Mack Talks 1st Discovery Novel, Desperate Hours
David Mack and Star Trek go hand in hand. Just 48 years old, the prolific author has spent nearly half his life immersed professionally in the Star Trek universe, and his personal fandom dates back to when he was a toddler, watching syndicated reruns of Star Trek: The Original Series episodes at home in western Massachusetts. His Trek output ping-pongs from novels to short stories, eBooks to comics, novellas to CD-ROM games (remember those?!), as well as The Starfleet Survival Guide. He also, with John J. Ordover, shared writing credit on the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode, “Starship Down,” and story credit on DS9’s “It’s Only a Paper Moon.” Mack’s latest is Star Trek: Discovery – Desperate Hours, the first Discovery tie-in novel, available tomorrow from Simon & Schuster/Pocket Books. StarTrek.com recently engaged Mack – a talkative, sharp, honest guy -- in an hour-long sit-down interview about his Trek work, Desperate Hours and upcoming projects. Check out excerpts from our conversation:
How did Star Trek come into your life?
I don't really remember, clearly, what the first episode I ever saw was. It might’ve been “Who Mourns for Adonais?,” it might’ve been “The Devil in The Dark.” But I remember falling in love with the Star Trek universe, with the concept, with this hopeful vision of going out into the stars. Growing up at a time when Watergate was going on and there was all this unrest in the country, even as a child you could feel it, you could be aware of the troubled zeitgeist in the country, and to have this hopeful vision that says, “If we choose, as a people, to get past this, we're going to be OK.” That was a very encouraging message and it became very important to me from a young age. As a kid, I had that great poster of the cutaway vision of the Enterprise. That poster made the Enterprise so real. The fact that somebody had envisioned it to that level of detail, I could look at this poster and, in my mind, imagine walking the ship’s corridors. I knew where every section was and where the torpedo bays were and where engineering was. Because of the passion and detail that went into that, it became real to me in my mind and made it easy to write later on.
You’ve written Star Trek for every medium, except role playing games and feature films, and touched every series. How did you end up becoming such a go-to guy for Trek?
I started college the same year that Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered, so my parents taped all the episodes for me just in case I wasn't going to have the chance to see them while I was studying at school. I’d come home and binge hours and hours of TNG, and then I’d keep the tapes. I ended up with this reference library that I’d watch over and over, and I could find anything at the drop of the hat. I collected the reference books, too. So, I had this sort of encyclopedic knowledge of Star Trek. After I teamed up with John (Ordover) and we made some of those first sales and a lot of unsuccessful pitches afterward, I continued to do scoot work around the Simon & Schuster office. I continued to be exposed to what was new in Trek, especially the fiction side. I got to do things like write reference materials for the other authors to help them keep their stuff straight; people like Mike Friedman and especially Peter David, for whom I wrote the minipedia to his then brand-new New Frontier series.
What was the tipping point?
A John Vornholt project, Genesis Wave Book 1. His manuscript had come in very late, right on the crash date and, worst of all, not only did it arrive on crash date, it arrived 5,000 words short of a publishable length. The editors came to me in a panic on a Friday afternoon and said, “Can you, in 72 hours, deliver 5,000 words about the Genesis device, in the form of a series of classified Starfleet memorandum. I said, "Of course. I'll have it to you Monday morning." I wrote it over the weekend, delivered exactly what they asked for in exactly the format they wanted. They said, "Great." It eventually became chapter 14 of the book. John Vornholt very graciously wrote a framing sequence to integrate it into his novel. Because of that, when The Starfleet Survival Guide came up… Margaret Clark had put together the deal. They had the illustrator, the concept, but they didn't have a writer to finish the prose. They said, "Well, you saved our bacon on Genesis Wave. The deal's done. You don't have to pitch and you get paid. Do you want to write The Survival Guide?"
Not being a fool, you said yes…
I got that done, and they said, "OK, you've proved you can finish a book and make a deadline. Would you like to pitch to our new line of eBooks, the Starfleet Corps of Engineers monthly eBook novella series?” I said, "Sure, I'd love to." It started there.
Now here we are, with Desperate Hours. How were you approached about working on it?
Back in December of 2014, Kirsten Beyer, David R. George and I, we knew that K/O Paper Products had the license to produce Star Trek on television. We arranged to pitch to them our idea for a Trek TV series, not because we thought they’d buy our series, but because we wanted to prove to them that we were serious longform story thinkers and people who were very knowledgeable about Star Trek and could be of use to them. The meeting went extremely well, but, in the end, it turned out there was only job to be had and three of us. Kirsten, because of her proximity being in L.A. and previous professional relationships she had with some folks who were involved in the show, was the most logical choice. She was the one they knew the best. They were most comfortable with her. She had the qualifications. Kirsten got on staff and, after I sort of got over the disappointment of not being able to join her for the most amazing ride of our lives, I said, “You know what, I'm still committed to being a team player. I still want to be a part of this. I want to contribute any way I can help. Any way that my expertise can filter through you into the room and help make Discovery the best it can be, I want to do anything I can to be helpful.”
Because of Kirsten’s experience with the publishing side of the industry, they decided she was the most-logical person on staff to have as the liaison between the TV side and tie-ins. She said, “Well, I can't think of anybody better to write book one than David Mack.” She knew I’d written for every previous incarnation of Trek. She knew I could be trusted to hit my deadlines, that I could take feedback and revise to notes, that I had an ear for character voices and prose style, that I could work strictly from scripts, without every seeing film material and understand the character voices they are shaping on the page, just by reading how they execute them in prose. She knew she could trust me to interpret that correctly and return it to them in prose format. So that was how that came about.
How exciting was it to see the Desperate Hours cover revealed at Star Trek Las Vegas?
To be on the stage and have that cover pop up and see the reaction of the crowd was really wonderful.
Desperate Hours was crafted specifically to be a companion to the first two episodes of Discovery. Take us through pulling that off…
It uses personnel from the Shenzhou specifically and it focuses on how Michael Burnham and her peers got to be where we find them at the beginning of Discovery. We see the moment she goes from being the senior tactical officer of the ship to its acting first officer. She's being tried out for the job. At that time, it's between and Saru. We also get to see some of the rivalry between her and Saru, and we see some of Saru's resentment in that he had seniority over her when she first came aboard. He went to Starfleet Academy, and she didn't. He’s done his time coming up through the ranks more than she has. But she has an exceptional range of abilities. She is simply an exceptional person. She is the protégé of the captain, and because Georgiou has taken Burnham under her wing, Burnham advances more quickly through the ranks than an ordinary officer would, perhaps to her detriment, but we don't necessarily realize that at the time. We get to see Saru's resentment, as he sees someone who he thinks has not paid her dues, first, catch up to him as a peer, and then in the beginning of book one, surpass him and become his superior. We see his rage at being passed over, his heartbreak at being passed over, because what he desperately wants is to have that protégé/mentor relationship with Georgiou. He loves Georgiou. He worships Georgiou, and to see this opportunity go to Burnham, it's humiliating for him because he has seniority over her, he's done more time. The crew knows this and the crew watches her leapfrog past him, and I can relate to him.
That’s a very relatable situation…
I've had this happen to me, back during my 17 years in the corporate sector. A lot of people have experiences like this where you watch somebody get the promotion you thought you deserved -- even though they've had less time on the job or didn't do all the work you did for it, but somehow, they earned the favor of the person making the decision. So, I really related to Saru. I understood where he was coming from, not only in terms of his binary thinking about you're either predator or prey, his binary thinking then extended to you're either a winner or a loser. You're favored or you're disfavored. You're lucky or unlucky. He's a creature of extremes who's got to find a middle road or he's never going to be happy. I grew to love him the more I wrote him. He's constantly self-conscious about all his reactions. Like, when his threat ganglia go up when something happens, he gets a little weary of people seeing it. He doesn't want people to think he's a nervous nelly. He's a little embarrassed by that.
Then, I got to explore Burnham's relationship, her past with her family. What happened to her parents? How has that scarred her? People who pick up the book are going to get foreshadowing glimpses of what's coming later in the season. There are events I was allowed to depict in the book that will be seen on screen later in season one.
The pilot changed every minute of every day. How did that affect you writing Desperate Hours?
The book was changing every minute, too. I was very much the tail, not the dog. I had to follow their lead. The first few concepts for the story had to be thrown out entirely. A number of things got tossed because of plans they had but were later abandoned.
You're passing the torch to another writer for book two. What are your hopes for picking up later on?
There is discussion, but nothing is signed at this point.
What is actually next for you?
November 28, I have a Star Trek Titan novel called Fortune of War, and that's a direct follow-up to the season-three TNG episode “The Survivors,” in which the Husnock were eradicated from existence, but all their technology and starships weren't. And now we have a race of people trying to take control of that, and the Titan crew trying to prevent this from all going haywire. January 30, 2018, we'll see the debut of my new original book series from Tor. It’s called Dark Arts. The first book is The Midnight Front. The premise of the series is that it's secret history set behind 20th century geopolitics that we know, but we see it through the vantage point of Renaissance-era-style black magicians, essentially sorcerers who conjure and control demons in order to work magic. There's a whole website for it, midnightfront.com, and I'm currently writing book two, The Iron Codex, set in 1954. That’s a Cold War era spy thriller.
Star Trek: Discovery – Desperate Hours runs 384 pages will be available tomorrow as a mass-market paperback from Simon & Schuster/Pocket Books. It’s priced at $11 at www.amazon.com. Click here to listen to an excerpt from Star Trek: Discovery: Desperate Hours, read by Susan Eisernberg.