Michael A. Martin, in part two of an exclusive StarTrek.com interview, talks more about his writing career, discussing his early influences, how he got in the Star Trek game, and what he's working on now that his latest book, Star Trek: The Romulan War: To Brave the Storm, is available in stores and online.
Since we’ve never spoken with you before, let’s go all the way back to the beginning. How and why did you get into writing and who/what would you say were some of your early influences?
Martin: I’ve been scribbling stories, or trying to, ever since I can remember. Comics were a huge early influence on me, particularly Batman during his early-1970s “creature of the night” phase. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were also great influences, as was the original TOS. By the time I was ten or eleven, I had stumbled onto what remained of the s-f pulps in the 70s, primarily Analog and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, both of which I still subscribe to today. Those pulps led directly to the works of Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, Zelazny, and a pile of others. A couple of years later, around the time Asimov’s hit the newsstands and while the first Star Wars movie was still burning up movie-theater screens, I started typing up terrible, horrible, really bad short stories and scripts, which I dutifully submitted to s-f magazines and comics publishers. I reasoned that if the people who created the stories and novels and comics that I loved so much could generate this stuff right out of their heads, then why couldn’t I? It never occurred to me that nearly all of those creators had quite a bit more experience under their belts than I did at the tender age of thirteen. And, being sensible people, none of the editors of the publications in question bought any of my early brain-droppings.
The music bug bit me shortly thereafter, so I began channeling my energies into guitar, bass, and piano, and this culminated in a Bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts with an emphasis in music. Despite my musical obsession I never lost interest in s-f and fantasy, and continued reading voraciously. A few years later I found myself working as the west coast field representative for Marvel Comics, a position that allowed me to do a lot of networking with creative types—people like Andy Mangels, for instance—before I even knew what buzzwords like “networking” meant. During that time I had begun writing again, this time more seriously and methodically. I even scraped together a not-insignificant amount of cash so that I could attend Robert McKee’s Story seminar in Los Angeles. That experience, a kind of boot camp for writers, was a breakthrough for me. Suddenly I was running into fewer creative dead ends. I was finishing more of the stories I was starting. I joined a San Francisco Bay Area writer’s group and started workshopping my stories. I was becoming a writer.
Take us through how you originally hooked up with Star Trek, and what, at the time, did you know about the franchise? Were you a fan of the shows? The novels?
Martin: Some of my earliest childhood memories revolve around Star Trek, since I was about two-and-a-half years old when the show began in the fall of 1966. I was always intensely involved with it, even while I was expanding my interests into the more “literary” wavelengths of the science fiction spectrum. I read all the James Blish novelizations and all the rest of Bantam’s Star Trek output as well, all the way back to Blish’s Spock Must Die! I still have copies of Franz Joseph Design’s Starfleet Technical Manual and the NCC-1701 blueprints, and started following Pocket’s Star Trek publishing program way back when it started, with the novelization of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. I started attending the big Los Angeles Star Trek cons way back in 1975, at the tender age of eleven—the time of life that some wag once dubbed the Golden Age of science fiction. If it was possible to earn university degrees in, I probably would have held at least a Master’s in TOS and a Bachelor’s in TNG, DS9, and Voyager Trekology before I’d earned my first nickel writing Star Trek stories.
But Star Trek was never the sum total of my interest in the bigger realm of s-f. Like I said, I was always trying to keep abreast of the more “mainstream” end of the genre, which is where I concentrated my creative efforts, at least at first. And so it came to pass, near the end of my five-year stint selling funnybooks for Marvel, that I made my first professional fiction sale—to my beloved Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, no less. A few months later I scored again with another sale to the same magazine.
Not long after that first sale saw print, I got a phone call from Andy, who told me that Marvel had just picked up the Star Trek comics license. He wanted to pitch to Marvel, but felt that his “Trekspertise” might not be up to the challenge, since he was more of a Star Wars authority. So he asked me if I—a notorious Star Trek geek—wanted to collaborate with him. I picked up the gauntlet, and we began pitching together to Marvel, selling two stories out of our first three tries, right off the bat. Our first sale got approved in less than a day, which we were told had never happened before. The next thing we knew, we were the regular writing team on Marvel’s Deep Space 9 series, and wrote a couple of other special Trek projects for them as well—including a TNG sequel to “A Piece of the Action” for the tenth and final issue of Star Trek Unlimited.
After Marvel canceled its Trek comics line and marched us all out into the snow to be shot, Andy and I started collaborating on a series of oversize collectible Star Trek trading cards that were sold via mail-order subscription. This was an extremely pre-Internet enterprise, involved a great deal of research and fact checking, and paid really well, as such things go. As that gig was ending, strangled already by the strands of the still-newfangled World Wide Web in 2000 or thereabouts, I discovered that my old sales counterpart at DC Comics—one Marco Palmieri—had moved on to become a senior editor at Simon and Schuster’s Pocket Books imprint. Since he was in charge of a big chunk of the company’s line of Star Trek novels—and because he was interested in bringing new talent into his stable of authors—Andy and I got to start pitching to him. One of those early pitches became our 2001 TNG novel, Section 31: Rogue, our very first novel. I’ll always think of that one as our “Love Me Do” or “Please Please Me,” probably because of the Meet the Beatles-style headshots that Pocket chose for the cover images on each of the four books in the Section 31 series.
If we’re not mistaken, your very first piece of Star Trek writing was on the DS9 comic book, “Lwaxana Troi and the Wedding of Doom.” What do you remember of that experience? Of trying to capture the essence of DS9 and those characters, especially Lwaxana and Odo, in comic-book form?
Martin: That story wasn’t actually the first Star Trek tale we sold to Marvel, but it was the first one that saw print. Our first was a Tribble story, a sequel to the DS9 episode “Trials and Tribble-ations” called “Nobody Knows the Tribbles I’ve Seen.” You might remember the cover, which was a goof on an old National Lampoon magazine, the one with a gun pointed at a dog and a caption that read, “Buy this magazine or we’ll shoot this dog.” In our version, Worf held a Tribble in one hand and a phaser in the other, and shouted, “Buy this book or the tribble gets it!” I don’t mind calling that cover a work of genius, since it sprang from the brow of Tim Tuohy, our editor at the time.
“Lwaxana Troi and the Wedding of Doom” was written shortly after we made that initial Tribble sale. I remember that Andy and I thrashed out the basic story beats together, which was always easy for us to do since we both live in Portland. Capturing the essence of Odo, Lwaxana, and Rom seemed to come fairly naturally to us, so I don’t remember all that much about the process other than just imagining the situations and writing down what happened as the story unfolded in my head. I recall that I was still getting my “sea legs” then in terms of learning the comic-book script format and learning to be spare with my verbiage. There’s not a lot of extra room on the page, so a scripter has to be efficient with his words. The visuals can sometimes tell the whole story, and when it does a scripter needs to get out the way. Silence can be golden.
I remember coming up with things like a new Ferengi Rules of Acquisition, which was later supplanted by a different canonical rule that used the same number that I chose. That kind of thing is an occupational hazard when you’re writing a tie-in to a series that’s still in production, so you can’t let it bother you when it happens. So we mainly concentrated on the storytelling challenges that are unique to comics. Not only were we working hard to meet the reader’s expectations about the voices of the characters, particularly Odo and Lwaxana, and the station environment, we were also coming to terms with the fact that we had, in effect, an unlimited special-effects budget. So in addition to serving up the familiar—that is, making the character’s voices as authentic as possible—we could deliver things that television and film typically either didn’t or couldn’t, at least during a time when computer-generated special effects were much more expensive than they are today. That encouraged us to try to create really outré monsters and aliens whenever possible. It’s all a matter of playing to the strengths of whatever medium you’re working in.
Probably my clearest memory of this story, which ran in two parts in issues #10 and #11, is one of the key visuals. Our script called for a nifty cheesecake “splash” shot of Leeta in the shower, where she’s being menaced by a nasty slime monster that ultimately carries her off into the station’s proverbial bowels. This lets Rom play the hero and mount a rescue attempt. I remember taking photocopies of that issue’s pencils to the San Diego Comic-Con that year—this is months before the story saw print—and showing the shower sequence to Chase Masterson, who was thrilled to see her likeness being menaced by a “B” movie monster. I remember giving her copies of her own, and how she went around showing the pages off all over the convention center that day. That was a hoot.
Rogue, a Section 31 tale, was your first Trek novel. What do you remember of putting pen to paper, or fingers to computer, for that one?
Martin: That was kind of a rough period for me. My mother had died around the time when we got our outline for Rogue approved, and I remember having to get intensely busy turning my portions of the story into finished scenes and chapters right after the funeral. Working on that book might have been a kind of therapy, or maybe just a means of escape. I remember that the process of writing felt very fluid to me. It seemed to progress very quickly. Along the way we crafted several scenes that seemed perfectly placed, to us at least, but which weren’t even part of the original outline. There was an emergent quality to a lot of it. A great deal of the finished material seemed to arise out of pure serendipity, as though the book somehow wanted to be written.
This was also the time when Andy and I established our standard collaborative method, in which I would take all the vowels, and he would do all the consonants. Just kidding. What we did was generate a series of story beats that we would flesh out into an outline. Next we would break the outline into chapters, and then agree on which of us would write which chapters. Whenever one of us finished a chapter, we’d send it to the other for editing. By the time the whole book had been through the process of the initial writing, the collaborator edit, and the original-writer re-edit, we often weren’t sure anymore who had written what. But we found early on that this method gave us a fairly consistent voice throughout the narrative.
You and Andy Mangels partnered on many Star Trek stories from there. We know that you’re no longer partners, but how do you look back on your years as a writing tandem?
Martin: I look back on those years with a lot of fondness. I think Andy and I did a lot of great work together, both in comics and in prose. We had a long and fruitful partnership. But we were both growing as individual creators all the while, and each of us always had our own individual irons in our own respective fires. At some point, you outgrow whatever framework you might have established eight or ten years earlier. As great as their partnership was, even Lennon and McCartney had to move on eventually. And no, I’m not making a serious comparison between Mangels & Martin and Lennon & McCartney.
We won’t ask you to go through each and every Trek book you’ve written, but if someone is new to Trek books and wants to dip into some of yours, as objectively as you can, which would you recommend they check out… and why?
Martin: The first one that springs to mind is the first title in the Star Trek: The Lost Era series, an Excelsior novel set in 2298 and titled The Sundered. It came out in 2003 and is out of print at the moment, but I know copies are still floating around on Amazon, and there’s a Kindle edition as well . Our editor told me that the ending left him feeling choked up, which tells me that Andy and I scored an emotional bull’s eye here. Give us a “P” for pathos! I also consider The Sundered the first Star Trek novel in which I really got to spread my s-f genre wings, as it were, in developing the Neyel, a long-lost offshoot of Homo sapiens. Because of a series of accidents, the Neyel ended up living in the Small Magellanic Cloud, over 200,000 light-years from Earth, and caused havoc everywhere from there to the far end of the Tholian Assembly. Even though this book contains a lot of carefully crafted continuity Easter eggs, a reader who isn’t already totally familiar with Star Trek shouldn’t have any trouble appreciating this one.
Rogue is also a good starting point for new readers. I’ve always thought of this one as a fairly straightforward spy thriller that doesn’t require an advanced degree in Trekology to follow. For another good “jumping on point,” I’d recommend the first two volumes of the U.S.S. Titan series, Taking Wing and the Red King. In the first book, Captain William T. Riker has a mandate to rekindle Starfleet’s tradition of peaceful scientific exploration during the years-long aftermath of the Dominion War. Riker gets his first command off the ground aboard the most ethnically diverse starship in Starfleet history, an environment that creates special challenges for Titan’s human and part-human senior officer cadre. The second volume sees the return of the Neyel from The Sundered, and closure of sorts.
Last Full Measure, which was the first Enterprise NX-01 novel that Andy and I wrote together, strikes me as another good place for a new reader to come aboard. It explores the differences in philosophy and temperament between the Starfleet characters—you can think of them here as Navy sailors—and the MACOs, or Marines, that they have to work alongside them despite of their differences. Extensive Trek knowledge on the reader’s part is entirely optional here.
Again, if you can be objective, what do you feel is your strength as a writer? Dialogue? Action? Character development? Creating a sense of place and time?
Martin: I like to think that my writing demonstrates a good ear for dialogue, as well as an ability to recreate the unique “voices” of familiar characters. It’s always gratifying to hear readers say that they could hear a given actor speaking the lines I’ve written. I’ve also always strived to include as a strong sensory component in my fiction. It’s important to help the reader latch onto a setting with sensory details in order to ground everything more firmly in a sense of reality. The more real a story setting feels, the easier it is to get readers to accept the more fantastical elements that are the stock-in-trade of the genre writer.
Let’s look to the future. What else do you have in the works, both on the Star Trek front and in terms of anything else?
Martin: I have some original, yet-to-be sold fiction projects in the works, one that involves time travel and celebrities, and another that’s set in a world that’s still struggling to return to business as usual more than a decade after a zombie apocalypse. But at the moment my number-one priority is writing the next U.S.S. Titan novel, Fallen Gods, the immediate sequel to last year’s Seize the Fire.
Fallen Gods explores the devastating effect that Andor’s surprise decision to join the Typhon Pact is having on Lieutenant Pava and the other Andorian members of Will Riker’s crew, even as Titan continues to explore the hinterlands of deep Beta-Quadrant space. Meanwhile, a new menace that is simultaneously brand new and utterly familiar will begin wreaking havoc across the galaxy. Fallen Gods is slated for release in the fall of 2012, about a year from now.