In March 2010 I had the chance to ask him some questions about his great work.
How did you start your career as a writer? Was writing something you always wanted to do?
I wrote my first story trying to impress my eleventh grade English teacher, Mary Ann Brown, who was drop-dead gorgeous. I didn't have much to work with, being a pimply little geek, but she liked the story. Aliens come to invade the Earth and the first house they come to is Dracula's, who is giving a party for the Wolfman ...
You did your first official Star Wars book, Shadows of the Empire, in the mid nineties. How did you get this job?
Tom Dupree at Bantam had given me a movie tie-in, The Mask, to write.
The money wasn't great and there was a short deadline, so when I turned it in, he figured he owed me one. He offered Shadows of the Empire, if Lucasfilm thought I had the chops. Meanwhile, Mike Richardson, at Dark Horse, had me doing the first couple of Aliens novelizations based on their continuing graphic novels, and he bragged on me to Lucasfilm. That sold them - Dark Horse was doing the Star Wars comics - so that's how I wound up with the job.
Shadows of the Empire was a massive project. It had everything, except a movie. Did this put a lot of pressure on you?
Yes and no. On the one hand, knowing it might be read by a million people was kind of daunting. At one point, when I was nervous, Tom Dupree said, Hey, you can do this, that's why we hired you, don't worry about it. I saw the wisdom of that - I had a pretty good track record doing space opera and was comfortable with that form. Had great back-up if I got something wrong, plus I loved the movies. On balance, I was more comfortable than not.
How did you come up with the story for Shadows of the Empire? Did you get a lot of directions of Lucasfilm? Were there any specific things (like characters, planets) they definitely wanted to be in the novel? And how do you deal with these directions?
We had a big meeting at Skywalker Ranch, with all the players in the various departments. We had a general idea Lucasfilm wanted to explore, the character of Xizor, and we went back and forth, all of us offering story ideas. I took notes, offered some characters - we couldn't use Han, so I came up with a guy who was kind of like his wild younger brother, Dash Rendar. There were certain elements the various folk wanted - the game guys wanted a motorcycle chase, the comic book guys wants to use Boba Fett. I went home, hammered out a long outline, and then everybody read that, made notes, and eventually signed off on it. That became the basis for the toys, game, comics, musical CD, etc. I wrote a draft of the novel based on that outline and we repeated that process on the draft. I did a rewrite, and that was my part of it.
Shadows of the Empire featured three new and very popular characters: Xizor, Guri and Dash Rendar. How did you create these characters back then? Were they based on something or someone?
Xizor was Lucy Wilson's idea, she was the VP of Publishing for Lucasfilm. The sound of the name came from, I think, Portuguese, that "X" sounding like "Sh." They had some conceptual artwork of him, and I just filled in his background and history. Guri and Dash were pretty much mine, though I got some help with rounding them out.
It was quite unique that you could write a novel that included Darth Vader. How did you approach this? Did you study his background for instance?
I was thrilled to learn I'd get to use Vader. I watched the movies, read the Holocron and the book Alan Dean Foster had done (Splinter of the Mind’s Eye), and then tried to make him feel and sound like he did in the movies. Plus I wanted to get inside his head, and they allowed me to do it.
Was there, at any point, the intention to make a (animated) movie of Shadows of the Empire?
I never heard that there was, though I thought it would be a terrific idea. By then, the original actors were twenty-odd years older and it would have had to have been done with a new crew, had it been live action. There was a Lego version done by some guys in South America.
After Shadows of the Empire you wrote the script for the Evolution comic. Were you happy with how this comic was drawn and how it turned out?
I was pleased with the comics, yes. I thought Ron Randall's pencils were terrific - I had a young Brigitte Bardot in mind for Guri, and without telling him, that's who he drew. I'd never worked in comics before, so I asked Ron what he liked to draw as background scenery and made sure I had some of that in the story.
What made you want to write a sequel for Shadows of the Empire?
I want to see what happened. Plus I had a chance to bring back a character who might or might not have died ...
Were you a Star Wars fan when the movies came out?
Oh, yeah. Saw the first one first week it came out, no waiting line. When Vader went spinning off into space during the battle at the Death Star, I yelled out "Sequel!"
What are your upcoming projects? And is there the possibility of a new Star Wars book?
I'm working on my own space opera series, The Matadors, doing a book called Siblings of the Shroud. Involved in a little horror movie project with Mike Richardson (Dark Horse), and have a couple of other books making the rounds - a fantasy, and a spy thriller. Always something new in the pipe.
Final question: How do you look back at your Star Wars work?
I much enjoyed it. Shadows of the Empire was a hoot, and I was happy with the way it turned out. It was great fun to be the linch-pin for a multimedia project that, as you said, had everything in it but the movie.
The other three books - done with Michael Reaves - were the two Medstar books - M*A*S*H in space - where we got to do some good character stuff. Death Star was kind of like Titanic. Everybody knew how it was going to end, but we had some folks who might or might not make it, and we hoped they were interesting enough to keep readers going. I don't have any more Star Wars novels going, but Michael had done a couple more, and is working on another one right now, co-writing with Maya Bohnoff, called, I think, Holostar.