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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