An Interview with Derek Tyler Attico, Part 1: Writing The Autobiography of Benjamin Sisko
Fans learned so much about Benjamin Sisko in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine but The Autobiography of Benjamin Sisko — the first novel by author Derek Tyler Attico — takes it to the next level. Recently, I enjoyed not only reading a preview copy of the book and hosting an X Space (an audio discussion on the social media platform formerly known as Twitter) with Attico about it but I was also delighted to interview him for Warp Factor Trek regarding the novel, which I’ve reviewed for this website. Published by Titan Books, the novel represents the fifth in a series of “autobiographies” of various Star Trek captains. After informing Attico that I thoroughly enjoyed the book and catching up with him about his advertising campaign to promote its release, I launched into some questions about the novel itself.
Firstly, how did you receive the assignment to write the book?
That’s an interesting story. Someone, I don’t know who, had a podcast about the autobiographies and they were talking about how the books had skipped Sisko and went to Janeway. Someone on Twitter mentioned that, if Titan ever does a Sisko autobiography, then there’s this guy, Derek Attico, and he wrote, in 2016, the short story “The Dreamer and the Dream”. And that was a great short story —that’s what they said, not my words — and that he should be looked at for the autobiography.
Titan heard about that, read the short story, and then contacted me. This was over a span of a year or two — it didn’t just happen right away. And so, they contacted me, and I was blown away. It was like, “We’re thinking about you for the autobiography. Do you have any visions for it?” So, I explained to them what I would like to do for the autobiography, and they liked my ideas. After a conversation with George Sandison, managing editor — a phenomenal human being — over at Titan Books, I got the gig and I was off to the races.
The book commemorates the 30th anniversary of Deep Space Nine. When Titan first approached you with the assignment, was it described as a 30th-anniversary project right off the bat?
Absolutely. It was like, “This is right in time for this. And we want to deliver it for the 30th anniversary.”
Did the previous four Autobiography books inspire you when writing this one?
Oh, yeah. I had already gotten the audiobook for Kathryn Janeway’s, read by Janeway herself, Kate Mulgrew. But I went back and ordered all the other ones, and Kathryn Janeway’s as well, and I read them all, once I had the project, to see what they did for the other captains.
I also had an opportunity to speak with Una McCormack, who did the Janeway autobiography and the Spock autobiography, and she’s a phenomenal author. We emailed each other back and forth. We got to know each other a little bit and do what writers do: talk shop. We talked about the autobiographies — hers and mine — and overall I remember how welcoming it made me feel to join this very small community of Autobiography Trek authors.
All the autobiographies are great, because none of them are exactly what you expect. They take left turns in these people’s lives. I think that’s really smart, and it’s another thing that I wanted to do. That being said, I knew if I thought about making the Sisko autobiography better than the others, that would be a trap, so I put that out of my head and just wrote the story that I wanted to write. I just hope that this one stands up to and with those as well.
Was it George Sandison who helped you with the editorial process, because he’s part of the publishing team, rather than you bringing in an editor from outside to work with on the project?
Absolutely. It was pretty much he and I for most of the process. I had to write an outline first and that outline had to be approved and it had to be approved by him, had to be approved by Titan, and moreover had to be approved by CBS, of course, and then the same thing with the manuscript.
It took me a while to write the outline but there weren’t really any notes or anything for it. After the first pass of the manuscript, George was pretty much hands-off. He had some notes on the first pass of the manuscript, and he and I had a really good conversation before it all started. But you never know how you’re going to work with somebody until you’re actually working with them.
So, this was your first time working with him?
It was, and my first time working with Titan, and it’s my first novel. Reading his notes, it was clear in the first conversation that he had the same ideas and vision that I had for Deep Space Nine and for the autobiography. The man is a phenomenal editor, but he also understood my particular writing and what I was trying to put forward. And so, it was really great. I think the best editors don’t put themselves in the work — they just bring out the writer. And he definitely brought a lot out of me and would highlight things to inspire me. He was like, “Well, you could delve into this section a little bit more, you could highlight this, you could talk a little bit more about that.” And I was like, “Oh, really?” He told me, “Yeah. Just go for it in this section or maybe pull back a little bit in this section,” that kind of stuff. It was really great.
That sounds a bit like what a music producer might do! When writing the book, which DS9 episodes proved particularly inspirational?
I think the ones that affected us all also affected me. “Far Beyond the Stars”. One that isn’t always talked about, “Explorers”, was a really big one for me, when Sisko builds a Bajoran lightship and he and Jake take a trip together.
Actually, the pilot, “Emissary”. It was emotional for me writing Wolf 359, putting elements of that in the book, just because of understanding where I had to put his psyche at the time, and his pain. That was very interesting.
And then, the very end of the book has something that I think is very emotional. It will hopefully prove to be poignant and emotional to readers. I always believe when I’m writing I’m making a contract with the reader and so I’m telling the reader, “You’re not going to be lost if you hang in there with me.”
Episodes that came to mind that I thought were probably inspirational included the “Homefront”/“Paradise Lost” two-parter and the episode “Adversary”. Given that the book is dedicated “to everyone who is reclaiming their story and speaking their truth,” I wondered how much of this book would you say is autobiographical from yourself?
Well, I won’t say how much, but there are definitely elements. I think the old adage for writers is “Write what you know,” and I think that’s very true. Some of the things that happened to Ben have happened to me. My life experiences is why I think I was uniquely suited to write this; certain life experiences I’ve had really work well for this character. I think, as a writer, you don’t want to always lift one-for-one something that happens in your life and put it in a story. But also as a writer, if you’re, I guess, cognizant enough to know when you can do that and when it will benefit the story and benefit that character, then go right ahead.
How did you approach the task of writing about Sisko’s home city, New Orleans?
I’ve never been to New Orleans. I didn’t know a lot about New Orleans before the book. Once I got the project, I took about two weeks to research the city before I wrote anything. I read a book about the history of New Orleans. I watched a few documentaries, which I always find is something I just do and find fascinating. I watched the HBO show Treme, which is fictional, but it’s a really, really good show, and HBO does due diligence on New Orleans.
Because I knew that the writers of Deep Space Nine had placed this character in such a rich and culturally diverse location for where he lived and where his family lived, almost immediately I realized New Orleans had to become a character in the book as well. It probably wouldn’t feel right if it wasn’t. And so then, I was like, Oh, wow. Then I have to educate myself, because when I’m writing, I have to sound like I know what I’m talking about and I have to feel comfortable talking about it.
When I first got the book, I was a little bit puzzled because it says on the front, “Edited by” yourself and the images credit Jake Sisko and various other characters. So basically, the first question I thought of was… how involved were you in writing the blurb — on both the inlay sleeve and the back — and in designing and/or selecting the interior images and/or the covers of the book?
Well, that “edited by” is something that is carried through in all the other autobiographies, and I like that. I think it’s a nice touch, because what it’s saying is that these are these individuals in their own words but it’s “edited by,” so it’s in-universe, but it’s just “edited by” the author even though it is the author, of course, writing it. So, I love that.
As for how much input I had in the images and stuff, I can’t speak to the other authors on the other autobiographies. Myself, I was very fortunate where I really connected with Russell Walks, who’s the artist for those images, and he’s just phenomenal. The work he does in those images is phenomenal. He was the first beta reader for the manuscript, because they had to go to him so he could see what to create, and he really enjoyed it.
We started to click and connect, then we started working on stuff that we felt would be good. He gave me a list of what I thought would be good ideas, and I was like, “Oh man, your ideas are so good, I don’t even know if I can add to these,” but I gave him one or two additions. Most of his ideas were just spot on.
So, it was a really collaborative effort, but in collaboration, I mean, let’s be fair, it was like seventy/eighty percent Russell, twenty percent Derek. I’m not an artist. It was a collaboration in the sense that I was talking to him and speaking with him and giving him ideas, so he made me feel collaborative. It was great, and he would tweak things according to what I said. Even in the pictures, we have a nod to “The Dreamer and the Dream” and “Alpha and Omega” that I wrote.
Can you talk about why you chose to populate this book with, in addition to Benjamin Sisko, a lot of other pre-established Star Trek characters, even ones from outside DS9?
Well, I’m a Star Trek author; I write Star Trek. And so, it’s not just Deep Space Nine. My first professional story was a Star Trek story in 2005, “Alpha and Omega”, for the Strange New Worlds anthology contest. And for me, all of Star Trek is in my head, not just one series. The way I look at Star Trek is like it’s this huge chess board and I can use any piece on the board at any time, so I just threw these things in. It just felt really, really cool, and I just love writing those characters. I’ve never really liked throwaway characters in anything I write.
I love the shortness of the chapters in this book. Who decided how long the chapters are?
Oh, that was on me. I’ve read a lot of books in my days. I’ve read books that have really long chapters and books that have really short chapters. Some of the books that I’ve enjoyed the most is when I’m turning the page and feeling like I have some sense of completion, and so I purposely structured the outline and the book to have shorter chapters. It starts off long, but that’s all intentional where it starts off, like, on this curve. It goes short and gets shorter but not necessarily shorter and shorter, because what he’s doing is he’s not necessarily giving an “autobiography” autobiography. He’s just talking. And as we talk to people, sometimes we go on and on and sometimes we give a few sentences. So, that’s what I was trying to convey, is that sometimes the chapters should reflect that.
It’s a really interesting project to write, because Ben Sisko is not like, for example, Captain Picard. That man is a Shakespearean thespian and he could be extremely eloquent sometimes. Benjamin Sisko is no less eloquent, but he’s more plain-spoken.
So, as I wrote for Ben, I had to be a little bit more plain-spoken and, as a writer, sometimes I try and add eloquence, but I had to pull back on that because then that wouldn’t be Ben’s voice — that’d be my voice. So, there were moments that I gave that, because everybody has those moments, but for the most part, Ben is talking. A lot of times in this book, he’s just saying it straight and he’s very plain-spoken, but it’s still in his voice. So, I had to always keep that in mind as well, because I think if he started being like this eloquent individual, you’d be like, “That doesn’t sound like Ben Sisko. It’s just not congruent with the character.”
Were any parts of the book particularly inspired by Avery Brooks?
Yeah, and Avery Brooks was always, like, with me. I was always thinking about, first, it has to match Benjamin Sisko, and because Mister Brooks is the actor portraying Benjamin Sisko, it also in some respects has to reflect him.
In your book, Sisko describes the Saratoga bridge crew as family. Is that a type of professional relationship that you’ve enjoyed?
At different times in my life, I think I’ve had that. I always say that there’s the family you’re born into and then, if you’re lucky, there’s the family that you choose. I think that’s something that’s understandable and true for all of us and I wanted to impart, I think, some of that with Ben.
It’s very clear, on Deep Space Nine, that this is a man who is comfortable and understands how to be comfortable around people he works with. It’s not his first rodeo working with people, it’s just certainly not. And in comparison, when we meet Captain Picard, here’s a man who’s also a veteran and has been in Starfleet for a long time, but he’s not that comfortable around all of his people. He has to ease into it, just because of the individual he is. So, thinking about that, I was like, Well, where did that comfort come from with Benjamin?
I think if you have certain comforts at home, then you take it and you use it in the workplace and there are things you can use in the workplace in a professional setting that can work, and I think that’s what we see Ben doing. He’s taking things that he’s learned along the way, because the way I was thinking about it is the book is, in many ways, like a three-act play. So, everything is carried through for him, and we do that normally in our lives. But writing it, I had to show that.
At the same time, autobiographies, by definition, are not really linear, because you’re talking about different parts of your life at different times and it’s like all of a jumble. So, I looked at elements of this book as just glimpses into his life, which is what an autobiography is supposed to be. You know, you get a glimpse, you don’t get a day-by-day, blow-by-blow; you get glimpses. And so, that’s what I was trying to do.
You describe the book as having a three-part structure. Is there a reason you chose to divide the book into three parts and when in the writing process did you think of doing so?
At first, I thought it should have a five-part structure and I was like, Oh, that’s too much. I knew I wanted it to be multiple chapters. So, first I started to devise titles for each chapter, and the title would reflect upon what was written, of course, in the chapter. And then as I did that, I realized that the book started to take on a three-act structure.
How important was staying true to canon while writing this book?
You definitely want to adhere to canon and just make sure that everything kind of fits into place. See, that’s the funny thing about Deep Space Nine. There’s a lot of that in the seven years of the show where he will have these lines, which I guess are great lines but then they become canon and you’re like, Okay, wow! How am I gonna bring these things together?
Were there any particular parts of the book you became obsessed about refining?
The very beginning I wrote two or three times, because I knew it was really important to frame that the right way. And then I realized that the book has three beginnings, not just one. I didn’t really see any other way to do it because, as I’m doing each one, I’m slowly giving information and slowly building to getting to Ben. And so that was a little bit of a challenge. I had to make sure I got that right and so that was something I really worked on.
And then — after I did that and got that to where I liked it — I went to write the very last page of the book, because I just was in the mood to write it, and I wrote it. And that pretty much stayed the same the whole time. I knew what I wanted to say, and I never feel you should write an end of a story or a book at the end, because sometimes your energy isn’t the same. So, I’ve learned to write endings when I’m high energy and that was great to do that, because by the time I came to the actual end, I had all this reinvigoration of energy because it was already there, waiting for me to come back to.
What would you say about the darkness or grittiness in this book?
Well, when I write, I’m always trying to bring some realism and reality to what I write. And I think a lot about what Gene Roddenberry set up with the things that happened, with Star Trek. Humanity gets its act together after World War III happened.
When you wrote the book, was it difficult to keep the stakes high because the outcome is already established and because so many characters do survive?
That’s definitely a challenge. Luckily, it’s an autobiography, so it’s different than reading something that’s straight fiction in the sense that, in straight fiction, there are different types of stakes. With a person telling their life, there are things that can happen, but if they’re telling it, then you pretty much know that they’re still around in some form or fashion. But even within that, you’re right. I did want to create stakes at certain times. It was a little bit different for me, because I’m used to writing physical actions, physical challenges, and the stakes had to be different here. The stakes in Ben’s early life are emotional, developmental — who he’s going to become, how he is impacted by these things. So, there are stakes and there are these challenges, but they’re just done differently, I think.
Can you tell us a bit more about how you envisioned Sisko’s youth?
Well, the science tells us that the adults we are is formed sometime between birth and eight years old. And if that’s the case, then I wanted to create events within that period that would leave a lifelong impression upon this man.
Did you prefer writing the parts of Ben Sisko’s life that we haven’t seen before or the bits portrayed in the TV series and why?
I enjoyed both. I think I enjoyed maybe a little bit more what we haven’t seen because it’s just new ground. And then marrying that with the man and with what we have seen, that’s always the challenge. So, as a writer, that’s always fun.
How important was theme for you when writing this story?
This is my first novel, so I tried to put a lot of parallels in this book. There’s a lot of recurring themes that I’m trying to weave into the book. I think our lives are like that. So, what happens is we look back and we’re like, Something that happened when I was a kid informs me as an adult, and so that’s what I’m trying to do. So, there’s a lot going on in the book. I’m always trying to, in this book, show parallels and to give messages that mean something. There are reasons I’ve done things so that, if I ever get an opportunity to do another Star Trek story or something, I can take threads that have been put down here and run with them in other places, or anyone else can, not just me.
The previous authors of the Autobiography books — Una McCormack and David A Goodman — wrote two of the books each. Does that suggest that you may write another Autobiography after this one?
If Titan will have me, I’d love to. I have some ideas, so sure. It was a lot of fun doing this one and now that I’ve gotten my feet wet in this realm, I would absolutely love to do another one. It would be a lot of fun.
The Autobiography of Benjamin Sisko is now available from all good bookstores. Part 2 of our interview will discuss the book more in-depth.
Webmaster of WarpFactorTrek, Dan is an avid Star Trek fan who lives in Aberdeen, Scotland. Dan has loved Star Trek ever since discovering it in his childhood. He worked as an administrator, for six years, on the encyclopedic Star Trek website Memory Alpha, which involved studying the making of the various series and films. He has been mentioned in the official Star Trek Magazine, has qualified from a Star Trek course taught at Glasgow Clyde College, and coordinated the SubSpace Chatter (formerly The Scotch Trekker) YouTube channel, which regularly featured live interviews with the cast and crew of Star Trek.