JOHN GREGORY BETANCOURT:
Playing in Dozens of Universes
by Michelle Erica Green
Name a popular fiction or television universe, and there's a good chance John Gregory Betancourt has written about it or published it, in one form or another. In addition to being the author of several original science fiction novels, Star Trek books, and The Sci-Fi Channel Encyclopedia of TV Science Fiction, he's edited more than a dozen anthologies and is co-owner of a publishing company which specializes in limited-run genre titles.
A published writer at 16 with a piece in 100 Great Fantasy Short-Short Stories, then an editor for Amazing Stories while still in college, Betancourt did a stint as co-editor and publisher of the revival of the horror magazine Weird Tales and freelanced for Avon, Signet, Tor, and Berkley Books. He now has well over a million books in print, including the Sci-Fi Channel's official trivia book and novels based on everything from Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman to Cutthroat Island. He has also worked extensively in multimedia, producing CD-ROM software titles such as The Annotated Frankenstein and The Ultimate Robot for Byron Preiss from Microsoft.
Hard at work on both a Hercules series which attempts to correct some of the silliness of Kevin Sorbo's television show and a couple of projects in the Trek universe - in addition to original material and some printing projects - Betancourt names himself a fan of a number of the projects he's worked on, and says he even used to read fan fiction, "back when I had Free Time."
"My father is an archaeologist, so I spent my childhood summers in Europe -- primarily Greece. I'm sure that sounds a lot more exciting that it actually was," laughs the Missouri native. "I remember being extremely bored most of the time since we lived in tiny remote villages, maybe one or two televisions in the whole town. My parents brought books for me to read. One summer when I was 13, I ran out of reading material and began making up my own stories. My first was a sequel to Treasure Island that I wrote out longhand in a notebook."
Betancourt quickly graduated to professional writing and became an editor before he finished his degree in film at Temple University. "Growing up in the field is often a little strange - I meet people now who first met me as a kid, and I find they still think of me that way," he admits. "I'm not the same person I was 15 or 20 years ago. My writing has continued to grow and develop; my interests and ambitions continue to expand."
Though he cheerfully says that he'd probably be working in Hollywood if publishing hadn't worked out so well, Betancourt says he never really considered a profession other than the one he's in. "I now wish I had a business degree in addition to my degree in filmmaking, but that's only because understanding the business part of the field is becoming increasingly important to me."
"Right now I'm 99% a science fiction writer," he adds. "I have three novels - all Star Trek - to do this year, and that's pretty much filled my plate. I'm tinkering with a proposal for an epic fantasy novel, but that will probably be for next year."
A Trek fan since the original series, Betancourt has written Pocket Books novels based on each of the next generation of shows - including one of the earliest Voyager novels and a popular tale about Hortas on Deep Space Nine. "DS9 is by far my favorite - it has the best ensemble cast by far, and the characters have been allowed to develop into real people that viewers really care about," says the writer. "I think it's probably underappreciated today, but time and syndication may prove it's ultimately the most successful of the Star Trek series.
However, Betancourt says he actually likes writing Voyager better. "They are the ones out there 'exploring strange new worlds and new civilizations,' which is one of the aspects of Trek that appeals to me the most." His Voyager novel Incident at Arbuk was completed before Voyager aired, based only on scripts he had read.
"I wish I could do a rewrite," he says now, cringing slightly. "Paramount had put a great deal of work into the series before it came to me - I had not only the initial scripts, but character write-ups, probably the same materials the actors got when they signed on. So the book wasn't constructed in a complete vacuum, but there are a lot of little details and personal touches which the actors bring to their roles that I would have liked to incorporate."
Recently Betancourt finished the launch book in Pocket Books' Double Helix series, a six-book collection in which "a Very Bad Guy" experiments with a futuristic form of germ warfare, necessitating that the Enterprise "stop the panic and cure the disease." The second book will be penned by Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, the third by Diane Carey.
The arc of Double Helix - conceived by Pocket Books editor John Ordover and popular series writer Michael Jan Friedman - plays out over six years, with the initial book set between the second and third episodes of The Next Generation. "I had a lot of fun sending Yar and Data on a mission right after their first - ah - tryst [from "The Naked Now"] and playing games with problems in the early episodes, like Deanna Troi calling Riker 'Bill' instead of 'Will' at one point," Betancourt notes.
Much as he likes the Trek shows, however, Betancourt is not a fan of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. "I have never made it completely through an episode of HTLJ - I found it painful. Perhaps because I grew up in Greece and was immersed in the real myths, I just couldn't take Kevin Sorbo's portrayal," he confesses.
Betancourt's answer to that series is a series of his own, a trio of books (of which two are now available) "which feature Hercules more in line with Greek myths - a tortured, muscle-bound hero who is a tragic figure in many ways." For the books, Betancourt chose one of the most famous events of mythology - the Quest for the Golden Fleece - "and sent him off with the Argonauts to have adventures." The author adds that reader as well as reviewer response has been quite favorable.
Of his own books, Betancourt says his favorites are his very first two science fiction novels, Johnny Zed and Rememory. "People keep trying to lump them in with the cyberpunk movement, but I don't think that really fits; Johnny Zed is a political novel about American terrorists, and Rememory is about the nature of humanity as told by people who have been surgically altered to look like cats."
Though he no longer follows comics closely, Betancourt was a fan of the DC and Marvel mainstays, "especially Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man," all of whom he has written about in books or short stories at this point. His major influences were some of the prominent science fiction writers of the previous generation. "Philip K. Dick and Jack Vance are major influences; I read a lot of their work as I was learning to write. Andre Norton, for sheer storytelling power - her YA books were a staple of my early teens. Robert A. Heinlein, of course, I think everyone in science fiction grew up reading his books. And I like certain authors. Dan Simmons, Harlan Ellison, Dick Francis, and Connie Willis are all on my to-be-read-soon pile."
Ellison, an acquaintance of many years, has also influenced Betancourt personally. "He has always struck me as the most brilliant fantasy writer of this generation. His wit and erudition are remarkable, as are his speaking abilities. It's easy to get caught up in his public persona - which people either love or hate - but when you look beyond him to the body of his work, you see a substantial contribution not just to science fiction and fantasy, but to world literature."
Another acquaintance with whom he has worked on several projects, Anne McCaffrey, edited a cookbook with Betancourt to raise money for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's Emergency Medical Fund. About 50 science fiction writers contributed favorite recipes to Serve It Forth! Cooking With Anne McCaffrey, a follow-up to McCaffrey's Cooking Out of This World. The newer book was published by Betancourt's Wildside Press, a labor of love which now has now produced nearly 50 titles.
Initially, Betancourt and his wife Kim set up the company to publish a book of essays by Fritz Leiber which commemorated his appearance as principal speaker at a convention. "I enjoyed it so much, we kept publishing more," says Among others, Betancourt has printed exclusive editions by Greg Bear, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Tanith Lee - in the case of the latter, the Science Fiction Book Club obtained reprint rights and used the Wildside Press cover on an edition of Louisa the Poisoner.
Recent interest in the internet led the writer to create two web pages, an official business page for Wildside Press and a more personal books and movies page (mysterymovies.com) which features an online auction gallery with hundreds of book, movie, and memorabilia items for sale bu users. "I have a feeling those will continue to develop into a large part of my career," he observes, noting that the sites already take up several hours each day. "In ten years, they may well be the focus of my career."
Married for ten years and a father of two sons, Betancourt says cheerfully that he has "enough work to keep me happily busy into 2000. I only hope things continue going so well."