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Cellblock 1138 - 1997-1999 - 2000 - 2002 - 2003+


Interview with Walter Jon Williams - Destiny's Way Author

Michael Potts, member of the TFN Books staff, recently had the opportunity of interviewing Walter Jon Williams, author of the recently released 4th hardcover in the New Jedi Order series, titled "Destiny's Way". To learn more about Walter, and his other novels, please visit his website:


Q) How would you describe your journey to become an author? Was this something you felt driven to do when you were young?

A) To paraphrase Harlan Ellison, I think you can still read the scribbling I left on my mother's womb. I wanted to be an author for as long as I can remember. Even before I knew how to write, I'd dictate stories to my parents, who would write them down for me, and then I'd illustrate them with my crayons.

Being a writer was never a choice, it was an irresistible compulsion. The compulsion began to fade about ten years ago, however, which left me in an interesting state. I now have to find a reason to write, every single day. I never needed a reason before, it was just something I was driven to do. Now I have to motivate myself much more than I had previously.

Q) Walter, why did your compulsion to write begin to fade ten years ago?

A) I have no idea. I don't know why I had the compulsion in the first place, and I don't know why it went away.

Q) What are your influences in your writing career? What were your favourite books and authors when growing up?

A) I grew up reading the Sixties Wave of SF, people like Samuel R. Delany, Roger Zelazny, and Michael Moorcock. For every SF reader of that period, Robert A. Heinlein was also a touchstone.

As a published author I came into the field with the Eighties Wave, people like Bruce Sterling, Kim Stanley Robinson, Karen Joy Fowler, and William Gibson. I still read them all with pleasure.

Q) Did you go to college? Do you have to take a writers course to become a writer?

A) I went to college, though I didn't take many writing courses. The writing teachers seemed fixed on producing a type of story that didn't interest me. I don't know why they were so intent on drawing autobiographical work from students who were so young they really didn't have an autobiography.

I found college useful for a lot of other reasons. It exposed me to a great many influences I wouldn't otherwise have encountered, and gave me a lot of time with some very intelligent people whose thoughts are still with me.

Q) What are your thoughts on the religion and society of the Yuuzhan Vong?

A) When state and religion are one, religion becomes a means for the powerful to remain in power. While most Yuuzhan Vong may be sincere in their religious belief, that doesn't eliminate the fact that their religion provides a reason for the strong to stay in power, for the weak to remain oppressed, and for the ruling classes to indulge in conquest and murder. As Nietzsche observed, a true ruling class believes that their own values are universal--- good by definition--- and that all nature (and of course other people) must bend to their will.

In short, the Vong religion is poison of the worst sort. Just because someone truly believes in poison doesn't mean make poison any less deadly.

Q) How long does it take you to write a book? Do you ever suffer from writers' block?


A) How long it takes to write a book depends on its length. Generally, it takes six months to a year. The Rift, which was well over a thousand pages of manuscript, took two years. Destiny's Way took five months because I had a very strict deadline, but during that time I lived, ate, breathed, and dreamed Star Wars, and woke up in the night screaming "Do-ro'ik Vong pratte!"

I've experienced writer's block, but never for more than a few days. I've learned that I get blocked when my subconscious mind is telling me that I've taken the work in a wrong direction, and that once I start listening to what my subconscious is trying to tell me, I can work out the problem and get moving again.

Q) Did your subconscious mind tell you anything while writing Destiny's Way?

A) It's hard to answer this one without giving spoilers, but "the Sword of the Jedi" scene wasn't anything I planned until the second I wrote it. Perhaps the Force literally dictated this scene. I didn't seem to have much to do with it.

Q) What was your first reaction when seeing Star Wars?

A) I think 'Wow!' sums it up pretty well.

Q) What do you think of the prequel trilogy so far?

A) It's a tough job to tell a story when the audience already knows the ending, and the ending is bleak. The third film will be the proof of the pudding, so to speak.

Q) What is your favourite Star Wars movie, and why?

A) The first one, i.e., the retroactively-titled Episode IV. I think the 'Wow!' factor still applies.

Q) Who is your favourite character?

A) Han Solo, who is perfect at puncturing the pretensions of the other characters.

Q) What is the hardest character you find to write?

A) The hardest to write was Luke, which I didn't expect. He's a Jedi Master. He's a Jedi Master =all the time=. Everything he says and does has to be enlightened and masterful. Even when he's playing around he's masterful. When he makes a mistake, he makes it in an enlightened and masterful way.

It's very difficult to write someone who's totally masterful and not make it boring. Fortunately, Luke has a lively wife and a chaotic Jedi Order and some crazed teenage relations to keep him off balance.

Q) Who is the most fun character to write?

A) The character I had the most fun with was Vergere, because she's so extreme.

Vergere was willing to torture Jacen for =ages= in the expectation it would make him an enlightened being! Wow! At last, a =good= guy who believes the ends justify the means! (Though this depends on your definition of "good," I suppose.)

Vergere's view of the world is very dark, but somehow this doesn't make her a dark Jedi. It's an interesting contradiction that makes her character fun to explore. I got to do write a great deal about Vergere, because she's finally able to explain what she's actually been up to all this time, and why she's behaved the way she does. She explains the philosophical basis for her actions, and she and Luke shrink-wrap each other's brains. That was fun.

Q) Can you give an insight how you first entered the realm of Star Wars? What was your first reaction when you were offered the opportunity?

A) The first discussions were theoretical. Shelly Shapiro, who edits the SW books for Del Rey, talked to my agent about whether, in the indefinite future, I'd be interested in writing a book in the series. I said yes.

Nothing happened for many months, and then things started happening very fast. Before I knew it I was writing.

Q) What were your experiences like at Skywalker Ranch?

A) As my wife Kathy remarked, "Skywalker Ranch is what William Randolph Hearst would have built if he'd had taste."

The setting is beautiful, and the buildings are lovely, very large yet still human-scaled. I don't know how that trick was done.

I was there for two nights in discussion with Shelly, with Lucasfilm's Sue Rostoni, with the author Sean Williams, and with various other Lucasfilm folks. The meetings were very pleasant, yet very intense. And I got a chance to walk around and enjoy the setting, at least a little.

Q) The overall arc of the New Jedi Order was pre-planned. During your meetings with LFL / Del Rey and Sean Williams, did your story deviate from what was originally planned? How much input did you have in the pre-planned story?

A) On the pre-planned story, i.e. the parts of the overall story that were assigned to me in the series bible, I had no input at all. I had a great deal of input on the way these elements worked into the plot of Destiny's Way, and on other elements of the plot that were original to me.

Once I had an approved outline, I changed only one thing: because it slowed the flow of the narrative, I removed the subplot that later became the e-story "Ylesia." Any other changes I made were at the behest of Lucasfilm or of Del Rey.

Q) A monumental project on the scale of the 'New Jedi Order' is seldom seen in literature. Obviously, we fans have many expectations on the series, but what expectations do you, and your fellow NJO authors have for the series?

A) I can't speak for the other authors, but what I hoped to achieve was to illuminate certain corners of the Lucas universe that hadn't yet been explored. Even if the subject is familiar, you can present new ideas and new approaches if you just =think about= it hard enough.

Q) What does the 'establishment' (Lucasfilm, Del Rey and the authors) set out to achieve with the NJO -- what goals do you have? To shake up the galaxy? Passing down of the torch? What underlying themes so far have been presented? Were these themes a part of the planning, or a natural progression of the story line?

A) How many times can you blow up the Death Star and still make it interesting? Obviously the galaxy =had= to be shaken up. Long-held assumptions had to be challenged, and maybe the readers had to be shocked.

The themes I worked with were developed from what was already intrinsic to the material. What it is to be a Jedi, how it's possible to be enlightened, how the existence of the Yuuzhan Vong challenge the assumptions of the Jedi. I'm fortunate in being a serious martial artist, in knowing some philosophy and political and military history, so I was able to bring that knowledge to the table.

Q) Can you share with readers how you prepare for writing a Star Wars book? What material do you use to research the massive volume of backstory, history, information? What does Lucasfilm and Del Rey provide in assistance?

A) I started by watching all the movies again, and then boxes of books started arriving on my doorstep. The Essential Guides, the Encyclopedia, all the NJO books... there was no possible way of absorbing all that information, so I just had to start writing and hoped for the best.

When I had a question, I'd e-mail it to Shelly, or to Sue if the question seemed more appropriate for Lucasfilm. They have everything archived, so I'd generally get answers back within a few days.

Q) What is your opinion of Star Wars fans, and fandom in general? Would you agree that fans of Star Wars are a passionate group?

A) I've been posting from time to time in my topic on theforce.net, and the intensity and imagination of the responses really surprised me. I'd mention something offhand, and in the next few days dozens of theories would begin to sprout about what I =really= meant, and what that meant for everyone's favorite characters...

I lived, ate, and breathed Star Wars for five months, and then had to go on to other work. The fans do all this full-time. It's amazing.

Q) Can fans have an influence on the upcoming storyline?

A) They do. They have. Lando Calrissian, I know, got married because the fans decided he was, and the Powers that Be decided to oblige them.

Q) What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

A) First, Read Everything. Even if you only want to write science fiction, you should also read mysteries, poetry, mainstream literature, history, biography, philosophy, and science. (You should also read the Complete Works of Walter Jon Williams, which is perhaps the most important thing of all.) Everything that you read is an influence on everything you write, and you want to draw as many elements into your work as you can.

Second, Network. Try to meet as many authors, agents, and editors as you can. Science fiction conventions are good for this. So are online fora. Don't be pushy, and be polite, but pay attention to what people are saying. Then you'll know never to send your horror novel to the editor who says, "I never buy horror." You'll know which editors have a horror of elfy-welfy fantasy, and which might buy your hard-science novel.

Q) Where do you see the future of publishing heading? What do you think of the E-Book format?

A) I'm in favor of any technology that makes my work available to the reading public at a reasonable price. The mass-market paperback, for one, is too expensive. But all that said, I don't think e-reader platforms are there yet. I spend my working day squinting into a screen, and I don't want to squint into the same screen on my leisure hours. I want a platform that, like a book or a magazine, I can carry into the bath or leave at the beach. These readers will come: I just haven't seen one yet.

Q) Do you think it is now easier for an aspiring writer to get the material read, ie: online, than it was say, 10 - 15 years ago?

A) Yes, but the question is, How many people are reading it? You'd have to be very dedicated to slog your way through the enormous amount of dreck online in hopes of finding something worth reading. That's why editors and publishers will never be obsolete: a reader wants someone with taste and authority to point them in the direction of the good stuff, and to keep the awful stuff away from their door.

Q) What can you tell us about your non-Star Wars novels?

A) It's hard to generalize, because they're all different. When I started, I decided to take as much advantage as I could of the freedom offered by the SF field. So I've written hard SF, soft SF, cyberpunk, space opera, humorous SF, and a science fiction mystery.


My next novel, THE PRAXIS, will be published in Britain in October 2002, and in the US in October 2003. There's a sample chapter on my web page. It's a far-future adventure, and I hope Star Wars fans look it up.

Q) Were you influenced by any real-world historical battles when writing the conflicts in Destiny's Way?

A) The big battle at the end of DW isn't drawn from history, but it's influenced by history, certainly. And the strategy adopted by the New Republic has many historical parallels, from Fabius Maximus to General Giap.

Q) What is it like working within the limitations of a shared world?

A) Working within the limitations of the shared world generally made the writing easier, because I didn't have to invent any of the characters or background, which is usually the hardest part. All I had to do was look stuff up.

On the contrary side, that also means that long-established characters like Luke, Leia, and Han are set in stone, and you can't change them, and there are few new insights you can give them. You just sort of wind them up and watch them as they go. The younger characters like Jacen and Jaina were more interesting to write, because they've been through some big changes recently, and their reactions to events could be fresh.

Q) What were your experiences like working with the other NJO authors and editors? How much interaction and collaboration was there between you and the other authors?

A) On the whole, my experience with Del Rey, Lucasfilm, and the other authors was extremely positive. The only NJO author I met face-to-face was Sean Williams, the Australian writer who's co-writing the trilogy that follows mine -- we had a two-day brainstorming session at Skywalker Ranch with Shelly Shapiro, my editor, Sue Rostoni of Lucasfilm, and various other Lucasfilm people. (I've also met the amiable Greg Keyes, but this was after we'd both delivered our books, so intense shop talk was not necessary.)

Sean Williams, in fact, was a great guy to work with, because he was willing to put into his books all the stuff I didn't personally want to deal with. And (I hope) vice versa. (NOOOOO, I wailed, YOUUUUU take the Unknown Regions...)

I've worked in collaborative media before, in the shared-worlds series WILD CARDS (now being reprinted), and in film and TV. So I went in knowing that there was going to be give-and-take involved, and so I didn't find it particularly difficult. It was much easier than TV, in fact.

Troy Denning, Matt Stover, and Elaine Cunningham were particularly helpful when I contacted them in e-mail.

The NJO series has a very detailed series arc, and there are a number of plot points I was obliged to put in my book. How they got there, and anything else I cared to add, was pretty much up to me.

Some of my ideas were shot down by Lucasfilm because they stepped on territory that has been reserved for the movies. I didn't have a problem with that.

The chief problem I experienced was that I was early delivering my manuscript, and that other authors were late. (I don't blame them for being late. I've been late with books in the past, and I know how easily it can happen.) As a result of this, I didn't get to actually read the four books prior to mine until after I'd completed my own, which resulted in a lot of rewriting in order to deal with "retroactive reality checks."

Some of the authors, however, created detailed outlines of exactly what they were going to do in their books, and these were extremely useful, and saved me a lot of rewriting.

Some authors did =not= create detailed outlines.

Some authors responded to e-mail.

Some authors didn't.

Non-outlining, non-email-responding authors create much work for other authors. I think that sums it up.

But working with Shelly, Sue, and Lucasfilm was great. I'd do it again.

Q) How much research went into Destiny's Way?

A) The research for DW was mostly reading the other NJO books, watching the movies again--- fun at any time--- and going through the volumes and volumes of encyclopedias and guides and miscellaneous references that I'd been sent.

It was fun and intimidating at the same time. There was so much to trip over. I'd send Shelly a note reading, "Can I kill Zavval the Hutt?" and there'd be a reply, "Zavval's already dead." "But he's not in the BOOKS YOU SENT ME!" I'd scream, and then go through frantic research to find someone else I could usefully bump off.

Q) You mention that you are knowledgeable in Government... do you think that the structure of the New Republic's Government isn't well thought out?

A) As far as the NR government goes, I don't really understand it. It's much more a parliamentary system than our own here in the States, with the chief of state serving at the w/h/i/m/ appointment of the senate. But in a parliamentary system such as Britain's, you have political parties, and party chiefs and party whips that keep discipline among the members. Whereas in SW there are no parties, just an endless number of factions, and no discipline, and seemingly any senator can bring the whole process of government grinding to a halt more or less anytime he wants. Poor old Admiral Sovv had to fight the Battle of Coruscant from the senate chamber, with the chief of state howling orders at him while the senate yelled advice and threats. So it's no wonder the whole thing came crashing down.

I really couldn't fix that in DW, because it wasn't in my mandate to produce a new constitution for the Republic, but I did rationalize the executive somewhat and put a group in charge who are willing to look at the situation in a different light. And at the end I point the way to a new political arrangement, though it will be up to other authors to follow through. Suffice it to say that by the end of NJO things should be somewhat different.

Q) What is the hardest part of the Star Wars saga to capture?

A) I think it's the twenty years of additional background and detail that have accumulated since the release of the original three movies. There must be thousands of minor characters by now, and scores of planets, and every time I wrote about one, there was the chance of my getting it wrong and the readers screaming "Foul!" The hours that I spent with my nose buried in the Star Wars Encyclopedia or the Essential Guide to Whatever...

I remember driving people insane with my questions about Ayddar Nylykerka. Who is an alien (Tamarran) with an "inflatable air sac."? "What do these aliens actually look like?" I would ask. "Where =is= the air sac?" No one at Del Rey or Lucasfilm knew.

So I ended up writing lines like, "Nylykerka inflated his air sac thoughtfully."

Q) Who's your nomination for warmaster now that Tsavong Lah's a bit preoccupied with throat problems? ;)

A) I think I'll just defer that question to Sean Williams, who will let us all know in time.

Q) You gave us our first clear look at Shimrra and it seems he possesses powers similar to Force powers. Are these actually Force powers? Are his abilities important to the overall storyline, or are they just to show his repertoire of tricks?

A) The powers demonstrated by Shimrra are critical to his character and to the upcoming resolution of the series. How Shimrra and the Vong fit into the Force is crucial, but I don't want to give any spoilers here.

Q) Boxers or briefs?

A) Briefs.

Q) Fruits or vegetables?

A) I believe both are necessary for a balanced diet. (Assuming this isn't a question about my sexual preference.)

Q) Mara Jade or Shira Brie?

A) Mara.

Q) What's your favorite musical group?

A) The Hot Five.

Q) What's your favorite book not by you?

A) "Lolita," by Vladimir Nabokov. Which should =also= not be taken as an indication of my sexual preference.

Q) Favorite Film?

A) Zu: Warriors of Magic Mountain (not the remake)

Q) Favorite TV series?

A) Revolutionary Girl Utena.

Q) Favorite Star Wars film?

A) Episode Four.

Q) Ewoks or Gungans?

A) Quarren. (Ia! Ia! Cthulhu f'taghn!)

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