Sunday, 12 April 2015

FCD: Meeting James and Una

Following on from their excellent Q&A session at First Contact Day I was gifted the chance to talk to authors Una McCormack and James Swallow for 20 minutes. Just beware there might be a couple of unintentional SPOILERS in here...

We'd already discovered Una is a massive Deep Space Nine fan - especially anything Cardassian-related and that James is the reason David Mack's Section 31 novel, Disavowed turned out (to some degree since he broke Bashir out of prison!). From the question I asked we also know that they didn't make the novels end in such a way to "screw over" the one following - there was a much bigger plan...but what else could we find out?

Well, Garak's assension to Castellan wasn't spur of the moment for one thing; "I've long harboured ambitions to do that," explained Una, "It's something I've had in the back of my mind for a very long time. It always seemed like the natural endpoint for Garak's story nut to make him have to do it legitimately."

Una needed Garak to acheive that power - in fact he had always been pretty powerful - "but within the constraints of democracy and I thought that would be the real test for the character; to use power but in a moral way."

Turns out there were some good chats about this move and how it could affect writers in the future; "David R George and I had some debates about it.....It is the end of his story in a way but I think there's still some life in the old dog yet!"

James was keen to note that each of The Fall series is about taking the characters out of their comfort zones and it wasn't something that was evident during the writing but seems to have come about much further down the line. "It's a great idea where we have this character (Garak) who has been all these things and done all of this stuff is suddenly put into this position where he has to be the moral and upstanding citizen and it grinds with him. It's so cool when you put a character in that position."

Una actually finished The Crimson Shadow before any of the others in the series were complete; "Una's book pops in my inbox and I was like oh - I'd better write the book!" revealed James. He knew he was in for a good read; "Una's book exists within it's own bubble of Cardassian-ness," he noted, "but there are still a lot of threads that are dropped in and then pulled back out. There were no overt plot threads but there was a sense of massive political wheels turning and the sense of a world on the verge of a dynamic shift...Every book in The Fall has that feeling that big things are happening and you'd better not get crushed underneath it."

The tasks were handed out and Una snapped up the Garak and Picard two-hander while James looked at the section he had taken in a very different way; "I wanted to do an espinoage thriller but I also wanted to do something that's got some doors being kicked in and stuff blowing up."

In fact the author of The Poisoned Chalice had just finished reading No Easy Day which is about the SEALS who go after Bin Laden. "The idea of the Black Ops and the hunt for a terrorist dovetailed perfectly with the stuff that Una set up with who's to blame for the crisis."

James wanted to push the boundaries on what could be done with the "hawkish" Federation that is evident in the series. He wanted to ask awkward questions "and have some kick-ass stuff too."

While The Crimson Shadow plays with a small deck of characters, The Poisoned Chalice takes a very different approach taking names from The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager; "It was funny trying to put all those characters together," recalled James, "I found that I was writing some of the very first meetings between some of those characters and I didn't realise it. I did a scene where Deanna Troi meets Julian Bashir and I wrote it and thought 'have they actually met?'"

As it turns out they hadn't and James had to go back, tear the entire scene out and retool it. "I realised I couldn't do it as a throwaway it had to be a thing and it was the same when I did the scene when Tovok meets with Nog. That was a lot of fun because it almost became a comedy double act with the two of them playing off each other."

With Nog, James saw that he had been played for laughs on occasion but there was a darker side which came out through his experiences in the Dominion War and with Tuvok there was an experienced officer who had done the black ops work and seen a lot; "And I wanted to bring all that out in these seemingly polar opposites. and then seeing them almost bonding...It wasn't a conscious decision it just evolved out of the story."

Una's latest addition to the Star Trek literary universe came out very recently in the form of The Missing (which I haven't read yet) which carries the moniker of a Deep Space Nine novel even though there are a few characters from elsewhere in the universe who drop by. Good news is that there seems to be a renaissance on Deep Space Nine novels as David R George has just announced The Ascendence and we have Sacraments of Fire in July from the same author. Una would love to do some more which I can firmly say is a Good Thing.

Of course, The Fall in some way has to have influenced the thread of The Missing and the book does indeed acknowledge the series in its opening pages. James however managed to remain tight-lipped on just how much The Poisoned Chalice had influenced the yet-to-be-released The Sight Unseen which focuses on the good ship Titan.

I managed to get a "Yes" from James on the subject; "There have been a couple of books between The Fall and the Titan novel," he explained referring to The Next Generation's Takedown and Absolute Enemies from John Jackson Miller. "There's a lot of stuff going on," continued James Swallow, "and I've got to be careful of spoilers here; situations have changed, people are in different places and things have happened not just within the Federation but to the Titan and the people on board the Titan. There will be some new characters, someone will die and Titan will have a brand new mission. It's the fallout from all of that which will take it in a new direction."

James assured me that it will still be a traditional Titan story about the ship going off and exploring strange new worlds and seeking out new civilisations but maybe not in the same format as the original series of Titan."

For me as a reader, the end of The Fall seemed to mark a return to basics for the literary Star Trek universe as the Enterprise returned to its core mission of exploration and the universe seemed to have a minor reset. After all the arcs and series such as Destiny, Cold Equations and The Fall, it appears that the galaxy is settling back into a more singular way of telling stories. I asked the two authors if it was a good way to go forward with the franchise.

"I think it is," said Una, "We were telling a lot of very, very complex stories and it's nice to give your brain a rest. It can't always be about saving the Federation or saving the quadrant or saving the universe or saving reality as we know it. Think how beautiful an episode like The Inner Light is and that's just the drama of a man's life passing and that is as much Star Trek as kicking down doors and blowing things up."

Have to say I did then support James on that very point because we always need doors being kicked in and things blowing up. 

In terms of First Contact Day the two authors were really impressed with the event; "It's been a really friendly, warm convention," said Una who is from the north west, "It's nice to be back amongst my people!"

James was clearly enjoying being at the event too, "Star Trek has been very kind to me," he said, being the only UK writer to provide concepts for Voyager's One and Memorial. "To me that was like winning the lottery."

Getting that second shot at Voyager was all that James needed to know that this was the job he wanted to do for life, "...and the energy from that still propels me forward. Star Trek has given me so much love and enjoyment and it's great to be able to give back to that."

Thanks to Una McCormack and James Swallow for their time at First Contact Day.

Have you read either of these authors? What did you think of their work and are you looking forward to their next novels?

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