An Interview with Una McCormack

An Interview with Una McCormack 

Please tell us everything we need to know about your imminent publication!

My latest book, The Last Best Hope, is a novel based on the new Star Trek: Picard series! There’ll be familiar characters, and also some new ones, and I am of course massively excited to be writing the first spin-off novel from this huge new show.

Later in the year, The Autobiography of Kathryn Janeway will be published – Janeway’s life story from birth to returning to the Alpha Quadrant. The conceit is that I have “edited” the book, from stories Janeway has told me! So it’s all in first person, and it was huge fun working with her voice.

You’ve written for various franchises over the years – Doctor Who, Star Trek… You’ve been trusted with some really famous properties. How do you find working with other people’s creations, and making your mark in those worlds? Is there a franchise you haven’t written for yet that you’d like to?

My storytelling urge has always been to tell stories about what I’ve reading and watching. All my early writing was more Doctor Who or, particularly Blake’s 7. Playground games, too. My instinct is to tell stories in response to other stories. Fanfiction was perfect this – not least because it has a community around it.

So I never felt constrained working within other people’s worlds. Sometimes I wanted to explore some aspect; sometimes I wanted to work out more about characters; sometimes I wanted to subvert the philosophy of the world. My novels about Garak from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, for example, often take swipes at the taken-for-granted ideas of the Federation.

I would love to write a Firefly novel, and – although this is unlikely to happen – I would love to write a licensed spin-off set somewhere in Tolkien’s worlds.

Why did you fall in love with this SF in the first place, and which books / authors / series would you recommend?

Like many people my age, I fell in love with SF at the start of 1978, when I saw Star Wars in the cinema. That gave me a deep-seated love for the visual spectacle of a starscape or a spaceship.

But at the same time, I was starting to watch things like Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who, and that made me think about other aspects of SF: about how worlds can be different (for good or ill), and what we can do about that.

Then I started to read SF: the most important author to me as a young reader was Sylvia Engdahl. Her two novels, Enchantress from the Stars and The Far Side of Evil, are about a young woman, Elena, who is part of a space-faring anthropological service that explores less technologically advanced worlds. These books made me think about all kinds of things: when and how to intervene; how societies change and develop; ends and means. It’s all lovely stuff.

My favourite SF writer is Ursula K. Le Guin: surely readers of your blog will have read her already, but if not go for it!

I adore the SF adventure and genre playfulness of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkogisan Saga (I have co-edited a volume of essays on her books, with Regina Yung Lee, which is coming out later this year from Liverpool University Press).

I have become a great admirer of Vonda N. McIntyre. She was one of the most significant feminist SF writers of that great explosion of women’s SF in the 70s and 80s. Later she wrote a great space opera series, Starfarers, and of course her Star Trek novels are amongst the best. I have written a critical afterword for her first novel, The Exile Waiting, for a recent reprint from Handheld Press.

Is there a genre or sub-genre you couldn’t imagine ever writing in..?

Honestly, no, although I suspect I would want to refract it through a science-fictional setting. If you’d asked me this question a few years ago, for example, I might have said a Western, which I had assumed were implicitly violent, racist, and misogynist. Then I decided to look at them with an open mind, and got very interested in them and the storytelling potential (and I saw Firefly and watched The Outlaw Josey Wales and read True Grit). One of my sf novels, The Baba Yaga, has a vibe of The Outlaw Josey Wales about it, and my novella The Undefeated was pitched as ‘feminist High Plains Drifter in space’.

I think that I would struggle to tell a detective or procedural story, since I get bored with the minutiae of details, and I’m not sufficiently invested in puzzle-solving as a pleasure of reading. I understand why people love to read and write books like this, but they’re not for me.

You were a teacher of Creative Writing for many years. How does that work? Did you find that being involved in so many works in progress by other people was actually beneficial to your own writing? Or did it get in the way?

Teaching creative writing is generally done through what’s known as workshopping: you meet each week with a group of other writing students, and each week one or two of you take your turn to have your work read and critiqued by other students, guided by the tutor (usually a professional writer). This involves creating a teaching environment that involves a lot of trust, clear boundaries, getting to know other people and find out what they want to do with their stories.

I personally found that the most effective way of teaching creative writing is to take a student’s draft, put it on an overhead projector, and then have the class watch as I walk through an edit of the piece, explaining my thinking and why I am making certain suggestions. Again, this involves a lot of trust within a group – and trust in your tutor too. But it teaches so much about sentence construction, word choice, precision of language, etc.

I have also taught creative writing PhDs, and I also mentor private students one-to-one. This is very much about developing a relationship with the individual; helping them clarify their own goals for their work, and giving them tools to be able to bring their projects to completion.

I personally find teaching writing extremely rewarding; it makes me think analytically about writing, and that can go back to my own practice. What got in the way of my own writing was teaching within the overly administered environment of contemporary universities. Now I am not working in HE, I have carried on mentoring writing students. I find it tremendously rewarding.

How did you get into writing in the first place, and how did you first get published? Has it been a long and difficult road, or has it been relatively straightforward?

I was, first and foremost, and continue to be, a fanfiction writer. I was writing stories in my head about characters from my favourite TV shows from when I was a very little girl. When I started writing as an adult (I didn’t really write fiction during my teenage years), it was, again, writing fanfiction – Blake’s 7 in this case. This happened to coincide with the explosion of internet fandom in the mid-90s. I met a bunch of highly creative and smart people who were writing B7 fanfiction at the time – honestly, it was like being part of an underground art movement. Amazing online creativity and beautiful zines. They encouraged me to finesse my writing style.

From there, I started to write fanfic based on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and I had the tremendous good fortune to be talent-spotted by the editor of the books range at the time. That was my first professional novel publication. Once you’re inside, as it were, it becomes easier to get commissioned, because you start to have a track record of being able to deliver on time and within brief. On the basis of the Trek novels, I was able to pitch for the Doctor Who range, and from that came lots of wonderful work with Big Finish.

My first novel was published in 2004, and it was only last year that I decided to take the plunge and become freelance. So while I wouldn’t say it’s been a difficult road, it’s been fairly slow and steady!

Tell us about being a woman writer in the world of science fiction, and tie-in fiction? Is it a Boy’s Club, really? Or has that changed?

It is substantially better than when I started out (I was, for example, the only woman in my university Doctor Who society)! To some extent, things were already changing (nobody has ever tried to harass me at a convention), but there are types of science fiction that were already a closed book to me. Comics, for example, felt like it was boys only, so did Star Wars. I’m sad I never felt comfortable getting into those spaces, not least because I think it would be fun to work in them.

I found the literary sf world a little difficult to negotiate at first, but I think that was chiefly because I was working in tie-in fiction, rather than because I was a woman, and I sometimes got the sense that tie-in writing was considered slightly down the geek hierarchy. That has changed massively in the last five or ten years, and I only ever get a positive reception now. I want to emphasize that this wasn’t universal, just one or two odd encounters, and most people were interested, curious, and welcoming.

Some people have been very good to me at certain moments in my career, and it’s made a massive difference to me. Gary Russell, for example, gave me my ‘in’ on both the Doctor Who novels and at Big Finish. And other colleagues, very recently, have put my name forwards for, e.g. radio slots because they knew it would make a big difference for me at this point in my career.

I think I was entering the sf world as a woman writer at exactly the right time. So much work had been done by the generation of second-wave feminists to clear the decks for my generation. I was able to say, “Well, no, I like tv sf and I like writing fanfiction, and I’m not going to apologise for that, and I don’t particularly feel the need to justify my tastes. Have you considered reading or writing beyond the familiar?”

I have certainly benefited from the general move to commission diverse voices (I am often the first or second woman to get a writer credit on a property!), and I have also dodged the worst of online misbehaviour. Some of the younger women coming through, for example, Doctor Who fandom, face a level of hostility online that I never received coming through. It’s not in any way OK.

What are you going to write next? Are you going to be working in the same vein? What can we expect to read?

I love writing franchise fiction, and will happily return to my familiar worlds and others given the chance!

I published a novella last year, The Undefeated, set in my “own” world, and I’m very keen to go back to that and tell more stories there. I would like to write more fiction setting in my “own” settings, and now that I’m writing full-time, I hope to be able to do that.

Finally… tell us something surprising about yourself that your readers might not already know!

My mind always goes blank with questions like this! I think I am pretty much how I present: I spend most of my time writing, and when I’m not writing, I’m reading! Er, I don’t have a formal qualification in English Literature beyond GCSE? That’s the best I can manage!