Peter David Takes Fans Down Blind Man's Bluff
There are prolific writers – and then there’s Peter David. The guy is truly a lean, mean writing machine and his output is staggering. Fortunately, so too is the quality of his work. Over the years, David has penned dozens and dozens of Star Trek novels and comics, most notably pretty much every title in the "New Frontier" series that he co-created, as well as I, "Q and Imzadi," and he also teamed up with James Doohan to pen the Scotty actor’s autobiography. It’s been a while since fans last read the adventures of Captain Mackenzie Calhoun and the Excalibur crew, but they’ll be back in action on April 26, when Simon & Schuster releases David’ latest tale, Star Trek: New Frontier – Blind Man’s Bluff. StarTrek.com recently caught up with David for an extensive interview in which he discussed his earlier Trek titles, previewed Blind Man’s Bluff and filled us in on his other upcoming projects.
You refer to yourself as a "writer of stuff." Why not "of fine literature" or "of spectacular entertainment" or of "mind-blowing sci-fi"? "Stuff" doesn't quite seem to do it justice.
David: It’s not a matter of doing it justice so much as it is just trying to describe it in general. “You’re a writer? What do you write?” Well, novels. “What kind of novels?” Well, Star Trek novels, and fantasy novels, and novelizations of movies. “So you just write novels?” No, I also do comic books, and screen plays, and teleplays, and I co-created a TV series called “Space Cases,” and I write editorial columns. And it just takes too long, especially if you have to write a ten-word description for a program or at the end of an opinion piece of who you are and what you do. So I just started describing myself as a writer of all kinds of stuff, and shortened that to writer of stuff, and it just kind of stuck.
How did you first connect with the Trek comic book world, how did that lead to the book world, and what do you remember of penning your very first Trek story?
David: I was approached by Bob Greenberger, editor at the time of the DC Trek comics, to write the comic series. We’d known each other for a long time and he felt I’d be a perfect fit for it. The comics then led to the novels because editor Dave Stern was a fan of my comics work and wanted me to write novels for him. My very first Trek story? Sure. I was a teenager, it was for a fanzine called “Space-Time Continuum,” it was called “Ramar the Intruder,” and it was basically a male Mary Sue story -- Murray Sue -- about this alien who shows up and falls in love with Uhura. It was, of course, ghastly. Although, funny coda: A few years ago I attended George Takei’s wedding. And during the reception, Nichelle Nichols was dealing with an injured foot and wound up leaning much of the time on the nearest convenient guy, which happened to be me. I was grooving on that, I can tell you. “I got Uhura on my hip; suck on that, fan boys!”
Going through your bibliography, you're now at around 100 Star Trek novels, short stories, comic books, games, audiobooks, etc. How would you say that Trek reader interest and the publishing game in general have changed over the course of your years traversing the Trek universe?
David: Well, there’s fewer of ‘em, that’s for sure. I’m not telling tales out of school here. There’s far less Trek novels being published now than there used to be. The laws of supply and demand would indicate that there’s less demand. Plus, fewer people are reading in general. Combine that with the dwindling box office success of the films and it indicated that the current Trek audience was shrinking, either through boredom or, let’s face it, death, and we weren’t picking up any new fans. That’s why I had no problem with the J.J. Abrams film. It was the first Trek endeavor to bring newcomers to the fold in I don’t know how long. I’m hoping that, with them now introduced to the Trek universe, the books and comics will be able to capitalize on that.
You've written books based on existing Trek worlds and you've co-created your own Trek world with "New Frontier." How different are those challenges, and which do you think excel at more?
David: I’d like to think I “excel” -- to use your word -- at all of them. The main challenge that once faces with existing Trek universes is that basically by the end of the book you have to put everything back where you started. You can’t change things, even if they scream to be changed. In “New Frontier,” I can kill off characters with impunity, have them start families, do anything I want. So that’s very liberating. On the other hand, arguably the most popular Trek novel I’ve ever written was “Imzadi,” and that was Next Gen. On the other-other hand, the sequel to that novel exemplifies the restrictions. At the end of that book, I originally had Riker proposing to Troi and she accepted. I figured the TV series was over, so what the hell, why not? It was a beautiful, moving, emotional scene. And Paramount wouldn’t let me do it. They insisted on my rewriting that entire sequence with the contention that “Riker and Troi will never get married.” And then years later, boom, there’s a movie with their wedding celebration. So there are frustrations and rewards for both.
For you, how similar and/or different is writing comics vs. novels?
David: It’s completely different. Comics are largely a visual medium. You have to be aware at all times that scenes have to be as visually compelling as possible. In novels you can write talking heads for pages and pages, and as long as what they’re saying is interesting, you’re OK.
Which of your many Trek novels would you say has been the most well-received by fans/critically acclaimed? And is there one that you feel belongs in that same company, but for whatever reason is not as well regarded?
David: Probably “Imzadi.” I say that based on various fan polls that seem to indicate fans just love that one. Personally, I think that “Q-Squared” is the better novel because it was far more ambitious and incredibly complicated to write in a way that readers could follow what was going on, especially when I had three different parallel universes colliding. But I can see why fans would connect on such an emotional level with “Imzadi.”
We did want to ask you specifically about one older title: Beam Me Up, Scotty, James Doohan’s autobiography. Take us through working with Doohan on that. What did you learn about Jimmy and his life from collaborating with him on it, and how pleased with the finished book was Doohan?
David: Basically, Jimmy had wanted to write his autobiography himself, but he got bogged down. He just wasn’t sure how to approach it. So Pocket contacted me and said Jimmy needed a co-writer. I flew out to Washington, where I was going to spend a week interviewing him. I still remember the first time we were in my hotel room, and I could tell that Jimmy was a little wary, not to mention that his pride was still smarting a bit because he hadn’t been able to get the job done himself. So I think his attitude was like, “What’s this writer going to bring to the table?” I knew the first question I asked was going to be hugely important; it would set the tone for everything else. So I started the recorder and the first thing I asked was, “Tell me about the first time you saw a television set.” And he blinked in surprise because that hadn’t been at all what he’d expected. Then he realized how much sense that question made: His major claim to fame would be as a TV actor, but when he’d been growing up, television didn’t exist.
I was sure he’d remember what it was like looking at a TV screen the first time, not knowing he was looking into his own future. I was right: He remembered clear as a bell seeing a television set at a World’s Fair, which in turn triggered a slew of memories about the whole trip to the Fair, and all kinds of stuff he hadn’t thought about in years. And from that point on, he completely trusted me to steer him through the story of his life and put it all into some sort of coherent order. As for what I learned about him, it’s all pretty much in the book, so I suggest people read it. The sad thing is that I didn’t see him again until several years later at a convention, and he had deteriorated badly. He was in a wheelchair, and when I went up to him, he had no idea who I was. He just said, “Would you like me to sign my book?” And the guy who was with him—I think it was his agent or manager— of course knew who I was and he said to me softly, “This is actually one of his better days.”
OK, let's get to Blind Man's Bluff. Give us a preview. What's the basic set-up and what would you say is the emotional core/through-line?
David: Picking up on where the previous book left off, not only does the crew have to deal with the emotional fall out of Selar’s passing, but events with Morgan have reached a crisis point that demands she needs to be dealt with once and for all. This prompts Calhoun to call in very specialized help and results in some extremely unlikely co-workers hooking up. But Morgan is hardly unaware of Calhoun’s machinations, and she has her own plans up her sleeve that involve taking Calhoun out of play, perhaps permanently. The entire book is really about the shifting nature of alliances, where self-interest winds up colliding with emotional needs and what happens when that occurs. It’s also very much about loss.
What continues to interest you about Captain Calhoun as a character, and how would you say he's evolved from House of Cards to Blind Man's Bluff?
David: At the beginning of the series, he was someone who had yet to find his place in the universe. He didn’t fit into the classic Starfleet paradigm, but he had outgrown his homeworld. The Excalibur has provided him the opportunity to grow into a father figure to an eclectic group of crewmen who probably wouldn’t be any more at home on another vessel than he himself would. What’s interesting is that in "Blind Man’s Bluff," we wind up putting Calhoun back into his earliest environment and seeing how he does there with everything that he’s learned since he first departed.
Something we've always wondered: how do you come up with names for people and races and so on? For example, the D'myurj? Is that an anagram for "murder," but spelled wrong? Was it a dare? Was it just the weirdest word you could come up with? Could one of your kids not pronounce the word "demure"?
David: No, it’s a transliteration of an actual word: Demiuge. To use a dictionary definition, “A Platonic subordinate deity who fashions the sensible world in the light of eternal idea.” Basically, a demiurge is a world builder, one who tries to shape reality into something that makes sense to them. When you look at what the D’myurj claim to have done, it totally tracks.
We realize that you do not own the "New Frontier" saga, but that little factoid aside, do you have an end game in mind for Calhoun and the Excalibur? Are you ultimately building to something and one day planning to wrap it all up?
David: I do have thoughts as to how I’d wrap up the series if given the opportunity. I also have a lot of interesting directions I’d take the books if the series keeps going. But I honestly have no clue if that’s going to come to pass. “Blind Man’s Bluff” was the last book on my current contract, and I’ve been asking Pocket for a year if the series is going to be continuing. I have yet to get a straight answer, or any answer. So for all I know, “Blind Man’s Bluff” is the last hurrah of New Frontier.
What, if anything else, do you have on the way that's Trek-related?
David: Nothing else that I can think of. Then again, one never knows.
And, outside of Trek, what else do you have in the works?
David: Well, at the moment I’m writing a second novel tied in with the video game “Fable” that’s a lot of fun. I’m probably going to be writing more episodes of “Ben 10: Ultimate Alien” and “Young Justice.” Probably the most exciting project I have going right now is that I’m working with several other writers -- Mike Friedman, Bob Greenberger, Howie Weinstein, Aaron Rosenberg, and also Glenn Hauman of Comicmix -- on a new publishing endeavor called Crazy Eight Press. It’s an electronic publishing endeavor, and considering that E-book sales are beginning to outstrip traditional mass market and hardcover, it seems to be the way of the future. It allows us the opportunity to publish exactly what we want, the way we want, and get it directly to the fans. It’s the needs of the fans that matter, not the needs of publishers or jobbers or the guys who place the orders for chain book stores. Our first title will be by me, entitled “The Camelot Papers.” Set in Arthurian times (and having no relation to my “Knight Life” books), “Camelot Papers” presents a realm where Arthur is a lot like George W. Bush, Guinevere and Lancelot are a lot like Hillary and Bill Clinton, Merlin is a lot like Karl Rove, and Galahad is a lot like Barack Obama. And all of this is told through the eyes of a young female historian named Vivian, who’s always been a sort of side character to Arthurian legend but never taken center stage before.
We’re also planning to publish the long-awaited second book of my “Hidden Earth” trilogy not too long after that. Meanwhile Mike, Bob and the others are working on their own Crazy Eight Press projects and the launch should be in July. So be sure to check that out.
To learn more about Peter David, visit his official web site at www.peterdavid.net.