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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