Media Fandom Oral History Project Interview with Paula Block
|Interviews by Fans|
|Title:||Media Fandom Oral History Project Interview with Paula Block|
|Date(s):||July 9, 2017|
|Fandom(s):||Star Trek: TOS|
|Click here for related articles on Fanlore.|
Interview length: about 75 minutes.
The Media Fandom Oral History Project is supported by the Organization for Transformative Works, the organizers of Escapade conventions, and the University of Iowa Libraries. For more information about the origins of this interview, where it is housed, contact information, suggestions regarding future interviewee candidates, and how to become volunteer interviewer or transcriber, see the Media Fandom Oral History Project page.
Some Topics Discussed
- moving from creating fanworks to professional tie-in novels and materials
- meeting spouse at a con that he'd been attending in a professional, promotional capacity
- meeting Harlan Ellison at a Kwest*Con in 1974, a small mention of the chicken dinner
- differences in various conventions
- writing for the Kraith universe
- Paula Smith and the origin of the term Mary Sue
- editing the first media zine, Syndizine
- Block's editing vs writing
- George Lucas' Open Letters to Star Wars Zine Publishers (1981)
- Block's views on slash fanworks
- writing the Gumby con skits
- working with John Ordover
I always liked media, and I used to write little stories just for myself because nobody else in the world was interested in them when I was growing up, but… I was… I attended Michigan State University, and I was there from, let’s see, 1971-75. While I was there, around 1974, I saw an ad in the school newspaper advertising for Star Trek fans because a club was going to be formed, the Michigan State University Star Trek Club. I decided to go to a meeting, and I met a lot of people who, for the first time in my life, really seemed interested in something I was interested in, too, which, at the time, was Star Trek, even though it had been off the air for five years. And these people had things I’d never seen before, like, slides of episodes and 16mm copies of episodes, and they could identify an episode by just a slide that was put up on the screen, you know, just by the tilt of Spock’s eyebrow. And I liked these people, and I found out that the leader of the pack, the person who had organized the fan club was a woman named Lori Chapek, who later became Lori Chapek-Carlton, and she wanted to start a fanzine because she had seen other fanzines and wanted to do it locally, so I finally, at last, had a venue to put some of my writing and get feedback on it. So, uh, that was the start of a long career. [I'd previously been writing Star Trek fiction] just for myself, and I never finished a story until I got involved with fanzines because there didn’t seem to be a point! You know? And it was mostly Star Trek stories although I think I may have started a story about Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea once.
[I'm] not really active [in fandom now]. I go to a couple of conventions when I can just to see old friends, but I’m not really active now. I don’t write anything for fanzines. I, you know, that type of thing. Uh, but it was a good training ground for my later career, which was an editorial career. I got involved with publishing and became a magazine editor for a while, and then I became a book editor for a large company; but all of this started with my roots in fandom.
[Fandom prepared me for that career.] And weirdly enough, the job I was at the longest, for 20 years, was at Paramount Pictures, and I got hired by them because they were looking for somebody to oversee publishing for their licensing department, and they needed somebody who had a publishing background, which by then I had, and who also knew a lot about Star Trek, which I did. It was kind of a match made in heaven.[They were aware that I'd had been involved in fandom] although I didn’t go into a lot of details. You don’t really want to tell an executive that you dressed up like this or that or whatever, you know. But they knew that I had fingers in the fan community, but that was useful to them because then they could find out what the fans liked, you know, and their business was to sell products to fans.
[Just before I got out of fandom due to life and job changes], I went to one more convention at Michigan State, one of Lori Chapek Carlton’s conventions, and it was there that I met my husband even though he wasn’t a Star Trek fan. He was a publicist at the time for 20th Century Fox, and he was just kind of showing them clips from movies to get people interested in their movies. Like, at the time it was the movie “Cocoon” and the “Aliens” and “The Fly” and things like that. So we met, and we kind of clicked, and he lived on the West Coast, and I lived on the East Coast, so when we would get together, it would usually be at conventions like that where he was promoting things. So, I went to a lot of conventions with him and saw people that I knew. So, it was kind of an offshoot of my own original convention-going past.
[snipped]I went mostly to conventions in Michigan, a couple parts of Michigan, and I started going to conventions in New York, as well, and then when I started dating my husband-to-be, Terry Erdman, he was doing conventions all over the country because the studio was paying him to do it. So, I started going to conventions in New Orleans and Baltimore and Toronto and other places because I would go there with him, and it was fun. I ran into a lot of people that I already knew and met some new ones.
... every convention, I guess you could say, is a little different, but the conventions that I started going to at Michigan State were, I’d say, predominantly female, because it was mostly people interested in Star Trek shows, and it also was kind of devoted to fanzines. That was the primary emphasis of those conventions, and my husband was actually the first guest that they ever brought in. Everybody was kind of, you know, equal. It was all fan-run and fan entertained. They’d have panels where they just talked about philosophical aspects of Star Trek or eventually Star Wars when that came around, too. Um, but they brought my husband in as a guest one year because he wanted to show them clips of different movies, and they didn’t have to pay him, so, you know. It was great! But a lot of the other conventions are really more of the type where you bring in a big star, and it costs a lot of money, and it’s a whole different thing. They’re still fun, but they really have a different emphasis.
Star Trek was just a wider phenomenon. You know, I loved The Man From U.N.C.L.E. as much as anybody, but it never really was as motivating in fandom as Star Trek was. Star Trek was — just pulled people together, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.--I don’t recall a lot of people getting together to talk about how much they loved The Man From U.N.C.L.E. You know. I knew people who loved it. I loved it. I even wrote a Man From U.N.C.L.E. story, but you know, it just wasn’t as big, and I don’t remember ever really seeing any Man From U.N.C.L.E. conventions or anything like that.
Paula used to write these wonderful parodies of things, and I think it was one of her parodies that was published in a fanzine, and a lot of people wrote these quintessential stories where Kirk or Spock or somebody would just fall in love with this unknown ensign on the ship, and just for no apparent reason, would think she was the most wonderful thing in the world, and then usually she would die at the end of the story, you know. (laugh) It was kind of a silly little sub-shoot of fan fiction, and Paula mentioned it in — I don’t remember if it was a poem or just a little short lyrical piece or what, but she talked about Mary Sue, and she kind of defined the characteristics of Mary Sue, and I think everybody just loved it. They thought it was hysterically funny.
You know, you could kind of tell really if something was going to have Mary Sue stories because, because, you know, it would have these drawings of this beautiful woman with long, full hair, you know, in the arms of Kirk or Spock. You knew immediately that was going to be a Mary Sue story. And ironically, I ended up — let’s see. I’m looking this up — Mary Sue originated in Paula Smith’s story, “A Trekkie’s Tale,” and it was about ‘Lieutenant Mary Sue, the youngest lieutenant in the fleet, only 15-1/2 years old.’ So, anyway, everyone thought it was funny, and, ironically, down the road, I created a character for a series of ongoing stories that appeared in Warped Space called “Sadie Faulwell,” and she was a lieutenant in the Linguistics Division of the Enterprise, and she ended up having an affair with McCoy. But I always called her kind of an anti-Mary Sue because she was just an ordinary person that happened to get along with McCoy, and she would still do stupid things, and she wasn’t perfect by any means, and even Paula Smith said she kind of liked the Sadie Faulwell stories. In fact, in this book called Boldly Writing by Joan Verba, the opening quote in there is from Paula Smith, and she says, “Paula Block’s ‘Faulwell’ series has more human and humane characters than Doc Smith’s ‘Skylark’ series.” So, she actually liked it.
[snipped]Yeah I was trying to avoid clichés [of Mary Sue]. Basically, I was just writing from the point of a girl who meets somebody and gets along with them, but I also tried to show everything else that happened on the ship. She never saved the ship. She was friends with other people in the crew, and they would go on adventures together, but they very rarely involved the main, core characters. It was just basically a series of stories that allowed me to be a character on the ship without making me the hero.
[I started Syndizine] because I thought there should be a fanzine dedicated to just about any fandom, and I chose the name Syndizine because I was thinking of syndicated television shows. We also had movie stuff in there, too. I think I did a story in there on the movie Altered States once, and there was stuff in there from The High Chaparral and westerns, you know. The Man from Atlantis. Anything. Whatever people were into at the time. You know, whatever people would submit, I would look it, and if it looked good enough, I’d use it in the fanzine. I kind of did two or three issues like that. That was right around the time I moved to New York and got busy.
[Slash] were just stories where the premise was that Kirk and Spock were in love and had a relationship behind the scenes, and there were a lot of stories like that, and slash stories were pretty popular in fandom. While some people would do maybe Star Wars stories like that, they wouldn’t do it in a Star Wars fanzine that was going to get reviewed by Lucasfilm, so there wasn’t really much of that. But fandom loves slash stories — at least the girl’s side of fandom. They like reading stories about guy characters who are into each other. I’m not sure why. (laughs) But they did, so they can invent slash stories about just about anybody. They, you know — Starsky and Hutch as I told you — they’ve done stories like that, and Man From U.N.C.L.E. and just about any media where you have two male characters that are both really attractive, you know, somebody has probably done a slash story about them.... I read them. Not consistently but every now and then I’d read one, but I don’t think I really wrote any. I think I wrote a couple of kind of R-rated stories about Star Trek and I never really wrote any slash fiction, except maybe I did it as joke or something, but... I never really wrote it very much, and after a while I didn’t read it that much. I just kind of considered it a subgenre... even though the stories were fun to read, I didn’t consider them kind of real? You know, not that any Star Trek story is real, but it just wasn’t that realistic. They were fun to read, but the thing I always looked for in a story was “Does it seem realistic? Could you see this happening on the TV show?” And I never saw any of those slash stories happening on the TV show.
[I edited] ten volumes [of the tie-in anthologies Strange New Worlds and the eleventh one that they recently did in the last couple of years, I worked on as well, although I no longer worked for the studio. Strange New Worlds stories were kind of inspired by, um, -- an editor at Pocket Books was looking to do some different things, and I mentioned that I thought it would be really neat if some of the fan stories got to be published because some of them were of really good quality. You know, so that kind of jibed with the editor’s thoughts on what he wanted to do, and eventually, they put together a contest, and there were three editors — him and another guy that helped him sift through all the materials that they got in because there were a lot of them — and me. I got there last, so they would give me the 30 best that they had seen, and then I would cull it down to the 20 best, and then we’d vote on which of those we thought was the best story of those 20. They would be in the Strange New Worlds books.
I liked [the] books Star Trek: The New Voyages]. I had those books, and, in fact, when I was talking to John Ordover about what to do, I mentioned those books. I said, “You know, people liked them, and I think you should do something like that.” So that was one of the things that made me talk to John about doing this thing. [I didn't suggest] the contest so much as “I think we should do some books like [Star Trek: The New Voyages]. I think it’s time to bring that concept back... because I thought it was great to give ordinary people the chance to write Star Trek fiction and get it read by the whole world.
[ John Ordover] was thinking of doing some sort of short story thing anyway, and I suggested, “Why don’t you get a bunch of people who have never been published before?” So, yeah, I didn’t come up with the idea of doing a book like that, but I did keep on pounding him about “you need to get some stuff from the fans!”[Ordover] just had to think about it, you know, because he thought about a lot of different things. I think that one concept that he had at one point was to get a lot of famous writers to do Star Trek stories, like Stephen King and people like that, but he didn’t have much success in getting their attention. (laughs) They didn’t want to. “There’s a reason why we don’t write Star Trek. It’s because we don’t want to write Star Trek!”
I stopped doing fanzines when I got involved with working for the studio, but because I knew Star Trek so well and because my husband also was a writer in his capacity as a publicity person for the studios, the two of us were assigned books periodically. So we did the Deep Space Nine Companion, which is like a 700-page book about every Deep Space Nine episode that ever happened and what went on behind the scenes. We did a book called Star Trek 101, which talks about of the different Star Trek series, including Enterprise. What else did we do? Oh, we did a lot of Star Trek books. They were all behind-the-scenes books. Because of my position, they said, “Sure! You can do it!” because they trusted me and they liked him. Terry would do most of the interviewing, and then we would work on the writing together.
[My advice about a fan finding fandom today?] Just “have a good time.” You know, it doesn’t really matter what your fandom is. If you want to get into fandom, and you like a certain TV show or movie, look around to see if there are ads for conventions and go to a convention. You’re bound to find somebody at the convention to talk to that likes the exact same things that you do. Recently out here, there is a convention that is at the library that the town threw and it’s just like those little Comic-Cons and everything like that, only on a much scale. They found out that Terry and I lived here, so they invited us to be guests. We did a couple of talks at that convention. It was a real small convention, but it was a lot of fun, and a lot of people were going to a convention for the first time in their life and being able to dress up and stuff like that. Everybody had a really good time. So, I would say to keep an eye open for opportunities like that and go to those conventions. Then you can get involved in fandom.