THE GOOD LIFE
Interview With Melissa Good
by Sheryl-Lee Kerr
Melissa Good, aka Missy, is living the Xena fan's dream - propelled from online fame as a fanfic writer to pen Xena scripts in Season 6 and rub shoulders with the people who create the show's magic in New Zealand. But the dream was not without controversy and Melissa saw a hateful backlash from some fans. She talks about the highs, lows and in-betweens of her writing life, with SHERYL-LEE KERR, for AUSXIP. email@example.com
Okay how's about setting the scene here: Where are you, what's surrounding you, what are you wearing and nibbling/slurping on?
Well, I'm in my writing room, in my jammies, munching on biscuits and crackers, and drinking coffee. (g)
Does a Pontiac Aztec drive as slowly as it sounds? *g* Just kidding -- as an Aussie I have a hard time picturing driving anything with the word Aztec in its name to denote a motorvehicle. I keep expecting a sundial on the dash to tell time or something...
Nah - it's actually a really nice car. I wanted an SUV, but I needed one that wasn't difficult for my mother to get into - this one fit the bill nicely.
Ahem, the real question 1 (although you could fill me in on the above if you like...): When are you quitting your day job to become a full time writer? Or do you have some piffling issues with paying mortgages or something?
Definitely I have an issue with paying mortgages. (g) I love writing - however, I would hate to have to depend on it for a living. It's far too uncertain - and I'd decided quite a time ago, actually, that I would keep on with my primary career, and indulge in writing as my favourite hobby. That hasn't changed.
Is it something you'd like to do down the track or is your IT (information technology) career another love of yours?
No, I really do love the IT business. I like solving problems, and being a part of the technology.
Do your colleagues have a clue what you get up to in your off hours, and if not would you ever tell them? *That sounds so sordid -- I swear am not implying you have a side-career as a stripper go-go dancer who secretly votes for Dubya Bush*
They all sort of know I do 'something' on the Internet, that involves me going to conventions and the like, and of course, they know I wrote for Xena because a friend of mine who works with me saw fit to announce it all through the company. I think they find it VERY hard to reconcile all that, though, with the person they know as their senior service analyst, because I am very high profile and very well known within my account for reasons totally unconnected with my extracurricular activities.
What was the first Xena ep you ever saw and what was your initial opinion of it? In complete form?
The Quest. I'd seen snatches of it prior to that, and hadn't liked it. The Quest made me a fan.
What made you tune in again?
I got stuck watching the television while painting wrought iron in my old house - and the episode mentioned above came on. Fate, really.
A. AN ODD EXPERIMENT You have been quoted as referring to your selection to write a Xena script as an "odd experiment" by the Xenabods. It's certainly unusual -- apart from one episode (Clues) of Star Trek: Next Generation I can't recall any fan, with no previous professional writing background credits, being asked or allowed to put a script to air. So tell me WHY did they do it? What exactly was their reasoning? I know they asked for a fanfic writer -- but I mean why did they want one? What did they say to you about that -- what reason did they give? If they didn't tell you, why do you think they did this?
Well, it certainly was unprecedented, and no one was more startled than I was when I got the call from Steve Sears asking me if I was interested in writing an episode of Xena. Why? I don't really know if there was a plan behind it - I think it was just something Rob Tapert decided he wanted to do, and he did it. Maybe with the show winding down, it was something he wanted to try, or maybe he was just looking for something different. They did not, by the way, ask for a fanfic writer. A lot of people think that's what the whole thing was about, and why some people really do feel resentful about the 'choice' made, because I think they feel it was my type of writing, or my subject of writing that was the deciding factor. It wasn't - what Rob wanted was a "FAN" to be involved in the writing of an episode, not specifically a FANFICTION WRITER. He went to Steve Sears for suggestions, and Steve did recommend me to him, not because of my writing, but, I think - because he felt I had two things going for me. One, that I was a relatively level-headed person who he felt comfortable about recommending without fear that I was going to go off the deep end. (we've met on several occasions.) and two, he knew that I'd worked with screenplay writing, and it was reasonable that I'd be able to make the jump from prose to script without making it too much of a disaster.
What direction did they give you, if any? Did they suggest adapting one of your existing stories or were they just interested in general (new) ideas from you?
It was a lot simpler than that - in our first story meeting that I had with Rob, RJ, and the writing team at that time, after we'd gotten over the initial hellos, and all that, they asked me "Okay, so, what kind of story do you want to write?' and I answered. "No, what kind of story do you need written?" After a few minutes, Rob said that they could use a second North Africa script, and it all sort of evolved from there. Some of the story idea was mine, some was theirs - it's a very dynamic and inclusive process.
How much freedom did you get, if any?
Once we'd gotten the story beats down to where they wanted them (the most important part of the process) I was free to execute the beat sheet in terms of action and dialog to the best of my ability. Since I was a part of the whole process, I was able to give input on all of it - up until the time I turned in the final draft.
How much of what you wrote made it to screen -- and if the changes were there, were they for the better or worse?
It varied between the scripts - Legacy was pretty much filmed as written. RJ made some excellent dialog changes in the beginning. In Coming Home - it was half and half. The first two acts were pretty much left intact but the second two were changed quite a bit for several reasons including the fact that they'd decided to kick off the Amazon/Eve arc with this story. I'm not proprietary about either of them - the one thing I understood going into the process is that I would have very little control over the outcome. The important thing to me was - that this is a business, and it's a very expensive one. I wanted to give them the best material I could, and after that - they would mould it in their image to the best THEY could.
Were you pleased with the finished result or feel you might have been able to improve aspects somehow? If so, what would you have changed?
You always want to change things. I was talking with the Xena writer's office about that - and they told me (laughing) that every writer always has things they want to change after they turn in the scripts. I was very pleased with the results of both scripts, and I enjoyed the episodes they became very much. It was a participation in the last year of the show that I'm very proud of.
How much time were you given after they said, "Melissa, go write us a script?"
Heh.. that's a running joke. According to the MBA (minimum basic agreement, the contract freelance writers use) I should have had four weeks to do a first draft. I think the shortest time I ever did one in was five days, except for one that never made it to the screen that I did in ten hours. (g) Average was about two weeks, I think - Legacy they gave me three weeks, if I recall correctly, but I was sending RJ draft 'zero's' in three or four days just to make sure I was on the right track and after that me being a 'slacker' became a running gag in writers meetings.
And how much time did it actually take you to write your script? (Did you write Legacy first?)
The script itself? Yes, Legacy was the first, and I did the actual rough first draft in about three days. I kept refining it after that, though, working on dialog, that sort of thing. What I would do is - turn in a draft, and wait for comments on it - sometimes they liked what I did, sometimes they asked for wholesale changes. I was always trying to get a picture of what it was they were looking for.
Did you have to adapt your writing style much -- I imagine going from the wordy world of fiction to the tight-as-Monty-Burns's-wallet world of scripts might have been difficult?
Not as much as you would think. I'm a very visual/textural writer - so writing the script was just dropping all the descriptive and concentrating on the dialog and action. If you have a good beat sheet (outline) then writing the script is easy. Rob and RJ have created two characters with very distinctive 'voices' - so for me it was a matter of imagining the scenes with Lucy and Renee speaking the dialog and moving around, then just putting it in script form.
Has that experience helped how you write now? Changed you style at all?
It's hard for me to say - you'd have to ask someone who reads what I write. I think it's changed my writing style to be more linear - more story based and visual, but it's hard to say.
How did you wind up doing TWO scripts? (How many more in the wind?)
They asked me. I was actually asking permission to visit the set for the filming of Legacy - and Rob said I'd be welcome to come down, but that they were about to give me a second script and it would be nice if I stayed in Miami and wrote it. (g) I was approached about the third one while I was in NZ watching Coming Home be filmed. How or why they did it - you'd have to ask them. I was just glad and very honoured they did.
Does this experience make you want to write other screenplays, for other shows?
I've written a screenplay for Steve's Sheena - I liked that a lot, and I do enjoy writing them.
Did you ever stop and question whether you were nuts for doing it?
A few people have noted to me that The Powers That Be commented that parts of your episode (Coming Home) they'd had to change because they didn't quite flow or whatever. Given many freelancers probably submit scripts also needing work like this, it made me wonder why they felt a need to say this about you. So my question is: do you think you were treated/seen differently because of your fan background as opposed to any other writer? What about the second time up to bat?
I think it's because no one ever asks about the other freelancers, do they? (g) I was unique in that they pulled me in off the street, and did this process. Having been involved in the process to the extent that I was, yes, - absolutely I understand that scripts are altered after writing for EVERYONE - not just freelancers - and it didn't hurt MY feelings in the least. (g) I was always treated very professionally by the staff at Renpics, and it's a credit to them that the process went as smoothly as it did.
One of the few down sides of taking this project on was that your were one fan singled out from many, many fans -- some of them wannabe writers, some already professional writers with TV credits. This has led to some heated debate and jealousy in some quarters about your selection. You can't have been oblivious to this, I imagine. Did this in-fighting affect you at all? If so does it still affect you?
It just makes me sad, if anything. I think it's a total waste of human time to be hateful or resentful of someone else because of something they achieved or did not achieve, and the people who spend their time either being jealous or spiteful just need to step back and take stock of what they're doing. All that negative energy hurts you - for absolutely no good purpose. I didn't asked to be picked by Renpics, I didn't ask to be picked a second, or even a third time - but the fact of the matter is, I was, and I did the best I could at what I was asked to do. I actually have been dealing with this stupidity since the Merpups formed - when a lot of people took violent objection to the fact that there were people out there who enjoyed reading what I wrote, and liked to get together about it. They formed an identity, and a mailing list, and became a very visible presence at cons and in the online world. They get sniped at, people write nasty letters to them, people tell them 'to go piddle on someone else's yard' - because they decided they happen to like my writing. Sometimes I think the people who resent them, and resent me, and do little but put other people down need to take a look at themselves hard, and figure out why being negative is more important to them then enjoying life and being happy. If that sounded like "Grow up and get a life' - that's exactly what it was. For me, call me a Pollyanna if you like - but I much prefer to be positive, and think the best of people, and have the most fun doing what I do that I possibly can. I love writing, I've loved being a part of Xena fandom, and getting the opportunity to be a part of the Xena staff, and all the negativity in the world can't take that away from me.
Were there any more extreme reactions you can mention?
Oh, sure. I've had people fax letters to Renpics about me, had campaigns started to try and hurt me or 'bring me down.' - it's all very stupid, and pointless, and mostly I think it gives people some drama in their lives that they feel they need to have.
B. VISITING A LAND IN ANCIENT TIMES What did you make of New Zealand? Was that your first visit last August?
Yep - my first visit to anywhere out of the country, in fact. I loved New Zealand. It's a great place - I enjoyed seeing the gorgeous countryside, and meeting the people there. I tended to go down into the city of Auckland right after breakfast, and before they picked me up to go on set for the day - and walked around just seeing the differences between their culture and mine, and listening to the different voices. I loved it.
How much did you get to talk to Lucy and Renee, if at all? Did they say anything about your work?
Actually, on set I tried to really stay out of the way and not disturb the folks who were working. I did get to chat with them on several occasions - about the script they were working on, and the characters. Both are very lovely people - and very hard workers.
Did you take a lot of pictures, ask a lot of questions, or were you doing the cool writer bit? *g* If you did do the former, did you feel free doing so, and what did you find out?
I actually took a couple pictures - (g) I asked a lot of technical questions but tried to keep out of the way and just observed most of the time. My time was split between being on set, and going to the production offices - so I got to meet a lot of staffers, and see a lot of behind the scenes stuff as well.
Did you feel intimidated by all of it, as a writer and observer and if so, did you become more comfortable as time went on?
No - I didn't feel intimidated at all, actually - the crew was extremely nice, and very welcoming.
Was there anything that surprised you?
Brown, crystallised sugar. Also, herring for breakfast, and just how odd it was seeing people drive on the wrong side of the street.
What was your perception on set of what the Xenabods think of the fans and their opinions/feelings/input?
I don't think the folks in NZ really do think of that a lot - they're way, way too busy in the process of putting the show together. I know they're conscious of the final product - but you know, they don't see it until months afterward, and I think by then, they're on to other things. It's a very unconnected sort of feeling.
Did you feel the love for the characters among the people on the set or do they have a "it's just a show and we're pro's" approach?
They were all very professional - I think they take care with their characters, and they do feel strongly about them - but that's part of their job. Having said that, there were definitely a few moments that I saw filmed where the love for the characters did shine through. (g)
C. YA CALL THAT A CHARACTER? Okay no hedging on these questions:
Was Joxer a good or bad thing for the show?
I think originally I liked him. I liked Joxer in Ten Little Warlords, for example, and I thought the dynamic between him and Gab was very funny. I think some of the things he did helped the show, but I think some of the storylines made people really dislike the character, and caused a fairly large rift in the fanbase. I didn't like how they wrote his hopeless love affair with Gabrielle, for instance, and I also thought he deserved better than to be shoved under a bush when he died. Was he good or bad? I don't know - I got the feeling they didn't decide what they wanted Joxer to be other than comic relief until it was too late. He more often annoyed me than made me laugh.
Which dominant personality trait of the many he exhibited over the years (eg clutz, romantic, fighter, brothel hanger-on, brave sidekick etc etc) would you have written him as, if he were in your script? Given the choice? I would have picked the earnest, brave if usually hapless sidekick - the Joxer that meant well, was a good friend, but usually could be counted on to complicate the plot.
Is Eve a good or bad thing for the show?
(sigh) Sorry, I hated Eve. The giving of a child to Xena could have been so many things - could have done so many things to resolve so many issues in Xena and Gabrielle's life, that to have her be Livia the homicidal nutcase and then be zapped into a flower child just made me say "ick" .
How would you have written her character if you were given sole control over where she was headed after her transformation to good? Where do you think the character should go now?
If I was given the task of writing that character at all - I think I would have rather had her start out very different. I don't know that I would have forced her to be Livia - I was just thinking that she might have been more fun if she'd started out to be more like Eve - a disciple of Eli, who had grown up in martial Rome and was now trying to convert them, and very against violence. I would have liked her to meet Xena, maybe, as she was about to be eaten by lions as a martyr - and have Xena save her from that. Then you have peacenik Eve having to suddenly deal with the fact that she has a mother who embodies all she hates - and she has to learn to live with that. I think maybe watching Eve's 'Xena' side come out slowly might have been more interesting than having her zapped into goodness. Having her be a reformed ex murderer sort of makes her too like Xena, though I can see the attraction of that kind of storyline. Having her start out being this virtuous peacenik would have made for some interesting contrast for Gabrielle, too.
Was Eli a good or bad turning point for the show?
I don't like gods, and I thought the entire god storyline wasn't really good for the show. I think it made Xena far too powerful, far too inhuman, and at some point in the season, it allowed us to lose the ability to connect with her, and empathise with what she was going through. She became too different - it was hard to feel for someone who could turn 100K people into stone. So, I would have to say I don't' know that they should have gone there with Eli.
I noticed Ares suddenly became a veritable chatterbox in Coming Home so I'm guessing you like the big lug? What's your take on the Ares/Xena relationship tease? Was it an interesting idea to walk that tight rope at the same time as the Xena/Gabrielle subtext?
I love Ares. (g) I also love the relationship between Ares and Xena, because I think Ares has had a large part to play in how Xena turned out. I think there's always going to be some attraction between them, because I think Ares dark side touches Xena's dark side, and I think she's attracted to the danger, and to the power of him. That's not to say I think they should be romantically put together - because I also think they're way too much alike and they'd end up killing or hating each other, which isn't much fun either. I think I like the teasing, but I also like Xena knowing that he's not the guy for her. Her playing with Ares never bothered me as a subtexter, because Xena's relationship with Gabrielle is far more profound, and Ares knows, and has admitted that.
Lao Ma -- better off dead?
It sure would have been very interesting for her to have lived in present time in the Debts, huh? I would have liked to have seen this Xena (the one we know now) meet her, and have her meet Gabrielle.
Alti -- better off staying dead?
Alti is not my favourite villain. (Callisto is). The problem I always found with Alti is that she's a one note pony. She wants Xena. Xena doesn't want her. Xena must kill her in some extreme way. Her motive is always the same, her MO is usually the same - she starts sounding like Boris Badenov after a while. I like the fact that she's more than powerful enough to challenge Xena, though - that's always a tough thing to do.
Gabrielle, long hair or short?
Erf... depends on what day of the week it is for me to answer that one. My mother likes her with long hair better. I like her with short hair, except when it needs a trim and she looks like a sheepdog. (g)
Gabs the fighter or pacifist bard (as in, her staff-toting days, not her Eli days of complete pacifist) -- which worked better?
For me? Pacifist bard. Gabrielle the warrior is so close to Xena, it's hard to see the contrast sometimes, and one of the most interesting things to me about their partnership was that contrast. I like that Gabrielle can fight and defend herself - I just don't know that I like her as a killer. I miss her staff - in fact, I deliberately wrote in her using one in the last fight scene in Legacy just so I could see that again. (g)
Xena -- lover or fighter? What do you make of recent developments which have seen her use her feminine wiles more than her sword on some men eg Lucifer and Antony?
You know, a lot of people really resented that. I never felt that Xena would be shy in using any weapon she needed to achieve her goal - but I think what caused the reaction of a lot of people were having a number of episodes back to back with that same theme. If you see the same thing over and over again, it's going to get on your nerves - and I think that's what we saw in the beginning of this season, and the end of last. With AUS, and A and C, and then HOA and HOD this year... and Ghurkan... it was all a lot of using that kind of sexual attack around the same time. It got to be too much, and the reaction was... "Xena, you slut!" For me - I think Xena works to achieve her goals - and she uses whatever tools she needs to use to do that. I don't think she views what she does as immoral, just a means to an end.
The whole show -- better as a comedy or a drama?
For me, I prefer the dramas, or the dramadies. I'm not a fan of slapstick, so the comedies sometimes get on my nerves. I did like Been There Done that, and Fins Femmes and Gems, and several other of the dramadies though.
Favourite three eps and why? Do they have anything in common?
The Quest, The Greater Good, Remember Nothing.. those are three I really like. I don't think I have a list of absolutely 'favourites.'. I liked them because they touched me - and they meant something to the characters that were in them.
Most hated three eps and why? Do they have anything in common?
Fishsticks, Amphipolis Under Siege, the fifth season Chin ep I can't even remember the name of. I just can't watch them. (g)
D. SUBTEXT DALLIANCES You are the queen of PG-rated online subtext or, as you call it, half-alt. Was that a conscious decision to keep it romantic instead of writhing? *g* Is it about your comfort zone or other people's?
It's just how I write. It's partly my comfort zone, partly the fact that when I read most erotica, unless it's very well written and there is a lot that is, it just comes off sounding like a manual on how to put together a bicycle using rubber bands and packing tape. I think erotica has to be extremely well written to work - and I don't write it well, ergo, I don't. (g)
As someone who made her name as a subtext writer, how do you balance your own bias towards subtext with the demands of The Powers That Be -- to whom it is either a "joke", or something that the focus groups say they don't like (bearing in mind that the same focus groups don't like the war cry or the flips either* (*see Rob Tapert interview at Whoosh -www.whoosh.org/issue52/itapert1.html).
(g) I can actually honestly say, that as a subtexter, I was never uncomfortable writing for, or dealing with TPTB, especially with Rob Tapert. (he is going to laugh when he reads this, if he does, because of something I once told him.) I had little problem reconciling my view of the characters with the demands of writing for them.
Since I wrote that question, I have read that you consciously chose not to go the subtext route in the Xena episodes you wrote. How come? Wasn't this what many online fans were hanging out for especially after the dearth of season 5?
Mostly because that's what was expected of me, being a subtext writer, and I hate being predictable. What I actually said was that I did not put deliberate subtext into the scripts. That does not mean there wasn't any in the stories - because when I wrote them, in the back of my mind always is how I view the characters and that does tend to come out when I write. So, in Legacy for instance, there is no 'hot tub' scene written into the script - Xena does not 'show jealousy' over Korah washing Gab's feet, or when she asks Gab about 'desert boy' and I didn't have Xena hugging Gab's pillow when she's thinking about her after Gab has her flashback sequence. But all that came out in the filming anyway, and I certainly had it in my mind when I was producing the script. (g)
Did you have any discussions with the Xenabods about subtext while you were writing the shows and was the general feeling about it? Who seems most pro-subtext among TPTB, in your opinion?
(g) I really can't answer that question without getting into trouble.
At what point did Xena and Gabrielle lose the love/closeness which everyone seems madly trying to rekindle in season six?
You know, I don't think they ever did. I think the storylines just moved away from that, and due to the difficulties of filming season five, and the fact that Lucy wasn't on set a lot, it's what we perceived to have happened. No one purposefully, I think, wrote them 'apart'. I think there were a lot of things that went into what ended up on film in season five - and a lot of things going into what you see in season six.
Do you think they can get it back now? Have they got it back already, and if so, when (from which ep) did you start seeing it back?
I think season six stands on it's own in that regard. (g)
Do The Powers That Be have a clue what subtext actually is? Could they define it if you asked? Hell, did you ask?!
LOL. I can't answer that without getting into trouble either. I think they do see it a little differently than the subtext fans do, however.
E. A GOOD HOWL You are one of the few fans of a show who can boast having fans of her own. Does this strike you as weird in an incestuous sort of way, funny, cool, or as perfectly normal? What did you make of it all when your fanbase (the Merpups) became evident?
I try not to think about it too much. I view the Merpups as a group of people with a common interest, who love to get together and party. They are by and large a very supportive, very positive group - who have many other likes in fandom other than my stories. I like to think I gave them an excuse to find each other, and provide a reason for them to have a very good time with each other.
The Merpups are famed throughout the Xenaverse for being loyal to you, almost to a fault -- so much so that stories tend to emerge every now and then of the wrath of the Merpups if someone criticises you, even if they mean well. Does this alarm you at all, given it sounds like it's veering heavily towards censorship?
No, and they know I discourage that kind of thing. (g) On the other hand, I've been known to get loudly pissed off when the pups are put down just for enjoying themselves and liking my stuff. They are a very loving, and very giving group of people - and it gets me seriously pissed when they get put down for that, or because of their enthusiasm.
If you are bothered, do you ever step in and stop some of the Merpups' from defending your "honour" quite so ... vigorously?
Sure. I don't need defending - I'm a big girl, and criticism doesn't bother me one way or the other. I know they get upset when I get personally attacked though - much like I get upset when they do, because they know I'm basically just a mostly harmless person who hangs out and writes a little, and doesn't ask to have my name spread all over the Internet or ever asked to be 'famous'.
F. BAUBLES & BELLES As an X-Files fan you might like to tell me, who would be more terrifying in an eyebrow to eyebrow match off: Xena or Scully?
What about Xena vs Dar? *g* And who'd win a physical encounter (in unarmed combat?)
You're joking, right? Xena.
What will you do when the show ends?
Continue my CCNP certification. (g)
What are you writing now? (Do NOT say "answers to your questions". *G*)
A Matter of Pride (a new X and G fanfic) and editing Eye of the Storm for publication.
With so many ardent fans out there I imagine you'd have potential suitors flinging themselves at you. Or at least trying very hard. Chuckle. I hear on the grapevine you have a girlfriend -- so what does she think of your star power in the Xenaverse and is she a little awed by your status on the Net? Or is it kinda like, "eh, of course Melissa's bigger than Ben Hur..."
(g) Nope - I'm currently peacefully unattached - the person they generally refer to is my best buddy, Jen - who does accompany me to conventions and thinks my Internet fandom is just the funniest thing on earth. Mostly because she knows me very well, and knows just how much I HATE being the centre of ANY attention. When I was in the SCA, I managed to avoid having to go up and receive my two kingdom level awards (my AOA and my Argent Palm, in case anyone is curious) during the first, I got myself shipped to Memphis for eight months, and during the last, I refused to come out of the kitchen during the award presentation because I was the feastcrat.. I think they finally dragged me bodily out and forced me to accept it.
Do you get recognised in public? Is that freaky?
At cons, sometimes, sure, but I've gotten used to that. I usually just try to find something else to talk about with the person, like where they're from, or ask them if they're having a good time at the con.
Do you do much scuba diving in Florida or is that more something Dar and Kerry get up to while you wish you had the time?
I do actually - I've been doing more of it since I moved to Broward. We've got a good scuba shop here who has a boat that goes out of Fort Lauderdale. It's been great - this summer should be fun as well.
You're currently 37 years old. What do you aim to be doing in 10 years time? How about five?
Have no idea. (g) Hopefully, I'll be finished with my Cisco certification, and maybe I'll be moving into network engineering.
What makes you cry?
I would answer that, but I'd have to then kill you. (g) Ask me again after the series ends.
What is one thing you wish for most in your life?
To enjoy it.
Okay, apart from a lifetime supply of chocolate, what is one thing you most wish for in life?
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