An Interview with David Gerrold (Part I of III)

Today I am pleased to interview science fiction legend David Gerrold, who has recently joined the HWA. David is the author of more than 50 novels, 12-plus television episodes, and several hundred articles, columns, and short stories. His credits include two of the most popular episodes of the original STAR TREK series ("The Trouble with Tribbles," "The Cloud Minders"), plus episodes of the STAR TREK animated series, LAND OF THE LOST, TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE, LOGAN'S RUN, and others. His on-going novel series, War Against the Chtorr, is nearly required reading for any science fiction fan, and his novelette The Martian Child earned him the Hugo and Nebula awards, and was later adapted as a film starring John Cusack.

Getting Started

JGF: David, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview, and welcome to the HWA. I know our membership will be as excited to read it as I am to conduct it.

DG: It’s an honor and a privilege to join. Let me explain.

After I made my first sale to television--about the time the check cleared--I became eligible to join the Writers Guild of America. This may have been one of the single most exciting accomplishments of my life, because now I could go to the meetings and sit in the same room as Rod Serling, Harlan Ellison, Paddy Chayefsky, Carl Foreman, Hal Kantor, Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, and so many others whose work I had admired so long. I was technically a “colleague.”

At my first Worldcon, I asked if I was eligible to join the Science Fiction Writers of America. That was an even bigger honor for me, because now I could justifiably pretend to be a colleague of Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Theodore Sturgeon, Damon Knight, Anne McCaffrey, Harry Harrison, and everybody else whose work had informed my adolescence.

I never thought of myself as a horror writer. But this past year, I realized I’ve written about a dozen short stories that could genuinely be called horror, so that qualifies me to join the HWA--and again, that’s the honor. I get to be a colleague with so many other authors who’ve scared the hell out of me more than once. So yes, thank you.

JGF: Let's get the big lumbering elephant out of the room right away. You said a while back that the next War Against the Chtorr book would come out before Obama finishes his second term. Is that still on track?

DG: Yes. The book will probably come in at 300,000 words. I’ve got more than 250,000 words finished. I know exactly what pieces still need to be written--there are two large sections in the middle. And my goal is to have it done in time to be available at the 2015 Worldcon. The hard part will be organizing all the various chapters and sections and pieces so that they’re in a coherent order. What I’ve finished is written in a style I call First Person Psychotic and the narrative is jumbled in time (as were several of the previous books) so it’s like putting a jigsaw puzzle together--only you have to create each piece as you go.

But yes, I think I’m on track. Although I have to admit that I do suffer from what I call “perfectionist’s block” ...

JGF: Now, we can get down to business. You mentioned once in an interview that you want every one of your stories to be different from every other, so that you're never typecast. Can you explain what you mean by that, and if you've been successful?

DG: Okay, two examples. The first goes back to an art class I took in college. Every Monday, we’d analyze the work of a particular artist. Henry Moore worked in smooth round shapes with holes in them. Roualt drew big black lines around everything. Seurat made pictures out of thousands of tiny points. Picasso flattened everything into overlapping planes. And so on. On Wednesday and Friday, we would attempt to paint or draw in that artist’s style. The intention of the entire semester was to exercise not only our drawing and painting muscles, but also to stretch the boundaries of the way we looked at what we were drawing and how we were drawing it.

Second example: The Beatles decided early on that they would never write the same song twice. And if you grew up with the Beatles and were experiencing their work chronologically as each new song came out--you’d be driving along and the radio would keep playing new songs and you’d say, “Hey, that’s an interesting sound, who is that?” And then the disc jockey would say, “That’s the new single from The Beatles,” and you’d freak out because "Hey Jude" was nothing like "Come Together" or "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," and so on.

So somewhere along the way, that same idea got stuck in my head. Sometimes I would put on my Heinlein hat or my Ellison hat or my Sturgeon hat or my Delaney hat--and I’d see if I could write something that evoked the same moods and feelings as those authors had consistently done. I wasn’t imitating their styles (that was impossible) as much as I was trying to evoke a specific flavor. Each time I did that, it was a learning experience because I had to stretch myself to look at writing and storytelling from a different perspective. Eventually, I found my own hat, which is probably like one of those Goofy hats you buy at Disneyland. I still subscribe to the idea of wearing a different hat for each story--but they’re all my hats now.

I had a pretty good grasp of plot and character and structure, right from the beginning, but I agonized over style for a long time--even after I’d had a dozen books published, I still didn’t understand style. Theodore Sturgeon taught me a marvelous trick that he called metric prose, and that helped a lot--I used it for Moonstar--but ultimately, I realized I’d been asking the wrong question.

It’s not about style, it’s about voice. What’s the right voice to use for this story? I’d been a Theatre Arts major and I did some acting in college, trying on different characters, different accents, different dialects, different body language, and so on. Acting is about becoming the character so completely that you believe it yourself, so completely that you can submerge into that person and generate him as needed. Writing inside a character requires that same skill, because the story is the character. You have to be an actor before you can be the writer. You have to become the story and when you can do that, the right voice generates from that emotional core--that’s the real secret of style. But you can only learn it by doing it.

The ironic part is this, I don’t think of myself as a stylist, because I think style should be invisible--but I had a fun moment when a friend of mine gave The Martian Child to his girlfriend. She loved it so much that she wanted to read something else by me. So he gave her thirteen o’clock. She said the two stories had to have been written by two different authors of the same name; she refused to believe that the same guy had written both. So he gave her Moonstar Odyssey. And I’m told he put a lot of stress on their relationship after he sat her down with “The Trouble with Tribbles.” I love that anecdote because it speaks to the success of the work in creating its own compelling reality.

JGF: How do you balance individuality between books with your distinct style, and the constraints of doing a series?

DG: I dunno. I just type. <g> I don’t know that I have a distinct style. I’m inside it. I can’t tell.

It’s what I said above. I put on the hat. I immerse myself in the feeling. I go swimming in the flavor. Pick your metaphor. If I can’t get into the feeling, I can’t type. It’s not writer’s block. I don’t believe in writer’s block. It’s something else.

Here’s an example. I was hired to write a script for the animated series THE REAL GHOSTBUSTERS. The outline was approved, but for three days I couldn’t start work on the script. I couldn’t find the voice. So I sat down with the laserdisc (remember those?) of the GHOSTBUSTERS movie, and about twenty minutes into it, I suddenly got Bill Murray’s voice--as an actor--and I ran to the typewriter (remember those?) and started typing. Once I had Bill Murray’s voice, Dan Ackroyd’s character fell into place, and all the others followed easily. That script and the next one I did for the show both turned out very well.

The same with STAR TREK. I hung around the set, I listened to the actors, I read every script I could get my hands on, I watched dailies, I watched finished episodes, and as soon as I could get the voices of the characters, I knew how to write their dialog.

With my own characters--especially those in the Chtorr series--I know that Jim is impatient and angry and curious and insecure, Ted is goofy and amoral, Foreman is detached and calculating, Lizard is disciplined and professional; but each of these characters also has a deeper part that gets revealed as the story unravels. A large part of the writing of any story is about stripping the layers off the heroes to find out who’s inside.

I’ve written a couple of stories where I’ve used myself as the narrator--I usually come off as the frustrated sitcom hero caught in a world that he doesn’t quite understand. Those are some of the goofiest and funniest stories I get to tell. "The Strange Disappearance and Equally Strange Reappearance of David Gerrold" is a good example. I just finished another one about the experiences of living with a troll in the back yard. I just dropped it in the mail to an editor yesterday.

JGF: In other interviews, you've said you got into movies and cartoons at a very early age, especially anything futuristic. Now, some people watch SF and drift towards the darker side of those movies--the scary aliens, the dark corners, the suspense. Others are caught by the science--the rockets, the computers, the ray guns. Which were you?

DG: I don’t deal well with suspense. By the way, neither did Alfred Hitchcock. There’s a famous story about how Alma was making a soufflé and Hitch went nearly crazy because he couldn’t open the oven to see how it was progressing. He couldn’t stand the suspense. <g>

My favorite movies when I was a kid were the classic SF pictures of the fifties and sixties: THEM!, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, WAR OF THE WORLDS, DESTINATION MOON, CONQUEST OF SPACE, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, FORBIDDEN PLANET, THIS ISLAND EARTH, and so on. My favorite cartoons were everything by Chuck Jones--especially Duck Amuck.

Now, mix all that with the works of Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Hal Clement, Arthur C. Clarke, Frederik Pohl, Cyril Kornbluth, Eric Frank Russell, John Wyndham, Murray Leinster, Philip K. Dick, A.E. Van Vogt, Robert Silverberg, etc. and you get a kid who’s fascinated with the engineering of the future as much as by the creatures who will inhabit it. I think about the engineering of the machines as much as the people who operate them. I have to believe in the whole world before I can believe in the story. That applies to everything I write as well as everything I read.

JGF: Sci-Fi and horror frequently overlap each other, such as the ALIEN movies, Lovecraft's Cthulhulian tales, and even Shelley's Frankenstein. When you add in action/adventure, there is even more blurring of lines. As someone who's written primarily in sci-fi but has dabbled in horror (TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE, "Night Train to Paris"), where do you feel those lines should be drawn, or should they be drawn at all?

DG: Tough question. Thanks.

For me, a very simplistic definition of horror is that something terrible remains unknown or beyond the realm of understanding, even after the story is finished. I know that there are other, and better, definitions of horror, but that’s the kind of horror that scares me the most.

I wrote an evil little story for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction called "Chester." It’s about a little girl who is being stalked by something that’s attacking her through her dreams. Chester is a little dog who’s supposed to protect her while she sleeps. (I modeled him after one of my own dogs.) The story has a recognizable punch line, “I think we’re going to need a bigger dog,” so some readers dismissed it too quickly as a joke, but if you’ve read the story and you start to think about it, the more you think about it, the creepier it gets. I never answered the question what was attacking the little girl. And if you think about her reaction--we need a bigger dog--then you have to ask, why isn’t she mourning Chester’s death? What’s really wrong with this kid? What’s really going on here?

So for me, a really good horror story isn’t about answering the question--it’s about asking it and leaving it festering in the reader’s head for a long time afterward.

And, yes--I can immediately think of exceptions. "Two Bottles of Relish," "The Tell-Tale Heart," "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." And those are very effective pieces, no question. But what scares me the most is the quality of not-knowing.

JGF: In the horror or dark fiction genre, what are your reading preferences? Do you prefer suspense, supernatural, a touch of humor with your terror, buckets of gore, or all of it?

DG: It’s easier for me to point to specific authors. I always loved Charlie Grant’s work and I miss him a lot, both as an author and as a friend. Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, some of Ray Bradbury’s work--all those guys, of course. More recently, Thomas Harris--I loved Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs. But the scariest story I ever read was by Stephen King, writing as Richard Bachman. The Long Walk. I get exhausted just thinking about it. If someone ever does a movie version, I won’t go see it--I’d be terrified of getting a heart attack.

There are a lot of other writers I could name, far more recent, but I haven’t been able to keep up with all the great work in horror and I don’t want to slight anybody by leaving someone out. I apologize for that.

JGF: What types of stories did you like to read most as a boy?

DB: Heinlein juveniles, of course. Do you really have to ask? <g>

I read everything I could get my hands on. Back in those days, there wasn’t a lot of overt horror, but for a while there were some truly wonderful comic books coming out of E.C. Remember those?

Tales from the Crypt was one of my favorites. I loved the horror comics. They were a break in that nice safe fantasyland where everything has a happy ending. Instead of little forest creatures helping with the housework until Prince Charming rides you off to the castle in the sky, you’ve got swamp creatures and zombies and things crawling up out of the grave. I remember one where a guy gets turned into an alligator, and another where the hero goes to a very strange gambling house--and the chips aren’t money, they’re the years of your life, and when you lose your last chip, the beautiful woman beside you suddenly has a skull for a face--you’re dead. I loved the E.C. comics because they were dangerous. They scared the crap out of you.

Then that asshole Fredric Wertham came along with his dreadful bit of scare-mongering piece of shit, The Seduction Of The Innocent, and pretty much killed the whole genre. I think that was about the time I started outgrowing comics, because they could no longer be as ambitious.

JGF: You're an acknowledged huge fan of many classic sci-fi writers, such as Heinlein, Pohl, and others. Do you still read heavily in the SF genre now? What about outside the genre?

DB: I still read science fiction, yes, there are so many great writers working in the field now; but I’ve also expanded my interests. I follow a couple of detective series now; I love a good suspense story, especially if the twists are clever. And I’ve gone back and revisited some of the classics by Dickens and Dumas and Victor Hugo and Jules Verne and H.G. Wells; also Edgar Allan Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Right now, if you went prowling through my bookcases, you wouldn’t be able to find a specific theme. I’m reading “outside the box” to shake up my thinking about what’s possible.

JGF: Do you do a lot of research for your novels/stories? Do you ever find yourself getting caught up in the research, to the point where you lose track of time?

DG: Yes. All the time. It’s a virtue, but I can live with it.

The Internet is a curse, you know. It’s like having the entire library at your fingertips. Before we had this convenience, writing involved lots of magazine subscriptions and occasional trips to the library--and I don’t mean the local library, I mean the central library downtown. And bookstores, too! New bookstores, used bookstores--everything. I had a mental map of every used bookstore and every specialty bookstore in the San Fernando Valley, Hollywood, downtown L.A., Santa Monica, and even Long Beach. At least once a month, I would go on a personal safari from one to the next.

With the Internet at your fingertips, you have access to so much information it’s overwhelming. But it’s the greatest tool ever. You can check the details, the facts, the spelling, the history, of any detail you want to include in a sentence, so there’s no longer any excuse for getting it wrong. (I’ve double-checked over a hundred different things just writing my answers for this interview.)

But let me give you a specific example about what research can do to a story. When I started writing The War Against the Chtorr, I expected it to be a quick and easy adventure story--but the more I thought about the nature of the Chtorran ecology, the more it grew. The more details I wanted to include, the more complex the ecology became. And the more I learned about the interrelationships of species, of plants and animals, apex predators, and all the other stuff, the whole problem expanded exponentially, because I wanted to include it all.

But you can’t. I love watching the Discovery Channel, NOVA, the National Geographic Channel, the various science channels, documentaries of all kind. Sometimes you get multiple perspectives on the same story. Here--think about African migrations and how the herds are following the grasses, which are determined by the rainy seasons, and how the predators’ breeding cycles are geared to the availability of the migrating herds, and how the vultures and the hyenas have a co-dependent relationship, and why the giraffes and the zebras travel with the wildebeest, and how the crocodiles in the Mara River gorge themselves only once or twice a year, but that’s enough because--

--and that’s when you begin to realize that you can’t portray a whole ecology, not even in seven books. The best you can do is take a few snapshots as a way of intimating that everything is far more complex than you have the time to reveal. And that doesn’t even address how the elephants help to dig water holes and how the dung beetles make it possible for the grass to grow and--but you get the idea, right?

I think that’s one of the reasons why some science fiction writers have moved on to science-fantasy or even outright fantasy. It’s impossible to keep up with science. Scientific knowledge is expanding at a rate faster than any one person can assimilate. If you try to do the research because you want to include as much as possible, you’ll end up spending all your time researching and end up doing very little time writing.

But I love the research. That’s one of my fatal flaws. I love the surprises of exploration and discovery.



Stay tuned for Part 2 of the interview in the April issue of the newsletter!


For more information about David Gerrold, and to see a complete list of all his works, visit his personal Web page, http://www.davidgerrold.com or his Wikipedia page, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Gerrold. To follow David on social media, you can find him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/david.gerrold/, and on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/David_Gerrold. As he says, follow at your own risk!