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Christoph Hühn (ch), Jörn Podehl (jp)09.12.07

Talking Space

TZN Exclusive Interview with "Star Trek" Novelist David Mack

The English-language original of our interview with "Star Trek" novelist David Mack.

TrekZone Network: How did you come to write for "Star Trek", and how long have you been working in the science-fiction genre?

David Mack: This is a very long story. I started writing science-fiction stories when I was a young boy; I think I was around 8 or 9 years old. Some of my amateur work was published in children's sci-fi magazines, and I've been a fan of SF movies, TV shows, books and comic books since I was old enough to read. The first time I saw Star Trek was in the early 1970s, as a child watching it in syndicated reruns on daytime television. I grew up watching the adventures of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty and the rest of the Enterprise crew.

David Mack
In early 1988, when I was finishing my freshman year of college at NYU Film School in New York, the TV series "Star Trek: The Next Generation" announced that, beginning in its second season, it would accept teleplays from anyone who wanted a chance to write for the show. I immediately started working on a teleplay that I was certain would knock their socks off. I don't remember much about that script now, but I'm certain it was awful and would have cost far too much to produce.

I spent the next several years writing scripts and sending them in, and all of them were rejected. Eventually, in 1994, I became discouraged with being rejected by the TV shows, and I decided I might try to write a "Star Trek" novel instead.

A friend of mine from college suggested I meet a new acquaintance of his, a man named John Ordover. John was, at that time, one of the editors who was buying and developing "Star Trek" novels for Pocket Books. John wanted to make some new contacts in the magazine industry, for which I worked, so that he could sell some freelance articles. We met at lunch one day, and he gave me a copy of the writers' guidelines for the "Star Trek" novels. I went home, read the rules, and discovered that my new novel idea broke every rule on the page. So I tossed my novel idea in the trash and never spoke of it again.

Several weeks later, after I had continued going to lunch with John and his friends, he asked if I was going to send in my novel idea. I told him that, once I realized it had violated the official guidelines, I had decided not to waste his time with it. He was so grateful for my professional courtesy that we became fast friends.

We became a writing team in 1995, because we each had what the other one needed to succeed. John had the privilege of being able to set up meetings, just by making a phone call, with the people who ran the "Star Trek" TV series (which by that time were "Deep Space Nine" and "Voyager"). I had professional training in how to write scripts for film and television. John got us a meeting, and we made three sales in just a few weeks. The first sale was to "Voyager", but that episode was never produced. (That's another long story.) Our next sales were to "Deep Space Nine"; one idea they bought and produced right away (the fourth-season episode "Starship Down"). The other they had to think about for three years (the seventh-season episode "It's Only a Paper Moon").

As I started to realize that my TV-writing career was not going to be a runaway success, I began looking for freelance work in the "Star Trek" Department at Pocket Books. I started out reading slush (unsolicited manuscripts sent in by aspiring writers); my job was to find a reason to reject each manuscript and write a form rejection letter. I also wrote reference materials for use in the office and by other writers (such as the "Star Trek: New Frontier" Minipedia, which I wrote for Peter David). It wasn't glamorous or exciting work, but it paid off my student loans.

"A Time To Kill" by David Mack
That work led to me being invited to write a 5,000-word piece about the Genesis Device from "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan", to fill out the page count of John Vornholt's novel "The Genesis Wave, Book One". I was given three days to write that piece, and I did it. (It's now Chapter 14 of that novel.) As a reward, I was invited to write my first full-length book, "The Starfleet Survival Guide", in 2000.

After I finished the Survival Guide, John and Keith R.A. DeCandido invited me to pitch stories to their new line of eBooks, "Star Trek: S.C.E." ("Starfleet Corps of Engineers"). My first professional work of prose fiction was the eBook novella "Invincible", which I co-wrote with Keith. After that project, I was hooked on writing novels. I followed that project with my eBook short novel "Wildfire", which became an eBook best-seller and a critical success. A few months after the publication of "Wildfire", I was invited by John Ordover to step up to the "major leagues" by taking on a two-novel project as part of the nine-book 2004 "A Time to..." miniseries for the "Star Trek: The Next Generation" series. My two books, "A Time to Kill" and "A Time to Heal", got very good reviews, and "A Time to Heal" became a "USA Today" best-seller and a "Locus Magazine" #1 best-seller. Since then, I've been continuing to work on new novels every year, most of them for "Star Trek", but with two notable exceptions.

TZN: Which of your books would you call your best? Is there a book of yours that you would like to rewrite or make vanish from existence?

Mack: That is a difficult question to answer. I won't call any of them my best, because I don't think they can be measured that way. There is something that I like about every book or story I've written, and things about each of them that I don't like.

  • "Wildfire" is the most tragic of my stories so far.
  • "Failsafe" was the grittiest and the most overtly allegorical.
  • "A Time to Kill" is the fastest-paced and most action-packed.
  • "A Time to Heal" is the most politically inflammatory and the most violent.
  • "Small World" is the most hopeful and optimistic.
  • "Harbinger" is the most complex, emotionally and politically.
  • "Warpath" is the most misunderstood novel I've written, and the most underrated.
  • "The Sorrows of Empire" is the one I find most inspiring.
  • "Road of Bones" is the most physical and the most melancholy.
  • "Reap the Whirlwind" is the most epic in scope ... so far.

None of my books so far have disappointed me so much that I would want to rewrite them. I can think of a line or two in a few of them that I might change, but overall I am quite pleased with the way all my books have turned out.

TZN: Next year (2008) one of your "Star Trek" books ("Vanguard: Harbinger") will be published in Germany for the first time. What do you think about that, and would you like to say something to your German fans?

Mack: I'm very excited to know that my work will be reaching a new audience, especially one with a reputation for sophistication and a taste for more mature, complex stories. I must confess, however, that I am nervous about the idea of my novel being translated into another language. Much of my work relies on metaphor and the use of English idioms, and because I do not read or speak German, I will have no way of knowing how well my words have transliterated into your language.

TZN: You are one of the principal creative partners who developed "Vanguard". What can you tell us about the future of the series and the next books?

Mack: Right now, my friends and creative partners in the series, Dayton Ward and Kevin Dilmore, are working on the outline for book four of the series. I am told that they have not yet chosen a title. I have only the vaguest idea of what they plan to do, but they have hinted to me that it will be something grand in scope and completely different from any of the previous "Vanguard" books.

I have some ideas of my own for the fifth "Vanguard" book, but I don't know yet if there will be any desire for a fifth book - or, if there is, whether my editor will want me to be the person to write it.

The one thing I would tell readers of Vanguard to look forward to is new thrills and surprises. One of the fun things about working with guys like Dayton and Kevin is that we enjoy trying to out-do each other, and we create dangling story threads and cliffhangers that we leave the other to solve. It's kind of a sadistic game.

TZN: Your next great project is the crossover-trilogy "Star Trek: Destiny". What is the story behind "Destiny"? Is there something you can tell us about it?

Mack: "Destiny" is the biggest, most complex, and most ambitious project of my career so far. Most of its story is still considered top secret by my editors and publisher.

All I can tell you is what's already been announced: It will feature the crews of the Enterprise and the Titan (Captain Riker's ship), as well some characters from the "Deep Space Nine" post-finale novels, and a number of other characters from across the entire shared "Star Trek" literary universe. It will build on events in previous TNG post-"Nemesis" novels - particularly "Resistance", "Before Dishonor", and "Greater Than the Sum" - and it will shed new light on various mysteries from "Star Trek's" past.

TZN: Are you on schedule with "Destiny"? Will the three novels be published in October, November and December of 2008, as planned?

German edition of "Harbinger" by David Mack
Mack: I turned in the first book, "Gods of Night", on time at the end of September, and I am currently close to on-schedule in my work on book two, "Mere Mortals". If all goes well, I will finish book two and turn it in to my editors in January after the holidays, at which time I will start writing book three, "Lost Souls", which is scheduled to be handed in to my editors by the first week of April, 2008. Barring any unforeseen disasters, all three books should be published on time.

TZN: With "Wildfire" you wrote one of the famous "Star Trek: Corps of Engineers" stories. Will you write again for that series?

Mack: I wrote two S.C.E. novellas after "Wildfire". The first was "Failsafe", recently published as part of the trade paperback collection "Corps of Engineers: Grand Designs". The other was "Small World", which is about to be published in the United States as the final story in the trade paperback collection "Corps of Engineers: Creative Couplings". At this time, I have no plans to write any further stories in that series.

TZN: Which stories will you be working on after "Destiny"? Are you writing any books that are not about "Star Trek"?

Mack: Glad you asked! I just sold my first original novel to my longtime "Star Trek" editor, Marco Palmieri. The book is titled "The Calling", and it's about a man who sometimes can hear when other people pray for help. His most recent summons brings him to the aid of a kidnapped little girl, and reveals to him his true role in an ancient and ongoing battle between the forces of good and evil. I'll be starting work on the manuscript as soon as I finish the "Destiny" trilogy. "The Calling" is scheduled for publication some time in 2009.

TZN: You have written scripts for "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" in the past. Are there any differences between writing TV scripts and novels? Which do you prefer?

Mack: There are many differences. TV scripts are very short, about 55 to 60 pages. They have very few words on the page. They follow extremely strict rules about formatting and content. The only senses that they speak to are visual and auditory. As a general rule, they don't go inside characters' heads to tell you what they're thinking. And people who write them get paid an outrageous sum of money.

Novels are very long, averaging 400+ pages, and they have a lot of words on a page. They are flexible in their style and format, and they can give the reader insight into characters' thoughts and all their physical senses, including touch, smell, and taste. And, except for a rare few individuals, most people who write them get paid shit.

Another key difference is that when one writes for television (at least, in the United States), it is a very collaborative process. Many writers on a TV show's writing staff might make uncredited contributions to a script before it is produced. Chief among these contributors is a show's executive producer, also called a showrunner. On most TV series, the showrunner makes uncredited rewrites of every script, to make sure that they all have a consistent tone or voice - i.e., so that the characters sound the same from one week to the next.

In novels, there is only the novelist. One writer shapes the words on the page. As a result, a novelist has much greater control over the final product than a freelance TV writer. The only thing that I like better about TV writing is the money. In all other respects, I am happier as a novelist.

TZN: What kind of books do you read in your spare time? And what is your favorite book?

Mack: I don't read many books these days, because I try not to read other people's fiction when I am in the middle of working on my own. I want to avoid accidentally being influenced by another writer's voice or inadvertently channeling any of their phrases or ideas into my own work. Most of my recreational reading is from magazines – "The New Yorker", "Scientific American", and "Nature".

On those rare occasions lately when I do get to open a book, it is often poetry. I am an avid fan of the work of T. S. Eliot and W. S. Merwin. I have also recently taken an interest in the Coleman Barks translations of the work of 13th-century Persian poet Rumi. Some of my favorite authors include Richard Brautigan, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Warren Ellis, William Shakespeare, and Edgar Allan Poe. I don't really have a favorite book. There are too many for me to even begin a list. Dozens, at least.

TZN: And finally our special TrekZone Network question: Where do you see mankind in 100 years?

Mack: Living on high ground, as our coastal cities will all have been swallowed by the sea.

(ch, jp - 17.03.09)

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