Less than a year after the Babylon 5 spin-off Crusade ended its too-short run on TNT, I had a chance to have a nice long talk with creator J. Michael Straczynski about his long career in television, his uphill battle to get Babylon 5 made, and the bitter end of its follow-up.
I decided to bring this interview out from the vault - As well as interviews with other Babylon 5 cast members - in celebration of the release of Babylon 5 At Twenty: A Visual Celebration - a massive tome that takes readers behind-the-scenes of the show, and can be ordered via B5Books.com.
KEN PLUME: What area of the country are you from?
J. MICHAEL STRACZYNKSKI: I was born in Patterson, New Jersey, and raised pretty much all around the country. My family tended to move from place to place following economic prospects and jobs and looking for new opportunities, so we changed schools, colleges, grade schools, high schools every 6 months to a year - depending on the breaks. I grew up in Jersey, California, Illinois, Texas… That sort of thing.
PLUME: It must have been difficult…
STRACZYNKSKI: It was difficult. As I went from place to place, I would arrive and there was no point really to making friends, because you knew - in 6 months to 1 year and sometimes less - you would be gone and they would be gone, which tended to lead me toward an isolationist style. The only thing that I discovered very early on is that, even though we might change schools and cities and towns and states, the books in the library were the same. They had the same covers. They had the same characters. I could go and visit those people in the library as if I knew them. Hence, even as a very young kid, I began spending a lot of time in the school library. By the time I was about 11 years-old, I’d already worked my way through the kids section and had moved into the adult section - which is where I really began to discover science-fiction for the first time.
PLUME: Which genre was your favorite at that time?
STRACZYNKSKI: It was probably space science-fiction. The Lensman books by E. E. (Doc) Smith. The Lord of the Rings - being more of a fantasy thing, but I discovered that as well. A lot of Arthur Clarke, a lot of Ray Bradbury. The first Bradbury books I read were R Is For Rocket and S Is For Space. A lot of the futuristic space stuff seemed to me to be a very cool form of science-fiction, so that was my first real baptism in the genre.
PLUME: Were you writing at that time as well?
STRACZYNKSKI: I always knew that I was going to be a writer. There was no question in my mind about that. I can’t recall a time when I didn’t know that, so I knew I had to prepare myself. I read voraciously. I learned about all the different kinds of pens and grades of paper. When I got to high school, I took four semesters of typing, because I knew that if I was going to be a writer, I should learn how to type. I was one of the fastest typists to come out of Chula Vista High School. It was in my senior year that I had prepared myself enough so that something kind-of rolled over in my head and said, “Now.” That’s when I wrote my first short story, three poems, and some other material. That day, I wrote 10 pages, and the next day I wrote 10 pages… and I’ve been writing 10 pages ever since - to my current age of 46.
PLUME: What aspects of the writing process appealed most to you? Was it the ability to create your own worlds? Was it as a companion? What was it that entranced you?
STRACZYNKSKI: It was the story-telling aspect more than anything else. I loved watching stories and I loved hearing stories and I loved telling stories. It was creating new places and people and telling those stories… It’s a holistic kind of a thing. I’ve always enjoyed the writing process. There are times when it’s frustrating - when you’re staring at the monitor and, for some reason, the characters are playing coy. But 98% of the time, it’s terrific and a lot of fun.
PLUME: When you first began writing those 10 pages a day, was it initially merely for yourself, or were you writing with the intention that other people would see it?
STRACZYNKSKI: Initially - in my own mind -it was to learn the process… To learn how to do it. It was something that was really my own, for the first time. The odd thing is that - almost immediately - whatever I began to write, I began to sell. I would send out little articles to kid’s magazines and they would get picked up. I wrote a couple of short stories, and they appeared in the high school periodical. I began writing sketches, and when one of my teachers happened to see what I was writing and asked to look at it, and the next thing I know, they had formed a troupe of actors out of the high school class to go from class to class acting out these one-act plays. Then the high school came to me and said, “We’re going to institute a new deal where a student will write an assembly-length play. Do you want to write it? Of course, if it doesn’t work, we’ll never do it again.” No pressure. I said sure, so I wrote this full-length show. This was within 3-4 months of having started writing. Literally the next year, I was commissioned to write an actual stage play for Summer stock for a local theater. Just coming right out of the box, I began to sell - which was very much to my own astonishment. One play that I wrote I sent off to a local theater, and they called back wanted to arrange for me to meet them. My mom got the message, and I showed up, and they were looking for my dad. I said, “No, I wrote this.” They wouldn’t believe it. I had to quote parts of it back at them before they’d believe me. So even though I started off primarily just writing for myself to learn the process, I began selling almost immediately and have ever since. I’ve sold about maybe 85-90% of everything I’ve ever written. I have no explanation.
PLUME: So were your high school years more stable as far as moving than your elementary and junior high years?
STRACZYNKSKI: No. I attended four different high schools: St. Benedict’s High School in Matawan, New Jersey, Matawan Public School, Lennox High School in Lennox, California, and Chula Vista High School in Chula Vista, California. I went to four different colleges: Kankakee Community College in Illinois, Richland College in Dallas, Texas, Southwestern College in Chula Vista, and San Diego State University.
PLUME: Did you find yourself having to reestablish your writing presence in each of the institutions as you moved?
STRACZYNKSKI: Yeah, but - again - it was never that much of a problem. I would go to the campus newspaper or the local papers and say, “I’m a writer and I can do this, that, and the other thing…” It was never much of a problem. I was very lucky in that respect. When I got to San Diego State University, I sort of took over the campus paper. I was writing entertainment reviews, columns, news articles, investigative features, I had three different columns of my own… Instead of The Daily Aztec, they began calling it The Daily Joe, because every day I had something in there. It was then that I began to get kind-of persnickety about it because at the time - being an idiot and not knowing any better - I refused to take any kind of a salary for what I was doing for the paper. I said, “If I do it my way as a freelancer, I’m not committed to following anybody’s orders. I can do what I want and walk away.” So even though I could have made a lot of money writing for the paper, I never did. I thought I would be more pure that way. I was, of course, an idiot.
PLUME: Especially at that level.
STRACZYNKSKI: As a struggling college student, no less, where I could have used the money. Very early on, I approached writing from a very naïve, idealistic point of view. I’ve gotten rid of some of it, but unfortunately a lot of it still lingers.
PLUME: What’s the hardest part to divorce yourself of, in terms of that idealistic, persnickety attitude?
STRACZYNKSKI: The hardest part is standing up for what I want to say and not compromising on certain principles. For instance, while I was in college, I began to write also for the Los Angeles Times, San Diego bureau. I became one of their key entertainment writers. One story I did about a group in San Diego called The Lambs Players, I found out that this religious theater group was getting state funding - which, of course, you’re not supposed to do, and I included that in my article. The editor said, “This has to come out, because this is news and you’re writing an entertainment feature.” I said, “But that’s integral to the entire story. This is something that has to be included in the article.” He said, “Well, then it has to come from a news reporter. You can’t do it.” I refused to take it out, and he refused to run it with it, and that standoff basically ended my time with the LA Times. I wouldn’t buckle on principle.
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