December 17, 2015


What's It Like to Write a 'Star Wars' Novel? An Author Explains

Sascha Steinbach/Getty Images
Sascha Steinbach/Getty Images

Sean Stewart is the World Fantasy Award–winning author of 12 novels—one of which happens to be a Star Wars book. 2004's Yoda: Dark Rendezvous tied into Episode II: Attack of the Clones and, clocking in at 432 pages, was the first story to focus solely on the ancient, green Jedi master. 

Stewart is one of dozens of writers who have moved George Lucas' universe to the page, both in the official, commercially available sense, and in the realm of fan-fiction. Some of the many, many, many tomes are novelizations of, or direct relatives to, the six official films; many more are "non-canon" narratives that take place long before, after—or adjacent to—the movies.

Stewart has collaborated with Microsoft's Halo series and Nine Inch Nails on digital projects; he won an Emmy in 2012 for the "transmedia comedy" Dirty Work. His newest project is Ink Spotters, an online series of playable graphic novels. With J.J. Abrams' Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens due Friday, Dec. 18, Stewart spoke with Fuse about what it's like to write about that long-ago galaxy far, far away.

FUSE: Walk me through what it was like to be asked to write a Star Wars book.

Stewart: My remit was, "Write a book about Yoda. It should happen about six months before the massacre in the Jedi Temple, and it would be great if it could include Count Dooku." And that was it—from there I was free to make up pretty much whatever. I had been writing books with a fair amount of action-adventure and odd little pockets of philosophy or spirituality, if you will, so that's what clicked for them: Who was going to tackle the meaning of life without skimping on the swordfights?

What's it like to write a lightsaber fight?

When I was 12, I was certainly electrical-taping PVC pipe tubing to a flashlight to turn it into a lightsaber. I assume that's pretty much a job requirement for getting the gig. So writing a lightsaber fight is awesome. Back in the midst of prehistory, as a teenager, I was a fairly successful fencer, so putting a couple of good sword fights in there that shared a little of what I knew was certainly a highlight for me.

Del Ray
Del Ray

Is it tough getting into Yoda's voice?

It's very simple to write the syntax, right? That's just a schtick--it's like writing a Cockney character and dropping their H's. But to get inside his head is a trickier thing. My first thought was, This'll be fun, I'll write a Star Wars book, that's awesome. It won't take all that long, it'll be great. And it couldn't take that long because I only had four months, they had a deadline. 

But the more I thought about it, the more the gravity of the situation impressed itself on me. We're no longer a society in which everybody routinely goes to Sunday school. For a certain number of people who read this book, I started thinking to myself, this will be the closest thing to spiritual literature that they'll get. Some of the people who read this book are not going home and trolling through the Bhagavad Gita. They're not reading Tich Nhat Hanh. Most people, most of the time, are going to be reading this book for a lark. But there will be some people who will pick it up at a dark night of the soul and they will need Yoda to say something that means something to them in their lives, in a way that we don't actually require of Han Solo or Leia. Yoda's going to have to say something to them that can reach them when their marriage is breaking up or they lost their job or the night comes in whatever form it comes.

Right. There's a good chance someone going far enough to read a Star Wars novel is looking for more than just fun.

One of the things that makes Star Wars an important franchise--and obviously I have a dog in this fight--is the fact that it presents a spiritual and a philosophical point of view. That matters. There's a reason that Led Zeppelin and U2 are always bigger than AC/DC. The biggest rock bands were often stretching beyond to address a broader series of issues—"How do you face the universe?" was part of what they were doing. I love James Bond films, but there's not what you'd call "depth of world view" there. Whereas you get all the swashbuckling in Star Wars you get in Bond, but you also address some of the big questions.

There are always stories about how many people put "Jedi" or "Jediism" down as their religion on the census.

And obviously it's funny, but they aren't 100 percent just trolling, either. Because the Jedi view stands for something—it gives you a compass point. I know people, personally, who, say their boss is harassing a female coworker, or they find a wallet in the street—literally part of their process is, "Hmm, I should handle this the Jedi way. What would Obi-Wan do?" Not even joking, that's a real thing. Periodically you will hear critics saying, "Oh my God, why all these superhero movies, why are these things so popular, why is it all Star Wars and Captain America?" And the answer is, it has always been. This is Homer. This is the Ramayana. Stories of gods and heroes have been how we tell ourselves about the world since the beginning of storytelling. And anyone who says, "Why the hell are all these superheroes on the big screen?" has forgotten what job one of storytelling has always been, back to Gilgamesh.

Do you think that's why Star Wars in the written form is so massive?

There's a perfect storm. It was the first point at which science fiction broke out into the mass audience and taught everybody who wasn't a science-fiction fan what the tropes were. How you read science-fiction, how you watched it, what the playing field was—Star Wars taught everybody to play Quidditch, if you know what I mean. 

And then that first movie in particular was just so fun. The characters were engaging, it had lightsabers, it had moral depth, or at least—not depth in the sense of complexity, but it committed to its philosophical position. There are more nuanced love stories than Titanic, but Titanic committed to its love story to the hilt. And I think Star Wars has that—it's both tremendously fun and absolutely in earnest about the way it wants to talk about good and evil. That combination is heady stuff.

Is it tough to go from writing in your own world to a preexisting one?

Time was a little tight, so I said, "I have this idea for this book, and I'd actually love to write it. But there's no possible way I can know everything about the universe fast enough." So I said I'd need a hotline so I can write someone and say, "Give me a six-armed alien that's blue," and within an hour someone will have supplied me that answer. And they did that. They were lovely to work with.

Has the experience stuck with you?

It's my daughter's favorite of my books. And she's published fan-fiction in the world of Yoda: Dark Rendezvous. So it's generational now.

Coming up to The Force Awakens, I discovered my own version of Episode VII I'd written in fifth grade.

This is how we start, right? For me, I wrote a letter to Mr. Tolkien when I was eight asking for permission to write my own version of The Hobbit. We fall in love with these worlds and these people and some of us never escape.

How do you think The Force Awakens will affect the world of Star Wars novels and the various realities they've created, especially the ones that take place after Return of the Jedi?

I suspect a lot of us will become apocryphal. J.J. [Abrams, The Force Awakens director] proved with Star Trek that he's not afraid to put a big line in the sand in terms of what is canonical and what is no longer canonical. I think that's all right. I gave a TED Talk and I was trying to get across something about how imaginary worlds are constituted differently now. The example I gave, and this was 2010, was that on one site, just on, there are more stories set in the world of Harry Potter than there were words in the first four novels. Not only has J.K. Rowling not written even 1 percent of all the writing about Harry Potter that there's been, she hasn't written 50 percent of all the writing read about Harry Potter. Harry Potter belongs collectively to the fans to a degree that was simply not true for Tolkien or even Dickens. 

We live in a world now where we, as authors, are first among equals, for sure, but the world that we create, if we're very lucky, will be taken from us and customized and modified and adorned by many other people. In that sense, the movies probably are considered the most canonical piece of Star Wars fiction, but I no longer feel as if the line is so bright between canonical and non-canonical. I think we've all gotten fairly accustomed to the fact that there's the author's fiction and then excellence in fiction using those characters in different situations— and there's terrible, appalling, juvenile fiction, and really well-written but impossible and out-of-character's a big galaxy.