Jeanne Cavelos Interview

Jeanne Cavelos is the author of the Babylon 5 trilogy, The Passing of the Techno-Mages, and the novel The Shadow Within. She has also written The Science of Star Wars, The Science of The X-Files, several works of short fiction, articles, and essays. In addition to writing, Ms. Cavelos has worked as an editor, scientist, and teacher.

I conducted this interview with Jeanne Cavelos shortly after the release of Casting Shadows, the first volume of her trilogy.

Mike Helba: How did your experience writing The Passing of the Techno-Mages differ from your experience writing The Shadow Within?

Jeanne Cavelos Jeanne Cavelos: I think there were two main areas that differed. First, my interactions with Joe worked a bit differently with the two projects. The Shadow Within started out as a proposal that I wrote, which was about twenty pages long. Basically, I made up the story of what I thought had happened to Anna Sheridan and the Icarus--and John Sheridan and the Agamemnon--and Joe liked my proposal and gave the go-ahead for the book. He returned the proposal to me with about a dozen things written on it. In some cases he had literally filled in the blanks, as when I'd write, "Sinclair contacts Senator ______" in my proposal. He added a couple bits of information here and there, and also told me that I couldn't use the nuking of San Diego as the cause of Morden's wife's and daughter's deaths, because the nuking happened at some other time. They were generally very minor points, just making things consistent. Later, as I developed a more detailed outline, 30-40 pages long, I asked if I could have a phone call with Joe to check a few points with him. He agreed, and was very helpful in clearing up some continuity questions I had, and also in reassuring me that he liked the story I had outlined and was giving me the freedom to develop it (many of my questions were like, "Is it okay if I do [blank]?" and he would usually say "Yes."). The only question I remember getting a "No" to was asking if I could give Morden a first name. Joe said he'd always thought of Morden as just "Morden," and didn't really want to establish a first name for him. I sent Joe the detailed outline to make sure he was okay with everything, and he was.

I very much appreciated the freedom Joe gave me. I believe that tie-in novels can achieve excellence, can be art, and I take the writing of them very seriously. As a writer himself, I think Joe understands that to create a powerful book, a writer needs some artistic freedom. Rehashing old plots and following restrictive formulas won't create a great book. The writer has to be allowed to contribute that creative spark, to remain within the given universe but to, in some ways, make it her own. Otherwise the story will be dead on the page.

I would never want to write a B5 novel that was inconsistent with the show, or that failed to capture the spirit of the show and the characters--I feel all that is very important. But within that huge canvas Joe created, I believe there's room for me to explore topics that weren't really explored in the series, and to create something that deals with those parts of the B5 universe that resonate the most for me.

Anyway, to get back to your question, my very positive experience working with Joe on The Shadow Within encouraged me to take on the techno-mage trilogy. I was a bit anxious about working from someone else's outline, since I hadn't done that before, but knowing Joe, I knew it would be a great story, and I also felt confident that he would give me some freedom in developing that story. The outline for the trilogy was around 20-25 pages long, and when I received it, I immediately saw the great potential in it. It told a great story! Joe had laid out the basic shape of each book, but he'd also left a lot undeveloped, so I could make it my own.

I'd never written a trilogy before, so I wanted to plan everything out carefully in a scene-by-scene outline, so I could set things up in Book 1 that would come to fruition in Book 3. That's one of the things I love about multi-book series, and one of the things I loved about B5, so I wanted to make sure everything was set up correctly. I ended up writing a much more detailed outline that I'd imagined, 200 pages long (yes, I'm insane). As I developed the story, I added a number of things that weren't in Joe's outline, and changed some others. As with The Shadow Within, I showed him my detailed outline, so I could make sure he approved of what I was planning, and he was fine with it.

The second way in which working on these two projects differed, briefly, was in the complexity of the stories. The Shadow Within has a fairly simple story--it's basically two intertwined novellas. I had only eight weeks to write that book, and while I would have liked more time to polish, I felt I was able to pretty much accomplish what I wanted in that amount of time.

Each book of The Passing of the Techno-Mages trilogy is far more complex. There's a very large cast of characters, and an entire culture that needs to be explored. It took me quite a while to figure out exactly what the mages' tech was like, and how they commanded it to do different things. The plot is also more complex, and the story presented some real challenges for me as a writer--establishing this whole culture and "magic" system without turning the trilogy into boring textbooks, and writing strong action scenes, which I think are some of the most difficult things to write. Each book is also much longer than The Shadow Within (and longer than Del Rey really wanted). I did more revisions with the trilogy based on feedback from my readers. It took me about six months to write each book, and I needed every minute of that to get the books right.

What are the pros and cons of working in someone else's universe rather than creating your own?

Some of the "franchises" out there have very restrictive rules about what can happen in a novel set in their universe, which pretty much kills the author's ability to create something powerful and fresh. B5 does not have those kinds of restrictions, though, which offers authors some wonderful opportunities.

You are restricted, though, in that you have to remain consistent with what's been established in the series. Once in a while, I'd have a great idea for the trilogy, only to realize that maybe one sentence someone said in one episode of B5 would contradict my great idea, so I couldn't use it. Usually, though, after I pounded my head against the wall for a while, I'd figure out another way of doing what I wanted, without contradicting the show, and this new way would be even better than my original "great idea." Sometimes, having these limitations can make you more creative and innovative.

One of the pros, from a commercial point of view, is that people read my novels. I'm sure that many of the people who have read The Shadow Within wouldn't have picked up a "regular" SF novel by Jeanne Cavelos, because they wouldn't know me or my work, and my book would fade into the mass of other books. Through my B5 books, I've reached many readers, most of whom, I think, find that they like the stories I tell. Hopefully, when I write a novel in my own universe, some of them will give it a try.

On a much more emotional level, a strong pro is that I get to write in a universe I love! And I get to make a contribution to it! I loved B5 since it first came on, and I have an incredible respect for Joe and what he accomplished as a writer--the fascinating universe he created, and the multi-layered characters. That universe reveals so much about who we are as human beings, what we want, and how we live our lives. I feel it's a very rich tapestry in which many truths about the human condition can be illuminated, and I try to explore some of those areas. While Joe tapped much of the potential of that universe, I think there's much more that he didn't have a chance to mine during the series, and when I write in that universe, I get to do it!

I've turned down offers to write in several other universes, either because they just didn't excite me the way B5 has, or because the rules for their writers are too restrictive.

Did you feel that Joe Straczynski's outline constrained you too much, or were you free to go wherever your ideas took you?

Joe defined the shape of each book of the trilogy, and established some of the major plot points. Most of the time he kept things general, which left a lot of room for me to develop things in my own way. At times he went into more detail. Sometimes that detail was helpful and illuminating--particularly when he talked about different motivations the mages might be feeling at various points--and sometimes a detail would go against the way I was imagining things in my mind, and kind of throw me off. I was very excited by the overall story Joe wanted to tell about the techno-mages, and to help me tell that story in the most powerful, effective way, I changed a number of the details that jarred for me. I also added a number of things (such as storylines involving Kosh and Anna Sheridan, and Galen's struggle to understand who he is), and changed the emphasis or focus of things. As an example of a change I made, I can tell you that in the first book, Joe's outline set up a love triangle between Galen, Isabelle, and another male mage. This led to a fight between Galen and the other mage. I didn't feel the love triangle plot really connected strongly to other plots and themes in the trilogy. I felt the overall story would work better if Galen and the other mage fought over something else--the other mage's desire for power. So I eliminated the love triangle and added this other motivation, but the fight between Galen and the other mage still takes place.

I guess some people might feel I shouldn't change a single detail in Joe's outline, but I feel it's my responsibility as a writer to inhabit the story, to live it, breathe it, feel it, and make it my own, rather than just mechanically churning out a sort of fill-in-the-blanks story devoid of passion or conviction. I think Joe appreciates this, because he's said some very nice things about the books.

You are a very organized writer and prepare comprehensive outlines for your books. Do you think that this is a tool that most writers could benefit from?

Absolutely. I know that different writers work in different ways, and some people just can't work from an outline. I'd suggest that if you've never done it, try it. An outline reveals the underlying structure of your story--it's a sort of X-ray, revealing the bones. If the structure isn't sound, the story isn't going to work, and it's much better to find that out before you've written the whole story.

I actually have people critique my outlines, giving me feedback on whether they found the plot exciting, surprising, boring, confusing, or whatever. It's much easier to make major changes at the outline stage. I find very few writers are willing to make major plot changes after they've written a first draft, and if they didn't have an outline ahead of time, then their first draft very likely needs some major changes.

Usually, when people write without an outline, they are figuring out what the book is about, and what needs to happen in it, as they write. Often they don't really know until they reach the end. Obviously, in those cases, much more extensive revisions are required.

People always tell me they feel outlines force them to be too mechanical, that they feel constrained to follow what they've outlined. But an outline isn't a prison. It's a plan of what you *think* you're going to be doing. You can deviate from your outline at any point (you can continually revise and update your outline based on any new ideas that come along). If you have an outline, though, you'll be better able to judge the effect of any deviation, and be able to figure out what you need to do to handle that. (In Casting Shadows, I realized, in the middle of writing the book, that Galen and Isabelle had to plant a faster-than-light relay aboard a Narn cargo ship. The whole breen escapade was not in the outline, but I added it, realizing it was important to the plot and also important emotionally, as a time of great happiness for Galen that sets up a nice contrast with what follows.)

If you absolutely can't write an outline first, then instead write your first draft, and *then* outline what you've done. Again, like taking an X-ray, the outline will help reveal the strengths and weaknesses of your plot.

How does the writing process change when an actor has already portrayed on screen a character that you are writing?

It's very important to me that fans of B5 hear the actor's voice when they are reading one of my books, and that they see the actor saying the words and performing the actions. If my Morden doesn't seem consistent with the Morden that readers have seen on the show, then the readers will lose their belief in the book, and that "vivid and continuous dream" of the novel will be disrupted. I study the actors very carefully to decide how to describe them physically, to see how they hold themselves, how they move, how they speak, and what various expressions they show. In Casting Shadows, Galen notes that Elric generally has one of two expressions, disappointment or grave disappointment, the difference being the number of frown lines between his eyebrows. I came up with that by studying Michael Ansara's face, which has strong frown lines between the brows.

I also feel it's important to treat characters from the show and my own new characters in the same way, so that they all feel like they are equally real. To do that, I describe characters from the show, even though you may know what they look like, just as I describe new characters. I've tried to write the books so that even someone who has never seen B5 can read and enjoy them. Even if they've never seen Elric or Morden, hopefully they can get a strong sense of what these characters are like from the book.

If it's not revealing too much, can you describe the timeline of the trilogy? Will it carry us roughly to the point where Galen leaves his hiding place to participate in Legions of Fire and Crusade, or will the trilogy end significantly before or after those events?

I don't want to get too specific and give anything away, but I will say that the entire trilogy takes place within the five years of the original B5 series. We start off with a Galen who is much younger and much different from the one we see in Crusade. By the end of the trilogy, though, I think you can easily see why he is the way he is in Crusade.

Joe gave me the option of extending Book 3 up until the beginning of Crusade, but I preferred to end it sooner. I felt that, dramatically, ending it sooner worked much better. One thing I find very powerful in fiction is the compression of time. Aristotle talked about this in his Poetics, and I agree with him that stories tend to be much more powerful when they take place over limited periods of time. So I tried to make the trilogy occur within the shortest time span possible. I think that makes events all the more intense and involving.

Peter David said that The Passing of the Techno-Mages shares two characters with Legions of Fire. How did you organize this interaction, and did you have any other exchanges with other Babylon 5 authors?

Peter and I overlapped somewhat in our schedules, so he was still working on his trilogy when I started working on mine. I first wanted to get in touch with him to ask him some questions about how he'd developed the Drakh. I have a Drakh in Casting Shadows, and more in the other books of the trilogy, and I wanted to make sure I was consistent with what he was establishing. He was extremely helpful in answering my questions. He then asked me some questions about how I was developing the mages, so that he could be consistent with my trilogy. I was very excited that we had the chance to work together, and I think both trilogies profited from it.

I thought that readers would enjoy any connections between the trilogies that I could provide, so I added some mentions of Kane and Gwynn through the trilogy. That way, people can imagine Peter's characters there with the mages, and specifically imagine them being around Galen and forming a growing respect for him, which we see in its fullest form in Peter's books.

I didn't consult any other B5 authors, though I did look at some of J. Gregory Keyes's descriptions of telepathic scans, when I was creating a telepath character.

Did the cancellation of Crusade affect the course you took with The Passing of the Techno-Mages?

Well, the series had been cancelled before I started working on the trilogy, so the cancellation itself wasn't really an issue. The fact that the series wasn't ongoing did give me a greater degree of freedom, since I didn't have to worry that I might set up something that would be contradicted in a future episode of Crusade. (I had some difficulties of this type with The Shadow Within, which I had almost finished before I got a copy of the "Z'ha'dum" script or saw the episode.)

I was also aware that many B5 fans hadn't had a chance to see Crusade, so I made sure to provide them all the information they'd need about Crusade characters within the trilogy itself, rather than assuming that they knew it all.

Can you give us just a little hint of what's in store for us in the next two volumes of The Passing of the Techno-Mages?

Oh, you evil, evil man. You want to know everything, don't you?

I guess I won't be giving away any shocking secrets if I reveal that the events in the B5 episode "The Geometry of Shadows" (the one episode that featured techno-mages) will be coming up in the trilogy. You'll find, though, that what you *thought* happened in that episode is not what happened at all. Techno-mages can be very deceptive...

What led you to create the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop?

When I was a senior editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell, the part of the job that I really loved was working with authors, helping them to make their manuscripts the best that they could be. I had entered publishing originally, though, just as a "day" job to support me until I sold my first novel. After eight years in publishing, I realized that editing had taken over my life. I was editing every night and on weekends, and had no time to write anymore. So I left the rat race and moved to New Hampshire to focus on my own writing. But I wanted to somehow retain that experience of working closely with writers, helping them to improve their work. That's why I set up Odyssey. During those six weeks each summer when we hold the workshop, I have the most exciting experiences working with writers who have the same passions that I do, and seeing how their work improves.

Jeanne Cavelos and Igmoe the Iguana

What are you working on now?

Well, I just finished Invoking Darkness, Book 3 of the trilogy, about a month ago, so I'm still somewhat in recovery from sleep deprivation (I've been working on these books for 12-20 hours a day for the last two years), and I'm suffering from mage withdrawal.

I worked hard on the books and I'd like people to read them, so I'm doing some publicity now for Casting Shadows. I'd like people to know that I'm not just an author who knocked out a tie-in novel for a quick paycheck. I realize that many readers have been disillusioned by the poor quality of some tie-in fiction and have stopped reading it. I tried to create something moving and powerful, and yes, even great--whether I succeeded to any degree is for readers to say, but I would like them to know that I tried to write "real" novels that can stand on their own, and that are worthy of the greatness that Joe achieved on B5.

I'm also starting work on what will hopefully be my next book, a near-future biological SF/thriller set in my own universe.

You've written The Science of Star Wars and The Science of The X-Files. Would you be interested in writing The Science of Babylon 5?

There's certainly a lot more science in B5 than in many other SF shows. The science books are fascinating to write, but are a huge amount of work in terms of research. For each of those books, I read about 100 other books, and about 1,000 scientific journal articles. I think it would be great to write The Science of Babylon 5, but it would have to come at a time when I've recharged my batteries and have a little more energy.

If you could write a novel about one topic in the Babylon 5 universe other than the techno-mages and the Shadows, what would it be?

I think it could be interesting to write a book about Morden in his pre-Shadow Within days. We never saw him with his family, and I think showing him as a family man, who at the same time is doing these underhanded deals for EarthForce's New Technologies Division, would be fascinating.

I would like to thank Jeanne Cavelos very much for taking the time to participate in this interview.


Jeanne Cavelos Website

Odyssey Workshop

Read this interview in French at Quazar-Millenium courtesy of Corinne Guitteaud.