MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am honored to be interviewing Nebula and Hugo award winning author David Gerrold. David 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. How 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. 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. It 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. 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. 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?
If you’re going to be discouraged, be discouraged now and save yourself all that time and frustration.
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.