Interview with author Nat Segaloff


Author photo by Liane Brandon

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: When I lived in Boston, I enjoyed reading Nat Segaloff’s movie reviews and comments in the Boston Herald. They apparently impressed me enough that when I saw his name on Facebook a few years ago, I remembered him instantly and friended him. 

Nat began as a movie publicist based in Boston, a career that carried him to New York, then back to Boston to be a film journalist covering the business of film. He also began doing radio (WEEI-FM, WMEX) and TV (WBZ, WSBK) before moving to Los Angeles to make documentaries (“Biography,” etc.) and other gambits mentioned in his new book

The book is full of interesting and funny stories about the movies, celebrities, and life in the entertainment industry. He discusses meeting Woody Allen in an elevator, being Saruman’s bagman, and forging Jesus’ signature on a publicity photo, among other things. It’s just full of wonderful anecdotes.

The book is called SCREEN SAVER: PRIVATE STORIES OF PUBLIC HOLLYWOOD and it’s from BearManor Press (who will be publishing my book about the Monkees in 2017).

Nat, what compelled you to write this book?

NAT SEGALOFF: Thank you for not calling it a memoir. It’s a collection of the show business stories I’ve been telling at parties and when I taught college classes — and some that I dared not tell while certain people were alive – since I entered the business. I figure I’d better set them down now before my brain defragged.

VENTRELLA: You’ve met some interesting people over the years – who impressed you the most?

SEGALOFF: Everybody in show business is impressive or else they’d be in a less exciting profession. Those whose company I remember most fondly include Michael Caine, Dom DeLuise, Martin Sheen, Louise Fletcher, William Friedkin, Arthur Penn, and one or two others. screen saverWhat made them impressive to me was how approachable they were/are. In many cases we became friends.

VENTRELLA: Some of the actors and directors you’ve met have very public personalities that are not at all like their real, private faces. Who seemed the most different to you?

SEGALOFF: I found James Earl Jones to be very much an introvert (this was before he went to the Dark Side) and Christopher Lee to be enormously chatty. The one who stunned me the most was Max von Sydow. When I interviewed him on WEEI-FM he wound up singing Swedish drinking songs. (Gee, I wish I’d put that in the book.)

VENTRELLA: Given the work you’ve done with so many of the Star Trek cast, have you found yourself revisiting the old shows?  Got an opinion on the various series or movies?

SEGALOFF: Starting the science fiction production company Alien Voices with John de Lancie and Leonard Nimoy made me an instant Trekker. I am told that I should revere TOS, but I prefer ST:TNG. I don’t re-watch any of the shows. As for the movies, isn’t the formula “Odd numbers bad, even numbers good”?

VENTRELLA: When you first began, the studios tried to make original films – there wasn’t this remake and sequel ideology. What happened? The film industry “lost its nerve” as you say?

SEGALOFF: I was fortunate to have come of age in the film business at a time when the film business itself was coming of age. The mid-1970s were a transitional period for American cinema. The crumbling of the restrictive Production Code gave movies a new freedom, the ready availability of cheap filmmaking equipment meant that every kid was making his own pictures, and the film companies had become so shaky financially and out of touch with the public that they embraced the youth culture as a way to attract a new audience. It lasted roughly from Easy Rider in 1969 to Jaws in 1975. After that the blockbuster mentality took over and the film companies embraced Roger Price’s definition of the mass production culture, “If everybody doesn’t want it, then nobody can have it.”.penn

VENTRELLA: You discuss how movies were once allowed to find their audiences by opening at a small number of theaters at first and then expanding their number of screens if they found favor with the public. Do you think the goal of making only huge blockbusters has hurt the industry?

SEGALOFF: Blockbusters have already killed the American film industry, it just doesn’t know enough to lie down. They cost so much to make and market that they must be tooled for as wide an audience as possible, which means that they cannot challenge or offend anybody (banality is apparently not considered offensive). This is what killed network television. But even disregarding the aesthetic content, the business model itself is suicidal. A $200 million movie simply cannot make its costs back unless everybody goes to see it. The huge grosses we see reported don’t reflect the money that gets sapped along the way by advertising, exhibitors,  gross deals (money off the top), distribution costs, interest, and overhead. What these blockbusters are is cash flow machines, not profit-makers. If the film companies had to exist on profits alone they would collapse. This is Hollywood’s dirty secret.

VENTRELLA: I wonder sometimes if people just have nostalgia for the old days, remembering all the great films and bemoaning the current state, but it seems to me that there were plenty of crappy films being released when I was younger, too … do you agree or has the quality really fallen?

SEGALOFF: The percentage of dross versus gold is probably the same now as it was twenty or thirty years ago; (Theodore) Sturgeon’s law says that 90 percent of anything is crap. The difference is that in 1976 a crappy film cost $1 million to make and $50,000 to advertise while in 2016 it costs $200 to make and $60 million to sell. Films back then were usually about something new. Now they’re about something old. Of course, I’m sweepingly generalizing.

VENTRELLA: Brian DePalma once advised you to review the film he made and not the film you wanted to see. How did you apply that to your reviews?

SEGALOFF: If the filmmaker sets out his or her goals in the early part of the film it’s a bargain made with the audience. Good filmmakers keep their end of the bargain.

VENTRELLA: Which film critics do you most admire?MrHustonMrNorth_cover.indd

SEGALOFF: I admire them all. (Do you think I have the word “stupid” written across my forehead?)

VENTRELLA: What happened to film critics, anyway? As you point out, now we just have “reviewers.”

SEGALOFF: Film critics have always been a liability, but every now and then they served a purpose (publicity, ego, targets). They are the only writer in the popular media who is expected to criticize an advertiser’s product. True critics presume that their audience has seen the film and is reading the review for insight. The job of a reviewer, however, is as a consumer reporter who describes a film not according to its place in the art of cinema but whether it’ll be a good time at the movies. Ironically, the advertising rates for movies are among the highest charged by a newspaper, magazine, or broadcaster. Yet the trend now is to get rid of film critics entirely – and even arts coverage – because publishers consider it to be free advertising. These people are called Philistines. It’s also because the communications conglomerates have become so vertically integrated that critics are superfluous.

VENTRELLA: You sort of fell into this business, didn’t you? This wasn’t originally your plan?

SEGALOFF: Like half the kids in my generation I wanted to make movies. I quickly discovered that if you want to make movies you have to run a gauntlet of people who don’t want you to. I wasn’t good at it. John Houseman put it best: “In the old days they used to help a producer make a movie. Now they dare him.” (That’s in the book.)

VENTRELLA: One thing you emphasize is that the “story is more important than the person telling it.” Do you think that is the flaw in many movies today? And does that transfer to novels?

SEGALOFF: I was referring strictly to myself. I’m not famous but the people I write about in SCREEN SAVER are, so I make the stories about them but from my point of view. It’s not so much about me as about them.

VENTRELLA: Why did you decide to name some people in the book and not others?

SEGALOFF: You’re the lawyer; you’re familiar with the term defamation.striling

VENTRELLA: Well, if it’s true, it’s not defamation … Anyway, one of the false myths you discuss is “Movies about movies don’t make money.” Hollywood loves making movies about itself, and they often win Oscars. So where do these myths come from? And do they really believe them?

SEGALOFF: Every pitch meeting starts out at “No” and works toward “Maybe.” Pitching a Hollywood story starts off with “are you out of your &%#@!ing mind?” and if you’re lucky you get to “No.” There’s a more sinister reason that goes back to the early days when the (mostly) Jewish moguls who founded Hollywood stayed away from Jewish subjects because they didn’t want to call attention to themselves in an intolerant country. The nix on movies about movies may feed off of that.

VENTRELLA: You complain about the decline of journalistic ethics – don’t you think Rupert Murdoch had something to do with that?

SEGALOFF: Murdoch simply took advantage of a system that was already on the skids thanks to a breakdown of enforcement of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, the Reagan FCC’s abdication of its responsibilities to the public, and the fact that he is a brilliant businessman. As to ethics, to pull a quote from Jean Anouilh’s Becket (although it might be from Edward Anhalt’s screenplay): “I enjoy good living; good living is Norman. I enjoy life and a Saxon’s only birthright is slaughter. One collaborates to live.”

VENTRELLA: A bit of your book talks about charity, pointing out that some of the clichés about Hollywood are not true. Why do you think that was important to put into the book?

SEGALOFF: I have written and called my share of charity fundraisers and I see the parade of stars, musicians, and others who show up, do their thing, and ask not one cent for lending their name, time, and talent to a good cause. Then you read in the tabloids about how demanding, selfish, and trashy Hollywood types are. I challenge any other industry to compare itself with Hollywood’s service to the cuts

VENTRELLA: How did you decide on the title SCREEN SAVER?

SEGALOFF: Because “Harry Potter and the Prick Who Gave My Book a Bad Review” was taken.

VENTRELLA: How did you find your current publisher?

SEGALOFF: This is my fourth book for Bear Manor Media. I was referred to them by film historian and prolific author James Robert Parish and I have found a home. Plus the publisher says he likes my writing. (My previous Bear Manor book, BTW, are FINAL CUTS: THE LAST FILMS OF 50 GREAT DIRECTORS, STIRLING SILLIPHANT: THE FINGERS OF GOD, and MR. HUSTON/MR. NORTH: LIFE, DEATH AND MAKING JOHN HUSTON’S LAST MOVIE.)

VENTRELLA: Which has been the most successful?

SEGALOFF: Serious film books are not a money tree. My most successful book is probably the first edition of THE EVERYTHING® ETIQUETTE BOOK that I wrote in 1997 for Adams Media Corp. God knows how many printings they had. You may ask how a film historian got asked to write a book on etiquette. I had a fine agent and a wonderful editor. Plus I wanted to be able to say that I wrote the book on good taste.

VENTRELLA: Which did you enjoy writing the most?

SEGALOFF: I enjoy writing all of them, but the one that I couldn’t believe I was writing while I was writing it was ARTHUR PENN: AMERICAN DIRECTOR (University Press of Kentucky, 2011). Can you imagine how it felt being able to sit at the feet of the man who made Bonnie and Clyde – the film that made me want to make movies – and ask him any question, not just about film, but about life?

VENTRELLA: Tell us about the Harlan Ellison book!harlan

SEGALOFF: It was after he read my Arthur Penn book that Harlan (whom I had known since I directed my Stan Lee documentary) asked me if I would be interested in writing his. He barely finished the question when I said Yes. It’s due out later this year from NESFA Press – the New England Science Fiction Association – and will be a very different book than people are expecting. Everyone who knows Harlan Ellison knows that he is combative, precise, relentless, and brilliant. My book probes the roots of those traits and led both of us into highly personal areas that reveal him as few have ever seen. We’re calling it A LIT FUSE: THE PROVOCATIVE LIFE OF HARLAN ELLISON, AN EXPLORATION BY NAT SEGALOFF. Note that it doesn’t have the word biography in the title. I don’t know what kind of book it is. Yes I do. It’s Harlan.

Thank you for the opportunity to mouth off like this about SCREEN SAVER and my other thoughts. I hope people buy the book, if not for themselves then to give to someone they love by way of dissuading them from going into the film business.

My 2014 Mysticon Schedule

This weekend (February 21 – 23, 2014) I will be a programming guest at Mysticon in Roanoke, Virginia.

They’ve asked me to be a guest before, but I’ve generally said no because it is so far away! However, this year I gave in.

I’ve only been to Roanoke once before. When I was in college, a bunch of us drove there from Richmond to see a concert with Elvis Costello and Squeeze.

I figured more people would read this if I had a picture of Q here

I figured more people would read this if I had a picture of Q here

I’m sure it’s changed a bit in the last 35 years or so…

Anyway, Mysticon looks to be fun. The main guest is John DeLancie, who played “Q” on all those Star Trek shows. Also in attendance will be many of my friends, including some I have interviewed here on this blog: Keith R.A. DeCandido, Gail Z. Martin, KT Pinto, Peter Prellwitz, Tony Ruggiero and Allen Wold.

And if you’re a fan of my Fortannis anthologies, you’ll find some of those authors as well (namely Davey Beauchamp, Danny Birt and Tera Fulbright, as well a few who will be in the forthcoming collection A BARD DAY’S KNIGHT — Angela Pritchett and the aforementioned KT Pinto).

Anyway, if you’re there, be sure to say hi! I’ll be on a bunch of panels and my artist wife Heidi Hooper will be judging the Masquerade competition and hosting some art panels as well.

Here’s my schedule:

The Biggest Mistakes Made by Beginning Authors (Friday 4 pm): We’ll discuss not only writing mistakes but also promotional mistakes.  How writers have screwed themselves over and killed their chances of making it in the publishing world doing easily preventable things! With Tony Daniel, A.J. Hartley, Jonny Lupsha, and Gail Z. Martin.

Who is Behind that Curtain? (Friday 5 pm): The use of different points of view can reveal or obscure elements of your story from the audience. Do certain points of view only work with certain types of stories? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each form? With Stuart Jaffe, Gail Z. Martin, and Patrick Thomas.MystiCon

If You Spell “Cheif” Like That One More Time!! (Saturday 11 am): Our guest editors offer tips on how to avoid their reject pile and provide insight into some of their pet peeves when reading a submitted manuscript. With Anita Allen, Laura Haywood-Cory, and Michael M. Jones

Dancing Neck to Neck: Romancing the Vampire (Saturday 6 pm): Explore the evolution of the blood sucking undead from foul, fearsome creature prowling the Carpathians to debonair, bodice ripping object of modern desire. With Alexandra Christian, Kenneth Hite, and KT Pinto

I Am the Game Master, You Are My Pawns: Game Mastering Basics (Saturday 7 pm): How do you keep players engaged in a game? How do you manage different kinds of role-players and types of play? What about interruptions like roommates and smartphones? Share your secret techniques and best practices for running role-playing games (and other moderated games) that keep players coming back for more.  With Brandon Blackmoor, Kenneth Hite, John Jones, Greg Porter, and John Watts

The Eye of Argon (Saturday 11 pm): The worst science fiction story ever written gets a reading by our brave panel as they compete to go the longest without tripping over a misspelled word or laughing uncontrollably. Audience members are also encouraged to take a chance. Can you keep a straight face, especially when the panel begins acting out the story? With Keith DeCandido, Gail Z. Martin, KT Pinto and Peter Prellwitz.

Making Politics Work in Fiction (Saturday midnight): Real world political narratives are filled with cultural revolutions, passionate speeches about social change, war, and intricate, Machievellian plots. How can you portray them convincingly in your story? From noble houses in fantasy worlds to galaxy-spanning empires in SF, how do you make them believable and engaging without burying your reader in the intricacies of your setting’s political theory? With Brandon Blackmoor, Tom Kratman, Peter Prellwitz, and Leona Wisoker

Tooting Your Own Horn (Sunday noon): Done properly, self-promotion is an important part of building a career. Poorly executed, self-promotion can do more harm than good. Our panelists will discuss what works and doesn’t work along with these common questions: Do book-signings really help a small author? Are bookmarks and/or postcards effective at garnering attention? Does a blog help or hurt an author? Does an author have to have a website? With Tally Johnson, Gail Z. Martin, Michael Pederson, and Gray Rinehart.

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?


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.

Interview with Bram Stoker Award-winning author John Shirley

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today I am pleased to be interviewing John Shirley.

John Shirley is the author of numerous novels, story collections, screenplays (“THE CROW”), teleplays and articles. A futurologist and social critic, John was a featured speaker at TED-x in Brussels in 2011. His novels include EVERYTHING IS BROKEN, The “A Song Called Youth” cyberpunk trilogy (omnibus released in 2012), BLEAK HISTORY, DEMONS, CITY COME A-WALKIN’ and THE OTHER END. His short story collection BLACK BUTTERFLIES won the Bram Stoker Award, and was chosen by Publisher’s Weekly as one of the best books of the year. His new story collection is IN EXTREMIS: THE MOST EXTREME SHORT STORIES OF JOHN SHIRLEY. His stories have been included in three Year’s Best anthologies. He is also a songwriter (eg, for Blue Oyster Cult), and a singer. Black October records will soon be releasing a compilation of selected songs, BROKEN MIRROR GLASS: Recordings by John Shirley, 1978-2011. The authorized website is here.

John, since this is an election year, let’s start off with politics. You’ve certainly not shied away from politics, on your blog and on Facebook. Do you worry that this may alienate potential readers?

JOHN SHIRLEY: For me, I can’t worry about that and be a self respecting person.

VENTRELLA: Your novels EVERYTHING IS BROKEN and THE OTHER END are all about politics. What inspired you to write them?

SHIRLEY: I wouldn’t agree they’re all about politics. EVERYTHING IS BROKEN, however, is a political allegory as well as being a noir novel, a coming of age novel, a disaster novel (as opposed to a disastrous novel!), a suspense novel, and it’s set a bit in the future. So it’s got science fiction going on too. The trick of course is for all this to blend seamlessly. But good recipes can have a number of strong ingredients.

EVERYTHING IS BROKEN is a kind of LORD OF THE FLIES for the 21st century, perhaps. Its political center has to do with the value of community, of government itself (at its best); it shows what happens to a small coastal community, hit by a disaster, when its been stripped of its resources, its preparation, by Libertarians and Tea Party types and Privatizers. And it has ticked off some of those people. But there’s always plenty of support from the other side of the fence. It’s doing rather well. Lots of people are concerned about throwing the baby away with the bathwater—a sense of community being the baby in this case.

THE OTHER END was inspired by a desire to take the apocalypse away from the Christian right and give it to progressive people, if they want it. Why should the Christian Right define Judgment Day? And what would you do if you could create your own Judgement Day? And yes there are political overtones to much of it…It’s a fantasy about a Judgment Day that doesn’t come, exactly, from anyone’s usual idea of God…and that looks for real, social justice.

VENTRELLA: What’s the best reaction you’ve received from these political books?

SHIRLEY: Recommendations. Good reviews. Eg, “That staple of cautionary science fiction, the near future, becomes especially ‘near’ in this disaster novel from one of fantastic fiction’s most hard-hitting talents–EVERYTHING IS BROKEN emerges as a violent, vivid, viscerally upsetting and wholly unflinching nightmare of a novel, which profoundly illustrates the very point of having a civilization in the first place, and the risks we undertake by dismantling infrastructure in the name of short term savings. It’s not just a compelling read, but an important one–GRADE A.”—SciFi Magazine

VENTRELLA: Are you optimistic about the future or do you worry that the crazies on the right will cause more harm before things change?

SHIRLEY: If you mean the near future, the great worry, for me, is the Citizen’s United decision by SCOTUS, empowering billionaires and giant corporations and amoral people like the Koch Brothers to freely propagandize, to distort the President’s record, to spread the falsehood that Reaganomics, Tea Party economics, and so on, actually works to improve the economy. Actual economists dispute that fallacy. But people are buying into it. And as the Super PACs unleash more and more propaganda, politicians become more afraid of taking a stand, afraid of someone mounting a super PAC against them—and Congress becomes even more dominated by money, at the expense of ethics. If you mean the farther future—at this link is a transcript of the speech I gave to TEDx in Brussels last November, on why I’m “optimistic because everything will be terrible.”

VENTRELLA: Some of the threat of the tea partiers and their like is their anti-science position. What do you think causes that mindset?

SHIRLEY: They feel more comfortable with ignorance. It’s a sort of numb buffer around them so they don’t have to face life as it is. But also they’re being manipulated. Big Oil is opposed to accepting science on global warming, and they manipulate these people to mistrust science.

VENTRELLA: Have politics always influenced your writing? In other words, do you find yourself visiting political themes in your work?

SHIRLEY: A fair amount—and if it’s not that, I’m reaching for something meaningful, in some respect. Existential meaning matters too. Spiritual meaning. Philosophical meaning. And the human condition. I admire writers who dramatize the realities of the human condition. But it’s great when someone can combine some controlled degree of didacticism with entertainment—sometimes they have a major social impact. I’m thinking of the novel UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, the works of Charles Dickens, Upton Sinclair, and Steinbeck. Kurt Vonnegut novel’s, too, affected people deeply, he had a lot of social resonance; so did the novel CATCH-22 by Heller.

VENTRELLA: What themes have you found yourself revisiting, even if subconsciously?

SHIRLEY: The struggle with addiction—in the past, I had to carry on a bare knuckle fight with it. Fortunately I won. . .My observation that people suppress their empathy, their compassion, all too easily; that they barricade themselves away from it. That dehumanization is sadly all too human…And issues of the necessary balance between too much government and too little. I’m not in favor of too much; but on a planet with 7 billion people, we cannot have too little. Environmental issues also crop up in my work—my novel DEMONS combines most of those concerns in one work of allegorical horror.

VENTRELLA: Do you think that science fiction and fantasy help to provide a better media in which to make points about current issues?

SHIRLEY: They’re ideally suited for it. Look at 1984, or BRAVE NEW WORLD, or Atwood’s anti-fascist science fiction, or Vonnegut’s social statements in SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE. Philip K. Dick warned about mind controlling media and new tech that might be misused that way, in a lot of his books. Then there was John Brunner’s work, like THE SHEEP LOOK UP. You can model different kinds of societies, dystopian and utopian and everything between, in science fiction, like creating a literary computer model.

VENTRELLA: You’ve done so many different genres—what leads you to try so many new things? Does the story come first or the setting?

SHIRLEY: Sometimes it’s the marketplace, but it’s also a creative restlessness. I don’t like to be pigeonholed. It’s also freshening, energizing, to move onto another genre. It’s like traveling in a country you haven’t been to before—it’s stimulating.

VENTRELLA: You’re quite prolific: What keeps you going?

SHIRLEY: Partly necessity—I don’t have a day job. I do have quite a lot to say, a lot of stories to tell. I simply feel better when I’m productive, too. It’s what I am; I’m a writer to the bones. I’m not good at much else. Can’t fix a car.

VENTRELLA: You’ve done quite a few novelizations and tie-ins, such as BATMAN: DEAD WHITE, PREDATOR: FOREVER MIDNIGHT and DOOM. What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing already in someone else’s world?

SHIRLEY: I did those things mostly for money—the most successful one was the Bioshock novel, BIOSHOCK: RAPTURE–but it’s also because they’re in arenas I enjoy. I do love Batman, was glad to play in that sandbox. They gave me a fair amount of latitude and it varies from editor to editor. The Bioshock game people were very hands on and that was difficult. One disadvantage is, one might have to revise more than one is really being paid for. But I always manage—in some cases, the project changes while you’re writing it. They’ve sent you a movie script, but at the last moment it was changed; you were supposed to write about this game but the second one just came out and they want you to do that too … And I prefer to adapt rather than argue.

In the case of Bioshock I knew the videogame world I was writing about pretty well and had enjoyed it so that helped. I enjoyed the Predator films and it was fun to write that book but one issue that comes up is, some fans are very possessive about the franchise they love. Some fans of the Predator comic book thought I ought to have followed its internal rules, its canon—but I didn’t read the comics, wasn’t required to. I just started with the movies and launched from there. I never contradict the underlying source material I’m using…but I do get to be creative within it, and that can be a bit of a buzz.

VENTRELLA: You’ve written scripts for movies and television–have you been pleased with the results?

SHIRLEY: It’s mixed. I wrote “The Crow,” with David Schow—couldn’t be pleased when Brandon Lee was killed in the course of the production. There are always issues of struggling with producer notes, and so on. As for television, it’s very much committee writing, and it’s hard for someone like me to learn that…but I did learn. I just wrote a recent television pilot, which we’re now shopping around, but I can’t talk about it except the name: Intruder Town.

VENTRELLA: Which do you think has been most successful?

SHIRLEY: I’ve had more television scripts that came out close to what I wanted, than in movies. The most recent movie I wrote was a low budget horror film. I was not happy about it. Can’t say more about that.

The Deep Space Nine episode I wrote came out nicely, thanks to Ira Behr, the producer. But it can be very frustrating and one can’t be too identified with the writing. You have to separate yourself from it more than if you’re writing a novel or a short story. . .

VENTRELLA: How much changed between your script and what is seen on the screen?

SHIRLEY: It’s the exception if there aren’t a lot of changes. There are always exceptions—Woody Allen’s films are auteur work, he’s the director, producer, writer, they naturally come out close to what he envisioned. Clint Eastwood, I think, once he has a good script, stays with it—eg the script for Unforgiven. But mostly it’s like your script has to run across no man’s land, with bullets flying…it’s lucky to get across it intact.

VENTRELLA: Do you find novels easier to write than short stories?

SHIRLEY: Short stories are finished faster of course, but that aside, there are things one can do in novels one can’t do in short stories. As long as you have a really strong sense of pacing, and don’t drop all the balls you’re juggling, you can get into more facets of character, more ideas, than in a short story. A short story is like a knock out punch; a novel is a whole long fight with many rounds and lots of footwork.

VENTRELLA: Which is your favorite?

SHIRLEY: Apples and oranges really…

VENTRELLA: Who is your favorite character?

SHIRLEY: From my work? Maybe Rickenharp from A SONG CALLED YOUTH—the cyberpunk trilogy is out now, as an omnibus, freshened up, updated, re edited, from Prime Books, and Rickenharp is perhaps the realest character…because he’s most like me. I’ve been a rock singer, he’s the leader of a rock band, I’m a lyricist and so is he (I wrote his lyrics, sometimes quoted briefly in the novels). He has drug issues and other issues—so do I. There’s a “street minister” character in my horror novel Wetbones I identify with a lot too, as he’s found a spiritual way out of addiction…

VENTRELLA: What would you ask that character if you could meet him or her?

SHIRLEY: Rickenharp? I’d ask him if he’d go to the recording studio with me, play some guitar, write some songs. And I’d ask him if he was self sacrificial—or self destructive.

VENTRELLA: And what do you think he or she would answer?

SHIRLEY: He’d say how much you pay me to the first question and laugh and say two sides of the same coin for the second.

VENTRELLA: Writers who are trying to make a name get hammered with lots of advice: The importance of a strong opening, admonitions about “writing what you know,” warnings to have “tension on every page” – what advice do you think is commonly given that really should be ignored?

SHIRLEY: Almost any of it can be ignored (apart from advice to be grammatic and literate and write in good sentences) if it’s irrelevant to what you’re doing. I have had to learn to write “more sympathetic” likable characters, but there are also times when I don’t need them to be sympathetic or likable. Ultimately one writes what works. Probably most people would have advised Anne Rice not to write a vampire character so sympathetically, in Interview with the Vampire, before it was published—but they’d be wrong! The book worked like gangbusters, breaking a rule. If you have the talent, the voice, the insight, make your own rules. If you’re not sure, follow the rules.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest mistake you see starting writers make?

SHIRLEY: Nowadays it’s thinking they don’t need to be well read, they don’t need to know the difference between you’re and your, they don’t need to read outside their favorite genres—any half way decent writer had better read widely.

VENTRELLA: I’ve been surprised to find many writers who are also musicians (myself included) – why do you suppose that is?

SHIRLEY: I don’t know for sure. Jack Vance plays banjo. You really never know…But you know there’s a musicality in good sentences; there are good sentences in music…it’s all art, too…

I was always in rock bands. Like Sado-Nation—you can see me on youtube if you search for Sado-Nation with John Shirley there, performing with them in 1979 when I was quite young. So it’s always been a second track for me; and there are a lot of musical references in my books, and I listen to loud music, often, when writing and no it doesn’t distract me.

VENTRELLA: Who do you listen to? Who are your favorites?

SHIRLEY: I’m an old time Blue Oyster Cult guy, and in the late 90s I started writing lyrics for them (other lyricists for them include Patti Smith and Michael Moorcock), have written 18 songs they’ve recorded so I’m pretty partial to those. Mostly those are on their albums Heaven Forbid and Curse of the Hidden Mirror. I was in punk bands, and was a big fan of the Sex Pistols and the Clash and the Ramones. I am also a fan of psychedelic music, like Jimi Hendrix, Blue Cheer, or Roky Erickson. I like the Stones, the Beatles. Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart. I’m a big Iggy and the Stooges guy too. Outside of rock I get into John Coltrane, certain classical composers like Stravinsky.

VENTRELLA: How did your collaboration with Blue Oyster Cult come about?

SHIRLEY: Mutual friends knew they were looking for a lyricist. Plus my first novel was named after one of their songs, TRANSMANIACON, and they were aware of it.

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

SHIRLEY: CS Lewis, Tolkien, because I love the way those guys talk, Ambrose Bierce because I admire him and I want to ask what the hell happened to him, Edgar Allan Poe, same thing, Cyrano De Bergerac, Yeshua of Nazareth (a Gnostic teacher now called “Jesus”), Gotama Buddha, GI Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, Mark Twain, Marcus Aurelius, Pythagoras…

And I would sit Wyatt Earp right next to me…I’m pretty into the Wild West and have written a novel about Earp, that I am going to send out when I get around to revising it…

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

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.


Interview with author A. C. Crispin

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today I’m pleased to be interviewing A.C. Crispin, whose new novel is PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE PRICE OF FREEDOM. She’s best known for the novelization of the 1984 V TV series, but also for her bestselling Star Wars novels THE PARADISE SNARE, THE HUTT GAMBIT, and REBEL DAWN — although I first discovered her through her Star Trek novels: YESTERDAY’S SON, TIME FOR YESTERDAY, THE EYES OF THE BEHOLDERS, and SAREK.

Ann, You’ve been able to write novels in some of fandom’s favorite stories. How did you manage that?

A.C. CRISPIN: After I wrote YESTERDAY’S SON and V, publishers with franchises approached my agent when they had projects they thought would be a good match for my skills.

If your readers want to read about how to get an agent, soup to nuts, they should read “Notes on Finding a (Real) Literary Agent” on my website.

VENTRELLA: Do you make proposals or do the studios come to you directly now?

CRISPIN: For original novels I write book proposals. For tie-in work, they pretty much come to me.

VENTRELLA: Let’s discuss THE PRICE OF FREEDOM. How much freedom were you given to develop Jack Sparrow’s background?

CRISPIN: After a considerable amount of back and forth on the part of the Disney studio liaison, during which several detailed outlines were not approved, the studio liaison decided that instead of writing the project I had been originally hired to write (the story of the Isla de Muerta mutiny re: the Aztec gold) I should instead write the story of how Jack Sparrow worked for the EITC and wound up making that bargain with Davy Jones. So I knew where the story had to end up. How I got there was left pretty much up to me.

I did consult with both my editors on the book, the acquiring editor and the editor who completed the project. For example, they both agreed that there should be a “Lady Pirate” as a character, so that’s how Doña Pirata was born. The Legend of Zerzura plotline was my creation, but my editors suggested having talismans as a way to get into the Sacred Labyrinth and reach the treasure. So I then came up with the bracelets.

By the time I finished with my outline, it was over 70 single spaced pages long. Of course, THE PRICE OF FREEDOM is a long novel, some 235,000 words.

VENTRELLA: Did Disney censor any of your ideas or tell you to make major changes?

CRISPIN: My Disney editor (somewhat regretfully, because she really liked them) bowdlerized my hottest sex scene. I’m not sure you’d call that a major change. After all, we are talking Disney, here. (The scene was hot, but not graphic — she felt that it was a bit too hot.)

VENTRELLA: What were your main goals in trying to develop his character?

CRISPIN: To create the character of “Jack becoming” so that people would recognize Jack Sparrow, but also know this wasn’t quite the Jack they see in the films … this was a younger, more vulnerable, more trusting and less cynical Jack. He gets more cynical and “savvy” during the course of the book. He’s not the same Jack at the end as he was at the beginning. Of course that’s the goal of good fiction, right?

VENTRELLA: What adventures in your novel help shape Jack into the character we all know?

CRISPIN: Oh, Jack experiences betrayal, disappointment, fear of imminent death, hatred, and as a result learns to be much more wary and cunning, and to trust almost no one. Readers who want teasers can read the excerpts on my website. There are six there.

VENTRELLA: Do any other characters from the film appear in the novel?

CRISPIN: Edward Teague, Cutler Beckett, Hector Barbossa, Pintel and Ragetti, and a certain squid-faced Captain.

VENTRELLA: Were you given a peek at the script for the most recent film in order to work in some foreshadowing?

CRISPIN: No. I was given the script for “At World’s End” before the film released, but my book was finished before the script for “On Stranger Tides” was written.

VENTRELLA: The most recent movie is loosely based on Tim Powers’ novel ON STRANGER TIDES. Did you use that novel at all for reference?

CRISPIN: I’ve read ON STRANGER TIDES a couple of times, but aside from the fact that it’s an excellent pirate yarn, no.

VENTRELLA: Will there be more books in the series?

CRISPIN: That will be Disney’s call. I imagine they’ll base that decision on how well THE PRICE OF FREEDOM sells.

VENTRELLA: What’s your favorite of the Pirates movies?

CRISPIN: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

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

CRISPIN: Nope. I find it a challenge to have them grow and change in ways so subtle that the studio doesn’t realize I’ve done it.

VENTRELLA: You’ve also written your own series: Starbridge. Tell us about this!

CRISPIN: Funny you should ask about that. There’s a good chance that the seven StarBridge novels will soon be re-released as e-books. There have been quite a few requests for them from readers, over the years. The series is about a school for young people from the Fifteen Known Worlds who come to an asteroid in deep space to learn to be diplomats, planetary advocates (known as “interrelators”) and explorers. The books focus on First Contact, and explore what it would be like in a galactic society.

VENTRELLA: Do you find writing books based on your own work easier?

CRISPIN: Not really. I put my full efforts into both my media tie-ins and my original novels. With the original novels, it’s generally a bit more work, because I have to create the world, the technology, the history, the geography, the society, etc. World-building and universe-building have to be done well if you want to create the illusion of reality –- something that’s essential to writing s.f. and fantasy.

VENTRELLA: We met at Balticon this year. Do you enjoy conventions and do you advise authors to attend them?

CRISPIN: You can learn a lot at conventions, and once you’ve gone pro, you can do a fair amount of networking and business at gatherings such as the Nebulas, Worldcon, etc. I enjoy conventions, still, even after all these years.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about Writer Beware. How did the idea for this come about?

CRISPIN: Back in 1998, Victoria Strauss and I both realized, independently of each other, that writing scams were proliferating on the internet. At some point our investigations brought us into contact with each other, and we decided to do something about it. SFWA gave us its blessing and sponsorship, and that’s how Writer Beware was born.

VENTRELLA: I meet many authors who have gone the vanity press or self publishing route and then wonder why no one takes them seriously. Other than “don’t do that” do you have any specific pieces of advice for these authors?

CRISPIN: I advise them to go to Writer Beware and read our articles about POD, vanity publishing, etc., so they’ll go into self publishing with a clear vision of what it can and can’t do for an author. E-publishing has taken off in the past six months, and it can now be a realistic way (provided the author has the sales numbers) to break into commercial publishing (advance and royalty paying publishing with a major press, that is). This is generally not true for POD and hardcopy “self publishing.” But there are exceptions.

The main problem with “self-publishing” is when authors confuse it with commercial publishing and expect their books to be on the shelves in bookstores nationwide, plus have other unrealistic expectations. It is really not a shortcut into a successful writing career for the vast majority of those who do it. I believe it’s still true that most POD and self published novels still sell fewer than 100 copies.

VENTRELLA: What bugs you most about the publishing industry and what would you change about it if you could?

CRISPIN: Here are my top two picks for that:

(1) I’d go back in time and eliminate the Thor Power Tools Supreme Court ruling. That had a terrible effect on a publisher’s ability to keep books in stock. Look it up.

(2) I’d get rid of the Internet for two reasons (A) the internet has given aspiring writers the idea that they’re entitled to be published, no matter how well or poorly they write, and (B) because of the internet, writers are getting scammed at an appalling rate.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read for pleasure?

CRISPIN: Terry Pratchett, Elizabeth Peters, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Margaret Mahy, Ursula K. LeGuin, George R.R. Martin, Lois McMaster Bujold, Charlotte Bronte, and too many others to name.

VENTRELLA: Of what work are you most proud?

CRISPIN: I do my level best on all my books. I’m pretty proud of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE PRICE OF FREEDOM, because I had to do so much research. It took me three years to write, and the whole time I was writing it, I was doing research on the historical period and the nautical stuff.

VENTRELLA: What is your writing process? Do you outline heavily, for instance?

CRISPIN: For tie-in work I HAVE to produce detailed outlines, so I’ve gotten used to working that way. I don’t like writing myself into corners, and a good outline usually prevents that.

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?

CRISPIN: I have no idea. Personally, I prefer science fiction, though I read both.

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

CRISPIN: Learn to read and analyze publishing contracts. Agents aren’t perfect, and you really need to be able to read a proposed contract and spot pitfalls.

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

CRISPIN: Here’s my top five list:

1. They spend years writing a Star Wars or other tie-in novel without ever researching whether they can actually submit the thing and have a chance of having it published. (With Star Wars, for example, they won’t even read the book; all Star Wars novels are contracted for in advance.)

2. They look for shortcuts, such as “self publishing” or POD publishing, often with a scammy publisher like PublishAmerica or Strategic, because it’s the easy thing to do.

3. They develop “golden words syndrome” and can’t see any flaws in their writing, and if someone points them out, they get mad. This is death to any aspiration to ever be a pro.

4. They submit first drafts.

5. They want to write fiction, but they don’t read it. I’ve never yet encountered a single writer, in the dozens, maybe hundreds of workshops I’ve taught, who wrote fiction well but wasn’t a reader. In order to write well, especially fiction, you must be an inveterate reader. No exceptions.

VENTRELLA: What question do you wish interviewers would ask you that they never do?

CRISPIN: Where readers can buy my books. There are links to purchase all my books on my website.

Interview with Hugo award winning author Peter Beagle

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am honored to be interviewing Hugo award winning author Peter Beagle. I emailed some questions to him and was thrilled when he took some time from his busy schedule to send me back a voice recording of his answers!

Peter Beagle is probably best known for his novel and screenplay of THE LAST UNICORN. His other acclaimed novels include A FINE AND PRIVATE PLACE, TAMSIN, and THE INNKEEPER’S SONG. He also has a number of short story collections and nonfiction works to his name.

Besides THE LAST UNICORN screenplay, he has also written the screenplays for Ralph Bakshi’s animated The Lord of the Rings and the episode “Sarek” for Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The transcript follows:

Mr. Beagle, THE LAST UNICORN was made into an animated film back in the days when maybe we’d get two animated features a year. How did that arrangement come about?

PETER BEAGLE: It came about because a red-headed rascal named Michael Chase Walker not only optioned the book from me but eventually — and this doesn’t often happen with options — eventually paid the purchase price to buy the rights to the book and then turned around desperately looking for a deal to make believing that somebody would want to make this book into a movie. He ran through a lot of people back then before he finally got Rankin and Bass to fall in love with it.

VENTRELLA: Were you happy with the results artistically?

BEAGLE: I’m as happy with it as their budget would allow them to be themselves. They did some wonderful work in it. There’s nothing that appalls me; nothing that makes me want to leave the country. At its best, it’s marvelous. It rarely has a ‘worst’ to it. I found myself saying, when watching it a year or so ago, “Oh my god, the damn thing’s a classic.”

VENTRELLA: How did the “lost” version of that book come about?

BEAGLE: Well, I started the book when I was twenty three. That summer I was sharing a cabin in the Berkshires in Massachusetts with my closest friend from childhood who was a painter, and still is. I began writing a story — just a story about a unicorn going somewhere with a companion who I couldn’t see, because he was out all day working on an enormous landscape. He’d make his lunch and then pack the landscape on the back of his motor scooter and I wouldn’t see him all day, and I wanted to show him that I had been working on something all day and not just fooling around in the warm sun or playing with the guitar. So I tried several stories that summer, and none of them seemed to work.

And then I found myself writing this story about a unicorn traveling somewhere in search of her people. It was almost completely different from THE LAST UNICORN that people know. I got about 85 pages done that summer and then simply hit the wall. I didn’t know what I was doing — well, I didn’t know what I was doing writing the whole book anyway — but I really didn’t know where this should go and I just dropped it. I put it aside, about 85 pages in, and wrote another book, nonfiction, about crossing the country with the same friend on a couple of motorscooters.

And then the mother of my children gently nagged me to get back to it. She’d read the original version and wanted to know what comes next. And I threw out — or thought I had thrown out (my mother kept everything, thank goodness) — I threw out everything but the first couple of pages from the earlier version and started over. What is out as the “lost version” was printed and will be republished is basically that first 85 pages. A reader would recognize certain things at the beginning and be absolutely baffled by a whole lot else.

VENTRELLA: Do you prefer screenplays to novels?

BEAGLE: Fiction is more fun — writing books in general is more fun — but screenplays pay better.

VENTRELLA: You are the Guest of Honor at Philcon this year. (I’m just a regular guest, but I’m hoping to maybe be on at least one panel with you!). Do you enjoy conventions and do you advise authors to attend them?

BEAGLE: When I pull into a convention, I always imagine myself and my business manager as a couple of peddlers coming to town with their cart and their mule, setting up shop by the roadside, and selling out of the wagon. There are extra elements to a convention. There are people I only meet there — there are friends I make at conventions that I never see during the rest of the year — and generally, I’ve had very good experiences. Some have touched me very deeply. And there are people I look forward to seeing when I know I am going to be in that town and I know they’ll be coming. But I never advise a writer to do too much of it. I didn’t do conventions at all for years, and I’m trying to cut down, because one is supposed to be home working and it’s not simply the time, it’s the energy. You only have so much and it usually takes me a couple of days to get charged up again after a convention. At a convention, you’re running on adrenaline, and that’s not the same thing.

VENTRELLA: What themes do you find yourself revisiting in your work that may pop up without planning?

BEAGLE: I’m trying seriously to at least cut down on the elder goddesses, cats, and music, as well as shapeshifters. Gotta watch it with the shapeshifters, they’ll turn up in my work. I’m doing pretty well with most of them but you have to watch the cats. Every time you take your eye off a cat, it shows up in your story.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read for pleasure?

BEAGLE: Well, I read far less fantasy and science fiction than you might think. I read a lot of history because my father was a history teacher and I have a taste for it. I’m getting back to reading poetry — I got scared off in college, which happens to a lot of people. And I have favorite writers whose books I’ll pounce on. Right now, I’m reading a novel I missed by John le Carre. I like mysteries very much and le Carre has an extra dimension, an extra depth that most mystery writers don’t have.

In fantasy, I look for books by old friends like Patricia McKillip and Robin McKinley and Patrick Rothfuss — I’m still waiting for his second book to come out. And I re-read a lot. I re-read books I haven’t read in years that I just want to see again, like visiting an old friend. I re-read George McDonald Fraser’s FLASHMAN novels. Flashman is an absolute scoundrel. There is nothing to be said for Flashman. It’s a rat’s eye view of 19th century English European history. There’s something just inspiring about Flashman’s badness because at least he never pretends he is anything other than what he really is! You can’t ask more from a character.

VENTRELLA: What advice would you give to a starting author that you wish someone had given you? What is the biggest mistake you see aspiring authors make?

BEAGLE: The biggest mistake — it’s not even a mistake, but something I wish an author had told me: Don’t get too mad at yourself when you do it wrong. Just do it again. Because that’s most of it, just doing it again, learning by doing it wrong.

The thing I always tell people who want to write is that you have to show up for work. Most people haven’t got the patience. The talent doesn’t have anything to do with it. I know a lot of people with as much or more talent than I have … But I will sit there, even when nothing is coming. Anybody can write when the stuff is flowing. But I’ll sit there until, as Red Smith, the great sportswriter said, “I’ll stare at the blank screen or page until little drops of blood start to come out of my forehead.” That’s how you know you’re writing.

When I was fifteen or sixteen, I met a writer through friends named Charles Jackson who I’m sure isn’t remembered these days except for the movie that was made out of his novel THE LAST UNICORN. [laughs] I’m sorry, THE LOST WEEKEND, which was about an alcoholic. It was made into a movie, and was very successful. But when I met him, he wasn’t writing fiction. He was working for one of the early television soap operas. And being the age I was, I was immensely snobbish. How can somebody who wrote THE LOST WEEKEND lower himself to write for a TV soap? We rode in on the train together from Connecticut to New York, and he told me, among other things, “I can only really write about something that’s a part of me. I am an alcoholic, so THE LOST WEEKEND came out of what I know. And there hasn’t really been anything like that since.” I remember him telling me this: “I can probably get a hundred thousand dollar advance on my name for a new book of any sort, but you can’t do that. It’s not honorable. What I’m doing may not seem like much to you, writing for this soap opera, but it’s honorable work, and it’s professional. And when something erupts in my life that wants me to write about it, then I will. Meanwhile, I’ll do this.”

He wasn’t scolding me. He wasn’t coming down on me or anything like that; he was very gentle. But he taught me a thing about what is professional and honorable. What you can do and what you can’t, even if you need the money.

Charles Jackson had principles. I make jokes about having no principles of my own because I can’t afford them, but when I do come up against a principle, I know what it is. I’ve usually got ten seconds to make a decision. I hate it, but I think of Charles Jackson. He was gay, by the way, which he didn’t go into, and he did write a novel after that — again, this was in the 1950s — from the point of view of a gay man. He’s long dead. If anyone reads anything of his, it’s probably for a film class that included THE LOST WEEKEND. But he was a good guy and I’ve never forgotten him.

The biggest mistake an aspiring author makes is thinking either that nothing you write is any good or that everything you write is good, and neither one is true. The biggest mistake is listening to too many people and also — and this I talk about a lot — confusing writing with publishing. It’s not the same thing at all. Publishing is a business. Publishing involves making someone else some money and maybe a little bit for yourself. Writing, storytelling, art — that’s another matter. I’m not being romantic about it; there’s just not a lot of connection between the two.

There’s a saying that an artist is someone who can’t not be an artist, and that’s really what matters. If you can’t do without being an artist, then it really doesn’t matter if it doesn’t sell. You don’t burn the manuscript, for heaven’s sake, you find a place for it … The only publication that would touch my story “Lila the Werewolf” back in the 1960s was a college magazine at UC Santa Cruz. Later on, it got picked up, but I just wanted it published.

Me and Peter Beagle

Interview with David Niall Wilson

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing David Niall Wilson today. David has been writing professionally since the 1980s. He has more than sixteen novels and 200 short stories published and has won the Bram Stoker Award for poetry and for short fiction. He is an ex-president of the Horror Writer’s Association and an ordained minster. David lives and writes on the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp in North Carolina with the love of his life, Patricia Lee Macomber, their children Stephanie, Billy, Zachar, Zane, and Katie, two brainless Pekingese and a chinchilla named Pook Daddy. David is CEO and founder of Crossroad Press, publishing e-books and professional level audio books. His personal web page is and the publishing site is

Vampire novels began your career, with White Wolf. Were these stories based on the vampire LARP games? Were you limited in any way because of this?

WILSON: First off, my career (at least by publication date) started with the sale of my stand-alone vampire novel, THIS IS MY BLOOD, followed by the actual publication of CHRYSALIS, my Star Trek Voyager novel.

To answer the question, yes, the White Wolf novels I wrote were all written in their “World of Darkness” and were always intended as companion fiction to their games. The vampires were required to be part of a known clan, to have the proper abilities, and in many cases the novels – while I plotted them – had a particular outcome that was required to further the overall story arc the publishers / editors had in mind. Yes, it was a bit restrictive, but I had a lot of fun with it. Recently I wrote the novel VINTAGE SOUL, which came out in hardcover this past December. It’s the first in a series titled “The DeChance Chronicles” that is written in much the same style and “feel” of my White Wolf novels.

VENTRELLA: You’ve used religion in your writing. What sort of research did you do to prepare?

WILSON: Well, just about every biographical note concerning me will mention that I’m an ordained minister. While that’s a bit tongue in cheek, I spent many years of my youth studying for just that purpose. It wasn’t until about my second year in the US Navy that I determined most (if not all) organized religion was merely an excuse for a small group of people to take control of a larger group by making crazy rules and blaming it on supernatural entities. I left the church behind, but not before I was pretty well versed in The Bible and most denominations who claim to live by it.

VENTRELLA: For the benefit of those unaware, can you describe the plot to THIS IS MY BLOOD?

WILSON: It is a retelling of the gospel from a very different perspective. When Jesus goes into the desert and is tempted by the devil, there is one temptation added. One of the fallen is raised as a woman to tempt him with the flesh. Instead, the woman, named Mary, falls in love with Jesus and his promise of returning her to Heaven.

Cursed to follow him and drink the blood of his followers, Mary walks a fine line between her desire to love and support the Christ, and her burning need to return to Heaven. This novel takes the world of faith, which was the world of men, and of the apostles, and shows it through the eyes of a fallen angel – one who has, in her own words, walked the roads of both Heaven, and Hell. She doesn’t believe there is a God … she knows.

Faithful to the storyline of the original gospels, only weaving in new things when there are gaps in the old, this is a novel of faith, redemption, and ultimate sacrifice.

It’s also my shot at that aforementioned organized religion. In this novel Mary knows that there is a Heaven, and a Hell. She has no need of faith, and this frees her to comment on the lack of belief, harmony, and strength in the apostles … not to mention I’ve always thought Judas got a bad deal, and had fun correcting that as well.

VENTRELLA: Have you received any negative response to your books which use religion as the core?

WILSON: Not a bit. In fact, more than one person (recently, even) has told me that the work has given them new perspective on the Christian faith. So far as I know the only time it’s been an issue was when a German publisher said they could not publish it because they were backed in great part by The Vatican.

VENTRELLA: Have you ever had an idea that bit at you but you couldn’t make work?

WILSON: Not so far. I have had moments where I had an idea I knew to be very, very good, and worried that I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. The first time this happened was when I sat down to write THIS IS MY BLOOD. Oddly, the project I’ve just started feels that way, though after all the years and words, I’m less worried whether I can do it than I am whether I’m ready to do it…I guess time will tell.

VENTRELLA: Writing a short story is much different from writing a novel. What are the difficulties you have found?

WILSON: I’ve always been good with short fiction (I suppose that explains the award). I have noticed, though, that if you spend most of your time writing novels, it can be more difficult to go back to short form with success. You have to change your focus – sort of like the difference between a snapshot and a movie. A short story usually winds around a single conflict, while a novel can have multiple related plots that wind in and around one another. You have to be a lot more careful with your words in the short form and waste none of them.

VENTRELLA: Why do you think some authors specialize in one or the other?

WILSON: Part of it is a difference in career focus. It’s not impossible to make a living with short fiction, but it’s almost as rare as making a career of being a poet. If you want to reach larger audiences and make a mark, it’s necessary to move into longer forms at some point.

For some, creating short stories is the focus. They love theme anthologies, magazines, and collections, and I admire authors who can maintain that focus. As for myself, I write short fiction when time allows, but my focus has largely shifted to novels and screenplays.

VENTRELLA: Do you think the public is sick of vampire stories yet? Will there be a saturation point? (As an aside, I hope not, given my next book…)

WILSON: I don’t think vampires are going anywhere soon. They are very versatile, shifting to fit whatever the fiction style du jour might be. Today they are mostly just characters in bigger stories. In the old school vampire novels, the fact that there were vampires WAS the story. Now they are just characters with a different set of needs, powers, and goals. They’re not going to disappear on us in the foreseeable future.

VENTRELLA: What work of yours would you advise as a starting point for your books and why?

WILSON: It depends entirely on what sort of fiction you enjoy. My most enduring work is THIS IS MY BLOOD, while my personal favorite so far is DEEP BLUE. My latest is VINTAGE SOUL, and I’m hoping that will launch a series that sort of falls halfway between White Wolf and Harry Dresden. I’ve written science fiction, fantasy, thrillers, dark fantasy, and horror. There’s something available out there for nearly everyone.

VENTRELLA: I note that you do not limit your blog to your writing only, and instead discuss whatever you want. What sort of feedback do you receive? Do your fans appreciate this, skip past it, or does it matter?

WILSON: I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback on the blog, and I have to say, I can’t imagine the purpose of a blog other than to share what’s on your mind. There’s only so much one can write about their work, and if you want to actually create rapport with readers, you have to be willing to give something in return. I am personally turned off by and uninterested in blogs that cover nothing but a writer’s work. It feels like an advertisement rather than a connection.

VENTRELLA: And finally: What advice would you give to an aspiring author that you wish someone had given you?

WILSON: Not sure that it was not given to me and ignored, but I’d say the best advice in today’s writing world is to not get caught up in blogs, websites, hunting for agents, worrying over markets, self-publishing, and “branding” to the point that you forget the most important thing. If you don’t write, write well, and then write some more, all the rest is a waste of time.

Interview with Hugo and Nebula Award Winning Author Norman Spinrad

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing Norman Spinrad, one of my favorite authors! Norman Spinrad is the author of some 20 or so novels, five or six dozen short stories, a classic “Star Trek” episode, a couple of flop movies, an album’s worth of songs, political columns, film criticism, literary criticicsm, mini-cookbooks, autobiography, and a bunch of assorted other stuff.

The latest novel to be written is a called WELCOME TO YOUR DREAMTIME, in which the reader is the viewpoint character. The latest novel to be published, in April 2010 by Tor, will be HE WALKED AMONG US.

His web page is here.

I can still recall when a friend and I both read BUG JACK BARRON within a short period of time, and spent months talking about it and saying what a good movie it would make. If you don’t mind, let’s start with that. You have written scripts before (most notably for the original “Star Trek”) and have produced one for BUG JACK BARRON, but somehow, due to Hollywood politics, it has never been made. What has stood in its way and is there the possibility that it might still happen?

NORMAN SPINRAD: This is always the wrong question. The right question is “How does any film get made?” I’ve had the experience of pitching a film project of THE BIG FLASH six times in one day, and what I was doing was walking into someone’s office and saying in effect “gimme $15 million.” Try it some time and see how it feels!

You can look at my YouTubes about this for gory details, but basically, the situation is that Universal had to pay the pick-up money when it looked like Costa Gavras was going to do it, Costa Gavras killed himself in Hollywood with HANNAH K, there were blown scripts, they didn’t like mine, never got made though any number of directors and producers have tried to get it away from Universal (in those days a “pick up” meant they owned the rights forever) because of a tax dodge in which studios keep phantom projects “alive” so they can use them to write-off annual deductions in the form of enhanced overhead for “development.” There are hundreds of such projects in the same situation in Hollywood for the same reason.

VENTRELLA: After the controversy over BUG JACK BARRON, did you make a conscious decision to push the limits even farther with your book THE IRON DREAM?

SPINRAD: No, I never do that, consciously seek to push limits, I just ignore limits.

VENTRELLA: How did you get the idea?

SPINRAD: I got the idea for THE IRON DREAM by asking Mike Moorcock how he wrote all his commercial fantasies. “Take a myth, or a story from history, run it through a lot of Freudian imagery, and there you have it,” he told me.

“You mean like for instance Nazi Germany…?”

VENTRELLA: Looking back, are you happy with the results?

SPINRAD: In retrospect, after THE IRON DREAM got all those good reviews in over a dozen countries, won an Apollo, was nominated for an American Book Award, I was finally convinced I had written a suigenerous classic. Before that I hated the novel; it took me a long time to figure out that what I hated was the unpleasant work of writing it, not the result.

VENTRELLA: Your novel HE WALKED AMONG US has gone through a most interesting publication history. Can you explain a bit about this? How much of this was by your design and how much of it was because of problems with publishers?

SPINRAD: All of it was problems with publishers, and I’m not going to go into it here. Suffice it to say that HE WALKED AMONG US was finally published by Fayard in French translation last year, a much more presitigous and serious publisher than any of those who rejected it, and will finally be published by Tor in April 2010.

VENTRELLA: You’ve dealt with language in the future in your novels. Where do you think we are heading? Is English taking over the world because of our culture?

SPINRAD: No. Our (pop, Hollywood, etc.) culture is taking over the world because of English, which is the most popular second language in the world as well as the first language of something like half a billion people. The Anglophone market is by far the biggest.

VENTRELLA: As a transplanted New Yorker, what is it about Paris that made you move?

SPINRAD: Nothing, if you mean back to NY, except financial and real estate complicatons. If you mean to Paris, I moved there for what I thought would be a year to write RUSSIAN SPRING, set primarily in Paris. But by the time I had finished, what was going on in Europe was much more interesting to me as a speculative writer, and personally I just enjoyed living in Europe, and particularly in France, much more than in the US. More diversity in the same area.

VENTRELLA: I read an interview you did with Woody Allen where you two discussed how much better artists are received in Europe. What is it about the culture that makes that possible there and not here?

SPINRAD: In part, it may be that it’s an individual thing, my work somehow resonates powerfully with the French as does Woody’s. But as a generality, I think it has a lot to do with American anti-intellectualism. If you’re living off an art, you’re less than macho, and if you are not employed, you’re a bum. How this evolved, I’m not sure, but I think it has to do with the extreme laisez faire capitalism of the US, and the idea that the bottom line is the bottom line. This is not true in France, for example, although the French are very keen on making money, where it is clearly “cultural patrimony” — literature, art, film, music, even comics, that trumps money psychologically and socially.

VENTRELLA: Do you consider yourself an optimist? Does the world today look like you imagined it when you began writing, and do you think it will improve?

SPINRAD: Neither an optimist nor a pessimist, but a realist. And I’ve imaged all sorts of contradictory futures, as have most serious writers of speculative fiction. The point is not prediction, the point is exploring possibilities, even very improbable ones.

VENTRELLA: What is your writing process?

SPINRAD: Story comes first, no story, no writing, and story, at least at novel length implies structure, at least knowing where you’re going before you start, and why you’e going there. So with novels, I don’t so much write “outlines” to begin with but treatments in the film manner, not just the events and the characters, but the voices and the styles.

With short stories, I guess I often do just start writing some stuff to see what happens.

VENTRELLA: Do you have any tricks you use for making sure that your characters are believable and consistent?

SPINRAD: Not really. Except mainly in fiction as in the real world, chez Emerson, “consistency is the hobgoglin of little minds,” meaning that fictional characters don’t have to be and probably shouldn’t be “consistent” if you want them to be “believable.”

VENTRELLA: Have you ever had to make changes you regret due to publisher/editor requests?

SPINRAD: Not really, except for some title changes.

VENTRELLA: Let’s discuss the publishing business a bit. With self-publishing and e-books becoming more prominent, how do you think this will change the demand and market for new writers?

SPINRAD: Not at all. I worked at the Scott Meredith fee reading service, which charged would-be writers for “editorial advice” and promised to try to sell what was marketable.. What was marketable was about 5% of amateur submissions. No technology will ever change this except maybe by increasing the size of editors’ slush piles.

VENTRELLA: The publishing industry still seems to be stuck in a “bricks and mortar” mentality, and is slow to embrace e-books and the like. Do you think that publishers will eventually be forced to reduce their prices on e-books?

SPINRAD: All this is in a creatively chaotic state of flux, and will be for a year or two. Publishers are not now slow to embrace ebooks, far from it, they’re almost desperately trying to figure out business models, pricing, power relationships with Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc.

In my opinion, the devices to make ebooks take off are already here, more or less, what isn’t is realistic business models stripped of excessive greed. It seems clear to me that an ebook should be treated first like a trade paperback, later as a mass market paperback.

Meaning that when it’s a new title, it should sell for about $10 or $12, say, which is a 20% or so discount from the current standard price of a trade paperback, and this is the difference in numbers that Amazon and Macmillan were fight about, and it’s no big deal. But publishers, for titles that they want to launch in hardcover, should be able to delay ebooks for several months to protect hardcover prices, just as they now delay paperbacks a year to protect them. Once a book as been around over a year or so, the ebook price should be competative with that of a mass market paperback.

This, in general, is the just, workable model that will work, and therefore I believe it will enventually emerge. Think of it as evolution in action.

VENTRELLA: Finally, what is your favorite? For what would you like to be remembered?

SPINRAD: Like asking someone with 20 kids which is his favorite. I suppose though, I have an A list: HE WALKED AMONG US, CHILD OF FORTUNE, THE VOID CAPTAIN’S TALE, LITTLE HEROES, BUG JACK BARRON…

As for what I would like to otherwise be remembered for:

He opened doors.

Many people walked through them.

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