A Conversation with Paula Smith

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Interviews by Fans
Title: A Conversation with Paula Smith
Interviewer: Cynthia W. Walker
Interviewee: Paula Smith
Date(s): interview was conducted in 2010, posted in 2011
Medium: online
Fandom(s): Zines, Conventions, fandom
External Links: A Conversation with Paula Smith, Archived version
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In 2010, Cynthia W. Walker interviewed Paula Smith for an issue of Transformative Works and Cultures.

Some topics discussed: Mary Sues, conventions, letterzines, women in science fiction fandom, and feeding Harlan Ellison a chicken dinner.

Some Excerpts

[Regarding Mary Sue: Yes, and [my Mary Sue comment] might have died right there, but I began doing LoCs—letters of comment—and reviews of zines in other zines. Anyway, because this was still the early 1970s, there were still a ton of these stories coming out. So, when we wanted a shorthand to refer to them, Sharon and I began to call them "Lieutenant Mary Sue" stories. We explained why the first couple of times we used it, but the term caught on because she's very identifiable: Here it is, that same character, and isn't it a shame because she's just so tiresome.

And then in the letter columns, we started seeing the writers react: "What's so wrong with my story? I'm just telling a story that I think is great." And we would fire back: "Yeah, but the problem is, the presence of the Mary Sue warped all the other characters in the story away from their known characterization." Because in fan fiction, you aren't writing stories about an unknown universe, and readers expect certain characterizations.

On the other hand, when you think about it, what's so wrong about affecting the other characters? A really great original character in a story might just do that, but she doesn't have to be a Mary Sue.
Around early 1973, I'd met Sharon Ferraro. I was at Kalamazoo College and she was at Western Michigan University. We got together and formed a science fiction society between the two colleges and called it KWest*—"kwestar." Sharon and I organized a con in 1974 in Kalamazoo called KWest*Con and we got Harlan Ellison as our pro GOH [professional guest of honor] speaker. We had to pay for his flight and room and board, but we didn't have to pay an honorarium. And we got Joan Hunter Holly as the fan GOH. Joan, of course, was the author of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Ace #10, The Assassination Affair. Although this was an SF con, a lot of those who came liked U.N.C.L.E. and Star Trek too. Joan came from Lansing and she knew Terry Carr, who was an editor for Ace. She was older than most of us—all of 40.

A couple of hundred people attended the con. We made our nut. We brought Harlan to Sharon's house and fed him a chicken dinner. Sharon was a big Ellison fan. She had said, "We can get him," and we did! And we had a great time.

The next year, we did a follow-up SF con called ReKWest*Con. Then we went to the New York Trek con in 1975 and met the New York Star Trek fans.
It seemed like there were two age groups in early Trek fandom: 18 and 35. The other route was for the baby boomers who had the feeling, "Gotta write!" They just wanted to do something. As soon as they went to the cons and saw the zines, they'd think, "That's what I can do!" And it crystallized all over the country and there were zines as far as the eye could see. And they kept coming and coming. We used to joke about Warped Space, which started publishing around 1975, "Oh, here comes the Tuesday afternoon Warped Space. Here's the 3 PM edition." The editor was Lori Chapek [later Chapek-Carleton]. There was the MSUSTC—the Michigan State University Star Trek Club. Again, a university club; colleges and universities were where many boomers found out about fandom.
The SF guys didn't want to talk about things that women were interested in. Buck Coulson, an SF (and U.N.C.L.E.) writer, used to say, "There is no subtle discrimination against Trek fans in science fiction—it's blatant." And the women said, "The heck with this," and started making their own zines and organizing their own conventions. In addition to Devra Langsam, there were people like Margaret Basta and her twin sister, Laura. They did S.T.A.R., a newszine out of Detroit that went out to literally thousands of people. There was also Dee Beetem in Colorado, and Ruth Berman, who published T-Negative out of Minneapolis.
In writing, there is a crucial step of rewrite which is not regularly being seen these days. This is one difference we noticed in the late 1990s with fans coming in from the Internet. In the old days, I would write the first draft of a story in longhand, type it up, read it again, fuss with it, type it up again. And then the editor would read it, recommend changes, and you would have to type the whole bloody thing up yet again. The stories went through the typewriter more than once, and a lot was changed slowly but crucially. I've noticed the difference in my own writing. Now, you write something, put it aside, write something, put it aside, and then jam it all together.
...Star Trek fans did some really good stuff. A lot of fan writers later filed off the serial numbers and went pro. Today, the leap is harder because print is dying. If you don't write a blockbuster it's hard to attract any attention, although e-books and print-on-demand may level the field again. The hierarchy of old science fiction kept things on a ladder. You could be in a zine, and if you were good enough, you could go into a pulp magazine, and if you were better, you could get a book published. When women took over, Trek fandom became more democratized but also more feminized. At its worst we called it "estrogen poisoning": you mustn't say anything negative because you might hurt someone's feelings.