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The elements of drama and mysticism combined with great characters drew Susan Williams into watching The Sentinel during first season. A writer of fantasy fiction prior to discovering TS, Susan naturally incorporated and built upon the mystical aspects of the show's premise in her own fan fiction stories. Her stories are well-known for their intense, dramatic plots and emotional scenes between Jim and Blair. She also participates as one of the authors on the writing team for Faux Paws Productions, one of the Sentinel virtual seasons. Susan's Cascade Library listing currently includes six of her eight stories. Her stories are located at Fan Fiction and The Sentinel.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Susan!
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Well, let's see. I live in Massachusetts, where I have a boring job that doesn't pay enough. I have a B.A. in English Literature, which is about as useless a degree as you can have. I've been writing original fiction since junior high school. Someday, I'd like to make my living at it, but I'm not holding my breath. My original fiction is predominantly heroic fantasy, but everything I've had published so far has been dark fantasy, which is the latest euphemism for horror. <g> I had sold a fantasy story, but, like so many markets, the magazine went out of business before its second issue. So far, I've written three novels (one with a co-writer), but haven't been able to sell any of them.
Aside from writing, I do some beadwork, read tarot cards, and I've been selling TS Bears, for which I make all the clothes. Since I was never any good at sewing before, it came as a complete surprise to me that I could do this. <g> Recently, I became Editor in Chief for Skeeter Press, a new zine publisher consisting of Kandace Klumper. D.L. Witherspoon, and me.
How did you become a Sentinel fan? What is your favorite episode and why?
I became a Sentinel fan way back in the summer of 1996, when I first laid eyes on Garett Maggart. I believe the first episode I saw was Love and Guns, featuring Blair in danger and brokenhearted. That was it for me; I was completely hooked.
It's hard to say what my favorite episode is. For mysticism, definitely Warriors. For drama, Cypher. The warehouse scene with Dennis Christopher and Garett is so powerful, it still gives me chills every time I see it.
How did you start writing Sentinel fan fiction? Specifically, what was your first story, when did you write it, and what was it like to post your first story?
My first fanfic story was The Devil You Know. I wrote it in September of 1996, in about three weeks, which is extremely fast for me. I don't remember exactly when it was posted, but it was the first Sentinel story to deal with rape, and it caused quite a ruckus. I was accused by one individual on a list of being anti-gay and anti-slash, which made no sense at all, since it's a gen story and there are no gay characters in it. Aside from that, I was thrilled by its reception. I've kept every single LOC I've ever received on it. Pro stories don't tend to get feedback, which is a shame. Feedback is a wonderful thing. <g>
If you could see any of your stories made into a real episode, which one would you choose?
Following the Wolf, which I wrote for Faux Paws Productions' Virtual Season 5. Of all my stories, I think that one is closest to something that might have aired, had TPTB had any interest at all in exploring Blair's role as shaman. I would have loved to see that happen on the show. Also, it deals with the emotional fallout for Blair and Jim from The Sentinel by Blair Sandburg, which is something else I would have loved to see, though I don't think Pet Fly would have spent too much time on it.
Which story are you most proud of?
Masks, I think. It's the sequel to The Devil You Know, and it covers the aftermath of the rape and Blair's recovery, as well as its effect on Jim and on their friendship. I had a hard time with it, because there was so much to deal with and I wanted to do it right, to make the story both realistic and exciting. I'd read too many stories where the character makes an almost instantaneous recovery or is completely unaffected emotionally, and that's just so implausible. I've had a lot of positive feedback on the story, but what makes me proudest, and saddest at the same time, are the letters from people who have either been through a similar situation themselves or are close to someone who has, and who have told me that I got it right, and that the story somehow helped them.
Which character do you most enjoy writing?
Blair, definitely. I just adore the character of Blair Sandburg. He's brilliant, educated, intuitive, ingenious, compassionate, kind, and funny. Oh, sure, he's gorgeous, too, but you can't write gorgeous, there has to be an interesting character behind the face, and I find Blair fascinating. I'd say that he's the easiest for me to write, because there are so many facets to him. Jim's a great character too, but I find that I have to deviate a bit from canon with Jim in certain stories in order to make him a more sympathetic character. Basically, I make him nicer to Blair than he often was on the show. My least favorite? Probably Rafe. I can't seem to summon up any interest in him.
What genre(s) do you enjoy writing the most?
Drama. I like to shake up the characters and see how they deal with a bad situation. I'm more interested in the characters than the case, so I don't think I could do a straight case story with no emotional upheaval. Something has to be going on internally as well as externally. I'm the opposite with smarm. Hugging is nice, but I want a plot that gives me a reason for it.
Who are your beta readers and what do you appreciate most about them?
Sue Palmatier, Jo Duffy, Kandace Klumper, Vickie Shaw, and Michele Kitay (my co-writer on one of the novels) have all betaed for me. They're all good friends, and I appreciate their honesty. The most thorough beta I ever had was from Paulette Mariades. She betaed "Family Trust," which was written for her in connection with the gen letter auction, and she did a wonderful job. She really challenged me to make it the best story I could, and I'm grateful to her.
In The Brother Thing, your answer to the 1997 Guide Posts smarm challenge, Jim reads Blair's journals and gains some insight into their relationship. Do you think Jim and Blair talk about their friendship or have more of an unspoken understanding?
In my universe, they do. <g> But if I were trying to stick strictly to canon, then no, I don't think they would talk about it. I'm going to make a sexist statement, and say that most men don't really talk about that stuff, but most fanfic writers and readers are women, and we want them to. Canonically, the lack of communication contributed to the misunderstandings Jim and Blair had on the show, but they never learned from it. It's a convenient dramatic device, and I think it is realistic for most men, but I would have liked to see them grow in this area.
You've rewritten several Christmas carols for The Sentinel. Do you have a favorite?
Oh, probably A Visit from a Spirit Guide. I've done several parodies of A Visit from Saint Nicholas over the years (there's a vampire version somewhere), but TS lent itself nicely to the format. And I got to put in lots of mystical stuff, which is always fun. Plus, it was written in 1997, well before Sentinel Too Part 2, and the last line is "Take care of your guide, he is Enqueri's light," which is a lovely coincidence.
What was the most challenging thing about writing Anniversary and what inspired it?
Anniversary was inspired by an image that popped into my head of Jim and Blair sitting on that bench by the pagoda-shaped birdfeeder. I knew what it meant, but I didn't know who until just before the end of the story. I'd say there were two major challenges: The first was writing it so it could go either way; and the second was trying to convey not just sorrow, but also that the strength of Jim and Blair's friendship doesn't fade, no matter what may come between them.
Family Trust is a story that delves into the past of Jim's father and mother and what happened between them. What inspired you to choose this explanation? How do you think Jim's mother's absence affected him?
I honestly don't remember, but I probably chose that explanation because it made sense to me biologically, and because it would cause enough angst to spread around. <g> Paulette had asked for a story in which Jim had to explain Blair to his father, and I added the mother plot onto that, so that the explanation became a subplot rather than the main thrust of the story. It's Jim's story, really, but a good bit of it is Jim seen through Blair's eyes. Despite the sentinel senses, I think Blair tends to see more clearly than Jim where emotions are concerned. Jim doesn't trust the softer emotions and tends to retreat into, or hide behind, the harder emotions (such as anger), or attempt to turn his emotions off altogether. I think his mother's absence--what he would see as abandonment--was at least partly responsible for that. His father also shares the blame, though ultimately, Jim is responsible for his own actions. Finding something so special in common with his mother gives Jim a new sympathy for her, and sets him on the road to resolving at least some of his abandonment issues. It was interesting to write Jim trying to deal with that and his relationships with his father and brother in light of the new information, as well as trying to put into words--and thereby make clear to him as well as his father--what Blair really means to him. I think Jim has a tendency to forget how much Blair has done for him, or to take him for granted, and every once in a while, I like to remind him that he is truly in a "There but for the grace of Blair go I" situation.
What was your opinion of The Sentinel by Blair Sandburg, and would you have done things differently to end the series?
Boy, you don't half ask loaded questions, do you? <g> TS by BS was very hard to watch. For what we were given, I think it was well done. It certainly affected me emotionally, but a lot of the emotion it raised in me was anger. Jim's reaction to the release of the diss was in character given previous episodes, but I would have preferred to see a Jim who had grown emotionally--at least since Sentinel Too--and didn't leap to accusations of deliberate betrayal when something went wrong in his life. Blair's sacrifice was noble and moving, and I hated that he had to do it. By the end of The Sentinel, Blair has nothing left of his old life but his hair. Everything he has and everything he was has gone for Jim's sake. While this can all be interpreted as shamanic initiation, I doubt that was foremost in Danny Bilson's mind. <g>
If I were in charge? Well, the episode would have been a lot longer. They would have dealt with the emotional issues and the fallout from Blair's declaration of fraud. Given a perfect world, Jim would not have accused Blair of betrayal, Blair would have told him what he meant to do about the situation, and Jim would have tried, unsuccessfully, to talk Blair out of it. Of course, that would have removed a lot of the conflict and drama, so maybe that wouldn't be a good idea. I would have liked to end it, not with an offer of a stint at the Academy, but with Jim and Blair going to Peru (as Bilson wanted to do if they were renewed) in order for Blair to explore his shamanism and for them both to advance in their knowledge and acceptance of the mysterious. Jim would finally be ready to "take that trip" with Blair.
You wrote Following the Wolf as the premiere for Faux Paws Production's virtual fifth season. Of what aspects of this story are you most proud?
Well, I wanted to deal with the aftermath of The Sentinel by Blair Sandburg, with how the declaration of fraud would affect Blair after all the excitement was over and he had time to think. I also wanted Jim to think about what all this meant for Blair, and that becoming a cop might not be Blair's choice of world's best career. And I wanted to develop the shamanism angle, since nothing had been done with it after Warriors. The angsting pretty much wrote itself. I don't know about anyone else, but I have a hard time getting Blair to stop thinking. <g>
For the shamanism, I tried to combine research with bits of past episodes and some imagination to give Blair his vision. I thought that, since Blair was an anthropologist, his mystical experiences would most likely incorporate the traditions and practices of different cultures. Of course, while doing the research, I discovered that shamanic practices and initiations are very similar everywhere, so that wasn't as hard as I thought it might be. I also wanted each of the shamans to give Blair a gift that would later manifest in the physical world, and that would each have its own meaning. Some were related to past episodes as well as to shamanism, so I had fun planning what they would be. Due to some cancelled virtual episodes, we didn't quite manage to get Blair all the gifts physically in season 5, but we're hoping he'll get the rest in season 6.
You'll continue to play a major role on the FPP team next season. What is it like working as part of a virtual season team? What makes a good Sentinel virtual season?
Last virtual season, all I had to do was write my episode and vote on a few fancan points. That was fairly easy. This season, I'm Executive Story Editor, so I'm working pretty closely with Mackie, who's our Executive Producer and the brains and heart behind this outfit. Mackie pretty much had to do all the coordinating last season, so I'm trying to relieve her of a little of the responsibility. As a team, we're a pretty disorganized bunch, not apt to agree on a whole lot, but willing to compromise and determined to have fun. Major fancan--like whether or not Blair would become a cop in season 5--is usually voted on by the whole crew. Individual writers come up with their own episodes. Some are worked into arcs, others stand on their own, but we try to maintain continuity. That's one thing the show never managed to do. <g> We're trying to stick as close to canon as possible in characterization and plotting. For instance, every episode must have a crime to be solved along with whatever else the boys are up to that week. With that, we're trying to give more time to things we would have liked to see more often on the show, such as character development, the mystical aspects, and a little comfort after an injury or a harrowing experience. We don't have budget constraints or a network demanding that we blow something up every week, which gives us a lot more freedom. I know I had a great time last season, and I'm hoping the FPP crew--and readers--will this season, too.
Are you and Kris Williams related, or do you just coincidentally share the same last name?
Kris Williams and I are not related in any way.
How do you deal with writer's block?
Apparently, I get depressed, aggravated, frustrated, and turn to other creative outlets, like making clothes for teddy bears. <g> Seriously, after Following the Wolf, which was finished last August, I was blocked until about three weeks ago. I've read and heard other people giving advice about how to get over writer's block, such as scribbling anything just as long as you're writing, or that writer's block doesn't really exist. The first doesn't work for me, and the second is only true for people who've never had it. I started several stories, but completely lost momentum on them. I built an entire world for a fantasy novel, populated it with characters, but couldn't come up with a plot. I managed to outline two episodes for virtual season 6, but I haven't started writing them yet (Don't worry, Mackie, I will). Now I have, I think, started a story I may actually be able to finish. I certainly hope so.
What is the hardest part about writing for you?
Plotting. I usually have a very hard time coming up with something that's at all original, or finding a twist that makes it original. Occasionally, I get flashes of inspiration, and I'm very grateful for those. Otherwise, it's a long, slow process. I would love to be able to write faster, and to have more ideas, but that seldom happens to me.
What is the most satisfying part of writing for you?
I don't really know. I love the whole process. Of course, I hate the whole process too, but I keep doing it. I like to invent characters, decide who they are and what they look like, give them backgrounds, name them, figure out their likes and dislikes, their talents and shortcomings. I guess I'd have to say that writing about a character I really love is most satisfying for me.
No, that's not right, either. It seems to depend on the story. For some, it was creating a mood and staying with it throughout. For others, it was developing a theme, or building the excitement, or doing something really cool with the mystical stuff. Hmm. I should have stayed with "I don't really know." <g>
What are your feelings on story feedback?
I think it's wonderful. It's so hard to get feedback for original fiction. More years ago than I care to think about, the late Lester DelRey was kind enough to offer suggestions when I sent him my first novel manuscript. It was fairly unusual then, and today, editors almost never have time to give feedback to an individual author. There are workshops, but the advice they offer is only as good as the other writers in them. Fanfic authors have opportunities to get feedback that original fic authors would kill for. Granted, the "only as good as" rule still applies, but there are fanfic authors who are excellent writers. As a general rule, I find that the better writers are more open to feedback. They truly want to improve their work, and will gladly accept feedback that includes constructive criticism.
Note the "constructive." Vicious negative feedback does nothing but give a cheap thrill to the sender. But there is a difference between simple cruelty and constructive criticism. A large number of fanfic writers and readers seem to assume that any criticism must be negative in the extreme, and that is simply not true. A good critical analysis of a story can be an enormous help to the author, if she is willing to accept it. The hardest part of accepting such criticism is putting your feelings aside. I know that my own first reaction is generally outrage (How dare so-and-so not recognize my brilliance! <g>), but I get over it after a while and can then take a serious look at what was said to see if it has merit. Not all criticism does. The trick is telling the difference. Sometimes it does, and I refuse to see it. Sometimes it doesn't, and I agonize over it anyway. I find that talking it over with other writers helps, provided I can be sure they'll be honest and not just try to assuage my feelings.
Feelings play a large part in fan opinions of feedback. A good many very nice people worry that feedback that isn't completely positive will hurt the authors' feelings and stop them from writing. This is a kind, compassionate attitude, which I share only in part. I don't want to hurt anyone; I don't want to see anyone hurt. If an author absolutely does not want any constructive feedback, I am fully prepared not to give it to her. As an author myself, I don't understand it, but I'll abide by her wishes. I have always wondered where authors so afraid of criticism find the courage to post their stories in the first place, knowing that several hundred people (at least) will read them, and that each will have an opinion. I'm not being facetious; I know a fear that strong would stop me from posting at all.
That's my author opinion. As an editor or beta, if an author sends me her story, I expect her to be prepared for feedback that includes criticism. If I don't offer any, I'm failing that author by not doing my job.
Do you have any advice for new TS fan fiction writers?
Watch the show before you write a story. Please. Watch as many episodes as you can. Don't base your characterization on other fanfic. Don't post anything that hasn't been betaed. Buy a dictionary. Now, have fun.
What do you see as the unique challenges of writing fan fiction? How do you cope with the often widespread view that writing in an established universe--be that a television series, graphic novel series, fan fiction, or other shared worlds and collaborations--is easier than creating original characters and settings?
I agree with that view. It is easier writing with established characters and settings. So much easier, unfortunately, that I've scarcely written any original fiction since I started writing fan fiction. Of course, that could have something to do with my obsession with the curly-haired guy. <g> The challenge, I think, is in getting the characters and flavor of the original right while still managing to explore, expand, and otherwise do what you want with them.
What do you think the future of fanfic will hold, in both online and 'zine fandom?
I expect that netfic will become more prevalent as more fans get online. It's amazing to me how many fans aren't online at all. I also think that, if the cost of zines keeps rising, they are likely to price themselves out of existence. Of course, I am in no way an expert on any of this, so feel free to ignore me completely.
What was the first piece of fan fiction you ever read?
A story written by my friend, Jane Leavell, who has written in many, many fandoms. Unfortunately, I don't remember what it was.
What was the first piece of fan fiction you ever wrote?
Well, that depends on your definition of fan fiction. Back in the 80's, I wrote an Elfquest story that was intended as a submission to a professional anthology. Much to my dismay, it was passed to the Elfquest fan club. Events I can't talk about without risking legal problems ensued, and the story eventually appeared in their fanzine, Yearnings III, with my permission.
The Devil You Know was my first intentional piece of fan fiction.
What was the first piece of Sentinel fan fiction you ever read?
I wish I knew. It was the first piece of Sentinel fan fiction ever written, but I have no idea what it was or who wrote it. For a time, I had read every Sentinel fanfic in existence. Then the fandom grew. <g>
Are there particular kinds of Sentinel fanfic stories that you especially enjoy reading?
I like any well-crafted story with good characterization, but I'm fondest of dramatic stories, and those with a touch, or more than a touch if it's handled well, of the mystical.
What is it about The Sentinel that inspires you to write?
Well, I've already gone on at length about the character of Blair Sandburg, who is a joy to write. All three guys are complex characters, never one-dimensional. The sentinel concept; the conflicting mix of cop and anthropologist, city and rain forest, ancient and modern; Jim, who sees things in black and white, and Blair, who sees things not in shades of gray but in every hue imaginable; the many directions it's possible to take them, the many facets to explore--it's all inspirational.
What do you believe are The Sentinel's greatest strengths, and greatest weaknesses, as a series?
Strengths: the sentinel concept; the friendship between Jim and Blair and their entire relationship; the different views represented by Jim and Blair; the character development; the mysticism; occasional excellent writing.
Weaknesses: the pandering to what they fully expected their audience to demand, such as car chases, explosions, the BOTW, etc.; the amount of time devoted to character development; the failure to develop the mysticism, particularly as regards Blair's shamanism; the occasional dismal writing.
Do you find yourself identifying more with Jim or Blair?
I don't identify with either one. I have more interests in common with Blair, but I'm nothing like him.
If you were given the opportunity to write an episode of The Sentinel, what story would you like to tell?
Probably something similar to Following the Wolf, but more so. I would love to explore the mystical possibilities, not only Blair's shamanism, but Jim and Blair's journey together. I want to know what happens when Jim decides he's ready to take the trip into the mysterious with Blair.
What three specific things would you like to see on The Sentinel that we haven't seen yet?
1. A new season
2. The development of Blair's shamanism
3. Another new season
How about general changes?
In general, I would have liked to see more character development, more of Jim acknowledging Blair's contribution, more mysticism (but not too much), and continuity. Not more continuity, because essentially, there never was any.
What one story do you think people will always remember you for?
Oh, I don't know that people will remember any of my stories. But if they did, I suppose it might be The Devil You Know and Masks, which are really two parts of the same story.
Can you tell us what stories you have in the works right now?
Right now, I'm working on a Sentinel/Angel crossover titled Lost Angelus for a zine. I've never done a crossover before, so this should be interesting. Plus, I'm committed to a story for a supernatural/horror/ Halloween-themed zine Skeeter Press is doing, and two episodes for FPP's virtual season 6. And I've been working, off an on (mostly off) for ages on a story that's a sequel to Following the Wolf and to The Devil You Know and Masks, so it's in its own little universe. Sitting right there, not moving, in fact.
Last updated 7/3/00 clc