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Beyond The Rim
Jeanne Cavelos
interviewed by Cristopher Hennessey-DeRose

Your works have featured Morden more than any of the other B5 books. What's the attraction to the character?

Morden is one of the most mysterious characters on Babylon 5. Since we see him only a few times in the series, that sense of mystery is never broken. In his role as a servant to the Shadows, we see him doing a lot of very interesting and awful things to the other B5 characters, but we never really know what motivates him. In the terms JMS established, we never really discover who Morden is, and what Morden wants. He appears to believe in the Shadows' agenda, but we don't know why. At first glance he seems totally evil. Since every other character in Joe Straczynski's universe seemed to contain both good and evil, I was immediately drawn to Morden, interested in discovering whether he had any bit of good inside him. There was a lot of room there to explore and develop, which as a writer I found very exciting.

 
  
Jeanne Cavelos + pet iguana Igmoe
What do you know about Morden that we don't?

Most of what I learned about Morden in my exploration of him, I put in The Passing Of The Techno-Mages trilogy, and in my earlier B5 novel, The Shadow Within. The main thing I learned was that Morden is certainly not a good person, but he's not an evil one either.
   On the critical issue of boxers or briefs, I'll keep the answer for myself.

With a tone that darkens with each instalment of The Passing Of The Techno-Mages, did you consider having a character named Bunny a liability?

Of all the characters I created and named, from Ing-Radi to Djadjamonkh to Gali-Gali, I got the most heat from my critiquers on the name Bunny. Some of them just could not stand that name, or the fact that she had long blonde hair and wore a short pink dress. People told me that science fiction characters should wear suits, not short pink dresses, and that they shouldn't have long blonde hair or be named Bunny. That, of course, only made me more determined to keep Bunny as she was. I wanted to create characters who felt like real people, not science fiction types, and I felt Bunny offered a nice contrast to all the techno-mages with their weird, fancy names, formal dialogue, and black robes. As for how she fit in with the dark tone, she is a sociopath, so I don't think she breaks the mood too much. Most villains tend to act seriously, dress seriously, and have serious names. Elizar really covers that territory, so I wanted something different from Bunny. I tend to think that giving her the sweet name of Bunny makes her a little scarier.

The level of violence in each of the B5 trilogies has been more extreme than in the TV series - is that because you work with an editor rather than a censor? Does it have more to do with the way a given author interprets the outline JMS has written?

I can't speak for the other authors, but for me, when I read Joe's outline, it seemed to me that the story of the techno-mages would have to be very dark. They're in an extremely bad situation, and trying to minimize or ignore that, I thought, would have been a horrible cop-out. I realised that would make the trilogy probably the darkest thing in the B5 universe, but I felt that was necessary and believable.
   (I had a friend critique my 200-page outline for the trilogy. She said, "You can't have a trilogy with three Empire Strikes Back endings!" I took that as a challenge. Empire is my favourite Star Wars movie, mainly because we learn how much more serious and dangerous everything is than we'd thought. I love the darkness of that film. But I actually don't believe Book 3 [Invoking Darkness] has an Empire ending.)
   As for the violence, the degree and nature of it wasn't really described in the outline. I grew up loving horror and gore, so I don't think a whole lot about it. I just put it in where it's important to the story. In the single episode of B5 that included techno-mages, The Geometry Of Shadows, the mage Elric tells Vir, "Do not try the patience of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger." I pretty much took that line and ran with it. The techno-mages are a violent group caught in dangerous circumstances, so the fireballs are going to fly, spells of destruction will be cast, and people will be crushed. Some things I described in the books - Drakh being squeezed to a pulp, Blaylock's hands being cut open - would certainly be inappropriate for a mainstream television show. On TV, you have to think about children who may just be flipping by looking for the Teletubbies. In a book, nobody is going to be reading it unless they've reached a certain reading level and have an interest in the material. I tried hard to maintain the feeling of the B5 universe in the trilogy, while at the same time I tried to take advantage of the novel format to do things that weren't possible in the series (such as going into characters' heads and giving their thoughts).

How has the fan response been to the trilogy thus far?

I've gotten just wonderful, wonderful feedback from people. E-mail is a great thing. I put my e-mail in the back of the book, and I get hundreds of messages from people telling me what they think of my work. Luckily, no one has spotted any major goofs so far. I've had people tell me I made them cry, and people curse me out because they have to wait a couple months for the next book (I love that; I love torturing people. I discovered that's the best thing about writing a trilogy). One woman told me she called in sick to work because she couldn't stop reading Book 2. A guy said he got into a hot bath and started Book 1, and found he couldn't stop reading until he was done, even though his bath had turned freezing cold. I've even gotten a lot of mail from people who don't watch B5 but bought the books because they like my other work, and they've loved the trilogy as well. I know I'm far from a great writer, but I gave it all my effort and wrote the best books I could. I tried to write the books so that they could stand on their own and be favourably compared to 'real' novels. So many bad media tie-ins have been written; I love B5 and I just wanted to do it justice. I know that some writers think it's ridiculous to put a lot of effort into a tie-in, because, they think, 'those readers' won't know the difference. But I'm one of those readers, and I know that we do know the difference.

In The Passing Of The Techno-Mages, we learn a great deal about what 'really' happened on an episode or two of B5 - were you concerned about any backlash from fans that may have felt manipulated?

You always take a risk when you try to add something new to an existing work that has many fans. Since the universe Joe created is so rich, every fan experiences B5 a bit differently, and has developed his own ideas about it. For example, I've heard from many fans that said they imagined Morden was totally evil. But when they read my account of Morden's past and motivations, they find it really interesting, and most end up incorporating this new view into their image of the character.
   I could have played it safer and just reproduced the scenes from the episodes as they appeared on TV. But I felt that wasn't terribly interesting, and also that I'd be wasting an opportunity to reveal more about the characters and their situation. Since by their nature techno-mages mislead and deceive, it seemed natural that wherever the mages went, there would be hidden layers of activity, and that through their points of view, those hidden layers could be revealed.
   Certainly if I was writing about some other group of people or some other episodes, that may not have been the case, and I wouldn't have 'revealed' any hidden layers. I didn't want to change things just for the sake of changing them. Book 3 has recently come out, so I haven't heard much from fans about that yet, but readers seemed to find the hidden layers revealed in Book 2 really intriguing.

How is the Odyssey Writing Workshop coming along?

Great! We've just finalised our plans for the Summer 2002 workshop, and we're already getting applications.
   When I was working as a senior editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell, I found that I loved working with writers, helping them make their work the best it could be. When I left publishing to focus on my own writing career, I wanted to find some way to continue working with writers, so I created Odyssey. It's a six-week workshop for fantasy, science fiction, and horror writers held each summer at Southern New Hampshire University. Developing writers aged 17-65 come from all over the US and Canada to attend. People can find more information at www.sff.net/odyssey.

Terry Brooks was your last writer-in-residence for Odyssey. Who will be next?

We've had great people like Terry, Harlan Ellison, Dan Simmons, Ben Bova. For 2002, our writer-in-residence will be Charles de Lint, who is an incredible writer and teacher. Our guest lecturers will include R.A. Salvatore, Elizabeth Hand, and James Patrick Kelly.

Does your experience in the field of science curb your imagination in SF or does it enhance it?

I think my science background feeds my imagination. It seems as if science and SF have always fed off each other. Writers learn about new scientific possibilities, and that triggers story ideas. Good stories often inspire scientists to steer their research into new areas.
   As a scientist, I think it's important that a story be plausible, and that authors know enough so they don't break scientific laws without realizing it (to give a classic example, there shouldn't be sounds in space). As a writer, I believe story is paramount, and a writer cannot be a slave to science. So if there's something I want to happen in my story and it seems scientifically impossible, then I need to come up with a reason why it could be scientifically possible. The techno-mages do many things that seem to break current scientific laws. But the technology they use is millions of years in advance of ours, so it seems quite reasonable to me that it would do things that currently seem impossible. I'm very aware of all the things that science has yet to understand, and the history of science tells us that as our understanding evolves, things that previously seemed impossible become quite possible. So I think it's far less believable that this extremely advanced technology would do no more than we can do today.

How has your writing SF affected your view of hard science?

As a child, I loved SF, and I loved thinking about the big questions: where did the universe come from? What's going to happen to it? Is there alien life? What is it like? How will man react when he meets aliens? What will happen when the sun burns out? These things fascinated me; I remember being upset the president didn't have a policy to deal with the sun burning out. My career goal was to become an astronaut just like Charlton Heston in The Planet Of The Apes.
   These interests led me into a career in astrophysics and a job at NASA. But I found that, for me, NASA was too constricting, concerned mainly with practical issues and not with these big cosmic questions. I realised that what I really loved about science was not the nitty-gritty of research, but exploring the ideas, their implications and possibilities. That led me back to science fiction.
   For a while I was kind of down on science, because NASA had been a big dream of mine and hadn't turned out to be right for me. But after a few years my fascination with all those issues returned, and I finally had the opportunity to explore all those questions in my books The Science Of The X-Files, The Science Of Star Wars, and in my science fiction.

As editor, writer, and teacher, what constitutes a good story?

Characters that the reader cares about, struggling to achieve a goal that the reader cares about, written in prose so vivid the reader is caught up in the unique world of the author. In a great story, the reader will recognise truths about life that he always knew but never articulated.

What can today's editors learn from today's authors?

I sometimes feel that in the great cycle of karma, I'm paying now as an author for all the things I did before as an editor. I once told an author I could give him only three weeks to write a book. When Dell called me and asked me to write my first Babylon 5 novel, The Shadow Within, they told me I could have four weeks (I eventually talked them up to six weeks - oh, the luxury!).
   Over the past 10 years or so, the role of editors has gradually changed, as publishing houses have merged into giant corporate conglomerates. In the old days, an editor's job was primarily editing - go figure. Today, editors have very little time to spend on editing, and the publishing houses do not value editing. An editor spends most of her time chasing after hot properties and trying to generate enthusiasm within the company and the industry for her books. Editors are considered good at their jobs if they buy books that have a lot of 'buzz', and they can increase that buzz. Editors still can work in-depth with authors on their manuscripts, but the editor-in-chief, in most cases, will never know or care.
   Since most editors begin as editorial assistants and learn how to edit from their bosses, what's happening now is a new generation of editors is coming up, and many of them haven't been exposed to basic editing skills. In science fiction, there are still some wonderful, wonderful editors around. But increasing proportions of those in the industry either neglect the editorial process or lack the skills for it. Those editors have a responsibility to the books and authors they publish. It's really a sacred trust, between author and editor. The editor, as Hippocrates said, should first of all do no harm. And second, should try to help the author make the book what he wants it to be, the best it can possibly be.
   I don't know that authors are the ones to teach this to editors, but now being an author, I have a much greater understanding of the benefit or harm that an editor can generate.

Are agents critical to a writer's success?

These days, it's very difficult to get a major publisher to read your work if you don't have an agent and you're not already an established author. It's still possible - particularly if you've met an editor at a convention or have developed some sort of reputation by having short stories published - but it's increasingly unlikely. So an agent can help you get a foot in the door. A skilled agent will also know the best editors to send your particular work to, and will know what to ask for when negotiating a contract.
   When I was an editor, I bought books from authors with agents and authors without agents. The ones with agents generally got better deals and more money, because the agents were better negotiators. Sometimes, though, an agent would push for too much money. We'd pay it, lose money on the book, and never buy another book from that author. So you have to be careful. Authors tend to paint publishers as greedy villains. While publishers can often be incompetent, uncaring, and maddening, they lose money on most of their books. As an author, you always want your publisher to make a profit on your books.

As a fan of SF, are there any movies you're looking forward to seeing?

Well, if we're talking TV movies, I'm of course dying to see the new B5 movie, Legend Of The Rangers. I'm definitely ready for a new B5 fix.
   As for theatrical movies, it's fantasy, but I'm dying to see The Fellowship Of The Ring. I've tried not to get my hopes up, but they're way up there. To refresh my memory, I've been reading the novel out loud to my husband - rapped my way through the Tom Bombadil section - and it's just a constant wonder what a wonderful story Tolkien wrote. (And the parallels to B5 are fascinating!) I really hope the movie will be great.

What affect from medium-sized publishers have on the larger houses?

Smaller publishers help discover new trends. The big houses don't take a lot of chances these days - or let me rephrase that, when they do take chances, they tend to take them on proven authors and proven categories. So they might spend a ton of money on Bill Clinton's memoirs, which in a sense is taking a chance because they're overpaying, but the book is in a proven category that will definitely succeed to some degree. Smaller publishers, in the last 10-20 years, have been increasing their releases in the areas neglected by the big houses. Two particularly successful categories mined by these publishers have been true historical adventure and literary historical fiction; two best-selling examples are The Perfect Storm and Cold Mountain. Big houses have seen the huge success of these books and have jumped into those categories. Books of this type then sell for higher amounts, which smaller publishers can't afford, and smaller publishers look for some new area to develop. This is the way popular culture works in general -individuals or small subcultures create innovations, which are then co-opted by larger organisations and the mainstream culture.

How has promoting a book changed since your days at Dell?

Publishers are doing less publicity on fewer books. Back in my day - God, I sound ancient - in the early 1990s, nearly every book that was published, hardcover or paperback - was promoted with bound galleys (early copies of a book sent to reviewers), a press release, and its own promotional mailing. Now, only the top releases receive this treatment. Other books might just have a press release sent out, and others have next to nothing done to promote them.
   What this means is that you, as the author, have to be much more active in promoting your work. If you don't do it, no one will. And remember, if the book doesn't succeed and make money for the publisher, they won't realize the error of their ways and give you a bigger publicity campaign on your second book. They just won't publish your second book.

Is there a glut of tie-in novels?

There are as many as the market will support. Many SF writers complain that the SF sections of bookstores are being taken over by tie-in books. But the bookstores are stocking the books that they believe their customers will buy. Tie-ins are very popular. Looking at a recent list of the 25 best-selling SF/F titles at Barnes & Noble, I found that 19 were tie-ins. When tie-ins are accounted as part of a publisher's SF programme, they can make that program look very profitable, and can help support the publication of many non-tie-in SF/F novels.

What are your five 'must reads' for aspiring SF authors?

Well, there's so much great SF, I think you can read lots of different things and still be fairly well read in the genre. But here's my shot at it:
   The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
   I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
   Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick
   The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
   The Left Hand Of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin.

What draws you to a project?

There has to be some sort of connection to things I've thought or felt, or to questions that I've obsessed about. A character caught in a really bad situation tends to get me excited - I love torturing characters.

What can you tell us about your upcoming projects?

I'm working now on a science thriller set in my own universe, involving cloning and genetic manipulation. It's set about 20 years from now. It explores an issue that I've been obsessed with for about the last ten years - how much control we have over the way we behave. I explored that from one angle through the techno-mages in the trilogy and Galen's struggle for control, and I'm going to explore it from another angle in this new book. I don't know about you, but I continually find myself behaving in ways that I don't like. I'll be impatient with my husband and say something cruel to him, then regret it and resolve never to do it again. Yet the next day, there I am, doing it all over again. The latest research suggests, to me at least, that a great deal of our behaviour is genetically determined. Our genes determine which chemicals are released in our brain at what times, and how strong an effect those chemicals have. They can make us depressed or manic, can predispose us to alcohol or drug (or chocolate) addiction, and can encourage us to seek thrills or to hide from them. So the book is going to explore how much choice we do have, and how much responsibility we carry for our actions.

Books by Jeanne Cavelos:
The Science Of The X-Files (1998),  The Science Of Star Wars (2000)
Babylon 5 - #7: The Shadow Within (1997)
Babylon 5: The Passing of the Techno-Mages (trilogy, 2001)
   #1 Casting Shadows,  #2 Summoning Light,  #3 Invoking Darkness

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