Interview by Tehani Wessely.
David McDonald is a mild mannered editor by day, and a wild eyed writer by night. Based in Melbourne, Australia, he works for an international welfare organisation, and divides his spare time between playing cricket and writing. In 2013 he won the Ditmar Award for Best New Talent, and in 2014 won the William J. Atheling Jr. Award for Criticism or Review and was shortlisted for the WSFA Small Press Award. His short fiction has appeared in anthologies from publishers such as Moonstone Books, Crazy 8 Press and Fablecroft Publishing. In 2015, his first movie novelisation, Backcountry, was released by Harper Collins, and his latest book—Guardians of the Galaxy: Castaways—is published by Marvel in August 2016 You can find out more at davidmcdonaldspage.com
I’ve been ridiculously excited to see you writing Marvel tie-in novels (Captain America: Sub Rosa and Guardians of the Galaxy: Castaways) – what is the process of writing in an established and well-known world like this like?
I’ve been ridiculously excited to get to write them! It’s been a lot of fun.
I can’t really go into specifics of the process, not least because it varies from property to property, but for me the most important thing to keep in mind when working on established worlds is that you’re just a visitor–the characters and stories don’t belong to you.
Firstly, they are the IP of someone else, and if you want to write in their world you have to adhere to their guidelines and rules. There are things you can’t do with the characters, processes you have to go through. For someone as disorganised as me, there is a lot of prep work that goes into it. And, often, a lot of decisions, from the story itself to what happens with the finished product, are out of your hands,
Secondly, when you are working with characters who have become cultural icons you could say that in some way they belong to the fans (in a non legally binding way, of course). I believe there is a responsibility to respect what they mean to people and do the best you can to live up to their legacy. And, like any good guest, you try and leave the world in as good as, or better, shape than you found it.
I certainly don’t put myself in the same league as the great writers who have tackled some of these characters, but I have done the best I can to stay true to what I see as the heart of what they stand for.
In the end, I’ve simply tried to approach it the same way as I do any writing–to tell the best story I can.
Back in February 2015, you started a series of guest posts on your website on “Paying for your passion“, which have been absolutely fascinating reading. What was the impetus behind these, and what do you think has been the most interesting aspects to arise from them?
When I started the series I had no idea what it would turn into. The article that kicked it off was talking about some of the hard financial truths of writing, which is a subject we dance around a lot. I’ve always admired the fact that Kameron Hurley and Jim Hines post their income every year–it’s something I don’t know I could do! I think a lot of the time we worry that we aren’t doing as well as we should, and we feel that people might judge us for not being a huge success like Rowling or King. Whether it is rational or not is not the point.
It seems like there are a lot of writers and editors–maybe even a majority–who have to subsidise their creative pursuits with a day job, or have made major sacrifices to make it possible. So, I thought it would be interesting to ask people how they “paid for their passion”. I expected a few takers, but it’s pretty personal so I wasn’t counting a big response, and thought it would be fairly standard type stuff, like “I work a day job” etc Instead, I was absolutely blown away.
It wasn’t just the number of responses (though so far I have posted 35 essays, and have 2-3 waiting to go), it was the willingness of people to be real, to be vulnerable and share their doubts and fears and struggles. I was fortunate that the first couple set the tone. The series has taken on a bit of a life of its own, people have talked about more than the financial sacrifices and struggles they deal with (though people have been very honest about that). People have shared the cost of pursuing their passion in terms of time taken away from family or from other pursuits, or about the obstacles they have had to overcome like health–both their own or people who rely on them.
We also had the chance to do a panel at Conflux, and it was clear–both from the reactions of the panelists and the audience–that something about this topic has really resonated with people. It’s certainly nothing I have done, all credit goes to the contributors who have been willing to open up and give of themselves. I don’t say this lightly, I have been both honoured and humbled by being given the opportunity to host the series and by the way people have shared such personal stories.
For me, the motivation is simple. I’ve been given so much by the spec fic community and I am happy to do anything I can do to give back in some way, even if it is only facilitating something. I hope that the readers of the series have found something of value in the posts, and that maybe it has helped others I don’t think that it is about “wow, that person has got it really tough, I should stop complaining”, but more seeing that we aren’t alone in our struggles, that even the most successful amongst still have doubts and fears and moments when they feel like giving up. There is nothing worse than thinking everyone else has got it together except for you–and nothing better than realising that you aren’t, in fact, alone.
It’s embarrassing, but when I look back at the last Snapshot, I am still working on the same things! I think I have managed to get a lot done in the intervening two years, but it has meant that other projects have suffered, The Young Adult novel is gathering steam again, which is great. We got some great feedback on the first ten chapters we sent out to a test group. I am also working, slowly but surely, on the Military Sci Fi novel, I have worked out my structure and plotted a lot of it out–a lesson from the tie in work!
There’s also some possible tie in work that I am very excited about, but won’t get too carried away until I sign something. And, it looks like I might be branching out into some different media, which will be a lot of fun.
And, of course, I will keep writing short stories–they remain my favourite form.
What Australian work have you loved recently?
There’s so much quality writing coming out of Australia that it is hard to narrow it down–it’s not just sports where we punch above our weight!
It’s probably bad form to mention an anthology that I have a story in but, that aside, I think In Your Face from FableCroft is one of the most significant Australian anthologies of recent times. The fact so many writers got the chance to push, and sometimes smash, the boundaries means that is was compelling reading from cover to cover. You know that any work bookended by Cat Sparks and Paul Haines is going to be something special!
Defying Doomsday from 12th Planet Press is another anthology that is not just full of great stories, but is important for what it represents. That’s one of the things I love about the Aussie scene, books that should be produced but might not be anywhere else are happening all the time.
And, I continue to be impressed with the quality of Dimension6, couer de lion’s free online spec fic magazine. It’s easily the equal of anything been done overseas along the same lines.
Which author (living or dead) would you most like to sit next to on a long plane trip and why?
Well, I’d like to say J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis, but something tells me they might not be too impressed with my normal flight behaviour! I’d have to say George MacDonald Fraser, who seems like he would be a great conversationalist and enjoy a few drinks, too. I’d love chatting British history with him. Or perhaps David Gemmell, who had a huge influence on me and had a fascinating life, and who I really would have loved to have had a chance to meet.