The X-Files Lexicon's exclusive interview with Sarah Stegall.
Conducted 11/09/2012 by Matt Allair.
Page Editor: XScribe
It would be safe to argue that Sarah Stegall is a true innovator within X-Files fandom. She broke ground in the early nineties as a fan critic of the show who managed to get the attention of Chris Carter and the Ten-Thirteen Productions team. She was the researcher for the first three episode guides, The Truth is Out There, Trust No One and I Want To Believe. Not only that, she was an early contributor to the official X-Files website, and to the first editions of the X-Files magazine, and collaborator to various calendars, and trivia products, eventually becoming a critic for SF Scope. These feats are rare for any fan to be honored with such opportunities, and only a small percentage of fans have enjoyed such privileges. She has moved on to writing a series of published novels, Farside and Deadfall, thus fulfilling an aspect of fandom that brings a fan full circle–to be so inspired by another’s work that you create your own original material.
I’ve been aware of Sarah Stegall’s work for years, and first attempted to reach her via her website, The Munchkyn Zone, as far back to 2006, but to no avail. I recently learned the reason for that lack of contact. Sarah Stegall came under my radar several years ago when I found her on the Big Light Productions social network, then over the summer, she contacted me via Facebook to compliment me on our work with The X-Files Lexicon. In light of some of the developments within the Lexicon since 2008, I naturally felt a fan kinship with her. But when one considers her accomplishments during the early years of the internet circa the mid 90s, one does feel like a piker when one compares our work to hers. Recently when we discussed an impending interview, we were able to bond over our fondness for the San Francisco Giants, and their second world series win, as well as chatting, like fans do, about the first time we watched an X-Files episode. We also had a fascinating and revealing conversation about Mary Shelley and Frankenstein.
In many respects, Sarah Stegall is following in the tradition of early Star Trek fans like Bjo Trimble, a skilled fan who was at the right place at the right time. I found Sarah to be of good nature, out-going yet relatable, with no pretense, and a real pleasure to commiserate with as a fellow traveler. Our interview proceeded as follows…
Matt Allair: Thank you for taking the time to do this. How are you doing?
Sarah Stegall: Great. I’m looking at your X-Files Lexicon website.
Matt Allair: Oh, great. I’ve been a fan of your work for along time, so, it’s a really great honor to speak with you. Did you always want to be a writer?
Sarah Stegall: I always wanted to be a reader. I proceeded to read my way through my mom’s library. She has a PhD in literature, so it was a pretty extensive library. When I got out of high school, I entered into theatre as a way to act out stories, although I wasn’t an actor, I was in production, then I got into college, same deal, and eventually got into English from there, managed to do little theatre in Austin, then graduated, and I’ve been writing pretty much for all my life.
Matt: What was the first episode that you saw? Were you hooked on The X-Files from the first episode?
Sarah: Pretty much. Not from the first episode of The X-Files--the first one I saw. I was channel surfing one night and I came across “Squeeze,” and there is that shot where you’re looking up the chimney, and Eugene Tooms is reaching down, and his arm gets longer, and longer (laughs). I tell you the hairs stood up from the back of my neck, and it takes a lot to do that, and I said “Yeah, I’ll watch this.” I didn’t want to see it originally because I thought it was only going to be about aliens, but when I saw “Squeeze” I was: “Okay, this definitely has something to look into.” I kept watching and watching and finally by the time they got to “Darkness Falls,” I was completely hooked. I wrote the very first fan letter I had ever written in my whole life, and I got a reply back from Glen Morgan. He sent me a signed photograph with Gillian and David, and it had a little chatty letter. It said, “Oh, I promise you that Tooms will be back,” and of course he was. That was the nicest thing to do and in fact that might be the only nice thing Glen Morgan ever wrote to me, but it was the first. (laughs)
Matt: You were involved with on-line fandom from early on; I recall back in the Alt.TV.X-Files era, what was the climate like with fandom from that period? Do you stay in touch with any of the early fans?
Sarah: It was really like a club house, you know. It’s not so much that you had a secret handshake or anything, but you didn’t have to explain anything, People got it, when you mentioned the Cigarette-Smoking Man, I knew exactly what you were talking about. It wasn’t like you had to excuse or explain why you were obsessed with this TV show about aliens, but I think one of the best parts for me was just hooking up with other people. I had been watching TV all of my life, but [when] we watched, it was always solitary, but now it was like this big invisible party in my living room.
Sarah: [Regarding staying in touch] Yes, I am. Back in 1993, I was one of the original members of the DDEB – David Duchovny Estrogen Brigade. We were a closed e-mail group because the servers were catching fire from the amount of traffic on the list, and we have been on-line chatting with each other, every single day, 365 days a year. Next year will be our twentieth anniversary. Some of the members have bowed out, some of them are still with us. A couple of them were actually journalists. I won’t give you their names, but they reported on The X-Files, they interviewed people. You would recognize their names. It’s been going on for decades. By now, it’s on-going. It’s kind of cool, because we all know the show so well, one of us will say, “You know, my boss was like the smoking man today,” and people will be like, “Oh, yeah, we know.” (laughs) I still get e-mails from people who read my reviews, and once a year I’ll hear from Autumn Tysko or Paula Vitaris. There’s still definitely some contact with the old gang, not so much from the cast of The X-Files. The last one I think was from Tim Minear, but that was a long time ago. He was really nice. He left The X-Files and he was going to produce Strange World. It was like four episodes that aired. He called me up and wanted to send me some of the video tapes so I could review, but the show got canceled, so that didn’t work, but I still hear now and then from folks.
Matt: You had mentioned Glen Morgan. Do you recall at what point did you become aware that the staff from Ten-Thirteen became aware of your reviews?
Sarah: I don’t know if you remember the Delphi forum. A friend of mine convinced me to join the Delphi forum, and I started getting private e-mails from people saying, “Hey, I work on the show, I read your review.” I guess this was the Spring of ’94, I think, and I didn’t believe them. They weren’t using real names, anyway. I didn’t know who was who on the internet. Then this guy who was running the forum--his name was ‘Reapr,’ or under the name of ‘Reapr’--e-mailed me privately and said, “I work for 1013 and these guys are reading your reviews.” Then one day out of the blue Reapr e-mailed me at work and said “I need your phone number,” and I was, “Yeah, right,” and the next thing I know I was getting a phone call at work from Chris Carter. Chris gets on and says, “I’m sitting here reading your review for “Humbug,” which had just been published, “and David is here with me, and we just wanted to talk about the review.” He had very flattering things to say. He asked about my background, where I studied, stuff like that. Then he asked if I had ever written a script, and I said, ‘yes.’ He asked me to send him any X-File script I had written. I did so. He didn’t buy it, but I did get back four pages of notes from Frank Spotnitz. After that, Chris would call me about once a month, chat about the show very, very gracious, very, very nice.
Matt: Did the Munchkyn Zone site develop organically, or was it something you had planned out?
Sarah: Oh, that was an accident; I was pretty much forced into that. I was getting e-mails saying, “Hey, I missed your review of such and such, can I get a copy of it?” and I was sitting here, digging into my archives, sending these copies one at a time and I finally thought ‘the heck with this, I don’t have time,’ and so I got together a website so people could see my reviews, and then it kind of grew from there. When I started reviewing seventeen years ago, I really needed a place to archive my reviews, as there were so many of them. It wasn’t just The X-Files; I reviewed many other shows.
Matt: Obviously you were speaking with Chris Carter. How did you get involved with the episode guides? Did you know Brian Lowry beforehand?
Sarah: I did not. In fact if memory serves, I think I was the first one signed to the project before they got Brian, and later Andy. I was already writing for the Fox website, The X-Files site, for Fox network. I would write character dossiers, background, details for trivia--stuff like that for their website. The world wide web was like two months old (laughs)--almost the first time a show had put up a website, a commercial show--and they asked me to do a website contribution, and next thing I know, I’m getting a call from HarperCollins in New York, and they said, “Well, we’re putting together”--they called it at the time, The X-Files Companion, later changed to The Truth Is Out There–and said “we’re putting together this companion and we need somebody to do the research.” In the interview they asked, “Can you do it?” I said, “I can do it,” and that’s how I got involved with HarperCollins, and then we did a couple more after that. I actually did meet Brian Lowry at a fan convention. We shook hands, chatted, but I only exchanged e-mails if he had a question, and he was doing an interview with somebody, and he had a question, some detail to clear up, he would call me or e-mail. I actually never met Andy.
Matt: Mary Astadourian was playing an important role during that period. What was your experience with her like? What was your impression?
Sarah: She was very protective, of The X-Files, of Ten Thirteen, Chris, the writers. She made it very clear that there were boundaries, and she was fiercely organized. I mean she had everything at her fingertips; I had nothing but admiration for that. I always liked working with her, but she was very definitely keeping boundaries, a certain reserve. As compared to the writers and editors who chatted, Mary was a little quieter.
Matt: Frank Spotnitz has been incredibly supportive to on-line fans; was Chris Carter approachable during the 1995 period. What was your impression?
Sarah: Friendly, very gracious, very helpful. He smiled all the time (laugh). I never saw him angry, except one time when I met him in person for the first time, and at the first X-Files convention. We went back stage, I met him and his wife. I had already met Frank. At that time “Duane Barry” had just aired, and I had just put up my review of it, and of course that was Chris’s first, directorial debut, and he was eager to find out what I had put in my review and I had only given it three sunflower seeds. He was shocked (Laughs). If he could have, I think he would have turned me into a pillar of salt right there, meaning he didn’t seem angry, but his eyes were angry, and he commented, “Oh well, maybe next time,” and obviously he forgave me, but nobody ever suggested I should change a review or be kinder. They always praised me for keeping them honest. They had been nothing but helpful and gracious to me.
Matt: How would you describe your role as a ‘researcher’?
Sarah: I was the “go-to” guy. I got a lot of phone calls. I spent a lot of time on the phone. I frequently got phone calls, not just from Brian for other research, but I got [them] from a staff of writers at Ten-Thirteen. They would be in the middle of writing something and they’d have some detail they’d need to look up. You know of course, the show never had a bible.
Matt: Of course.
Sarah: So, it was all in Chris’s head, well, you know. They’d have to ask and Chris [was] busy, and Mary might not [have known], so they’d call me up, and say: “Hey, off the top of your head, what is Mulder’s shoe size?” and I’d know. That’s how they’d wind up sending me, I don’t know, all kind of stuff from the studio. They helped me build up my database, but at least it is something they could call on.
Matt: Back then the internet was in it’s infancy, and there were hardly the research sources that are available today. How did you do research for the Episode Guide books? Did you get a lot of co-operation from Twentieth-Century Fox, Ten-Thirteen productions, or Harper Prism?
'TRUST NO ONE!' by Brian Lowry. Photo source: Sarah StegallSarah: I certainly did. The first thing that Mary told me was ‘ask me for anything, for anything you want.’ If I needed something, I’d ask. The Studio didn’t even ask, they sent me, they shipped me every single script that had been written for show to date. I still have them in my garage, every script written for the first three years, and of course, I had access to anybody I wanted to contact. It was pretty nice because most of the people associated with the show [were] all excited about it, they wanted to talk about it, but they weren’t allowed to, and here I have permission from Chris and Ten-Thirteen, and so they really opened up to me. “Yeah, anytime you got something, any facts, in-jokes, anagrams, stuff like that.” A lot of the research was [done] sitting in front of my television, winding, re-winding my VCR tapes for some little detail. If I could have done so I would have done more interviewing of people. I think I had Tom Braidwood on speed dial for awhile. I remember the one controversy on the internet, in those days, at least at ALT.TV.X-Files, was what kind of guns did Mulder and Scully carry? and I had no info on that, so finally I called up Ken Hawryliw, and he was actually in the prop trailer when I reached him, and I said, “Okay, you got to answer this question for me.” So, he walked over and he pulled out the drawer, and said, “I’m looking at it right now.” He told me and I put it in the book, and to day this people don’t believe me, but I got it straight from Ken Hawryliw.
Matt: Was the experience of working on the episode guides with Andy Meiser different than with Brian Lowry?
Sarah: I got one e-mail from Andy and that was it. We totally did our own thing. He did his interviews. This wasn’t the thing with Brian, but with Andy, he did his interviews and his episode summaries, or whatever he did, and I just did the research that I normally do. Of course with the second and third episode guides, there was less research to be done, because most of the background, so to speak, had been presented in the first episode guide, like what is Mulder’s birthday, or what were Scully’s parents’ names. So, you don’t need to repeat it for the second and third, so there was less research overall. I didn’t have that much call to speak to Andy, but I was fielding a lot of questions from Ten Thirteen and Harper.
Matt: Regarding the talent interactions that you experienced from that period, was there a favorite person involved with The X-Files, either a writer, producer, or actor?
Sarah: Well, there’s the one that got away. I met everybody involved with that show except David Duchovny (laughs). The closest I got on the set, a location shoot, I was in Vancouver for a set visit, and it was cold, it was dark, it was Vancouver. It was raining in December, I think in ’98, and David and Gillian would walk up to the front door of this blue house, and knock on it. It was a location shoot for “Schizogeny.” They did about six takes of that. They had to stop for a minute, David walked up behind the camera to take a look at the monitor, and David was standing literally three feet [from me]. I didn’t say anything. Like I’ve said, I used to be in theatre and you do not disturb an actor between takes, and that was the closest I got to meeting David.
The one that was weirdest was Mitch Pileggi, and it was weird because after we met we found out that we should have met years ago. He was in Austin doing community theatre, and I had been in Austin doing little theatre. We knew everybody in common, and every time we’d meet he’d say, “Hey, do you know so and so?” – “Oh, yeah, I do,” but we never actually met then; we just knew the same people. That kind of a one degree of separation.
Matt: After you were no longer involved with the episode guide books, what did you end up doing? Did you continue to check out the later editions?
Sarah: I did a lot of things. I contracted for a lot of projects, especially with the show. Harper Collins hired me to put together things like the trivia books, desk calendars, we did a couple of wall calendars, we had calendars with Mulder and Scully’s birthdays on them, dates, events. Then Fox hired me to write interviews and articles for the first X-Files magazine. That was the first series put out by TOPPS, edited by Bob Woods. Then Fox took it over and rebooted the magazine. I think there were three or four issues that I did. Then of course TV Guide online hired me for four years, and I wrote trivia questions, and I wrote trivia questions for the X-Files website. I didn’t really look at [the later books]. Not really.
Matt: What other shows have you gotten into, other than The X-Files? Are there any current shows you are watching that you feel are on par with The X-Files?
Sarah: For the last four, maybe five years, I was the in-house reviewer for SFScope.com, edited by Ian Randal Strock. I was watching and reviewing up to five shows a week, which is exhausting and I had cut back recently. All of those reviews are on my website. But right now, I’m still watching Fringe. Part of it still has me scratching my head, It’s as close to The X-Files [as I’ve seen] . I have a feeling that J.J. Abrams is a serious X-Files fan. The other one I really love is Haven on the SyFy channel. It’s got that vibe, that mysterious, atmospheric thing going for it that The X-Files had in Vancouver. I like Warehouse 13, I adore Grimm, I never miss it. I think the lead character on Grimm has that same kind of wide-eyed, naïveté that Mulder used to have, but he doesn’t have a Scully, so it’s not quite the same.
Matt: You initially had trouble getting into Millennium. Have you revisited the series?
Sarah: No, after that third episode that I reviewed, I just said this is not my cup of tea. One of the things I like about The X-Files, and I’m really in the minority on this, but I like the stand alone, monster of the week shows.
Matt: Me too.
Sarah: I never got caught up in the mythology arc, and all that stuff. Millennium had a lot more emphasis on conspiracy, and behind the scenes investigations. I had enough of that on The X-Files. I didn’t want to get into another show that was doing that.
Matt: Do you feel that the character arc for Mulder, Scully, Skinner over a decade developed in ways that made sense, or you agreed with?
Sarah: No (laugh). There are ones where I sometimes shake my finger, metaphorically, at Chris Carter. I thought he set it up for a payoff that he never delivered. For reasons of his own, Chris was adamant. He did not want to have a romance; he did not want to have a relationship between Mulder and Scully. He wanted to make sure they kept the tension between them, and I can understand why he wanted to do that, but after nine years of that, it suddenly went from a handshake to parenthood? No, I didn’t like that. I think that could have been handled better. Part of it had to do with [the fact that] I don’t think Chris had ever planned for them to come together and then it was a last minute change, but that’s speculation on my part.
Matt: I remember that you were one of the few people that had some positive things to say about the second X-Files movie, (I Want To Believe). Do you think it was unfairly maligned?
|'Deadfall' book cover.
Photo source: Sarah Stegall
|Sarah: Maybe. I think a lot of people were more focused on the conspiracy than I was, and they wanted answers to all those issues that they had been waiting [on], and I had long since given up on the mythology. Like I said, I had always liked the stand-alones, and of course the second one is a revisit of the Frankenstein myth, which I adore the Frankenstein story. I’m writing a book about it. This was actually Chris’s second foray into that. He had done ‘The Post Modern Prometheus’. I think he did an exceptionally good job. In fact, I told him this should have been the first X-Files movie. The first X-Files movie didn’t do as well as it should [have]. I think it was because most people didn’t know the show that well. The second movie was more like what The X-Files started out with [in]“Ice,” where you had something like scare the audience, draw them in, but with the first movie it was basically needing an encyclopedia’s worth of synopsis to get there.|
Matt: There’s a lot of activity with Chris Carter as of late about him getting back to television with The After and other projects; would you welcome his return?
Sarah: If he could bring back some of that mystery and that atmosphere that pervaded the early seasons of The X-Files, I think he could have a winner on his hands. I just hope he can get back together with John Bartley and David Nutter. He can’t fail if he gets them on board.
Matt: I had a chance to interview John Bartley. I was hoping to interview David Nutter, but I didn’t get a chance yet.
Sarah: Of all the people I met, the background, the writers, producers, actors, the only person associated with The X-Files that I met that made me go all fan-girlly was David Nutter (laughs). The special effects department had introduced me on the Ten Thirteen lot. I was aware of all of his work.
Matt: I was curious; do you still follow contemporary fandom? What’s your impression of present fandom compared to what it was like back then?
Sarah: I don’t keep up with X-Files fandom, I don’t have much contact with them. I keep up with science fiction fandom, I was at World Con this year. I was unhappy. I didn’t see anybody dressed as Mulder and Scully, but then again Mulder and Scully never dressed that weird anyway. Until the show ended, I did see every single episode, but once it ended, I kind of felt like, “I’m done with this, it’s been nine years. I don’t want to rehash it endlessly, but I have all of the trivia I need for the rest of my life.” I don’t really follow websites. I looked at yours obviously, and I sometimes read the live journal blog, but that’s about it.
Matt: Currently, what projects are you working on, either in print or on-line?
Book cover from Farside'.
Photo source: Sarah Stegall
|Sarah: Well, I got a couple of novels that came out last year. I got a novel called Farside, an adventure set on the Moon for young adult readers. I got a paranormal murder mystery called Deadfall, which has nothing to do with the Eric Bana movie, which is set in San Francisco, and I’m writing the sequel to it now. And I’ve got two more novels I’ve written this year, one of which is set in the Arctic that involves a shape-shifter and an alien invasion. Does that sound familiar? (laughs). I have to credit Chris and The X-Files for really sparking my imagination. I have written so much science fiction over the last twenty years, and a lot of it has the flavor of The X-Files. I’m writing a novel about the writing of Frankenstein, and I’m hoping they bring that out before 2016, which will be the two hundredth anniversary of Mary Shelley’s novel, and other projects. I’ve been writing reviews for a long time. As I’ve said, I’ve taken a break.|
Matt: Do you think Chris Carter will be considered as iconic a writer as Rod Serling or Gene Roddenberry?
Sarah: I think he will. Both of those writers, they wrote more than one show, but I think they will be always remembered for Star Trek or Twilight Zone. Basically they defined or redefined their genre. I think Chris not only redefined the genre of science fiction, his show ran more years than either of them [Star Trek / Twilight Zone] together, so I would be surprised if he didn’t wind up in some hall of fame somewhere with his name associated with [Serling/ Roddenberry]. I’m going to use the word iconic. I would be surprised if he didn’t wind up being credited as a writer of the stature [of] Serling and Roddenberry.
Matt: Thank you for taking some time to speak.
Sarah: You’re welcome. I’m
feeling nostalgic now (laughs). You had me going back to what it was
like years ago, a good time, I really enjoyed with them at Ten-Thirteen.
Sarah’s role within the history of The X-Files is assured. Her insights are invaluable to understanding the early history of Philes, and the incredible openness and trust that Chris Carter and others from the series demonstrated by involving her behind the scenes, something rare when you consider how closed-off segments of the television industry can be. Many people try; she is someone who accomplishes. Sarah’s published work can be found here and at Barnes and Nobel and you can visit her work at The Munchkyn Zone. I wish Sarah the very best in the future and I hope others will follow her work as a fictional writer. She should be an inspiration to all contemporary fans.
You can pick up Sarah Stegall’s Deadfall and
Farside from Barnes and Nobel.
Sarah Stegall's website:
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Matt: That’s interesting that you’re working on something regarding Mary Shelley because she was really kind of an anomaly of her time, as far as a female writer. Is there anything particularly interesting thus far that you’ve learned about Mary Shelley?Sarah: She was a hippie. She was into free love. She was raised as the daughter of the famous writer, and she was famous from the day she was born. Her father had this radical philosophy. They called it anarchism, but it’s not like the anarchy of today, but it still rejected a lot of convention of the time. William Godwin’s noted pupil was Percy Shelley and Percy Shelley dropped by to say ‘hello’ and found Mary, Percy was married but said, “we’re not going to let that stand in the way.” The summer of 1816 was the summer that Frankenstein and the vampire legend were born, and that if I could just find a link to the orgins of the Mummy and the Wolfman, I’d have another chapter in my book. Matt: Does it humor you to see the prologue for James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein where they kind of romanticized Mary Shelly’s portrayal, and what not? Sarah: What annoys me more than anything about the Frankenstein movies, I know they’re all going to get it differently, but from the very beginning, all of the adaptations of Frankenstein, including the first one that Mary saw herself, they all functioned as a warning against interfering with God’s plan–do not play God by creating life, and I don’t think the word God even appeared in the original version of Frankenstein. She was an atheist. By atheist it doesn’t mean what it means today. It means she rejected the conventional religion of the day. [It] doesn’t mean she didn’t believe in God or a deity, but she certainly wasn’t trying to ascribe any kind of moral overlay to Victor Frankenstein’s work, or what he was doing. Frankly, as far as I can tell, Victor Frankenstein is an echo of her father, William Godwin, and she paints him as a deadbeat dad. He creates this life, and then he abandons it, and the creature comes after him to find out, “Hey, why did you abandon me?” I always loved that the monsters first words are, “Pardon this intrusion.” Matt: It’s amazing there have been more faithful adaptations of “Dracula” than there have been yet of “Frankenstein.” Sarah: Dracula was published seventy years after John Polidori came up with the Vampire. Polidori was Byron’s physician and he was at that party in Geneva when Byron proposed, “let’s all write a ghost story.” Of course Mary wrote Frankenstein, Percy started something and then that fizzed out, and Byron started writing a story about a vampire, because he had already introduced Vampires into English literature, so he starts writing this story. Polidori, who had pretensions towards literature, picked it up, basically made Byron the vampire--tall, good-looking, seductive, rich, aristocratic--and published it. Everybody assumed Byron had written it. Byron, until the end of his days said, “No, I did not write that!” So, the image of the vampire as a Byronic hero derives from the fact that it is, in fact, based on Byron himself.