David Mack Talks ‘Destiny’
David Mack, not the Kabuki David Mack, is no stranger to the Star Trek writing universe, having written several well-acclaimed novels solo and also a couple of televison episodes with former Star Trek book editor John Ordover. He dipped a toe into the Marvel Universe with his excellent Wolverine novel, Road of Bones (with a cover from the other Dave Mack). His latest work, the Star Trek: Destiny trilogy, spans several storylines that will change Trek literature forever. The first volume of the trilogy is just now hitting bookstores so we thought it was a good time to catch up with Mack who was kind enough to discuss his career and future writing endeavors with ComicMix.
CMix: How did you get your start in Star Trek?
David Mack: Long story. I first set my sights on writing for Star Trek while I was a sophomore in college. That was when Star Trek: The Next Generation announced its open-door policy for script submissions. I collected many fine rejections but never succeeded in breaking through at The Next Generation.
I continued submitting scripts through the same venue for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and I collected many more fine rejections. I finally got my break when a college friend of mine introduced me to Star Trek fiction editor John J. Ordover. John had the connections to bypass the slush-submission process and pitch ideas to the producers; what he lacked was scriptwriting experience, for which I had been trained at film school. So we teamed up.
Working together, John and I made a sale during our first pitch session to Star Trek: Voyager, and another a few weeks later, to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The Voyager story was bought but never produced; the DS9 story became the fourth-season episode “Starship Down.”
We figured the floodgates would open after back-to-back sales. They didn’t. It was three years before we sold another story to Deep Space Nine (the seventh-season episode “It’s Only a Paper Moon”). In the interim, to earn freelance money to help pay off my mountain of college-loan debts, I did editorial scut work around the Star Trek books office: reading slush submissions, compiling reference materials for the authors, organizing photo files, etc.
My big break (which did not seem like it at the time) was when John asked me to write a 5,000-word piece, in the style of a top-secret Starfleet report, about the Genesis Device from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It was intended to be a supplement of some sort to John Vornholt’s novel The Genesis Wave, Book One. It was such a hit with the editors that it became chapter fourteen of the novel, and John Vornholt graciously penned a framing sequence to incorporate it into his tale.
Based on the strength of that contribution and the speed with which I carried it out, I was invited in early 2000 by editors Jessica McGivney and Margaret Clark to write a Star Trek book of my own: The Starfleet Survival Guide.
And thus my Star Trek book-writing career began.
CMix: What was your day job?
DM: At the time that John Ordover and made our first sales to Voyager and Deep Space Nine, I was a copy-desk editor at Nation’s Restaurant News, a trade news magazine about the foodservice industry. By the time of our second sale to Deep Space Nine, I was working as the associate editor for NRN’s Web site.
In May 2000, shortly after I was hired to write The Starfleet Survival Guide, I was hired as the editor of scifi.com, the Web site of the Sci Fi Channel. I held that demanding full-time position for eight years while pursuing my writing career at night and on weekends.
CMix: At what point where you able to make the leap to full-time writing?
DM: I resigned from scifi.com at the end of May 2008 to become a full-time freelance writer.
This became possible only after a grueling two-year stretch of supporting my wife through graduate school. After she earned her master’s degree and secured a full-time job in her field (one that offered health insurance), I crunched some numbers and decided that, though it would mean a cut in our income for awhile, we could get by just fine on her salary and my freelance income.
CMix: Do you outline?
DM: Yes, always. My earliest formal training as a writer was at NYU Film School, developing screenplays. In screenwriting, outlining is an essential task because of that format’s emphasis on structure and pacing. Even working as a journalist years later, I outlined the structures of my articles and columns before I began stringing words together.
When I made the transition to writing novels, this habit proved useful. Because I got my start writing media-tie-in fiction (mostly Star Trek, but also Wolverine and now The 4400), outlining is a mandatory step. The licensor needs to approve the story outline before an author is permitted to begin drafting the manuscript. (At least, in theory. Sometimes, because of time constraints, work on the manuscript begins immediately while outline approval is still pending.)
I have found outlining to be a remarkably useful step. It enables me to resolve most of my structural, pacing, and story-logic issues in a much more malleable format before I submerge into the line-by-line crafting of the manuscript. By working out the story ahead of time, I free myself to concentrate on my prose styling at the manuscript stage of my projects. I used this approach on my current original project, The Calling, and it has worked out very well, in my opinion.
CMix: You have a reputation for your action scenes and high body counts…
DM: I make no secret of enjoying action-oriented stories, and I have written stories in which principal characters have perished or supporting characters have shuffled en masse off this mortal coil. But I think it would be a gross mischaracterization of my work to reduce it to “action and body counts.”
My focus tends not to be on action or fatal consequences for their own sakes, but rather on the emotional impact of dire events on the characters in my stories. Sound and fury without significance makes for boring reading.
A calamity viewed through the perspective of a character who has just lost everyone she loves can be compelling; sharing the final moments of a character who has everything to live for, but knows that his duty compels him to sacrifice his life for what he believes, can be a great springboard for drama.
Perhaps one analogy for the difference between my reputation and my intention is the difference between sensationalism and tragedy.
CMix: What is Star Trek Vanguard, and how did you get involved?
DM: Star Trek Vanguard is a literary-original series set during the time of the orginal Star Trek television series. It takes place in the Taurus Reach, a region of space at the farthest reaches of the Federation’s frontier.
Vanguard is another name for Starbase 47, an enormous deep-space outpost that Starfleet hastily has built and rushed into service in the Taurus Reach. Because of its proximity to the Klingon Empire and the Tholian Assembly, those powers react with hostility and aggression to this new facility.
To present a different mix of characters from the usual Star Trek lineup of “captain, first officer, doctor, chief engineer,” etc., the principal cast of Vanguard was designed to focus on people with different responsibilities, in order to generate different kinds of stories.
Among the series’ major dramatis personae are a brooding, secretive commodore who commands the base, the sector around it, and the three Starfleet vessels assigned to his station; a Vulcan intelligence officer with psychological problems; an idealistic Starfleet J.A.G. (Judge Advocate General) lawyer; a Starfleet research scientist who has problems dealing with authority figures; a great civilian reporter who happens to be a shitty human being; a drunken mess of a mercenary-turned-entrepreneur; an Orion crime lord; and many more.
Because of its deeply flawed characters, its emphasis on redemption, the dark and gritty tone of its stories, and the intensity of its political and personal conflicts, some fans and critics have favorably compared Star Trek Vanguard to the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica. (Others have called it a betrayal of everything Star Trek stands for, which goes to show that you can’t please everyone.)
In the spring of 2004, after I finished writing my Star Trek: The Next Generation novel A Time to Heal, editor Marco Palmieri called me and asked if I would be interested in working with him to develop this new book series. Naturally, I jumped at the chance. Together, we crafted a detailed series bible that defined the major characters, the station, the political climate of the series, and how it relates to and sheds new light on the original Star Trek series. We also planned the major story arcs of the saga, but we also left enough room to enable the series to grow and change organically, which it has done, surpassing even our best expectations.
CMix: How did you land the job of writing the Star Trek Destiny trilogy?
DM: In the fall of 2006, my editors, Marco Palmieri and Margaret Clark, knew that they wanted a big Star Trek book event for the end of 2008, because that was when everyone at that time thought the new Star Trek film would be released.
I had let them know a few weeks earlier that, due to some unforeseen changes in my personal schedule, I had the time to take on new projects. Apparently, Margaret had wanted to invite me onto the trilogy project for awhile but had thought that I wasn’t available. So when I said that I was, she and Marco started scheming.
They called and invited me to lunch one afternoon in November 2006. We met in an Irish pub near the Simon & Schuster offices. Over lunch and a pint, they opened a copy of Ships of the Line and showed me a painting by Pierre Drolet, of the Columbia NX-02 crashed on a desert planet. The caption for the image suggested that Starfleet had found the Columbia’s wreck in the Gamma Quadrant.
My esteemed editors said they wanted me to craft an epic crossover trilogy, using that image as the jumping-off point.
I thought about it for a moment, took a sip of my beer, and said, “Okay.”
CMix: There are many rumors and expectations surrounding the trilogy. What will readers see after reading them? What are its long-term ramifications for the Star Trek universe?
DM: All I’m willing to share at this point is that characters who are dead before the trilogy starts stay dead; characters killed during the trilogy will stay dead afterward; there is no reset button at the end of the story; worlds we’ve heard of before will be destroyed; a species will cease to exist.
CMix: How much of the process is your input and how much is the editors?
DM: On a tie-in project such as the Destiny trilogy, there is always a measure of give-and-take. My editors provided valuable advice on how to shape and refine the storyline. That having been said, I want to make clear that ninety-five percent of the process on this project and most others that I have developed with my editors has been my input.
Editors don’t do all the story work and then hire some monkey to come in and add adjectives and punctuation. Even when they have a concept of what a given book in a series should contain in order to advance a meta-plot or serve a long-term character arc, they leave it to their authors to solve the dramatic riddle of how to accomplish that, both on a story basis and in the line-by-line writing. When a writer needs guidance, editors are there to help, but it’s the writers’ job to work out most of these issues on their own. That’s why we get paid to do this.
CMix: What are your “desert island” books?
DM: Hrm. Never really thought about that before. It helps that you didn’t impose an arbitrary limit on how many I might have.
I’d start with the complete works of Richard Brautigan. A leather-bound volume of the Complete Shakespeare. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. The Alienist by Caleb Carr. Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks. The collected poems of T.S. Eliot and W.S. Merwin. John Milton’s Paradise Lost.
I’d want some graphic novels, as well. Watchmen by Alan Moore. The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller. The complete runs of Astro City by Kurt Busiek and Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis.
CMix: What is next for you, both in and out of Star Trek?
DM: In January 2009, the month after the final volume of the Destiny trilogy hits stores, I will have a story in the new Star Trek: Mirror Universe anthology, Shards and Shadows. My contribution, “For Want of a Nail,” is the final story in the book, and it sets the stage for future adventures in the Mirror Universe.
I am, as of the date of this interview, crafting the last handful of scenes in the first draft of my original urban fantasy-thriller, The Calling. It’s the story of a man who sometimes hears other people’s prayers for help and feels compelled to help. After years of hearing minor pleas in his small hometown, he hears a prayer from far away in New York, from a kidnapped young girl. Soon, our hero must battle corrupt cops, Russian mobsters, and supernatural bad guys. Along the way he discovers the true nature of his abilities and learns about his role in a much larger, ancient struggle between the forces of good and evil. The Calling will be published as a trade paperback by Simon & Schuster in July 2009.
Once that manuscript is turned in to my editor, I’ll begin writing Promises Broken, a novel based on the now-canceled TV series The 4400. Set a few months after the show’s cliffhanger final episode, Promises Broken will be an epic adventure that ties up many of the show’s dangling dramatic questions. I’m approaching it as if it were The 4400’s explosive grand finale.
Sometime after the holidays, I’ll begin writing the fifth book in the Star Trek Vanguard series, which will be published in December 2009. That book has no title yet, nor does it have a story outline. I’m waiting to see what chaos my cohorts Dayton Ward and Kevin Dilmore wreak in the series’ fourth installment, Open Secrets.
Beyond that, I am talking with the editors at Pocket Books about some new Star Trek novel ideas for 2010, and waiting to see whether there might be a demand for a sequel to The Calling. When I know more, you’ll know more.