When a character grows popular enough to endure for decades, at the hands of more than one writer, the difference between sequels and fan fiction can get awfully blurry. Few writers understand that messy feeling better than Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fanboy at the helm of Star Trek: Picard. In the new CBS All Access series premiering January 23rd, Sir Patrick Stewart reprises his Star Trek: The Next Generation role as Jean-Luc Picard, now a Starfleet retiree running the family vineyard in France.
A literary wunderkind for early novels The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys, Chabon took his writing career to another level with 2000’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a dense, beautiful story of two Jewish cousins who create a beloved superhero, the Escapist, near the dawn of World War II. This wasn’t a highbrow author slumming it, but Chabon bringing a lifelong love of superheroics and science fiction into a world he had already conquered. He was rewarded with the Pulitzer for fiction, and followed Kavalier & Clay with similarly genre-bending books like The Final Solution (an elderly Sherlock Holmes solves a mystery in the Forties) and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (a murder mystery set in an alternate history where a Jewish state was established in Alaska rather than the Middle East). He also dabbled in screenwriting, contributing to the scripts for Spider-Man 2 and John Carter, struggling all the while to wrestle Kavalier & Clay into movie form before the project was abandoned 15 years ago.
More recently, Chabon and his novelist wife Ayelet Waldman have taken their talents to the small screen. They were among the co-creators of Netflix’s acclaimed sexual assault miniseries Unbelievable. A lifelong Trekkie, Chabon also wrote a couple of episodes of Short Treks, the CBS All Access spinoff of Star Trek: Discovery — one (“Calypso”) about the Discovery adrift centuries in the future, the other (“Q&A”) an attempt to reconcile the evolution of Spock across the various pilot episodes for the original series. Now, he’s showrunner of perhaps the most anticipated entry in the TV franchise since The Next Generation, in which Picard gets caught up in a mystery involving his late comrade, Commander Data. (Brent Spiner is one of several Trek alums to appear in the series, which co-stars Isa Briones, Alison Pill, and Harry Treadaway, among others.)
Chabon spoke with Rolling Stone about his history with Star Trek, dabbling in fanfic, facing literary snobbery, and his bittersweet step back from Picard Season Two so he can bring Kavalier & Clay to Showtime as a series.
Do you remember the first Star Trek episode you saw?
Yeah, I do. I didn’t watch the whole episode, though, and I didn’t know what it was at the time. I have this clear memory of sneaking out of my bed when I must have been four years old, maybe I pretended I needed a glass of water or something like that. My dad was watching something with a guy with pointy ears and really scary-looking eyebrows and a lady with pointy ears. Everything was made out of rocks, and they were fighting. Someone got slashed, and there was blood. I was just like, “Wow, I don’t want to see this! This is a really scary thing my dad’s watching.” Then I forgot about it.
Then six years later, when I was 10, I became a big Star Trek fan. I was watching Channel 5 in Washington D.C. on Saturday at 6:00, and this thing comes on. It’s “Amok Time.” And I remembered it from [that time] when I was little. That was the first episode I ever saw, but I hadn’t realized that was Star Trek until that moment. It’s interesting, because in the history of Star Trek fandom, I’d say “Amok Time” has to be maybe the single most important episode, just in going back to Vulcan. And it was really the first time in more than a just glancing way that the show had tried to pop open one of the characters. And of course the character they popped open was Spock. It must have given birth to 1,000 fanzines.
Oh, I’ve read so many fanfics about pon farr, the Vulcan mating cycle.
Right, exactly. It’s sex, and it’s Vulcan, and it’s Spock losing control of his emotions, doing that thing that everybody always wanted to see. You get to see it, what he is like when he’s emotional, and in particular that moment of joy that he has when he realizes Kirk’s not dead.
So you’re 24 when Next Generation comes on. Were you watching that?
Yes, from the first episode. I’ll be totally honest, I was not impressed when I first started to watch it. Of all my friends I’ve ever had, only one is also a real Star Trek fan. He lived in Pittsburgh, where I had gone to school, and I was living out west. We would call after each episode, and neither of us was impressed. I think it’s fairly well-accepted the show wasn’t very good when it started. It really took them a while to figure out how to make it work. I had read David Gerrold’s book [The World of Star Trek], so I understood intellectually the idea that the captain shouldn’t be the one going on the away missions and endangering his life, so then they had sort of responded with this [second-in-command character] Number One. But I really had a hard time accepting that.
Then at some point I suddenly realized, “Wow, that was a good episode.” Then the next one was like, “That was a good one too,” and it started to really draw me in. I met Ayelet, my wife, in ’92, when the show was coming to an end of its run, and one of the things we did together was sit down every week and watch TNG. She got into it at that point, too. It became an important show to me over time, very important. But it took a while.
Picard was very different from Kirk by design. How did you respond to him back then?
I think Picard and Patrick were the things I clung to in those first couple of years. The character of Data was interesting, and Brent Spiner’s such an amazing performer. I would just watch for them. I was enough of a nerd to be aware of Patrick in Dune as Gurney Halleck, and I kind of had my eye on him, and I thought it was really interesting they had brought in someone like that to be in Star Trek. Picard was one of the places I settled the quickest in trying to accept the show.
As many great actors as this franchise featured before and after, Stewart could go to these places — “There! Are! FOUR! Lights!” — that are just astonishing.
I had dinner with [Next Generation showrunner] Rick Berman a few weeks ago. I said something like, “Oh, it was so remarkable that they cast such a great actor, and someone who was so well-known on the England stage.” He said, “You have to remember, when we started that show, we actually cast two really well-known, talented actors: LeVar Burton and Wil Wheaton, who had been in Stand By Me.” That was the casting coup of The Next Generation in the beginning. It was viewed as: They got LeVar Burton and Wil Wheaton, who was this hot, young actor. Patrick Stewart was so unknown at that time, he wasn’t viewed as a coup in the sense that he was, say, when they cast him to play Professor X.
Back in the day, did you ever find yourself writing fanfic?
I was just thinking about this last night! I would draw my own Starfleet starship designs, and I made up alien cat crew members, different alien species that put them in the Starfleet uniforms. I never tried writing any Star Trek fan fiction, but when I was starting out, I wrote Sherlock Holmes fan fiction, Robert E. Howard fan fiction, Larry Niven fan fiction, John Carter/Edgar Rice Burroughs fan fiction… And I was thinking, “Why didn’t I ever write Star Trek fan fiction?” I think the reason is, what I was responding to in all those other cases was a voice on the page. Those are all writers with recognizable, strong, identifiable styles that I would try to imitate, but there was no such thing about Star Trek. Like, the James Blish book adaptations of episodes — I read them all, but they were written in this very flat, neutral tone. There was nothing literary on the page that really sparked me. It was about watching the show. I didn’t have the means to make my own fan episodes.
What I often hear from writers working on famous movie or TV or comic book characters is, “Basically, I am getting to do official fan fiction.”
Exactly. That’s very much how I feel. In the case of the short film, “Q&A,” I wrote what felt to me like pure fan fiction in the sense that one of the things fan fiction often tries to do is explain unexplained things. Like, why does Dr. Watson one time say he was shot in the shoulder in Afghanistan, and in another story he says he was shot in the leg in Afghanistan? So people have written these elaborate things trying to account for that discrepancy. In “Q&A,” the thing I started from was in “The Menagerie” [a two-part Star Trek clip show that repackaged the original pilot, “The Cage”], Spock is nothing like Spock as we came to know him. He’s warm, and when he sees that singing flower, he grins this amazing grin, right? He talks differently. His makeup is different. He’s very different, but especially the emotionality, the warmth of his personality. It’s very much more like Leonard Nimoy coming through, it feels like.
Obviously there’s an outside-the-show explanation for that, but in the show, nobody looks at Spock and is like, “Hey, you sure did act differently back then.” It’s just ignored. When I saw the episode for the first time as a kid, maybe I didn’t know the explanation yet, but I just was like, “That’s so weird. What happened to him?” So this little short I tried to, in that fan fiction kind of way, start to answer the question of, “Why did Spock become more locked down over time than when we first saw him?”
How did you land in this particular writing group to begin with, in order to do “Calypso” and eventually Picard?
I was working with [Discovery producer] Akiva Goldsman. He had put together a room of writers to try to create a shared universe around a bunch of forgotten Hasbro action figures from the Seventies and Eighties. That was a very fun experience. There were a lot of cool writers in that room. The next time he did that, it was with a different project. During the course of that room, they had already started work on these Star Trek short films, and he took me aside. He knew I was a big Trek fan, and he said, “Would you have an interest of doing a short?” I said yes immediately.
I wrote a script for what became “Calypso,” and I loved every second of writing it. They were happy with how it came out. When I came aboard, they were talking about two possible series — one would be a Picard series, and the other one I don’t want to say, just because I’m not supposed to. We were actually sort of leaning more toward that other one initially, just because getting Patrick to come back seemed too unlikely. Then when we roped him in, I rolled right into doing that as an executive producer, and then just before filming started I took over as showrunner.
How was that? This isn’t the first thing you’ve done in TV, but it’s still a big step.
In terms of production, “Calypso” was the first thing I ever did in TV. I’ve done film work, but I’ve never done TV. I’ve written a lot of TV scripts, had a lot of pilots that never got made, but I had no actual production experience. I was very invested by that point, and I had been part of the team shaping and creating the series, and I felt like I would be able to do it, and I’m not quite sure why. I’m really not sure why [producer] Alex Kurtzman and everybody else was willing to take a chance on me, but I loved it. I loved every minute of it. It was so much fun.
I might not have felt quite that way if it weren’t Star Trek. Anytime I sat down to start working on a script, I got this deep feeling of pleasure, like I can’t believe I got to just to write the word “phasers” and “transporter,” and the jargon, and Starfleet and Federation, and planet names, and getting into the lore — the Borg, and all the other elements and the Romulans. We really tried with this season to do, to some degree at least, for the Romulans what TNG did for the Klingons. To take a really familiar, well-known, antagonist alien species, and open them up a little bit beyond the mustache twirling and the swarthy, glowering looking across space through the view screens. Like, what’s going on with Romulans? What’s their culture like? To be able to do that, to be empowered, suddenly, out of the blue, to create canon about Romulans… Wow, incredible.
This isn’t the first time you’ve written something involving a character you’ve grown up reading. How does this feel, to write these words and have Patrick and Brent saying them?
Hair stood up on the back of my neck the first few times I got to watch Patrick speaking dialogue I had written for him and Brent. Oh my god, and Riker and Troi, too. I had that experience. The only other thing that was at all close to it but was different was when I worked on Spider-Man 2, and some of the dialogue that I wrote for J. Jonah Jameson survived into the film. But for me, that was a 2D-drawn character. As great as [J.K. Simmons] is, it wasn’t the actor playing the part I had been picturing in my head. Whereas for this, it was mainlined right into Patrick. I heard his voice in my head. I saw his face in front of me.
Not only that, but I also knew I had him as a resource. There were many times over the course of the season where Patrick would take me aside with a line or a couple of lines together, and he would say, “I understand what the purpose of these lines is, but this just doesn’t sound like Picard to me,” or, “I don’t think Picard would say it that way,” or, “I don’t think he would say it at all.” You can’t argue with that, and I never did. He was always right. Such a clear sense of the character.
And beyond that, anything you’re going to hand Patrick Stewart, he can play. It’s not like you have to write around limitations.
It’s incredible, the things he does over the course of the season. Because it’s not just him playing the Picard that you know when you think of Picard. He’s playing Picard who’s decades older, has been through a lot, has aged physically, is looking at his life in the way that someone who’s middle-aged wouldn’t. In canon in our story, Picard is I believe 92. So he’s older than Patrick is, but someone who’s been alive that long, looking at his life, is going to be behaving very differently than someone who’s however old Patrick was when he started doing TNG. Patrick had all of that. He presents the character of Picard very much as the same guy. And yet, he’s changed, inevitably. He’s older, he’s wiser, he’s sadder, he has more regrets and more to regret. All of that just emerged on day one of shooting.
Star Trek: Generations does weird things with Kirk and Picard’s retirement fantasies. I never bought that Kirk would want to be on a horse farm instead of the Enterprise, nor that Picard would dream of this idealized family gathering. When you started thinking about what Picard had done in retirement, where did you first go on the way to where he landed?
We had the clue from the series finale of TNG about the vineyard, and there was a lot that was appealing in that. I don’t know how the other writers felt about it, but to me somehow there were echoes of Sherlock Holmes in that, one of my other favorite characters. I wrote fan fiction on that. You know, retiring to Sussex to be a beekeeper and how that always had a sense of, “How could Holmes have possibly been content to do that?” This man that we’re told, when we first meet him, if he’s ever idle, he immediately turns to the cocaine, and he can’t stand being idle for a moment, and yet he’s going to tend to bees? Then you see he did come out of retirement, according to Doyle, and did this thing during World War I.
Thinking about Patrick and Picard in that way, I thought, let’s say he did go back to the chateau. Would he be happy there? How would that work for him? Would he just settle down and start dating a local widow and have a quiet, pastoral life, or would that sit not well for him? Would he chafe at it? It just felt like an interesting enough question just right off the bat that it felt like, let’s start there and see what happens.
You’ve written a lot about the stigma the literary fiction world had against genre fiction when you were coming up, and you helped change that by incorporating genre into many of your books. Did you ever find just in the circles you were moving in, people were surprised or even dismissive that you knew so much about comic books and Captain Kirk?
Oh, very much so. I would either be gently teased about it, or people just would be like, “I’m going to go talk to somebody else.” When I was writing The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, people would ask me what the book’s about, like at a dinner party, and I would describe it to them. It was a conversation-killer. I’d say, “Two guys go into the comic book business in New York in the Forties?” And that would just be it. Nobody would have anything to say. I would feel like, “Oh, shoot, I hope I’m not alone at the end of this party.”
When I started — I got an MFA in fiction at UC Irvine, I went into that program coming out of college — I was writing work that was, to me, both literary and genre. I wanted to write science fiction that was unabashedly literary and literature that was unabashedly science fiction. I had some models for doing that. Writers I admired, like Italo Calvino and J. G. Ballard, who I felt each had found his own way of doing that. But models were few and far between, and when I came into the program and started submitting my work to the workshop, people just shut down. They would literally say things like, “I don’t like science fiction, so I can’t help you with this. I don’t read science fiction, so I can’t help you with this. I don’t understand science fiction, so I can’t help you with this.” And I’m thinking, “This is just a story about characters, with writing. There’s nothing you need to know about science fiction to help me with your feedback on this. I’m trying to do all the same things you’re all trying to do in your mainstream fiction. I’m just also interested in how it would be if it was happening on another planet” or whatever it was. I didn’t get anywhere with that at all. So I gave up, because it wasn’t the only kind of reading I liked to do, and it wasn’t the only kind of writing. I had done mainstream stuff, too, and I thought, “I’m not going to waste my time here trying to convince these people. I’ll just put that aside for now, and I’ll start writing more naturalistic, mainstream stuff, and take advantage that I’m here, and they’re here.” So I ended up writing The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. But yeah, it took me a long time to find my way back.
What gave you the courage ultimately to write Kavalier & Clay then, after these two big literary successes?
I think it was early support and encouragement first from my wife, and then from my agent at the time. I just described it in brief: “It’s going to be set in New York and start in the late Thirties and go through the Fifties.” They said, “Oh, that sounds cool.” I think my enthusiasm for it and my interest in it made them feel like, “If he’s that excited about it, it’s probably a good thing.” In a sense, I sort of backed into it. It’s not a comic-book novel. It is a primarily naturalistic, mainstream piece of historical fiction. I mean, that’s a genre in itself, but you know, there’s that little splash of magic realism in it.
Even then, I wasn’t really taking the dive, which I really only took when I started to write The Final Solution, a piece of Holmes fan fiction. What gave me the courage to do that was winning the Pulitzer. Once I felt like, “OK, I took a chance on Kavalier & Clay, it seemed to have paid off, so I’m just not going to worry about that anymore. I’m going to write what I want to read.”
Among the things I love about Kavalier & Clay is that Joe’s life runs very much in parallel to the Escapist’s. He has all these crazy, superhero-style adventures. You got to have your cake and eat it, too, in this otherwise realistic historical fiction.
Right. Although that tendency is there, I think, from the beginning. If you look at The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, there’s a lot of exploits. Maybe not to the same degree that there is in Kavalier & Clay, but there’s a larger-than-life quality. There’s gangsters, and the character of Cleveland dies in this way that’s meant to evoke King Kong. And in Wonder Boys, there’s a kind of madcap, slightly heightened sense of one thing after another in that character’s life. In a way, Joe Kavalier was the heir to that, but I guess [I did it] to evoke that period and make it as intense as I imagined being alive that time would have felt, with a kind of heightened reality.
All the things that you were once mocked for in your circles, that’s the mainstream now.
Absolutely. In pop-cultural terms, we’re living in the world that fandom created. That modern, mass fandom. Which, to me, starts with Star Trek. Like, I mean, yeah, there were fandoms before. There was science-fiction fandom. There was obviously Sherlock Holmes fandom. But in that fan fiction-driven, fanzines, to me that rolled into the first Star Trek conventions. That’s to me the origin point for the world that we live in now.
What kind of fan were you? Did you go to cons? Did you subscribe to Starlog?
Well, I didn’t subscribe to it, but I got it every month. My dad was a Star Trek fan, and he had watched it all in the first run and had never really watched the reruns since then. But once I got into that, he started to come back to it a little bit.
What is interesting for me in hindsight — I grew up in Columbia, Maryland, which was a planned community that was designed and built in the 1960s by this guy named James Rouse, between Baltimore and Washington. Rouse’s vision in creating this place was very closely aligned with Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future. It was inclusive, tolerant. James Rouse was a real estate developer. He had been disgusted by Baltimore’s redlining practices and blockbusting practices. He determined, “If I can’t sell houses to black people here, I’m going to build a whole town where I can sell houses to whoever I want.”
There were interfaith centers where all the different denominations shared one building, like Jews and Catholics. It was racially integrated, religiously ecumenical. The school system tried all of these very 1970s progressive teaching ideas and so on. So that’s where I was living. I was growing up in what was overtly presented as the city of the future. And then I’m watching Star Trek which is just coinciding so completely with that. And my babysitter, Alison Felix, who loved Star Trek, was black, and one of our neighbors. All of the strands kind of got woven together for me in that origin moment watching Star Trek with Alison, and I remember how important the character Uhura was to her. It felt so real. It felt so possible. It felt so true. Like, this is where we’re going, and we’ll get there.
Given the state of the world right now, do you still feel like we can get there?
You know, I have four kids. I chose to have four kids. I think I’d be deeply irresponsible if not almost sinister if I didn’t believe it. Yeah, I really do. I would say Star Trek insisted on the darkness in human beings and their capacity for evil. It would keep cropping up in places. Whether it was in the culture on a planet they might be visiting that had been settled by humanoid creatures, or whether it was within their own group. In the episode “The Naked Time,” or all the many times when Spock was triggered by some kind of mind control or spores of a plant to sort of enact the deep buried rage, or in “Amok Time,” for that matter, all that stuff that had been buried. So it’s not like Star Trek ever said, “People are really and truly and basically good, and if we just get our shit together, that’ll just come out.” No, it took work. It took struggle. It took constant effort in a way you might say if you look at the model of Vulcans — it takes constant repression, self-repression, and that’s what being a Vulcan’s all about. Just because you feel it doesn’t mean you have to act on it. Just because you think it doesn’t mean you have to say it. There’s a kind of benign regression that is necessary for human beings to exist together. We’ve always known that.
It seems dark now, but on the other hand it seemed dark when I was a kid, too. I’m not saying it was better then, or worse then, or worse now, or whatever, but I remember in the first years of the Reagan presidency, I went to bed every single night and was 17, 18 years old thinking, “I wonder if I’ll wake up in the morning. I wonder if this is going to be the night that the exchange takes place,” you know? It was one minute to midnight for a lot of that time. It was a dark time. When I was a little kid, Vietnam was happening, and the riots, and turmoil in the streets, a lot of what you see reflected in the original series. It felt like a lot of reasonable people then felt like the wheels were falling off the cart completely, and we were heading into all those post-nuclear dystopias that you saw on the movie screens in the early Seventies, whether it’s Planet of the Apes or The Omega Man or Soylent Green. That felt very possible then. It’s always a bad time to be alive, and it’s always a wonderful time to be alive.
The last novel you published was 2016’s Moonglow. You’ve been doing a bunch of TV projects, this one included. What’s the status of your novel writing?
I have a book underway. Writing Picard definitely got in the way of it, to a degree. It’s something I’m really interested in, and it actually addresses questions of genre and literature and fandom. The way generations of fans who then become creators themselves have a responsibility to reinterpret whatever it is that they want taken on as their own. I’m enjoying working on it. It’s given me a chance to do some things I’ve always wanted to do.
What took the Kavalier & Clay film so long to get out of development hell, and how did it finally happen?
That was caused by there having been a feature-film version planned that went rather far in development at Paramount, a fair amount of money was spent on it. It collapsed in 2005. One thing that happened that made it seem more doable was the re-merger of CBS and Viacom. Ayelet and I have a really strong and continuing relationship with CBS, and Kavalier & Clay was now within the greater extended family.
What are your hopes for the property as a TV show, versus the movie that never got made?
It took me five years to write what became the final draft of Kavalier & Clay the film, after having already spent five years writing the novel. A fair amount of the reason it took so long is it went through so many drafts, and that was because I was struggling from the very first draft to the last to not only condense the novel into a two- to two-and-a-half-hour jar, but to do something different, which was to tell the same story as a movie. It was a combination of abandoning things and jettisoning things, and also sometimes simultaneously finding cinematic ways of telling the same narrative that is told in the book. It was so hard. I think the script that emerged was a good script, and it could have made a good movie, but it’s such an arbitrary marker that has nothing to do with the story that’s being told. You might argue that some stories should only be told as films, and others that might have previously existed as novels worked equally well as films, and sometimes get better. Alfred Hitchcock was famous for saying he much preferred adapting a bad book to a good book. What you want it to feel like is that this had to be a movie; a movie is the way to tell this story. That’s not always the case. But when you move to this new world of serialized eight-, 10-, 12-episode seasons, suddenly that arbitrary thing gets taken away that forces you to shoehorn or jettison things and give up large portions of a book. I think it’s still absolutely imperative to be reinvented to work as a TV show. You can’t just transcribe the novel on film and have all the dialogue, for many, many reasons, but one of the big reasons is that a lot of what happens in the novel is so internal to the characters. So you still have to make that translation, but at least you’re taking away that weird, arbitrary chopping block regarding how much story you can include.
You have to step down as Picard showrunner to do this. How does it feel to have one dream project get in the way of another?
It would be great if I could do both. I don’t want to leave Picard. I’m not leaving — I’m sticking around. It’s been renewed, so we’ve already started planning for the second season. I’m every bit as involved in that process, and I’m going to stay on as an executive producer, and I’m going to write episodes. But at some point, the focus of my time and attention and love is going to slide over to Kavalier & Clay. But exactly how and where and when, it’s not clear. This is a transitional period for me. But I’m definitely reluctant and sorry to ultimately be leaving this behind. It’s still incredibly exciting. Talking about Season Two is already fun all over again. It won’t be easy for me. Star Trek’s not going anywhere, and hopefully, I’m not going anywhere either.
Star Trek: Picard debuts January 23rd on CBS All Access.