Still Misbehavin’: Firefly Author James Lovegrove Interview
He’s written the first three of Titan’s new series of Firefly novel – including the latest, The Ghost Machine – and has one more on the way. But just how did the UK sci-fi author grab such a gorramn fine job?
James Lovegrove was always a fan of Firefly, but a few years back you wouldn’t have named as a shoo-in for the new voice of the franchise. Yet somehow, that’s what he seems to have become, which surprises even him. “Essentially what I’m doing is fan fiction but by a professional writer, ” he says. “I couldn’t believe I got the opportunity.”
While Lovegrove is undeniably prolific (he’s written over 60 novels, short story collections and novellas since his first book, The Hope, was published in 1990) and eclectic (as well as his SF he’s penned children’s books, young adult fantasies and a series of Sherlock Holmes pastiches that even cross over into Lovecraft‘s Cthulhu universe), Firefly is his first stab at official tie-in work. The short-lived and much-loved Joss Whedon sci-fi Western was always going to be one of the few properties that would tempt him into this area, though.
“About five years ago,” he recalls, “my editor at Titan said, ‘Do you want to do tie-in fiction?’ Because Titan do have a lot of properties. And I said, ‘The thing I really want to do is Firefly. So if you ever get the license to do Firefly, I’ll happily do that.’
“She filed this away in her brain, and two years later they got the license to Firefly and she rang me straight up. I’d never done tie-in fiction before but as soon as I got started I thought, ‘Yeah, this is the job for me, I’m really, really liking it.’”
Lovegrove wrote the first of Titan’s new Firefly books, Big Damn Hero, which came out in 2018, from an outline by seasoned tie-in pro Nancy Holder. He then took over sole writing duties for the next two novels in the series, The Magnificent Nine (2019) and The Ghost Machine (just published as an ebook, and due to be published in physical form on 25 May). Lovegrove has one more Firefly novel, Life Signs, due next year, although Tim Lebbon’s Generations will out between now and then. A sixth book by another yet-to-be announced author will be published after that.
So why was Lovegrove such a fan of the series?
“I loved it. I was so gutted when they cancelled it. But what that has done is that because there’s so little of it – I know there’s the movie as well but there’s still relatively so little Firefly out there – it leaves a huge universe to explore. There’s plenty of scope for further stories. That really is part of the appeal. It’s not like if you’re diving into a great megatext like Star Wars or Doctor Who – you have to know so much canon and lore it would scare the shit out of me if I was going to try that.”
But four of the first five novels? That’s impressive. How did he become the teacher’s pet?
“Because I suck up to them!” he jokes. “No, I think the real reason is because they were very happy with the first two I did. They did them in two batches of three. Originally Tim’s one was going to be the third one and then… I can’t remember what the issues were, but it had to be postponed, so mine, which was supposed to the fourth one is now the third one. But I enjoyed writing them, people seemed to enjoy reading them, and as long as I could do a competent job I was very happy to carry on.”
The assignment did come with some trepidation, though.
“Before the first book came out I was a bit concerned, thinking, ‘I want to give them what they want. I want to get it absolutely right.’ And I also wanted to do something that I enjoyed myself. There have been some negative reviews but by and large everybody seems to like it, and that’s brilliant. That’s my job done. “I was very worried about getting the voices right, because the language and the dialogue and the interplay between the characters is so crucial. It’s come to the point now where I think I can hear them speaking in my head when I’m writing the dialogue and I can tap into that.
“The only character I did have real trouble with – and it’s not anyone’s fault – is River, because they had only just started to evolve her in the TV show. So you weren’t quite sure what she could do and what was going on in her head, other than the fact that she’s a bit loopy. But at the same time, there’s something there. I did find it very difficult, and it was always nice to get an editorial comment in the margin of the manuscript, going, ‘Yeah, this sounds right.’ I think at one point my editor said, ‘This gave me chills, it sounded just like River.’ And I thought, “Thank f**k for that. “Someone like Jayne, he’s quite easy to do. And also I liked doing Wash and Zoe, because I think they have such great character interplay, those two. And it’s also great to portray a happily married couple, who get on and work together well.”
Lovegrove has also enjoyed playing with the wonderfully esoteric language of the show.
“ For me, a lot of the flavour of the show comes form that,” he says of the show’s combination of Western colloquialisms and Pinyin Mandarin swearing. “The weird thing is, I’m not a fan of westerns, but the idiom of Firefly is not just Western, it has a slightly Victorian feel – some quite flowery, ornate grammatical constructions. So I’m quite comfortable with it, having done lots of Sherlock Holmeses.”
He’s also had fun with the Pinyin phrases. “I have made up a couple myself. For the second book I got in touch with a Facebook friend who’s a Chinese person living over here. She helped me translate some horribly obscene phrases into Pinyin. I can’t actually remember them; I should have made notes. There is something about a goat. She was completely unphased by all this.
“Otherwise there is the Gorramn Shiniest Language Guide and Dictionary in the 'Verse, which I have a copy of, and that’s got all the Pinyin phrases used in the show at the back. So I’ve got plenty to drop in and use but I do like to make up a couple myself as well along the way.”
He does admit, though, to a certain indulgence when it comes to the character of Badger, a kind of Cockney wheeler dealer in space played on screen by fantasy TV’s favourite recurring Brit Mark Sheppard. “I like writing Badger, because I like to write him as an American’s idea what a Cockney sounds like. I really play it up. He almost sounds like Ray Winston when he’s drunk. That’s just my sense of humour. I mean, I love the way the character is played in the TV show, but I do try and slightly take the piss on that one.”
While the six books are all designed to be read standalone, Lovegrove does point out that, “ apart from the one I wrote from Nancy Holder’s storyline, the others are all in sequence.” So it’s tempting to think of the books – which are all set between the end of the TV series and the spin-off movie, Serenity – as like a mini season two. In which case, The Ghost Machine is the season’s “high concept” episode.
In it, each of Serenity’s crew experiences an alternate life that starts off as their perfect dream before going sour.
“In each case, whenever we’re pitching, I would pitch three ideas, and that was the one that Titan picked out. For me it was great fun, because it allowed me to delve more into the characters, and a little but into their past as well; areas that have been unexplored. That was what interested me about doing that particular storyline. At the same time you have to create a certain amount of genuine tension and peril. Because, apart from anything else, the readers and the fans know that these characters aren’t going to die – they’re going to make it to the end of the book. But you have to put them through the mill and make sure there’s some possible threat there.”
But writing about the character’s past could be a continuity minefield. Especially as the book’s authors have also been asked to regard Dark Horse’s Firefly comics as canon. “It’s in one of the Dark Horse comics that we learn that Jayne Cobb’s mother is called Radiant,” says Lovegrove. “So I use that in The Ghost Machine.”
Lovegrove is also aware of the impact his own additions are having on canon. “Sometimes I think, ‘Oh my God, here I am making this stuff up and it’s going to become canonical.’ I’ve had people getting in touch and saying, ‘Where is this planet? Which system does it belong to?’ And I’m scrabbling around, desperately looking for an answer that makes sense. Because I’ve got the Firefly Encyclopedia, so I’m desperately looking through the maps going, ‘Probably there…’”
Firefly: The Ghost Machine is available now as an ebook, and will be published in hardback on 25 May (subject to change)