Interview with Keith R. A. DeCandido

TWC Editor

[0.1] Abstract—TWC interviews Keith R. A. DeCandido, author of Supernatural tie-in novels Nevermore, Bone Key, and Heart of the Dragon.

[0.2] Keywords—Fan fiction; Supernatural; Tie-in

TWC Editor. 2010. "Interview with Keith R. A. DeCandido." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 4.

1. Introduction

[1.1] TWC conducted an e-mail interview with novelist Keith R. A. DeCandido, whose Supernatural tie-novels Nevermore and Bone Key are well known in the fan community. DeCandido, a self-identified fan, spoke to us about the differences between writing fan fiction and pro fiction, responding to the Supernatural canon, and negotiating the media shifts between television and literature. More information on his work can be found at his LiveJournal blog (

[1.2] The following TWC editorial team members contributed to this interview: Kristina Busse, Karen Hellekson, and guest editor Catherine Tosenberger.

2. Writing tie-ins

[2.1] Q: How did you get into writing tie-in novels, and what do you find to be the most rewarding aspect of it?

[2.2] KD: Well, to be brutally honest, the most rewarding aspect is the paycheck. That may sound crass, but it's also true. Writing is my profession, and it's what I do for a living. So those checks they send me when I write the books are not an unimportant part of the process.

[2.3] As for getting into writing it, I actually came originally from the editor's side of the desk. In 1993, I started working as an associate editor for the late Byron Preiss and his assorted book packaging concerns, and that included a fair number of tie-in projects, most notably editing an extensive line of novels and anthologies based on Marvel Comics superheroes.

[2.4] I started publishing short stories here and there, and it eventually led to writing novels. Each credit builds on previous credits, and it's like a snowball rolling down a hill. Eventually you hope for an avalanche.

3. Pro fic vs. fan fic

[3.1] Q: What do you perceive as the most important differences, creatively speaking, between writing tie-ins and writing (for lack of a better term) original, nonderivative works? In short, why would professional writers choose to write the former rather than the latter?

[3.2] KD: Choice isn't always involved. One of the reasons why I've continued to do lots of tie-in work and have comparatively little work that I keep the copyright on is because they keep sending me checks for the former and rejection letters for the latter. That doesn't mean I stop trying to do original work, but it also means that I keep doing the tie-ins because, again, this is how I make my living.

[3.3] Leaving that aside, however, writing tie-ins is fun. One of the reasons why I started writing tie-ins is because I get a great deal of pleasure from it. I like getting to write new adventures of characters whose stories I've enjoyed in other media.

[3.4] As for the differences—they're not as stark or drastic as some may think. True, you're often relieved of having to come up with setting and character (though not always) in tie-ins, but you're also beholden to please a particular audience, both internally (the editor and licenser) and externally (the readers), who expect the characters you're writing to behave and speak a certain way. If my Dean doesn't sound like Jensen Ackles, it doesn't work. You have to convincingly immerse your story in a world that is not of your own creation, and that's not as easy as it sounds.

[3.5] Q: What specifically do you find fun about writing tie-ins? And then there's the media mix-up aspect of it: how do you transfer, say, comic books to prose?

[3.6] KD: Like I said, it's fun to write new adventures of characters I like. And it can be rewarding to translate things into other media because each medium has different storytelling needs. The best example is that in prose you can get inside characters' heads to a degree that is just not possible on TV or in movies. The camera is omniscient, but prose can root around inside a specific character's thoughts.

[3.7] That applies to going from comics to prose as well, since internal point of view is hard to do in comics as well.

[3.8] Q: It's been said that tie-ins are fan fiction written for money. But obviously tie-in writers have to deal with many more strictures than fan fic writers. What are some of the artistic parameters when writing a tie-in novel? What publishers' rules are typical for tie-in novels? Have you ever had an idea you wanted to write about rejected by the publisher as unacceptable? What sorts of ideas would be considered wholly unacceptable—and the reverse: what sorts of ideas are preferred? Do these restrictions affect your creativity or storytelling ability, and if so, how, and for good or for ill?

[3.9] KD: There are no single answers to any of those questions, because—as with most questions about publishing and writing—the answer is, it depends. Some licenses are very loose and let you do what you want as long as you put the toys back when you're done. Some are very strict and only allow certain types of stories. Some change as they go along—the early Buffy the Vampire Slayer novels were veryrestrictive of what was allowed, but as the line became more successful and as the show progressed, the strictures were lessened considerably. Star Trek and Star Wars fiction are both very free, to the point where main characters have been killed off in the novels of both lines.

[3.10]I've had ideas I wanted to write about rejected all the time, and I will continue to, but that has nothing to do with it being a tie-in. That's part of the nature of writing professionally—stories get rejected. The reasons might be different when writing a tie-in, but it's rarely for any sinister reason: either the show's already doing a similar story, or another tie-in novelist is doing something similar, or they don't feel that it's appropriate for the characters

[3.11] And yes, tie-in writers have many more strictures than fan fic writers because a tie-in writer generally has to write either a novel or a short story. A fan fic writer can do a fragment or a drabble or a character profile or a novel that's 500,000 words long.

[3.12] Q: How did you embed yourself in the world of Supernatural? Do you review episodes of the TV show, are you given scripts to read, or is there some other method used to keep you in the loop in Supernatural's aired canon? Is there a Supernatural bible you have to use that is provided by the publisher?

[3.13]KD: The first two: I watch the episodes, and when necessary, scripts are sent my way. As an example, during the writing of my third novel, Heart of the Dragon, I needed to be aware of what would be happening in the early part of season 5, but it hadn't aired yet when I was writing the book, so I was sent the scripts.

[3.14] In all my years of writing tie-in fiction, I've received a series bible precisely three times, and in all three cases, the bible was utterly, totally, and in all ways useless in the writing of the fiction. There is no substitute for the source material itself—in the case of Supernatural, the episodes. That's the basis for what I'm writing, not a bible written as a guideline for early scriptwriters for the show (which is all a bible is, and it's subject to change anyhow).

[3.15] Q: Can you tell us more about the characterization restrictions and the world-building restrictions and give us some examples? What are your parameters, and how much are they constricted? What does it mean to you for writing to be "in character"? In fandom, we see all the time that different groups have different "true Dean" voices, for example—or that readers (and viewers) are willing to accept a continuum of voices as "true Dean." What does it mean to "sound like Jensen Ackles," as opposed to, say, "Sera Gamble writing for Jensen Ackles," or "Jensen Ackles interpreting Eric Kripke's words," or "Jensen Ackles being directed by Robert Singer"?

[3.16] KD: Again, it depends on the license—and also most of the time you don't know what those restrictions are until you violate one of them. These things are rarely spelled out, but licensers know them when they see them.

[3.17] As for the character voices—I don't see a significant difference among those examples, because it's all a continuum, as you said. I'm basing my writing of Dean and Sam on the four-plus seasons' worth of episodes and how they've behaved and talked and acted in those episodes. It's an aggregate of scripts by the various writers, the directing by the various directors, and the performances of Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki (and others who've played both brothers as young kids).

[3.18] One other advantage that fan fic has is that it can choose to ignore interpretations of the character they don't like. To give an example from fan fic I've written, my ex-wife and I wrote a bunch of fan fics that crossed over Highlander with the Hercules/Xena universe, and we chose to ignore pretty much everything that happened on the latter two shows after a certain point where the shows went in directions we didn't like (the death of Iolaus in Hercules, and the Dahak and India arcs in Xena). But if I'm writing official tie-in fiction, I don't have that luxury. If Dean acts in a manner I don't like on one episode, that episode has to be part of what I take into account in a Supernatural novel.

4. Supernatural audiences

[4.1] Q: What aspects of Supernatural do you find most enjoyable to write?

[4.2] KD: The brotherly banter. The casual abuse, the affection, the teasing, the ease with which they work together—Sam and Dean have all the best and worst elements of a sibling relationship, and that's tons of fun to write.

[4.3] Q: You have a good relationship with and a healthy respect for the Supernatural fandom. What do you attribute this to? Are your books aimed more at casual fans, or do you consider fans embedded in Supernatural fandom when you write? What sorts of things resonate with the fans—that they really like (or dislike)?

[4.4] KD: I always try to have a good relationship with the fandoms I write in, especially if it's something like Supernatural where I'm a fan of the show first, and also a tie-in writer. I'm also plugged into Star Trek fandom, Farscape fandom, Serenity fandom, et cetera.

[4.5] My books are aimed at people who like the show. Some of those are the hard-core fans who post on Internet bulletin boards, but numerically speaking, that's a very small number of my readership and an even tinier number of the show's viewership.

[4.6] Also, I discovered early on that it's impossible to please "the fan base," because they're not a monolithic group. So it's hard to say what resonates, because different things resonate with different people. I've had readers tell me that I "obviously" like Dean more than Sam, and ones who are just as sure that I prefer Sam and think Dean's an idiot. For that matter, I've read plenty of online reviews that profess how obvious it is that I've never actually watched the show, which is categorically untrue (I even have witnesses!).

5. Novel interpretations

[5.1] Q: One of the elements of your books I most enjoy, especially in Bone Key (2008), is the racial and sexual diversity among the supporting characters—much more so than the show, in fact. Is this a deliberate choice? Why do you include these elements?

[5.2] KD: That's something I'm hyperconscious of in all my work. I hate the tendency to default to the white WASP male, which is commonplace in popular fiction of all kinds, both in print and on screen. I remember as a child going through the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe and being depressed to discover that all the Italian characters were mobsters or villains (plus one incompetent hero, who was the son of a villain).

[5.3] Plus I live in New York City, the most ethnically and culturally diverse city in the world. I tend to pull character types from the people I see around me.

[5.4] Q: Your first Supernatural book, Nevermore (2007), engaged with the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. I'm interested in the way you negotiated the doubled layer of derivative texts here: you engaged with both Poe and with the Supernatural canon. Can you talk a little bit about your artistic process here in terms of the media shifts between literature, TV, and tie-in? How did you negotiate this complex relationship?

[5.5] KD: Carefully. I wanted to tell a story that was particular to the Bronx because I wanted to write about the Winchester boys in New York City, and I figured that it was a place they wouldn't go on the air. Even in the unlikely event that they tried to make Vancouver look like New York City—after all, they have been to Chicago, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and St. Louis, among other big cities—they weren't likely to go to my home borough.

[5.6] Since Poe lived in the Bronx for a time—his wife died there—I thought doing a story with a Poe connection might be apropos, since he all but created the horror genre. I also wanted to do a story with a supernatural component that turned out to be wholly fake. While the show is predicated on the notion that all the stuff we think is fake is real, there'd still be fakers and scam artists and people who are just plain wrong even in the Supernatural world. So that was fun to play with as well.

[5.7] Q: You have a new Supernatural novel coming out soon. What can you tell us about it?

[5.8] KD: Heart of the Dragon was inspired by episode 4.03, "In the Beginning," when we found out that Sam and Dean's mother and grandparents were also hunters. I thought it would be fun to do a story that has each generation of the Campbell/Winchester dynasty dealing with a particular supernatural problem. So the novel is broken into three parts, taking place in 1969, 1989, and 2009—the first involving Samuel, Deanna, and Mary Campbell, the second involving John Winchester, and the third Sam and Dean.

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