From the Civil War to the 27th Century... An interview with science-fiction author William R. Forstchen
Introspection Wing Commander Home Sector (WCHS): To begin, I would like to thank you for taking the time for this interview
WCHS: First of all, how did you get into writing Wing Commander novels, are you a fan of the series?
William Forstchen (Bill): One of the great problems of writing with a computer is that the darn thing also has games on it. I therefore made it a point never to load a game into my system, otherwise I'd never get any work done. Several years back I met Bill Fawcett, a remarkable character in the science fiction business. Bill has been involved in the publication of nearly three hundred books and one of his specialties is putting together "package deals" between writers, publishers and gaming companies. Bill had just arranged for the publication of the first three Wing Commander novels and he approached me with the idea of doing a novelization along with Chris Stasheff, the book that eventually became "End Run." I have to confess that one of the lures was that spending a couple of weeks playing a game would therefore be defined as "research."
Bill sent me the game and I was immediately hooked. I'd been a fan of "Secret Weapons of the Luffewaffe," but Wing Commander added a whole new dimension that blew me away. I have to confess that I was finally reduced to calling the folks at Origin to get the "cheat" codes so I could make it to the end without spending six months at it.
At the time that this happened I was in graduate school at Purdue University going for a Ph.D. in military history and studying with a noted expert, Gunther Rothenberg, on the subject of World War II. I immediately saw some of the parallels between the War in the Pacific and the Wing Commander environment. One of the heroes I truly admire from WWII is General Jimmie Doolittle who became the inspiration for the first story that I did in the series.
WCHS: I've noticed you have an amazing amount of detail in your novels. Does Origin supply you with notes or do you keep personal notes on the Wing Commander Universe?
Bill: When I first launched into the Wing Commander series David Ladyman with Origin sent me a huge folder loaded with all sorts of neat details regarding the Wing Commander universe (great collectible stuff!) Playing the game and studying the notes became the foundation for the books I did, since I wanted to insure continuity between the novels and games. I also maintain files of general notes, and also draw a lot on military history for ideas to incorporate into the stories.
WCHS: In your "Price of Freedom" and "Heart of the Tiger" novels you follow the path of the game. How do you deal with deciding which branches of the games' interactive plots to follow?
Bill: Working on those two projects was fascinating, though I should add up front that my co-authors Ben Ohlander and Andrew Keith deserve the lion's share of credit for the work. They're both really great authors to work with and in all honesty neither book would have happened without all the effort they put into it.
In both works we received flow charts of the stories with all the various permutations, dead ends, and final plot lines. We traced the stories out, decided which aspects to incorporate, which ones to leave out for the sake of narrative flow and went from there. In Price of Freedom one of the things I enjoyed was the evolution of Blair's character, the burned out veteran lost in the backwash of a society demobilizing----the warrior sick of war but out of place in a world of peace. I also wanted to reflect on what a thirty years war can do to a society and the massive economic and societal dislocations it creates, even when you win. That was something I wanted to emphasize with Blair and I think Mark Hamill did an excellent job of developing it in the game.
I'd like to add that one of the real thrills of my career was meeting Mark Hamill last summer at an SF convention in Chicago. Hey, Mark Hamill was Luke Skywalker for me twenty years ago, a series that helped get me into the field of writing SF and to sit down with him, have a few beers and talk about Wing Commander was a real kick. He even asked me for my autograph!!!! That knocked me out and I didn't feel so embarrassed then asking him for his. It's funny but in my office at the college where I teach I have his autographed picture hanging over my desk, tucked in with autographs of some politicians I know, and several Civil War generals, well you can well imagine which autograph my students always notice first.
WCHS: By mentioning the "Mantu" in Fleet Action and later books, you've stirred up quite a controversy in the die-hard WC fan base. Can you tell us if they're your own plan, or were you asked by Origin to include them?
Bill: Both. Early on David Ladyman of Origin and I had a discussion of where the series might eventually go so I created the idea of the Mantu. After all, its a natural historical process confronting any expansionist society, there'll always be another neighbor to deal with, and in space it is safe to assume there will always be someone more powerful out there that will have to be dealt with. I am not much of an idealist when it comes to what we'll eventually find in space. Our own history is one of power and struggle, the rise and fall of empires. I think the same will be found to be true in space. Maybe we'll be lucky and find that 99% of the societies we encounter out there are peaceful, maybe even 99.9%, but all it takes is that one tenth of one percent to be belligerent, and worst yet, superior technologically and we'll be in for a fight.
WCHS: While on the subject of End Run and Fleet Action, your first two WC novels and stories of your own design, has Origin ever approached you in using your story of a heroic attack at the heart of the Kilrathi Empire and a last effort by Admiral Tolwyn and a fleet of its greatest protectors in any of their WC projects?
Bill: There's been talk of that perhaps happening at some point or other. Some of the ideas from my earlier novels were incorporated into the overall design of the series. I'll have to confess that the idea of the "jeep" carriers was mine, coming out of the American experience when in 42 and 43 we were short of carriers and converted light ships, even merchant ships into light escorts to handle convoy protection, operations in secondary areas and for direct beach head support for amphibian assaults.
WCHS: On that topic does Origin ever tell you what you can and cannot put in the novels?
Bill: When we start a new book, before a word is even written, Bill Fawcett, David Ladyman, the co-author if one is involved, and I go over the outline and details to insure continuity.
WCHS: Do you plan to write further novels in the WC series? How will you handle the ending of the war and the loss of Admiral Tolwyn?
Bill: There's two books in the works right now, both will be delivered to our publisher, Jim Baen, within a month. One book deals with events that transpire in the weeks between the end of "Heart of the Tiger" and the start of "Price of Freedom." I bring back my old hero Jason and tie him in with events out on the frontier and the prospect of a break away action by some of the frontier worlds.
The other story "Action Stations," is one that I got a real kick out of writing earlier this summer. I go all the way back to the beginning, over thirty years ago. It is six months before the start of the Kilrathi-Confederation War, Geoff Tolwyn is a newly minted ensign, runs afoul of a Senator and finds himself out beyond the frontier on a secret recon mission to try and ascertain what the Kilrathi are up to. The story goes up to the Kilrathi surprise attack on our main base which triggers the war. It was a lot of fun taking the characters and technology and then backtracking to the start of it all. Being involved with the series for over four years I've watched the technology and tactics of the war evolve, this gave me a chance to go back to where it started.
WCHS: Any chance of writing for the games themselves? From what we've seen you've been able to considerably strengthen the plots of WCIII and IV. What about writing for the current Wing Commander Academy animated series on the USA Network?
Bill: That's been talked about, though in all honesty I'm up to my neck in work at the moment! Besides Wing Commander I also have my own Lost Regiment series, having just completed the sixth book and am currently negotiating for two more. Then there's my Star Voyager series with another book due in a few months, and finally I co-authored a book with Newt Gingrich and we're finishing up a second book. Finally I just signed to do a Star Trek book for late next year (Notice how I've managed to slip in a plug for my other stuff!) There's also the prospect developing for my own television pilot movie based on one of my works.
In addition there's the usual stuff of raising a three year old daughter, teaching at Montreat College near Asheville NC and finally, I'm preparing to spend part of next summer doing research for a book on the American Civil War. Therefore----not sure, though Bill Fawcett and I have talked about my doing a second book on the early history of the war, or perhaps setting the groundwork for events twenty to thirty years after the war, depending on how the series continues to sell.
WCHS: Of the WC books you've written, do you have a favorite? (We personally liked Fleet Action, seemed World War II in style)...
Bill: Well, we've hit on the same one here. Fleet Action was one of the most enjoyable novels I've ever worked with. The heroic struggle of allied forces in the dark years of World War II was the inspiration for the story. When it comes to WWII we are the benefactors of the struggle of our fathers and grandfathers and there was a time when victory was not certain, in fact when defeat seemed very possible. I wanted to try and capture that sense in Fleet Action. Beyond that I guess you could see some of my political feelings about preparedness. I have always believed the old Roman statement that if one desires peace they must prepare for war.
Regarding Geoff Tolwyn he's one of the most interesting characters I've ever had the fun of working with. For inspiration I looked to General MacArthur. There are men who served under him who still, after fifty years, hate him, and others who worship him. MacArthur was a bigger than life man, a genius of the art of war. He was, as well, egotistical, arrogant, and a true prima donna. If you study his campaigns, which are often neglected, you'll see a master who saved the lives of tens of thousands of our men by out maneuvering the enemy at every turn. Yet he also did contribute to the disaster in the Philippines early in 1942 and whether we agree with him or not over Korean, he did violate the concept of the chain of command.
I am by no means implying MacArthur would have pulled a Tolwyn, but I do see shades of MacArthur in how Tolwyn was developed. In End Run he risked everything to save the lives of his men and in Fleet Action he saved the Confederation, yet later he did lose sight of the subordinate relationship of the military to the civilian government, no matter how screwed up the civilian government might be. Frankly I think MacArthur was a hero and in spite of Tolwyn's later screw up, he was created as the flawed hero as well. To have served with MacArthur would have been a thrill, and as for Geoff, he's someone I've enjoyed working with, though the punishment handed down to him at the end was one that was deserved.
WCHS: So enough of the WC questions... We all know you're a pretty well known author, is there anything else that you do or enjoy?
Bill: (laughing) Well, writing obviously. Teaching history, especially military history is a pleasure I'll never tire of and researching and writing about the Civil War is a passion of mine. I'm getting ready to expand my doctoral dissertation into a full length book, next summer's research project. There's spending time with my daughter as well, Meghan can all ready sing "Marching Through Georgia" and "Battle Cry of Freedom." I also enjoy scuba diving, travel, Civil War reenacting and relic hunting, classical music (I wrote most of Fleet Action to Wagner and Beethoven) and yes, when no one is looking, I do sneak a good computer game into my computer and blow away a few hours before getting back to work!
WCHS: Thanks again Bill for a great interview and good luck on your future projects!