Episode 49: Melinda Snodgrass

I looked out the plane’s window at Los Angeles, and it looked like any other airport. No palm trees in evidence. No movie stars strolling across the tarmac toward private jets. No surfboards. The only difference between LAX and LaGuardia was the lack of snow…

If I had been in a high-powered all-human law firm I would have been flying on the firm’s private executive jet, and I wouldn’t have had to get up at ugh o’clock to catch a commercial flight. But I was with a white-fang, vampire-owned firm, so we flew commercial.

— Melinda Snodgrass, Box Office Poison

I can’t tell you how excited I am to be chatting with Melinda Snodgrass. Not only is Melinda (writing as Phillipa Bornikova) the author of the fabulous Linnet Ellery urban fantasy series, she wrote for several of my favorite television shows, including Star Trek: The Next Generation, Reasonable Doubts (with the fabulous Marlee Matlin), and Profiler. She is also the author of space operas and adventure novels, and the co-creator (with George R.R. Martin) of the Wild Cards series. My fandoms all merge today!

Melinda’s most recent novel just launched: In Evil Times, the second in her planned five-book Imperials Saga. Having a hard time keeping up with all her accomplishments? You’re not alone. Happily, you can keep up to date by checking out her website, blog, and — where she prefers to hang out — Facebook page.

Also, there are (mercifully) few interviews in which I get punked, but lucky you, today’s is one of them. Wild Cards goes to Broadway! Click on the link (which will take you to George Martin’s blog) and tell me you if you dare that you wouldn’t have been taken in by the joke as well.

The shared universe of Wild Cards is rich and complex — too much so for me to attempt to list all the novels here. Luckily, there’s a gorgeous website for all things Wild Cards. If you’re interested in this tapestry of storytelling, created and edited by Melinda and George, and enriched by dozens of individual authors, check it out here.

Alas that her first series, about a Federal Court judge riding circuit in the solar system, is out of print. Here, however, are the rest of series, in order:

Linnet Ellery (urban fantasy)

1 – This Case Is Gonna Kill Me

2 – Box Office Poison

3 – Publish and Perish (due out April 2018)

The Imperials (space opera)

1 – The High Ground

2 – In Evil Times

Edge Of… series (paranormal adventure)

1 – The Edge of Reason

2 – The Edge of Ruin

3 – The Edge of Dawn

As always, there’s a transcript if you’d rather read than listen. Enjoy!

— Laura

Transcript  of Interview with Melinda Snodgrass

Laura Brennan: Calling Melinda Snodgrass accomplished doesn’t begin to cut it. She writes across genres, from science fiction to urban fantasy, novels, television and feature scripts. She is a co-creator and co-editor of the Wild Cards series, a shared-world anthology about the consequences of ordinary people gaining superpowers. Her “Edge Of…” adventure series explores the tension between science and religion, and her Linnet Ellery series is smart and suspenseful urban fantasy, set in a world filled with fascinating — and deadly — vampires, werewolves, and Fey. Book Two of her Imperials series, In Evil Times, just launched on July 4th.

Melinda, thank you for joining me.

Melinda Snodgrass: Thank you so much for inviting me, I’m really delighted.

LB: When I say you’re accomplished, I almost don’t know where to begin. But starting with the pre-writing, you ride horses, you shoot, you run a business, you sing — you’re basically Wonder Woman.

MS: Well, thank you, but I’m older and not strong anymore, so I can’t match her in any way. Part of it is, I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, I think was my dilemma. And I was fortunate to have a father who was enormously supportive to me. So anything I wanted to explore and try, he was absolutely behind me. He was a very fine musician, he played five instruments and sang himself, he’d had a jazz band — he was much older than my mother — but he’d had a jazz band back in the 20s and 30s, so my musical ability came from him. And when my voice teacher said, “We should send her to Vienna to study opera,” my dad said, “Okay.” So at 18, he allowed me to go off to Vienna and go to the conservatory and study.

But his personal dream for me had always been that I’d become an attorney, a lawyer, and I think he had visions of me going into politics, maybe becoming a senator, governor of the state of New Mexico. And so when I discovered I really wasn’t good enough for the Grand Opera stage — I mean I have a nice voice but I didn’t have that one-tenth of one percent voice that really makes it. So I came back to the States and I did go to law school and realized that, while I love the law, once I got out and had passed the bar, that I hated lawyers. And I really hated practicing law. So really my only option was to go and teach law school, which didn’t appeal, or to find something else.

And a very dear friend of mine at the time was a novelist named Victor Milan. Meanwhile, I’m singing, doing civic light opera, singing Camelot, all these various musicals. And he said, “You know, you’ve always been really artistic. I bet you could write if you tried.” And so I started writing a novel in secret, a series about a federal court judge riding circuit in outer space. And I loved it. It was like, oh, this is what I was supposed to be when I grew up. And so that was the start of my career and I’ve been writing ever since.

LB: The law, the love of law, actually does come through even in today’s books. The idea of the rule of law, that law is the thing that you really have faith in.

MS: Yes. That for me is tremendously important. I think that law is the basis of civilization. If you don’t have a rule of law, if you don’t have institutions in place that can support civilized society, then you devolve into, you’re Somalia. You dissolve into anarchy. And as a sort of adjunct to that, is the free press and all of these various things that support those institutions. Can you have faith in the banking system? Can you believe that a judge will give you an impartial decision and not be swayed by bribery or corruption? We have institutions in place, generated over 800 years of common law and British law and written into the American Constitution that give us this foundation. And without that foundation, then you have autocracy or you have anarchy.

And so I have a great love for the law. I think the U.S. Constitution is probably one of the most spectacular documents ever drafted. And not because — all the strict constructionalist thing that the right-wing tends to argue for is in fact the antithesis of the Constitution. The Constitution was designed by its creators to be flexible, expandable, to breathe. Because they were wise enough to know that what was existent in the 1780s was probably not going to be relevant to their distant descendents. And so they created a structure, a document that could breathe, that could live. And I think that’s why it’s been so successful for so long. Unfortunately we also have to have people of honor to stand up and defend those institutions, whether it be the federal courts, the free press, all of these things, and I’m worried today. I’m worried in a way that I never have been in my life before, but I have faith ultimately in the institutions because law gives us civilization.

LB: That’s a great transition to your Linnet Ellery series. She is a lawyer.

MS: Yes.

LB: But also one of the tensions in it is the idea of people of honor versus people who only are after power. Whoever they might be. They might be werewolves. They might be Fey. But the idea that people of honor stand against individuals of dishonor really plays out, especially in the most recent book, Box Office Poison.

MS: I have a lot of fun writing those. Urban fantasy blew up and became this huge subset in the genre. And I notice, though, a lot of them, they never dealt with the levers of power. And that is always what has interested me is, how do worlds really change? How do societies really move? And it seems to me that happens at the level of economics and politics and law. The more I thought about it, I thought, you know, if there really were vampires who lived for hundreds of years, they would have amassed fortunes and they would have learned how to use the systems.

And so I wanted to play in that area that nobody had really gone into. It seemed more like mean, wet streets kind of a feeling. Girls in stiletto heels with stiletto knives up their sleeves. And I wanted to do something a little different, and I also wanted to look at issues of integration and class and subsets of classes in society. I’m playing with that in my space opera, too, where you have second-class citizens, who are the aliens, and then humans. I really wanted to do it in the Linnet books because I was interested in how the world would look if the actors were — human actors — were being pushed aside by the Elven actors because they’re so much more attractive and charming in person. And how werewolves would conquer Wall Street because they’re aggressive and take risks. And law firms are white-fang law firms as opposed to white shoe law firms, where the vampires have great power.

And I thought it was fun to play in an area that hadn’t been explored, and I was able to use some of my experiences from when I was practicing law — obviously changing things so that any former clients would not be upset. And also, then, drawing on my experiences once I came to Hollywood. Some of the things that happen to Linnet in Box Office Poison — not the shooting on the set, but, like, seeing a famous actor meet a pig. I actually got to witness that one day on the Warners lot. It’s those kinds of moments when you pinch yourself and go, gosh, I never dreamed my life would be like this. And then I get to mine it and put it in a book, which is even better.

LB: I think it was a crackerjack mystery and you had levels of mystery going on with it. So let’s give our heroine just a moment. What would someone who hasn’t picked up a book in the series need to know about Linnet?

MS: She is well-educated, but somewhat rootless in that she was taken from her normal human parents when she was very young child and fostered with the vampire in his household because they are trying to create this sense of mentorship between the subsets of society. And so she’s not exactly sure where she fits in the world. She wants to do the right thing. She’s a woman of integrity. She’s also hoping to find love in addition, and have a life that’s full and well-rounded. And instead, she finds herself becoming a sort of chaos magnet that she never expected to be. And there’s a reason behind that which, actually, is revealed in the third book. Which, unfortunately, the third book has been deeply, deeply delayed for a variety of reasons beyond my control.

Like myself, she believes that the law is the thing that keeps us all from turning on each other, especially in a world where you do have normal humans faced with extraordinary creatures that can outmaster them in many ways, in terms of strength and speed and knowledge and wealth. Or beauty, in the case of the elves. And so she wants to defend that structure that makes it possible for us to all live together in some degree of peace.

LB: Xenophobia is a theme throughout your novel, but the idea in particular of how different people deal with people who are different from them. How we as human beings react to difference, whether that difference be someone is Armenian and someone is Turkish, or someone is vampire, or someone is second-class alien. And that messiness of human beings and how bad we are at handling The Other — I mean, that must be something you are fantastically interested in.

MS: Yes, it is. Because I think it’s — I’m a science-fiction reader from childhood, and then became a writer. And unlike some people who fear the one-world government, I welcome it. I want that. I’m like, let us all be human beings first. Because God help us if we ever do find something that is completely different in alien to us. We have to put aside these ridiculous objections to each other based on skin color or nationality or creed. Especially because, I really thought — I’m so naïve! I really thought we finished the Human Genome Project that established that we are all fundamentally identical — and in fact are closest relatives are chimps, where there’s just a minor percentage, tiny percentage differences — that we would all go, oh, well this is so stupid. Why do we do this? And it didn’t work. I was quite disappointed by that. And I keep hoping that we will come to the realization that we are humans first and not nationalities or races or sex. That that is going to become a way that we view the world and how we’re going to go out and hopefully explore the stars someday. I mean, I’m fundamentally an optimist. I believe that will happen. But it won’t happen unless we can get past these differences.

So that’s been a lot of what I’ve written about because I am, I’m concerned. I think it’s that kind of internecine warfare that we saw tear apart Serbia and Croatia, it can happen far too easily. And so I think we always have to have cautionary tales that, hopefully, are done in an entertaining way, that we think about these things. I think the reason I love science fiction and fantasy so much is because it’s a way to explore really difficult issues, complex issues, in a safe space. A safer space than if we just laid it out there, more allegory and using irony as a way to tell these things, rather than just beating people over the head with it.

LB: Dressage and horse riding has been important in your life, but it also comes up in your books. So tell me about some of your horses and how they perhaps have influenced Box Office Poison.

MS: Actually, one of my current horses, my stallion, Vento de Broga, is in Box Office Poison. He’s a character, with some twists. I’ve ridden since I was three years old and I have loved horses my entire life. I started out as a cowgirl, riding Western because I grew up in New Mexico, and then I discovered jumping when I was 10, and I only wanted to do that. And then one day I went, you know, you rarely hear about people riding dressage getting killed. I’ve taken jumps when horses haven’t, and I’ve left kneecaps on standards… You know, I would kind of like to not jump anymore. So then I moved over to dressage, which I really think is the equine sport for people with OCD because it’s so precise. But it’s dancing with your horse. And also, as a science-fiction writer, doing dressage is the closest thing to telepathy you’re ever going to experience. So I’ve been doing that for a number of years. I had a Grand Prix horse that I sadly lost to a terrible colic a few years ago. And then I discovered the Lusitanos, which — I have two Lusitanos now, my stallion, and then I have a young gelding named Donhador. He’s a beautiful buckskin, and Vento is pure white, he’s a snowy white guy.

And I love it, because I think one of the problems for writers, particularly novelists, is we don’t move enough. You spend your life seated behind a computer and I think physical activity makes you write better. And so on days that I don’t ride, and I generally ride five days a week, two horses a day, I go to the gym. And if I’m stuck on the scene, I find that physical activity will often clear out the fog and when I come back, the answers will start to be there. What is that line of dialogue that I need? Where should I set this scene that all gets answered? So I think that’s really important.

And the horses just — for somebody who’s a rationalist, I have to say they’re magical. And I love them with a passion beyond anything. I mean, like a thousand suns, I love my horses and I don’t think I’ll ever, ever give them up.

LB: Oh, my god, that’s so beautiful Thank you for that.

MS: [Laugh]

LB: You’ve also written for several television mysteries, including one of my very favorites, which was Reasonable Doubts.

MS: Oh, I loved that show!

LB: And the Profiler. So, what is the difference between plotting for a mystery and then plotting for Star Trek, or Sliders, or one of the other things you’ve done?

MS: There’s absolutely no difference. I plot the same way no matter what I’m doing and it’s a skill I learned in Hollywood. I’ve always been good at outlining and I always did outlines, even before I came to Hollywood, but once I came to work out here, I learned this skill called “breaking a story” where you either use a whiteboard or you use a corkboard with 3 x 5 cards and multicolored pens. And it was like, oh my God, this is what I’ve been struggling to do in my inept way, and now you guys have given me the tools. And I plot every book, every screenplay, the exact same way. Because I know where to feed in the clues if I have that guidepost, that outline up for me. Then I can run the thread through: and then they discover this, and then they discover that.

I think if you have that kind of strong plot, then you know the scene to have to write, you know what has to be there to get you to that conclusion. Because I always start my plotting with, what’s the final scene? The final climactic scene, not the falling action that sort of wraps everything up with a bow, but that big final climax. What’s that? If I don’t know that, I probably don’t have a book, I probably don’t have a story. So I start there, and then I plot backwards.

LB: I love that because, partially, it feeds into my contention that all fiction is mystery at heart. There’s a mystery at the center of everything that we want to read.

MS: That is so cool! I would completely agree with that. I’ve never heard it phrased that way, but yes, whether it’s about self-discovery, the mystery of yourself, or whatever it is. Yes.

LB: There are so many things that you do, I want to talk about Wild Cards for a second. Tell us what is Wild Cards.

MS: Wild Cards is a shared-world anthology. It’s longest-running shared-world anthology ever. For those who may not be familiar with that term, it’s basically where you create a universe — in this case, George Martin and I created the universe, the sandbox. And then we invited in friends and other writers to come play in the sandbox together. It is now up to 23 books, we have six more books in the pipeline. Graphic novels are being developed. My artist is checking forward on mine. There is a TV show in development at UCP, that I’m an executive producer on. And we have this cadre of writers over the years, who’ve come and played with us and have stayed, and some have dropped out, but we still have this core group of people and we just have a lot of fun. We’re allowed to use each other’s characters, once you clear it. You have to show the other writer what you’ve done with their character. But it’s really fun, because you create a character and then you get to see how somebody else views that character, or how their character views your character. And so it becomes this incredible synergy.

Without realizing, it was a lot like being on a television show — and I realized it once I went to work on television shows. It’s like being in the writers room on a TV show when we’re doing Wild Cards. And George and I, after having been to Hollywood, we got a lot better about editing Wild Cards because we do run it more like a TV show. We come up with the season, generally in three-book arcs, and then the writers pitch the episodes, i.e. stories. And then we put it all together.

It’s a lot of work, it’s been a lot of fun, and it’s a labor of love for George and I. We’ve done it for way more years than I want to admit to.

LB: My understanding is that it’s going to Broadway.

MS: No, that was our April Fools joke.

LB: Oh, I am so disappointed!

MS: I know! Everybody was. Because George is George, and he has these marvelous contacts, he was able to get to Lin-Manuel — Lin-Manuel Miranda. He met him backstage when he saw performance of Hamilton, and so he was able to send him an email and say, may we take your name in vain? And Lin-Manuel said, sure, that sounds great. So, no, it was our April Fools joke. It would’ve been cool if it had been real.

LB: But it’s cool anyway because it shows one of the things that I don’t know that a lot of people really get about writers, is that you form a tribe of friendships that is so strong. And I don’t know if it’s because we write by ourselves and so we’re desperate for companionship, but you really do create is amazing, fun friendships, and you get to do fun things together.

MS: Yes, absolutely. I mean, Wild Cards began life as a role-playing game.

LB: I love that.

MS: There were a whole — the New Mexico Mafia, this group of writers there. And George was our game master, running this game called Superworld, and we played it obsessively. Like three nights a week until two and three in the morning. And then finally one night, after one morning, George would stay over at my house because at the time I still lived down in Albuquerque, he lived in Santa Fe. And he was like, we’ve got to find a way to make money off this obsession. So we started brainstorming and came up with the universe that became Wild Cards.

But, yes, I think you’re right. I think one of the reasons I love so much writing for Hollywood and being in a writers room is because writing is such a solitary profession.

LB: When can we look forward to your television show of Wild Cards?

MS: I hope next year. That’s the goal. We are really starting to get all the cylinders firing now, and I expect we’re going out to buyers in September/October. Hopefully, we’ll find a home for it and I’m anticipating next year. That would be my hope, my fervent hope, that we will be on the air. I just think it would be very exciting, because I think Wild Cards brings something to that superhero genre — which is its own genre now. Sort of like lawyers and cops and cowboys and now superheroes — that no one else is dealing with. And ironically, again, it’s the issues of the law, politics, and entertainment. A lot of the superhero shows don’t really delve into those areas very realistically. And Wild Cards always has. And we have some certain, unique twists on this, that we have a single origin story so it isn’t this multiplicity of origin stories. And we have a class of people who are very much second-class citizens. I think George is also quite interested in that, and that is part and parcel of Wild Cards, too.

LB: Well, so tell me now about your most recent novel.

MS: Okay, well, the recent series, this one is called In Evil Times. It started because I had this flash of an image years ago of a 10-foot tall, ant-like alien cowering in terror in front of a small human holding a machine gun. And I thought, what if we were the evil, invading aliens instead of the other way around? Because we’re pretty fearsome fighters, we’re kind of truculent monkeys at heart. And what if we went out into the universe, realized there were other species, and instead of bonding and all forming the Federation, we kicked the shit out of them? And that was sort of the premise of these books.

So it’s a very top-heavy, badly-structured imperial structure with humans at the top, aliens as second-class citizens. I get to deal with issues of women’s rights and forced birth in order to out breathe the terrifying Other. You know, we have to have more of us than there are of them because they’re so scary. Something we’re hearing from our modern politicians on certain times, which is terrifying to me. And so I got to play in those areas.

I have two main protagonists, a young man and a young woman. We meet them in Book One when they are 18. She is the heir to the Solar League, the throne of the Solar League. And he’s the son of a tailor, sort of literalizing a little fairytale here. We pick them up at 18, and then it’s a five book series. I plotted it as five books and my wonderful British publisher, Titan, said, yes, we will buy all five so that you can actually finish this and tell the whole story. And we follow them through their lives. And the fifth book will end with them in their mid-50s, and so we get to see them across their lifetime as they change and grow, and the experiences.

This book is sort of the nadir of my young hero’s career. Bad things happen in this book for him. And Mercedes, my heroine, learns a lot about the unpleasant choices you have to make in politics. Where you think you’re doing the right thing, and that it turns out it was not at all the right thing. That idea of how people govern and the choices you make, and not seeing the long-term consequences, I think is interesting. And book three has been delivered, and I’m writing book four now. So before I know it, it’ll be done. I’m sort of disappointed, because I will have spent a lot of time with these people.

LB: Yes, it’s hard to let go. And it’s hard to wait for the next book. I understand the third Linnet Ellery is coming out in April of next year? She says, with hope in her voice.

MS: That’s what they tell me. I delivered that third book in February of 2014.

LB: Ooo, boy!

MS. Yes. My beloved editor had a tremendous health issue and was forced to resign and leave the company, and so my champion and the person I’d relied on was suddenly gone. And my book fell through the cracks, and kept falling to the cracks into like the sub-sub-sub-basement. And they were like, oh, yeah, there’s this other book. I’d even said to them, guys, why are you even bothering to publish this now, because it’s been so many years since book two came out, it seems sort of pointless for you guys to do that. And they time your eyes really didn’t work out very well like, no no no, we’re going to do it. So they claim they’re going to reissue the first two books with new packaging, which would be nice because it does kind of have that older urban fantasy look that I think is less in favor now, and bring out the third book. But I’m still waiting for notes on that third book, because that was a tricky book and I would really love to have some editorial input on it. Because I think there are places it can definitely be improved. And truthfully, I can barely remember it at this point because it’s been such a long time and since then, I’ve written three other, four other books. I wrote a third Edge book and then I’ve written, now, three of the Imperials books.

LB: You’re not allowed to dissuade them from publishing the third book.

MS: No, they say they’re going to do it!

LB: That’s good. Okay. I need to know what happens next. Back to, actually, to all of your series. You delve into power in terms of power structures and the imperial power structure, and politics, but also the behind the scenes machinations of vampires. But one of the things that I saw throughout your books with the idea of rising to your own power. Your heroes are people who have to rise and find the power to handle what is facing them. It’s very hopeful.

MS: Thank you. I appreciate that. I think it’s because I dislike classic heroes and mustache-twirling villains. I think people are so complicated and so interesting, and I think people who have it all figured out and who always succeed, they don’t give any encouragement to the rest of us who aren’t perfect and don’t always succeed. I mean, it’s nice to see someone trying and failing and falling short and then finding that inner core and be able to advance and do the things they believe are right, or the things they want in life. I think we tell each other stories, we tell ourselves stories, to give ourselves courage and to help us on our path. And I think as writers, we do our readers, our viewers, a disservice if we’re just presenting paragons and demons and devils. I mean, I think that living in the areas of gray and showing people they can persevere is a good thing. That’s what I like to do. And I like my people to not be perfect and to grow and overcome, and to make mistakes and then recover from them. Because that’s life, for all of us.

LB: So if listeners want to learn more about you, where can they find you online?

MS: I have a website, it’s MelindaSnodgrass.com. Very easy. I’m also very active on Facebook, so you can either follow me on Facebook or send me a message and you can join and become one of my friends. I have a great group, we talk a lot about everything from dressage to movies to books, a little, some politics, I can’t resist. And cooking, what’s a great recipe? So it’s kind of a fun place and I really enjoy doing it.

For me Facebook, it’s like Goldilocks, it’s sort of just right. It feels like my blog has to be important and so it feels like a lot of work, and Twitter I think — I’m not very good at it. I like to lurk and read other people’s cleverness. But Facebook feels just right to me. And I do link my blog posts over to Facebook and to Twitter as well, so I’m trying to cover all the bases.

LB: Melinda, thank you so much for joining me.

MS: Thank you. I appreciate it. Thank you for having me on.