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An Author Interview with John Scalzi

I’d also do things like count the number of bullets they had. Cuz here is the thing, when you are out in space in a spaceship that is billions of light-years away from home, you are going to run out of bullets.

John Scalzi wasn’t available when Stargate’s Joe Mallozzi asked him to write an episode of Stargate: Atlantis. But he later came on board as a big idea creative consultant for SGU. In this interview, Scalzi talks about his time on Stargate, gives some tips for aspiring writers, and shares his thoughts on Mistborn author Brandon Sanderson.

Who is John Scalzi?

Well, I am a science fiction writer, and I am best known for my Old Man’s War series of books. I’ve been writing since I was 14. It was basically do that, or do things that were difficult for me. The joke was on me, however. Turns out that writing was actual work. By that time it was too late; I had no other skills.

What does John Scalzi remember about holding a copy of his first book for the first time?

I got my copy of my first published book in 2000. I basically just kept turning it over and over in my hands. I still do that!

What are a writer’s most important qualities?

The first and most important thing is that they actually go out there and write. You can’t be a writer unless you are actually doing the writing. There are a lot of people who say they want to be writers, but are not willing to make the effort to sit down and just do it on a regular basis. So to be a successful author, you have to write first.

The second thing, is to be persistent. Almost everybody who starts writing has to deal with failure one way or the other. It takes a long time sometimes to get published. So persistence pays off.

The third thing is to be competent. By which I mean, you do the work that you say you’re going to do and you do it in a way that is professional, and can be worked with by editors and others.

Fourthly, you just have to have enthusiasm for it.

How does John Scalzi think Brandon Sanderson will be viewed in 50 years?

I’ve known Brandon Sanderson since he and I were up for the Campbell Award  together. I think he’s a wonderful writer, although it’s difficult for me to say whether he or I for that matter, will be an influence 50 years from now. It’s not up for us to decide. The people 50 years from now will decide that. That said, I think he’s a writes great stuff, and I’m super happy for all the success that he has had.

What were John Scalzi’s duties as a Stargate creative consultant?

My main duties were basically to go over the script and point out things that were either scientifically questionable, or that would produce major continuity errors, or would present some sort of problem in terms of characters.

So, as an example for the science, I would talk about things like the composition of stars, and how that would work in terms of recharging the spaceship.

I’d also do things like count the number of bullets they had. Cuz here is the thing, when you are out in space in a spaceship that is billions of light-years away from home, you are going to run out of bullets. So keeping track of even trivial stuff like that, makes a difference for how the drama plays out.

Walk us through the sequence and mechanics of reviewing a Stargate: Universe script.

It was actually rather simple! They would give me a script, and every time that I had an objection or a concern or a note to add,  I would simply put that note into a Word document that I had up alongside the script. So in terms of practical matters, it was really quite easy: read the script, make the comments.

Usually I would read the script first then go through and make the comments. But sometimes if something jumped out of me immediately I would go ahead and make the comments during the first pass through.

Joe Mallozzi told me you functioned as something of a “Yoda” behind the scenes on “Stargate” and that he took advantage of your expertise on more than one occasion. Do you think “Stargate” benefited from an attitude of not being afraid to ask questions? 

I do think it was useful to have someone look at the script and say things that the producers or the screenwriters might not have been thinking about, or wouldn’t have looked at, or didn’t have the knowledge base to address.

And, I do think it was important that when I took the job, the producers told me that I needed to be fearless in the sort of comments and questions that I had.

The goal here was to make the show as good as it could possibly be, and sometimes that means somebody coming in with an outside perspective who is not as invested, so to speak, in the individual script or the individual episode.

So in that respect I was very useful.

What’s an example of a fun Stargate scenario John Scalzi had to make plausible for a script?

The best example would be the mysterious signal that was discussed in the second season. We got together, and we discussed the ways that we could do that, that would not contradict with what we already know about the universe, and would not be completely ridiculous. It’s difficult to make something that is so speculative, without bumping up against actual practical issues about what we know about the universe.

So I and the producers just sort of hashed it out and worked with what we thought would be plausible, or at least, plausible in the “Stargate” universe. And that was a lot of fun, being able to build a huge feature in the universe!

What does John Scalzi think of fan efforts to bring back Stargate? Would he return as a creative consultant for a fourth series?

I think if the fans are able to convince the studio, that’s great. I don’t know if I would be able to come back as a creative consultant, however. At this point I have a long-term book contract with Tor books that will take me through to the next decade, and I’m also busy developing TV and movie projects in conjunction with my own works.

That said, any time that somebody who is making “Stargate” wants to ask me to share my thoughts or share my own experience, I’m more than happy to help in that sort of short-term way.

I’m a big fan of the universe and I would love to see it served well.

Marsha Thalleen asks: How many voices are in John Scalzi’s head right now?

There’s only one voice, but it sure talks a lot.

Joe Mallozzi issued John Scalzi an indirect challenge several years ago to resolve the Stargate: Universe cliffhanger using the “Eli-fixes-a-pod” scenario. How would he conclude the issue?

Well, the irony here is that I know how the series was actually supposed to end! So in that case, it’s hard for me to go back and do a revision. That said, I think it’s great other people are playing it out. I think that’s the essence of what makes Stargate: Universe great. That people are always wanting more.

Further reading

John Scalzi resources

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.