Book Club Choice #8 Author Q & A

Book Club Choice #8

Lower Deck Tales: Celestial Fire

Once again, we find ourselves sitting in a book-lined library, a crackling fire nearby (none of the books are on fire), a tray of lovely canapés nearby. I am sitting here with CeJay and we’re here to talk about Lower Deck Tales: Celestial Fire.

Why an Expanded Universe? How does this story fit in with your own plans for your universe? Is this a corner, or more of a cornerstone?
Celestial Fire

First of all let me thank the Ad Astra community for choosing this story for this month’s spotlight and giving me the opportunity to talk a little bit about my work.

To be honest, I don’t entirely remember why I decided to start out writing in an expanded universe many moons ago. I suppose I’ve always been a big fan of the Star Trek universe. Not just of the characters we got to see on the screen but of that vast universe behind it. Call me a bit of a hopeless idealist but the notion of a positive future for mankind always appealed to me. The vast majority of science fiction seems to focus on how incredibly bad things will turn out for us in the future.

I think I also might not have been very comfortable when I first started out to try and add to these already existing and iconic characters and in a way I still feel like that today. Over time I grew very fond of my own creations and wanted to continue to explore these characters instead of delving into more familiar territory. Of course by now, the Star Eagle universe is as familiar to me as canon. Maybe even more so.

 

How does this story fit into things? Well Celestial Fire is part of the Lower Deck Tales series which itself is a spin-off series of The Star Eagle Adventures. Star Eagle started out as a series of feature novels which follow the adventures of the starship Eagle and her crew. After a few years I felt the urge to write more compact and focused works. I’ve also always been fascinated by the lower decks perspective of which we got to catch a few glimpses on the screen from time to time and I really liked the idea to be able to write stories set in my favorite setting without having to worry too much about my established characters. In Lower Deck Tales I was able to tell stories very different to those in the novels, even kill off characters without it majorly affecting my novel-verse and yet still add to the Star Eagle canon.

 

I wouldn’t call Fire a cornerstone, exactly. All the Lower Deck Tales are entirely self-contained narratives and differently to the other stories in this series, Fire is only very loosely connected to the Eagle and her crew, in fact not a single crewmember makes an appearance here. Its biggest contribution may be building on the United Trek event of the Talarian Incursion and introducing a new military strategy employed by Starfleet which may influence other United Trek stories.

The story begins at least with a press conference and then the camera essentially pulls back to reveal a family reacting to the news. Is this based on 9/11 or some other news story, and your own family’s reactions to same? Or something else?

I love using my stories to hold a mirror to contemporary society and I think Fire may be my most relevant story in that regard. By that I’m not by any means implying that I’m some sort of savvy social commentator. But I do like the idea of taking contemporary issues, things we read about or see on the news on a daily basis and incorporate it into a story which takes place 300 years in the future. So hopefully, the press conference feels like one of many we’ve seen before but at the same time remains believable within a Star Trek context.

 

As for the reaction of Rhory’s parents, I needed to get the conversation going and outline the basic heart of the story, the arguments for and against this new and aggressive policy. It isn’t based on any personal experience per se but I believe the arguments are immediately familiar to most of us. The tricky part for me here was to be able to capture both viewpoints in equal measure without favoring one over the other. Most readers will probably already have an opinion on the subject matter and I didn’t intend to try and change people’s minds, instead I wanted readers to find a way to identify with one side or the other.

As Rhory is shunted over to his secret office, it’s almost as if he’s being removed from the society of civilized people. Was there a conscious decision to add the backdrop of the Serengeti and the idea of a kill or be killed wilderness to the mix?

I didn’t think of Africa as this uncivilized place where people with dark thoughts and intentions gather and hatch their plans. The wilderness is a nice image but my conscious thought was actually more along the lines of the great beauty of untouched nature. I didn’t elaborate too much on this but in my mind’s eye I was seeing these amazing aerial shots of herds of zebras or gazettes running free in a seemingly endless and stunning landscape. I like to play with opposites, so the notion that Starfleet Intelligence was based within such beauty, in such a wide open country and in a building with these massive windows everywhere to overlook this bright world, deceivingly transparent, appealed to me a great deal. And it made sense for this to be on the other side of the world from Starfleet Headquarters and Rhory’s family home.

The man in the tweed jacket is never named, but his signature move is to crunch on a green apple. The Old Testament symbolism seems somewhat clear, that of the serpent in the Garden of Eden or perhaps the Devil himself. Did you consciously choose these images to evoke such ideas? Why the tweed? Was he meant to be academic or a former academic?

Interestingly enough Tweed Jacket didn’t start out without a name. He did have one in my early outline for the story. At some point I decided that it was much more interesting, not to mention mysterious, if it was never revealed. I don’t like casting my own characters but I have to admit that I couldn’t get the image of Mandy Patinkin’s Saul Berenson from Homeland out of my mind when I created Tweed Jacket. And yes, that’s probably why Tweed Jacket ended up with a beard.
Book Club Choice #8

English: A cropped picture of Mandy Patinkin posing with a fan at the Israel @ 60 event in Washington D.C. on June 1, 2008. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 I think Patinkin is also a good choice because he has this really dark side to him while at the same time you can’t help but wanting to like him. Tweed Jacket was supposed to be a little bit of that. A fan of eating apples could be a sign of devilish intentions or perhaps he’s just a healthy eater. Wearing a tweed jacket, a sign of academic intelligence and reasonability or a ruthless calculator?

Let’s go into your personal experiences, particularly of watching a situation like 9/11 unfold. Were those types of experiences a conscious inspiration for this story?

Like most people I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I first learned of 9/11. I remember seeing those images on CNN and my first reaction was that this couldn’t be real. It all looked like a movie, instead of reality. And while I remember all that, I can’t actually remember what my actual thoughts were beyond that. I think I was just watching things in some sort of removed stupor, watching the images without fully processing them. In fact it wasn’t until I think a year later, on the first anniversary, when I saw for the first time the actual footage of the planes crashing into the towers that I remember thinking what an incredibly and profoundly awful thing had occurred on that day.

 

In the more recent past I can’t help myself and think of what such disasters would look like if there were to take place in a Star Trek setting and I feel an urge to tell that story. So the answer, I suppose, is yes, real life events play a big role in inspiring my stories. I wouldn’t say any single disaster like 9/11 was my main inspiration for Fire but certainly a combination of those were.

 

I remember writing a story a few years back in which the climax was the destruction of this massive skyscraper, destroyed by terrorists and I kept thinking to myself, is this appropriate? Then I wrote another story and blew up yet another building. I don’t think I can help myself.

Which of your story universes are you closest to or most proud of? (Choose a baby or all of them will perish!)

Ah that’s a tough and somewhat unfair question. If we are talking strictly universes however, this becomes a lot easier. I believe I’ve only ever seriously written in three separate universes. Star Eagle, Star Trek in general and on one occasion in a cyberpunk inspired Trek universe. Out of these, Star Eagle is by far my favorite place to visit.

 

Now if you ask me which of all my stories am I most proud of, things get a lot trickier. While I like many of my short stories and the Lower Deck Tales novellas, I would probably have to pick one of my novels (of which there are six now, not counting a cyberpunk one-shot) just for all the sweat and blood that went into those. And it probably would have to be one of my last three novels. I believe I have grown as a writer over the years and that this becomes quite obvious when comparing my earlier work to my later stuff.

 

I’m quite fond of my last novel, Shadows in the Haze, a crime novel and mystery story, but not just for its plot but also because to me it felt like a much more grown-up piece of work than some of my previous stories, where the focus was much more on the plot and the characters as well as dialogue instead of action and blowing stuff up. (As you can tell from my answer to the last question, I do enjoy blowing things up from time to time.)

 

Then there is The God Particle, my Star Eagle spin-off novel which focused on a new ship and crew based on a captain who had played a recurring role in the main series. Now this one turned out to be a very action orientated novel but I had so much fun with all these new characters, including quite a few which I had borrowed from my fellow United Trek writers, that I had a real blast with this one.

 

But if I can only pick one, it would have to be All The Sinners, Saints, the fourth Star Eagle novel. This 180,000 word beast was a real rollercoaster to write as I experienced both great joy and complete frustration at times. In the end I think it worked out. This is another one of those stories were I drew a number of real-life parallels as I delved into subject matters like terrorism and religious fundamentalism but at the same time kept it personal enough to feature themes of redemption and romance.

Expanding on that some have you a particular favorite character or pairing within all your stories?

My favorite character is probably Tazla Star who’s gotten a lot of focus in the last two Star Eagle novels, some would even say too much so. She’s the black sheep, the disgraced former starship captain nobody really wanted but who’s been doing her darndest to make the best of her second chance even if she doesn’t always make the best decisions. She’s flawed. A drug addict even and we don’t get to see too many of her type in Trek, I believe. She was an oddity even for me, considering that I kind of liked the harmonious crew dynamics that has made Star Trek: The Next Generation so memorable (or not, if you ask certain folks). As a writer I soon came to realize that conflict and shaking things up often equals fun and who doesn’t like a good redemption story?

 

I’m also very fond of DeMara Deen even though she can be tough to defend sometimes. Here you have this young and stunningly attractive woman who is surrounded by this mysterious aura which basically makes everybody like her and softens even the meanest disposition. At first glance you probably couldn’t try to write a more Mary Sue-ish character if you tried. I certainly have been getting some flak for her over the years and yet I’ve stuck with her as she became an integral part of the crew and the series. She’s part of that optimism that Star Trek is supposed to represent. She’s kind and warm, she always sees the best in people and she’d go to any lengths to try and avoid a violent conflict. I do however freely admit that she has started to show a darker side in recent years as I played with what kind of affect the brutal Dominion War has had on her spirit.

When you do write, do you have a particular process? Do you plan the story? Do you beta the story or run the idea past someone? Is there an arc to your characters and stories or is it more organic? Do you listen to music as you write? Must you retire to the study and curl up with a cat (dog, parakeet, gerbil, I’m not picky) on your lap? Do you scribble down stories on napkins?

I don’t believe I have a set process to do the actual act of writing. I probably prefer sitting at a table at home with relatively quiet surroundings and type away. But I’ve also written at public libraries, sitting on a bench outside or lying on the beach and tapping on an iPad or while listening to instrumental music.

 

I don’t write without planning and carefully outlining a story first. I’m not much of an editor and I rarely go back and make major changes to a story once it is written. I’m absolutely dreadful at deleting anything. This means I must do all the work before I ever start putting pen to paper. On a novel I might spend a few weeks just outlining everything, starting with a general synopsis, then a more detailed summary, a list of characters and descriptions, character arcs, A,B,C, etc plotlines and eventually a complete chronological outline shortly describing each scene. Usually only once that’s complete will I actually start writing. Even though I may have left question marks for certain scenes which I know I will have to fill out after I started.

 

Once I have the outline it becomes fairly easy for me to write the actual story as I know exactly what will happen and what I have to do. I tend to think of this like building a house. First the frame goes up and then you have to fill out all the empty spaces. And having a nearly complete blueprint at the ready means that if I get stuck on a chapter I’m able to leave it and write the next one instead and come back to it later.

 

It all sounds very regimented but in truth the story does evolve as I write and the outline often changes and I add, remove or rearrange scenes and sequences as I write. One of my favorite moments occurs when I have a big breakthrough, often while I’m a good way into the story, and I come to think of a new angle which makes everything fall into place in a seemingly smooth manner.

What do you seek to explore when you write? Is the focus on characters, plot or theme?

I’m fond of my characters but I don’t believe I’ve ever written a major story thinking to myself, “this is about character XYZ finding out what his life is all about.” In other words, I don’t really write character-driven stories. There has to be a story there somewhere I want to tell. Now it might be that a character plays a major part in this story on a very personnel level, but usually, for me, it starts and ends with the plot. Theme and characters play crucial roles. I love focusing on my characters, I love dialogue and I’m delighted when we get to learn more about somebody, find out about what makes them tick or how they may or may not have changed over the course of the events in a story. Readers must be able to have feelings for these people. Hate them or love them, root for them or wanting them see defeated. All that is important to me but it happens within the context of a plot. It’s the adventure part of the Star Eagle Adventures. The theme is usually the glue that holds everything that happens within the story together and sometimes it is more obvious and sometimes it’s barely there at all.All this is not always the case for when I write shorter works. I have two vignette series, essentially collections of a number of short stories which focus on one or a small group of characters and in many of those it’s all about the characters themselves instead of some overarching narrative.
Care to tease our readers with any story plans you have in the pipeline?
I’m not currently working on anything as I’m taking a break from writing. I recently pretty much worked on two novels at the same time and then worked on Fire immediately afterwards. I need a breather.
Have you collaborated specifically here on Ad Astra (I’m not seeing it; please point me in the right direction if I have missed it)? Is there a universe you’re dying to write in?

I haven’t truly collaborated with another writer before. Writing within the United Trek shared universe, I have written at least two novels and a number of shorter stories which heavily featured characters from other writers and I spent some discussing those appearances with their creators but other than that I have never written as part of a team.

I wouldn’t mind collaborating with another writer at some point in the future to see what it would be like to write collaboratively. 

If all impediments were removed, do you feel you’d write more? Do you need the pressure of a lot of other balls in the air? Or is it something else?

Absolutely. I generally have more ideas than time or inclination to write and I’m likely not the only one. I used to have this document with a schedule of all the stories I was planning to write for the next few years. It quickly turned out to be a bit of a fantasy. One of the reasons why I started writing Lower Deck Tales was so I could realize more story ideas without tackling yet another novel which would take me 18 months to complete.

When I get really excited about writing, I tend to wish I could have more time doing just that. Then again it is a double-edged sword. If it weren’t for other obligations perhaps there’d be a danger I’d lose myself in that world similar to Barclay in the holodeck. And then there are times when the last thing I want to do is sit down and touch a keyboard. 

And to finish, we’ve had the pleasure of readingLower Deck Tales: Celestial Fire. If you would recommend a story of yours to others, which would it be?

I think I would recommend the other stories in the Lower Deck Tales series. They tend to be short enough that they can be read within one or two sittings and are fully self-contained so a reader does not have to have any background knowledge of Star Eagle lore. I’d recommend Ship of the Dead for those who like their horror stories bloody and brutal and The Horizon Protocol for those who’d rather read some lighter fare. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for an adventure to bite your teeth into and you don’t have much previous knowledge of The Star Eagle Adventures, I’d pick The God Particle.
And thank you for these great questions and giving me a chance to talk a little bit about my work. I also wanted to point out that I appreciate all the work you’ve been putting into not just this book club but also all your other contributions to Ad Astra to help making it a great community for Star Trek fan fiction readers and writers alike.

Aw, shucks. Thank you!

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2 Comments

  1. Miranda Fave
    Apr 15, 2014

    A fantastic and illuminating interview. It’s always interesting to read about other people’s writing processes – especially if they are organised in the manner of CeJay. However, it is all the more interesting to get an insight into an author whose universe of stories I have been reading and following for years.

    • jespah
      Apr 15, 2014

      He is amazingly well-organized. I was truly impressed by his process.

      Thank you for reading!

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