ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Melinda Snodgrass is down-to-earth but otherworldly at the same time.
She is a child of science and technology but never loses sight of her humanity and the basic questions of right and wrong, good and evil, and rationality vs. superstition.
Before she became one of the better-known women writing science fiction novels and TV screenplays, Snodgrass tried her hand at opera, then law.
She cut short her opera studies in Vienna when she realized that although she had a fine singing voice, “I didn’t have a big enough vocal instrument to make it in grand opera.”
Returning home to Albuquerque, she attended the University of New Mexico School of Law, graduating in 1977 and passing the bar. Two legal jobs over three years was enough.
“I love the law, I just wasn’t fond of lawyers,” says Snodgrass.
At the urging of local writer Victor Milán, she began writing, starting with “Tears of the Singers,” a “Star Trek” novel. Another Albuquerque buddy, George R.R. Martin (“Game of Thrones”) suggested she expand her writing with spec scripts for television. The result was “The Measure of a Man” for “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” which was nominated in 1990 for a Writer’s Guild Award for outstanding writing in a drama series.
Snodgrass has written science fiction novels and shorter stories for sci-fi anthologies, including the long-running “Wild Cards” series. In addition to “Star Trek,” viewers may have seen her stories on shows “Reasonable Doubts,” “Profiler,” “SeaQuest DSV,” “The Outer Limits,” “Sliders,” “Strange Luck” and “Odyssey 5.”
The Journal caught up with Snodgrass recently.
What set you on your path as a professional writer?
A barbecue at the Albuquerque home of the late science fiction writer Fred Saberhagen. That was 1980.
In one room Fred was talking about his research on Dracula and a letter he got from a guy in Romania who claimed to be a direct descendant. In another room, writer Suzy Charnas was talking about the effects of linguistics on culture. All around the house were science fiction writers who were being incredibly witty and funny. Go to a barbecue with lawyers, and they talk about billable hours. Writers were much more interesting, and I decided right then that’s where I belonged.
I’ve read that under your father’s tutelage, you learned to shoot, swim and fish, that you sat in on his business meetings and traveled extensively with him. He must have had quite an influence on you.
He went by J. Harry Snodgrass and he was this larger-than-life figure with an amazing past. … He was a pilot and ran a flight school in California, but in 1927 nobody wanted to learn to fly in what he described as “orange crates covered with canvas.” So during Prohibition he became a rum runner, smuggling booze in his airplane between Canada and U.S. My dad was also a musician.
What about your mother?
Her name was Mary Snodgrass. I think I baffled her. She wanted me to become a wife and a mother and take on a more traditional role. I had no interest in that at all. I wanted a career.
Who were your earliest writing influences?
Before my father taught me to read, the first book I remember him reading to me was Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” The first science-fiction book I read by myself was “A Princess of Mars,” by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I’ve been hooked on science fiction since childhood. Other early influences were Robert Heinlein and Andre Norton. Norton … was one of the few women in the field.
Do women writers bring something to the sci-fi table that a male writer doesn’t?
Women are really interested in character relationships and interactions. We want a good cracking story, but we also want some emotional heart. The growth of the fantasy offshoot brought a lot of women into science fiction.
… After J.R.R. Tolkien’s stories (“The Hobbit,” “Lord of the Rings”) swept the world in the early ’60s, everything changed. Suddenly you didn’t need to explain how an orbital elevator works. You could tell a different kind of story.
It’s interesting that today more than half the 1,700 published members of the Science Fiction Writers Association of America are women.
Why write your book, “This Case is Gonna Kill Me,” under the pen name Phillipa Bornikova?
Reader expectations. Readers expect science fiction from me, not urban fantasy. This story revolves around a human woman working in a vampire-owned law firm. There are also werewolves and elves in the story. It’s a blending of a number genres, including science fiction, fantasy, mystery and romance.
Many of your story themes deal with the separation between science and superstition. What’s your personal theology?
I’m a non-believer. I think that cultures have charming fairy tales about sky daddies. I have no problem with people believing any crazy thing they want if it gives them comfort. I just don’t want them to proselytize and I don’t want laws passed based on what someone’s particular sky daddy tells them.
I like the scientific method because it constantly asks questions and never assumes truth. No matter how good a theory is, you continue testing and questioning … Theology has no room for that. It’s faith vs. reason.
What about UFO sightings?
I would love it if aliens would come here and I believe there is alien life in the universe, I just don’t think they’ve visited Earth. Why would alien beings travel light years just to turn a cow inside out, or abduct people, or to hide their presence? If they came all that distance they’d obviously have something to say.