GS: Una, many thanks for joining me for this conversation. Shall we start with a brief introduction?
UM: I’m Una McCormack, and I’m a New York Times bestselling science fiction author. I specialise in TV-tie novels, which means novels based on TV shows, in particular Star Trek and Doctor Who. I’ve published half-a-dozen novels, and I also write audio drama and short stories. In my day job, I’m a lecturer in creative writing at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, where I’m also a co-director of the Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy. That all more or less keeps me busy!
GS: What compelled you to start writing Star Trek fan fiction, other than you must be a massive fan yourself?
UM: Fanfiction writing usually comes an impulse to spend more time within a world or text that you love and enjoy; for example, by writing extra scenes with favourite characters. But it also often comes from a need to respond critically to that world – to tease out contradictions or unresolved or unsatisfactory aspects of the story or the milieu.
In the case of Star Trek, I wrote/write almost exclusively for ST: Deep Space Nine. That’s a show with a very distinctive set of characters who still have plenty of mileage in them, I thought. But it’s also a show that leaves many stories hanging – it follows these characters through a long and intense war, which has huge effects on a number alien worlds. I personally became very absorbed in the fate of a world called Cardassia Prime, which functions in the show as an allegory for Nazi Germany in WW2. When the show ends, Cardassia is on its knees: defeated, physically in ruins, morally bankrupt, and with most of its people dead. I was very moved by this story: I became very interested in exploring how a civilisation collapses into barbarism, and then what it has to do to pull itself out of this.
I wrote a great deal of fanfiction about this world and milieu, exploring these issues. And in recent years I have had the good fortune to write these stories professionally, for the Star Trek books range.
So I wrote Star Trek fanfiction because I was deeply moved by a story, and I wanted to explore that story in more depth. I still do this with Tolkien’s work.
GS: Can you tell me how this led to you writing professionally for the Star Trek Books range and what it felt like to be given the opportunity?
UM: Round about 2001-2002, I was quietly working on my PhD, rather badly, to be honest, because I was mostly writing DS9 fanfiction. I was posting this online and getting some nice reviews from people. Out of the blue I received an email from someone introducing himself as the editor of the Star Trek books range at Simon and Schuster. My writing had been recommended to him, and he was wondering if I’d like to pitch some ideas for a DS9 tenth anniversary anthology that was coming up. Well, I had to pick myself up from the floor. Of course I wanted to pitch! I sent some ideas in – these eventually became a short story and my first ST: DS9 novel, Hollow Men.
It felt amazing. When I do Trek conventions, my friend and colleague, SF and thriller writer James Swallow, lets me tell this story, then adds, “It’s important to realise that this never happens. Una is the writer’s equivalent of a unicorn.”
I did get the PhD, by the way, although that’s another story…
GS: Wow that sounds like a writer’s dream! What was it like being commissioned to write for another global sensation with Dr Who fiction? It must be a massive weight on your shoulders to treat the subject and characters with care?
UM: I was absolutely delighted to get to write for the Doctor Who books, and particularly to get commissioned for my current one, Molten Heart, with the first female Doctor! My first two were just after Matt Smith became the Doctor – Star Trek had been off air for a while, and I thought I’d like to try my hand at something else, and as I knew that a new Doctor was coming, I figured it would be a good time to get in touch. Once you have a track record with tie-in writing it becomes much easier to get more – there are often very tight turnarounds within immutable production schedules, so you need to be reliable and able to deliver.
And, yes, you really do have to treat the characters with care. People are familiar with the characters voices and mannerisms, and that’s often one of the things they enjoy most about the book (or which throws them out, if it isn’t quite right). The books at the moment are also aimed so that a youngish audience can read them (8-14). I try to write things that are fun, exciting – and also upbeat and optimistic. The editorial team are absolutely on the ball, and so there’s lots of back up to help get thing right.
GS: Does it mean you know the TV storylines in advance?
UM: Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t!
GS: I’ll end that line of conversation right there then! You’ve also written two novels in the Weird Space series. Can you tell me about the series?
UM: Weird Space is a series of books published by Abaddon, set in shared universe created by the award-winning (and hugely prolific) science fiction and crime writer Eric Brown. The books take place in a far future in which humanity has spread across a multiple worlds, and has recently emerged from a long war with an alien species, the Vetch. In the books, the humans and Vetch realise they are facing a new threat from a species of interdimensional aliens called the Weird. In essence – Lovecraftian space opera! What’s not to like?!
My two books in the series – The Baba Yaga and The Star of the Sea – explore how different species and groups have to put aside grievances and learn to work together in order to survive. It was huge fun working in this shared space. Eric was incredibly generous about letting me run with my ideas – I’d check in with him about something and he’d say, “I hadn’t thought of it that way – but I think you should run with it!”
GS: That sounds amazing! I’m interviewing Eric in the upcoming days so I look forward to talking with him about the series too. You said you lecture in creative writing, what sort of students attend your course? Is it undergraduates or post-grads? What kind of educational background do your students usually have and do your students all aim to be novelists when they graduate or are they also looking at commercial careers in creative subjects such as marketing etc?
UM: I teach both undergraduate and postgraduate. Our undergraduates combine writing with either English Literature or Film Studies. At postgraduate level, we have two main courses, an MA in creative writing, and also an MA in science fiction and fantasy (which is interdisciplinary, drawing on visual media, literary theory, publishing etc.) Our team has a general tendency towards a specialism in speculative fiction, although other colleagues write literary fiction.
I think they all have ambitions to write full-time for a living: part of what all our courses try to do is give insight into publishing, but also to get students to try genres that they might not have considered, e.g. writing for the stage, writing scripts, writing non-fiction. A working writer needs to be ready to try their hand at anything! Many of our undergraduates go on to jobs in other industries too, e.g. marketing or teaching. Our postgraduates are all ages and backgrounds! Some come straight from an undergraduate degree, others are coming back to writing later in life, often after family commitments have lessened. That eclecticism in the cohort is good for the course.
We also supervise PhDs in creative writing, and that’s hugely rewarding – watching people put together their first substantial piece of work.
GS: It’s something I would love to do and would be of such a stark contrast to my engineering studies, but alas until four hours get added on to each day it may have to be something left for later life. Are you currently working on a novel or other writing now?
UM: I wrote two novels this year, so I’m having a brief rest! It’s the middle of teaching term right now (November 2018), so that will take up my energies until Christmas. But I’m working on a handful of outlines that I hope will come to fruition in time!
GS: Thank you for joining me today, it’s been a pleasure talking with you. Una’s current Doctor Who novel, Molten Heart, is available from Amazon and all good bookstores now with Star Trek: Discovery coming out in January and is available to pre-order now. Una’s Dr Who audio plays are available to order from Big Finish. You can keep up to date with Una via Twitter and it’s worth checking out the website for the Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy at Anglia Ruskin.
If you enjoyed this interview then why not follow my blog where I’ll be posting more interviews and conversations soon. I regularly provide an insight into my own experiences as I publish my debut novel, In The End, an apocalyptic thriller that will leave you breathless, available to pre-order now.
If you’re an author, or work in the industry and you’ve got an interesting story to tell, drop me a line on firstname.lastname@example.org