Shaun Farrell interviews Martha Wells
Shaun's QuadrantMarch 2006
Martha Wells’ first novel, The Element of Fire, was published by Tor in 1993 and was nominated for the Comptom Crook/Stephen Tall Award and the Crawford Award. Her third novel, The Death of the Necromancer, received a nomination for the Nebula Award in 1998 and prompted C. J. Cherryh to call Wells “one of the best new writers the field has to offer.” Martha has written several other fantasy novels and recently penned a Stargate Atlantis novel (Stargate Atlantis: Reliquary: ISBN: 0954734378) soon available for order through Amazon which she discusses in detail below. Martha has published short stories in various magazines, including Realms of Fantasy, and her books have been translated into eight languages. To learn more about her work, please visit marthawells.com. Also, to learn more about other novels set in the Stargate universe, please visit the publisher’s website at stargatenovels.com.
Shaun Farrell: How did you get involved with the folks at Fandemonium who publish Stargate novels?
Martha Wells: I've known Julie Fortune for a long time, and I had read her SG-1 novel Sacrifice Moon when it first came out and really enjoyed it. When I was talking to her about it at an AggieCon, she gave me the contact information for Fandemonium, and I decided to contact them and see if they would be interested in me doing a book. I had just finished the final novel in the fantasy trilogy I had been writing for HarperCollins Eos (The Gate of Gods), and I was looking for a new project and wanted to do something different.
I had also been an SG-1 fan for years and years and I had really enjoyed the first season of Atlantis, so it seemed like it would be a lot of fun.
SF: The people working at Fandemonium really seem to love the Stargate universe. What was it like to work with them?
MW: My editor knew a lot about the series, so it was fun tossing ideas back and forth for the revised version of the proposal. And it was a really nice change working with a small publisher that wasn't doing umpty-zillion books simultaneously.
SF: What was the initial inspiration for Reliquary?
MW: It's been so long I'm not really sure I remember. I know I wanted to do a story focusing on Sheppard and McKay. They're my favorite characters, the actors are wonderful and have great chemistry together, and their snarky relationship is really fun. The original idea I had was for a story that took place in the city of Atlantis, but that one wasn't working out for me, so I basically started again with the premise of them finding a strange place, having to investigate it, and the kinds of things that might happen.
SF: You make many references to first season Atlantis stories and Stargate SG-1 episodes. These flashbacks, so to speak, help put sections of your novel in context, but how did you decide which episodes to use as reference?
MW: The SG-1 episode, "The Torments of Tantalus," is one of my all time favorites for the series, and when I re-watched it I realized some elements would fit in perfectly with the story I was trying to develop. The Atlantis episodes I chose were ones that I thought showed very important moments of character development, and I wanted to give a sense of what the characters had been through up to this point, how those incidents had altered them, and what they were up against in being trapped in the Pegasus galaxy with no contact or support from Earth.
SF: You seem to really understand the characters and how they respond to each other. Did that come naturally for you, or was it something you labored over to create?
MW: I watched the first season of SGA when it first aired before I had any idea that I would be doing the book, and I felt like I already had a good understanding of the characters from that. The laboring part came in trying to capture the speech patterns and the distinctive elements of the actors' performances in prose form. That was hard, and it took me a while to get up to speed on that, and a lot of rewriting.
SF: Which character did you most enjoy portraying and why?
MW: It was definitely Sheppard. I like the fact that with him you have a character that has a quirky sense of humor, who has great relationships with the other characters, but who is also capable of being cold and ruthless.
SF: I’m just guessing here, but I have to assume that, given your background in anthropology, that you have a soft spot for Daniel Jackson when it comes to your favorite SG-1 character.
MW: Actually I think my favorite SG-1 character is probably Jack. Though I like all the characters and really enjoy the relationships, the banter, and the way they care about each other.
SF: How do you think Stargate handles stories heavily themed with archeology and mythology? Does the show portray those fields accurately?
MW: Well, the theory that Daniel Jackson is propounding at the beginning of the original Stargate movie is a complete fallacy. Also their take on the Egyptian gods is pretty inaccurate. The idea of mortals being playthings for gods is really more from Greek mythology. The actual ancient Egyptian religion is very complicated and changed and developed a great deal over time and doesn't bear much resemblance at all to what the show does with it. It's still fun, but I tend to think of the mythology they use as being from an alternate universe, and not this one.
SF: Stories involving the Ancients are some of my favorite Stargate episodes, and Atlantis has many of them given the premise of the show. What was it about the Ancients that made you want to write a story revolving around them?
MW: It's just a very interesting premise to me, that the Atlantis expedition inhabits what's basically a living working archeological relic and that there's so much they don't know about it yet. And there's still a lot that they haven't revealed about the Ancients yet, so it gives you some room to play with story ideas.
SF: Turning to Reliquary, there is something truly terrifying about having a character’s body transformed because of some kind of parasite, and Stargate has certainly used this fear effectively with the Goa’uld. You put one of the main characters through a metamorphosis that is, in many ways, quite horrific. Why does this type of event have such power over a reader? Why does it generate such fear?
MW: I think it generates fear because in modern culture it works as an analogy to cancer. Something appears inside your body and starts growing, and there's often no explanation for why it happened, very little you can do about it, and it could be killing you. And unwilling metamorphosis is a concept that's present all through the history of mythology and folklore. A lot of cultures have were-animal myths and stories, which are often frightening analogies for disease and insanity. It represents something happening to your body or your mind that you can't control, and that's scary on a very basic level.
SF: You put the Atlantis team through the wringer, and yet you restore the norm of the universe in a very natural way. None of it felt forced whatsoever. Was it difficult for you to create tension without the freedom to alter the characters in major ways?
MW: No, it wasn't really difficult. I think the changes are there in the characters throughout the first season, so it was just a question of fitting the book into the tensions that were already present.
SF: Would you like to revisit the Stargate universe by writing another novel? If so, which would you prefer: Atlantis or Stargate SG-1?
MW: Yes, I'd like too, and I'd definitely choose Atlantis again. I've got a couple of different ideas for stories, but I haven't decided on one yet. It would definitely center on Sheppard and McKay again, and I'd like to get more of Teyla in it too.
SF: What is your favorite memory from the time you spent writing Reliquary?
MW: That's a tough one. It's probably the weekend after I finished it, when a friend came up to visit and I could relax and celebrate.
SF: How different was your approach to writing this book versus your fantasy novels?
MW: I don't think the approach was all that different. Writing already established characters can be a challenge, but I really enjoyed it. It was fascinating writing a world that was already so well developed. And it's a neat experience, being able to pop in a tape and actually look at the imaginary place that you're writing about.
SF: I know that for your fantasy novels you research extensively. How did you apply your research techniques when preparing for Reliquary?
MW: I think I used somewhat different research techniques because I research my fantasy novels using mostly print sources, and for Atlantis I used more web sites, especially for information on the weapons, etc. There are also some fantastic Stargate fan sites with episode guides, timelines, information on the equipment and technology that were just indispensable. The problem with Atlantis is that it's based on all the years of SG-1 canon, and I had to keep that in mind and try to be as accurate as possible. I had some friends (the people I thanked at the beginning of the book), who were also long time SG-1 and Atlantis fans, who helped me with research, and I just wouldn't have been able to do it without their help.
SF: Science fiction on television seems to be in a flux right now. With a franchise like Star Trek struggling and inventive shows like Firefly being cancelled prematurely, what is it about Stargate that has kept fans excited for the past nine years?
MW: I really don't know. I know why the show appeals to me -- the humor, the quirky characters, the relationships, the adventure elements. I also really like the way they depict strong, warm male-female friendships and working relationships. When I was growing up in the seventies, there wasn't a lot of that on TV, and the only reason women were present on action-adventure shows was to be the sex/love interest for the male characters, and they never seemed to have their own stories. I think female characters have further to go still on TV, but for me it's really nice to see women who are depicted as actual people and who get to save the day on a regular basis.
I enjoyed Enterprise and really loved Firefly a lot too and wished it had had more of a chance to build an audience. I was also very disappointed when Farscape was cancelled.
SF: What authors have inspired you the most?
MW: Andre Norton and Robert Heinlein were probably the biggest two influences as I was growing up. I also loved reading Dorothy Sayers and Josephine Tey. And I've been reading SF and fantasy for as long as I can remember. My favorites for a long time have been Barbara Hambly, Lois McMaster Bujold, Tanith Lee, and Judith Tarr.
SF: What are you working on right now?
MW: I'm working on a new fantasy novel and some prequel short stories centering on a couple of the main characters from my fantasy trilogy. The fantasy magazine Black Gate is publishing two of the stories, and I'm hoping to do a couple of others for them.
SF: What are you reading right now?
MW: I'm reading Wizards at War by Diane Duane, and I just finished reading Chill Factor by Rachel Caine.
SF: Do you want to write books set in genres other than SF and fantasy? If so, what kind of book would you write?
MW: I'm really the most interested in SF and fantasy, but if I did do something in another genre, it would be a mystery. I read a huge amount of mysteries, and several of my fantasies have had strong mystery plots, like The Death of the Necromancer.
SF: Martha, is there anything else you would like our readers at Far Sector SFFH to know?
MW: Just that my web site is http://www.marthawells.com, and the first chapter of Reliquary is posted there as a sample. Also, the conclusion to my fantasy trilogy was just published in November. (The three books in the trilogy are The Wizard Hunters, The Ships of Air, and The Gate of Gods.) For SG-1 fans, I also had an SG-1 short story called "Archeology 101" in the January/February issue of Stargate Magazine.