I must admit that I first became aware of Melinda Snodgrass only recently, when one of my readers suggested her as a candidate for this interview series. When I had the opportunity to see the body of work she has produced and the acclaim she has garnered for her work in television and publishing, I didn’t waste any time approaching her for an interview. She was gracious enough to agree. What interested me most, at least initially, was that she wrote an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that ranks as one of the best in science fiction television. I also admit that I don’t currently have any of her books in my stack of Books To Be Read Soon, but I certainly will add one the next time I venture into a bookstore.
TH: Can you tell me a little bit about the arc of your writing career? What was the initial impetus or event that led you to leave the law profession and sit down to write for the first time? How did you go from that first work to writing full-time?
MS: My best friend, Victor Milan, was novelist at the time I was suffering in a law office. He knew I was a singer and a dancer, and he suggested that my artistic abilities might extend to writing. I hated that office and I hated being a lawyer, (thought I love the law as an intellectual exercise) so when my desperation reached critical levels I just quit. Vic gave me a lot of encouragement, and I began writing my first science fiction novel, CIRCUIT. But in the meantime I needed to pay the mortgage. Fortunately it was the height of the romance boom so I created a couple of pseudonyms and started writing. I wrote six romance novels while I was completing CIRCUIT. They served two purposes — they paid my bills, and they taught me how to finish a book. I’ve known a lot of people who have filing cabinets filled with great opening chapters, but they can never face the drudgery to get to the end.
TH: What is The Story of Melinda? Is it a novel? A short story? A poem? A limerick? An epic space opera? A scientific treatise? (You can do with this question whatever you like.)
MS: Oh, I’m definitely a novel. It took me a long time to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. I’ve studied Opera at the Conservatory of Vienna, I toyed with being an actress, I did the law thing. I thought about teaching, I enjoy it a great deal, and finally I found writing. It’s the best job in the world and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
TH: Some writers know from childhood that writing is what they want to do. Others sort of stumble across it, like it, and then succeed? Which are you?
MS: I wasn’t determined to be a writer. I was more interested in the dramatic arts. But after I sold my first novel, my mother reminded me that I used to write plays for the neighborhood kids to perform. When she said that I suddenly remembered one of the plays. Of course I gave myself the starring role. 🙂
TH: Most established writers seem to have a stack of bad writing stuck away somewhere, like the five novels he or she had to write before they could get to the good one. If you have this, can you describe it?
MS: My bad writing was in those six romance novels. I’ve managed to sell virtually everything I’ve written, but god, I wish I could go back and redo some of the those earlier books. I’ve learned a lot since those early days. Hollywood was a great help in honing my writing skills and my writer’s group, Critical Mass, has been invaluable. When you’re rubbing elbows with really great writers like Walter Jon Williams and Daniel Abraham and Ian Tregillis and George R.R. Martin, you try to figure out what they are doing, and learn to do it too. At base writing is about craft. I think you need a basic talent (the way a singer needs a voice), but anyone can be taught to write. It may not be wonderful and inspirational, but it will be correct. I do have a trunk book that doesn’t work because the structure is a mess. Structure is one of those craft issues. Good structure, the skeleton of a piece of writing, will carry you through even if your sentence structure and characterization isn’t of the best. I think the reverse isn’t necessarily true.
TH: Of course, most writers want to write bestsellers or make some sort of artistic or literary impact, but do you have an immediate close-range goal? Is there some accomplishment that youâ€™re striving for in the near future?
MS: Yes, a bestseller would be wonderful, but I’ll settle for making enough money for my publishers that they’ll buy more books. I just want to keep writing. I would really like to get back into Hollywood work. It’s incredibly stressful, but very rewarding. I have a spec feature film, and a TV pilot with my manager right now. My fingers are crossed that they lead to something.
TH: I review submissions and critique stories for a couple of online venues, and one of the biggest problems I see with inexperienced writers is a lack of understanding of basic drama. Stories have to be dramatic (or at least have some sort of real conflict), and I have read dozens that just arenâ€™t. Did you find that your background in theater arts gave you an immediate leg up when you started writing fiction and screenplays? Or was there an epiphany of some sort later on where everything came together? If so, what was the immediate benefit of theater training in making the jump?
MS: I suppose it’s the kind of fiction you read, and a writer’s goals. If you’re reading submissions from people who want to write a New Yorker story I don’t think they’re going to be very dramatic. I grew up reading and loving science fiction and mysteries, and those genre fields tend to be very dramatic. It never occurred to me to write about “a slice of life”. I’ve always wanted to write about the most important moment in a person’s life. I don’t think that came from my theater work so much as from my overall life experience.
TH: What are some of the things that most inspire you?
MS: Music. I was a singer, I performed in a lot of operas and musical comedies, and I played piano as well as singing. Most of my characters love music, many play instruments. The hero of my current novel is a singer and pianist, and music is a key element in the plot. Horses. I own a magnificent six year old Lusitano stallion named Vento. I ride Dressage and he’s going to be my new Grand Prix horse. In science fiction we write a lot about telepathy, but the bond between a highly trained horse and its rider is as close to telepathy as we’re ever going to experience. And finally New Mexico. It is one of the most beautiful and magical places in the world. I enjoy camping and hiking and New Mexico’s vistas and mountains give me ample opportunity to enjoy those activities.
TH: Do you indulge in karaoke to sate your urge to sing in front of an audience?
MS: No, I just sing for myself now. And I was a classically trained singer. You don’t hear many arias from The Marriage of Figaro, or The Magic Flute at your normal karaoke night.
TH: Do you listen to music as you write?
MS: Yes, I listen to music. It’s almost all classical. What I select depends on the character and story I’m writing at that moment.
TH: Your television work for Star Trek: TNG obviously promoted itself, but the fiction realm works differently. What are the most successful ways you have used to promote yourself and your fiction work? What has been your most powerful springboard to success?
MS: Oddly enough my website and blog have generated more traffic than I would have expected. I’m a writer so I’m a rather solitary soul, and setting up the site was difficult for me. I’d rather let my stories speak for me, but my terrific editor at Tor Books, Patrick Nielsen-Hayden, urged me set up the site and write in a blog, and he was spot on.
TH: Do you have some promotional ideas or avenues in mind that you havenâ€™t tried yet?
MS: This is an area where I feel really ill equipped to answer. I know I need to do promotion, but I’m not a salesman. I can tell why my TV series idea or movie idea is the best ever when I’m in a room with a group of producers and executives, but it’s hard to figure out how to market on a larger scale. I think you have to have surrogates for that, and I’m told that the independent book sellers conferences work well for that. My publisher is planning on sending me to some of these conferences so I can connect directly with book sellers. I’ll continue attending science fiction conventions where you get a chance to talk to the fans, and become a real person to them. That’s also the function of the website and blog.
Which brings me to the internet. My publicist is going to be sending copies of my books to websites that might find the content interesting. One of the members of my writer’s group had his publisher send his book to a number of pagan websites and it measurably increased his sales. Clearly the new media is the way people are getting new and entertainment, and a writer needs to have a presence there.
TH: Some say that professional writers have to look at themselves as a business, a branded commodity. Have you reached that point? How do you handle the financial side of writing?
MS: I’m certainly a business. I’m an LLC. I have a business credit card. I travel to conventions to promote myself and my work. I’m no where near famous enough to brand myself or set myself up as a “sharecropper” which is a trend I actually dislike. Sharecropping is where a famous writer allows young, new writers to write in the famous writer’s universe. I think it degrades the original writer’s brand, and it doesn’t help the young writer establish their own career.
TH: What can readers expect to see from you in the near future? What are you working on?
MS: I just delivered the second novel in the EDGE series. The first book THE EDGE OF REASON will be published on May 13th 2008. I’m about to start writing a story for the next WILD CARD book, SUICIDE KINGS, and I’ll be writing a spec feature film with my friend Ian Tregillis.
TH: What is the most memorable moment (good, bad, or other) you have had in your writing life?
MS: I’ve had two such moments, and I’ll pick the good ones because I’m at heart an optimist. When I walked into a bookstore and saw my novel on the shelf. When I stood on the set of Star Trek and heard them delivering my lines when they started filming THE MEASURE OF A MAN.
TH: I recall seeing the ST:TNG episode The Measure of a Man when it first aired, and I remember thinking that it was one of those pivotal episodes where TNG really came into its own. This Star Trek episode showed that ST:TNG had something important to say. Do you recall what led to writing that episode? Where did it come from?
MS: As much as I hated law school and being a lawyer, it was my education as an attorney, particularly my interest in Constitutional law, that led to that episode. Basically, it’s the Dred Scott v. Sandford decision. It seemed to me that it would make sense for Star Fleet to make a lot of Data’s, and use them for hazardous missions. But in order to make more they had to break Data to find out how he worked. When Data refused Star Fleet sued to prove he was property rather than a person.
TH: Is there anything else you would like to talk about that I havenâ€™t mentioned?
MS: I’d like to recommend writer’s groups and writer’s workshops to any aspiring writers. I’d would urge people to check out Taos Tool Box run by Walter Jon Williams, Clarion and Clarion West and Odyssey.
TH: I can vouch for the fact that writers conferences and workshops can have a profound impact on oneâ€™s writing career. Did you attend any of those writerâ€™s workshops in the early days of your career as part of the learning process?
MS: Even though I’m recommending the workshops, I didn’t take that path. I didn’t really know what was available at the time I quit being a lawyer. Also, since I quit so abruptly I needed to start selling and making money pretty quickly. My friend was my guide. There are a number of Clarion graduates in my writers group, and I think the education they received was invaluable. I think it gives people a real leg up over where I started. So, if I had it to do over again, I’d attend Clarion.