Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Interview: Jeanne Cavelos

It is no exaggeration to say that Jeanne Cavelos has had the biggest influence upon the structure and scope of the Babylon 5 universe only after its creator and head writer, Joe Michael Straczynski; to put it in Star Trek terms, she is Bobby Justman to JMS’s Gene Roddenberry.

Formerly an astrophysicist at NASA’s Astronaut Training Division in the Johnson Space Center, Jeanne left her life in science to pursue her dream of writing, ultimately attaining an MFA in creative writing from American University. To make ends meet until she “hit it big,” she landed a job as a senior editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell, where she started a horror imprint – and where she pitched doing a series of media tie-in novels with the burgeoning sci-fi series B5.

The twist, of course, is that she would be asked to pen some of the books herself: the standalone The Shadow Within (1997), explaining the backstories of both Anna Sheridan and Mr. Morden, and the Passing of the Techno-mage trilogy (2001), a prologue to the B5 sequel series, Crusade. Her narrative influence is, thus, both quantitative as well as qualitative: she not only has written the most novels set in Straczynski’s universe, they also have had the biggest impact upon the series’s five seasons and spinoff material, from telefilms to, of course, Crusade. It is in Passing that we learn the entire Shadow War is meant to turn on the mages, on their allegiance to and fighting for one side or another; that a sweeping history of the Vorlons and Shadows is given while concurrently taking a nitty-gritty look at the mechanics of their societies; that the only Babylon 5 installment to feature the techno-mages, “The Geometry of Shadows” (episode 203), is turned on its head and revealed to be something quite at odds with its initial appearance.

And this is where I first met her. After kindly reading a column last year dissecting the deft narrative footwork of her trilogy – and repeatedly invoking Straczynski’s brilliance for fashioning its outline the way he did – Jeanne struck up a conversation with me about her intentions and goals with her novels, generally, and that story thread, specifically. “I wanted to do more with [‘The Geometry of Shadows’] than just reproduce the episode in book form,” she said. “I also had a problem reconciling the basic nature of the techno-mages (in my view, anyway) with their actions in the episode. I couldn't believe they'd make their withdrawal from the galaxy so public. I felt the events of the episode had to be a misdirection, hiding their real actions.”

And with that, in one fell swoop, she simultaneously shattered my view of Straczynski’s handling of his own storied and involved creation and immensely reinforced my appreciation of her narrative instincts and storytelling prowess. I just had to know more, to discern where her voice ended and Straczynski’s (seamlessly) began.

Continuing from our conversation, you have the robe Elric wears in “The Geometry of Shadows” be a present from Isabelle and tie it into the characters and relationships you created for the novels. Why include such a highly specific detail such as this?

First, I'd just like to let you and your readers know that I wrote both The Shadow Within and the Passing of the Techno-mages trilogy some years ago, so my memory is fuzzy. Many details have faded from my mind, and I don't remember my thoughts at every stage of the writing process. I'll answer as best as I can, though.

In many ways, the writing of the trilogy was an exercise in writing backwards. I knew what Galen was like in Crusade, which occurs years after my trilogy. I had to work backwards to figure out how he had become that person and how he would behave and think as a younger man. I knew what Elric was like in "The Geometry of Shadows," and I had to work backwards to figure out how he behaved before that point and how he interacted with Galen.

Not only did I work backwards with the characters, but also with other elements, such as the robe. I looked at the elements that existed in the future and tried to either understand their significance or imbue them with significance. The death of Isabelle is a major trauma for Galen, and I wanted it to mean something to Elric also, to give more emotion to the characters and story. I could have had Isabelle give Elric some cufflinks, but the future of "The Geometry of Shadows" shows us no cufflinks. Rather than inserting some foreign element, I thought it would be more powerful to work with what existed in the future and give it additional meaning. Thus, I decided to make the robe, which the TV viewer had probably given little thought, an important part of his history.

I think readers of media tie-in novels enjoy it when something that has appeared in the TV series or movie gains additional meaning in the novel. I always enjoyed that.

You make Morden, who is a straight villain in the television series, into something of an Anakin Skywalker – a bright and decent individual who has his emotional vulnerabilities manipulated and exploited by a race of dark beings out for conquest. You’ve mentioned the desire to portray him as a shade of grey, like all the other Babylon 5 characters, as the reason behind this depiction, but I’m interested in the specific thought process you undertook to arrive at the character that we see in your four novels. What did that entail, and what do you feel the resultant character adds to your books?

Well, I felt that one of my jobs in writing The Shadow Within was to show how the Shadows worked, how they could corrupt people with the question, "What do you want?" If Morden was evil from the beginning of the novel, and he ran into the Shadows and allied with them, that would not show the corrupting influence of the Shadows. Morden would already be corrupt. It also wouldn't make the Shadows scary, which I think they are and should be. It would just make them bad guys allying with another bad guy. But the Shadows aren't just bad guys. They are frightening because they can turn good people bad by playing on our desires. And we all have desires. They offer temptation.

It also didn't seem like a good idea to make Morden's desires petty and selfish. For example, if he was greedy and the Shadows promised him money, Morden's fall wouldn't seem particularly tragic or carry much emotion with it. I wanted his fall to be tragic, so that every time you saw him or read about him, you would feel bad about what had happened to him. That meant his desire had to be understandable, something we could sympathize with. And that's how Morden became the character in the books.

Galen discovers a whole host of Shadow-related powers, including the ability to cover himself in the skin from the Shadow vessels and to fire their laser beams from his palms. I would ordinarily assume this was a contribution from your end, but it jives so thoroughly and perfectly with the proposed first season finale for Crusade, “The End of the Line,” in which Captain Gideon and Galen discover that EarthForce is creating an entire army of Shadow soldiers with the same abilities.

I honestly can't remember when I put those elements into the trilogy. I was able to read the script for "The End of the Line," but I think I didn't gain that access until near the end of my writing process, so it didn't affect things too much. The general nature of Galen's powers grew out of my thoughts about Anna Sheridan being incorporated into the Shadow ship, and the techno-mages being a better incorporation of human and Shadow-tech. The idea that the techno-mages were created by the Shadows to be super-powerful agents of chaos evolved very early in my thoughts about the trilogy. But I'm not sure when the various specific abilities came into the books, or whether I came up with those two myself or took that information from JMS's script.

The single most fascinating and ingenious element to come out of the trilogy is the mages’ different spell languages. Walk us down the path of its creation. Was it mostly a pragmatic device to tell your story the way you wanted to, or was it a conceptual item that jumped out at you right away, even before you started to outline?

In my outlining, as soon as I realized Galen was going to discover an extremely powerful spell, I knew I had to have a strong explanation for his discovery, and the explanation I came up with was the different spell languages. I needed to explain why Galen could discover a spell that no other mage had ever discovered, and I needed to explain why other mages still couldn't perform the spell even after he discovered it. That meant the way he accessed the Shadow tech was different than the way other mages accessed it. This appealed to me as a writer, because it offered a new way of revealing the personalities of the various mages. Their spell languages revealed how they thought. This also made sense to me, since the tech was intimately connected with their bodies and minds. As a scientist and mathematician, I had fun developing Galen's rigid, mathematical spell language, and I think it helped to show his character.

Okay, bear with me here for a moment. It seems to me that the dominant theme of The Passing of the Techno-mages is the connection between a culture and its mores with its technology, how the one is shaped and made manifest by the other. The Shadows and the Vorlons, the most ancient of the ancient, predicate their spacecraft and tools and allies to operate on absolute obedience (even though one race is dedicated to pure chaos). The techno-mages, caught in the middle, also fall into the trap of thinking they have to similarly dominate their tech, but Galen proves that a purely symbiotic relationship is possible by operating on mutual respect, not subservience – which resonates strongly with B5’s narrative of the younger races eschewing the philosophies of their “parents” and creating a third, independent path. How conscious were you of this thematic motif while in the writing process? And did you deliberately attempt to make it as complementary as it is to the main series?

I agree that's one of the major themes of the trilogy. I was troubled by the fact that the Shadows were so oppressive and authoritarian, which seems to contradict their belief in chaos. So I attempted to make the techno-mages agents of chaos. The chaos is imposed upon the hosts of the Shadow tech, but at least it is chaos and not order.

Some of the wonderful things JMS does in the series reflect the techniques that great writers use. For example, one of the most important traits of any character is his desire – his answer to "What do you want?" So making that a key element in the series creates very strong characters. A great climax will often have the protagonist choosing a third path that is not either of the two the reader or viewer is anticipating. JMS does a wonderful job with that at the climax of B5, because it seems humanity must choose either the Vorlons or the Shadows, but instead they choose their own way. This was definitely in my mind as I wrote the trilogy. The mages also seem to face two alternatives: they must either succumb to the Shadow tech or completely repress the tech, but neither answer is the right one. The tech is part of Galen, for better or worse, and if he can find a way to live with it, that would be much preferable to the other alternatives. Similarly, we all have destructive, chaotic characteristics, and if we can find a way to accept them and live with them without succumbing to them, we can experience some measure of peace.

The fact that the tech itself was alive and had a will of its own allowed Galen to find this third path.

Do you think Straczynski would’ve allowed you to make such sweeping changes and additions to his universe – such as essentially killing off the techno-mage order – had Crusade not been cancelled before you started writing? Was there any kind of communication or intimation in this regard?

I don't know JMS's thought processes, so I can't really answer this question. I wrote a ridiculously long scene-by-scene outline for the trilogy and showed it to him, and he gave his approval, so he was aware of what I was up to from early in the process. That is not an element we discussed, as far as I remember. My suspicion is that he might have thought he would come up with some way to explain the resurgence of the techno-mages, in the event he ever needed more of them for a new TV series or movie.

I did work some with Peter David, who had several techno-mage characters in his trilogy. He had a few things in the draft of his trilogy that contradicted my trilogy – different techno-mage terminology and the techno-mages were not dying out – but I filled him in on my evil plans for the techno-mages, and he made everything consistent with that. I dropped his techno-mage characters into my trilogy to add continuity, and it was fun to have my characters insult his characters. Peter did a lot of development of the Drakh in his trilogy, so he shared that information with me, and I tried to make my Drakh consistent with his.

You took a book series that was supposed to revolve solely around an isolated and mostly irrelevant group of characters and expanded it to be a literally indispensable part of the B5 mythos – without the techno-mages’ involvement, the Shadows never would’ve (inadvertently) discovered that the wife of John Sheridan, the “nexus” of their enemy’s forces, was already sitting right in their laps, making the last two seasons of the show impossible. Even more, a summation of Lorien’s involvement in the beginning of the Great Wars, a description of the Drakh’s religion (and how the Shadows fit within it), and a brief encapsulation of the Vorlons’ society are all also included. How and why did this narrative expansion come about? And how much input did Straczynski provide in this regard?

JMS definitely wanted Galen to play a critical role in the Shadow War, not to be irrelevant. It was his idea that Galen would deactivate the Eye on the Shadows’ home planet, allowing John Sheridan to make his attack with the White Star. He also wanted Elric's visit to Babylon 5 to be incorporated into the trilogy, creating a strong connection between the techno-mages and the B5 crew. He clearly wanted to show the techno-mages as part of the wider B5 universe, even though they were often doing things that most B5 characters were unaware of. Figuring out how to tie the techno-mages to the larger universe was tricky at times. Developing the Anna Sheridan plotline more was very appealing to me, since I had previously become attached to her character writing The Shadow Within. Using the wider perspectives of Lorien and Kosh helped to tie various plots together. I think the Drakh development was simply a necessity of the plot, since the Drakh play an important part in the story, and that reflected some of the material provided by Peter David.

How did you tap into another writer’s psyche so totally and so fundamentally? In reading the trilogy, it’s as if you’re channeling Straczynski and his sensibilities – your additions to his universe fit so flawlessly. Was this something intuitive and instinctive, or was it a slow and deliberate process?

Thank you. I loved the show and felt a resonance with many of JMS's themes and characters. I guess that helped. I watched the relevant episodes of Babylon 5 and Crusade many, many times, making a lot of notes and writing down much of the dialogue so I could capture how the different characters moved and spoke. I think the main reason why the trilogy may fit well into the universe is that JMS provided me with an absolutely awesome story to tell – techno-mages using Shadow tech, caught in the middle of the war. I was so excited and inspired by that, I threw myself into it totally and tried to create something worthy of that story, something that I could believe in, that dealt with themes important to me, and that fit into JMS's universe and did justice to his characters and themes.

(You can find Jeanne’s website here and information about Odyssey, her annual writing workshop, here.)

This piece is part of Marc N. Kleinhenz's The Babylon Project series of articles, which comprises essays, reviews, and interviews. The other items can be found here:

The Passing of the Techno-mages and the expansion of previous narratives
November 2009
Blue Buddha

The Lost Tales and the undermining of worldbuilding
December 2009
Blue Buddha

The Shadow Within, The Passing of the Techno-mages, and the role of technology in love
January 2010

The history of Babylon, from Babylon 5 and Babylon Prime to Crusade
February 2010

Sandy Bruckner and the dream of fandom
May 2010

Patricia Tallman, Lyta Alexander, and the path to extremism
June 2010

Matthew Gideon and the apocalypse
July 2010

Maggie Egan, ISN Jane, and the craftsmanship of delivery
August 2010

History and metatheater in the world of Babylon
December 2010

Joe Michael Straczynski and the dark side of Babylon 5
January 2010


alex-ness said...

Very fine work sir.

Alex said...

Great interview. It is amazing to see the processes of a writer utilize while moving in someone else's territory. I appreciate those thoughts immensely, being a starting writer myself.

As a B5 fan, I would love to read more Babylon 5 novels by Jeanne or Peter. Loved all of them!