Howard Weinstein on Pirates, Puppies & More
Howard Weinstein gives new meaning to the term Jack-of-all-trades. His first professional credit was an episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series entitled “The Pirates of Orion.” He went on to pen many Trek and non-Trek sci-fi novels and comic-book adventures, as well as non-fiction books about dogs and Mickey Mantle, and even radio public service campaigns. Weinstein is also a convention favorite, a teacher of writing classes and workshops, a respected dog trainer and an Internet entrepreneur. StarTrek.com concludes our week of TAS coverage with an exclusive and comprehensive interview with Weinstein.
For a long, long time you were credited as the youngest person ever to have had a Star Trek script produced. So go all the way back. What compelled you to write and pitch “The Pirates of Orion”? And how did you submit it?
Weinstein: I think some high school kid took away the "Youngest Star Trek Writer" title by selling a TV story to TNG. Records are made to be broken, right? When Trek started in 1966, I was 12, and already interested in the real space program, so Trek grabbed me – both the stories and the characters. Stephen Whitfield's book The Making of Star Trek, one of the best making-of books ever, really inspired my desire be a TV writer. I wrote a bunch of Trek short stories in high school for friends to read. One got printed when I was in 11th grade, in East Meadow High's annual science fiction magazine Probe. Senior year, I was Probe’s co-editor and published “The Pirates of Orion.” I was also learning how to write TV scripts. TV was a little simpler then. Even prime-time series didn't have huge writing staffs like today. Rather than pitching stories, the typical way to break in was to write a spec script for a show, submit it and hope for the best. That’s what I did, converting “Pirates” into a script.
I had an agent -- a guy who’d been my father’s childhood friend and kindly agreed to look at my stuff as a favor. He submitted my script -- addressed to Dorothy Fontana, who'd been associate producer the first season. By that time, though, Dorothy had left. So Filmation forwarded it to her, and she returned it to my agent without reading it for legal reasons. So, it traveled 6,000 miles and nobody even peeked at it! When the show got renewed in late '73, I re-submitted it using my agent's name -- and they bought it in April 1974. I guess there's a lesson about perseverance in there somewhere!
What did the Filmation and Star Trek people say once they got the script? How involved, if at all, were you once you turned the script in and they started work on producing the episode?
Weinstein: Filmation honcho Lou Scheimer told me Gene Roddenberry called it one of their better first-draft scripts. Lou was surprised to hear I was a college junior and that it was my first script sale. He asked for minor revisions, which I happily did. And that's the last I heard until I learned during the summer that “Pirates” would open what turned out to be the show's short, final season.
For you, what was the emotional/sociological heart of the “Pirates” story?
What did you make of the finished episode?
Weinstein: Hey, they paid me for writing a TV script -- a dream come true! -- so what's not to like? It aired the first Saturday of my senior year, a week before my 20th birthday. TV sets in dorm rooms were pretty rare back then, so I invited friends over to watch: 30 kids and one dog, and everybody cheered for my name in the credits. Kind of like a very-mini-convention. When I started making convention appearances in 1976, I was lucky enough to meet many of the actors. They told me they’d recorded their lines together for the first few episodes, like doing a play. Later, that became inconvenient, so they'd get their scripts and record their lines all by their lonesome, which made it harder to get good line readings, since they couldn't play off their fellow actors.
When was the last time you actually sat and watched it, and what's it like for you, all these years later, both to see it again and to know that so many people still love watching it?
Weinstein: Haven't seen it in ages. After “Pirates” aired, I bought a 16mm film copy, which I showed at dozens of appearances at schools, libraries and conventions. That ol' film got pretty chewed up over the years. I think The Animated Series did some neat stuff – even introduced the holodeck – so I'm glad they're on DVD.
You've also written many Trek novels and comic books. For you personally, how different are the various art forms: TV, novels and comics? And what are the inherent challenges in each form?
Weinstein: Lesson One: novels have a lot more words! I never intended to write novels, but I did want to keep writing Trek, so it was a natural progression for me. No matter which medium, the elements of good storytelling in general and good Trek in particular are pretty much the same: strong characters doing heroic things in order to achieve a compelling goal, whether that's saving one soul or the whole galaxy. When my pal Bob Greenberger invited me aboard at DC Comics, I learned that comic writing is very much like movie or TV scriptwriting, so I got comfortable with that format fairly quickly.
Novels give you a much broader canvas because you're not bound by comic-book page-counts or TV episode time limits. So novels allow for more complex stories and character development, and more leeway to get inside your characters' thoughts. Comics are a unique blend of words and images -- different from movies and TV in that comics are essentially still images giving the illusion of motion. So writing comics is like storyboarding a movie, where you choose the most expressive images to move the story forward. Comics are a very collaborative medium since writers depend on artists to execute what we see in our heads and write on the page. But each comic issue is finite – generally 22-24 pages – so comics require discipline and focus. I enjoyed that challenge. I'd say comics were my most enjoyable writing gig.
Of your Trek novels, which do you feel are the strongest and/or were most well-received? And why?
Weinstein: It's very subjective. My own favorites were two more recent stories: Safe Harbors in the anthology Tales of the Dominion War, and The Blood-Dimmed Tide novella in the massive Star Trek: Mere Anarchy saga. The Dominion War stories take place during the DS9 period, but we were allowed to use any living Trek characters, so I wrote a McCoy-Scotty "Over the Hill Gang" story about two very old friends risking their lives when they should be retired. I tried something new for me: first-person POV, through McCoy's eyes. With the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Iraq war still fresh, I used some of those raw images and emotions in writing about sending kids to fight and die, and how war challenges people to hold onto their humanity, ethics and ideals in the face of implacable enemies. It's probably the best writing I've ever done.
The Blood-Dimmed Tide started out as a novel proposal, morphed into a four-part WildStorm Comics mini-series which got canceled, and finally found a happy home in the Mere Anarchy series, which followed the interactions of Kirk's crew with a planet devastated by cosmic natural disaster over a 30-year period – an unprecedented Trek fiction story arc. My book is set just before Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, using Spock's initial steps toward becoming a diplomat, and Kirk's hardening hatred toward the Klingons after his son's murder. I also had a great time focusing on one of the most intriguing Klingons -- Kang -- and his relationship with his smart and cunning wife Mara.
And the same with your comic books. Which do you feel are the strongest and/or most-well-received? Why?
Weinstein: My two favorites were a pair of multi-parters which read like novels. We did Sulu's first mission as Excelsior captain, reprinted as the graphic novel Tests of Courage, with an introduction by George Takei. The other… Well, in most time travel stories, the heroes go back in time, figure out what to fix – finding whales, or making sure Edith Keeler gets mushed by that truck -- and come back to their own time to find out everything’s back to normal. But what if you come back... and things are worse?!? So Timecrime requires Kirk and company to go back in Klingon history not once but twice in order to set things straight.
You have a "thank you" credit on Star Trek IV. How did that happen?
Weinstein: It's October '84 and Leonard Nimoy's mulling ST:IV ideas and meeting various writers and scientists. He asked a Starlog magazine staff member for names and mine came up. I was working in Manhattan, and got a call inviting me to chat with Leonard that afternoon. We met for a couple of hours, and among the ideas batted around were time travel, which he’d apparently already decided to use as a major plot element, and whales, or whale-like creatures. In a case of cosmic coincidence, I had just gone on a fascinating whale-watch cruise off the Massachusetts coast. To this day, I don’t know if whales ended up in ST:IV partly as a result of my suggestion, or whether they’d already decided that. But they were nice enough to give me that “Thank you” credit. It’s my favorite Trek film, and I’m proud to be associated with it in some small way. And it was a thrill to meet and chat with Leonard. Within a week, I came up with a story outline, but they already had writers developing something. So I ended up using my idea for my second Trek novel, Deep Domain. Best part: because of my limited involvement, I was able to visit the sets during shooting. That was really fun, as you can imagine.
Aside from your Trek work, what other novels and comics are you proudest of having written?
Weinstein: Actually, not novels or comics, but two non-fiction books. Puppy Kisses Are Good for the Soul is a combo -- part memoir about life with a great dog and part training book for people who want to get the most enjoyment out of sharing life with their own dogs. A revised edition came out in 2008, and is available from Amazon.com. The other was a warts-and-all bio of one of my childhood heroes, New York Yankees baseball star Mickey Mantle, written for middle-school readers and published by Rosen Books.
What are you working on these days? Any new Trek novels or comics in the works? Any non-Trek novels or comics on the way? And how did you get into dog training?
Weinstein: No Trek stuff for now. I have a movie script called Grace Notes which has been optioned by a li'l Virginia production company, Cold Spark Films. I don't know what my next book may be, but it'll come from a new Internet-based publishing venture called Crazy 8 Press, a writers' cooperative co-founded by Peter David, Michael Friedman, Bob Greenberger, Glenn Hauman, Aaron Rosenberg and me. Crazy 8 is our response to the increasingly unstable publishing biz, and we'll be offering new stories as both e-books and paperbacks, and selling them direct to our readers. We'll have the flexibility to write what we like -- and what our readers want -- without having to go through the schizoid world of terrified publishers who only want bestsellers by brand-name authors. We're pretty jazzed about launching Crazy 8's lineup this summer. Check us out at www.crazy8press.com.
I became a dog trainer because of the amazing 15 years I had with my first dog, a spectacular Welsh Corgi named Mail Order Annie. Annie taught me so much about dogs, and about being a better human, that I wanted to help other dog owners enjoy their pets as much as I've enjoyed mine. I started Day-One Dog Training 13 years ago, and I help people with everything from basic puppy training to older dogs with aggression issues. It's challenging, fun, and -- like the book title says – Puppy Kisses Are Good for the Soul.