David Gerrold Interview
Science Fiction Author, Screenwriter, and Director
John Hanley, Jr.: Well, thank you for doing this. Let me first ask you, when you were younger, what do you remember drawing you into the world of creative writing?
Gerrold: That’s a good question. It’s a great question. I think the earliest memories I have were…I used to love animated cartons, and not just the Disney stuff, anything that had drawings moving. It goes back to before television. I grew up in an age before television was commonplace. So going to the movies was the only place where you saw pictures that moved. So I was totally enchanted by drawings that moved. I couldn’t understand pictures that moved, so how could drawings move? And so animated cartoons fascinated me from the very beginning. And then everything that was out of the ordinary like rocket ships or aliens from space -I started getting interested in everything that was futurist simply because I wanted to live in fantasy land. I was impatient with where we were. I wanted to live in the next step.
Hanley: So when did you start writing original stuff?
Gerrold: I think I actually started writing in grammar school and got serious about it in junior high school. I had classes in junior high school that encouraged me to write so that by the time I got to high school I was already signed up for journalism and creating writing classes. I was on track very early.
Hanley: And by the time you pitched your first idea to the Star Trek producers, how old were you?
Hanley: What had you done in the field of creative writing between the time you got out of high school and at that point of twenty-three?
Gerrold: Well, I submitted a few stories to one of the magazines, and they were all uniformly rejected, probably lucky that they were rejected, otherwise they’d be on my resume today. But mostly, I wasn’t thinking of writing as a career at that point. I was thinking more about directing and producing. And at USC Film School I became critically aware that the single most important aspect of any movie or television show is the script. The script is really the instructions for the movie you want to make. If it’s not on the page, it’ll never be on the stage. So, once I got how critically important the script was, that was where my focus went.
Hanley: So, how did you enjoy USC?
Gerrold: Well, they don’t call it the University of Spoiled Children for nothing. I loved the classes. I wasn’t all that thrilled with some of the classmates. But the instructors were uniformly excellent.
Hanley: And so you started watching Star Trek when it was originally airing?
Gerrold: That was the big irony. I was out at Cal State University at Northridge studying theater arts. When the first episode aired on Thursday, September 8th of 1966, I watched it eagerly. I was amazed that something this imaginative had made it to television. And I sat down immediately and wrote an outline and submitted it to them the following Monday. The big joke is that the following week we went into rehearsals for the show I was in so I didn’t see any more episodes of Star Trek until we finished rehearsing and finishing all of our performances. So it was maybe three or four months before I could watch Star Trek again. But by then, the studio had said, “We like your writings. You understand the show. Please submit more stories to us when we get renewed.” So they were renewed around, I think, February or March, somewhere in there, NBC announced the renewal. And I immediately turned in five more stories. And by then I was watching episodes as fast as I could.
Hanley: Well, let’s talk about Trouble with Tribbles a little bit. Can you remember when you first had the idea for that? And how did that idea come to you?
Hanley: Now, looking back on the inception of the idea, I want to know if you think there is a certain disposition that you have that allows you to be open to creative ideas?
Gerrold: I can only tell you how it is for me. I’m a voracious reader. I mean, I read everything. I read computer magazines, camera magazines, and hi fi magazines. I read the science magazines. I used to read the news magazines regularly, but that got depressing. And I’m all over the internet. And, if somebody says something that seems oddball or curious, I want to know what it is - I can’t stand not knowing. And it makes me a bit of a know it all, I know, but what happens is I see a different map.
Hanley: It sounds like you’re making distinctions as you go through the day.
Gerrold: Absolutely. It’s kind of like if somebody says how do we reach new markets, and I start thinking well, where do you find the groups of people? Where do you find new demographics? I took note of an article I read last week in Discover magazine about how retired people don’t live as long unless they have something interesting to do. And then, well, how about the demographic of senior citizens who are looking for something to occupy their time? And suddenly, that’s a market that somebody who is looking for new markets can look at. Can we go there? So it’s a question of what do I know that fits the question but it’s a few steps outside the box. Where can I go outside the box because we know what’s inside the box? I think creativity is going outside of the box of what we know. And to get there, you have to expand the map of the territory. You have to add more things to your map. That’s my sense of it -I think other people have other answers.
Hanley: Well, let’s consider some of the possible barriers to people’s creativity. It strikes me that one of those would be walking around in a lot of “should” conversations and “shouldn’t.” Or, “This is the way it has to be.” Would you agree that that gets in the way of creativity?
Gerrold: Absolutely. The “should have” or the “should be” conversation is a barrier. It’s a major obstacle. The minute you get locked into “this is the way it has to be,” you obliterate all the other possibilities. I used to write programs for my own computer. This was a long time ago. I wrote a lot of my own utilities. I remember one of the things I learned about programming is I would get stuck, and just absolutely stuck. I’d walk away from the problem for maybe a few hours, and then I would realize where I had gotten stuck because I was trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole and that there was a better way or another way to get the result I wanted. But I had to stop looking at one particular way of solving it. I had to, again, get out of the box.
Hanley: Now, when you were back there at 23 and you were on fire with all these science fiction ideas, do you remember being in a happy place in your life? And if so, do you feel like that helped you or were you even going through maybe some difficult periods and did that help or did that get in the way? What do you remember about that?
Gerrold: Parts of it were happy. And parts were very difficult. At age 23, I was a slow developer. I was always a couple of years behind everybody. So I was always figuring things about intellectually and then experiencing it later. So working on Star Trek was very happy. It was a great adventure of learning and discovery. And there was just a chance to really live up to the potential that everybody had been telling me about. All of a sudden I was not just living up to it. I was exercising it and stretching it. So that was exciting. I think for me the most exciting parts were when they would say here’s the challenge, here’s the problem we haven’t solved that I got to sink my teeth into. Well, let’s try this. Or let’s try…and it’s the problem solving aspect that was so exciting to me. The frustrating part was that as a human being, I still didn’t know who I was. I didn’t know how to have relationships or relate well with others. So I was still fighting all this self esteem shit that I had going on. I didn’t know if I had any real friends in the world. I was just a weird kid. (I might still be a weird adult. I haven’t asked anyone for a reality check recently. But it’s not like I really care any more, because I’m not going to stop being weird if I am.) This was the middle of the ‘60s where the culture was redefining itself and nobody knew where they fit in, so it was a difficult time to find solid ground on which to stand and say, well, this is who I am. That was tricky. But after I had the credit under my belt, after I had the Star Trek writing credit, I had something to feel good about. Look what I accomplished. And I think that was a major thing for me because no matter what else happened in my life, I always had this one thing I could stand on and say, I have accomplished something.
Hanley: Absolutely. Well, you hear this notion that really great art is created out of struggle and strife and sometimes depression and despair. Do you remember ever coming up with something you thought was really topnotch and you attributed it somewhat to the fact that you were in this difficult space?
Gerrold: I don’t think all great art comes from struggle and despair. But I think that for someone who has any ability, then any intense emotion, whether it’s love or hate or anger or rage or fear or sorrow, or passion or enthusiasm, any intense emotion is going to result in somehow channeling this energy into a story or a song or a movie or a play. One of my turning points happened when somebody who was very close to me was murdered, and it really just drove me crazy for a long time. I mean crazy, despair, anguish. I couldn’t talk to anybody, couldn’t tell anybody, didn’t know if anybody in the world would understand. It drove me into a shell, and I think my typewriter saved my life because I sat down and wrote a number of stories into which I just poured a lot of energy and devotion and feeling. Two of the books I wrote out of that period, I remember specifically I was writing out of that rage and grief, and so the intensity of the emotions were heightened. The intensity of passion and enthusiasm in the books was so present for the readers that people would come up to me and say the most amazing things to me because they’d been so touched by the books.
Hanley: Which books were those?
Hanley: And you won some awards for that one?
Gerrold: No. I got the nomination. If I had let them push me into a different category I probably would have won the award. But I was a little arrogant and self-righteous and said, no, it was sold as a novel; it has to stay in the novel category. I got my ass whupped by Arthur C. Clarke. I was like, yeah, I mean, if you’re going to get beaten for an award by Arthur C. Clarke, there’s no shame in that.
Hanley: What was the other category it could have gone in?
Gerrold: Novella, which is short novel. I also felt that I didn’t want to look so hungry for an award so much so that I would let people push my book into another category just because it would have a better chance of winning there. As much fun as it is to get up and thank people who give you an award, I came to a realization out of that experience that it’s not the award. The award is just this block of lucite that sits on a shelf and gathers dust. The truth is it’s the quality of the work, that’s the real award. The real victory is when somebody writes you a letter and says, “I read your book at the right time in my life; and it saved my life because I had been thinking of suicide; and your book showed me I didn’t have to.” And I’ve got a few letters like that in the last 30 years. I mean, who needs an award when you’ve got a letter like that?
Hanley: That’s priceless. Now, I’ve been reading a little bit recently on the Beatles and their creative process. And Paul McCartney says that he thinks one of the secrets to their success is how they really would pounce on what he called accidents. If something randomly occurred, he thought most people would just say, “Well, that’s wrong. That didn’t work. Come on, guys. Fix that.” Whereas the Beatles would see something go wrong and say, “Ooh, we like that. Let’s do that again. Let’s do more of that.” Do you find that accidents are helpful to you too in your creative process?
Gerrold: Oh, absolutely. If I mistype a word - and I type 120 words a minute or faster - the natural thing to do is back up and type the correct word. But, sometimes I just stop and look at that and say, “Well that’s interesting. What can I do with that?” And sometimes I leave the mistyped word in and use it. So, I mean, that’s the little accidents. The big accidents are even more precious. The Beatles are a great example because somewhere in there they decided they would never write the same song twice, that every song would sound different. That’s a challenge that I took on years and years ago that every story I write has to be different from every other story, so that I’m never going to be typecast. I’m always looking for a new voice, a new style, a new thing. What can I try next? I got that back when I was back in college taking art courses. It’s “Let’s try a different style this week.” So I inherited that thing of, “Ok, I’ve done that. I might have done it right. I might have done it wrong. It might have been good. It might have been bad. I learned something from that. Now I’m going to try something else.”
Hanley: You can’t beat those guys. The other thing that they were known for is they were very hard working. I mean, yeah, they might sleep late, but also they’d work 'til the early hours of the morning as well. I guess it’s kind of an obvious virtue, but still, what would you say about the necessity in the area of creativity of just simply extremely hard work?
Gerrold: Yeah, well, that would seem to me to be obvious. I’m arrogant on this one, I admit it. People who have determination but not a lot of ability are usually more likely to succeed than people who have lots of ability and no determination. See, I’m absolutely convinced that being a workaholic is the best service for your ability that you could have because all of the work that you do, you learn from it. The more you write, the more you learn. You might write a hundred bad stories, but you’ll learn something from every one of those bad stories. You’ll learn to recognize your own bad habits. Like there are clichés that might not be obvious to the reader, but along about the hundredth time you’ve typed that phrase, you start to recognize that this is a familiar phrasing. It’s hackneyed and it’s a bad habit. The hundredth time you type it, you say is there another way I can say this. And pretty soon after five or ten years of doing that you get to the point where every sentence you type, you don’t want to type something that you’ve ever read before. You don’t want to type the cliché. So I’m a stickler for hard work. I believe in sleeping late too, but once I’m up, the first thing I’ll do is sit down at the computer. And I will be at the computer approximately for the next ten to twelve hours, taking breaks for food, and occasionally just to stretch and think. But mostly I’m there at the keyboard until I hit my daily target. If the target is 1,000 words or 2,000 words a day, I’m not getting up until I hit it, because it forces me to keep asking the question, what next, what next. I know people who don’t write unless they feel like it or unless the rent is due. I don’t think that’s real discipline. I think discipline is that you write because that’s what you do. That’s who you are. I even keep a spreadsheet that measures if I make my target, did I go over my target, what’s my effectiveness, because I want to know if I’m really getting the job done. Like I said, I’m a stickler for discipline.
Hanley: Oh, awesome. Well, let’s push this a little bit here. I want to get your opinion on this. Definitely you’ve got to be open to ideas. You’ve got to be curious about how things work and how things go together. And you have to look for interesting new patterns to things, and then apply a tremendous amount of hard work into that. And from what we’ve said so far, if you do that with extreme due diligence you ought to be able to come up with something. Now, do you think there is any kind of other element in there like, I guess, it’s kind of mysterious to say, but talent or maybe genius?
Gerrold: I don’t know what talent is. People used to tell me how talented I was when I was a kid. And I said I have some talent. But as I really started to work and really started to gain control of my craft and I’m talking ten, twenty years of internal looking to see just what it is I’m doing, I’ve never been able to identify what talent is. When I started teaching writing, I trained people to think like a writer and ignored the question of talent, and for most of my students that seemed to work. They produced great results. I had a couple of people who sat in on the class because they were driving their other teachers crazy. And I said, well, as long as you’re here, do the work and see what happens. They wrote some wonderful stories and I thought, see, it’s not talent. It’s all of the other pieces.
Hanley: That’s very clear. Now, do you believe in genius?
Gerrold: Yes. I do believe in genius. I can’t define genius except by pointing to what it accomplishes. And I think true genius is an act that transforms the world, changes the way the world thinks about itself. Einstein was a genius because he changed the way we think about space/time. By the same token, let’s say all of the people who created trainings, Werner Erhard and your dad are geniuses because they created things that changed the way people think about themselves in their relationship with the world. In the science fiction realm we have Robert Heinlein. He is a genius because he changed people’s perception of what’s possible. He was a marvelous human being.
Hanley: He wrote Stranger in a Strange Land.
Gerrold: And Starship Troopers, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Have Space Suit--Will Travel. He wrote about 50 great books. And in later years he was writing to please himself. He wasn’t writing to anybody’s specifically formula. But he was always challenging the reader’s perception. He was always asking the reader to think about something from a different point of view. To me that’s genius in that you walk away from that thinking about things differently or seeing things differently.
Hanley: Now, in the early ‘80s you got on fire with your “Chtorr” trilogy. Please tell us a little bit about that experience. I mean, do you remember just kind of being on a massive creative roll? What was that like for you?
Gerrold: If I had known it was going to be a lifetime effort I might have reconsidered. It started about 1972 doing the conversations I had at science fiction conventions about what alien species might really be like. I started designing an alien species, and I wanted to evoke a sense of wonder but also fear that I had gotten from the 1953 version of War of the Worlds and also the 1954 movie Them. I had this insight that a real invasion is not invasion. It’s colonization, and when you colonize something, you go and blow up everything that’s there. You take your chickens and your corn and your cattle and your flowers and your dogs and your cats and you take all of the things you need to set up a working ecology. I started thinking about how to design an alien ecology.
Hanley: Now, what year did you take the EST training?
Gerrold: May of ‘81.
Hanley: And what impact did that have on your writing?
Gerrold: The most immediate impact was I got the definition of bullshit which is anything that you use to avoid accountability. So it’s rationalization and lies and excuses and justification and explanation. I was struggling with the Chtorr at that time, and I went through the manuscript with a big black marker and crossed off every sentence that was an explanation or a justification or a rationalization, every sentence that wasn’t experiential. And the book got cut way, way down, but what was left was really compelling reading. So right there I got a very clear sense of communication – that it’s about creating an authentic experience. I wanted people to feel it. I wanted them to experience it. So the most immediate effect was what I now call experiential writing. In the process of writing, I am creating experience. First, I create experience for myself then I find the words that would evoke it for the readers.
Hanley: Very clear. Now, what year did you decide to adopt your son?
Gerrold: About 1991. And the way it happened was very simple. I’m always cutting articles out of newspapers and putting them in files. This was before you could just scan them into the computer. I had been cutting articles out about homeless children and unwanted children. I wasn’t sure where I was going with that, it was just something that kept chewing at my consciousness. I hadn’t been seriously thinking adoption until one day the LA Times had an article about an adoption fair. And I thought, gee, I wish I’d gone to that. I wish I could have been there. And that evening my neighbors came over for a barbecue and I asked them, “What do you think? Do you think I’d be any good as a dad if I adopted a kid? And she practically grabbed my arm and dragged me down to the Children’s Services and signed me up. She said, “You would be such a great dad. Just go for it.” And so I put myself into research mode for the next two weeks or so and by the end of that two weeks, the commitment was a living commitment for me. I shifted from “I could do this” to “I am doing this. I’m going to make it happen.”
Hanley: And obviously that’s been an incredible journey for you over the years?
Gerrold: Oh, yeah. Somewhere in there, in that journey, I said, you know, I’ve done the training. I’ve done a lot of training. I know how to create a game plan, and I know how to formulate a vision. I know how to declare it and share it, all that jargon. So I’m going to apply that. I’m going to have this whole thing be this great adventure. I’m going to have it be fun. I’m going to have it be about family building. I’m going to not see any part of it as a chore. Everything is going to be fun no matter what. If they ask for blood tests, great. Alright, it’ll be a blood test. If they ask for full medical exam, great. It’ll be a chance to take me to see how healthy I am. If they ask for a financial report, no problem. I’ll find out if I have any money in the bank. Whatever they ask, I decided to approach it with enthusiasm. And when it came time to actually meet Sean I approached it with the idea that all I wanted to do was just be with this child and find out if he had an open heart. For the first couple of minutes I was just terrified. But then I remembered “be with him, just open up and be with him.” Then we started laughing and having fun. And I realized, yeah, you know, the training works and it wasn’t like I was this training junkie, well maybe I am, but I realized that the skills and the tools that I got out of the training from ten years earlier were paying off now.
Hanley: And your experience with your son was the basis of your book, The Martian Child. Tell us a little bit about that one.
Gerrold: Oh, that’s funny. My case worker had asked me, “Are you planning to write a book about adoption?” I said, “Not really, but, I know how my head works is that if something interesting happens, it’ll end up in a story because I use everything in my life as source material.” For example, we had an earthquake, and I’m walking around saying, “Wow, what great source material.” My neighbors are going, “Oh, hell.” And I’m saying, “Wow, what great source material.” So I wasn’t planning to write a book. But, you know, I recognized very early on that my son’s relationship with me is that we’re great playmates. I made a promise to myself that every day when he came home from school, we would have some kind of special moment. Whatever it was, it would be something playful and happy each day. I wanted to create happy memories for him to overwhelm and overload the bad memories he had. It was a very simple game plan. There was always little games going on. And one of the games happened when we were coming back from Arizona. We’d been at a party. I overheard a woman talking about this little girl at school who believed she was a Martian. I said to Sean, “Are you a Martian?” He said, “No.” And my immediately reaction is “damn” because that would have been a really funny story. And so I just started playing the game with him. “I don’t know. You look like a Martian to me.” And he got it. And it just became the Martian game that we played for a while which was actually a pretty good game for him because he did feel alienated from other children because of his past experiences. Suddenly he had a way, a game that he could play that allowed him to experience being an alien learning how to be a human. So it was a good game for us to play. One day I realized it was a funny story, and I really wanted to write a story about how much I love my kid. That’s all the story is about, about how much I love my kid. The punch line is I don’t care if he’s a Martian or not. He’s my Martian and I love him. That’s all the story is about. That confused the first six editors who saw it. They said, “Where’s the punch line? Is he a Martian or isn’t he? What’s the problem here? I said the problem is all internal. It’s the problem is this guy is worried that the kid might be a Martian and the real punch line is ultimately he doesn’t care. He just loves the kid too much. The story was really a great big love story about that first couple of years that Sean was with me and all the fun stuff we did together and how I went from being enchanted by having this wonderful little kid in my life to actually moving to that space of I just love him for who he is. I’m in love with my family. I’m in love with my son. I think that’s why the story works so well for so many people because it’s about family.
Hanley: That’s awesome. Now, of all your book materials, what has been your best selling?
Gerrold: The best selling? There’s two answers to that question. The two books I did about Star Trek were clearly in terms of numbers, they were the best selling. And they were good books. But they weren’t mine so much as they were reports on my experiences with Star Trek. But I would say that my best selling books are The War Against the Chtorr. Those are the books that I believe have had the biggest impact. My two books about Star Trek are pretty much forgotten because there are so many books about Star Trek. But The War Against the Chtorr, Book Five, is probably the most thoroughly anticipated science fiction book that hasn’t been published yet. I mean, not just mine, but overall.
Hanley: What do you look back on so far and say, damn, I nailed that? That’s my single best work.
Gerrold: I’d probably point to two books. One would be The Martian Child because it’s so much of my heart onto the paper. And the other one would probably be A Rage for Revenge which is the third book in The War Against the Chtorr, and that’s the book in which the hero does some very deep work. It’s a big action story, I mean, with some horrible things going on, and then interweaved with it is the training that the hero goes through to recover from what he’s been through, and his healing process. I would say that that’s probably it, you know, I aspire to brilliance. I think I touch it once in a while, and that’s about as arrogant a statement as you’re likely to get out of me because most of the time if I talk about my work, I’m talking about my enthusiasm and excitement for the story. But with A Rage for Revenge I think that’s the book that stands well above everything else I’ve done.
Hanley: I’m going to have to reread that. As I told you, I loved all three of those books like 20 years ago.
Gerrold: It’s hard to find copies of. It’s very hard to find copies of.
Hanley: I know. Well, we’re nearing the end here. I really appreciate your generosity with your time. Let me ask you, has it been a challenge for you or has it just been natural to keep up your enthusiasm for your work through all the years?
Gerrold: There have been down periods. I’ve had down periods where I just felt frustrated and haven’t written for a while. But they don’t last very long. I think I’m good for about two weeks of feeling sorry for myself or getting cranky or getting distracted. I think when I have those down periods, I apply my energy elsewhere. It’s like, alright, let me work on cleaning up the files. Or let me rip this set of CDs to the hard drive so I can use my computer as a jukebox. I find something, some other project that doesn’t require a lot of brain power. It’s more busy work to keep myself busy during what I call those down times. But the excitement always comes back. There’s a point at which I sit down and I start getting curious or interested. And there’s a technique I use for remembering the original passion and enthusiasm for the idea. Somehow in remembering it, I recreate it. Usually when I get stuck, I say, what did I feel like when I started? Oh, I felt like that. Ok. Well, can I get back into that feeling? And that usually works.
Hanley: That’s great.
Gerrold: I’ve got a sequence right now where I have to write this thing where the hero does something that isn’t immediately comprehensible, but it’s really kind of shocking and a little bit horrifying. I just haven’t had the time to type it which is an advantage because it’s giving me time to think about what it’s going to feel like emotionally.
Hanley: Do you think novel writing is one of the more difficult art forms to do?
Gerrold: Absolutely. But then again, I have a bias. I have a vested interest. Let me recontextualize the question. Anybody can sit down and type 400 pages. But nobody ever writes a good novel by accident. Ok? It just doesn’t happen by accident. So I think writing a good, readable, worthwhile novel is an act of commitment and to some degree, even an act of love. To write a great brilliant heart stopping world changing novel is an act of incredible…there’s no word for it. It’s like giving birth.
Hanley: Alright. Well, listen are there any simple recommendations you have for people to spark their own creativity, whether it’s in business or in the arts, or just everyday life?
Gerrold: The best advice I have ever heard is follow your bliss.
Hanley: Joseph Campbell.
Gerrold: Yeah. Follow your bliss. If you’re not happy doing what you’re doing, why are you doing it? If you’re not making a lot of money doing what you’re doing, why are you doing it? And if the answer to both those questions is, “no,” this is crazy. I mean, if somebody offers you lots and lots of money to do something that you really don’t want to do but the money will give you an access to do what you do want to do, I could see that justification. But if you’re not making a lot of money doing it, and you’re not happy doing it, you’ve got to be crazy to keep on doing it. People put themselves in the trap of saying, “But I can’t quit. I can’t afford to quit.”
Hanley: So it’s a mindset.
Gerrold: It’s definitely a mindset. There was this commercial years and years ago that said, “If I only have one life to live, let me live it as a blond.” Stupid commercial, but a great point. If you only have one life to live, what are you going to do with it?
Hanley: Very well said. I think we’ll leave it there. And thank you very much for your time.
Gerrold: Absolutely. My pleasure. I learned some stuff from you. Let me share this one last thing. When people ask me to speak stuff I get to figure stuff out. So I learn stuff by speaking it. That’s one of the things…that’s why I write is I learn stuff by putting it on paper.