Nikki Stafford knows TV, and she knows TV fans. For several years the Canadian author has been combining her word-smithing skills with her story teller’s sensibilities to create guides for such shows as Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Xena, Angel, Alias, and more recently Lost. Stafford knows as well as anyone that the Lost fanbase is filled with pride when it comes to maintaining an encyclopedic range of knowledge of the show’s mythos, characters, places, and general minutiae. Stafford has succeeded in creating books for a crowd that could arguably be called the most difficult to please. I had the opportunity to sit down with Nikki and discuss the process of creating books for rabid fans.
Do you find the Lost crowd as famously hard to please as the producers do?
As someone who is part of that crowd, I know that I demand a lot from the producers myself, and as a result, I probably do double the research on the Lost books as I’ve done for any other show. I did a ton of work on Buffy, Angel, Alias, and Xena, but when it came to Lost, I felt like a university student again, triple-checking my research and not slacking off in any way, for fear the prof will catch me out on it. Thankfully, it’s paid off, and while I’ve gotten my share of emails from people pointing out nitpicks that shouldn’t have been nitpicked or little things I may have missed, I haven’t gotten any more of those as I’ve received for any other book. Mostly I get emails from people thanking me for doing all that work, which makes it all worth it.
Lost is so complicated, what do think holds peoples interest so strongly when many of them admit they don’t truly understand the story?
As I’ve said before (and in the books), Lost is the type of show that you can watch on two levels. You can watch the show casually (though lately that’s becoming harder to do) and enjoy the episode, comment on it to the person beside you, and then change the channel to see what else is on. The show boasts an amazing crop or writers and an ensemble cast like no other on television, so the basic week-to-week storyline can hold the audience’s attention and keep them coming back week after week. But if you want something more out of the show, then you can watch it, rewatch it, go online following the episode to discuss it, look up literary/historical/philosophical references in encyclopedias or Web sites, try to find Hurley’s numbers, etc. The writers know there is a huge demographic of Lost viewers doing this, and so they’ve started turning the story more to them, and putting far more Easter eggs in there than were there previously. You can make the show as complex or as uncomplicated as you’d like, depending on the level to which you watch it. I think watching the complicated version is so much more fun, I couldn’t imagine watching it just for the surface story, but I know many people who do.
What other books have you written?
I wrote a book on Buffy called “Bite Me!” in 1998, then updated it in 2002, and the final version with all seven seasons in it will be released in another month. My first book was called “Lucy Lawless and Renee O’Connor: Warrior Stars of Xena,” and it was the one where I established the way I’d write all of my episode guides — very little plot summary, and more in-depth looks at what was going on far below the surface. I wrote books on Angel (“Once Bitten”) and Alias (“Uncovering Alias,” co-written with Robyn Burnett) in 2004, and the first “Finding Lost” book covering the first two seasons was released in 2006, and season 3 just came out last week. I also edited books featuring stories written by fans about how Xena changed their lives, and another one on how Star Trek has affected them.
Is the season three edition of your Lost guide any different in format from the previous volume?
No, it follows the same format: an episode guide for each episode, followed by a chapter illuminating some part of that show. There are chapters on Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time”; the television series The Prisoner; Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22”; philosopher David Hume (whom Desmond is named after); The Lost Experience; and many others. And a lot of sidebars in between that recount the fun stuff you can find in each episode.
With Lost changing the way it deals with time, do you ever worry that you might have to go back to the beginning and write the guides all over again to have proper context for everything?
I don’t, actually. The way the books are meant to be read is with the show, so if you’re watching the pilot for the very first time, you can watch it, and then open my book to read the episode guide to find all the little things you might have missed and have a deeper understanding of that episode. If I went back and rewrote that guide in light of what is revealed in season 4, for example, it would suddenly be full of spoilers and the reader wouldn’t know when it would be safe to begin reading the books. So I like them the way they are, and when something new is revealed, I’ll simply mention the earlier episode that was affected in the episode guide, but I won’t go back to reveal it earlier. The books undergo a test audience — I have longtime fans read it to make sure I didn’t get anything wrong, and I have first-time watchers try reading it while watching the episodes to make sure I don’t spoil anything for them. It’s like a research experiment. Bwoohahaha…
Have the Lost producers or anyone connected with the show given you any kudos for the books?
Not yet (she said hopefully). I’m very careful not to step on the toes of the show — you must watch the episodes to understand my books, and you certainly couldn’t read the books as any sort of substitute for the show. I’m constantly trying to draw in new viewers through my blog, where I talk about the show week after week and encourage longtime viewers not to give up (seriously, if you stopped watching the show in season 3, you have no idea the brilliance you’ve missed). I haven’t tried to contact any of the producers or cast or crew for the purpose of the book, because that’s not what they’re about — I’m not looking to interview anyone from the show, and instead want to look at the show from a fan’s perspective.
Having been out there on the convention circuit for some of your earlier books, what is your impression of fandom. Is it healthy? Do people take it to far?
Oh sure, some people take it too far and become WAY too serious about the characters or the shows (I’ve seen fans almost come to blows over the Bangel vs. Spuffy debate that constantly rages in Buffy fandom). But for the most part, it’s fun. I love genre fans. As someone who rarely watches television casually, I love the like-minded people who are also serious about their TV. I’ve had people come up to me at conventions and want my photo and have me sign things other than the books (that can get a little weird) but it’s all in good fun. And I also have the flip side of people following me around the conventions or wanting to start an argument about something I’ve written, but those are usually harmless. I’ve been on the receiving end of threats from a group of Buffy fans that took a particular storyline way too far, and that was hurtful and annoying, but we’re lucky that they’re few and far between and don’t show up to ruin the party all the time.
What are your thoughts on the new fall 2007 shows, and are there any you would feel compelled to write a book about?
I entered this fall season knowing I was going to have a lot of TV-watching time on my hands (I had my second child on September 23). I was very excited about a couple of shows, a little excited about a bunch of them, and not very excited about others. A month and a half into the season, I can’t believe how much my initial thoughts have changed. I thought Bionic Woman was going to be the coolest show on television, but it’s a huge disappointment to me. I can’t believe how boring it is. Cane started out strong, but I’ve dropped it, too. I was interested in Chuck, and it’s one of my favorites now. I didn’t have a lot of interest in Gossip Girl until a friend urged me to check it out, and now it’s a definite guilty pleasure. Reaper is also funny (although remarkably similar to Chuck), and Dirty Sexy Money is a lot of fun to watch. Journeyman was one I was very, very excited about, and the first episode was excellent, but it’s gotten a little dry since then. I’m still intrigued by it, though (and I think Kevin McKidd is amazing) so I’m still hanging in there. But my hands-down favorite show is one I didn’t even originally have scheduled in my PVR: Pushing Daisies. This show is absolutely brilliant — funny, sad, sweet, heartbreaking, and weird. I’ve never seen another show like it, and I’m head over heels for it. Aliens in America is another one I didn’t really think much about, but the ones I’ve seen have been hilarious.
As far as writing books about any of them, though, none of these shows has the criteria for one. All of the shows I write about have something beyond the surface that you can explore: Lost with its many mysteries and cultural/historical/religious references that need explaining; Buffy with its folklore and messing with legends, etc. But as much as I love Pushing Daisies, it’s still one of those shows where you say, “And didn’t you LOVE the Winnie the Pooh reference, or when the aunts were bejewelling the bird”, etc. and you can’t really write much beyond that. So for now I think I’ll stick with Lost.
What other shows do you watch?
Heroes was brilliant last season (except for the finale) and this season has been off to a slow and uneventful start this season, but I have complete faith it’ll get better. I adore The Office and 30 Rock. I think The Wire is the smartest television show EVER (I’ve written countless blogs on why everyone should be watching this show on DVD) and I cannot WAIT for the final season to begin in January. The critics all talked about Friday Night Lights being mind-blowingly good last season so I got the DVDs of season 1 and watched the entire season in the week leading up to the baby’s arrival, and now we must be on our couches every Friday night for the new episode (not that we have anywhere else to go, with a newborn and all).
But when all is said and done, Lost is still my favorite show, thankfully. Come on, February! This wait is killin’ me.
– Jon Lachonis, BuddyTV Senior Writer
(Image Courtesy of ECW Press)