Una McCormack interview: spin-off fiction

In the latest of our interviews about franchise fiction and shared universes, we talk to author Una McCormack. As well as writing two Star Trek: Deep Space Nine novels, Cardassia – The Lotus Flower and Hollow Men , Una has recently contributed a Doctor Who short story, The Slave War , to the anthology Short Trips: The Quality of Leadership . Una has had original fiction published too and teaches at the University of Cambridge.

SFX: Let's get this one straight out of the way, franchise work is maybe regarded as not creative in the same way that 'original' work is. What's your take on that?
Una McCormack:
"I think that's a fairly narrow and outdated view of what the creative process involves. Franchise work certainly involves different sorts of skills: for example, you have to take particular care to maintain consistency with televised episodes of a show or within a range of books (like the DS9 Relaunch). Arguably it involves specific kinds of creativity: being able to see the potential for a good story within an existing story (what fanfiction writers call 'gap-fillers'). Perhaps you want to explain something that an episode didn't have time to cover, or you want to take a completed story further. These are all openings for the imagination, opportunities for creativity."

"I'm not convinced that anyone's 'original' ideas spring from their imaginations fully formed and untainted by the influence of others. Certainly when I write 'original' fiction, I most naturally conceive of it as a response to something I've been reading, discussing, or watching on the telly. I'm just finishing a short story which came out of the frustration I felt with how an episode of Without a Trace showed a transgendered character. You wouldn't know that about the story unless I told you, but that's how it started: responding to something I saw on television. Which is the same basic creative urge, for me, as writing for a franchise."

SFX: Do fans expect certain things of franchises and is that something you think about very much?
"That's something I thought about very much, because I wanted people to enjoy what I was writing and not be disappointed. At the same time, you can kill a story by looking over your shoulder too much. Ultimately, you have to find a balance: you have to trust yourself that you can persuade people to go on the journey with you. Sometimes you pull it off, sometimes you don't!"

SFX: To what extent can you decide plotlines?
"There were some obvious constraints: Hollow Men is set during the sixth season of ST: DS9, so I couldn't change events of the show, obviously. That meant the plot had to put everything back in the box by the end. Cardassia – The Lotus Flower is part of the DS9 post-series Relaunch novels. So that had to take into account the events of the earlier Relaunch books, and also details from Andrew J. Robinson's novel about Garak, A Stitch in Time, and his short story 'The Calling' in Prophecy and Change."

"But, to be honest, these were very minor constraints, and basically I was free to come up with whatever plot I wanted. There's then a process of making it work really well, which involves the editor at Pocket or the person at Paramount saying: 'Have you thought about doing this?' or 'How about a character here?' or 'I'm not convinced by that bit...!' And if you've got any sense you listen to them because they've got loads of experience and this is your first time at it! This is a really fun part of the process because it's collaborative, and because it's about making the ideas work as well as you all possibly can. This is when a lot of the creativity happens!"

SFX: How does the commissioning process work?
"I had an unusual experience of the commissioning process. I was writing DS9 fanfiction and posting it online, when I got an email out of the blue from the editor of the DS9 range at Pocket, saying that someone had recommended me to him as a writer. I sent him a couple of samples of what I did, and he invited me to pitch – first, a short story for the DS9 anniversary anthology Prophecy and Change, and then, on the strength of that, I was invited to pitch a couple of stories for the two novels. So they asked me!"

SFX: Do you think such developments as the boom in fan fiction/online shared worlds/a more 'interactive' future will change our ideas about what shared universes are?
"I hope so. I don't know much about online gaming, but I've written a fair amount of fanfiction over the years. Watching and participating in its online explosion has been amazing. There are some very clever and talented people out there – mostly women – writing fanfiction, who understand very well what they're doing and why they're doing it, and who bring a huge amount of creativity and vitality to everything they produce, whether it's fiction, vidding, or meta/scholarship."

"More pragmatically, it seems that The Powers That Be are beginning to take interest in fanfiction, particularly in how it might provide a mechanism of communicating with fans and in stimulating interest in their shows: the emergence of commercially-driven ventures like FanLib suggests this. What this will mean for how fanfiction is produced and published in the future, and the extent to which the line between amateur and professional writer will be blurred – well, your guess is as good as mine!"

SFX: Do your 'original' work and your franchise work feed off each other?
: "I don't think I really draw a distinction between them in that way. I have certain ideas I want to explore and they come out in various forms. My Doctor Who story in The Quality of Leadership, The Slave War, which is about the Spartacus rebellion, came out of a lot of reading and thinking I had been doing about feminism, and about oppression. I've written about these things in the past, and I don't doubt they'll turn up again somewhere in the future!"

SFX: Thanks Una!

Remember that the second and final part of our feature about writing fiction for shared universes is on the shelves in issue 171 (The X-Files issue) for just a few more days - SFX 172 hits the shelves on Wednesday.

Interview by Jonathan Wright

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