Armin Shimerman Pens Novel About Philosopher John Dee
by Michelle Erica Green
Armin Shimerman no longer serves drinks to Starfleet officers or plots against vampire slayers. These days, his head is in the Renaissance. Last month Pocket Books published The Merchant Prince, an historical fantasy that takes philosopher John Dee to the year 2099. Shimerman co-wrote the book with Irish fantasy writer Michael Scott via the Internet, working on it in between his television scenes. Now he's working on a sequel, and another Renaissance novel as well.
"I have always been a student of Elizabethan literature," explains the prolific actor, who did double duty on Deep Space Nine and Buffy the Vampire Slayer while he was writing the novel. The Merchant Prince's version of scheming scientist Dee bears more than a passing resemblance to Ferengi bartender Quark, both on the book's cover (an illustration of Shimerman as Dee) and in the character's temperament and wit. In fact, The Merchant Prince is filled with little nods to Shimerman's most famous role - a character named Jim Church gets drunk on Old Defiant liquor, and Dee calculates the fortunes waiting to be made.
The connections to Quark run deep, for Star Trek not only introduced Shimerman to the vast audience of fans who now follow his career; it also helped him become a writer and thus realize a lifelong dream. "I'd always written as a child, and my mother always hoped that I would turn out to be a writer - she was very disappointed I became an actor," he admits.
Publisher Bill Fawcett, who was putting together a four-book deal with four different science fiction actors, learned of Shimerman's interest in fiction from his agent, Craig Shapiro - who also represents Babylon 5's Peter Jurasik, one of Fawcett's four authors. "Bill asked Craig who else he had. Craig mentioned me, and also Roxann Biggs-Dawson. We all started writing novels at roughly the same time. So Bill is sort of the godfather of this project."
Fawcett introduced Shimerman to Scott, and Scott introduced Shimerman to John Dee. "Before getting seduced by the Dark Side of the Force and moving into TV, I was a Shakespearean actor. To my ignorance, although I'm a scholar of Elizabethan times, I was not aware of John Dee. Almost every historical reference book that deals with Elizabeth has sections on Dee. I was embarrassed when Michael brought this to my attention."
Shimerman began to read Dee's diaries and the publications of the John Dee Society, which connect the philosopher to Rosicrucianism and necromancy. He was already well versed in the weaponry of the period, and in the Elizabethan honor system. "I've always been intrigued by rhetoric and by the use of language in Elizabethan times," says the theatrically trained actor.
He was also interested in the notion of a person out of place, finding himself in a new and surprising situation, as happens to Dee when he wakes in 2099 in The Merchant Prince. "In an actor's life, that happens quite frequently, when you're a guest star for instance - you move into a world that's been there for awhile, all the other people know it, but you don't. You don't know the relationships of the other people on the set, you don't know the relationships of the characters to each other except for what's in the script. You're always finding yourself out of place, and that's what I think Dee is finding in a new time."
Dublin-based Scott, author of Tales of the Bard and a definitive book of Irish fairy tales, made his first trip ever to Los Angeles to work out the outline for The Merchant Prince with Shimerman. Over the course of the next two years, the co-writers worked via e-mail. The actor says, "One of the good things about working on a TV show is that you really sit around for a great deal of time. So I had a laptop computer, and I had my reference books in my trailer, and when I had to wait 45 minutes for them to light, then I would take the time and write."
Originally intended as a project for Baen Books, The Merchant Prince changed publishers and was delayed in printing. "The Star Trek department at Pocket thought that the books would be a natural for part of their line, so they talked to Baen and the packager about switching the titles over," says Pocket Books senior editor John Ordover. Setting a precedent that has been followed by Andrew Robinson (Garak) and now J.G. Hertzler (Martok), Shimerman also co-wrote a Deep Space Nine novel, The 34th Rule, with David R. George III after finishing The Merchant Prince.
Ordover, who edited The 34th Rule and co-wrote a couple of episodes of Deep Space Nine, thinks highly of Shimerman as an author as well as an actor. "The most impressive thing about Armin's writing is the lock-down plotting, full of unexpected, perfect twists that keep the reader both guessing and pleased at the same time," he observes.
Shimerman has a proposal in the works for another Deep Space Nine novel, set after the series finale, and he and Scott are collaborating on a sequel to The Merchant Prince. But Shimerman is also working on a historical mystery "that's more Dee and less Quark. It should be Dee on the cover and not me - this man with a pointed gray beard and a skullcap in his late 50s or early 60s. I'm fascinated by the real John Dee."
The Magnificent Ferengi
The Merchant Prince's Dee is modeled on Quark, who in turn is modeled on Shimerman's best friend, Frank Kopyc, who appeared in the DS9 episode "Let He Who Is Without Sin..." as a Bolian. "Whenever I got into a quandary about what would Quark do, I would just think, 'What would Frank do?' He considers this a compliment," the actor grins. A fan of the original Trek series, Shimerman appeared on three episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, in the pilot of Voyager, and in a brief scene in Insurrection, making him one of the most knowledgeable actors on the series.
He has somewhat mixed feelings about the conclusion of Deep Space Nine's television run, like many of his co-stars. "I was not happy until the penultimate episode, although I'm not particularly happy that Rom became the Nagus," says the actor. "I'm very happy for Rom, but I'm not happy for Ferengi society. It was a major revolution that they went through, and as always with Ferengi things, it was just sort of sloughed off. Everything changed overnight, no problems, and that turns it sort of hokey."
"As far as Quark, I loved the fact that an arc for the character which I had not seen really appeared, because he went back to being who he was in Emissary," Shimerman continues. "He had changed, that was patently obvious, and I was really happy that he became aware of those changes - as the actor became aware of those changes - and he went back. That was a nice thing for Quark to do."
Shimerman's scene with James Darren in which Quark and Vic discuss the loneliness of being a bartender was the final scene of the series. "Other actors will tell you it was the scene when they were all standing by the bar with Vic singing because that's the last scene they were in, but that was not the last scene shot. I was one of the ones who was in tears during the group scene. We had been together a long time. It wasn't so much tears for the end of the show so much as friendships that had been made over the course of seven years. It was the loss of people as opposed to the loss of work."
"We had a great group of writers," he adds. "I had some problems with them over Quark, but in the long run, when I look back, I know they did a wonderful job. I agree with the people who think Deep Space Nine was the best of the four series; I think that if you really look, unprejudiced, you have to agree. People have a problem with the fact that in their point of view, Deep Space Nine didn't go anywhere. We were always meant to explore relationships, and we were always supposed to be a little bit darker, a little more gritty, a little less goody two-shoes, which is why I like the program so much."
"If you talk about the characters on Next Generation, you always start out talking about their jobs. LaForge is an engineer, Data's a computer, and Picard is the captain. Deep Space Nine, you talk about the people first. Odo is interested in justice almost to the side of fascism. Kira is a wonderfully loyal woman caught between her terrorist past and the great desire to fix the future. That's what I like about the program."
"For me, the saddest part of the finale is the very quick sequence of vignettes about Jake, watching him grow up. I've always had a very large sadness for passing of time, and to watch those sequences made me very sad."
Shimerman tried to influence Quark's development while the show was on the air. Along with David George and Eric Stillwell, he had pitched ideas for an episode to the producers of Deep Space Nine, but the producers declined to film it. "Everyone was disappointed because we had worked hard on it," Shimerman recalls. "Because I had written Merchant Prince, I said to David, 'Let's make this into a book.'" Hence The 34th Rule.
Now he is looking to explore Ferengi culture in another novel. "One of the criticisms I got was disappointment that in a novel written by Armin Shimerman, we didn't learn more about Quark. So I think the next novel will indeed be more Quark-oriented," he reveals. "Since I saw my first episode of The Next Generation, I've always wanted to give the Ferengi more depth. I'm going to try to concentrate on making the Ferengi point of view more palatable for the audience who traditionally look down upon the Ferengi; they're never taken seriously, and they're often considered to be either one-dimensional or just worthless."
During the final two years of Deep Space Nine, Shimerman wasn't only doing double-duty as a writer and Trek star; he also had a recurring role as villainous Principal Snyder on the WB's popular Buffy the Vampire Slayer. "Working Buffy was one of the highlights of my life," he declares. "I love the set - the set of Buffy was a joy to go to. I love the writing - Joss Whedon is phenomenally good. I love the character, and I love the fact that one day I could be a real asshole and on another day I could be a charming rogue. It was like being in repertory theater."
Ironically enough, playing Snyder made it easier for Shimerman to play Quark and vice versa. "I was able to look at two different characters from two different points of view, and understanding that made it easier to play each character," he explains. "Only actors who have performed in repertory theater will really understand. There were days when I would start out at five o'clock in the morning to be made up for Quark, have a short day, get out around lunchtime, drive an hour to Buffy's set, and then do Snyder. They were long days, but they were enjoyable days because it was like doing repertory theater."
Although Snyder was eaten by a giant serpent in the finale of the season before last, Shimerman returned for an episode at the end of this year, appearing in a dream sequence as a version of Marlon Brando's Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. "When the agent called and said they wanted me back on Buffy, I said, 'I'm dead! They killed me off, don't they remember?'" He wasn't at all bitter about that: "I knew that I was going to be done away with one way or another when they were graduating high school - there was little reason to keep a high school principal around. My character was never supposed to have stuck around that long. I'm very grateful to Joss, whose original plan was to have revolving principals in the high school. They never got around to killing Snyder off."
"To my embarrassment, I had never seen Apocalypse Now," he confesses. "I had seen clips - one can't possibly live without seeing clips of it - but I had never watched the movie. There was a note in the script from Joss to everyone involved in the production, saying that if they had never seen Apocalypse Now, they should go out and rent it. It was a brilliant movie. It was fun to copy the performance. I tried to work on hand gestures, and staying in and out of shadows the way Marlon Brando did."
Though it was tough to keep the hours required to play Quark and Principal Snyder at the same time, Shimerman says that was relatively easy, given that "I've always been a workaholic and I'm very good about scheduling my time." It was much harder juggling the acting with the volunteer time he gives to the Screen Actors' Guild, where sits as a national board member and the chair of the national agents' relations committee. Right now the union is in the midst of a commercial strike, which occupies much of Shimerman's energy.
The strike is intended to make commercial advertisers recognize that actors deserve a share in revenues from cable and Internet technologies. "Most of our advertising now is done on cable, there are more cable stations than there are networks, so we need a fair share," he emphasizes. "And more importantly, we need to open up discussions about remuneration on the Internet. If we don't succeed in our issues, then I believe the power of the Screen Actors' Guild will be mortally wounded. It is imperative that advertisers understand that we're serious about this, and it is a life and death issue with us."
Shimerman points out that a single commercial may be the only union job an actor will get in a year, so revenue from cable and Internet broadcast makes a huge difference. In addition, actors run the risk of overexposure if they do commercials - if a person's face becomes connected with a product, it makes it very difficult for that person to play other characters because of typecasting. Star Trek serves as an example of this problem. "The guys from the original series, Walter Koenig, Jimmy Doohan, became so overexposed from repeats of Star Trek that it was virtually impossible for them to get other work, because they were so known as those characters. Residuals ran out a long time ago, so thank God for conventions."
"This is a very important strike we're having," Shimerman stresses. "Most people think of strikes as labor trying to increase pay rates. This strike is about not allowing rollbacks. The entertainment industry is the largest export the United States has. The actors' share of the budget, their salary, their residuals, their pension contributions, their health care contributions, wardrobe and makeup...that comes to two and a half percent of most commercial budgets. We're talking about a minimal amount of money."
Just back from a convention in the Mediterranean, Shimerman has upcoming appearances in Philadelphia, Ft. Lauderdale, and Atlanta. He is also working hard to promote The Merchant Prince online, where he has dropped in on PsiPhi's Trek Books board and at startrek.com. "I'd love to see The Merchant Prince filmed - I think it would make a very good film, and I don't even have to play the lead," he says when asked about the possibility of a movie version of his novel.
However, Shimerman says he has no plans to move into screenwriting. "I'm one of the few people in Los Angeles who doesn't have a script lying around," he laughs. "I'm really much more interested in the novel form, basically because I'm much more interested in language. You can't really do it in a screenplay, even in the most wonderful screenplay like Shakespeare in Love, because they still have to make it concise and picture-oriented because that's the medium," he observes.
His three planned novels - the Merchant Prince sequel, the Renaissance mystery, and the Deep Space Nine book - will keep Shimerman busy for the next several months. And if that doesn't turn out to be enough work...maybe he'll take on another major television role or two.