INTERVIEW: Jane Espenson (interviewed by Shanna Swendson)
A doubly exciting author interview this week since we've not only writer and producer of shows such as Buffy and Gilmore Girls, Jane Espenson (right) answering questions, the questions were set by one of our favourite authors, Shanna Swendson (left).
Jane recently edited the essay collection, Serenity Found - about Joss Whedon's TV series Firefly - so some of Shanna's questions relate to the show, but even if, like me, you've never seen the show, there's plenty here to enjoy.
A lot of your TV writing career has involved science fiction and fantasy (Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica), but you're also a big fan of Jane Austen (and contributor to Flirting with Pride and Prejudice) -- that seems like a complete opposite, but do you see any similarities or parallels between those vastly different genres?
Parallels! First off, is life in Jane Austen's England any less exotic and strange than life on Galactica or Serenity? But the real parallel is a set of characters who seem completely fresh and real and identifiable no matter how alien the world they're inhabiting.
You know what current show I also see as having this quality? Friday Night Lights. It's a gorgeous show that consistently reminds me of Battlestar Galactica and Firefly -- it creates/reflects a real world filled with lots of real and complex characters with consistent but constantly-changing relationships, shot as if the camera just happened to be catching slices of real lives... the fact that FNL is set in small-town Texas instead of on a spaceship doesn't matter one bit to me. Both worlds are a little bit strange to me -- what does it matter that one requires artificial gravity and other artificial turf?
What do you think Firefly fans will get out of reading this essay collection?
They will not just be educated and entertained, but also delighted and outraged! Actually, I think they'll get a couple different things. Several of the essays, including the fine ones by Nathan Fillion and Loni Peristere, give an insider's look at the show, that I think fans will find fascinating. Others, like Orson Scott Card's outstanding contribution, discuss the show's place in the history of this kind of production/literature. I found that particularly interesting. Still others analyze the show from a wide variety of social and political points of view that highlight how much viewers can draw from this show to support or challenge their own opinions.
I think everyone is going to come away from the collection with a different favorite essay, and probably a different disfavorite too. (I know, but it COULD be a word.) It's not just a paean to the show -- it actually adds to the experience of watching. At least I hope so. Read it, watch, and then let me know.
Do any of these essays change your perception of the series in any way?
I was fascinated to read about the history of the SciFi-Western as discussed in the essay by Bruce Bethke. I had no idea this had been a pre-existing model and CERTAINLY no idea that it had been a disrespected one and why. I was riveted by this. I also adore the essays by Natalie Hayes and Maggie Burns, both of which shed intelligent light on Joss's treatment of female characters. But the two that most literally changed how I watch the show are probably those by Loni and Nathan -- it's the inside knowledge that these two bring that actually pulls me INSIDE the scenes.
Why do you think this series has had such enduring popularity, in spite of being cancelled midway through its first season?
I'm starting to think that it's as much "because of" as it is "in spite of." There's something about a life tragically cut short that stokes fascination because of the sense of what might have been. "Firefly" is James Dean, you know? But that's only a small factor. I think the show, with its crystal-clear vision, simply gave people something they were hungry for: a show with a point of view, with something to say, and very human characters to say it. Audiences now are enjoying shows with moral complexity, and "Firefly" had that. The wonderful thing about flawed and complex characters is that you never feel like you've fully gotten to know them, so you keep wanting more. And there you are, around at that James Dean thing again.
What more "girly" stuff (books, TV, movies) would you recommend for the Austen side of the brain?
I think it's all the same side of the brain, but I have to recommend Margaret Atwood's classic "The Handmaid's Tale" and Kazuo Ishiguro's "Never Let You Go," both books that take a scifi-ish premise and then install strong female (Austeny, if you will) characters that project utter reality.
What are you reading now (or most recently)?
Roots -- "reading" it in the unabridged audio book form, with Avery Brooks from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine doing the reading. It's wonderful and long... fills weeks of commuting time and makes me sorry to leave the car! I'm also reading (actually reading this time), Stephen Colbert's book, "I Am America (And So Can You)". Hilarious -- the marginalia stuff is just the kind of thing that most amuses me.
Your Flirting with Pride and Prejudice essay was a follow-up to Pride and Prejudice. Have you found yourself coming up with additional story ideas for the TV series you've worked on after you've left the staff or the series has been cancelled? Do those characters keep living in your head, or do you have to move on for the sake of your own sanity?
I generally move onto a new show right away, and I always think the characters have gone away, but I have to say that at least once a week I'll think of some little joke or funny observation that references pop culture and I'll think to myself, "Ooh, maybe I could work that into my next script -- Anya or Willow could--" And then I'll remember that there's no way to joke a pop culture joke into Battlestar.
If you were going to suggest a topic for another pop culture book, what topic would you choose?
Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert and their fake news empire. I'd love to read more about the backstage workings of putting together those shows, and more about their impact, too. I'm baffled by the way they put those shows together four nights a week. Genius!
Is there an essay you're dying to write about some aspect of pop culture?
I want to write a book about how to write for television, but that's not really the same thing. An essay about pop culture? Well, I'm very interested in the evolution of joke styles in broadcast comedy -- from radio to classic television to today. Not just the topics of the jokes, but the way the information is presented in the joke. I think there's an interesting analysis to be done there.
Thanks, Jane and Shanna for a fascinating interview!