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 Author Melinda Snodgrass

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am very pleased to be interviewing Melinda Snodgrass! Melinda Snodgrass studied opera at the Conservatory of Vienna in Austria, graduated from U.N.M. with a degree in history, and went on to Law School. She practiced for three years, and discovered that while she loved the law she hated lawyers — so she began writing science fiction novels.

In 1988 she accepted a job on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and began her Hollywood career where she has worked on staff on numerous shows, written pilots and feature films. Her novels THE EDGE OF REASON, and THE EDGE OF RUIN are currently available from Tor books. She has delivered the first two novels in a new Urban Fantasy series featuring blood-sucking lawyers, THIS CASE IS GONNA KILL ME, and BOX OFFICE POISON, and has a story in the latest Wild Card book, FORT FREAK. She is currently adapting Wild Cards as a motion picture for Universal Pictures. Her passion (aside from writing) is riding her Lusitano stallion Vento da Broga.

Let’s start by talking about the law. It seems that many writers of speculative fiction are also lawyers (myself included). What is it about the law that makes people want to escape so much?

MELINDA SNODGRASS: I went into law thinking it was all about truth and justice. It isn’t. It’s about process, and after three years in law school I realized that was okay too. Law = civilization, and our job as attorneys is to reach some level of basic fairness. I also think that much of law is contracts, and family law. The big Constitutional cases rarely turn up in an average law office, and that was what really interested me. I am great admirer of the Constitution. It is a beautiful document that was designed to grown, stretch and change, and aside from one disastrous episode (prohibition) it has always been interpreted to expand rights. That’s it’s genius.

VENTRELLA: Absolutely agree. It’s why I like being a criminal defense attorney — I do get to argue the Constitution from time to time.

You’ve used your legal experience well in your work, and especially in the excellent Star Trek: Next Generation episode “The Measure of Man.” How did you decide upon that plotline and theme? (Reading Dred Scott?)

SNODGRASS: Yes, it was the Dred Scott decision. It worked perfectly to set up a conflict between Data and Star Fleet command. I also had a navy pilot buddy who gave me the most powerful point of all. He told me that when a ship is at sea, and you can’t utilize JAG officers then the Captain always defends and the first officer prosecutes. To pit Ricker and Picard was just too perfect.

VENTRELLA: Did the story change much between your script and what we saw on screen? If so, what changes did you like and/or dislike?

SNODGRASS: There were virtually no changes. The only thing that happened was a number of scenes got cut because the script ran very long. Now all of those deleted scenes have been restored to the new Blue Ray DVD release that is going to happen in December so folks will be able to compare the “as aired” version with the extended version. There are a couple of scenes I’m really glad are back in.

VENTRELLA: Let’s discuss writing for television. How did you get your break there?

SNODGRASS: I owe it all to George R.R. Martin. He had gone out to Hollywood to write for first the New Twilight Zone, and then for Beauty and the Beast. He called me, and said “Hey, I think you’d be pretty good at this screenwriting thing. It works to all of your strengths – strong plotting, powerful characters, and good dialog, and if you write a spec script I will show it to my agent.” I picked Star Trek because I had loved original Trek as a kid, and I didn’t want to put George on the spot if I wrote a crappy B&B script.

VENTRELLA: How does writing for television compare to writing a short story or novel?

SNODGRASS: Different mediums and you always have to keep that in mind. A short story or a novel can stand if it’s got enough atmosphere and is evocative even if it’s light on plot. That just won’t work in a screenplay. Also interior dialog can work in prose, and it has to be changed to actual dialog to work on screen. You have to be able to see it and hear – film is a visual medium.

VENTRELLA: While there are plenty of science fiction shows on TV these days, there really aren’t any traditional space-faring shows like Star Trek or Babylon 5 or Firefly any more (except perhaps for Dr. Who). In fact, even in literature, there seems to be less and less. Why do you think that is?

SNODGRASS: Expense is the primary reason. Special effects cost a lot of money. I also think there is the fear of comparison to Star Trek, and that it can’t be made different or interesting. I don’t agree that space dying out in literature. I think we are seeing a renaissance of space opera. For awhile writers did seem to think space based stories were too juvenile, but with the success of books like LEVIATHAN WAKES, and the whole collection of British space opera writers I think it’s a booming field. I, for one, am very happy about that. It’s what I like to read, and my next big project is a space opera series.

VENTRELLA: How did you get your first “big break” in publishing?

SNODGRASS: I had written my first novel in the Federal-court-judge-rides-circuit-in-outer-space series, but I couldn’t get any traction. David Hartwell offered me a chance to write a Star Trek novel, and I did. He also counseled me to write only one. I have followed that advice to the letter. The Star Trek novel was THE TEARS OF THE SINGERS.

VENTRELLA: I remember reading that years ago and really enjoying it!

Aspiring authors often seem to think that writing a book is easy and your first one is sure to be a huge hit. What writing experience did you have prior to publication?

SNODGRASS: As I said before I had trouble getting traction with my S.F. books until TEARS. But I’ve been very lucky. I broke in right at the big boom in romance. I had quit the law firm, and I needed to pay the mortgage so I wrote six romance novels under pseudonyms while I also worked on my CIRCUIT novel. The romances sold, had the advantage of teaching me how to write to deadline, and finish a book (something people have trouble with), and they paid my bills.

VENTRELLA: You certainly have not shied away from politics and religion as themes. In fact, your Edge novels deal with that theme. What spurred you to write that series?

SNODGRASS: It was New Year’s Even 1999. I was sitting with Steve Gould, and Laura Mixon, Walter Jon Williams, and several other friends in the bar at El Pinto in Albuquerque. We were drinking margaritas and watching the celebrations around the world as we entered the twenty-first century. We being science fiction writers were bitching that it was actually going to be the twenty-first century, but then a new bitch occurred to me, and I asked the group, “Where is my Moon base and my air car? Why are at the dawn of the 21st century, and people put more credence in guardian angels and healing crystals and tarot cards then they do in science?” Then I thought, maybe there’s an outside force driving us to be ignorant and hateful. That was the start of the idea.

VENTRELLA: You’ve also discussed religion and politics on your blog and Facebook. Now, as a starting writer, I’ve been advised to avoid these subjects, but I ignored that advice. Do you think writers should avoid these issues for fear of alienating potential readers?

SNODGRASS: I think people should write stories that interest them. Stories they would like to read. Of course there are going to be readers who won’t like those stories, but that’s life. Some people like chocolate ice cream and others like vanilla. You can’t produce something that makes everybody happy so you may as well write what makes you happy. Writing is hard, you shouldn’t write something if you don’t enjoy it.

VENTRELLA: To relate back to an earlier question, do you think the current anti-science nature of the religious right has had an effect on hard science in literature?

SNODGRASS: I don’t think it’s affected us in the science fiction field. I think we just ignore the gibberish about evolution not being true, or the Earth being 6000 years old. Most of us love science fiction because we love science and the wonder of discovery.

VENTRELLA: Many people would also know you from the Wild Card series with George R.R. Martin. How did that association begin?

SNODGRASS: George and I were in a role playing group with a lot of other writers – Walter Jon Williams, Victor Milan, John Jos. Miller. Vic had given George Superworld for Christmas and we were playing the game obsessively with George as our game master. One day we had played until 2 or 3 in the morning, George had stayed over at my house, and he wandered out for breakfast and said, “there has to be some way to turn this obsession into money.” That’s when we started to discuss it as a shared world anthology. We cooked it up in my dining room over pancakes and bacon and lots of coffee. I came up with the aliens and the virus because George didn’t want the usual stupid superhero origin story – “struck by lightning while standing in a toxic waste dump”.

VENTRELLA: What do you think makes the Wild Card series so popular?

SNODGRASS: The characters and their interactions. The real world problems they face. Steve Leigh wrote an absolutely heartbreaking story for FORT FREAK about a long time character who is three people fused into one body dealing with the onset of Alzheimer’s in one of the members. It literally brought me to tears. You’re not going to see something like that in most comic books.

VENTRELLA: Who are your favorite authors?

SNODGRASS: God, that’s a really hard question. Outside of the field I often reread John le Carre and Georgette Heyer. In the field I have so many writers I love that it’s hard to narrow it down. Heinlein juveniles. Clifford Simak’s WAY STATION, new young writers like James S.A. Corey and Ian Tregillis. George doesn’t need a plug from me. Most of the world knows his genius and abilities. And I tend to reread The Lord of Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien over and over. I like mysteries very much – Dorothy Sayers, Elizabeth George, Michael Connelly. I could fill pages so I’ll stop with that.

VENTRELLA: What are you working on now?

SNODGRASS: I am writing the Wild Card movie for Universal pictures. I have sent a big hunk of the third Edge book to my agent. I’m writing up the proposal and chapters for my space opera series, I have another urban fantasy book due at Tor that I’m writing under a pseudonym, Phillipa Bornikova. George and I are trying to put the next Wild Card book – LOWBALL to bed. I’m really busy. Sometimes I want to take a nap.

VENTRELLA: And finally, since this is a blog for aspiring authors, what advice do you think needs to be said that hasn’t been emphasized enough?

Write what you love. Treat it like a job. And don’t break your promises to your readers/viewers. Give them the ending that you promised in the opening chapter.

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