Congratulations to Elizabeth Christensen for winning the 2008 award for Best Original Novel for Stargate Atlantis: Casualties of War by the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers! Way to go Beth!
Elizabeth Christensen, author of four Stargate Atlantis novels, was hoping to attend TimeGate this year but is unable to due to other commitments. She has, however, graciously agreed to be interviewed for the TimeGate website:
TTIMEGATE: Elizabeth, thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview for the TimeGate website!
ELIZABETH CHRISTENSEN: Thanks so much for the opportunity! Wish I could attend TimeGate in person—it looks like a terrific event. There's always next year...
TG: Indeed. Consider yourself as having an open invitation! First, why not tell us a little bit about yourself?
EC: Okay, the CliffsNotes version of me. I grew up just outside of Detroit, in a suburb known mostly for its shopping malls. At the University of Michigan, I studied aerospace engineering, Big Ten football, and the guy who stood next to me in the marching band—not always in that order. The aforementioned guy is now my husband of six-plus years, James, so the marching band staff really has no idea what kind of life-altering power they wield when they set up the ranks. Anyway, after college I went to work as a civilian engineer for the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, and while I may not have completely assimilated into Ohio life—it's tough being a Michigan grad in Buckeye territory—I do identify with Dayton enough to take sides on the whole "Birthplace of Aviation" debate. My private pilot certificate has a picture of the Wright Brothers on it, and they were Dayton boys, so bring it on, North Carolinians ...
TG: You mentioned band. I'm a band geek from way back as well. What instruments did you and your husband play?
EC: Band geeks rule! James and I met as members of the horn section in the MMB—French horn was the primary instrument for both of us. We both play the piano a little as well, and he also played alto sax in jazz band back in the day. Band was a terrific way to find a niche on campus right away, which can be tough at a school as big as Michigan. Plus, thanks to the band, I was on the sideline for the 1998 Rose Bowl, which clinched Michigan's share of the national championship, so games like that were an awfully nice perk.
TG: Do either of you still find time to play?
EC: Only at alumni events like Homecoming—I definitely still have my French horn, but I think the valves might be frozen by now. We do have a digital piano, so that gets some use once in a while.
TG: At what point in your life did you discover your love of space? In other words, how does a girl from Novi, Michigan grow up to be an aerospace engineer?
EC: To be honest, I couldn't even put a time frame on it for you. Being interested in space, and aviation later on, is something that's been part of my identity as long as I can remember. I've always thought the space shuttle was one of the most beautiful craft ever created. I was in elementary school when the Challenger tragedy took place, and it had a lasting impact on me, but not in an frightening or discouraging sense; somehow it sharpened my curiosity even more. I wanted to know exactly how the shuttle worked and why it had failed. And I'm lucky to have parents who encourage and support me in whatever I do. When I said, at whatever young age I was, "I want to work for NASA," they didn't say, "Okay, but keep in mind that not very many people can work for NASA." They said, "Well, the Girl Scouts are planning a trip to Space Camp. Do you want to go?" By the way, a quick public service message for any parents with kids interested in space, or robotics, or anything along those lines: if there's a camp out there for whatever they're into—and there probably is—send them. Space Camp was larger than life for me. I fully believe that it went a long way toward cementing my career goals, even at ten years old. I eventually made the choice to go for Air Force civil service instead of applying to NASA, because I'd started to get interested in jet propulsion in college and also because staying in the Midwest was important to me. I've got a college friend who's an operations support officer in Houston, though, so I've definitely been keeping tabs on the space program.
TG: I remember the Challenger incident very well. Growing up in Central Florida as I did, where you simply have to walk out into your back yard to watch shuttle launches, I got so attached to NASA and to the shuttle program in particular. I remember all the accusations that were flying around at that time, and that TIME article in particular. That was such a difficult period.
EC: It's especially tough because the media climate these days tends toward constant coverage, and when there's not much information available at first, reporters predictably go with whatever they've got and hammer it hard. In the case of Columbia, the main reference point was Challenger, and so the press was essentially fighting the last war instead of this one, so to speak. Were some of the organizational failures similar? Unquestionably, in hindsight. But that wasn't clear at the time—and to say that no redesigns, no fixes had taken place after Challenger, as that article claimed, was patently absurd and borderline malicious.
TG: Witnessing a night launch was one of the most beautiful and profound experiences of my life. Shuttle launches were always easily visible from where we lived, but with the night launch, it seemed like you could see it for hours before it went out of view, riding that powerful column of fire that literally lit up the entire night sky. Absolutely amazing.
But, moving on to other things....How did you get started writing?
EC: Wow, that's another one that's hard to nail down to a time frame. There's a little bit of heredity involved; my grandfather was an engineer, but my dad majored in journalism, so I come by my grammar-stickler tendencies honestly. I played around with some writing in middle and high school—I did a little bit of Star Trek fan fiction, long before I knew what fan fiction even was—but I was so focused on aerospace as a career that I didn't seriously entertain the idea of writing for a living. Actually, I can remember my topic choices for two big writing assignments in middle school: the Challenger and Space Camp. How's that for a one-track mind?
TG: When did you become a Stargate fan and what about the franchise first drew you in?
EC: My husband and I started watching SG-1 when it first came over to the Sci-Fi Channel—I was in grad school at the time and premium cable channels had never been high on our priority list. We saw some reruns and happened to stumble across an episode that's still one of my absolute favorites today: "Window of Opportunity." The humor and heart of that episode just knocked me over. How can you not fall for a show that lets its characters drive golf balls through an open wormhole? After that we had a lot of catching up to do, but we were hooked. What I love about Stargate is its balance of action, human drama, and total irreverence. This is a show, or rather a set of shows, that definitely doesn't take itself too seriously—a problem that sinks a lot of sci-fi shows, in my view—but at the same time it has an incredible capacity for showing very human, fallible characters dealing with difficult situations on both personal and galactic levels. At the end of the day, though, they had me at "the heroes are in the Air Force." Once I saw that, my loyalty was assured.
TG: Okay, here's the really burning question: SG-1 or Atlantis?
EC: Oh, man, you're going to make me come out and take sides? Yikes...I'm sure people will point out that I've worked on four novels and two magazine stories, and they've all been Atlantis. That's something of an answer by itself, but it's not the full answer. I've stuck to Atlantis so far with my writing because I feel like I have a better handle on the characters. There are only four years of canon there, as opposed to ten for SG-1, and I was watching Atlantis from the beginning. I'm always a little concerned that there might still be an SG-1 episode out there I've missed, and it might throw off some aspect of my take on an SG-1 story. (In other words, I'm a wimp and stick with the known over the unknown.) Just as a pure fan, though, if I had to choose between the shows...all right, I'll just say it: Atlantis. I really enjoy Sheppard and McKay, together or separately; I love the look of the city; I think the Wraith are all sorts of fun; and the puddlejumper just might be the coolest Stargate creation ever. Other than the Stargate itself, of course.
EC: That was an incredible stroke of good fortune. I know this answer will make anyone interested in professional writing want to bang his or her head against a wall, because it's not supposed to be this simple and luck-dependent, but here it is. Five years ago, a couple of days after the space shuttle Columbia broke up on reentry, I read a TIME Magazine article that absolutely infuriated me. It claimed all sorts of sinister backroom dealings at the shuttle's primary contractors and essentially called everyone at NASA incompetent. In a burst of concentrated indignation, I wrote a point-by-point response and posted it on a website I used to frequent, which has long since gone defunct. At best, the piece could be called an amateur op-ed piece; more accurately, it was a rant. Fast-forward two years, when I got an email from a writer in Australia who'd read the Columbia piece. We struck up an email conversation, and she mentioned that she'd recently published her first SG-1 novel. She wondered if I was familiar with the Stargate world, because Fandemonium was looking to expand into the Atlantis series. That was my introduction to my coauthor, Sonny Whitelaw, who has been a fantastic mentor and friend for the past three years. Fandemonium was looking for established authors to get the Atlantis series started, rather than the open submission process they've sometimes used on SG-1, and I definitely wouldn't have qualified on my own. For our pitch to Fandemonium, I wrote a couple of sample Atlantis scenes, and Sonny and I brainstormed some plot concepts and assembled a proposal together. Actually, to be more accurate, we assembled two proposals: the one that started with an idea of mine became The Chosen, and the one that started with an idea of Sonny's became Exogenesis.
TG: Three of your four novels have been co-written with Sonny, who lives in Brisbane. What's the writing process like when you're working with someone on another continent?
TG: Writing media tie-ins is slightly different from writing original novels, in that you have a setting and a cast of characters that you can tell stories about but can't really alter in any significant way. Do you find it easier or more challenging to work within that framework? What were Fandemonium's initial guidelines to you like?
EC: Fandemonium's guidelines were fairly simple: the novel can do whatever we want as long as the universe can be "reset to zero" at the end. If we give our heroes some great new technology, we have to somehow take it away, because otherwise readers would watch the next episode and say, "Well, why don't they use that gizmo they got in the book?" The Stargate universe is constantly evolving, and the showrunners simply don't have time to read all our books in depth and try to weave our ideas into show canon. So I call what we do "secondary canon." Our goal is for the novels to fit into and around the episodes without contradicting them, so that fans can decide for themselves whether or not they want to believe that, for instance, Atlantis was nearly destroyed by the exogenesis machine in the late Season 2 timeframe.
EC: MGM does read the drafts; that serves as the last round of editing before the proof is finalized. I think MGM has a licensing person who handles that aspect, because as far as I know the folks at Bridge Studios don't read the novels—like I said, not enough hours in the day, and they don't need their ultimate game plan for the show to be muddied up by our various ideas.
TG: Have you been asked for rewrites based on feedback from MGM?
EC: The comments we've gotten back from MGM have always been straightforward and helpful. In my experience, they've never asked for a significant rewrite, only suggested slight tweaks or asked questions to clarify details. On Casualties of War, actually, I got a question from them that was easily answered but coincidentally prompted me to notice an inconsistency, where I'd sent a character somewhere but forgotten to mention how he got back! The scene had gotten past four different sets of eyes before the omission was caught, so that just goes to show how important it is to have editors—lots of editors.
EC: That basic concept was the very first thing that came to mind when I started thinking about novel plots. Stargate has never been afraid to deal with conflicting belief structures, but the issue is inevitably different for every new culture we come across, because beliefs tend to evolve differently based on the information available. In what situations is it justified to disturb the balance of a society? When the status quo is morally wrong by our standards? When the status quo is clearly going to bring about the society's collapse? Maybe not even then? It's the classic Prime Directive non-interference scenario, and Atlantis gave us the perfect vehicle for it because of the ATA gene. In this case, we thought Teyla would be the most reluctant to push the locals too far, since this was halfway through Season 1 and she was still getting used to the Earth team's style of tromping around the galaxy. And we thought Rodney's sense of fairness would be offended by the idea of the gene as a birthright, since, after all, he got his gene through scientific means.
TG: About your second novel, Exogenesis, Sonny wrote in her blog: "This is a story I really wanted to write, more or less from the moment I saw 'Rising', because McKay's character has some truly inspiring...quirks. All of the show's characters carry degrees of emotional baggage, but McKay's border on crippling." Which character(s) do you find the most fun and/or most compelling to explore in the writing process?
EC: Right from the beginning, I was interested in the John Sheppard character, probably because I'm always a sucker for the flyboys. I felt like I understood where he was coming from, at least up to a point; he's Air Force, he's a pilot, he likes college football—these are things I can relate to. Past the basics, though, he's hard to read. I think what little we've learned about him has mostly stemmed from his actions regarding his team. When Sonny came up with this terrific planetary catastrophe of a plot that also dug into the McKay psyche, I wanted to be careful not to throw any of that out of balance, but at the same time I saw an opportunity to get into Sheppard's head a little as well. This man seems to have "leave no one behind" tattooed on his forehead, and that's a cornerstone of American military doctrine (the motto, not the tattoo), but he's also demonstrated that he's got no problem with tossing military discipline out the window if he believes the orders he's been given are flawed. Sometimes it's hard to reconcile those two traits, so I loved the idea of trapping him in between his loyalty to his service and his loyalty to his friend, in a fashion similar to the infamous Afghanistan incident. I spent a lot of time on Sheppard's mindset in Casualties of War as well, because I thought the "leave no one behind" philosophy could start to be very draining after months and even years of losses within his command. I wanted to see what kind of situation could make him question his ability to lead his team.
EC: Well, it started with a canoeing trip to the Boundary Waters, oddly enough. A couple of years ago, James and I flew our little four-seat Grumman Tiger up to Minnesota for a long weekend, and during one of the evenings, while our arms were recovering from a day of paddling, we started talking about the brainstorming I'd been trying to do for a new Stargate book. The focus on Sheppard and his burden of command was a priority from the beginning, but I needed a plot that would fit the arc I wanted to take that character through. The initial idea was vague and had some elements of a drug culture involved: a civilization that was being ruined by an addictive drug, which happened to have properties that disrupted the Wraith hive mind and made just being around these people distasteful to the Wraith. Our team would try to find a way around the negative properties of the drug and fail, so they'd be stuck with a dilemma: should they try to leave these people with their addiction, which is destroying them slowly through crime and health problems, or try to help them break it, knowing that the planet would then be opened up to Wraith attacks that might bring about their downfall even faster?
TG: Casualties was your first "solo" novel. How did your approach to this story differ from the first two, which were co-writes? Did you feel any pressure or trepidation going into it?
TG: Somehow, admidst all this novel writing, you found time to do a couple of Atlantis short stories as well. Tell us a little about "Course Corrections" and "Waypoints".
EC: "Course Corrections" actually started out as a writing exercise to stay sharp on the characters. Okay, mostly one character, since it's a Sheppard story first and foremost. I had a bit of a break between Exo and Casualties and didn't want to lose any of the skills I'd learned on the first two books. When I saw the episode "The Return," I immediately wondered what had happened on Earth during those missing six weeks, so I just decided to scribble some lines down and see what happened. I was convinced that Sheppard would have had some trouble getting used to his own planet again, because he's always struck me as someone who'd be more comfortable on Atlantis than on Earth. That story was written primarily in Oklahoma, for those keeping score at home. In any case, I knew the editor at Fandemonium was also commissioning the magazine stories, so I sent her the basic premise of my piece and asked if she had any use for it. As luck would have it, they needed an Atlantis story next, so she asked for a draft, and it ended up in the Atlantis yearbook issue, which was terrific luck.
TG: Is your approach to the short story form different than the way you approach a novel?
EC: The funny thing I noticed when switching over to the short stories was how accustomed I'd gotten to having the freedom of length. When we first started The Chosen, I didn't think we'd ever get to 100,000 words—but the short stories are limited to 3000 words for layout reasons. So the first drafts for both of my short stories clocked in at about 4500 words. I had to go on a massive pruning spree. To some extent I think "Waypoints" was a more complete story in its longer form, just because there was more room for detail, but I've also realized just how many words turn out to be expendable when push comes to shove.
TG: The newest novel from you and Sonny is Blood Ties, which has a pretty interesting twist to it. The Atlantis team is sent to explore a series of ritual killings....on Earth. Without giving too much away, what's the hook that brings the Atlantis team back home when there are already SG teams there?
EC: One word: Wraith. Well, to be more specific, something that kills like a Wraith. The rituals involved with these deaths appear to have origins in antiquity, so there's a concern that the Wraith may have been on Earth at some point, and may still have some connections here. Sonny really outdid herself with the mythology on this one—it uses elements from both SG-1 and Atlantis and weaves them together with vampire and succubus legends. And we couldn't possibly use Earth mythology without getting Daniel Jackson involved, so this was my first opportunity to write dialogue for Daniel. I think he and Sheppard made a great team. This story spans both galaxies, because the search sends Rodney, Teyla, and Ronon on a hunt for some genetic research done by the Ancients in Pegasus. And on a character level, it was an opportunity for us to show the aftermath of Carson Beckett's death. I know some fans felt that the show glossed over that a little, because the next episode was so action-heavy and didn't have a lot of room to show the characters dealing with the loss. Sonny and I felt that maybe the team didn't really have much of a chance to grieve, because there was always another crisis looming, and that's not a healthy situation long-term. So in Blood Ties, where the entire population of Earth might be threatened, and Carson's genetic expertise makes his absence all the more obvious and difficult, some characters—and I'm looking straight at Rodney with this—might be struggling a little to cope with it all.
TG: What projects are you currently working on that we can expect to see in the future?
EC: Well, I don't know if you should expect to see it, but I am playing around with an original novel—still in my off-time from my day job. It's not sci-fi at all, actually; it's more like "Office Space" for graduate students. With a more serious side, though. I did a year of grad school to get my MSE, and my husband is wrapping up his PhD right now, so between us we've seen and heard a lot of crazy stories out of universities, and we've also been through some of the uncertainty PhD students often have about the lifestyle, still being "in school" at thirty years old. I honestly don't know if the manuscript will turn into anything, but I've been having fun with it, so I figure I'll eventually whip it into reasonable shape and shop it around to agents, and then we'll just see what happens. I'm certainly not giving up my day job!
TG: Do you foresee ever entering the world of SG-1 in your writing?
TG: Earlier, you mentioned high school forays into Star Trek fan fiction. What are some of your other science fiction / fantasy interests?
Well, I grew up on Star Wars. You know how kids watch certain movies over and over and wear out the tapes? Back when VHS tape was the standard format, anyway. Empire and Jedi were the tapes I wore out, with my little brother's enthusiastic support. Eventually my parents said, "You know, there's this TV show called Star Trek you guys might like, too..." and with that, they created a monster. I didn't keep up with Voyager and Enterprise, but I was quite the Trekker for a while in middle and high school. I refuse to choose sides in the Star Trek versus Star Wars debate. Right now, I'm in love with the current Battlestar Galactica—I think it's some of the best pure drama the sci-fi genre has ever seen on-screen. In terms of books, I read the Asimovs and the Bradburys as a kid, and I definitely read a ton of Star Wars and Star Trek novels. When the possibility of doing Stargate novels first came up, I was thrilled at the idea of having my name on the very same type of books I'd adored back in school. Recently, though, I've been reading more nonfiction than anything else.
TG: Are you aware that one of our guests this year is Dr. Kevin Grazier from NASA? Aside from the utter coolness of heading up the Cassini-Huygens Saturn mission he's also the science advisor on Battlestar Galactica!
EC: I didn't realize you had Dr. Grazier on your guest list; I really
would have enjoyed talking to him! Terrific that you've got such a
varied slate of guests, though.
TG: Elizabeth, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to chat with us.
TG: Best of luck to you always, especially while working on the MS of your new novel. And hopefully we'll see you at TimeGate '09!
Elizabeth Christensen online: www.elizabethchristensen.com
Fandemonium online: www.stargatenovels.com