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The Trek Nation - David Mack

David Mack

By Jacqueline Bundy
Posted at July 12, 2004 - 10:46 PM GMT

Writer David Mack has been quietly contributing to the Star Trek universe for the past several years. With writing partner John J. Ordover, he co-wrote the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Starship Down" and the story treatment for the DS9 episode "It's Only a Paper Moon." Mack and Ordover also wrote the four-issue Star Trek: Deep Space Nine/Star Trek: The Next Generation crossover comic-book miniseries Divided We Fall.

When Ordover and author/editor Keith R.A. DeCandido conceived the Star Trek: Starfleet Corps of Engineers eBook series, David Mack was full of ideas and ready to take the next step in his writing career. It didn't take the fans reading S.C.E. long to realize that Mack was an accomplished storyteller. Since co-writing (with DeCandido) the S.C.E. tale "Invincible," currently available in the paperback collection Star Trek: S.C.E. Book 2 – Miracle Workers, Mack has gone on to pen other S.C.E. tales, including the bestselling, award-winning, and critically acclaimed Wildfire, and the recently released Failsafe. He also wrote the humorous short story "Waiting for G'Doh, or, How I Learned to Stop Moving and Hate People," for the Star Trek: New Frontier anthology No Limits.

This summer, readers can look forward to seeing more of David Mack's writing. In addition to contributing the short story "Twilight's Wrath" to the August anthology Tales of the Dominion War, Mack is looking forward to the release of his first full-length novels, A Time to Kill and A Time to Heal. Mr. Mack kindly agreed to talk with us about his writing — in the process clearing up a case of mistaken identity.

TT: Your first Star Trek writing experience was actually for television. How did you go from screenwriting to fiction?

Oddly enough, it was my first attempt to write a Star Trek book that led to my first story and script sales to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

I had always been interested in writing, ever since I was a boy. At around age 14, I became focused on movies, TV, and screenwriting. In 1987, as I was starting my freshman year at NYU Film School, Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered in syndication; during the second season of TNG, the show's producers declared their "open door" policy regarding script submissions. I immediately set to work drafting a TNG spec script. Predictably, it was rejected. I kept trying; after Deep Space Nine premiered, I focused my efforts there instead.

Before long, I'd collected a few more rejection slips. I began to think that maybe I should try writing a Star Trek book instead, and drafted the requisite first three chapters and a detailed outline. My college friend (and now fellow Star Trek author) Glenn Hauman introduced me to John Ordover, who at that time was still relatively new to Pocket Books. John gave me a copy of Pocket Books' Star Trek writers' guidelines. I skimmed through them and quickly realized that my book proposal violated every single one of Pocket's rules. So I threw away my proposal. My refusal to waste John's valuable time was one of the first things that led to us becoming friends.

Shortly afterward, John and I realized that we both had been trying to get in the door at the Star Trek TV series, but had come up short. Because of his job, John had the access to get meetings — but he lacked the screenwriting experience to execute the assignment if he sold a story. I had the skills to take a story outline to finished script, but couldn't get my foot in the door. Together, we had the skills and the access we needed.

A few months after we began brainstorming Star Trek: Voyager and DS9 ideas, we made our first sale — a story pitch to Voyager. Soon after that, we sold another story, to DS9. Although the Voyager pitch ended up not getting produced, the DS9 idea became the season-four episode "Starship Down." (Three years later, another pitch from that same meeting became the season-seven DS9 episode "It's Only a Paper Moon.")

Both before and after those first two TV sales, John tossed me small bits of editorial freelance work to help me pay my bills. I started out reading manuscripts from the "slush pile" (unsolicited book manuscripts) and writing the rejection notices. I also worked for Simon & Schuster Interactive, on the production team for the Star Trek-related CD-ROMs; the first one I worked on was the Star Trek Omnipedia.

One thing led to another, and I ended up working on a variety of Star Trek CD-ROM projects at S&SI. At the same time, I was tapped to compile a compact reference guide to Peter David's Star Trek: New Frontier novel series. Dubbed the "New Frontier Minipedia," it appears in the back of a compilation of the series' first four books. That gig led to me being asked to write a fictional, 5,000-word "secret Starfleet report" about Project Genesis and the Genesis Device for John Vornholt's first Genesis Wave novel. Originally intended as a back-of-the-book supplement, it ended up becoming Chapter 14 of the novel.

The "Genesis Report" brought me to the attention of a Pocket Books editor named Jessica McGivney, who needed an author to write The Starfleet Survival Guide, a "non-fiction" Star Trek book she had dreamed up and already shepherded through the approvals process. Rather than deal with a complicated idea-pitching ordeal, I was handed an assignment to write a trade paperback that already had been green-lit. That project served as an audition, of sorts. Once it was done, and I had proved to the editors at Pocket Books that I could finish an entire book, I was invited to pitch ideas if I was so inclined.

Still I hesitated. A non-fiction trade paperback was one thing; a novel was another. Then John and Keith R.A. DeCandido created the Star Trek: S.C.E. eBook series, and I knew right away that it was something I wanted to be a part of. I pitched to Keith the idea of adapting the 19th-century true story of the Tsavo lions into a solo adventure for Sonya Gomez. He loved the pitch and encouraged me to write it. I wasn't sure I was ready to write solo in prose format, though, so he co-wrote it with me.

I was so excited by the warm reception that story received that I immediately pitched him my idea for Wildfire. I didn't realize it at the time, but after writing Invincible I'd been bitten by the "Prose Bug" — and there was no turning back.

TT: Haven't you also turned your hand to writing graphic novels?

Not exactly.

In 1995, John and I co-wrote a script for The Batman Chronicles titled "The Art of the Game." The script was paid for but never produced — a fate that befell more of our work than we had anticipated.

To date, my only published work in comic books is a four-issue Star Trek: The Next Generation / Star Trek: Deep Space Nine crossover miniseries titled "Divided We Fall." John and I co-wrote that story in late 2000 and early 2001. It was published by WildStorm Comics in May-August 2001.

However, there is another David Mack working in the world of comic books — a fact that has led to some confusion in recent years. He is the gifted creator, writer, and artist of the award-winning Kabuki series of graphic novels.

The cases of mistaken identity at conventions were annoying at first, but now I'm merely amused by them. Fans sometimes hear my name and ask, "Are you THE David Mack?" To which I respond by paraphrasing Douglas Adams, "No I am A David Mack. We come in six packs now." Lately, I've begun asking Star Trek fans to pester "the other David Mack" at San Diego Comic-Con by telling him how much they love "his" Star Trek novels. [evil grin]

He and I have dealt with everything from our comp issues of comic books being sent to one another to having our tax information crisscrossed by a certain mutual employer — a mix-up that landed me briefly in the hot seat with the I.R.S.

To avoid future confusion, if I do any future work in comic books, I will use my middle name (Alan) in my writing credit to distinguish my work from his.

TT: You've contributed a short story, "Twilight's Wrath," to the upcoming anthology Tales of the Dominion War. How in the world did you come up with the idea to write a story about Shinzon?

Well, to be perfectly honest, I didn't. Keith R.A. DeCandido, the editor of that anthology, called me in December of 2002, shortly after the release of Star Trek Nemesis, and said "I'd like to have a Shinzon story in the Tales of the Dominion War anthology. Can you write one really quickly?"

I said, "Sure, no problem," then went out on New Year's Day to see the movie. It was a weird experience to be watching a movie while consciously looking for dangling story threads that I could weave into a new story set before the movie itself. Fortunately, the backstory on Shinzon was so richly detailed that the problem wasn't finding a story to tell about his past — it was deciding which one to tell.

TT: So how did you decide which story you wanted to tell?

When the movie was over, I asked myself, "What were the most important unexplained premises we (the audience) were asked to accept in order to make this story work?"

The first issue that nagged at me once the film was done was, "If Shinzon was marked for death by the Romulan powers-that-be, why is he not only alive but in command of the empire's greatest warbird?"

The second question to which there seemed to be no obvious answer was, "How in heaven's name did Shinzon acquire the B-4 android and recognize its significance?"

With those two dramatic questions in hand, I set out to tell a tale of the Dominion War that would not only explain them but also knit them together.

TT: Your first full-length novel — actually two novels, A Time to Kill and A Time to Heal — will be out in August and September. How difficult is it to wait once you've turned in the manuscript?

If I had written them on anything like a normal schedule, I think the wait would be excruciating. For instance, after I turned in the first draft of my recently released S.C.E. novella Failsafe, in July 2003, I had to wait nearly 11 months to see it released. That was painful. (I vented my frustration by constantly making small tweaks and rewrites and e-mailing them to Keith. Every time he began to suspect I was done writing it, I sent him another draft.)

After I finished the draft of A Time to Kill and turned it in, I had to immediately begin work on A Time to Heal. Being suddenly immersed in the second book kept me from obsessing too much about waiting for the first one's release.

Also, the author's work doesn't end when the typed manuscript is handed in. There are still copy editor's notes to review, as well as first-pass designed pages and revised pages to check. On back-to-back novels such as these, the editorial work on one book inevitably overlaps the writing of the second. And that was a good thing, I think, because it kept me aware of the "big picture," the larger scope of the story I was working on.

TT: I have heard that A Time to Kill and A Time to Heal will have a strong Klingon element; what can you tell us about the story?

The Klingons figure more prominently in the first story than in the second, but their role in the overall narrative is crucial.

A Time to Kill brings the crew of the Enterprise-E to the planet Tezwa, where a diplomatic crisis (sparked by a militaristic prime minister) leads to violence between that isolated world and the Klingon Empire. In A Time to Heal, Captain Picard and the crew of the Enterprise-E are caught in the crossfire as they try to serve as peacekeepers between warring factions on the planet Tezwa.

As the final duology in the nine-volume A Time to... series, these two novels will depict the events that really push our characters to their limits. They'll confront brutal foes and wrestle with their own crises of conscience.

I took some real chances with these two books, and I suspect that many readers of Star Trek fiction will have strong, polarized reactions to them. In other words, I think these are books that lots of folks will either love or hate.

TT: How closely have you had to work with the other authors involved in the A Time to… series to coordinate your stories?

We all stayed in contact from the very beginning, and we shared notes and scenes-in-progress while we worked. We briefed each other on new characters we created, and our editors coordinated long-term story arcs. Keith even compiled a crew roster of every character established by name in all the books, and disseminated it to all of us so that we were all working off of the same list and keeping track of which characters were killed in which stories.

In my opinion, any time this many writers are trying to work on a continuing story of this magnitude, it's going to be difficult. It takes a tremendous amount of effort to track all the myriad tiny details; sometimes, even a single word out of place can unravel hundreds of pages of tight continuity.

On the other hand, a collaborative effort like this is a lot of fun. Normally, the work of a writer is extremely solitary in nature. It can be easy to feel like one is cut off from any kind of context. Having this many people to bounce ideas off of during the actual drafting of the manuscripts makes the project really feel like a team effort — and friendly teamwork has always been, in my opinion, one of the best elements of every Star Trek series.

TT: I believe you have written something set within every Star Trek series except TOS, Enterprise and Voyager. Which is your favorite to read? Which is your favorite to write? Any plans to dabble in any of those series?

Actually, one of the new book ideas I am developing at Pocket is set during the TOS era, and my first story sale to television — even though it wasn't produced — was to Star Trek: Voyager. So, of the televised franchises, only Enterprise has so far eluded my touch. Among the literary-original franchises, however, there are also I.K.S. Gorkon and Stargazer. It's easy to forget sometimes how big this shared universe is.

I've read a fair number of Star Trek novels, obviously, and my favorites seem to wind up on a lot of readers' lists. Imzadi, by Peter David, and the TNG book Masks by John Vornholt both top my list, alongside Daffyd ab Hugh's DS9 novel Fallen Heroes. I tend not to have a favorite series, however, as I am more likely to gravitate to specific stories in each one.

But, if pressed, I think I would have to admit a soft spot for Star Trek: S.C.E. It's the series for which I've done the most work, and I think its novella format has helped it tell some of the most nimble and inventive Star Trek stories I've ever read.

TT: Perhaps your best-received work so far has been your Starfleet Corps of Engineers stories. You've written five so far, including the just-released Failsafe, which is surprisingly action-packed. I say surprising because the S.C.E. tales are novella-length. How can you pack so much into one story?

Well, Failsafe is long, for a novella. It ended up being roughly 34,000 words. Another six thousand words and it would have qualified as a short novel. So I had a bit more room to play than if I were working under a strict word-count limit.

As to maintaining a story's intensity, I just try to remember what John Ordover told me when I began writing prose fiction: "Remember to write for all five physical senses on every page." It's more a guideline than a rule, but keeping it in mind forces me to experience each scene more vividly in my imagination.

The other trick that helped me sustain the momentum of Failsafe was to approach every chapter (except the last) by remembering the essential credo of the S.C.E. series: "...and then, Things Go Horribly Wrong."

TT: Failsafe is set on a pre-warp world. How much fun was it to have our own level of tech to play with in a story set in the 24th century?

It was awesome. I've always wanted to write an action movie.

But seriously, placing four Starfleet characters into a scenario that they would view as almost barbaric in its violence helped me to ramp up the sense of danger. At the same time, the characters provided me with a non-partisan point of view from which to depict the horrors of modern urban warfare.

TT: Your S.C.E. tale Wildfire was hailed by critics and readers alike. Were you surprised by the impact that Wildfire had on people?

Honestly, no. I don't mean to say that I expected it to receive all the acclaim that it has, but I felt when I was writing it that something special was taking shape on the page. At the time, however, I worried that I might have gone too far, that fans would reject it for being too dark, too tragic.

I put a lot of myself into that story. Much of what shaped key elements in the narrative was drawn from my real life. Some da Vinci crew members who perished in Wildfire were named in honor of people in my own life who died young.

No less significant is that I wrote it in the months following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center. As a New Yorker, that day was one of particular horror for me; I remember feeling sick as I watched the towers fall, and thinking of the firefighters and police who had willingly charged inside. Those are the heroes I thought of as I wrote the scenes in which several members of the da Vinci crew sacrifice themselves to save their ship and comrades.

But most of all, I think it was the ending that made Wildfire what it is. When I first pitched the story, I was unsure whether to risk such a dramatic disruption of the series' status quo. But my editors, John and Keith, told me to go for it, to let it be dark and tragic, to remind readers that, in this corner of the Star Trek universe, death was real and terrible and final.

The moment they told me that, I knew this would be a Star Trek story that would change the rules.

TT: When Wildfire is released in paperback in November, will you be making any changes to the story?

Only a few. Because it is being presented as one novel-length work, I will be removing some unnecessary recapping information and character reintroductions from the second half. (We'll also be renumbering the chapters in the second part of the story.)

Though I will be sorely tempted to make countless picayune edits at the page-proof stage, the recently accelerated timetable for publication won't leave me much time to do so. (I can already hear the choruses of "Hallelujah" from my editors and the Pocket Books production department.)

TT: You seem to be equally at home writing action-adventure stories and humor like your Zak Kebron story, "Waiting for G'Doh, or, How I Learned to Stop Moving and Hate People," in the New Frontier anthology No Limits. Do you find it difficult to write in different styles?

Not really. Though I love writing action-oriented stories, I occasionally need an outlet for my sarcastic side. Even in a story like Wildfire, I sought out ways to work in lighter moments (such as Duffy's recollection of a hung-over morning after a shore leave with Stevens) as well as romantic ones (the many flashback scenes of him and Gomez). In Failsafe, I didn't plan on making the interrogation scene into a humorous interlude, but it clearly worked out that way.

What made the Zak Kebron story stand apart from my other work, I think, is that the Action: Humor ratio was reversed. In "Waiting for G'Doh," all I really had to do was imagine myself in Zak's predicament; the disgruntled, sarcastic inner monologue all but wrote itself.

Over the years, I've written a lot of spec screenplays that, even though they will never see the light of day, were no less valuable as experience. One was a screwball comedy about my youthful experiences as a short-order cook; another was a semi-surreal, comical detective story; one was a sappy, bittersweet romance. I've also produced and directed some raunchy spoof commercials, as well as a rather bleak-spirited, 5-minute dramatic short film that I screened at some film festivals.

Although action-oriented tales seem to be the easiest ones for me to pitch to Star Trek, I certainly don't intend to limit my dramatic palette to space battles, disasters, and combat. But sometimes, things just gotta be blown up, dig?

TT: What Star Trek story have you always wanted to tell?

There is one that's been kicking around in my head for a couple of years now, slowly taking shape. I've discussed it with an editor at Pocket Books, and it's currently filed under "maybe." So I really can't talk about it. ... Not yet, anyway.

TT: Any other upcoming projects you can tell us about?

My next Star Trek: S.C.E. adventure, "Small World," is scheduled to be released in March 2005. Beyond that, I have a couple of ideas for original novels that are still in development, and a few half-formed ideas for Star Trek books — but nothing rock solid.

The best way for readers to keep up with my works in progress is to check out my Web site: http://www.infinitydog.com

As soon as any of my crazy plans take shape and become official enough to reveal to the world at large, my Web site is where I'll break the news — right after I post it on the TrekBBS, of course.

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Jacqueline Bundy reviews Star Trek books for the Trek Nation, writes monthly columns for the TrekWeb newsletter and the Star Trek Galactic News, and hosts the Yahoo Star Trek Books Group weekly chat.