Growing up in New Mexico, TV writer, editor and novelist Melinda Snodgrass tried on a lot of hats: opera singer, history student, corporate lawyer. She quit law after three years. “Ultimately, I realized that while I loved the law I pretty much hated lawyers,” she says. “I also realized that writers were the most interesting people in the world and I wanted to be with them.”
Her instincts paid off. In the 1980s she wrote novels about a future judge in outer space. She wrote an acclaimed script for Star Trek: The Next Generation, and worked on several TV shows, including the NBC crime drama Profiler. She wrote the TV pilot Star Command, which aired on the UPN network. Her latest novel, In Evil Times, is part of a series described by one critic as a “space opera with a social conscience.”
Today, the Santa Fe writer is executive producer of what will likely become television’s Next Big Thing: an alternative universe project created by Snodgrass, A Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin and a bevy of other sci-fi writers. The series, about an alien virus that changes America after World War II, debuted in 1987—ten years before Game of Thrones kicked off Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. To date, some 30 writers—including Snodgrass—have contributed to the Wild Cards universe.
In her off time she plays video games, blogs and competes in the world of dressage, a highly skilled form of horse riding and training.
Snodgrass will speak at the Historical Writers of America’s Sept. 21-24 conference at the Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort, just north of Albuquerque. She will also teach a class in screenwriting and sign books—along with longtime friend and collaborator George R.R. Martin—during Saturday’s book signing event.
HWA board member Paul Davis recently caught up with Snodgrass, who talked about her early life, career and the upcoming Wild Cards project.
Her father, she says, was an early influence. At various times, he ran a flight school, made candy, played jazz, trafficked in Prohibition booze and operated a jukebox, pinball and vending machine company. James—he preferred Harry—taught Snodgrass how to fly fish, shoot a target and ride a black and white pinto horse named Suncloud.
“He was an amazing man. He had a beautiful baritone voice, and he would make up songs to sing me to sleep when I was little. He played the sax, clarinet, piccolo, trumpet and piano. He had a jazz band in the 1920s and 1930s. He owned a nightclub and then lost it during the 1929 stock market crash, when the bank foreclosed on him. He wanted me to be a crooner, but nature had given me a classical voice so he switched gears and sent me to an opera teacher. He also allowed me to study opera in Vienna.”
Snodgrass sang at the Civic Light Opera in Albuquerque, as Guinevere in Camelot and Mei Li in The Flower Drum Song. She majored in history at the University of New Mexico. After that, she studied constitutional law at the New Mexico School of Law.
Paul: You majored in history in college. Why?
Melinda: I guess I got that from my dad. I remember him reading both non-fiction and fiction books, including historical novels by Thomas Costain (the bestselling author of The Black Rose, The Silver Chalice and Son of a Hundred Kings). Just as my beloved science fiction takes you to different worlds, so does history. What’s interesting to me is how the furniture changes, but people don’t. Same concerns and worries whether it’s ancient Egypt or France in the thirteenth century.
Paul: Do you remember the moment you decided to become a writer? How old were you?
Melinda: Thirty. And yes I remember clearly. I was miserably unhappy in this corporate law firm. A dear friend had told me he thought I could write if I tried. Then I saw The Empire Strikes Back and when Yoda said to Luke. “Do or do not. There is no try.” I realized that I had to make a decision. I could stay on in this office being miserable until I inherited the big office up front and got to terrorize a young associate or I could reach for the brass ring. My dad had always taught me that you don’t win unless swing for the fences and are willing to take risks. I literally quit the next day.
Paul: Why science fiction? Did you read science fiction as a kid?
Melinda: The first book I remember my dad reading to me was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I always wanted to be an astronaut and got so mad when people would tell me that girls couldn’t be astronauts. One of the first books I read on my own was A Princess of Mars, and then I discovered Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings when I was about ten. I prefer science fiction to fantasy, and hopeful science fiction that tells us we can inherit the stars. Fantasy is too nostalgic for me and magic makes everything too easy. And I don’t like dystopias because there is nothing wrong with a happy ending and giving people hope.
Paul: How did you know Victor Milan, the award-winning author of The Dinosaur Lords, Storm Breakers and The Cybernetic Samurai?
Melinda: Vic is the writer who told me that he bet I could write if I tried. I owe him my career by encouraging me to start writing.
Paul: How did you meet George R.R. Martin? By the 1980s he had published novels and written for several TV shows, including the revived The Twilight Zone and Max Headroom.
Melinda: I met George when he moved down to New Mexico, and we instantly became friends. I got him into role playing, and he got me into Hollywood by encouraging me to write a spec script that he then showed to his agent. I think I got the better end of the deal. Although—
Paul: What was it like writing for TV shows? Were you a Star Trek fan when you wrote “The Measure of a Man?” for Star Trek: The Next Generation?
Melinda: I adore being in a writers’ room, and I ran the writers’ room on Profiler. To work with a lot of talented people breaking stories, and then helping them hone their scripts is just so much fun. Writing is a very solitary profession. Being in a writers’ room helps ease that loneliness.
I grew up on original Trek and loved it dearly. Spock, Kirk, McCoy. So when I wrote “Measure” I thought of it as an original Trek story. Lots of heart and conflict—which was sorely lacking in Next Generation.
Paul: Did that script help your career?
Melinda: That script launched my career. Got me nominated for a Writer’s Guild award for outstanding writing in a drama.
Paul: How did the Wild Cards project come about?
Melinda: Our role-playing groups led to Wild Cards. Victor had given George a game called Superworld, and we were playing it obsessively—three nights a week until two and three in the morning. George would stay over at my house (I was living in Albuquerque then and he lived in Santa Fe). One morning he staggered out and declared there had to be a way to make money out of this obsession. I cooked breakfast and then we worked out the entire premise for the shared world over blueberry pancakes and bacon.
Paul: You’ve been an editor and writer on the Wild Card series. What’s next? Will there be more books? A TV series?
Melinda: We have six more books in the pipeline for Wild Cards, graphic novels and the TV series. I'm an executive producer and will be a writer on the show once we get it set up at a network.
Paul: What's your role in the project? Will you work with George?
Melinda: George will not be actively involved on the show since he’s exclusive to HBO, but he is part of the planning phase.
Paul: Any advice for HWA's aspiring writers?
Melinda: Take risks. Never hoard your silver bullet. Just say the words. And remember that writing is the one profession where no one has to give you permission to write. You just write. It’s the only profession where you never stop learning and never stop improving which is why I love it. The only other thing that matches that sense of endless discovery is riding dressage. Which is why I do that too.
HWA Board Member Paul Davis features profiles of the presenters from HWA Conferences, as well as other news-worthy subjects. Paul, a 30+ year veteran journalist, attended the HWA Conference and is in the midst of planning for the next one.