From time to time, the OTW will be hosting guest posts on our OTW News accounts. These guests will be providing an outside perspective on the OTW or aspects of fandom where our projects may have a presence. The posts express each author’s personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of the OTW or constitute OTW policy. We welcome suggestions from fans for future guest posts, which can be left as a comment here or by contacting us directly.
Una McCormack is a New York Times bestselling author specialising in TV tie-in fiction, a lecturer in creative writing, and an academic who has written on subjects such as Blake’s 7 fandom and Tolkien fanfiction. In 2017, she was a judge for the Clarke Award, given each year to the best science fiction novel published in the UK. Today, Una talks with us about a life spent in fandom.
How did you first get into fandom and fanworks?
My first exposure to fandom was at a very young age: my (much) older sibling was a fan of the 1970s BBC science fiction programme Blake’s 7, and went to several conventions when it was still on air (circa 1979). I was seven or eight at the time. My sibling brought back a pile of zines, which I have to this day. I loved reading these stories: it really blew my mind that these characters that I loved could continue having adventures off-screen. I started drawing my own comics, stick-man cartoons based on Blake’s 7. This turned into fiction when I was about 16 or 17. There was some pretty heartfelt poetry at the time too.
I got online in the early 90s (I met my other half through a university Doctor Who bulletin board, but that’s another story…), and from around the mid-90s I was very involved in online discussion and fanfiction groups, particularly Blake’s 7, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and, later, Tolkien fanfiction groups. I got onto LiveJournal in the early 2000s. So I feel like fandom has always been a part of my life, in one way or another, for nearly 40 years now.
You are active in several areas: creating fanworks, being an academic, and also having published tie-in novels. How did the novels come about?
The novels came about by chance rather than design. I’d been writing fanfiction for ages, mostly Blake’s 7, and mostly posting on private mailing lists or publishing in paper zines (anyone remember them?). In the late 90s, I started to watch Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and went looking for new online forums where I could post my fanfiction. I found a usenet group (anyone remember them?!), and started posting stories there.
Then I got an email out of the blue from someone introducing himself as the editor of the Star Trek books range at Pocket Books. He was looking for new writers to produce stories in advance of the anniversary of the show’s first transmission (2003). My fiction had been recommended to him, so he was inviting me to pitch. That pitch eventually became my novel Hollow Men, which is a story set during a very popular and striking episode of ST:DS9, ‘In the Pale Moonlight’.
I did a few DS9 books, and then thought, “You know, I’d really like to do some Doctor Who.” David Tennant was just about to turn into Matt Smith, so it was a good time to be approaching and pitching. I wrote to the publishers with a writing CV. Once you’ve done a few of these books, you’re more likely to get commissioned: they’re generally written under quite tight time constraints, so you need to show you’re able to deliver something publishable and on time. That led to me doing a handful of Doctor Who novels. From there I was able to pitch to Big Finish, who have the licence to produce audio dramas based on Doctor Who (and other BBC shows). I’ve done quite a few scripts for them now, not just Doctor Who, but spin-off series such as Bernice Summerfield and Gallifrey, as well as my first love, Blake’s 7.
What advice would you offer to students or fans who want to follow a similar path to yours?
Write like crazy. Write what you love. Squee as much as you like because you don’t have to justify your loves to anyone. Find your gang. And make friends with Gen X –- we’re on your side and have been around the block a few times.
In terms of writing advice: finish what you start. You can’t publish without a completed draft. Don’t be precious about your work, and be open to editorial advice, even if (when) it’s infuriating. And try anything: novels, short fiction, scripts, etc. etc.
In terms of advice to students, perhaps who are thinking of academic careers: don’t paint yourself into an academic corner. If you’re thinking of studying fandom in some way, find the places where it intersects with broader academic fields, be it medieval studies, digital humanities, reception studies, etc. etc. I think in general that’s good academic advice.
How did you hear about the OTW and what do you see its role as?
I first heard of the OTW when it was being set up, back when fandom was chiefly located around LiveJournal. What I find most interesting about the OTW is how it can provide a central repository of knowledge, an archive of what could otherwise be a very elusive and transitory history. I think about some of the amazing Tolkien fanfiction archives that were out there in the early 2000s, really brilliant work, most of which have completely disappeared now. But not just the fanfiction –- OTW can archive the debates too. It has the capacity to be a really important resource for social history.
What fandom things have inspired you the most?
Not to get sentimental, but fandom has given me some of my very best, oldest, and dearest friends. Being a fannish teenager in a girls’ convent school before the internet was pretty rubbish, to be honest: “Did anyone watch Star Trek last night?!” “No.” Finding people who read the same texts as I did, in the way that I did, who liked to tell stories about them, and debate them in interesting and serious ways –- that’s been a huge gift.
My most sustained involvement with fandom was when I was doing my PhD, in the late 90s/early 2000s. Fandom provided the intellectual stimulus and community that my graduate study wasn’t really delivering, educating me in feminism, queer theory, reception studies, etc. My numerous beta readers over the years pushed me to write, encouraged me to write better, taught me how to work with editorial advice, and did all the groundwork to enable me to write for a living. I really did find my gang.
Catch up on earlier guest posts