Shaun Farrell interviews Nick Sagan Special thanks to Mysterious Galaxy bookstore for their support of this column. To learn more about their exciting collection of signed first editions, please see our links page. Nick Sagan, son of astronomer Carl Sagan and writer/artist Linda Salzman, has sent his voice beyond the boundaries of the solar system. No, really. At age six his recording, “Hello from the children of planet Earth” was included on NASA’s Voyager spacecraft, which is now the most distant human-made object in the universe. After graduating from UCLA’s film school, Nick has spent many years in Hollywood as a screenwriter. He worked on Star Trek Voyager in 1999 as a story editor. Throughout his career, Nick has worked with Paramount, Universal, New Line, Disney, Warner Brothers, and Martin Scorsese. Nick is also the author of three science fiction novels: Idlewild, Edenborn, and Everfree. Everfree, the third book of this trilogy, was published in May 2006. In the following email interview, Nick discusses his exciting new novel, his time spent in Hollywood, the importance of music and coffee, and much, much more.
Special thanks to Mysterious Galaxy bookstore for their support of this column. To learn more about their exciting collection of signed first editions, please see our links page.
Nick Sagan, son of astronomer Carl Sagan and writer/artist Linda Salzman, has sent his voice beyond the boundaries of the solar system. No, really. At age six his recording, “Hello from the children of planet Earth” was included on NASA’s Voyager spacecraft, which is now the most distant human-made object in the universe. After graduating from UCLA’s film school, Nick has spent many years in Hollywood as a screenwriter. He worked on Star Trek Voyager in 1999 as a story editor. Throughout his career, Nick has worked with Paramount, Universal, New Line, Disney, Warner Brothers, and Martin Scorsese. Nick is also the author of three science fiction novels: Idlewild, Edenborn, and Everfree. Everfree, the third book of this trilogy, was published in May 2006.
In the following email interview, Nick discusses his exciting new novel, his time spent in Hollywood, the importance of music and coffee, and much, much more.
Shaun Farrell: Everfree is the concluding volume of a trilogy. What challenges did you face in writing Everfree that were different from writing Idlewild and Edenborn?
Nick Sagan: Halloween’s transformation might have been the greatest challenge. Back in Idlewild, Hal was a self-obsessed, anti-authoritarian isolationist, but by Everfree he’s an authority figure trying to make things work. And yet he retains the essence of who he is. His character growth was very important to me, having him confront his pain and regret and come through it to a place where he’s willing to step up and do what everyone needs him to do.
Also, with each book I wanted to widen the aperture. In many ways, Idlewild is about finding one’s self as an individual, while Edenborn is an exploration of family. Everfree takes that next step to examine (and, I suppose, critique) our society. That was largely uncharted water for me.
Finally, I knew I was going to dedicate Everfree to my father, and I wanted to write something that explored the questions that meant so much to him. Who we are as a species, where we’re headed, what our ultimate fate might be.
SF: Everfree takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where much of humanity has been wiped out from the disease Black Ep. There has been a rising concern over bird flu recently, so how likely do you think it is that humanity could face such demise in the near future?
NS: If you’re talking about the total annihilation of the human species via a pathogen, the chance of that isn’t very high. While a Black Ep scenario could happen, the odds are against it. Fortunately. On the other hand, if you’re talking about a scenario where many millions die from a plague (a la the flu epidemic of 1918-1919), I think we’re likely to see that. Probably not from bird flu. The media tends to overhype the threat of SARS, mad cow, bird flu, etc. which causes many people to conclude that there’s little actual danger from the disease du jour. But while most of these won’t materialize into pandemics, it’s a matter of time until one does; there are a variety of dangerous viruses out there, all constantly mutating, sometimes into more virulent forms. Add to that the threat of germ warfare. Add to that how woefully underfunded the Center for Disease Control is. And add to that the risk of bureaucratic snafus complicating the matter, as we saw with the Chiron flu vaccine shortage. The stage is set for something very nasty.
SF: The entire novel is related through the eyes of Post-Humans, people created before Black Ep to safeguard humanity’s future. Some of the humans in the novel look to the PHs as gods. Do you think that genetic research can grant humanity access to higher forms of consciousness?
NS: Certainly, genetic research can make us better machines. Stronger, faster, and better able to process information. While I think it’s fair to call this greater ability to process information, “smarter,” I’m reluctant to call it a higher form of consciousness. It really depends on how you define that term. Some say that lucid dreaming is a kind of higher consciousness; if that’s your goal, you can achieve it chemically. Can we be made more imaginative via genetic engineering? Theoretically, this can be done. Hegel talks about a “spiritual consciousness” but I’m not sure what that means practically—how would you measure it? And if you’re talking “moral consciousness,” yes, we can be made more compassionate, empathetic and caring, less selfish and less hierarchical through genetic means. I’m sure of it. But at what cost?
SF: You make some very interesting commentary about politics and government. Halloween, the protagonist, says at one point: “Democratic globalization had been a grand goal, but what had it achieved? Endless litigation? Governments sitting around with their thumbs up their asses, mooing about feelings? Governments controlled by corporations? Who would make the hard choices?” Is this the unavoidable path of the modern world?
NS: I hope not. Corporate control of nations is alarming. Increasingly, I see governments pushed and pulled by various interests, some corporate, and some ideological, and when conflicts arise on the globe, these governments seem to be cowed into inaction, or they respond with inappropriate and/or misdirected force. Everyone does not share the same vision of the future. To pretend otherwise strikes me as madness, no matter whether it’s done by the right or the left. Is this path unavoidable? I don’t think so. I just don’t see many solutions out there.
SF: You have a very interesting style, using lots of fragments to create a staccato feel. It works beautifully with Everfree.
NS: Thank you. I do tend to write in fragments—Amazon.com has text stats where you can compare books with others in the same genre. Idlewild averages 8.9 words a sentence, which is more staccato than 94% of other SF/F novels. I expect Everfree follows suit.
SF: How did you develop your writing style?
NS: Hollywood, first and foremost. There’s a screenwriter’s adage: “If you can say something in three words, but you see a way to say it in two, try saying it one.” Bit Zen, that, and it’s a good way to keep the action moving and not waste the reader’s time. I try to write works that are “unputdownable,” where readers feel compelled to keep turning the pages. I’m always honored when someone tells me they blazed through one of my books in just a day or two—I just wish I could write them as quickly! Beyond the screenwriting training, I’d site Chuck Palahniuk as a major influence. Crisp, weird, edgy writing. I’ve also been influenced by the simplicity of language Raymond Carver used, by the grittiness of detective fiction, by the crazy energy of Vladimir Nabokov, and by the multiple perspectives of Akutagawa. And countless others have inspired me as well. Everything I read I try to learn from—what do I like, what don’t I like, what works and what doesn’t.
SF: I really enjoyed the perspective shifts of the second section, in which we see events through the eyes of several PHs and not just Hal. Why did you decide to write that middle section in such a way?
NS: I’m glad you liked that. I wanted to open the story up a bit, and give a voice to characters beyond Hal, including Fantasia whom we hadn’t seen since Idlewild. She’s a favorite of mine, and I always wanted to get inside her head. Also, I’d envisioned the three sections of Everfree as a microcosm of the trilogy itself—the first would be told from Hal’s perspective a la Idlewild; the second would shift into multiple points of view a la Edenborn; the final section would bring us back to Hal.
SF: Everfree concludes this trilogy, but the story is far from resolved. Please tell me we are going to see more novels set in this universe!
NS: Thanks, Shaun. I love these characters and the universe they inhabit, and I look forward to returning to them again. There are other stories I want to tell right now, but I’m sure Halloween will be calling me once again.
SF: Music is very important to your creative process.
NS: It’s critical. Music and coffee, I’m useless without them.
SF: What artists inspired you the most as you composed Everfree?
NS: drivin’ n’ cryin’ got a lot of play on my iPod, especially “Scarred But Smarter.” I’m thrilled to be able to use an excerpt from that song as the epigraph. I also played a lot of Machines of Loving Grace and Local H, whose songs helped center me with Idlewild and Edenborn. As Everfree explores carnivorous capitalism, I wound up playing a lot of “tear the system down” type music, from bands like Bad Religion and Rage Against the Machine. When writing from multiple characters’ perspectives, music helps me make the shift from one character to the next. For example, “TKO” by Le Tigre probably isn’t a song Halloween would listen to, but it is a song that Sloane would. Stuck on one of her scenes, I played that song a good ten or fifteen times until I’d reached the right mindset. After that, the scene was a snap.
SF: Now, you’ve worked in Hollywood for some time. Tell us what the day to day grind of a screenwriter is like?
NS: In many ways, it’s not that different from being a novelist; most of your time is spent basking in the glow of your computer screen, trying to string words together to make the magic happen. That’s the heart and soul of it. But there’s something innately more social about screenwriting, thanks to flurries of meetings.
Writers initiate most novel sales; someone has an idea, writes up a manuscript or a book proposal, and sells it to publishers. It’s different in Hollywood, because producers and studio executives develop many movies. They acquire the rights to an existing property, or they have an idea they think will sell and want a screenwriter to flesh it out. So screenwriters get called into meetings around town and invited to pitch. “Did you read Amazing Man comics growing up? We just acquired the rights. Here, take these comics home with you and come back with an idea for the movie.” Or… “We’re looking for the next occult thriller, something like ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ or ‘The Exorcist.’ That’s really hot right now, so if you have a good pitch along those lines, maybe we can set it up and develop it with you.”
Hollywood runs on meetings. Write an original script and whether it sells or not, if you’ve got a spark in your writing, it’s very common for producers to want to meet with you. They want to see what else you have, and whether you might be interested in working on the projects they’ve acquired. You might also meet with directors or stars; an agent or producer might want to pair you up, making the project a more attractive “package” for the studio to consider sinking money into. There’s a good side and a bad side to all these meetings. You meet a lot of interesting people, and there’s a continual sense of opportunity. But it’s easy to get lost in all that development; so much running around town can distract you from the craft of creating original stories.
Television writing is another animal. Both screenwriting and novel writing are largely unstructured—you control most of your schedule. When you write on staff for a TV show, that’s not the case. Get in at 9 am, help break stories, take pitches, go to meetings, write scenes for the script you’re working on, bang out last minute changes for the episode that’s shooting, leave at 6 or 7 pm. Do that five days a week. Maybe spend your Saturdays and Sundays at the executive producer’s house doing the same if things are running behind schedule. (Which, most likely, they will be.)
SF: How many scripts have you written versus how many have actually made it to film?
NS: Between adaptations and originals, I’ve written about a dozen screenplays. None have made it to the big screen. It’s funny, when I first started out, I became friends with a prolific, steadily working screenwriter, and he made a great living at it, but none of his scripts had ever been made. It struck me as such a strange way of working, and sure enough I fell into the same pattern. If your goal is production, the numbers are against you; several hundred thousand screenplays move through Hollywood every year, and only a few hundred get made. Now call me crazy, but I happen to like seeing my work get produced, which is one of the reasons why I’ve written for television, videogames, books, etc. The production ratio is much higher.
SF: Out of all of your scripts that have yet to make the screen, which one would you most like to see made into a film?
NS: Ender’s Game. It’s a moving story, and I’m very proud of my adaptation. That one seemed to be speeding toward production, but the production company that hired me lost the rights to the book, and it’s been tangled in development ever since. Whether it resembles what I wrote or not, I’d like to see someone’s vision of that book hit theaters. I’d also like to see my version of A Wizard of Earthsea reach the big screen, as Ursula K. Le Guin loved my take on her beautiful novel, which meant a lot to me. Sadly, that script appears to be tangled up as well.
SF: What are the odds that we will see film adaptations of your novels?
NS: Everyone tells me how cinematic my books are, so—knock on wood—there’s a fair chance of this happening someday. But it’s important to realize that novels often take a long time to emerge from development hell. Both Ender’s Game and my dad’s book, Contact, are beloved SF novels. Both were published in 1985. And yet, the film version of Contact didn’t reach screens until 1997, and here in 2006 Ender’s Game is still stuck in development. That’s just a function of how the film industry works. As a writer, you have to take the long view.
SF: If it were to happen, would you want to write the screenplays?
NS: Well, I like adapting novels, so adapting my own would be twice the fun. There’s a balance you need to strike; you have to make changes and/or cuts from the original text, but you don’t want to lose the essence of what makes it good. I’d enjoy the challenge. At the same time, if another screenwriter had passion for the books and a vision I agreed with, that could work just as well.
SF: Back to your books. If you could collaborate with anyone on a novel, who would it be?
NS: Anyone? My dad. I’d have loved that. I think he would have enjoyed it too. While we agreed on most things, we didn’t see eye to eye on everything, and I think that tug of war would have fueled an interesting story. I’m sure I would have learned a lot from the experience. There are many writers I admire, but none I’d want to collaborate with more than him.
SF: Your first three novels are science fiction. Would you like to write in a different genre, and what would it be?
NS: That’s a question I ask myself a lot. On the one hand, I’m a big fan of SF because it’s forward looking and often asks important questions—it’s a privilege to be able to give back to a genre I’ve enjoyed so much over the years. At the same time, many of the novels that inspire me aren’t SF at all. I have ideas for books within the genre, and ideas for books with little or no SF/F element at all. Ideally, I’d like to be able to go back and forth. Iain M. Banks and Dan Simmons have been able to make this work. I don’t know if it’s been easy for them to do this sort of juggling act—I imagine it hasn’t. But I’d like to try it, so that’s a challenge I’m looking forward to down the line. Also, I’d very much like to try my hand at YA novels, as I like the idea of reaching younger readers who are first starting to ask the big questions about the world.
SF: What are you working on now?
NS: A few things: I’m contributing to a non-fiction book about science fiction technologies and how far we are from achieving them in reality. A game development company looks close to setting up a treatment I wrote, and they’re now seeing what I did as a series of videogames instead of just one, so I’m taking meetings on how we might expand the story. And I’m writing a new screenplay, a comedy, which is fun because it’s not quite like anything I’ve done before. There’s a fair amount of dark humor within my novels, and this is somewhat lighter, which I’m enjoying as a change of pace. And there’s more, but let me stop here before I drink myself into oblivion at the prospect of all the work I have to do.
SF: Who are some of your favorite writers?
NS: I’m glad you said “some” because I always forget people. Here’s a few that come to mind: Ry?nosuke Akutagawa, Iain Banks, Stephen Baxter, Martyn Bedford, Ray Bradbury, Raymond Carver, Jonathan Carroll, Susan Cooper, Michael Faber, Neil Gaiman, Chris Genoa, William Gibson, Stanley Kiesel, David Lapham, H.P. Lovecraft, Vladimir Nabokov, Chuck Palahniuk, Mike Resnick, Carl Sagan, John Scalzi, Martha Soukup, Chris Ware, Lyall Watson, Jack Womack, Roger Zelazny.
SF: Nick, is there anything else you would like our readers at Far Sector SFFH to know?
NS: Just that even though my characters might be antisocial, I actually do like to hear from people. Feel free to post on my blog (http://nicksagan.blogs.com) or visit my MySpace page (www.myspace.com/nicksagan). I won’t bite. And if you’re going to Worldcon this year, I hope you’ll track me down and say hello.
Thanks for a great interview, Shaun. This was fun.
Copyright © 2006 by Shaun Farrell. All Rights Reserved.