Transcribed by Jan Schroeder
Room 120 - Fans begin gathering and taking their places in traditional school desks. Some of us haven't seen the like for...a long time. Before us is a perfectly clean blackboard. While we wait for JMS, somebody (okay, I did it) writes in large letters " MR. STRACZYNSKI" and below it, "T M o S 101"
3:00 PM. JMS arrives and, without a word, goes to the board and erases the "TMOS 101" part amid much laughter.
JMS: Pop quiz today...You will all fail
JMS: I spent years trying to get out of Paterson, out of high school, here I am.
Some picture taking
Audience: Welcome to Hawthorne, Joe. Home of the Bears. (a look) (Laughter from the audience)
JMS: Thank you. So...the best part of all this for me, someone said, "What are you getting out of this?"... Is Allen around? Mr. Russell (Rosenberg)? He can verify this; too bad he isn't here. I, after (something) a moment ago the men's room, went out the hall, and where they have the barrier there, [aside: I don't think much of barriers], I turned left, went down the hall, up the stairs, across the gymnasium, down the stairs, into, after 49 years, a Girls Locker Room! (much laughter). Almost 50 but I finally made it! (Bemused) They have palm trees?? I've never seen the like of it...we never had palm trees... anyways... Howdy!
JMS: Boy, get in those chairs, right back in the old habits.
Audience (Jan): "Good afternoon, Mr. Straczynski".
JMS: No, you don't have to say Mr. Straczynski, you'll blow out an incisor if you try to say that. (laughter) So...to me the best part of this is interacting with you. Well, most of you anyway. (laughter). So, I want to take whatever questions you have, we'll riff off of that, and play around and have some fun because I haven't got a clue otherwise. Who has a good question?
Audience: Can we get rid of the really obvious one first...(some by-play).all right, I think everyone in the room wants to know, you've been dropping clues the last couple of months about a certain project...
JMS: And if I could talk about it I wouldn't be dropping clues!
Audience: We just thought since we all turned out...can you throw us a bone?
JMS: I want to throw you some gristle. Uh...no...I wish...Boy people figured that clue out pretty freakin' fast! (I was thinking?) this is so obscure, nobody's gonna know this...wrong! If I could talk about the new B5 thing, I would. There is a new B5 thing coming...there's a lot of money involved in it...it could be (pantomimes a movie screen) really big...but I can't comment beyond that because they will seriously kick my ass if I talk about it.
Audience (Aisling): No filming over Labor Day weekend, please, because I want the actors to be able to come to DragonCon.
JMS: Did I say there was filming involved?
Aisling: Well I'd be sad if I went all the way to DragonCon and there was nobody to see because they're all busy with you! (laughter) (by-play)
JMS: Is there a sensible question in the audience! Yes, Jan?
Audience (Jan): I'd like to know about the 'shared universe' universe project that you were talking about online?
JMS: Yeah, Simon & Schuster is doing a shared universe thing where it's J. Michael Straczynski's...Distant Worlds. (Aside: I'm a teacher suddenly...too fuckin' strange) I created the Distant Worlds universe, which is a new kind of a thing for me. And we're sending it out to other writers and novelists who will then create novels in this to be published under Simon & Schuster's banner. That's what that's all about.
Jan: Are you going to be writing in it?
JMS: I may not have time. (Jan: Because??) Because...I will be in jail. For sneaking into the girl's locker room. (By-play: we won't tell..) Other questions...oh, c'mon, you've come all this way...from as far away as (Ais/Jan: Florida) Yes...
Audience: I just read the other day that you were living in a commune or cooperative some time ago. I was wondering if you could talk about that and the fact that it seems that a bunch of your different types of projects deal with concepts of community.
JMS: Um...yes, during the....70s, when it was still considered hip, I did live in a commune, yes. It was a...religious commune which some of you may find shocking to hear. But there was a time when I was sorta into that whole thing in ways that are far too embarrassing for me to go into detail now. But the reason I write about community a lot is that I think, as a nation, we have gotten marginalized, tribalized and factionalized to within an inch of our lives. To the point where it isn't a country anymore. Before the Civil War, they used to refer to it as "THESE United States" then after the Civil War it became "THE United States" and we lost, I think, in large measure what that unity is all about. And...my writing's always been foursquare for pulling us together. To say that we have more in common than we have that makes us different from each other. And...we have to embrace that from time to time. So there's enough, I think, literature and television out there that says "You must fight each other". My job is to provide an alternate voice to that from time to time. Not to say that we're not different, but that what unites us is greater than what divides us. And, that didn't come out of the commune experiences, it came out of a general sense of having a sense of wrong about the country. Other questions...yes, sir.
Audience: Is there anything you can tell us about the Dr. Strange Limited Series?
JMS: The Dr. Strange mini-series, turned the first script in. Me and Samm Barnes are writing it. It's a 6-issue mini that, in essence, reimagines his past, his art and his background. The problem if you look a Doc Strange is that his look, his way of doing business, everything about him is rooted in 1950s style Vegas magicians - the big cloak and all the rest of it and Lovecraft. Which is an odd combination. Well, maybe not. Now that I think about it if Lovecraft had imagined Vegas it would pretty much be as it is now. And...I'm trying to find new ways of making the character current. A lot of guys have had a hard time writing for that character, my job, as with Peter Parker, is to peel away all of the detritus and the ancillary stuff, get down to "who is this guy?" ultimately. I think that when it's all said and done, it's a pretty good story. Yes...
Audience (StarStuff?): In this new big project, might we see you turning the lights on or off?
JMS: Negative. (disappointed sounds) Yes sir..
Audience: You have (something) May Parker, I think a tremendous (something). (something) What do you see as her...sort of...defining characteristic?
JMS: What you have to understand about May Parker, this is someone who saw the death of her husband, the death of those who she loved all around her, who single-handedly raised him from a young man, she has tremendous strength. And, my line on her to Peter is that he got his powers from the spider but he got his strength from May. Because that backbone is what made him who and what he is today. The choices that he makes now come of her having raised him a certain way. So she really was an overlooked character, her job was to faint on occasion. (something). So my hope was to make her more interesting than that.
(Allen Rosenberg, the student advisor for the comic con arrives)
JMS: Mr. Russell
JMS: Rosenberg! I've been signing a lot of names today. When I first heard about what Allen was doing, my first inclination was to give some cash since that's the easiest thing in the world to do. The harder thing to do is that you get involved. As you have all gotten involved by coming down here and doing this today. But one doesn't preclude the other. So Allen, this is...for the school, from me personally...one thousand dollars.
(applause, picture taking, more applause)
Rosenberg: (something) this is so unbelievable...I call it a Mitzvah.
Audience (Aisling): How much did you get from the autograph table?
Rosenberg; I don't want to say but let's just say the kids won't have to be bringing in their own coat hangers in order to do sculptures. We can get real wire for next year!
Audience: What character in B5 is closest to you and your voice?
JMS: What character in B5 is closest to me and my voice? The cat in Brown Sector. (laughter) I would like to say it was Delenn or Sheridan...I'd like to say that, unfortunately it wouldn't be true. My guess is probably Londo. Mainly because Londo represents...bad choices. And...I've made a lot of really awful choices in my life, as we all do. You think 'Ooh, why did I do that? Why did I say yes to that?'. That identifies Londo's dilemma. He is in some ways, (something) the most human character we have on the show. You really see the pain that his past decisions visit upon him. And I spoke through him a lot, to that issue. He's also my means for addressing immobility. He starts off thinking he has no choices, he's stuck where he is, but he has choices, as we all do. And by denying that, up front, you create (something) boxes in after a while. By your own willinglessness to accept responsibility for things. He starts of as a character with all the choices in the world and no power. He ends up down the road, with all the power in the world and no choices. And that arc let me talk about our sense of powerlessness. He says this one line that I put into a script by someone else...."My shoes are too tight, but it doesn't matter because I've forgotten how to dance." Who in this room can't identify with that (something) line? So for me it's Londo. That's my personal voice in the show. I would like it to be G'Kar. I'm not as smart as G'Kar, unfortunately. It's odd...they say "How do you write Babylon 5?" I open up a window to that place...and...I write down what they say. It's almost like...(something) a channel, but it's almost like automatic writing. It just comes out. And...the hard part is making them shut up. Years later I'll be lying in bed trying to sleep and I'll hear all of a sudden Londo and G'Kar going at it and I'm like "Jesus, give me some rest, (something) for 5 years, we got a divorce, come on!" (laughter) Other questions...Yes sir.
Audience: First a comment, I think that Londo is probably one of your best characters; he's not only that kind of a character, he's also a tragic hero, full of pride then he gets into trouble but then in the end he does, to the best way he could, redeems himself in the end.
JMS: He's a patriot.
Audience: But I have a question for you. The Mage books, which I thought were so good, once they came out (something), the way they explained the Mages, even more than in the shows, will that ever be shown in terms of video, movie or anything?
JMS: That...relates to...the initials I erased over here a moment ago.
(audience reacts positively)
JMS: (aside to (I think) Aisling) I told you before...no cocaine before class. Yes...
Audience: I have a question regarding you as a creator, creative type person...
JMS: Oh, I'm not qualified...
Audience: Well I think you are and my opinion counts as far as I'm concerned. (laughter) The question is, how did the events of 9/11 affect your creativity? Do you feel it's affected your writing since then?
JMS: (Pause) I have to say honestly, for the most part, no. It affected me in that Marvel asked me to write to that in a Spider-Man issue which...have you all seen that issue? (general assent) They had asked me to write something because Peter is a New York person, who better to deal with this than a New Yorker. And at first I said 'I just...I can't." I know the words are in the dictionary somewhere; which ones they are in what order to put them, I didn't have any idea. And I was on the set of Jeremiah the next day writing an email to them to say, "I can't do it." When I thought, well I'll try one more time. I just wrote down, "There are no words." And the next line followed and the next line followed. The whole thing was written in 45 minutes. No revisions as you read it, and in a voice I don't normally use. What's been good about that issue is that I've heard from ministers and rabbi's who've used it in services, teachers in high school and grade school who've used it with their kids. Those kids don't watch 'Nightline' to put things in context. And it is done an enormous amount of good. I heard from a fireman who said that "I was there that day and that book had the emotion of what we were going through." He said "What people don't understand at home is that our greatest need during this time was shoes. Because we'd be working on the rigging and our soles would melt." Boy, isn't that a hell of a metaphor? And, so to me, I got it out to some extent in that one issue. What I had to say, I said. I haven't gone back to that place again because I haven't felt that it was appropriate to do so. So it hasn't effected the writing beyond that point but it had a profound effect on that particular part of it. Other questions...
Audience: Can you tell us about Dream Police?
JMS: Dream Police is a limited series that may become a full series. I wanted to do 'Dragnet in the Dreamscape'. (laughter) Yeah, you've got it, Joe Friday and his partner, and it's done in that voice: "It's ten o'clock, everyone's sleeping. I'm on the job". (something) At one point in the story, there's a creature rampaging down the street because some stupid parent taught her kid vivid dreaming. And the kid was taking over the dreamscape and they had to find a way to deal with this terrible thing. And (as characters) "One of us has to do it." "I can't, I can't do this, you have to do this." "Fine." And he finds the kid in the dreamscape watching the destruction all around him. And he tells him "I'm an officer of the law. Can I borrow your hand for a minute?", puts the hand in a pan of warm water. Suddenly this potty comes down the street wiping everything out. It's just, it's obscene. It's..it's...it's...(something). Mike Deodato's doing the artwork. It's a hoot; it's a fun thing. I'm also doing a book called "Book of Lost Souls" which I can't talk about too much yet, but it's sort of in the spirit of Sandman. Other questions.
Audience (Jan): You may not want to answer this but I'm going to ask anyway. (JMS: pretends to call on somebody else) What ever happened to 'But in Purple, I'm Stunning'?
JMS: It's coming out in the Christmas season from Simon and Schuster (aside: The B5 quote book). You had a question.
Audience: Yes, I've read an awful lot on your moderated newsgroup on various political issues and (something, wondering if JMS might consider doing a column or official opinion pieces.)
JMS: I'm not sure that I have enough cogent things to say to merit a column. A lot of people write columns who shouldn't, a lot of people are on the air who shouldn't be on the air. (by-play) I appreciate the compliment, I'm not sure it's deserved. (something) tremendous talent. I've always tried to take...not a left or a right or Democrat or Republican point of view, but say "what makes sense?" 'Cause the reality is that the American Eagle, needs both a left and a right wing or he ain't getting' off the ground. You know? It's real frickin' simple. The problem is when both sides become didactic and the system breaks down. Which is happening, we can see happen right now. I've always said that politics has to make sense (aside: an oxymoron I understand) but I try to deal in my email, my (something) just what makes sense to me. And it isn't the colorful position you can work a column around. I'm (something) my own territory here, arguing for common logic. I thank you for the sentiment about my writings on the political stuff but I'm not qualified. Not by a long shot. Other questions? Yes Madam?
Audience (Aisling): All right, you might not be able to answer it, but...
JMS: You guys carpool or something? (Jan/Aisling: as a matter of fact, we did) (laughter)
Aisling: Now that it's a week from the date that we were hoping for some kind of announcement on the project (laughter) Wait, I haven't asked it yet! (JMS: This is how I lost my hair y'know! People like you!) (laughter) Does it look like we might actually get the announcement on the 15th? Think it's going to be next week?
JMS: It's out of my hands. It might leak out from other sources...because...because it may. (laughter) But no, it's in the hands of the Powers that Be. I ain't kiddin' around. If I really say too much, I will be seriously in Dutch.
Aisling: Not asking you to say anything, just wondering if things are still on schedule. (laughter) Okay, I'm done.
JMS: I'm right back in school... Other questions?
Audience: (asking about whether JMS knows when/if ShowTime plans to air the last part of Jeremiah)
JMS: I don't know what ShowTime's plans are about Jeremiah. I would imagine they'll air them eventually but when, I don't know. Yes..
Audience: Have you ever considered doing...working in cartoons, the cartoon environment?
JMS: I used to work in cartoons. I actually was an animated character for many years. (laughter) (by-play) Odd you should ask that. I began working on He-Man, Real Ghostbusters, She-ra other shows...some of which aren't on my resume. (laughter) Warner Brothers Animation just approached me recently about something else...which we're currently in negotiations with them about. (something)
Audience: Does that involve Babylon 5?
JMS: Who can say!? (Laughter) Sit with them! (points to Jan/Aisling) Yes, Ma'am?
Audience: What would you, now, say to you ten years ago? What is it you know now that you wish you'd known then?
JMS: Everything! (pause for thought) I might almost have said "Don't do Babylon 5"... (sounds of astonishment)...because it almost killed me. I mean literally, it almost killed me. I actually had a heart problem in the last part of it from the stress of the show. But beyond that..."Take some time off." That would be the most important thing I would have said, "Take some time off." I hadn't (haven't?) had a vacation since '88, a full week. (something) So that's probably what I would say. I hate to have introspection, I've gotta tell you. I cringe at introspection. I think it's indulgent. There's a great play, "The Last of the Marx Brothers Writers" by Louis Phillips. It had Victor Bono, you all know Victor Bono? (agreement, recognition) Huge, huge, HUGE guy, like 350 lbs. Curtain opens, the opening of the play. You're looking at a stage filled with a man's bedroom...cardboard boxes, fast food take-out papers, bags, old soda pop bottles, donut boxes...surrounding a bed...debris as far as the eye can see. There in the bed in a pair of threadbare pajamas is Victor Bono looking out from this nightmare...he says to the audience: "I know what you're thinking...I'm losing my hair. (laughter) That's my thought about indulgence. Yes sir.
Audience: Since the properties pretty much directionless right now, if Paramount called you up and said, "We want you as producer in charge of Star Trek" what would you say? (laughter)
JMS: You're not gonna believe this...I can't comment on that. (incredulous) This may mean nothing whatsoever. It's all in the hands of god and my agent.
Aisling: Did anyone tell you about last week's Enterprise?
JMS: You should have been doing your homework at that time, Madame.
Aisling: The title was "E Squared", it was a time travel thing, it had a character named Lorien.
JMS: Fred Allen once said, "Imitation is the sincerest form of television". (laughter) Other questions...who hasn't asked one yet?
Audience: Any (plans?) to address the Crusade story?
JMS: Uh....(gestures toward the erased blackboard) Other questions.
Question: Is there anything of your current projects that you can talk about? (huge laughter)
JMS: Well... the comics. The books (shared universe-Distant Worlds and the Quote Book) um...(Jan: DVDs.)
Oh! Yes, DVDs. Well, we've finished up the commentaries for the set of movies that are coming out. And we're working currently on the Crusade DVDs. The hiccup we have hit on the Crusade DVDs...And by the way, they're selling great. I've heard that they've netted - netted, mind you, over 70 million dollars just from the first three and a half seasons. (applause) When they said, do you want to do the Crusade commentaries, assuming of course that we get the rest of them (something), I said "Absolutely." (they said) What do you want to talk about?" JMS: "I want to say what happened." (they stutter) "What do you mean?" JMS: "The TRUTH!" I want to put the truth out there. We are now on our fourth (something) of Legal Affairs. "He wants to do what??" "The TRUTH!" I have another conference call scheduled on Thursday with Legal Affairs. We're running out of time for the DVDs. I said, "Look if I can't get the truth out, then I don't want to support the DVDs."
Audience: I can see some big-ass disclaimers over that one.
JMS: I want the real truth to come out. Including the fact...I ran into some guys who worked for TNT about two years after Crusade went down. And they said, "Did you ever hear the rest of the story?" JMS: "What rest of the story?" TNT guys: "We found out, we did a research survey, a five year long study of our ratings. This was just after Crusade got going. And, we found out that the audience for B5 came for B5, then left afterward. And the TNT regular viewers didn't stick around for B5 and went away and came back. B5 wasn't adding to our viewer base." So...they decided to pull the plug on Crusade for that reason and use the money to buy another show. But they couldn't say that because they'd be in breach of contract with Warner Bros. So their job was to make it impossible for us so they could then say, "We aren't getting the show we want, our notes aren't being dealt with, therefore we aren't responsible, we're canceling the show, this is your nut Warner Bros., you take care of it." That is why all the notes became so egregious. If I had given them everything they wanted, they still would have pulled the plug. They just wanted out. Yeah, I want that information out there. (Audience: We'll take care of that) On the DVDs. You all heard the tenor of the notes? (agreement, requests for JMS to tell some anyway) That's all right. Other questions... Yes, sir.
Audience: Forgetting the Powers That Be at Marvel, how long would you like to see yourself writing the Amazing Spider-Man?
JMS: As long as they put up with me. I enjoy writing the book a lot. There's going to be a point where I think I will lose a bit of creativity on it because when you do it for so long things tend to fall through the cracks. So my hope is to be off by that point. But I can see myself doing it for another two-three-four years depending on the breaks. I love it. It's an iconic character. I've peeled away the stuff around him reasonably well. Now my job is to reintroduce his supporting cast and developing those characters giving him a more well rounded universe. I dropped the ball a bit on the high school teaching thing.
(At this point the first side of the tape ends. The second side picks up a few minutes later.)
Audience: Which medium do you like working in the most? Which is the most rewarding? Comics, TV or do you think you might want to do a feature film? (laughter)
JMS: I may do one soon. [aside: that was clever] I like all of them, all for different reasons. I like the fact that writing a good article teaches you structure; which you can then apply to a short story; which teaches you dialogue which you can apply into a script; which you can then apply into a novel. It all feeds into each other. I enjoy working in every area. I think that it keeps you fresh as a writer. The worst thing you can do is to get complacent with your own work so I try to put myself into positions where I have to fail on occasion because only by doing so can you learn what you have to learn. The military has this philosophy that failure is not only a part of the process, it's a mandatory part of the process. See where the machine breaks down so you can then address it and fix it and go on from there. So I try and find ways to challenge myself in ways I know I can fail. The graphic novel Delicate Creatures...parts of it are really good, parts of it the poetry is just...it's the burning of the eyes, not the smell that gets to ya. But I learned from that. If I had to pick one with a gun to my head, I'd stay with television because it is the means of getting the widest possible audience for the stories you have to tell. And television has become so much dominated by the Visigoths and the Huns that it is incumbent upon the rest of us to stay in there. Because if you don't, there is no voice for intelligence. Not that I'm saying I am, but that's the goal.
I was working on Murder She Wrote and I had a meeting with the network about the script I'd just written and my EP [Executive Producer] and I went into the meeting and he knows how I am with notes. And he says "Whatever he says, don't make a big deal out of it, it's just notes." So I go in and there's very minimal, very small notes. The show is about a cop who's been chasing a bad guy for the last ten years and finally finds him. At one point the cop and the bad guy have a conversation. The bad guy says "I should be flattered. Not every man has his own personal Ahab." Not a bad line. So we're in the meeting and go through the script and the guy from CBS says "There's a typo by the way." "There's a character who's referenced in the script who's never seen again." (disbelief, laughter) JMS: "Oh, where?" CBS guy: "Ah-HAB" JMS: "A-hab?" CBS guy: "Yeah, he's over here." JMS: "No, Ahab. As in Captain Ahab. As in Moby Dick. Guy chases a big fish?" Quote: "Well I have an MBA [aside: which tells you the problem right there.] and if I don't know who it is, nobody else will, so cut it out." I started to go for him! It would have been a mercy killing. My EP says to me, "Now, make a big deal out of this, I know how you are, just let it go." JMS: "I won't make a big deal out of it, I promise." I found a copy of Classics Illustrated Moby Dick and sent it to him. There were phone calls. I think ignorance should be helped along. The guys I work with, their job is to take phone calls that begin with the words, "Do you know what he's done now?" (laughter)
Unless you have voices that will fight for that sort of thing, then television will all become reality shows. (disgust) Some of them are okay. Dunking the Politician is a good show... Other questions? Who hasn't asked one?
Audience: (mostly unintelligible...something to do with Spider-Man never having dealt with Doc Strange and alternate dimensions before?)
JMS: Yeah. Which is why I dealt with it in the book. What I tried to do with Spidey was introduce (something) the spider bite an accident or was it destined to happen to him? And if so, why him? And if so, what directed it? When you introduce causality, causality implies purpose and purpose implies changes in the character and in the universe around him. I wanted to introduce causality into that storyline to see where it went. It let us open up the story to new ways of thinking about who and what he was. He asks the question about his spider-sense. A regular spider got that, sticking to the wall, got that, spider sense. That's telepathy, dude. Spiders can't see things around the corner. You sense things that are behind you, do you have eyes back there? I like to ask unusual questions about things, the chance to really get in there and use the mystical and (something) parts to see different parts of his personality in new ways. But I don't for that to become the sole thing that the book's about so I'll begin to phase that out soon and go in a different direction. Joe..
Audience (Joe Nazzaro): (something) maybe talking about Supreme Power. Because you just raised an interesting point; a lot of the great things that I've heard a lot of people talking about today when talking about Supreme Power is that you've basically taken sort of reflections of iconic characters, the Superman icon, the Batman icon, and basically turned them completely on their head. I'm sort of curious, could you talk a little bit about what made you decide to do the book, applying what you just said about asking these questions about archetypes that we've known about all our lives.
JMS: I took the book on because I love (something) work on the team. It let me take those iconic characters and retell them in modern fashion. I wanted to do it in a very cinematic fashion. One way of doing that is never, ever, ever going to an interior monologue. As you read Spidey, all the characters use interior voices, thoughts and captions. There's never a single caption in terms of interior monologue in Supreme Power. It keeps you at a certain remove from the characters. What it does is it makes them ominous by their distance. You're never quite sure what Mark Milton is thinking, what's really inside of his head. And having a person that powerful and you're not really sure where his loyalties are, is kind of fun. I wanted to take that opportunity to re-examine what power is and what power does. I made the name Supreme Power rather than Squadron Supreme to ask the question "If power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, what does supreme power do?", with godlike power, what's that going to do to you and see where it takes us. So it's a chance to ask the big questions and I love those. Other questions...
Audience: What did you think of the Spider-Man movie and how did that movie affect any policies regarding how you approached the book?
JMS: It really didn't because the book, of course, was written with a lot of lead time behind it so when that movie came out, I had four or five issues done down the road. There was never a question from Marvel to try line up the book with the movie, which I have to commend them for. I thought the movie was a fair representation of who Peter was, a good arc to the story and I thought it was very well done. So it didn't affect the book per se.
Audience: And now with the second film also?
JMS: Haven's seen it.
Audience: I mean, both these films, they're not really affecting how you write the book, you're not told...
JMS: Marvel's been...they leave me alone. They don't say 'line it up with the movie', they don't say anything. I turn in my scripts, they don't touch 'em, they don't rewrite 'em, they cut my checks, (laughter) and I...they pay me very well. The lights dim at Marvel when my checks are cut (laughter). So no, I don't plan to tie anything in to that. Yes, over there...
Audience: This is a strange...
JMS: A strange question, what're the odds? (laughter)
Audience: I had and argument with a friend of mine about this whole thing in 'To Live and Die in Starlight' about whether the 'white hand' was actually something you had thought of, was in the chronology back when you started B5? I was like, "He planned everything, it must be." So even though it's the sole reference to the white hand I'm wondering if they had been there all along in your mind or was it created when you wrote it?
JMS: There was a group that I'd (something) and I figured one more (something) to Tolkein couldn't hurt too much. There are a number of groups that you haven't heard from at all, I haven't had a chance to get there yet.
Audience: You actually had them there all along or at least some sense of them.
JMS: Yeah. You have to. You have to work out the history in great detail in either direction. It's like, for all those years the Europeans didn't know about the people in South America until they finally met up and that intersection caused great change. So I try and implement that kind force of history thing. You had a question.
Audience: Spider-Man movie? Anyone approach you to write a script for that, or can you not talk about that...?
JMS: No, I haven't been approached to write a script for it and didn't figure I would. It's a big blockbuster movie, they have major film guys who are known for that. There's a certain onus, I have lately discovered, about TV writers working in film. There's a certain stigma attached to that I suppose. That's why I haven't been asked to write that. (something)
Audience: If you could do so without interference, what would be the next project that you would want to work on?
JMS: Superman movie. (favorable sounds) Give me that character. I'll fix him. (laughter, applause)
Audience: (something about Dukhat but I couldn't hear it)
JMS: Dukhat? No, he's a very quiet guy to begin with, so he doesn't talk a whole lot. The reason the others are there so much is because I lived with them every day for the better part of six years between the pilot and Crusade and everything else. So when you spend time, are married to or live with somebody for six years, they can go away but their voices are still in the walls. And that's kind of (something) with those characters. So it's never a problem to write them again because they're always there. I just open the door and, you know, turn the hearing aid back on again. Yes...
Audience: Out of all your cancelled projects, which one would you like to resume first?
JMS: There's only been a couple. (laughter) He's being mean to me! Umm...Crusade. That's the obvious choice because that one was cut short...it was shot in it's cradle by unfair means and that pisses me off. So I will fix that one way or the other. Yes...
Audience: You mentioned Moby Dick and Tolkein. I'm just curious if you read for recreation now and if so, what or who do you like?
JMS: Unfortunately my reading has kinda gone downhill of late, I've been so busy. I like a cross-section, I read mostly non-fiction these days. I read the Al Franken book, which is terrific, but my fiction's kind of gone downhill recently. I love the classics. I love magic realism.
Audience: Who's your favorite? When you were a kid?
JMS: When I was a kid? Mark Twain. But not the regular stuff. It was all the corner-of-the-eye stuff - Mysterious Stranger, that kind of stuff. Ray Bradbury, Tolkein, Asimov, Clarke, Ellison, obviously. I worked my way through the adult section when I was (gestures about waist level) about this high. When I first came across Lord of the Rings it was just astonishing. The sheer scape, the scope of the thing. Scape being a combination of scale and scope together-more efficient that way. And of course Rod Serling was a huge influence on me growing up. That voice is so distinct. My best story, actually...while I was at the Zone...I had grown up on it, it was a big influence on me....and...I was in High School....
The High School had their Career Day where they bring in the best actors, the best athletes, best singers, thebestwriters, all come to the school together in one place...for more efficient nuking, I suppose. (laughter) So they had all the writers off by themselves in one corner where they couldn't be found. I'm there and I've got three or four short stories in front of me, all fantasy kind of stuff, dark fantasy. Southwestern college. And a guy comes in who looks kinda familiar but out of context you don't place them. Salt-and-pepper hair, about 5 foot 6, corduroy jacket. He walks down the row, stops in front of my desk where the stories are, picks one up and walks over to a lawn chair, reads the story-it's only a few pages long. Comes back, reads a second one. Perches in front of my desk, looks at me for a second and says, "You have a great and abiding talent for somebody your age. Two pieces of advice: First, cut every third adjective [aside: I'm still working on that one]. (laughter) Second, never let them stop you from telling the stories you want to tell." And leaves. The advisor, who was as far away from me as that wall (the rear wall of the classroom) plus, comes on rockets, "What'd he say, what'd he say?"
I told him what he said. "Why?"
"That's Rod Serling! He's here to give a talk tonight..."
I never heard the rest of it. (laughter) I was out the door. Gone, like an apparition. He was giving a talk at the college that evening and I didn't even have enough money to afford to buy a ticket. I couldn't even hear him. So years later, I'm now working on 'The Twilight Zone' and they tell me that they've found an outline by Rod that he'd never put into script form. "Do you want to collaborate with him posthumously?" (eager small boy voice/posture) "Yeah!" I read the outline...and you write an outline just for yourself and the network and the studios are all who ever sees it. You don't put a lot of time into it. Every word was a polished gem. There's a line where he's describing a room where an old woman is dying. Just a room, okay? "Paneled walls, polished by darkness.." (appreciation) Fuck me. (laughter) I could sit there for a year and not come up with that line. I did the script, shared a byline with Rod. Got a letter from his wife saying that it sounded just like Rod had written it. Which...just...kill me now, I'm done! (laughter) I finish up the show and, as is my wont, I always buy one gift for myself that, to me, embodies that big project whatever it was. I went to an art deco store in (something) and I saw a bunch of art deco watches. One of them was the Hamilton Ventura. They'd just come out with it, brand new, it was made in the 50s originally, the first electric watch. They'd found some old pieces, put them together and made new watches, they were about to put out a whole line of them. I liked it so "I'll buy one of those." He's wrapping it up and we're talking while the credit card goes through. "What do you do?"
"I'm a writer."
"Oh, really? The last on of these I had, thirty years ago, I sold to a writer."
"Really? Who was that?"
I went home, checked it out. Sure enough, I found a picture of him wearing the exact, identical kind of watch. And I just finished up (gestures to the blackboard) this...(laughter) Gauntlet press is putting out a collection of Rod's scripts and they asked me to do an introduction for it so I did an intro for that. And a signed edition.
But the best part was, when I was working on 'Zone', they said "We may want to remake some early Zone scripts. Who wants to volunteer to go to the archives and read through them?" (raises his hand like a schoolboy wanting to be called on) (laughter) So I got up to the archives and there are all these scripts with Rod's handwritten notes (sighs of wonder/envy) all over them.
Audience: Are they all still there?
JMS: I couldn't take them out! They said "Take a couple of copies of whatever you need." (JMS said) "I want (points) that one, that one, that one, that one, that one, that one (laughter) that one, that one..." I still have them, all the copies. Whenever I get too cocky as a writer, I pull down a Rod Serling script and read it and I'm such a freakin' amateur by comparison. What a marvelous writer he was, what a marvelous writer... Yeah.
Audience: Can you talk a little about the process of writing, do you write at a certain time of day, do you write in longhand, (something)
JMS: I work at the keyboard. For some reason it has to come out my fingers, I can't compose...I can decompose eventually (laughter). I can't handwrite it. I write between about nine-ten o'clock at night and four in the morning. That's my prime. I'm still half asleep you see as I stand here. Around midnight there's this gong that goes off and I'm like (alert) "Hi! How you doing?" The biggest problem people have when they try to write is they get in their own way. They think what they know writing is, rather they think what it sounds like, and it's not. It comes out to literary, too forced. Best comparison I can give to you is...you've got a dance hall. The guy over there just finished the Arthur Murray School of Dance and he's doing fine. But you hear him "One-two-three, one-two-three". And over here you've got Fred Astaire. And he's just dancing. There's dancing and trying to dance. There's writing and trying to write. That's where you fall down. Writing is nothing more than speaking on the page. It's getting all the crap out of the way between here and here so you say what you mean to say clearly and concisely without trying to be too forced about it. That's the hardest part, getting out of your own way to unlearn
(some moments of silence as the recorder pushed a wrong button)
JMS: I imagine it like a movie in my head, seeing the scene. I don't write it down, I play it over and over and over till it's tight, end to end. Then I just transcribe it and I almost never go back and rewrite. Very rare. Those of you who have B5 scripts that you've somehow gotten your hands on (JMS and newsgroupies all look at one person) (laughter)
Jan: Speaking of handwritten notes...
JMS: No names...no names....Jan. You will see that most of them have either white drafts or blue drafts, occasionally you'll get a green or a pink. The fist draft is the white, you make production changes and you go for one more draft which is blue, then pink and so on. Almost never do I do dialogue changes they're just written. They come out, I write them and shunt them out. Because by the time I actually write it down I've played it through so many times in my head it's solid. It's just getting out of my own way to make that happen. Where I fall down is when I think about it too much or too much time goes by. The best shows that I wrote I did in one day, maybe two days. Sleeping in Light was a one day write. A lot of the other ones were one day writes. The worse the script, the longer it took. Grey 17 took two weeks. (laughter) What more need one say? The (something) is, you lose the fingerprints of the story. When you write in a white heat you're not being critical, just bam, writing it down. If you're taking your time, if you're fighting it, "Maybe I should do this instead, maybe I should do that..." and it (something). So just...get out of your own way. That's the best advice I can give anybody to be honest with you.
Audience: Do you have any plans for the Rangers?
JMS: Rangers? No, not at present, no. (questioner is disappointed) I didn't say I'm not going to do it. There's (something)
Audience: I'm curious about how different it is to write for an iconic character like Peter Parker versus the character that you create.
JMS: Well, you know with iconic characters, you really can't go too far. There are parameters there. You can't break the merchandise. Whereas with my own characters I'm more than happy to break them on occasion. It's better to me if I break them on occasion. But there's also a responsibility too. Spider-Man is Marvel's flagship character so I have an obligation there to treat him correctly, At times I get a little self-conscious about that. But with my own characters I just don't give a shit. I'll kill anybody. (laughter) And in my writing, too. (more laughter)
Audience: Now you're starting to finish up Rising Stars. Has the ending been what you thought it would be in the beginning?
JMS: The ending is what I wanted it to be. There's a kind of...lapse of energy that happened toward the last part of what was done before and the first part that's coming up where I was kind of off the road for too long and it takes a while to heat up. It'll end up where it needs to be but the road there is bumpier than I'd've liked it to be.
(JMS looks at a certain person who's raised her hand for the umpteenth time)
Jan: It's a serious question that I think high school students would want to hear.
JMS: Is it one I can answer?
Jan: As a matter of fact, yes.
JMS: Okay. This is so hard...(laughter) Yes?
Jan: You're well known for advising and encouraging people to follow their dreams. What about people who may not have found their dream yet or may have lost it along the way? What would you say to them?
JMS: I say bullshit. You know in your heart what you want to do. You may be denying it, but you always know. Kids...if you look at kids, they spontaneously sing, spontaneously dance, tell stories, act things out. Then somewhere along the line someone says to them, "You can't do that. You shouldn't do that. Professionals do that, you shouldn't be doing that." And you stop doing these things. You stop listening to the voice in your head that says "I enjoy this!" What you want to do is what gives you pleasure. My parents said, "Comic books, bad! You'll never make a living at that stuff." (laughter) "Stop watching television all the time." I've made a living doing what I love. The first part being, of course, finding out what it is you love. And you know that, in your heart. So when someone says to me "I don't know what I want to do.", bullshit! They should do it. They may be afraid to try it, that's a whole different scenario. People want to try and find lives where courage is not necessary. One small problem - it's not possible. I'm foursquare for courage, always have been. I don't believe in denying the obvious. You in this room know what you want to do with your lives. Whether it is apparent to you up front up here (gestures to his heart), back here you know (gestures to the back of his head). What gives you pleasure. What you like doing. If you want to be a carpenter but your parents say, "Be a physicist. Be a Doctor." but your goal is you love being a carpenter, you love working with wood. You want to (something) being a good carpenter and spend your days doing what you enjoy.
There's (something) used to talk about his grandfather who was a painter, illustrator. And he was dying. He went to see him. What do you say? And the grandfather was saying, "Look, I'm fine. Because there's two kinds of tired. There's good tired and bad tired. Bad tired, oddly enough, could be a day when you've won. You've fought someone else's battles, lived their agendas, fought for their goals...there wasn't much of 'you' in there. Good tired could be a day that you've lost but you've fought your battles, lived you agendas and at night you settled easy." He said, "I've painted all my life, I wish I could have done more stuff, but I'm good tired and they can take me away." Whatever else you can say about me and my work, I'm good tired. And that's the goal, to become good tired. (something) Be good tired. Other questions...
Audience: As a comic book writer, is there an artist you haven't collaborated with yet that you'd like to?
JMS: I would love to work with Al Jolson. That would be terrific. I have more of his original art that I've purchased through nefarious means. (laughter)
Audience: You spoke of Rod Serling. What other writers do you admire?
JMS: My friend Harlan Ellison. Ray Bradbury's early work. Neil Gaimon, who's just terrific. Many others who are all too (something). I've led a very charmed life, a very (something) life. I was a Harlan Ellison fan my whole life and he's my best pal now. A Rod Serling fan and I got to work with him posthumously. It's a very strange thing. I have somebody I care a lot about as a writer and end up working with them. And (something) freaking weird.
(frustratingly....the tape ends in the middle of the next story and I can't recall the ending)