GFA Interviews: Michael P. Kube-McDowell

For the Star Wars Universe, he is the author of the Black Fleet Crisis series. You can read more about this series here.

His other works include Emprise, which was nominated for the Phillip K. Dick Award, The Quiet Pools which was a 1991 Hugo Award Nominee among others.

His newest book, ‘The Trigger‘, which he has written in collaboration with Arthur C Clarke, has a very interesting premise and is an engrossing book.

DevanJedi (DJ) of talked to Michael Kube-McDowell (MKM) on the 26th of March, 2000.

DJ: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us. I see the Michigan won last night! Congratulations!

MKM: Yes, Michigan State will return to the Final Four to take care of unfinished business. I’m very happy. The NCAA tournament is pretty much my favorite sporting event.

DJ: On to the interview then. How did you get involved with Star Wars? Why do you think you were asked to write these books?

MKM: The short answer to that is that Tom Dupree, who was my editor at Bantam, thought I’d bring something worthwhile to the STAR WARS universe, and proposed me to Lucasfilm. It’s something of an audition process—Lucasfilm wants to see what you’ve written on your own… they can make a judgment about the kind of stories you’re comfortable with and how well you tell them. In my case, we sent them my novels EMPRISE and THE QUIET POOLS. They were looking for someone with science fiction (even hard SF) chops who was at ease with big galaxy-spanning stories, and that fit some of what I’d been writing on my own quite well.

DJ: Did you pick the slot in the timeline, or was that assigned to you by Lucasfilm?

MKM: I picked the spot in the timeline. The way it worked is this:
First, the “audition,” and then approvals from Lucasfilm. Then the contracts. Then Lucasfilm drops a couple of big boxes of background material on your doorstep, and Bantam drops a big box of previously published SW novels right beside it. And the contract specifically calls on the writer to add to and extend the story of these characters—so you dive into what’s already there and start looking for pieces of the story that haven’t been told.

DJ: How much of the Expanded Universe literature were you familiar with? How much “homework” did you have to do? Have you read all the rest, or just become aware of the timeline/history as it relates to your trilogy?

MKM: It’s kind of like being a historian of biographer. You have to be aware of as much of the both the big picture and as many of the details as you can possibly absorb. I made very heavy use of the unpublished master timeline from Lucasfilm and some of the published references. I only read a couple of the other novels before writing THE BLACK FLEET CRISIS. Even though I was bound to Lucasfilm, I felt that by reading them I didn’t want to be overly influenced in either toward or away from by another “biographer’s” and his or her take on the characters.

DJ: How did you get the “voices” accurately for the film characters? Was there anything specific you did to maintain continuity with who they are in the films (and other books, for that matter)?

MKM: Immediately before starting to write, I used the original films as my touchstone. The material from Lucasfilm included a boxed set of the film trilogy, which I watched both at the beginning and the of my research (to refresh my memory) and right before starting to write, after the outline had been approved (to get the try to get the characters in my ear).

DJ: As far as that goes, how much guidance in general did Lucasfilm give you?

MKM: The contract says, “The manuscripts shall form a trilogy which will expand on the universe and characters presented in the Underlying Work, and introduce new characters and explore new worlds.”

That’s about 90% of the guidance, right there. This is one of the reasons I was interested in writing in the STAR WARS universe, but had never pursued writing in the STAR TREK universe. I wasn’t brought in to write a piece of a story someone else had already devised—I was getting an opportunity to write part of that story myself.

DJ: So you were pretty much on your own. You created a lot of new species. Were you given guidelines on species creation? Any restrictions? Were you asked to include any specific species that were other authors’ creations? What, in your own background, sparked the details for any given species? (Especially, where did the concept for the Yevetha come from?)

MKM: I did run afoul of the Continuity Demon on one point in my original outline-I wanted to give Chewie a polygamous marriage, with several wives. Lucasfilm advised me that Chewie already had a family, as established by the (much-despised) Holiday Special and the children’s Storybook which was derived from it. One of the parts of the BLACK FLEET trilogy that I’m most proud of is the reinterpretation of the Storybook which takes place near the beginning of TYRANT’S TEST.

Moving on to your last question—I haven’t written about alien species very often in my other novels, which mostly deal with the human prospect just around the next blind curve. It was a lot of fun, therefore, to get a chance to do so in the Black Fleet books. My background is as a science teacher, and I have always had a special interest in biology, particularly evolution and natural history. There are so many “alien monsters” in Earth’s own natural history, so many variations on how to reproduce and survive, that there’s plenty of inspiration there for a hundred novels.

I enjoyed creating the Yevetha in particular. They were distinctively alien, but in their own context, perfectly reasonable.

DJ: As it turns out, there are now some fairly significant timeline discrepancies that have arisen since The Phantom Menace has arrived on the scene; Did Lucasfilm outline anything for you as far as the timeline goes in the pre-A New Hope era? (For example, you have Yoda on Dagobah for 100 years, and according to the new Young Obi-Wan novels, and from the first prequel, we assume that can’t be).

MKM: Lucasfilm simply drew the blinds across the pre-ANH years; we were not to write about or make inferences about that period, and they were not about to answer any questions or give us a peek at the roughs for the prequels.

But frankly, since Lucas didn’t even maintain continuity with the earlier (later) films, I don’t think the novelists have anything to apologize for in terms of contradictions. No two histories of the world tell exactly the same story. No two biographies portray exactly the same person. Sometimes what you see depends on where you’re standing. I think the prequels can be viewed as “archaeological finds” which may lead us to correct some previous errors and reinterpret some prior conclusions about people and events.

DJ: Very well said said. How was it to work with Lucasfilm? Some authors writing for previously established franchises have disdained the process as not “real” writing. Did you find this to be less creative than playing in your own “sandbox”? Compare this experience to writing in a universe completely of your own creation.

MKM: There were more hoops to jump through at the beginning, and more “inspectors” to satisfy at the end, but the part in the middle was not very different from working on EMPRISE or ALTERNITIES or EXILE. Primarily I think that’s because it really was my own story, even if it wasn’t my universe. I wrote the outline myself, and though it went through three rewrites and three levels of approval (Bantam, Lucasfilm, and George Lucas personally) before I could start writing, the final version was very close to what I’d started with. Apart from the business about Chewie’s family (I was going to have the Falcon crewed completely by Chewie’s wives during the rescue), there were really no significant changes.

I want to mention a couple of other resources which were very helpful to me, btw—One was Dan Wallace’s guide to planets, which at that point existed only as a fannish effort published on the Internet. I was delighted when Del Rey and Lucasfilm tabbed Dan to create an official version.
The other is Craig Robert Carey’s “Wookiee Sourcebook,” which apparently never will be published in the form originally envisioned by West End Games, but which was a great help with the Kashyyyk portions.

DJ: Back to the Yevetha for a moment.. they are wonderful bad-guys. Really 3-dimensional enough to care about, and potent enough to pose a genuinely scary threat to our heroes. How did you develop them? Did you get any negative input from regarding how violent the Yevetha are? (Relative to most of the EU, the Yevetha dispatch their victims especially graphically).

MKM: Thank you for the kind words. I can’t really tell you very much about where they came from—it’s just something that happens in my head when the characters I’m writing about become real to me. When you get to the point where you see them clearly, all of their history and psychology and biology are there to be explored, each piece fitting with the rest in a synthesis of logical necessity—we see them in a moment in time, but they’re the product of a long history just as we are.

You end up knowing much more about them than ever makes it into the story. I was never asked to tone them down (and I would have fought over it if I had)—I think I made clear pretty early that I was writing for the older portion of the STAR WARS audience.
I don’t think everything in the STAR WARS universe needs to be accessible to and acceptable for six-year-olds.

Or even sixteen-year-olds.

DJ: Let’s leave the Star Wars galaxy for a second. Your newest novel is called “The Trigger”, and you wrote it in collaboration with the scifi literary legend Arthur C. Clarke. How did this collaboration come about?

MKM: Well, to be honest, it still kind of seems to me like having one of the gods reach down from Olympus and select a mortal to join him on a quest. I was working on TYRANT’S TEST when my agent called and asked, “Would you like to write a book with Arthur C. Clarke?”

I said yes before I even asked what the book was—Clarke has been one of my very favorites in the field since I was in my early teens. I remember getting a copy of 2001 as a present from my sister Susan on my 14th birthday.

My agent is also Sir Arthur’s agent; he explained he wanted to be sure I’d be interested (since it would mean deferring work on my novel VECTORS for another couple of years) before he proposed me to Sir Arthur.  I was on tenterhooks for the next day and a half.

I can’t tell you why me—I can only tell you that when I finally read Sir Arthur’s outline for THE TRIGGER, it read like something I might have written myself. I felt an immediate affinity for the material. And I can tell you that Sir Arthur has been wonderful throughout—a gentleman in every way, who never once made me feel like anything other than a peer and a full partner. The fan in me, the fellow who got Clarke’s autograph on a copy of CHILDHOOD’S END in 1973, though, still can’t quite believe it.

DJ: I can understand (I’m a HUGE fan of his myself!) How did you stay in touch?

MKM: Because of the time difference between Michigan and Sri Lanka, it was mostly done through e-mail, though we’ve also talked on the phone any number of times. Much of the research was done on the Net as well, and 99% of our contact with both the American and British publishers was over the Net. The very model of a modern novel.

DJ: There have been a lot of such collaborations lately in the Sci Fi world. What do you think has brought about this trend? Also, as an author, how is it different from writing the book on your own?

MKM: These so-called junior-senior collaborations happen for a variety of reasons. Some are, frankly, just a way for the senior writer to “franchise” a fictional universe or a bankable name. Some are sincere efforts by the senior writer to “pay forward” by helping young writers establish themselves. In the case of both THE TRIGGER and Clarke’s collaboration with Stephen Baxter, the reasons mostly have to do with Sir Arthur’s health—he has a serious case of post-polio syndrome.

Both of these projects were important enough to him that he wanted to see them written even if he couldn’t write every word. He was involved with both novels from beginning to end, and I consider them both true collaborations which arose out of the “right” reasons.

By comparison, when I wrote “Isaac Asimov’s Robot City” in 1985—the first of the so-called “sharecrop” or borrowed-universe novels…—I never spoke with Asimov, never corresponded with him. It was strictly a hired-pen situation, a work for hire. I don’t think Asimov even wrote the outline for the ROBOT CITY series. I think you can often get a clue as to the kind of “collaboration” you’re holding by looking at the copyright.

DJ: The Trigger takes a stand on many social/political issues (which is a little new for the Sci Fi genre) such as disarmament and gun-control. How much of this is your own views?

MKM: I don’t think THE TRIGGER is a didactic novel—one that tells you what should be done, what you should believe. It’s a speculation on what might happen if we found ourselves with a weapon against firearms. The prime movers in the story are meliorists—they think that the world can be made better through human effort, and they find themselves with a tool that they can use in that effort. But the characters are speaking for themselves, not for the authors. I think the last couple of pages of the book underline that. Nevertheless, I think it’s fair to say that Sir Arthur and I both see the gun culture in which so much of the world is immersed as tragically destructive.

Sir Arthur has been witness to two decades of terrorism and guerilla warfare by the Tamil Tigers against the government of Sri Lanka, and here in America I’ve had to watch what seems like an ever-increasing parade of empathy-dead children, disgruntled employees, and disaffected “patriots” make their way to the headlines and the evening news. I think if you’re paying attention at all, it has to have an effect on how you react to the idea of unrestricted ‘gun rights’.

And maybe that’s a good way to think about THE TRIGGER, too. It doesn’t take a stand on guns and violence, but it does take a hard look at them, and at how the issue divides us, and at the price we pay for the choices we’ve made. THE TRIGGER is about the idea that if we had other choices, those who live in hope of something better would try to lead us there. Or drag us there.

In a way, it’s Sir Arthur’s and my answer to the question, “Can you imagine a world without guns?” How you envision that world says a lot about how you see human nature and human society—whether peaceful cooperation or bloody competition dominates your worldview. Those who take the latter view would envision something closer to post-Holocaust anarchy. Our view is rather more hopeful, though hardly utopian or idealistic. “We can do better” is an idea that both Sir Arthur and I can embrace.

DJ: And finally, any advice for would be SciFi/Fantasy writers?

MKM: I grew up reading science fiction that was hopeful about the future, that implicitly accepted the idea that we can do better. I still prefer that flavor in the storytelling mix.

Advice for new writers? It’s a very tough business right now. Much more so than when I broke in. Especially for science fiction writers (as opposed to fantasy writers). I think the old maxim applies double now—don’t quit your day job. There is still room for new voices, but it’s harder than ever to make a living unless you have break-out bestseller success early.

So write what you love, if you’re writing for love. And if some measure of commercial success comes out of that, count your blessings. I’ve worked like a dog, and I’ve also been very lucky. And I count my blessings every day I’m able to continue doing this for a living.

DJ: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with and we wish you all the best for your work in the future.

MKM: You’re welcome.

Leave a Reply