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From fanfiction to official Star Trek captain autobiographer: An interview with Una McCormack
Although the majority of her Star Trek work is set in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine canon, New York Times best-selling novelist Una McCormack’s favorite captain is Capt. Jean-Luc Picard.
"Picard arrived when I was 16, and he’s the one I’ll always feel fondly towards. TNG was my Trek,” McCormack says of the character played by Sir Patrick Stewart on Star Trek: The Next Generation, four Trek feature films, and this year’s Star Trek: Picard — and a character she’s now written.
A former English and creative writing professor who lives in Cambridge, England, McCormack broke into print by writing plenty of DS9 fanfiction. Usually, one has to be an established author to write official media tie-in novels. McCormack, however, was the exception to that rule as her fanfiction gained a lot of notice from Simon & Schuster, which publishes Trek tie-books.
This led to an early professional sale was the short story, “Face Value,” in 2004’s Star Trek: Deep Space Nine — Prophecy and Change anthology. Next, her novella, The Lotus Flower, appeared in the Worlds of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Vol. 1 anthology. Her first novel was 2005’s Star Trek: Deep Space Nine — Hollow Men, a sequel to one of the TV series’ best episodes, “In the Pale Moonlight,” where Capt. Sisko (Avery Brooks) deceives the Romulans into joining the war against the Dominion.
Despite her love for DS9, McCormack jumped at the chance to write the prequel to the Picard series with the first book tie-in for the CBS All Access series, Star Trek: Picard — The Last Best Hope, which became a USA Today best-seller when released earlier this year. In the book, McCormack chronicles the fallout from the destruction of Romulus, where Picard leaves the Enterprise to supervise the effort to help the Romulans.
McCormack also penned The Autobiography of Kathryn Janeway: The History of the Captain Who Went Further Than Any Had Before, also released this year. Kate Mulgrew portrayed Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager in the late '90s. This is the third in Titan Books’ series of “autobiographies,” previously featuring Picard and James T. Kirk.
“This year was Voyager’s 25th anniversary, so they wanted to do a Janeway book. I think they wanted — quite rightly — a woman author,” says McCormack. “I had just finished the Picard book, which had been very dark and quite intense. To do this book, which I wanted to make celebratory, was really refreshing, really joyful.”
One of the challenges McCormack faced was getting Janeway’s voice right. Although she didn’t get a chance to talk to Mulgrew or Janeway’s creator, Jeri Taylor, while writing the book, McCormack found that Janeway’s voice ultimately came naturally to her.
“Her voice sort of talks to me, so I went with it,” she says. “I wanted to make sure people felt they got her thoughts from Voyager — what we know, what we see on-screen but without it feeling like a synopsis or a summary, and trying to make it lively,” she said. “You do that by making her reflect on what happened, so it’s set about 10 years after (the series finale). She’s had a bit of time to think things through. This was the big challenge. That, and making sure the stuff people weren’t familiar with was involving and engaging.
“Because it’s the 25th anniversary, I wanted it to be a celebration of this fantastic character and a celebration of Kate Mulgrew’s performance as well,” McCormack continues, praising the actress (and Mulgrew has likewise tweeted about the book in approval). “She just infuses her with such personality and strength and character. She’s a very distinguishable character. I felt like I was at Starfleet Command interviewing [Janeway], having a cup of tea with her.”
Although Titan hasn’t announced a Sisko autobiography, McCormack expressed an interest in writing it.
“I’d love to do a Sisko bio. I always love to hang around DS9. My imagination’s there half the time. Sisko would be really good fun,” she says. “I love Sisko. He’s a phenomenal character. His pull between public idealism and private grief… all this power and this passion. DS9 gets better with every view.”
McCormack’s Trek novels are more contemplative and character-driven than others rather than having space battles.
“I spend a lot of time on small-scale moments, but there’s usually a lot of high stakes, political events going on. You’ll get lots of conversation. People have Tweeted that I have a lot of meetings in my books,” she says, laughing. “Perhaps they’re not as space battle-y or techy, but they have their own charms.”
Next up for McCormack is a multimedia Doctor Who story called Time Lord Victorious. This story is told across comics, novels, audiobooks, webcasts, video games, and other immersive experiences. It’s set in the Dark Times around the start of the universe when the Eternals were young. It features the Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Doctors (who were played by Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, and Matt Smith, respectively) across space and time, battling to save their home planet. McCormack’s installment in this ambitious project is the novel, Time Lord Victorious: All Flesh is Grass. It’s a sequel to Steve Cole’s Time Lord Victorious: The Knight, the Fool, and the Dead.
“It’s an exciting set-up. It centers around the Tenth Doctor battling Death,” says McCormack.
This project is full circle for McCormack, who sold her first published work to Doctor Who Magazine in 1993 with the short-story “A Time and a Place,” where the Seventh Doctor (played by Sylvester McCoy), travels to Earth to discover the fate of his granddaughter Susan (played by Carole Ann Ford).
“I wrote it on a typewriter. It’s a sweet little story,” she recalls.
Still, it’s probably Star Trek where McCormack has left her biggest mark, and she attributes the iconic franchise’s staying power to being high concept yet allowing plenty of room for variation.
“It’s a future that we all yearn towards, this sense of exploration – that we really do make it, that we really do get off this planet, and that we really do discover all those incredible species and places that in our secret hearts we know is out there,” she says. “That’s what it is — that yearning to be part of something wider, to explore it but not for conquest, but for curiosity and understanding… Even when it becomes darker or dystopian, there’s always this great hope – that’s something we shouldn’t be sentimental or ashamed about because we all need a little bit of hope.”