Author Derek Tyler Attico will be a familiar name to some Star Trek fans. Especially if they (like me) read the old Strange New Worlds short story collections. Or enjoy a game of Star Trek: Adventures during the week. But this week (specifically, today) he joins Una McCormack and David A. Goodman as the published author of an autobiography chronicling the life of one of Trek’s most iconic characters – The Autobiography of Benjamin Sisko.
After we got our hands on an early copy of The Autobiography of Benjamin Sisko, we sat down with Derek to talk about his inspirations, history, and connections with Star Trek.
Trek Central: In the UK we often see a lot through entertainment about the ‘New York spirit’. Whether it’s in sitcoms or real-life reporting. In the biography, you go into some depth covering the 24th-century New Orleans community spirit. Was this informed by any real-life experiences you’ve had as a New Yorker?
Derek Tyler Attico: Yes, absolutely. I’m a born and bred New Yorker. I was born in Harlem, then raised in Harlem and in The Bronx. Of course that informed me as a human being and as an author. But living in a city like New York is so vastly different from a city like New Orleans. Because New York is very much a vertical city. 8 million people if you include Manhattan and the outer boroughs. I have never been to New Orleans, so once I had gotten the project from Titan Books one of the things I did was immerse myself in New Orleans culture.
I knew some, but I started by watching some documentaries, I read a book on the history of New Orleans and watched the HBO show Treme which is fictional. But it still really touched the pulse of what New Orleans was and what it is now. I just sat there for a couple of days and just immersed myself and binged everything I could on New Orleans and Jazz. I wanted New Orleans to be another character in this book. Not just Sisko’s. I feel that the Deep Space Nine writers did such a great job by putting him in a city with such a rich history and culture and wanted to touch on that in the book.
Trek Central: Have you been tempted to take a trip out yourself to New Orleans?
Derek Tyler Attico: Heck yeah man! I definitely want to go now. As I was doing the research I was like oh, ‘I want to go and eat Gumbo at this place’! ‘I want to go and listen to live Jazz’! I want to do these things! There’s a place, without giving anything away, in the book that actually exists. Obviously, Sisko’s is fictional but there’s a place that Ben (Sisko) refers to which actually exists and comes from my research (here Derek is referring to Preservation Hall. But a number of other locations from the book, such as Booker T. Washington High School also exists in our world). But I want to go there!
It’s one of the original Jazz clubs in New Orleans and they don’t really have a bar or restaurant. It’s just essentially a huge living room and it’s just… Jazz. It’s just music. People just sit there. It sits about 50 with space for another 50 standing and it’s just music. It’s been there for centuries (built in 1817 – playing Jazz since the 1960s).
Trek Central: The book ‘Life Doesn’t Frighten Me’ by Maya Angelou features in the book as a personal item of significance for Sisko. What made you choose to make this such a significant part of Sisko’s story?
Derek Tyler Attico: Something similar happened to me in my life. But it wasn’t with Maya Angelou and her poems. My mum gave me the poem ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling as a kid. ‘If‘ is a really cool poem.
If you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs and blaming it on you…Quote from ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling
It just says about all these things. If you can do all of these things and basically still maintain your character and who you are then you’re a man. That’s the essence of the poem. So my mum gave that to me when I was a really young kid. Maybe 5 or 6 years old. I found the original piece (at this point Derek was kind enough to actually show his copy) and you can see how old this is. It’s in plastic! But I found this while I was writing and I thought ‘Oh wow. This would be really interesting and emotional for Ben to find at a certain point and for him to be given that.
There are times I think that a writer can write what they know as long as it’s not overly self-indulgent. As long as it fits and is true to the story and true to the character. This was one of those situations where I think as a writer I was objective and said ‘You know what, this is in my personal life but it matches. It really fits well and I think it will have some resonance with readers.
I didn’t want to make it so personal and use the same exact poem. The challenge then was to find something that would have the same emotional connection. But not the same thing. I thought it would be too much out of my own ego if I used the same exact thing. So I started looking. I looked all over and I landed on Maya Angelou’s poem, I thought ‘Oh my god, this is a phenomenal poem’. I remembered I had read it years ago. It was perfect and fit Ben’s life. It fits where he was as a kid and it fits what I wanted to do for the story. So (readers) enjoy! When you read it you will see how this poem fits what was happening in Ben’s life, and why was it given to him by his mother.
Trek Central: How long did it take you to find the poem that really felt right?
Derek Tyler Attico: I was actually worried to be really honest. I had set that up in the book and it had been about two weeks and I hadn’t found anything. So I moved on of course, and I’m still writing. But I was still thinking ‘I haven’t found anything’. So I looked at my own library which is pretty extensive. I went through Greek mythology and African mythology. Aesop’s fables. I went through a lot of different works because I was trying to find something that I thought would resonate. But I just couldn’t find anything.
What I usually do when I start hitting walls is take my problem and strip it down to its most basic elements. I said ‘Well it doesn’t have to be a fable, it doesn’t have to be mythology’. But it does have to be a message. That’s what poets do, since time immemorial you know?’. So then it became which poem? I’m very familiar with Poe, but Poe is way too dark. So let’s look at Maya Angelou. What’s beautiful is that I started reading her work and I looked at her name and thought that even her name fits with what I want to do. I looked at a few different poems of hers but then I found that poem. It took me about two weeks. But it was worth the wait. It was worth the lack of sleep and anxiety. It just fits!
Trek Central: As well as an author, you are also skilled in photography. With these autobiographies having a selection of ‘personal’ photos from the fictional author, were you ever in any discussions to take or otherwise provide photos that would be used (completely or partially) in the book?
Derek Tyler Attico: Actually, no. I just won an award from the International Black & White Photography Spider Awards a few months ago. I submitted the photos a while back and totally forgot about it. Then they told me two of my pictures had won, which is nuts. So I’m very thankful for that. But to answer your question, no.
However, my background allows me to write elements of what I know about photography, of what I’ve done into the book. Then Russell Walks who is a phenomenal artist was the first ‘beta’ reader for the book. He posted after reading the manuscript ‘I’ve just finished The Autobiography of Benjamin Sisko, Attico is doing a really good job’. That’s how we met!
Then we started emailing each other and talking. It was really great that I have a background in photography because then we started spitballing ideas. He had a list of the things he wanted to do. He graciously asked me if there was a list of things I wanted to add and of course, I said yes. So we started talking about certain pictures that would be really powerful for the book. We really started collaborating, when I say collaborating I mean maybe 20% Derek and 80% Russell, you know!
I’m just really thankful because his images brought my words to life. I was thankful to be a part of that conversation. I don’t know about the other writers for the other biographies. But there were times when we were emailing each other hourly, daily. Just tweaking little things in the pictures. It was a really rewarding experience working with Russell.
I remember the last shot of the whole cast. We spoke a lot about the setting and I suggested everybody dressed up in their Niners gear! Y’know, baseball! I thought that was a good idea. Then Russell went ‘Yeah… But they’re all going to be wearing the same thing. This is an opportunity to show different personalities with different clothes’ and I just thought that’s so true! He’s an artist, he was thinking in a different way than how I was thinking. So then we switched it to Vic’s which is also great. We get a bit of Vic’s in there! It was a beautiful collaboration. It was a great idea for Russells.
Trek Central: Your first break into the world of Trek was when you won the Strange New Worlds contest in 2005. Can you tell us more about your experience writing for and then winning the contest?
Derek Tyler Attico: At the time I wasn’t writing or even thinking about it. I always wanted to write. When I was 16 I got an award for screenwriting. I applied to NYU Tisch School of the Arts out of high school to go to college. I got accepted, but I couldn’t afford it. So I couldn’t go, even with grants. So I actually chose Law as a second backup and after a while, I realized it was a great life experience, but it wasn’t for me. Long story short, I thought I’d come to write in some way. Maybe for myself as some kind of therapy but not professionally. I didn’t know how I would do it. Until a friend of mine came to me and said ‘Hey, they’re doing this contest called Strange New Worlds and they’re taking fan stories. You should submit!’.
I read Strange New Worlds VII and I was blown away. This was a really high bar. So I started writing a story. I wrote a story I wanted to write – Alpha and Omega dealing with Picard, Janeway, and the Borg. That was 2005! I wrote this story. There was a Borg Super Cube orbiting Earth. Half a billion drones! All dormant. There was a supercube over every planet in every major quadrant in the galaxy and nobody knows why. That’s how the story starts and that story got in and won first place!
I was like ‘Oh wow’. First of all, it was of course an honour because it was Star Trek. Then for me, it was rewarding on top of that because I had left writing such a long time ago and it told me I still had something. I needed to start thinking about being a professional writer. Then in 2016, I wrote another Strange New Worlds story for the 50th anniversary of Star Trek. A Deep Space Nine Story ‘The Dreamer and the Dream’. That got in. Titan Books read that one, that was the story they saw and thought ‘This guy would be a good fit for the autobiography’.
Trek Central: So this has been in the works for some time? We mentioned in our review that there had been quite a gap between the previous Captains that all came out back to back then we sort of went off onto Spock…
Derek Tyler Attico: To dig a little deeper into this. There was a podcast about the autobiographies. I don’t know which podcast. But it mentioned that the Sisko autobiography had been skipped and they had gone straight to Janeway. Then someone on Twitter in 2018/19 said ‘Hey, this guy Attico wrote this Deep Space Nine short story in 2016’. That was when I think Titan started to bring this together. So if I had never written that (Alpha & Omega) you would be talking to somebody else!
Trek Central: Looking outside of those short stories, you also write for the tabletop RPG Star Trek Adventures. Did Modiphius also find you through Strange New Worlds?
Derek Tyler Attico: Jim Johnson who is the Project Manager for Star Trek Adventures at Modiphius is also a Strange New Worlds Alumni. This is how this all connects! He out of the blue one day messaged me and said ‘Hey man, are you interested in writing for Star Trek Adventures’? I was like heck yeah! My first long-form writing as a kid was writing campaigns for Dungeons & Dragons. I was maybe 14 or 15. That was when I started writing out full plot-driven stories. So for me, writing for Star Trek Adventures was literally coming full circle.
The first thing I did was some side bars just to get my feet wet. Then I believe Jim gave me the Worlds of the Delta Quadrant. Which was nuts. I had to figure out which of the worlds Voyager visited to put in. Then I got the Klingon Worlds chapter which was great. He was just throwing things at me and it allowed me to see how well I knew Star Trek. I’ve always known I’m an expert at Star Trek. I know that. But this really puts you to the test because things just come at you and you have to know pretty much everything about that particular thing.
With the worlds of the Delta Quadrant, you have to know which worlds are better to talk about than others. Then with the Klingon worlds, I realized while writing that there was no real intelligence agency for the Empire. The Cardassians have the Obsidian Order, the Federation has Section 31. So what I did when writing was that I started referring to ‘The Unseen’. I put that in as the Klingon’s version, their Section 31. So they could be played in the game!
Then when Shackleton came around I wasn’t the only lead writer. We created a species for the game (the Vin’Shari, who also gets a reference in Sisko’s autobiography). I’ve been really fortunate to have written short stories, long-form stories, and tabletop roleplaying content. So three different mediums of Star Trek. Any opportunity I get to connect that. I mean why not?
Was there any discussion with Modiphius about referencing Star Trek Adventures material in the autobiography?
Derek Tyler Attico: Not really, everything has to get passed through CBS. They get the final say. CBS is aware of everything we do and when I say we I mean everyone. Everything that Modiphius does, everything that Titan does, Pocket Books… Everything goes through CBS.
There’s a team of people at CBS that read over the material, they know all the material which is great. Also Dayton Ward. He’s a phenomenal writer. He’s been writing Star Trek novels for over 20 years. One of the things he does now is checking for continuity. He’s part of the team, checking everything is lining up. He’s often joked that he’s like the Dr. Strange of the Star Trek universe. Looking at all the different timelines and making sure that everything is lining up!
So my outline and manuscript went through him and went through the CBS team as well. So I figured I’d put it in, let’s see if it gets flagged or not. Of course, Dayton noticed it and he said ‘I see what you did there, that’s really cool’ and nobody had a problem with it. So that was great!
Trek Central: Do you play the game yourself?
Derek Tyler Attico: Oh yes. I definitely played the game for a while. Jim Johnson had a game that I was a part of that was very cool. I actually played a first officer who was Andorian/Vulcan called Amir. That may sound familiar because Amir is also in the book! I’ve dropped a lot of things. Some things won’t make a difference for anybody that doesn’t know. But people that know will go ‘Oh wow that’s cool, that’s interesting’. There are about 50-100 Star Trek-specific easter eggs.
But yeah. I had a great time playing Star Trek Adventures with Jim. It was a character I really enjoyed. I wrote a lot about that character. We have never seen an Andorian/Vulcan before. That’s really an oil and water mix right there. Biologically it’s crazy. The Andorians love extreme cold, and Vulcans love extreme heat. How does that work for an individual? So I loved playing the character because he had all these issues that he had to deal with physically. So I thought let’s throw him in!
Trek Central: Circling back around to the autobiography, what is your background with Sisko as a character? Was he always a favorite? Did you find your opinion of him changing as you wrote the book?
Derek Tyler Attico: I was there when the series (Deep Space Nine) first aired. That first 5-10 minute opening of the show traumatized me. It left an indelible mark on me. Wolf 359. This man is a first officer. He loses his ship, he loses his friends. He loses his wife. All in just the first 3-4 minutes of the show! I remember watching it thinking ‘What’s going on’? It didn’t really feel like what we were used to in Star Trek. The pace. Everything was happening so fast.
Star Trek up until that time took an easier, more relaxed pace. Even in The Next Generation. But Deep Space Nine was making a statement. This is who we are, this is where we’re starting from. Avery Brooks played the character so powerfully, and so well. That I was in from that first episode. Understanding that Benjamin Sisko was this person of character but also of balance and fairness.
The first time I had the opportunity to write him was that 2016 short story. That was difficult. It was my first time. I’d listen a lot to certain Deep Space Nine episodes, specifically In the Pale Moonlight. That’s pretty much him speaking for 40+ minutes. I really got his voice in that 2016 short story. For this, I realized a lot of the same things that I realized then. I couldn’t really go anywhere else. Avery Brooks doesn’t repeat, he doesn’t replicate what he does with Sisko in any of his other performances. That made my job difficult because I could only use Deep Space Nine. So if I wanted to find, say, a younger Avery Brooks I couldn’t do that. I just had to concentrate on Deep Space Nine.
After watching the character for so long I realised I just had to let go of trying to ‘cheat’ and just go with what I feel. I relied on my own ability as a writer and I relied a lot on the writers of Deep Space Nine. They set up so much material. The fact he’s from New Orleans. The fact that his father Joseph doesn’t like replicators or transporters. All of these things are there if you take the time to peel them away and strip them down. As I said earlier, when I have a problem I like to go to the base of the thing. Why doesn’t Joseph like to use replicators? I know he’s a cook but what’s the genesis behind that?
Once I started to do that I realized that there was a plethora of material for me to tap into and started to just trust in the direction I wanted to take. Not to look back. Not to second guess, but just look forward. I’m grateful that now reviews have started coming out and people have really enjoyed the direction I took for his origin story.
Trek Central: We mentioned in our review that Sisko’s autobiography is focused a lot more on his upbringing and family history than other books in the line. Were you worried about potential fan pushback when you decided to structure the book in this way?
Derek Tyler Attico: I thought about it, but in the end, I had to be true to myself. I was so fortunate to get this project. I wasn’t going to write what I felt would have been an injustice. To myself, but also to Star Trek and the fans. One thing that Star Trek always does is that it pushes boundaries. I learned a lot about writing from just watching Star Trek. I’m not formally trained. I didn’t go to NYU! I learned a lot from watching writers and watching these shows. There’s a quote from Orson Welles, he used to get some pushback and he said:
“Give the people what they want but not the way they want it.”– Orson Welles
I always remembered that. That’s where I want to be. So I made some choices. I thought a lot about what Gene Roddenberry set up with TOS. That was where I started a lot of things for New Orleans. Just thinking about Gene Roddenberry. If he was writing about New Orleans what would he say? I just think that makes sense. A service industry city wouldn’t just pivot immediately to replicators and the future. That’s not what humanity does, we’re always slow-moving with change. Whatever I wrote had to feel authentic and organic.
Trek Central: Were there any DS9 events/relationships that you wish you had been able to spend more time on in the book?
Derek Tyler Attico: No. I’ll tell you why. It’s because of my framing for this (the autobiography) without spoiling too much. A lot of it is a father talking to his son. So that was always my first priority. I’m not talking to the fans. Ben is talking to Jake. Through that lens, we’re getting an autobiography. We’re getting fan service and all those things. But first, it’s just them. I’m sure some people will ask ‘Why wasn’t more time spent on this thing, or that thing’? Because if he experienced those things with Jake. Why would he then talk to Jake about them?
That really defined a lot of what I wrote. I was a little concerned about it, about fan pushback. I spent a lot of time in his childhood and on Earth in New Orleans and I did that because if you want to understand someone you have to look back into their childhood. Our formative years are usually between 6 and 10. Then it becomes adolescence that builds on top of that. Then we move forward. So that’s what I did with Ben.
The things that he does talk about on Deep Space Nine are the things that had to be talked about. That had to be not only discussed with Jake. But I knew that the fans would want to at least have some glimpses into what he’s thinking about certain characters and events. I think that If I didn’t touch on the things that I did touch on the book, then I would be remiss.
From Ben’s perspective, he’s also telling Jake things that he may want him to know and understand about these people. Sometimes you talk to someone and tell them how you feel about someone else. So they can understand how you feel about them if they encounter them. They may already be friends with them, but now they can understand the perspective that you have on that person. That was how I wrote a lot of that. Of course, you (Jake) know these people. But this is how I (Ben Sisko) have felt about these people. Now you understand why I was around these people and all these other things. I’m being a little vague, but you understand what I’m saying! He’s not saying these things in a vacuum.
Sisko’s story is complicated by Benny Russell. Do you view Benny Russell as somebody who existed and wrote about DS9 centuries before the events happened? Or as more of a vision/alternate universe created by the Prophets?
Derek Tyler Attico: There is an image in the book that we discussed creating for a while. In the image, there is a story from Benny called ‘Deep Space Nine: Epilogue’. In the 2016 short story, I wrote. Benny has written his last Deep Space Nine story which is called… Deep Space Nine: Epilogue. So take that information and do with it what you will!
It’s a little meta. But I’m definitely making connections between the 2016 story and this book. Once you read it you’ll understand why I put that in. It leads into The Dreamer and the Dream. It’s left up to the reader to discern what’s going on with that.
The only other thing I’ll say is that when I was in High School. When we started reading fiction we would do close readings. It was the first time I was exposed to what a close reading of a work was. I said to myself that If I ever wrote a novel, I’d want to do something that you could do a close reading of! Something you could look at and figure out: What is the author saying? What is the meaning of certain chapters? I put some of that idea and that desire into this.
There’s a lot of things going on at the surface. But there’s a lot of other elements happening in this book. There are a lot of parallels. There are a lot of things happening in what Ben is saying, and what’s being said to Ben by different people. There’s just a lot going on. So you can look at and examine this book in a lot of different ways. You can even take information, if you want to, about where to take Deep Space Nine going forward.
Trek Central: If this book is a runaway success and Paramount approached you to write Sisko’s return, do you have an idea about how you would want to do it?
Derek Tyler Attico: Yes. I put threads of it in this book. Not just for myself but for anybody to pick up on. There’s a lot going on in the book. It’s not just his autobiography, there are stories of other characters. I’ve always felt that when someone comes into your life, sometimes you’re not meant to know them throughout their life. But they may come into your life to give you information or you may have come into their life to give them something. So there’s a lot of that in the book that happens to different characters.
So I set up a few different things with different characters in regards to Ben and him being the emissary. I mean, Jake is part prophet so… Y’know. There were specifically three sequences in the book without giving away too much that could be looked at individually outside of the book. If you look at those three sequences they themselves tell a story.
Trek Central: While the book itself hints at who may be coming next (check out page 60 if you missed it) If you got a call tomorrow from Titan to write another Trek character autobiography – who would you want it to be about and why?
Derek Tyler Attico: I had such a great time with Titan, this was also my first novel which is a little nuts. I don’t know. If it’s a linear progression I guess as the series go, Archer would be next. Then Burnham? Right? Then Pike. Any of those would be great. They’d be fantastic people to write. If it’s not linear I wouldn’t mind doing Data.
I think that’s a really interesting character and he just has such a rich family. Just his family is ridiculous! Brent Spiner has literally played his entire family, with a few exceptions. Lal, Soji, his mother Juliana Tainer… But I mean that’s a whole family there. The Soong history is a phenomenal one. That’d be dope!
But then you’d do it in a different way. There’s so much you could do. I would want to talk about the people in his lineage that led up to him. That led up to Noonian Soong because, by the time you get to Noonian, he’s just such a futurist and egotist that you want to understand the lineage. They’re all the same way! What started that you know? You could just go nuts with it.
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