I still recall much of its plot–probably because I love a good time travel story. More importantly, the fun of the book was not the adventure, but the possibilities and consequences of time travel and world changing. Why did you decide to go in that direction instead of a straight-ahead adventure?

GERROLD: Because that’s where the story wanted to go.

VENTRELLA: Did you ever consider doing a sequel? Someone else gets the belt?

GERROLD: A sequel would be anti-climactic. There’s nothing else to say. (Well…that’s not quite true, but I’m not going to give it away here.)

VENTRELLA: Some established authors these days have begun placing their out-of-print catalogue in e-book format and selling it on the web, avoiding a publisher completely.the-man-who-folded-himself-7 Have you considered such a thing? Why or why not?

GERROLD: It costs money to print a book and distribute it. It doesn’t cost anything to make it available as an ebook, and the income goes directly to the writer. Having your back-list available to the audience is good business. I’ve got several stories available on Amazon.

VENTRELLA: I’ve been given advice, as a small time writer, to avoid politics on Facebook and my blog. I’ve ignored that advice. I note that you also post your political views from time to time, as well as visiting a political bulletin board. Do you think this has hurt your sales in any fashion, or do you not care?

GERROLD: Larry Kramer said it, “Silence equals death.” Martin Neimoller said it, “First they came for the communists,and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the socialists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”

I think that it’s important to speak up. Not speaking up is surrender. And the status quo is always the enemy. But if you’re going to speak up, do your research first. I believe that the evidence is the strongest argument.

But there’s an even larger context that I would advise. Be pro-, not anti-.  If you’re going to speak up, then speak up for people, speak out against injustice, speak up for making a difference, speak out against hate-mongering. If you identify a class of people and vilify them, you’re making enemies. But if you identify a category of people who have a just cause and speak out for them, you’re showing your compassion for others.

I think that if we remain silent, our silence is interpreted as agreement. Nope. I’d rather be unpopular for speaking out than accepted for the lie of silence.

VENTRELLA: Speaking of politics, one of the biggest issues for me is the anti-science position many take these days–arguing against climate change and evolution for political or religious reasons instead of scientific ones.13806 As someone who relies on science for your fiction, what’s your opinion on this? What should we do?

GERROLD: The answer to hate speech is more speech, honest speech, accurate speech, thoughtful speech, humane speech, rational speech, compassionate speech, forgiving speech, loving speech.

The answer to stupid speech is evidence, rationality, accuracy. And occasionally, a healthy bit of ridicule.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read for pleasure?

GERROLD: Terry Pratchett, John Varley, Spider Robinson, George R.R. Martin, Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, Alexandre Dumas, Laura Joh Rowland, Frederik Pohl, and about a thousand others who are stored on my Kindle and who I have not yet gotten to.

VENTRELLA: Fantasy has grown tremendously in popularity over the past twenty or thirty years and now outsells science fiction. Why do you think this is? What is it about fantasy that appeals to readers that they can’t get from science fiction?

GERROLD: Science fiction is harder to write. There’s so much new science happening every day that it’s impossible to keep up.

Fantasy doesn’t have the same restrictions, but writing a great fantasy might be even harder than writing good science fiction. I think George R.R. Martin proves that.

VENTRELLA: What advice would you give to a starting author that you wish someone had given you?

GERROLD: Quit.

If you’re going to be discouraged, be discouraged now and save yourself all that time and frustration.

But if being told to quit just pisses you off, then maybe you have the determination to keep going no matter how frustrated you get.9780812576085

VENTRELLA: Given your career, you’ve met a number of other talented and/or famous people. Who did you most enjoy meeting?

GERROLD: Robert A. Heinlein, of course. Theodore Sturgeon. Arthur C. Clarke. Spider Robinson. Anne McCaffrey, Frederik Pohl, Randall Garrett, Robert Silverberg, Harry Harrison, but especially Harlan Ellison who has been a lifelong friend.

Outside of the writing community, the entire cast of the original Star Trek series, especially William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, De Kelley, and Nichelle Nichols.

Beyond that, Robin Williams, Virginia Madsen, Candice Bergen, Pat Tallman, Brent Spiner, Jonathan Frakes, Levar Burton, Chase Masterson…I could go on for hours.

Oh yes, and one particular former Mouseketeer I had a kind of crush on once.

VENTRELLA: With a time machine and a universal translator, who would you invite to your ultimate dinner party?

GERROLD: Suetonius, Voltaire, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Kurt Vonnegut, and Gore Vidal.

Interview with Actress and Author Claudia Christian

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA:  I am tremendously pleased to be interviewing Claudia Christian today.  As you probably already know, Ms. Christian is an actress best known for playing Ivanova on one of my favorite TV shows of all time, Babylon 5! claudia_christian_24147 She’s done much more than that, of course, and her more detailed bio and filmography can be found here.  Today, however, we’re here to discuss her new book!

 Ms. Christian, I’ve just finished your new book BABYLON CONFIDENTIAL. This does not read like a typical Hollywood tell-all, but instead as a very personal diary of sorts.  Do you feel you accomplished what you set out to do?

CLAUDIA CHRISTIAN:  I wanted to spread the word about The Sinclair Method and save lives, so far I have accomplished both!

VENTRELLA:  You’re very forthcoming about your alcohol addiction and quite candid about other parts of your life.  Did you ever say “Nah, I’m not going to talk about that”?

CHRISTIAN:  No, I did not. I don’t believe that you can expect people to buy into something unless you are 100% honest.  besides, there is so much shame attached to addiction that I wanted other addicts to see the worst that I have been through so they could not only relate but also forgive themselves.

 VENTRELLA:  The title seems both a tribute to Babylon 5 but also the BABYLON HOLLYWOOD books that I used to read years ago.  How did you choose the title?

CHRISTIAN:  Morgan and I threw around titles for awhile then submitted them to the publisher, this one won.

 VENTRELLA:  The last few chapters of the book are almost a guide for those in a similar situation.  Have you heard from readers who were inspired by your tale to change their lives?

CHRISTIAN:  I have indeed! I have dozens of people on TSM and have helped support them, guide them and am thrilled to say that they have a nearly 100% success rate!

VENTRELLA:  The book reads like a rollercoaster – disappointment followed by great times followed by tragedy … Was there ever an attempt to sugarcoat something?BABYLON CONFIDENTIAL 

CHRISTIAN:  I’m not one to sugar coat things though I did lighten a few experiences to save face for other people. No need to be cruel in a book. I tried to be honest, period.

VENTRELLA:  Was writing the book painful or cathartic?

CHRISTIAN:  Both!

VENTRELLA: How did the writing cooperation work with Morgan Buchanan?

CHRISTIAN:  Fantastic … thank God for Skype!

VENTRELLA:  Are you happy with the reception the book has received  (Reviews, sales, comments, etc.)?

CHRISTIAN:  I am indeed though I wish more mainstream media would pick up on TSM.

VENTRELLA:  I first became aware of your work through Babylon 5, one of the best science fiction shows on TV.  Ivanova was everything we wanted in a strong leader, and many of us were tremendously disappointed when she didn’t appear in the final season (where she should have been captain!)  Anyway, sorry, let me get on with this;  I could gush about how well written, acted, and directed that series was for this entire interview.

At one point in the book, you make the comment that writer/producer J.  Michael Straczynski (who you call “Joe!”)  felt that if an actor was giving him trouble, he could always write a way to get rid of him – and in fact, that happened a few times.  Is that what happened to Marcus Cole (who played Jason Carter)?  ( I hope not, because that death was a great scene and deserved to be there!)

CHRISTIAN:  I cannot comment on things that JMS did simply because I am not in his mind…W22 114

VENTRELLA:  More importantly, do you think that happened to you?  You did not date him as he apparently wanted … I know the 5th season was not close to that incident, but do you think that he might have fought more for your return otherwise?

CHRISTIAN:  I had another job and we could not work out the schedule. It’s in the book very clearly stated how it went down.

VENTRELLA:  There were a few follow-up B5 films and sequels after the 5th season.  Have you ever been asked to be in any of them?

CHRISTIAN:  No … I only did the two TNT Babylon 5 films after the series ended and those were both fun.

VENTRELLA:  What is your one favorite scene or episode from B5?  (I have a prediction but I want to see what you think…)

CHRISTIAN: Death incarnate!

VENTRELLA:  Thought so.  (Here’s a link for those of you who are unaware).

You’ve done voice-overs in commercials, Disney’s “Atlantis” and video games such as Skyrim.  How does this kind of work compare to being in front of a camera?

CHRISTIAN: You don’t have to look good when you record!

VENTRELLA: Why do you think “Atlantis” wasn’t a bigger hit for Disney?

CHRISTIAN: Too dark and old school for these little kids nowadays … they like pink and frosting… :)helga

VENTRELLA:  And what is it about the name “Sinclair”?  There was Captain Sinclair in “Babylon 5″, and then your character in “Atlantis” was named Helga Sinclair, and then you were finally able to break your addiction with The Sinclair Method.  Coincidence?

CHRISTIAN: Who knows?! Conspiracy theorists arise!

VENTRELLA:  In BABYLON CONFIDENTIAL You spoke of some terrible experiences with crazed fans at conventions and the like.  (I do a lot of conventions and sadly, there are indeed people like that who attend, although the vast majority are wonderful people.)  Do the good experiences outweigh the bad enough to make attending the conventions worthwhile?

CHRISTIAN: Of course the good outweigh the bad …I love the fans.

VENTRELLA:  You also wrote a small book called MY LIFE WITH GEEKS AND FREAKS which does not seem to be available any more.  What was that about?

CHRISTIAN:  My experiences at conventions. It was a love letter to the fans, really.

VENTRELLA: Will that become available again?

CHRISTIAN: I think so.my-life-with-geeks-freaks-claudia-christian-paperback-cover-art

VENTRELLA:  Did your publisher purposely use “Star Trek” font for the book cover as a kind of inside joke?

CHRISTIAN:  Probably…

VENTRELLA:  When I read about the avant garde film “Tale of Two Sisters” I thought it might be so-bad-it’s-good worth renting, but after reading the reviews on IMDB, all of which pan it completely, I’ve changed my mind.  That must have been a very interesting experience.  Do you feel that was the worst film you’ve been in or is there something else out there you dislike more?

CHRISTIAN:  Thinking a film is bad is subjective; some people like that film … I have no idea what the worst film I have ever done is but I’m sure no two people would agree on that.

VENTRELLA:  I had never heard of the British TV show “Starhyke” until reading your book and now I want to see it!  It’s apparently never been released on DVD in America although I was able to find some clips on YouTube.  That looks like it was a lot of fun.  Why wasn’t there a second season?

CHRISTIAN:  Lack of funds.

VENTRELLA:  Then there’s “Taboo.”  Tell me about that!  How did that come about?

CHRISTIAN: I love making music…..taboo

VENTRELLA: Do you plan on  doing any more music?

CHRISTIAN:  Not really, too busy with other projects and I am not a very good singer; I just did it for the fun of it.

VENTRELLA:  You mention your huge personal library.  What do you like to read?  Who are your favorite authors?

CHRISTIAN: I love historical fiction and biographies. I love CJ Sansom, Peter Ackroyd, Bernard Cornwall, Neil Gamain, Edward Rutherfurd, etc. etc.

VENTRELLA: Have you ever read any of the Babylon 5 books?  Do you ever go “Ivanova would never do that!”?

CHRISTIAN:  No I have not, I’m not a sci fi fan.

VENTRELLA: What other projects are you working on?  When will we see (or hear) you next?

CHRISTIAN:  Tor is releasing “Wolf’s Empire” in 2014 ,another book by Christian-Buchanan

I am also still working on promoting TSM and will be doing so for the rest of my life, it’s my raison d’etre.

Interview with writer and artist Darrin Bell

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I admit; when I was younger I wanted to be a cartoonist and draw a daily comic strip. I drew comics for my school newspapers and doodled all over my schoolbooks. Even though that idea was dropped as I started college, I still have a huge collection of comic strip books.

What people do not always understand about comics are that the best ones are written. The artist thinks about characterization and plotting just like novelists do, but with huge limitations.

Anyway, today I’m pleased to be interviewing Darrin Bell, who writes one of my favorite current strips, Candorville. (Come on, this is my blog, I can interview whoever I want!) There are four books collecting the daily strips, one of which features an afterword by yours truly. Check out his web page for more information!

Darrin, you approach your strip differently than most comic strip authors do. While you still strive for that punch line every day, you also are working on a long-term plot that evolves over the years. What made you decide to go this route?

DARRIN BELL: Two words: Babylon Five.

I grew up on TV, like most kids of the Eighties. I was used to B.A. Barrachus getting shot at the end of the episode, and then being absolutely fine the next one. I was used to Spock shouting one episode, and then saying Vulcans don’t have any need to raise their voice in the next one. I was used to episodic TV, and in my mind, serialized equalled “soap opera.”

It also equalled bullshit. Because the soaps my mom watched completely ignored their own continuities. Most famously, Dallas. The Bobby Ewing-in-the-shower thing defined serialized storytelling for me. Authors would paint themselves into corners and then have to pull ridiculous stunts to get out of them.

But then Babylon 5 came along.

And Straczynski seemed to paint himself into corners, and I’d wonder how he’d get out of them, but he didn’t. He just knocked down the wall and kept going. Change became a constant.

Suddenly episodic TV seemed stale and formulaic to me. When Star Trek: Voyager came around, and the ship was nearly destroyed one episode, and new and shiny the next… and shuttles that were destroyed seemed to spontaneously reappear the next week, it was false to me.

VENTRELLA: Impressive to me was how he would plant a plot and then leave it alone for two years or more to come back to it and suddenly everything that happened earlier makes sense. (I’m thinking of the episodes where they visit Babylon 4)…

BELL: Definitely, that was my favorite aspect of the series. I’d read that he described it as a “novel for television.”

VENTRELLA: So did you decide to be a comic artist first or a storyteller first?

BELL: Storyteller.

I was lucky enough to grow up at the height of Chris Claremont’s run on X-Men, and Marv Wolfman’s run on Teen Titans, and these guys were epic storytellers. I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I also knew that the pictures John Byrne drew were equally responsible for the endless nights I spent huddled under my blanket with a flashlight and the comics I’d stolen from my brother. So to me, graphic storytelling went hand in hand with the written word. I wanted to draw comic books.

VENTRELLA: But you went to school for political science…

BELL: I did.

I actually thought about law school. For a minute or two.

The thing is, I have an older brother who practically raised me. And for the first half of my life I followed in his footsteps. Including his interest in history and politics.

But we’re different creatures. While he paid attention in class, I let my mind wander. I’d draw cartoons about whatever the teachers were talking about, and pass them around the class. I thought I was ignoring them, but oddly enough I did very well because I wasn’t just listening to them, I was letting them inspire mockery.

VENTRELLA: How did that get you into doing comics as a career?

BELL: In a roundabout way…

I was in gifted and talented programs in Jr. High and High School, and I realized my interest in history and civics was outpacing my interest in art (I’d been drawing since the age of three). That’s when the man who sparked my interest in politics (Pat Buchanan) became the same man who sparked my interest in journalism. In 1988, a Pat Buchanan ad where he portrayed a Gay Pride parade as proof we were going to hell, pissed me off. I had barely noticed politics before this, but I sure as hell paid attention to it afterward. It just seemed so monstrously unfair, and the prospect of someone like him leading the country scared the shit out of me.

Anyhow, four years later, I was flipping through channels looking for coverage of the Clinton-Bush campaign, when I saw that same guy on TV. Pat Buchanan. He was so smug and full of his own opinion, but I noticed he looked really, really happy. And it occurred to me, I’d be happy too if millions of people were listening to my bullshit ideas and taking me seriously.

So I asked a guidance counselor, how do I become a talking head on TV? She said I’d have to be a journalist first.

So I joined the school paper, and quickly became the Opinion page editor, then editor in chief.

VENTRELLA: Here’s my headline: “Bell Inspired by Pat Buchanan”

BELL: hahaha

One week, a few of my reporters didn’t turn in their work (must’ve been a party the night before that they didn’t invite me to…) So I had an hour to fill all those holes. I drew a bunch of cartoons and pasted them in (that sounds so prehistoric now). People loved them.

In college, I tried writing for the Daily Californian (at UC Berkeley). Interviewed a senator, a governor, and a congressman. I wrote a couple hard hitting articles that I barely remember now. Nobody paid attention. But at the same time, I started drawing cartoons for the paper, and again… people loved them. That’s when I knew that’s what I should be doing.

VENTRELLA: How did you end up with Matt Richtel?

BELL: While I was still a freshman, I started faxing my editorial cartoons to the LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and the Oakland Tribune. The LA Times was the first paper to pick them up. The editor there told me I was the youngest regular contributor to their opinion page in the paper’s history (I was 20). The Times paid well. The Chronicle and the Tribune, not so much. About $20-$30 per cartoon.

One day, I faxed a cartoon to the Tribune, and got a call. I was hoping it was the opinion editor telling me I’d be getting another $20. But it was some guy named “Matt Richtel,” who said he was the paper’s business reporter. He had started developing a comic strip called “Rudy Park,” and had a development deal with Universal Press. But Universal didn’t like the art. Matt had been walking past the Tribune’s fax machine when my cartoon came in, picked it up, and called me to ask if I thought I could adapt my style to a four panel strip.

The Daily Cal had, for a couple years, been running “Lemont Brown,” the precursor to Candorville. And I’d just built a website. So I sent him to the site. A few minutes later we were working together. The development deal fell through. I’m pretty sure we lost out to The Boondocks, which was also in development.

VENTRELLA: I assume you created Candorville because you wanted to do the writing.

BELL: I created Candorville in 1993 as a class project, and kept doing it through college for the college paper (only back then it was called “Lemont Brown”). Not doing the writing was never even a consideration for me. It was more like I was doing Rudy Park because I wanted the experience of collaborating with another living person; since the rest of the time I was holed up in my apartment writing and drawing three “Lemont Browns” and four editorial cartoons per week. I finally decided to get Candorville syndicated because the editorial cartooning market was drying up.

VENTRELLA: Which one has wider circulation?

BELL: Candorville, Ironically.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about writing, since that’s the theme of my blog … It’s clear that you’ve planned out a long-term plot for your strip; how detailed has that been?

BELL: It’s not very detailed, it’s more of a skeleton. An outline. I know where I want my characters to be by a certain year, but I don’t exactly know how to get them there.

And I know how it’s going to end.

VENTRELLA: End? You plan on ending the strip?

BELL: That’s where I was going with the Babylon 5 reference. The reason Straczynski never painted himself into a corner, the reason he was able to blast through the wall instead, was because he didn’t have to come back. Characters could change and not have to be redeemed, because people wouldn’t have to still like them enough to keep watching for ten or twenty years.

Candorville has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Just like B5. Only the time frame is ten times longer. The story’s gonna take fifty years to tell. Stories without ends aren’t really worth reading.

VENTRELLA: Impressive. I admire it when comic strip writers end their strips instead of carrying them on zombie-like.

BELL: Me too. I’ll never forget 1995.

VENTRELLA: When Calvin and Hobbes ended?

BELL: Not just Calvin and Hobbes. Bloom County and The Far Side too. It was a traumatic year for a comics fan like myself.

VENTRELLA: I didn’t realize those all ended the same year, although I recall it all being close.

One of the major plotlines you established early was Lemont’s fling and subsequent child … that started in the first year if I recall.

BELL: I think it was the first year. That’s something that took on a life of its own. It wasn’t in the outline at all.

VENTRELLA: Well, that’s interesting. It’s been going on strong since then… but I’d like to ask about that, especially given something you said earlier in this interview. Although your characters deal with the supernatural from time to time, they never break the 4th wall … we’re supposed to take it pretty literally. And lately, with that plotline, there are all sorts of questions about reality — is this really happening or is Lemont imagining everything?

So here’s my question…

You’re not going to pull a Dallas on us, are you?

BELL: I always ask myself, at nearly every turn, WWJMSD?

VENTRELLA: Don’t disappoint us.

BELL: What would J. Michael Straczynski do?

VENTRELLA: Yes, I know! We nerds get that stuff.

BELL: Haha! I forgot who I was talking to. I know what happened in the story. But I reserve the right to leave it open to interpretation.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about Lemont. First of all, did you give him the last name “Brown” as a tribute to Charlie Brown?

BELL: I did. And I gave him the first name “Lemont” in tribute to Sanford and Son.

VENTRELLA: And I assume it is no coincidence that he wants to be a writer.

BELL: No coincidence at all. Part of the outline, from the outset, has been my main character’s grasp – or lack thereof – on reality. And I had two choices if I wanted to sustain that and still explain how he feeds himself: I could make him a perpetual inmate at a psychiatric hospital, or I could make him a writer. So the time travel and all the supernatural stuff can be easily explained (by readers who just aren’t into that stuff) as being part of this writer’s imagination.

Stephen King touched on that in a Candorville storyline last year. Well…

VENTRELLA: Yes, I remember that — King admired Lemont’s imagination. Did you hear from King after that ran?

BELL: No, I doubt he’s heard of Candorville, much less that he’d take the time to write to me about it. I thought of sending the sequence to him, but never did.

VENTRELLA: Given Lemont’s love of science fiction, it’s not hard to assume he has much in common with you. How much of your family life is in his?

BELL: Bits and pieces here and there. It’s inspired by my personal life, but it’s not autobiographical.

Roxanne becoming a vampire was 100% inspired by my breakup with my ex wife. For two reasons. (1) The obvious, and (2) Where I WAS going to go with the story turned out to be way too close to home for me. Suddenly it wasn’t funny anymore and I wanted to deal with it more metaphorically.

VENTRELLA: Being funny can be a big limitation for storytelling, especially if you have to be funny every single day and with only a few panels in which to do it…. so how do you do it? I mean, you must have to be very economical with your words…

BELL: I don’t worry about it. When Candorville got syndicated, I sat down and tried to figure out exactly what it was I liked about my favorite comics as a kid. And what they all had in common was, ironically, that they often weren’t funny. I often laughed at them because of some truth they delivered to me, not because of a punchline. Calvin and Hobbes, for instance… I’ve almost never laughed at that, but it’s one of my favorites. So I don’t try to be funny, I just try to speak my truth and hope other people relate to it.

I do have to be very economical. Sometimes I wish Candorville were a TV show, where I’d have dozens of pages to set up and explore a humorous or tense situation. But I only have a couple panels in which to do that, and then a couple in which it has to pay off.

It’s actually relaxing, though, whittling my complex ideas down. It’s like trimming a bonzai tree.

VENTRELLA: Speaking of themes, you have not shied away from politics — which is one of the reasons I enjoy the strip so much. Have you found that to be something that has helped the strip’s popularity or hurt it (at least with editors)?

BELL: I used to wonder about that, but I’ve come to think it’s impossible to know. Some editors have dropped it because of the politics, but others have bought it because of the politics. And still others subscribe to it despite the politics.

VENTRELLA: Well, it wouldn’t be Candorville without the politics.

BELL: It wouldn’t.

I wouldn’t do it without the politics.

Candorville has an underlying structure, an outline. But on its surface it’s pretty stream of consciousness. And if I had to censor myself every time I was concerned with politics, it wouldn’t be fun for me.

VENTRELLA: You recently posted a pretty political 9/11 strip when every other cartoonist was doing a traditional tribute. How was that received?

BELL: A lot better than I’d expected. There was some grumbling online, but it was vastly, vastly outnumbered by people expressing relief that someone was in an introspective mood instead of joining in on the 9/11 somberpalooza and jingoism fest.

VENTRELLA: And it’s not like you hadn’t said the same things before in earlier strips.

BELL: I knew pretty much everyone else was going to focus on who we lost on 9/11, and I thought it was more useful, more productive, for me to do what I’m good at, which is speaking my mind even when others think it’s inappropriate. Especially when others think it’s inappropriate. I said a similar thing a month ago, to foreshadow this one.

VENTRELLA: But you did discuss what we lost on 9/11 — other things we lost.

BELL: Let me rephrase: Others were going to focus on who we lost. I focused on what we lost.

We lost our collective mind. We lost our soul. We lost our identity, which led to us losing our credibility.

We lost our way.

VENTRELLA: You’ve tried to remain topical… most cartoonists have to get their strips done months in advance, but you actually drew all new strips when binLaden was killed and had the syndicate put them out before anyone else.

BELL: I did, I have a one week lead time.

I went out of my way early on to establish devices I could use whenever I have a chance. One reason I made Lemont a journalist – and made it clear he’s got a wild imagination (which may or may not be reality) was so I could have him give famous people their exit interviews when they die.

VENTRELLA: Your strip today discusses Obama as Ellison’s INVISIBLE MAN – is this something to be admired, in that it’s a way to accomplish your goals behind the scenes?

BELL: I’m hoping people will read INVISIBLE MAN and that might help answer whether it’s something to be admired.

The same person who says that’s how black men have to behave, was ashamed for having done so. It’s up to readers to decide whether it’s something to be admired, or whether it’s even really necessary in 2011.

VENTRELLA: The worry is that if Obama were to be as aggressive as many of us Democrats would like, he’d be attacked as being the “angry black man”?

BELL: Not only that, but he might get assassinated. When black men in Ellison’s day didn’t act invisible, they were often persecuted, shunned, and sometimes lynched. America hasn’t come far enough that it’s willing to tolerate a black leader who isn’t humble and demure. That’s one reason why Americans respect Colin Powell, and dismiss Jesse Jackson. America may have moved past that. But we won’t know until somebody tests the waters.

VENTRELLA: Someone always has to be the first.

BELL: There’s a school of thought that the first black anything has to be humble and submissive, and quietly excel. He has to be Jesse Owens, or Jackie Robinson, or Nat King Cole. Then the next generation can be brash. The first has to be Nat King Cole. The second can be James Brown.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about publishing. You’ve self published your last few books.

BELL: …and am selling them exclusively online and at conventions.

VENTRELLA: Which conventions do you attend?

BELL: Last year, none. Too much personal drama (which I worked into the strip). The year before, only Wondercon in SF. I sold all the books I brought with me. I want to attend more in 2012, but only in cities where the paper runs my strip.

VENTRELLA: Ever plan on coming here to the East Coast?

BELL: I’m not planning on it, but it’s a possibility. If I ever break into an NYC paper, or if there are any conventions around Virginia or Georgia (where the strip runs in some big papers), sure. Otherwise I’m not sure it makes financial sense.

VENTRELLA: The NY Daily News just stupidly cut an entire page of comics, and I stopped buying it every day.

BELL: Papers everywhere are doing that, and they’re shooting themselves in the foot. Most people cite the comics as the #1 reason they buy the paper.

VENTRELLA: Why isn’t there a convention for comic strip fans? They could have it right before the Reuben Awards when everyone is in town…

BELL: I don’t know. Comic strips are sort of an appendage to comic book conventions.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about character development … what efforts do you make to keep your characters from being one dimensional?

BELL: Motivation and backstory. Every character has a backstory that I’ve never spelled out, but that I can draw on from time to time. For instance, Sasha Mitchell is a Jamaican immigrant. I never mentioned it until recently (when it became germane to the plot) but it’s always informed how she relates to men, and it is a basis for her fears and hopes. And I approach every scene the way a screenwriter would: Each character enters the scene with his/her own goal, a goal that is based on that character’s backstory. And the goals usually conflict, sometimes causing the character to become introspective.

So… motivation, backstory, and goal.

VENTRELLA: Have you taken creative writing courses or otherwise studied writing techniques?

BELL: No, everything I know about writing I learned from reading comic books and watching TV. (Oh, and reading novels)

VENTRELLA: In fact, I have a blog post about that issue, in that the best way to learn is to read others and see how they do it, so I agree with you there. But also it’s making sure your characters do not always act predictably — because people are not always predictable. And that is something I have seen you do in your strip.

BELL: Thanks for noticing.

The problem I have with most comics is, they bore the hell out of me. People never change, they always react the same way, and feel about each other the same way they did last month and last year. In real life, people can change from moment to moment, let alone from year to year.

VENTRELLA: Well, most aren’t interested in telling a story — they are joke-a-day strips.

BELL: True.

VENTRELLA: Which story comics do you like? (Don’t say Funky Winkerbean, Don’t say Funky Winkerbean…)

BELL: I won’t read that strip until I have health insurance and can afford the Prozac.

VENTRELLA: Heh!

BELL: But you may not like my answer any better: the last story strip I liked was For Better or For Worse.

VENTRELLA: No, I agree with you — I have quite a few of those collections. Good characters.

BELL: I loved how she would juggle several different storylines, and how characters would grow apart, and come back into each others lives in unpredictable ways. And the characters weren’t predictable. They made mistakes, learned lessons (sometimes the wrong ones), etc.

VENTRELLA: That is what makes us go back again and again — because we like the characters, they are real to us, and we want to know what happens to them. It’s true with TV shows and movies and all storytelling. The jokes and the special effects don’t matter if we don’t care about the characters

BELL: Neither does the artwork.

VENTRELLA: Exactly.

How about political strips? Any you really like?

BELL: I like Non Sequitur, and I liked Bloom County.

VENTRELLA: Have you been able to meet many of the artists who do strips you like?

BELL: Wiley’s a friend, and I met Berke Breathed. I signed books next to Lynn Johnston, hung out a little with Jim Borgman and Jerry Scott … Lalo Alcaraz and Keith Knight too. It’s all been very surreal.

VENTRELLA: It’s a world I’m not privvy to…

BELL: Oh, and Stephan Pastis almost killed me once.

VENTRELLA: Sounds like him. Care to share that story?

BELL: I’d driven up to Santa Rosa to help judge the comic strip category for the Reubens. Afterward, we all went out to lunch. But Stephan didn’t have any money. So I went with him while he drove to find an ATM. He was in the middle of telling me some sort of story, and talking with both hands (don’t ask me how he was steering) when a big white van pulled out into the street in front of us, to make a left. Stephan seemed to see it, but also seemed not to think anything of it. He didn’t even slow down. I have no idea what would’ve happened if that van hadn’t moved just a second before we got to it. He just continued on with his story while I filed the experience under “things to talk about years from now in interviews.”

VENTRELLA: Perfect.

BELL: Years later, he and I were on a successful panel discussion in Walnut Creek (the video’s on my site somewhere). I turned that discussion into a Candorville storyline the next year (the Stephen King story)

VENTRELLA: What’s your thoughts on the 2012 election? I came out of the 2008 one so enthusiastic for the future of our country, and now…

BELL: I feel like I’m part of the rebel alliance and this is the Battle of Hoth, and I’m just praying a Tonton will amble by so I can gut it and climb inside for warmth…while the republic crumbles.

VENTRELLA: And you thought the tea party smelled bad on the outside!

BELL: Hahaha!

I think we’re witnessing the death of the republic. Republics end when the citizenry loses respect for both their intellectuals and their government. Mitt Romney doesn’t scare me. Michelle Bachmann doesn’t scare me. Perry doesn’t keep me up at night. What scares me is how pervasive the hatred toward specialists, intellectuals, and teachers has become.

It’s hard for me to imagine anything good could come from that, or that we can pull ourselves out of that death spiral. And it is a death spiral.

VENTRELLA: The anti-science crowd and the pro-death crowd scares me. They cheered someone dying because he didn’t have health insurance at the debate recently! They’ve become the Death Panels.

BELL: They have. But I saw this coming. They’re the Orwellian party that was perfectly ok with “free speech zones” and who supported a man who said “to have peace, you have to have war.” Whatever they accuse others of doing, is pretty much what they’re going to do.

VENTRELLA: Do you think Obama will be any different if he wins re-election? Will he be more aggressive?

BELL: I think he’ll be a lame duck, with no successor for Congress to fear (Biden’s not gonna run, Hillary probably won’t run). I think he may believe he’ll be more aggressive – and he’s regularly hinted to his base that he’ll be more attentive to them later – but if he believes that, he isn’t paying attention to history. Presidents rarely exceed the achievements of their first terms. Even Clinton’s excellent second term was entirely based on what happened at the end of his first.

I think Obama’s squandered the biggest opportunity a Democrat has had since FDR’s day to shape the narrative and transform the debate and the country, and it’s too late for him to fix that. The perception of him as a weak leader has taken root among his base, and that is usually the death knell.

VENTRELLA: I’m afraid you’re right.

BELL: I would so love to be proven wrong. But even after his latest big speech, he immediately backtracked and said he’d sign whatever part of it Congress sends him, which we all know is going to be only the tax cuts. That’s not going to create jobs, it’ll just make the problem worse.

VENTRELLA: His low ranking in the polls isn’t from conservatives; they already didn’t like him. It’s from liberals and moderates who are abandoning him. So why he keeps trying to appeal to those who will never support him while ignoring his base is beyond me.

BELL: It’s not beyond me.

I come from a similar background. I’m mixed, so I’ve always felt a little like an outsider. My dad left when I was a kid, and I spent years dealing with abandonment issues. All of that leads me to want approval from people who don’t want to give it to me. It’s a constant battle, and I think creating Candorville and being so forthright with my opinions is my way of conquering that tendency. I see the same trait in Obama that I have in me, the same irrational urge to win the approval of those who will never give it to him. The same urge to reach out an open hand to people who are going to respond with a fist.

VENTRELLA: Wow, that’s a great way to end the interview. Good conclusion, and unexpected.

BELL: That’s what I do!

Interview with NY Times Bestselling Author Peter David

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’ve been a fan of award-winning author Peter David for quite some time now, beginning with his Star Trek novels and progressing through his Knight Life and Sir Apropros series, so I’m quite pleased to be welcoming him to my blog today!

Besides novels, Peter has written comic books (Incredible Hulk, Aquaman, Supergirl), television shows (Babylon 5, Space Cases, Ben 10), short stories, blogs, and more. Check out his web page and his wikipedia page and prepare to be overwhelmed.

Peter, what was your first big break into the business?

PETER DAVID: Well, I suppose my first really big break was landing a job in the sales department of Playboy Paperbacks, a now defunct but once very literary publishing company that published such authors as Anne Tyler and Morgan Llywelyn. It was through Playboy Paperbacks that I met a woman named Sharon Jarvis—an editor at the time—who eventually became my first lit agent and wound up, in turn, selling my first novel, KNIGHT LIFE. And things just kind of snowballed from there.

VENTRELLA: You’ve also written many comic books – do you find the limitations inherent in the graphic novels to be a major problem?

DAVID: Not really, no. I’ve been doing it for over a quarter of a century; if I was still being frustrated by limitations, then I wouldn’t have learned very much in the intervening years. Plus there are advantages, such as that the artists can convey things visually that normally you’d need a ton of prose to put across. So you can really concentrate on dialogue and character development. “Show, don’t tell,” is one of the axioms of fiction, and what better way to show than through the medium of graphic novels?

VENTRELLA: For your media tie-in novels, do you make proposals or do the studios come to you directly now?

DAVID: If you mean novelizations of movies and such, the book publishers approach me about working off the screenplays to produce novels of them. On the other hand, when I did the original novels based on the video game “Fable,” the guys at Microsoft asked me to pitch a plot to them for the second one (as opposed to the first one where they gave me a basic outline). And the New Frontier novels I pretty much just go off and do whatever I want. So there’s a variety.

VENTRELLA: Do you find using established characters in your media novels to be a limitation?

DAVID: There are inherent limitations, sure. You’re aware that you’re playing in someone else’s sandbox with someone else’s toys, and like any good guest, you have to be sure not to damage them and return them intact when you’re finished. But you learn to work within and sometimes around those limitations.

VENTRELLA: Which Star Trek character do you most enjoy writing? (I recall some hilarious scenes with Worf, especially concerning the size of his medals…)

DAVID: Well, obviously my favorite is Mackenzie Calhoun. He’s my guy, my captain. So I’m going to have the deepest affection for him. Of the Next Gen crew, I’d say Worf, yeah, although I do particularly enjoy writing Riker and Troi as a couple.

VENTRELLA: You were also given the unusual freedom to create your own Star Trek ship and crew with the New Frontier series. How did this come about?

DAVID: That was then-editor John Ordover convincing Paramount that doing a book series that wasn’t directly rooted in a TV series was a good idea. Once he got Paramount to sign off on the basic concept of the New Frontier world, he came to me and asked me to flesh out the mission and develop the characters. Shelby, Selar, and Lefler were always in the mix because he wanted to have a few characters from the TV series in whom readers had a vested interest, but I had total freedom to create the rest of the crew. I suppose the freedom stemmed from Paramount being convinced that the series would tank and so they weren’t feeling particularly controlling about what I came up with.

VENTRELLA: I enjoyed your Babylon 5 trilogy, as it provided much background for Vir and the Centari world. How much freedom were you given to develop these things?

DAVID: Joe had very definite ideas as to how events should unfold. I worked off a relatively detailed outline, and although I had freedom to tell the story and develop the characters in my own way, I had years worth of Joe’s characterization and world building to base it upon.

VENTRELLA: Was there ever a problem with continuity with the established Babylon 5 world, where you were told to make changes or include something specific?

DAVID: Troubles? No. I know when I turned in the manuscripts, there were points where Joe said, “No, change this” or “Fix that.” And it’s his world and he’s the final word on it, so that’s pretty much that. On the other hand, there was stuff in there that I put in that my editor was sure would get flagged. For instance, when I had Garibaldi ambushing one of the Drakh by bursting out of hiding and saying, “What’s up, Drakh?” And I was told there would be no way that Joe would sign off on that. And I pointed out that I didn’t establish that Garibaldi was a fan of Warners cartoons, and I didn’t name the aliens the Drakh. So he had no basis for complaint. And sure enough, I was right; Joe expressed no complaint about that.

VENTRELLA: You’ve done a number of movie adaptations: Spider-Man, Hulk, Iron-Man, and so on. How much freedom are you given to delve into character background and history?

DAVID: I’ve been fairly fortunate in that regard. I’ve put tons of background or references to the characters’ histories into the novelizations and they’ve sailed right through.

VENTRELLA: I imagine these must have to be completed on a short deadline, and that you are relying mostly upon the scripts. Have any been particularly difficult when dealing with the studios? Have any required massive changes?

DAVID: There have been some difficult slogs, yes. Probably the toughest was “Batman Forever,” in which I would find these plot holes in the script and come up with these elaborate and, I like to think, very compelling fixes. Meanwhile while they were filming the movie, they’d discover the same plot holes and they’d write a single line to cover it and then fax that script change over to me. And of course I’d have to incorporate that change and toss out everything I’d written. Which killed me, because they were slapping on bandaids while I was applying tourniquets. So that was a pain.

VENTRELLA: Do you find writing books based on your own work easier to write than ones with established characters?

DAVID: Sure.

VENTRELLA: For the Knight Life series, wherein Arthur returns and becomes President, I have to ask (SPOILER ALERT): Why did you decide to have him resign before he could accomplish much? What point were you trying to make?

DAVID: Actually, that was originally what I was going to write. Since I was writing it just after Clinton was out of office, I was going to have Arthur get dragged into a sex scandal that threatened to swallow his presidency, which is not only what Clinton did but—let’s face it—is what happened in the original Camelot. So I loved the notion that no matter how much time goes by, the same stuff happens. All that changes is the names. But then 9/11 happened and suddenly it seemed the wrong time to be making fun of the presidency. So I tossed out the book, which was about a third written, and just started all over again. But the notion of doing an Arthurian story that focused on “the more things change/the more things stay the same” stuck with me, and I put much of that into “The Camelot Papers,” which I recently published through http://www.crazy8press.com.

VENTRELLA: Do you think your political views influenced your desire to write this series?

DAVID: Probably.

VENTRELLA: You’ve also written television scripts (you’ve been a very busy man!). Are these easier or do you find their limitations a problem?

DAVID: TV scripts are the most limiting of all because of the specifics of the format. Exactly so many pages, exactly so much time it can take up. It’s pretty challenging to tell a story within those confines, but hey, you manage.

VENTRELLA: Of what are you most proud?

DAVID: My family.

VENTRELLA: Tell me about your new publishing venture. What does this mean for a previously unpublished author?

DAVID: Not much, really. Crazy 8 isn’t a publishing venture in the standard sense. We’re not actively seeking out novice authors. We wouldn’t know what to do with them if we had them. C8 isn’t a corporation; we have no officers. We have no mechanism for dispersing money. C8 is simply a group of us pooling our social networking resources while we put out books ourselves and try to make them available to the fans at a fairly reasonable price. With eBooks making up a greater and greater percentage of book sales, and print on demand as a secondary option for people who prefer paper between their fingers (as do I), there’s no reason we can’t be taking our works and putting them directly into the hands of the readers at prices that won’t break budgets.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest mistake you see aspiring authors make?

DAVID: Deciding up front that they want to write for franchises. I constantly hear, “I have an idea for a Star Trek novel! How do I sell it?” Well, the answer is, you don’t. Pocket Books isn’t actively looking for new authors. And agents aren’t looking to rep novels that they can only sell to one market. I always tell them that if they have an idea that’s really that compelling, come up with original characters and an original universe, and sell that. That way you have any number of markets you can approach, and you own all the underlying rights.

VENTRELLA: With a time machine and a universal translator, who would you invite to your ultimate dinner party?

DAVID: Jesus. Moses. Thomas Jefferson. And Jim Henson. I have some questions for all of them.

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