Margaret Wander Bonanno interview
Margaret Wander Bonanno has been something of a household name in the world of Star Trek literature for the last quarter century. Her Original Series novels from the eighties, Strangers from the Sky and Dwellers in the Crucible, still come up regularly whenever fans online discuss their favourite novels, and she made a triumphant return to Trek literature (following a fall-out with the former powers that be at Pocket Books over the re-writing of her novel Probe) with her Lost Era story, Catalyst of Sorrows.
But Catalyst was only the beginning, and since her return Margaret has added quite a few new titles to her Star Trek bibliography. The most recent addition was the short story The Greater Good, in the Mirror Universe anthology Shards and Shadows. “It’s essentially the story of how the Mirror Universe Kirk became a starship captain,” Margaret explains. “If you remember, there’s a line in the episode Mirror, Mirror where the library computer describes how Kirk ‘succeeded to command I.S.S. Enterprise through assassination of Captain Christopher Pike.’” Asked about the main characters of the story, she mentions “Kirk and Marlena, as well as Pike, Spock, and Dr. Boyce,” and adds, “I also – without giving too much away – threw in a couple of the characters from Dagger of the Mind, to tell the story of how Kirk managed to assassinate Pike and become captain of Enterprise.”
Margaret chose the Original Series part of the Mirror Universe for her story, because “the TOS characters have always been my favorites. Marco Palmieri, who edited the collection, knew this, and asked if I’d like to do this one. It was an honour, and a lot of fun.” But despite her intimate knowledge of those characters, transferring it to their Mirror Universe counterparts wasn’t that easy. “What was funny was just how difficult it was to write these characters as Bad Guys, especially in a short story,” she reveals. “In a novel, you’ve got time to explore what makes a character tick; here I had to be consistent with what was onscreen, but also explain why. My thinking was: situational ethics. When you operate inside an Evil Empire, it doesn’t seem evil to you, so you’re able to rationalise your behaviour, particularly if you’re ambitious like Kirk, and think you’d be a better captain (thus the title).
“What was most difficult, though, was portraying Pike as a Bad Guy, because he comes across as so squeaky-clean in The Cage. But I think I managed to come up with a plausible explanation.” It certainly helped that she had brushed up her Mirror Universe knowledge in preparation for the story. “[I] watched the episodes again and again making sure I got the nuances, consulted the reference books and online sources,” she explains. “It’s important to stay true to the canon, because readers notice, and they’ll call you on it if you screw up.”
Another problem Margaret faced with The Greater Good was that it was her first published Star Trek short story. “I’m used to having 100-125K words to play with,” she smiles. “It was tough learning to write down – that is, to distill what would have been several pages in a novel down to a line or two. I can’t tell you how many times I overwrote a scene and then had to take a weed whacker to it.”
But The Greater Good hasn’t been her only story released so far this year. Her 2007 eBook Its Hour Come Round - the final entry in the Mere Anarchy miniseries, celebrating the fortieth anniversary of The Original Series - reached the bookshelves as part of an omnibus edition in March. “Seven writers wrote six interconnected novellas that span Kirk’s entire career as a starship captain,” explains Margaret. “The title of the series, and of each individual novella, came from the apocalyptic poem A Vision by William Butler Yeats. The storyline took a Hurricane Katrina-like disaster to an interstellar level – what if a comet destroyed most of the atmosphere of a planet inhabited by an advanced species the Federation had under observation but had not yet contacted? What impact would this have on the survivors and what, if anything, could Starfleet do to help them without violating the Prime Directive? The size of the series gave us a chance to really create a freestanding civilisation and a host of interesting characters, explore politics, religion, environmental issues, personality conflicts, the occasional love story, and finally personal triumph, all with various members of the Enterprise crew involved at some level over the course of three decades.
“Sounds deadly serious,” she grins, “but given the writers involved, it also contained a lot of humour, and we had a blast doing it.”
Her story was the last instalment of the series, raising the question of whether that had any impact on the story she tried to tell, or if she had free rein. “A bit of both, actually. I write very slowly, so I was glad to have the last slot, and I was sent copies of each of the other stories as they were submitted, so I could take notes as I was reading, and this helped shape what I was writing. Also, my novella is set after the events of Star Trek Generations, so while Kirk is absent, he is also a presence, and I got to explore how his former crewmates, especially McCoy, reacted to his death. I also had a chance to write a couple of really cool scenes for Azetbur, the Klingon Chancellor.”
As mentioned above, the Mere Anarchy series was a collaborative effort between several different authors, and series editor Keith R.A. DeCandido. “The concept was Keith’s,” Margaret tells us, “and while he gave us free rein to be creative, he was also dealing with seven disparate personalities and trying to keep us on track even though we were working by remote from all over the country. Keith created the overarching framework, but we each submitted our own outlines for where we wanted our individual stories to go. This involved a lot – and I mean a lot – of email flying back and forth and, of course, wherever Trek writers are involved, there was the inevitable silliness.
“Those emails could have filled volumes,” she continues. “They were hilarious. Yes, there was serious talk of ‘Okay, if this character does this in my book, how’s that going to affect what happens in yours?’ But there was also a lot of lightning-in-a-bottle, ‘you had to be there’ stuff. I’d open my email every morning and think, ‘If Dave says one more thing about trained monkeys, I’m going to…’ and end up laughing out loud.”
Originally, Its Hour Come Round was published as part of the now-defunct line of Star Trek eBooks, which are gradually being reprinted in a more traditional form: a physical trade paperback. “I do know [Keith] got a lot of resistance from some old school fans demanding ‘dead tree’ versions of these books,” Margaret remembers, “which were eventually added to the eBooks. I do believe that eventually eBooks will become as common as dead tree books, but we’re not there yet. So issuing this series first as eBooks, but then giving folks the option of having a paperbound version, was a good decision.”
Currently Margaret is working on her fifth Star Trek novel, Unspoken Truth, about which she reveals: “It starts with the scene in The Voyage Home where Saavik and Amanda are watching the Bounty take off for Earth and the trial of the Enterprise Seven. Saavik is more or less at loose ends, a bit shell-shocked from recent events, and trying to decide what to do with the rest of her life. She signs up for what she hopes will be a quiet mission on a science vessel cataloguing plants on a distant world, and ends up fighting for her sanity and her life against forces from her past trying to lay claim to both. It’s a bit of a murder mystery, a bit of a spy novel, with a love affair tossed in for seasoning. Have to leave you with that for the moment, I’m afraid.”
Besides her appearances in the movies, Saavik has also appeared elsewhere in Trek literature, which leads to the question of where Margaret turned to when working on her interpretation of the character. “I’m relying somewhat on Carolyn Clowes’ excellent novel The Pandora Principle,” she reveals. “In the novelisation of The Wrath of Khan, Vonda McIntyre makes passing reference to Saavik’s being half-Romulan and an orphan from a planet called Hellguard, but isn’t able to go into a lot of detail. Clowes takes that concept much further, showing us a feral child surviving on a hostile world when the Romulans abandon it. I’m paying homage to that in a number of flashbacks, tweaking it a bit to fit my story.
“Simultaneously,” she adds, “I’m trying my best to stay true to the onscreen Saavik, but leaning more toward Robin Curtis rather than Kirstie Alley in both appearance and performance, and here’s why: Vulcans may say they have no emotions, but that’s only one of many unspoken truths. The emotions are there; they’re just constantly held in check. Add Romulan heritage to that, and you’ve got a simmering volcano, which cannot allow itself to erupt. That’s what I saw in Robin’s performance, and that’s what can be explored in a novel, through internal monologues, that can only be hinted at onscreen.”
Unspoken Truth was originally managed by former Star Trek editor Marco Palmieri, who was recently laid off from Pocket Books. “Thankfully, [editor] Margaret Clark has been able to include Unspoken Truth on her extensive list of projects, so my initial concerns that it might have been lost when Marco was ‘excessed’ were allayed,” Margaret explains. However, she’s less than happy with the situation as a whole – she describes Marco as having “done such remarkable work for the franchise, but don’t get me started…!”
Given those strong feelings about the departure of Marco, who edited all her Star Trek fiction since her return to the line, her thoughts on the differences between her two stints with Trek are especially interesting. “When I wrote Dwellers in the Crucible and Strangers from the Sky, the process was: Writer submits outline, editor rejects outline, writer submits new outline, editor rejects new outline, rinse, repeat, until editor found something s/he liked. Marco’s method was entirely different. He would call me and say ‘I’ve got this series in the works called The Lost Era. How would you like to write the sixth book?’ or ‘How would you like to write the definitive novel about Christopher Pike?’ And, yes, I did have to submit several outlines, but Marco would get back to me and say ‘This part’s good, but give me something else here,’ and we’d gradually meet in the middle. That was a realm of difference from shooting in the dark and hoping to hit something.”
So far, all but one of her Star Trek works have been based on TOS, but that doesn’t mean she wouldn’t be open to writing for other incarnations of the franchise – and for one in particular. “My two favorite series are TOS and DS9,” she enthuses. “[I] would love to write in the DS9 universe, but that’s pretty heavily scheduled with other writers right now.”
Away from Trek, another franchise she would like to write for is former DS9‘s producer Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica reboot. “I’m a serious fan of nuBSG,” she smiles, “and was hoping there would be tie-in novels for that series (and, of course, hoping that I’d be able to get in on them), but if I remember correctly, one or two were produced and no more. Possibly now that the show has ended, someone might get inspired to try again. I’m also even more intrigued by the prequel, Caprica. So, Ron Moore, if you’re reading this …”
Beside her work for Star Trek, Margaret has also penned the original The Others and Preternatural trilogies. Two books of the latter ended up on the New York Times Notable Books List of their respective years, despite Margaret’s disappointment with the way her publishers handled their promotion. “Wow, you actually found those!” she exclaims. “I’m amazed, because the publishers did absolutely zero marketing for either, but that’s showbiz.”
Asked for insight on the differences between writing original stories in contrast to her Star Trek work, Margaret explains that “the main creative difference is, you have to create your universe from the ground up. There are no shortcuts in the technology like transporters and warp drive, no shortcuts in what the characters look and sound like; you really have to start from scratch. Then again, you have the freedom to do whatever you want within the confines of the outline your editor has approved. There’s no ‘put everything back where you found it and don’t kill off a major character’ the way there is in tie-in novels. If you want to, for example, kill your protagonist mid-book or mid-trilogy, you can. Or you can make them behave out of character, or undergo some Shakespearean personality transformation, without someone from the studio saying ‘No, no, no, Captain Kirk would never do that!’
“The main pragmatic difference is, Star Trek novels sell,” she continues, frankly. “Yes, some authors’ books sell more than others, but the franchise sells books in multiples of what the average midlist writer can sell of his/her own original stuff. And sometimes there’s a crossover – a reader will enjoy one of your Trek novels and then go looking for your original stuff – but overall Trek sells better.”
Margaret also offers a book-polishing and ghostwriting service, making her experience and skills available for fellow writers. How does something like that work? “Usually someone will send me a manuscript they’ve been working on,” she explains. “They’re too close to it, may have been working on it for years, have no idea if it’s any good or not. So first I’ll read it and say, ‘Here’s what I think you need.’ Some folks are satisfied with that, others want to go further. Some have strong storylines, but they need stylistic help – cases, tenses, punctuation, basic story flow – so I’ll give them a line-edit. Others have great style, strong characters, but they get stuck on plot points or find themselves writing dialogue that sounds good but doesn’t move the story along. In that case, I’ll work with them chapter by chapter, getting them to do the initial rewrite so that they own the story, then I’ll tweak a little afterwards.
“Far more rarely, I’ll do an actual ghostwriting job – the client sends me an outline, I write the manuscript, they pay me very well, and their name goes on the finished product.” Of course, offering this kind of service also raises the interest of the kind of people every professional author has to deal with sooner or later. “Occasionally I’ll get a Wannabe,” she sighs. “You know, the guy who’s ‘Got a great idea for a novel, and I figure I’ll give you the idea and you can write it and send it to your agent and we can split the money, right?’ That’s when your shields snap on automatically, and you’re grateful for the buffer of the Internet between you and him.”
She doesn’t have anything specific on her plate beyond Unspoken Truth at the moment, but Margaret doesn’t rule out further Star Trek works, or new original stories. For the second option, though, she might go down a different route when it comes to publishing. “I’ve noticed that some authors are self-publishing and working through serialisation, the way Dickens et al. wrote in the nineteenth century – stretching a story out over many instalments and selling online ‘subscriptions’ to readers interested in receiving a copy of each new instalment in their email once a month. I have a series like that in mind, but because I write so slowly, I’d have to store up at least a year’s worth of material before I’d even start to put that out there. But you never know.”
Whatever the future has in store for Margaret Wander Bonanno and her fans, her contributions to the Star Trek lore will continue to come up whenever all-time favorites are sought.
The Mere Anarchy omnibus and the Shards and Shadows anthology are out now from Pocket Books. Unspoken Truth will be released in 2010.