Considering that it was only supposed to be a five year mission, it’s kind of amazing that Star Trek is still going strong more than forty-five years later. And not just in the movies. Pocket Book publishes more than a dozen new Trek novels and ebook novellas every year. But in talking to Greg Cox, who wrote the new Star Trek: The Original Series: Foul Deeds Will Rise (paperback, digital), and David Mack, author of Star Trek: Section 31: Disavowed (paperback, digital), about their new Trek novels, it’s clear there’s plenty of places for these characters to boldly go.
To start, what is your Star Trek book about, and how does it fit in with the movies, TV shows, and so on?
David: My newest Star Trek novel, Section 31: Disavowed, is a spy-thriller about Julian Bashir’s effort to infiltrate the shadowy covert-ops organization as a first step to taking it down from the inside. As usual, things don’t go as he expects. He winds up facing off again with the Breen, a foe against whom I pitted him in a previous novel, and this time the stakes are higher than ever.
Greg: Foul Deeds Will Rise is basically a sequel to the episode, “The Conscience Of The King,” featuring the return of Lenore Karidian, daughter of Kodos The Executioner. It takes place twenty years after the original TV episode, aboard the Enterprise-A, not long after the fifth movie.
Where did the idea for your new books come from? Was it something you came up with, is there a Star Trek book overlord who decides what will and won’t happen, what?
Greg: In general, all Star Trek book proposals need to be approved by both Pocket Books and CBS, but they tend not to dictate the plots to us. In this case, I pitched the idea to the powers that be, they asked for a few tweaks to the plot, and we were off and running.
As for this specific book, I came up with the idea when I was rewatching the original episode. There’s a bit at the very end where McCoy assures Kirk that poor, crazy, homicidal Lenore will get the best psychiatric care available. Which got me to wondering: Whatever did happen to Lenore anyway? Was she ever cured or rehabilitated? And what would happen if Kirk ran into her again, many years later?
David: For me, I had been thinking for a while that I wanted to write a follow-up to the various Julian Bashir-focused story arcs I had been working on during the past few years. When the editors asked me in February 2013 to commit to a four-book deal for Star Trek, I made it clear that there were only two projects I was interested in working on. The first was Star Trek: Seekers, a sequel series to the Star Trek: Vanguard saga, and the other was a pair of novels under the Section 31 banner, which hadn’t been seen on a Star Trek novel since 2001.
As far as the actual plot, I cooked it up over the course of a few weeks of asking myself what would make a good foundation for a spy-thriller unique to the Star Trek setting. My hope is that readers will feel I made good use of the technology, back-story, and characters they’ve come to know from both the shows and the novels.
Greg, you mentioned getting approved by Pocket Books and CBS. But how much freedom do you have in creating the story?
Greg: It depends. Sometimes an editor may suggest an idea or a particular direction — “How about a book about Khan and the Eugenics Wars?” — but more often than not, it’s more on the order of “We need a Deep Space Nine book for next summer. Got any ideas?”
David: Yeah, there are two layers of approval at both the outline and the manuscript stage. First, I need to write a story outline that passes muster with my editor. Then that outline has to be vetted and approved by an executive who represents the copyright owner. Once the story is green-lit, I write the full manuscript. After it’s done, it has to go through the same approvals process as the outline.
If you came up with something really great, but the powers that be rejected it, are you able to discuss this with them, or is it a “my way or the highway” kind of thing? Greg: It’s a collaborative process that involves a certain degree of give and take. It’s not uncommon for an outline to bounce back and forth a few times before we come up with a version that everybody likes. Ultimately, CBS has the last word, but there’s plenty of room for dialogue. I’ve had ideas rejected before, usually at the proposal stage, but that’s just how the process works. At times, I’ve reworked an old idea and found another use for it — like turning a rejected Voyager pitch into a Next Generation story — but sometimes you simply shrug and move on to the next idea. Some proposals sell, some get rejected. That’s just the life of a freelance writer.
Oh, I know.
David: But most of us who write the books these days are seasoned pros who know how to avoid getting red-flagged by either an editor or the licensor. On the few occasions when they do object to a story point, there’s usually room for discussion. The whole process is quite amicable, really.
The only time I really had to struggle to get a story outline revised to the licensor’s satisfaction was for my first pair of direct-to-paperback novels, A Time To Kill and A Time To Heal, back in 2003. They were grim, bloody, and painted Starfleet and The Federation in an unfavorable light, probably as a consequence of those books being an allegory for the 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. Eventually, I backed down on some of the bloodier ideas in my outline, and I persuaded the licensor that I could make the rest of what I’d proposed fit in the Star Trek setting.
These are not the first Star Trek books you guys have written. Is it safe to assume the process of writing a Trek novel has gotten easier as you’ve done them?
David: I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but it never gets easier. Every time I sit down to write — whether it’s a novel, a novella, or a short story — I’m always afraid this will be the project on which I will forget how to craft prose or expose myself as an impostor who never knew how but somehow faked it for the last fifteen years.
Greg: For me, the tricky part is trying not to repeat yourself. I’ve been writing Trek books for twenty years now, so I’m always looking for new ways to come at the material or to find corners of the Star Trek universe that I haven’t really explored yet. For instance, in the new book, one of my goals was to do more with Chekov, whom I’ve somewhat neglected before. In previous books, I’ve tried to concentrate on Uhura or Sulu or bring back favorite characters from the original TV series, like Khan or Gary Seven.
David: The only part of the process that I can honestly say gets easier because of experience is knowing what parts of an idea will or won’t be approved by the editors and the licensor. Being able to avoid obvious pitfalls saves a lot of time later in the process.
The two of you have written Star Trek novels with characters from different shows. Does this have any impact on how much leeway you get? Like, since there’s only seventy-odd episodes of the original series, and a handful of movies, is there more room to play than there is for the Next Generation/Deep Space Nine/Voyager era since there’s so many more episodes and as many movies?
David: Well, we always need to adhere to canon, no matter what characters we write about or what setting we choose. But the degree to which we can alter the shared literary universe’s status quo depends heavily on where and when our story is set.
That said, most of my work has been set after the end of the last Next Generation film, Star Trek Nemesis, past the leading edge of canon. Consequently, I have more freedom to change the characters’ lives and alter the fictional universe in ways that will be carried forward by other authors working in the same shared literary continuity.
Greg: Also, the 24th Century series — Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager — tend to be more interconnected and serialized, with ongoing storylines that spread across several books, while the books based on The Original Series tend to be set during the original five year mission, and are mostly standalone stories in the classic mode.
Along the same lines, is there one era that’s more fun to write? Like does the techno babble of the Next Generation/Deep Space Nine/Voyager era make it less enjoyable because you have to make sure the science works?
David: No, a fun story is a fun story. And all the shows had missteps regarding their technobabble. The original series fared no worse in that regard than its successors did. I can say this with some degree of assurance because I’ve written Star Trek tales set in all of its various canonical eras. At the end of the day, all that really matters is whether the story works.
Greg: To date I’ve written for every flavor of Trek except Enterprise, but, as an old-school Trekkie, I confess that my heart belongs to Kirk and Spock and the original crew. Left to my own devices, I usually gravitate towards that era, just because that’s the Trek I grew up on.
This is also not the first book you’ve written that’s based on a TV series or movie. How does writing a Star Trek novel compare to writing another tie-in novel?
David: As with most questions related to the art and business of publishing, the only reliably truthful answer is, “It depends.” The process is pretty much the same for any work of licensed fiction. First, the editor and the copyright holder approve an outline. Then they approve the finished manuscript, or comic book script, or whatever. The differences stem from how hands-on the licensor wants to be. Some want to micromanage the project, seeing each chapter as you write it. Others just rubber-stamp whatever finally hits their desk.
Greg: What makes Star Trek different is that you have nearly fifty years of “canon” and world-building to draw upon, which can be both daunting and helpful. Certainly, I don’t have to struggle to get a handle on these characters and this universe, which have been burned into my brain since I was a kid.
David: Though sometimes, the same licensor will treat the same property differently, based on its current status. For instance, I think Greg went through some difficult approvals with The Vesuvius Prophecy, his first novel based on the TV show The 4400, which he wrote while it was still on the air. But several months later, after the show was canceled in the wake of the writers’ strike, the licensor gave him and me carte blanche when we wrote our two-novel “grand finale” for the series.
Now Greg, you’ve not only written what some call “expanded universe” novels for such TV shows as Alias and The 4400, but you’ve also written novelizations for such movies as The Dark Knight Rises and the new Godzilla. How much leverage do you have in those stories? Do they just give you the script but let you fill in wherever you like?
Greg: In general, the studios expect you to stick as closely to the most recent version of the script as possible. You can flesh things out some, get more into the heads of the characters, and maybe reveal more about their backgrounds, but you can’t actually change the plot or characters in a big way.
And David, besides Star Trek books, you’ve also worked on such Star Trek games as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: The Fallen and Dominion Wars, as well as the Star Trek: Divided We Fall comic book. Of all the Trek stuff you’ve done, which is the easiest, and which is the most fun?
David: Writing dialogue for games was easy but not what I’d call fun or creatively rewarding. Writing comic book scripts was fun, and the money was okay, but it’s not as easy as it looks. Still, if I was asked which of these two types of work I’d want to do again, I’d pick comic book script writing. Unless television writing is available. In which case, I’d much rather do that.
Speaking of which, you wrote two episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Does this give you any kind of advantage in your book writing over someone who hasn’t written a Trek episode or movie, because you know what will and will not fly with the powers that be?
David: Not really. Just because I had the rare experience of being a freelancer who co-wrote a couple of episodes, that didn’t give me any special insight into the process of crafting Star Trek stories that would meet with a licensor’s approval…as my early struggles with the licensing department will attest.
The chief advantage it gave me was a foot in the door. Even though I hadn’t sold any novels or short fiction, I earned a measure of professional credibility in Star Trek and science-fiction circles because of those credits. That, coupled with a few years of doing editorial scot work and research for the editors in the Star Trek Books office at Simon & Schuster, helped my name float to the top of the list when a few last-minute writing gigs became available. After I finished those to the satisfaction of the editors, I was allowed to pitch stories to the Star Trek: S.C.E. e-book line of novellas, and the rest of my career has flowed from that.
You guys obviously know each other. But have you guys any of each other’s books?
David: I’ve read both of Greg’s novels based on The 4400: The Vesuvius Prophecy and Welcome To Promise City. I loved them both for different reasons. The former for how skillfully Greg brought the city of Seattle to life in prose, so that I felt like I knew the place even though I’ve never been there. The latter book was just an awesome thrill-ride that perfectly set the stage for my series finale, Promises Broken.
Greg: I’m a bit behind in my Trek reading, but as we said, Dave and I compared notes when we worked on the last two 4400 novels together, and I really liked how he wrapped that whole series up.
Before you did the note comparing, Greg, did you think he was David Mack, the comic book guy? After all, that David Mack has worked on some Daredevil comics, and you wrote the novelization to the Daredevil movie….
Greg: Dave and I have been friends for over twenty years now, and used to have lunch once a week when we both lived in NYC. Trust me, I’ve never confused him with any other Dave Mack.
Speaking of which, David, have you met the other David Mack?
David: Yeah, he’s a great guy. We’ve met a bunch of times, at conventions, mostly. In fact, at my request, one of my editors hired him to paint the cover art for my Wolverine novel, Road Of Bones.
David: Though he and I sometimes have to steer each other’s confused fans in the right direction, we take it all in stride. We didn’t even freak out — well, not too much, anyway — the time that a comic-book publisher we’d both worked for during the previous year mixed up our tax paperwork and got me sued by the IRS for not reporting his income. Fun times.
David: These days, the artist David Mack and I share the website davidmack.com, which we’ve set up as a disambiguation page to help our fans find the David Mack they’re looking for.
There’s a long running rivalry, mostly of the friendly variety, between Star Trek and Star Wars. And I couldn’t help but notice that neither of you have ever written a Star Wars novel. Is this the rivalry at work, or is it just that the opportunity has never presented itself?
David: There is no such prohibition, on either side, as far as I know. Case in point, some famous Star Trek authors, such as Alan Dean Foster and Christie Golden, have also written acclaimed Star Wars novels, and one of Star Wars’ current authors, New York Times bestseller John Jackson Miller, is now poised to become a regular name on the Star Trek books schedule.
As for myself, I’ve knocked on Del Rey’s door several times over the years and voiced my interest in writing Star Wars novels. They’ve never told me to buzz off, but they’ve never reciprocated my interest, either. Part of the difficulty in getting onto their schedule is that they publish fewer books per year than Star Trek does. Star Trek publishes twelve mass-market paperback novels and ebook novellas each year. Star Wars puts out maybe four hardcover novels per year, with some paperback reprints. There are just more opportunities for Star Wars writers to find spots in the Star Trek schedule than there are for us to do the reverse.
Greg: Yeah, Star Wars remains the Mount Everest I have yet to climb, but I would certainly jump at the chance if offered the opportunity. I still remember camping out all night on the sidewalk outside the UA 150 theater in Seattle to see the original movies on opening day.
David: If I ever do get the chance to write a Star Wars novel, I’d love to do something under their Star Wars Legends banner, and maybe tell a tale of ronin-like Jedi in the Old Republic.
Greg: I’d want to do something with the characters from the Original Trilogy because, well, nostalgia is a powerful Force. (Pssst, Yoda. Don’t be a stranger.)
So do you think the story you tell in your new Trek books would work as a movie, TV show, or maybe a video game?
Greg: I could see Foul Deeds as a movie, assuming you could bring back the cast members from the original episode. There’s too much plot for an episode, and it’s set during the Movie Era anyway, when Kirk and his crew are bit older and more seasoned.
David: Section 31: Disavowed might make a good six-episode arc for a television series. Cutting it down to a movie would be difficult, unless one jettisoned most of the subplots. It might make a decent premise for a Star Trek game, but it would have to be one that lets the player control different characters at different times, the way Grand Theft Auto does.
Finally, if someone really liked your new Star Trek novel, which of your other Trek books would you suggest they read next and why?
Greg: My Eugenics Wars novels — The Eugenics Wars: The Rise And Fall Of Khan Noonien Singh: Volume One and Volume Two — detailing the rise and fall of Khan, are possibly my most popular Trek books. At least those are the ones that I hear about most when talking to fans at conventions and book signings. More recently, I had a lot of fun bring Captain Kirk and Seven Of Nine together in my crossover novel, No Time Like the Past.
David: I always steer folks toward my Star Trek Destiny trilogy in its omnibus form, because I think it represents my ability to craft tales that have both epic scale and personal drama, and because I remain proud of it as a story in its own right. But for fans who prefer a more original-series vibe in their Trek, I’d suggest they give the Star Trek: Vanguard and Star Trek: Seekers novels a try.