Star Trek, Darkover, Thunderbirds, and Fan Fiction: An Interview With Joan Marie Verba (Part One)

When Joan Marie Verba's book, Boldly Writting: A Trekker Fan and Zine History, 1967-1987, first appeared, I wrote the following blurb:

This book pulls together an incredible amount of information about the history of fandom and does a major service for anyone who either wants to relive those exciting years or to better understand how Star Trek emerged as such a national and international phenomenon. I'll give you a clue. If Star Trek lives, it is because of what early fans like Verba made of it. I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in fandom (which increasingly means anyone interested in popular culture).

Verba is one of the foremothers of modern media fandom, helping to model a new identity -- the fans as archivist and chronicler. We've seen other such fan projects emerge in more recent years, especially on the web, but because Star Trek was in some ways the ur-fandom, the template from which other fandoms have been modeled, this book continues to hold a special place on my bookshelf -- and indeed, I see it on the shelves of many aca-fen around the world.

Like many fans before her, Verba has found ways to transform her passions into her profession, increasingly publishing as a science writer and now, as the author of a series of professional novels focused around Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds. Today, I am offering an interview with Verba. In today's installment, she discusses her early involvement in Star Trek and Darkover fandom. Next time, we will get into her more recent work helping to sustain fan interest in Thunderbirds, another series of the 1960s that refuses to die.

Your book, Boldly Writing, has become an irreplaceable chronicle of the early history of Star Trek fan fiction writing. Can you give us some sense of your own involvement with fandom in those early years?

I have watched Star Trek since it premiered in 1966. I learned about Star Trek fandom when I was a junior in high school, at a district-wide speech competition. During one of the breaks, one of the other participants, Anthony Tollin, was talking about the World Science Fiction Convention, which got my attention. He also spoke about Star Trek, and told me that a local fan, Ruth Berman, published a Star Trek fanzine. He gave me her phone number, and I called for information. That's how I got started. Her fanzine had notices about other fanzines. I ordered them, and they had notices for still more fanzines. I ordered them. And so on.

In 1972, when I was in college, I went to my first convention, the Detroit Triple Fan Fair. Gene Roddenberry and Majel Barrett were there. (I encountered them alone in an elevator and got their autographs.) In 1973, I joined the Minnesota Science Fiction Society, and Helen Young invited me to join the Star Trek Welcommittee. (I remained in STW until it disbanded in the mid-1990s.) I went to my first World Science Fiction Convention in 1975, and joined the Mythopoeic Society in that year, as well.

My primary activities in fandom were centered around fanzines and fan publications. In the age before the Internet, those were our primary means of communication. I was a frequent letter-writer to fan newsletters and letterzines, as well as a regular contributor to Minneapa. I read and commented on fan fiction on a regular basis.

My first fanzine short story (it was a science fiction story, not a Star Trek story) was published in Masiform D. It was a while before my first Star Trek fan fiction story was published, not because I wasn't writing any, but because I sent them to fanzines whose editors had professional-level writing and editing skills (as opposed to fanzines that would publish anything). Because, looking back, my stories then weren't very good, my first fan fiction stories were rejected, but with comments that allowed me to slowly improve until my stories were accepted. Eventually, I published my own fanzines and newsletters, but not until the 1980s, when I felt I knew enough about fanzine writing and production to issue a quality publication.

What relationship existed between the rise of Star Trek fanzines and the longer history of zine publishing in science fiction fandom?

With one or two exceptions, the vast majority of early Star Trek fanzines were published by science fiction fans who had read and/or published science fiction fanzines. (Though by the time Star Trek came along, very few science fiction fanzines published fiction, since there were sufficient professional science fiction magazines for short story writers to submit to. For Star Trek fiction writers, there was little or no opportunity for publication except for fanzines for the large supply of and demand for stories.)

Once Star Trek fanzines had been established, readers with no knowledge of science fiction fanzines read Star Trek fanzines and got the idea to publish their own Star Trek fanzines as well.

What connections can we draw between the publishing of fanzines and the fan letter writing campaign intended to keep the series on the air?

I know of only a handful of Star Trek fanzines and newsletters that had been published at the time John and Bjo Trimble were rallying fans to write letters to Paramount to demand a third season of Star Trek (or to protest the cancellation at the end of the third season). Those that were in existence, did, of course, encourage fans to contribute to those letter-writing campaigns.

Star Trek fanzines and newsletters, however, were essential to the letter-writing campaigns to bring back Star Trek, first as an animated series, and then as a movie. The short-lived but influential Star Trek Association for Revival put a lot of effort into a letter-writing campaign. The Star Trek Welcommittee was always promoting revival, until the movies came and became self-perpetuating. In addition, many fanzines and fan newsletters published before Star Trek: The Motion Picture encouraged their readers to write Paramount.

You were involved with Darkover fan fiction as well as Star Trek. What comparison would you draw between the relations of fans and official producers in both cases?

Gene Roddenberry was supportive of fanzines and fan newsletters, and the support went both ways. He and his assistants would give out information to fanzine editors and publishers and directly to fans at conventions (he had an annual call-in to the August Party convention for several years). In particular, the development of Star Trek: The Next Generation was thoroughly documented in fan newsletters through information from Gene Roddenberry and his assistants. (Fans did influence that development. For instance, initially there were no Klingons in ST:TNG; after fans wrote him about it, he added Worf.) After becoming connected with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Harve Bennett regularly communicated with fans, through fan newsletters such as Interstat as well as through convention appearances. He did listen and respond to fan feedback on his productions, and he seemed to keep in mind fan preferences in making the Star Trek movies he produced, though for every movie, there were fans who were satisfied and dissatisfied with the results.

Marion Zimmer Bradley actively communicated with Darkover fans. She had an official newsletter that she and her assistants produced and published, as well as an official fanzine. She edited and published Darkover stories contributed by fans, including my stories. When DAW Books published their official Darkover anthologies, Marion asked me and other contributors to her official fanzine to contribute to those anthologies as well. My Darkover stories appeared in every anthology except one.

GR and HB both knew about fan fiction and occasionally read it. (Interestingly, I discovered two Star Trek fan fiction stories written by MZB in Star Trek fanzines.) MZB actively read Darkover fan fiction sent to her, and published it. (She graciously published my Lady Bruna story, saying she found it interesting even though she said upfront that it was different from her own official Lady Bruna story. I enjoyed her Lady Bruna story; she enjoyed mine.) There was a lot of mutual admiration; when MZB's health began to deteriorate, she enlisted Darkover fans and anthology writers to continue the Darkover series of novels professionally.

Has the influence of fan fiction been largely felt within fandom -- as in some ways the prototype for many subsequent fandoms -- or has it also been felt on the commercial production and popular production of Star Trek?

As I mentioned earlier, the production crew of Star Trek has generally been aware of fan fiction and fan opinion, and there definitely has been influence.

A story was told to me that in Deep Space Nine, the reason that Bashir had such a brief romance with Leeta, and the reason Bashir didn't get Dax until the very last episode, was that the production staff was aware that there were a lot of ladies in love with the Bashir character, and they didn't want to get Bashir permanently attached during the series because of that. As the editor and publisher of the official newsletter of the Bashir fan club at the time, I know that the production crew of DS9, even if they didn't read fan fiction, were well aware of fan opinion of the various characters (nearly every character in DS9 had an official fan club), and occasionally that opinion did influence what showed up on the screen. I know that some of the actors read DS9 fan fiction, however, and wouldn't be surprised if some of the production crew knew about it, as well.

You end your account in the late 1980s just before the internet started to have an impact on fan fiction publishing. What do you see as the biggest changes in fan fiction -- Star Trek or otherwise -- since the end of your account?

As it happens, I have only rarely read fan fiction since the 1990s. I have been concentrating on my own professional writing and publishing, and haven't had the extra time to follow the current Internet fan fiction culture. (When I was heavily involved with fan fiction, I often thought that the time I spent on it was equivalent to a full-time job.)

From what little I do know, the Internet has changed the process significantly. When fan fiction was on the page, writers sent stories to the editor of a fanzine, and maybe had a couple of friends read it in addition, before publication. Once it was published, a fan fiction writer sometimes received feedback, and sometimes didn't. A lot of fan writers before the Internet complained about a lack of response. Of course, the readership base was a lot smaller---limited to the number of fanzines published, which often was in the hundreds at the most. Now a story on the Internet is instantly available for feedback, doesn't usually go through an editor (though I understand there's a "beta reader" system), and is potentially available to thousands, if not millions, of readers at a time and extensive commentary is not only possible, but common.

Joan Marie Verba earned a bachelor of physics degree from the University of Minnesota Institute of Technology and attended the graduate school of astronomy at Indiana University, where she was an associate instructor of astronomy for one year. She has worked as a computer programmer, editor, publisher, and health/weight loss coach. An experienced writer, she is the author of the nonfiction books Voyager: Exploring the Outer Planets, Boldly Writing, and Weight Loss Success, as well as the novels Countdown to Action, Action Alert, and Deadly Danger, plus numerous short stories and articles. She is a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. She has served on the board of directors of both the Minnesota Science Fiction Society and the Mythopoeic Society.

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