Part of our mission at FAN/FIC Magazine is to highlight amazing fan creators and pull back the curtain on their creative processes. For our fourth interview, I talked to Leslie E. Owen, a literary agent and lifelong Star Trek fan. In the following interview, we discussed the emotional impact of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, why the J. J. Abrams reboots are “eminently forgettable,” and how talking to people at the fishmonger’s can help you write compelling characters.
Malory Beazley: So, Leslie, your Twitter bio says “Author, literary agent, fan of Gene’s Star Trek.” Tell us a bit more about yourself.
Leslie E. Owen: I’m a New Englander, born and bred, grew up in Connecticut with every summer in Maine. My paternal grandmother was a famous children’s librarian who wrote for Publishers Weekly and the NY Herald Tribune, so I grew up in houses filled with books and writers. I went to the University of Arizona as a physics & astronomy major, with the intent of making a career in the Air Force (thanks to Star Trek). However, writing pulled me out of physics and an injury out of the AF, so I graduated with a BA in Creative Writing & English Literature. During that time I worked with the Arizona Opera Company and wrote my first libretto, which was partially composed by Richard Faith.
After graduation I got my first job as an editorial assistant with Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich. In publishing, I have worked as an acquisitions editor, literary agent, international publishing rep, freelance reviewer and writer for Publishers Weekly, and film scout for Nevelco. I’ve lived in Greensboro, NC and Vancouver, BC, and I currently live in Pensacola, FL, where I teach ESE kids in high school and run my own literary agency. Our first sf novel was published last year, Edge of Heaven by R B Kelly. I’ve been married and divorced, and I have two adult children. I have two cats, Duncan (a Bengal) and Ole (a red and white tabby).
MB: It’s funny how a fandom can influence some of our big life decisions. I also studied astronomy at university, but quickly changed to Film Studies because I realized my love of space actually came from watching Star Wars and Apollo 13. I’m curious to hear more about your relationship to the Star Trek fandom. I see you are a featured guest at Treklanta and it’s obvious the series plays an important role in your identity.
LEO: On September 8, 1966, I was eight years old and living in Milford, CT. My father, who was a physical oceanographer, had said a “science” show was going to be on TV, and gave me permission to stay up past my bedtime to see it. That was Star Trek, and I have been a Trek fan ever since. How did it impact me? Well, it gave me hope for the future — my future — at a time when I was suffering. It made science cool, and it gave me the first female role model with whom I could identify — Lieutenant Uhura, who was brave and smart and when she spoke, all those guys turned around to listen to her.
It also — since I was already writing stories — showed me story in an important way. In fact, it was the Trek episode, “The Conscience of the King,” which I saw on reruns again in high school in the ’70s, which helped me understand deep characterization and motivation. In watching Star Trek: The Original Series this past year, for the first time in a long time, I’m struck by how brilliant it was and what they accomplished on a budget of next-to-nothing. I’m also a big The Next Generation fan. My relationship to DS9, Voyager, and Enterprise is to specific episodes, rather than to each series as a whole.
Four years ago, after I saw Star Trek Into Darkness and was livid, I began writing as a journalist/blogger about Trek and where it had gone wrong. With my partner, we exposed Bob Orci’s firing 45 days before the national media took it up, and have consistently written about the issues with the universe, with Star Trek Beyond, with Star Trek Discovery, and with the current financial crisis of Paramount and Viacom. I’ve supported independent films, I was involved as a supporter and blogger for Axanar, and I’ve been a guest at several conventions on Trek panels and the Trek radio show, Tribbles and Trilobites. I will be a featured guest at Treklanta in April, where I’ll be on a panel with my friend (and former client) David Gerrold.
MB: That’s wonderful how TOS gave you “hope for the future.” Is this your favourite series? And do you have a favourite character?
LEO: My favourite series is Star Trek: The Next Generation, very closely followed by The Original Series. My two favourite films are Star Trek The Motion Picture and First Contact. My favourite character is William Riker, followed by Picard and then the TOS characters of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Uhura. Least favourite character: The entire Kelvin universe.
MB: Haha. I’m more of a *gasp* casual Star Trek fan, so I have a hard time wrapping my brain around prime universes and Kelvin timelines and… whoa, my head is spinning already. What is it about Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek in particular that you admire?
LEO: It’s Gene’s vision of the future and Gene’s vision of Star Trek that I remain a fan of. The Federation was created to be a place where humanity has evolved out of want and prejudice, and exists for the peaceful exploration of space and the betterment of the individual. As a kid growing up in the ’60s, where so many doors were shut because of my gender, my orientation, and my religion, the future of Star Trek was a fantasy I hoped could come true. I still believe in the power of Gene’s universe to shape our science and our future — I had a wonderful discussion about this with some NASA astronauts at the Miami SF Film Festival — but Star Trek as a whole and Gene’s universe in particular is under constant threat by those who want to turn it into just another boring science fantasy. I’m looking directly at you, Les Moonves.
MB: Yikes, don’t get me started on that guy. So, tell me then, what are your feelings about CBS’ upcoming Discovery series? What about crowd-funded fan campaigns like Axanar? And I’d love to hear your thoughts about the J. J. Abrams (et al) reboots…
LEO: Like many average fans, I was excited about the 2009 Star Trek. I didn’t understand the concept of “reboot,” nor did I understand all of the skulduggery that had occurred behind the scenes, which was an active attempt to destroy Gene’s universe, by replacing it with Abrams’ Trek and vaulting all the original Trek series. Abrams’ movies are like roller coaster rides at a carnival: some cheap thrills, eminently forgettable. I was puzzled by many of the inconsistencies in the script and I didn’t like that they’d turned Kirk into a whiny juvenile delinquent and Spock into a hormonal teenager.
Then I saw Into Darkness, and I was incensed by its fascist underpinnings, its complete negation of Gene’s ideals, and its Truther B.S. (courtesy of Bob Orci, who is a Truther). That anger (I’m a New Yorker; I know people who died in 9/11) led me to write my first piece on what Star Trek represents. My journalism partner contacted me on Facebook and then I was contacted by a source at CBS. I’ve been writing about this story ever since.
Journalists from the regular media follow my partner and I, and we’ve been contacted by many from all over the world. We broke the news of the CBS series three years ago and were mocked for it. Sadly, when Les Moonves fired Bryan Fuller, the series changed from being in Gene’s original universe to being this unholy mashup of J. J. costumes, sets, and characters. I no longer support Star Trek Discovery. (I’m not alone. CBS All Access has lost 50% of its customers. CBS product sales is down by 20-30%, and the viewers who saw the first episode walked out. CBS, Viacom, and Paramount are in big trouble financially.)
I support Axanar because it’s real Trek. I’m a friend of Alec Peters and Rob Burnett. I provided Axanar with legal support through the OTW during the lawsuit. I think the CBS guidelines are bunk, and sooner or later someone is going to challenge their legality. I have no issues with anyone at all in the Trek independent fan film community.
MB: Something else that interested me was a comment you made on our “Writing Magic: Politicizing Fan Culture” article, in which you mentioned taking part in the fan letter-writing campaign to save the original Star Trek series. That is incredibly cool. Can you talk more about how you came to participate in the campaign?
LEO: I was ten in 1968 and devastated to learn that Star Trek was going to be cancelled. It was one of my favourite shows. There was a lot of publicity about the letter-writing campaign, so I sent my letter in to NBC to support Star Trek. Not that it did any good. NBC put it on Friday nights, which was the kiss of death for the series. My mother was a civil rights activist, and I had already participated in marches and campaigns, so writing a letter to a TV studio regarding my favourite show was not a big deal.
MB: Switching gears a little bit here. You are the founder of Leslie E. Owen Agent, LLC, a literary agency. I’m curious about how much (if at all) Star Trek has played a role in your decision to go into publishing?
LEO: My mother says I was reading and writing before I was three, and, honestly, I don’t ever remember a time when I was not doing both. I probably wrote my first Trek fanfiction when I was ten, but I wrote a series of stories based on Kirk’s experiences on Tarsus IV when I was in high school, and then wrote a few more stories set in TOS that were mimeographed and placed in loose collections we now call ‘zines. Star Trek helped teach me writing, in that I learned dialogue, beats, and the importance of story. Then, on a school trip I saw William Shatner in Julius Caesar at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, and that grew into my love affair with Shakespeare and with drama. So while Star Trek didn’t influence my desire to go into publishing — publishing has always been in my particular family tree — it influenced the way I view character and plot. In 1980, after I graduated, I had a choice between going to grad school or going to work, and I chose to move to Brooklyn and work in publishing.
MB: Well, if you have to learn writing somewhere, I think Star Trek is a pretty great choice. So, you are a published author of a children’s science book, Pacific Tree Frogs. Is that your preferred genre? And where, pray tell, can we find some of your Star Trek fanfiction?
LEO: I’ve published short fiction (my most recent short, Set in Place, was published in Sick Lit Magazine in August), and have had one-act plays produced in community theatres, as well as my science book Pacific Tree Frogs, which was illustrated by the late animator George Juhascz, and published by Tradewind Books in Vancouver, Sydney, and London in 2003 and by Crocodile Books in the US in 2004. Actually, I’d love to write Trek fiction for Pocket Books, but so far I’m not interested in the kind of books they publish — cardboard characters, for the most part, which appeal to the PG crowd. If Pocket Books would ever publish a grown-up Trek line…
My first Trek story was a retake on “The Pegasus,” called “Icarus, Drowning.” I wrote a few more stories and then started what would become my first Trek novel, A Million Sherds. About fourteen chapters in I realised I was writing a complicated, adult novel, and I had to go back and rewrite the opening chapters several times. The characters and plot of Sherds had been percolating since 1988 when I saw the TNG episode “The Icarus Factor.” Somehow I felt that the character of Riker was like me, an adult survivor. A Million Sherds is a psychological thriller in which William Riker is dying of complex PTSD even as the Enterprise and the Federation are threatened existentially by Riker’s abuser.
I’ve written a number of stories in my Post-A Million Sherds series, including Cochrane Day, a literary novel about families and aging and chronic illness. All of my work is posted on AO3, my preferred platform, because of their tagging system and the ability to write author’s notes. The author’s notes for Sherds detail the amount of research I did on PTSD, and child abuse, for example. I don’t like to make mistakes, so I researched everything, from the layout of the D to how long it would take a Type 6 shuttlecraft to fly from Lya III to Betazed. (The math for that took about three hours.) I’m also on ff.net. I like that you can PM authors there. I wish AO3 had that feature.
MB: I’m bookmarking you right now. Can you describe your creative writing process? Do you have any tips for aspiring writers who would one day like to have their work published?
LEO: I think about my characters for a very long time. For example, my new WIP is a literary novel called The Mortal Part, after a line in the Louise Gluck poem “The Triumph of Achilles.” I read a biography of Danny Kaye which revealed he’d had a hidden relationship with Laurence Olivier while they were both married to someone else. A few years later, as I was finished A Million Sherds, I wrote the first few chapters with my character, the actor Sir Hugh Ross, fully-formed. I’m about 20,000 words from finishing it, and then it will be edited and sent off to my agent. I already have a film option on it, and I’ve been asked to turn it into a theatrical play.
As for my creative process, I had a classical education and I read. I’m also an observer of people, and I’m very curious about places. I store away people, and their stories, and bits of dialogue, and places that somehow call to me, and out of that mix will come a short story, or a flash piece, or a libretto, or a play. All of my work is character-driven, because I believe a good story comes from a strong and credible character. I talk to people. It’s weird, because I prefer to be out in the woods, or in a coffee shop, rather than at a party, and yet somehow I find myself talking to people in weird places, like bus stops and bank lines and the fishmonger’s, and then these people show up in my stories later on. Sometimes I’ll ask a former student if I can use his name, and so there are two former students in A Million Sherds: both medical personnel, Jenessa and Yash.
MB: I’ll make a point to chat up more fishmongers. I could really use the character development. Finally, what’s been the biggest creative challenge you’ve faced with your writing?
LEO: I’m a very slow writer, because I am a perfectionist, and I tend to edit as I write. (I think that’s because, when you’re a professional editor, it’s hard not to do it.) Lately my biggest problem has been dealing with the resurgence of my own complex PTSD and its symptoms, triggered by a situation at the high school where I’ve taught and by the election. I’m struggling with writing because I’m not sleeping, but I finally took myself in hand and have gone back to trauma therapy, and am back on an anti-anxiety. As Will Riker says in Cochrane Day, in a conversation with his psychiatrist, Joao da Costa:
“I keep having to do the same work.”
“It’s insidious,” Will said, still following the windjammer with his eyes. “I think I’m done. I do the work. I do the work,” he repeated.
“I know you do.”
“And it’s gone and then I have to do it all over again.”
I just have to push through it, because it’s a good book, and I think it has something to say.
MB: It certainly does. Thank you for sharing your story and your thoughts on Star Trek with us.
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