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TFN Interview: Death Star Owner's Technical Manual Author Ryder Windham

Posted by Eric on November 9, 2013 at 11:09 AM CST

If you're going to own and operate a Death Star, the most important thing is that you be able to properly service and maintain it. That task became a little easier last Tuesday, when Del Rey Books and Haynes Publishing released the Death Star Owner's Technical Manual. Written by veteran Star Wars author Ryder Windham and illustrated by the equally talented duo Chris Reiff and Chris Trevas, this book is a treasure trove of reference photography, imperial musings, and intricate diagrams related to the Empire's most fearsome superweapon.

I recently spoke to Windham to learn how he wrote this book and what he thinks about the Death Star. Below, check out a lightly-edited transcript of my interview.


Why did you want to write a manual about the Death Star after your Millennium Falcon manual?

Increasingly, I sound like Han Solo when I say, "Money." … I get assignments, so that, when an editor contacts me and says, "Would you like to work on a Star Wars project?" I look at what else I'm working on and I almost always say yes. [laughs] And the fact that I get paid for it, yes, that's certainly an incentive too, but … the way the Death Star project came up was that the artists, Chris Reiff and Chris Trevas, and I were still working on the Millennium Falcon book when we were contacted by the Haynes editor Derek Smith. He ran a short list by us about possible books we might do afterward. The Death Star was on the list, as were a few other vehicles and ships. I remember looking at the list and thinking, "Yeah, the Death Star, that would be a challenge," but it's not as if … I don't recall Chris, Chris, and I thinking, "Yes, that's the one we must do!" What I remember was that it was maybe some weeks or months later that we got another follow-up message from Derek Smith, and I think he'd consulted with Lucasfilm, and it was mutually agreed that the Death Star would be the next book. I wanted to work on the book for a number of reasons. It's work. [laughs] And also it means an opportunity to work with a really talented group of artists. I enjoyed working with the editor as well. That's what drew me to the project.

What was different about writing this book compared to the Millennium Falcon book?

With the Falcon, the concept there was that the book would really read like a publication that one could pick up in the Star Wars galaxy. I went into it thinking, "Let's treat this like an official publication of Corellian Engineering." There would be other YT-1300 owners who would want to read this, but also the book had special focus on the Millennium Falcon because it was a well-known ship in the Star Wars galaxy, or certainly seemed to become one because of its affiliation with battles at the Death Stars.

The difference with the Death Star at the outset was thinking, "Okay, everyone know the Death Star blew up. Children are born knowing that the Death Star blew up. It seems like there's no surprise anymore." So I talked with Derek and said, "I think that for various reasons it's practical to approach the Death Star in the past tense, as opposed to, ‘You can build your Death Star and take it out for a spin and destroy entire worlds.'" That just didn't seem practical at all. But [it made sense] to treat it as a sort of massive vehicle that had been destroyed and look at it almost from a historical perspective.

In talking with Derek, I said, "I'm thinking of approaching this book something like the Titanic." And he said, "That's funny. We've done a book about the Titanic, a Haynes manual." So he sent me a copy, and leafing through it, I thought, "Yes, this is definitely the approach we should take." So that was the narrative challenge of the approach to the Death Star.

I have received messages from some Star Wars fans asking, "Well what about doing this … Sun Crusher [or] other superweapons?" The decision there just had to do with the availability of photographs as well as general awareness of specific vehicles. My focus was primarily superweapons that were constructed during the events of the movies so far. Also, [my goal was] that it would end around the time of Return of the Jedi, so anything afterward we disregarded, because we thought, We don't have photographs, and it also helps narrow our focus.

What was your favorite part of the Death Star to write about? What part of this really thrilled you?

The real thrill was the collaboration with Chris Reiff and Chris Trevas. The challenge initially is just sorting out what's going to be in the book and how it's all going to lay out. We had the Falcon book to refer to in some capacity as a rough guide. We figured, "Okay, we'll do a chapter on weapons or propulsion or certain personal quarters and whatnot." Because the Death Star was a much larger ship, we had a lot more to sort out.

As far as favorite parts, I was glad, on some nerd level, to incorporate the Tarkin, a superweapon that had only appeared in two issues of Marvel's Star Wars comics way back when. I didn't really get a charge out of incorporating new details for the sake of including new details. It's always a question of [whether] it's practical to incorporate something new. I think there's so much information from previously published books that the initial goal is, let's maintain continuity [and] let's make the book visually entertaining as well as informative. I can't say I have a specific favorite part of the book. I just really enjoyed working on it with Chris and Chris.

Your biography of Tarkin says that he was the Seswenna sector's governor. Why was the decision made to stick to that story instead of what we saw in The Clone Wars?

The reason that I did that was … and this might sound goofy, but it was out of respect to the writer who originally wrote that bit, and because I thought it worked well. I appropriated that text from the Death Star Technical Companion that was published by West End Games [and] written by Bill Slavicsek. As I read it, I could see the continuity snags of sorts, because there was this … after the publication of Slavicsek's book, Tarkin appeared in The Clone Wars TV series. Also, prior to that, the fact that we see what appears to be the Death Star under construction at the end of Revenge of the Sith. Yes, I know all those things. The one thing I'm starting to regret about the Death Star manual is that, for the excerpts and quotes for Governor Tarkin in that exchange, it probably would've been practical if I'd inserted a little footnote that said, "The discrepancies in this communiquι may be attributed to an error at the Imperial Propaganda Bureau." Because I know that was in my footnotes! [laughs]

I [later] thought, "Let's put it as is," and it wasn't too be lazy, it was also because I thought if I offer up a retcon for all this, I have to allow [for] the possibility … there is the TV show Star Wars Rebels that's coming up. I know nothing about Star Wars Rebels. I must emphasize that. All I know about Star Wars Rebels is what Lucasfilm has released as information online. I know as much as the general public knows. But [I thought] I'd allow the possibility that, because the series is set between the events of Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, it's possible that maybe there might be some mention of the Death Star, or that Grand Moff Tarkin might appear. I thought, "Why labor on a retcon now, when for all I know, I'm going to be creating more trouble later?"

If you could please spread the word. It's probably just an error of the Imperial Propaganda Bureau. I'm sticking to that!

How do you try to channel the various Imperial officers who wrote the chapter introduction?

Most of those were drawn from previously published sources. As far as [the ones] that I invented … it's funny, I'd have to look at my own notes in some cases to see, "Did I write that or did I write part of it?" In some cases, I would find a sliver of dialog, or it might have been a few sentences, and then I would expand on it. In other cases, I would see dialog from, say, Slavicsek's Death Star Technical Companion, and I'd think, "If it's not broke, why fix it? If it reads well and holds up well, let's just run that as is."

So some of this is coming directly from other sources.

Yes. That's not unusual. I imagine that some Star Wars fans might think, "What? He's plagiarizing?" And it's like, no, it's owned by Lucasfilm. And also, in the acknowledgements in the back of the book, I acknowledge the published sources that I worked from. Not to get sidetracked, but another example of working this way was when I worked on the Essential Guide to the Force for Del Rey. The entire book consists of first-person narratives from dozens of different characters. The majority of those quotes were things that I invented, but there were also … in the course of doing research, I remember reading one of the novels, I think back when [they were] published by Bantam Spectra, and there was a story about Luke Skywalker leading his newly-formed group of Jedi. There was a speech by Luke Skywalker that went on for about a page and a half. And I read it and I thought, "Oh, this is perfect." I read through it and it seemed like it could hold up. Back when I did that, though, there was no plan or scheme at the time for new Star Wars movies. And this is another case of trying to anticipate what will come. When I worked on The Essential Guide to the Force, I thought, "Oh yeah, I can use this dialog, won't be any problem, it's approved by Lucasfilm." Now, just the fact that I know about Star Wars Rebels –– that it exists –– I am more thoughtful about what to say about the Death Star, at least right now. I don't want to create problems.

How much of the technical information did you find in other sources and how much did you need to create?

The technical information, there's a lot of previously published details. Chris Reiff and Chris Trevas are better at using rulers and measuring sticks than I. They really scrutinize the details and look at the previously published information. One of the things that they found was that the second Death Star's measurements changed, and it became ridiculously enormous. They presented some rough comparison drawings, so I and Lucasfilm could see just what the size difference was. I really wasn't involved in the whole matter of "How big is Death Star II in relation to the first Death Star?" and also "Is the first Death Star's diameter a correct measurement?" I let them hash that out because I trust that they have lots of notes and pictures and they present their case and Lucasfilm trusts them. They're not doing [these presentations to Lucasfilm] because they think, "Oh, we want to do something new." They're trying to present it as, "Okay, we think that this is a more accurate measurement than something else." Chris Trevas and Chris Reiff are responsible for virtually all of the annotations of the drawings and the schematics. If you see the little numbered bullets with text next to them and then you match up the numbers so you can see … they have these little call-outs so you can pinpoint what different areas of the Death Star might be, or different bits of machinery here and there. For all the spreads, I would type up a short list saying, "Here are the things that I know are on this control panel." But then Chris Trevas and Chris Reiff would get into it and typically add a dozen more things. They'd say, "This switch should be for this thing." It was a collaboration.

What did you learn from the Millennium Falcon book that helped you write this book?

Chris Trevas, Chris Reiff, and I worked on Star Wars Blueprints books for DK Publishing, and there was also the Millennium Falcon 3D Owner's Guide, which was published by Scholastic. From that experience, just learning how to write technical manuals [was important]. I've done bits [and pieces] here and there for technical things, but to really just try to write it so that it's … It's interesting, I've read a couple reviews of the Death Star book and some of them are very snarky as far as saying, "Oh, can you believe how nerdy this is, or that it's a humorous book?" If it makes people crack up, I'd say, that's fine. But I did write it straight. There's nothing tongue-in-cheek about this book. It was written [with the goal of], "Okay, respect the material, write this thing as if it were a very real superweapon." I don't take offense about that, but … what did I learn from all these projects? Well, if you're writing a technical manual, write it as if it's a technical manual, so that when people read it, they don't think … You know, I'm not making fun of it. [The goal was to] do it straight.

What kind of resources or information did the people at Haynes provide while you were working on this book?

When I began working on the Millennium Falcon book, Derek Smith, the [Haynes] editor, sent me copies of three Haynes manuals. One was for an Apollo spaceship, one was for the Starship Enterprise –– which I think was Haynes Publishing's first foray into science-fiction vehicle territory –– and … I think [the third one] was a real-world ship or vessel, maybe an aircraft carrier. That was to get an idea of the format of the [project].

For the Death Star book, I [received] the aforementioned copy of the Haynes manual for the Titanic. But they didn't provide me with any information about the Death Star.

I've been working on Star Wars material in some capacity since I was an editor at Dark Horse Comics. I've been doing this for over twenty years. Lucasfilm has contributed to my library. If I need a reference book, I'll contact them and say, "Could you please send me this? I'm working on a project and I think it would be helpful." Usually, over the years, they'll send me what they can. And if they can't, I'll try to track down a copy of a book myself. Both Haynes and Lucasfilm trust that when I work on these book, I'm not just making it up as I go, that I'm drawing from previously published sources and I'm citing those sources as I write the book. If I do make up something, I will indicate that. [Lucasfilm continuity database administrator] Leland Chee should vouch [that] my manuscripts are just littered with footnotes. Almost every paragraph has a couple, just to emphasize where this information came from. I very rarely get messages from Lucasfilm asking me, "Where did you get this from?" [laughs]

You have a lot of technical terminology in this book, like "electrophoto sensor band" and "induction hyperphase generator." How much of this terminology was based on real-world equivalents and how much did you just make up out of thin air?

I never just make something up for kicks. With the technical things, I'm usually looking at previously published material, and also … it's possible that Chris Trevas and Chris Reiff added [those two items] based on their research. There have been previously published schematics and blueprints for the Death Star, including the ones that Chris Trevas and Chris Reiff and I worked on for DK Publishing. There's [also] the Incredible Cross-Sections [illustrated] by Hans Jenssen and Richard Chasemore. If you read through those books, you'll find [that] a lot of these items have been published previously.

One thing that concerned me when I began working on the Death Star book was information about the hyperdrive system and the propulsion and whatnot. I thought, "With the Millennium Falcon book, I did that to death! I can't possibly write anything more, or new, or different." But getting into it, I realized, "Oh gosh, the Death Star is a completely different creature." It's a completely different thing.

The only new thing that I can remember making up was … the duty post in the command sector. Originally, Chris Trevas and Chris Reiff presented me with their renderings of what the command post would look like. There was an aerial view, where it almost looks like a mechanical flower. There are all these control panels that would encircle the officer who would be standing at the center of this flower. As I looked at it, I thought, "How does the guy get into that thing? Is he lowered in? Does he rise up through the bottom of it through an elevator?" I looked at the Star Wars: The Blueprints [book] that Jonathan Rinzler worked on. I did try to find … some kind of visual explanation for how these guys get in here. My best guess is, very possibly, in the movies, maybe the extras just used a ladder to climb up and get deposited into the thing and stand there. But I thought, "That wouldn't really be cool." So I proposed that there was an extendible base to this thing, that a section of the duty post would slide out, allowing someone to step up into it or step out. Chris and Chris looked at it and they thought, "Yeah, that seems practical."

So that was one thing that I –– that's some meager input right there, isn't it? The goal was not, "Gee, let's not do something that's never been seen before!" in that case. It was, "Well, okay, let's do something because it seems practical." If I'm looking at the overhead view of this mechanical flower and wondering, "How does an Imperial officer get into that thing?" my hunch is that a lot of readers would wonder the same thing. That's why we thought it was important to do something to explain that.

What did you not get to include in this book? Did anything get left on the cutting room floor?

What's funny is that, off the top of my head, I can't remember much. One thing that I'd hoped to do is [include] more about the other Death Star officers that are in the meeting room. We have a few photographs of the officers who meet with Tarkin and Vader and Tagge and company. But the problem there was the availability of good, sharp photographs of everybody seated at the table. We only had photos of a few characters. The decision there was, "If we had some sharp pictures here and there, and blurry photos of the back of somebody's head, it didn't [make sense to include them]." It was a matter of time and budget. If there had been more of a budget on the book, maybe actors could have been hired to pose for [new reference photos]. That was something that I wish we could have done.

There are so many other levels on the Death Star that we might have been able to explore different areas, but I think for what we did cram in, we crammed in a lot.

I don't remember writing any text [where] I thought, "Oh, there's just no room for this." We plotted it out from the beginning, so that we knew, "This is what the spreads are going to be about, here's where the new art will be drawn by Chris Trevas and Chris Reiff." You could check in with Chris and Chris, but I don't think there were any drawings that they did [and then] said, "Oh, gee, too bad we can't use this." Everything that they worked on went into the book, to the best of my knowledge.

Do you think the Death Star gets its due in Star Wars fandom today, or do you think the Darksaber and other EU superweapons have watered down its importance?

The Death Star is the granddaddy of them. Because we know not only that the Death Stars were destroyed but how they were destroyed, there is almost this punch-line of sorts –– you think, "Oh, gee, if they'd just put some wire mesh over this exhaust port!"

In treating the Death Star with some kind of respect, I remembered the way that I first experienced the Death Star. Because I'm a fellow of a certain age, I read the first few issues of the Marvel comics that came out before the release of the movie in 1977. By that time, I'd already read the Star Wars novelization, I'd seen some concept paintings by Ralph McQuarrie, but all you had to do is look at the original Star Wars comics by Marvel. There's the scene where the Millennium Falcon gets drawn into the Death Star, and when that happens, you can see [that] the Death Star does not look as big as it did in the movie. And you [wonder], was it a mistake? No, it's not a mistake. The artists were working from extremely limited visual reference at the time. That's just what happened.

But I remember seeing that comic, and when I went to the movie and saw it for the first time, saw the Millennium Falcon getting drawn into the Death Star … I just remember at some point realizing [that] I'd stopped breathing. I was holding my breath, because I thought, "It's so much bigger, oh my gosh!" And they get closer to it, and it's completely filling the cockpit window in the Falcon. By the time they're going into the docking bay, I was really taken by just how big the thing was.

All the other superweapons, I think they all pale. [laughs] You know, maybe they last longer, maybe they're more destructive, have greater firepower, et cetera. But it's funny: there were other Star Wars comics and novels and whatnot that dealt with secret superweapons which almost invariably wind up getting destroyed also, and I think right there, credit the Death Star for starting that stuff. The Death Star's the original. It seems ridiculous to me [to say], "Let's make something bigger and more deadly! … And then we'll blow that one up, too!" [laughs] It just seems like, well, if that's the way the story goes, okay, but maybe the story should focus away from superweapons. Maybe try something new.

I'm a fan. I'm a fan of the Death Star. I don't want one in orbit of my planet, but I do think it's a pretty great thing.

Do you have plans for future manuals in partnership with Haynes?

Not at present. Right now, if there are any plans, I am unaware of them, but they know how to contact me. They have my email address. I don't know what the plans are. Chris Trevas, Chris Reiff, and I were still working on the Falcon book when we received a query about whether we might work on some others [and] we were presented with a list of some other possibilities for upcoming books. I hope and trust there will be more. We like working on them.

Do you have ideas for future manuals you'd like to write?

Yeah. [laughs] And here I just have to be careful, because I don't know what the plans might be. Since the first one was the Falcon and the second one was the Death Star, I think it might be practical to do something involving Rebel vehicles. I don't think an entire book could be dedicated to the X-wing, but if it were, say, "Starfighters of the Rebel Fleet" –– which is kind of a longish title –– I think that could probably work pretty well. As enamored as I am of the idea of doing something with an Imperial Star Destroyer or the Executor, well, we just did the Death Star. To follow up the Death Star with another Imperial ship … well, we could, but I think the readers might want to see something slightly different. Save the Star Destroyer or the Executor for another one later.

Droids is another that intrigues me. They're not vehicles –– although there are droid barges and whatnot. … With the Haynes manuals, I don't know whether they've done anything about robots before. I'd have to look that up. But I think a book about droids would be a very fun thing. I've always been fond of the droids. What about you? What do you want to see?

Well, I'd love to see something about how to maintain your droid.

Or even, I suppose, landspeeders would be fun. But again, it would probably be best to do a variety of landspeeders. If it were just Luke's landspeeder, I can't imagine stretching that out for an entire book. Despite the fact that Haynes manuals … are dedicated to things like specific vehicles. The first Haynes manual I ever bought was for an MGB convertible that I had. The best thing I can say is that the manual lasted a lot longer than that car did. And I still enjoyed looking at it; it's a great book.

I think a book about landspeeders could be a lot of fun too.

With Star Wars Rebels coming up, it might be interesting to see a manual about the starship Ghost.

I think that's an excellent idea. It's funny, with the Haynes manuals, I do think it's interesting that the two vehicles that they selected … came from the original trilogy. Again, it wasn't my idea. The concept behind it was [that] the editors, marketing department, whoever [decided] what they were going to do … thought, "Well, there's a wider audience for these because they've been around a lot longer." They are that much more iconic [because of their age]. If they had selected vehicles from The Clone Wars TV series or even from the prequels, yes, it could appeal to Star Wars fans, but I think it's just a wider range of ages of Star Wars fans if you go back to the original trilogy.

Thanks for talking to me today. I really enjoyed the book and I hope to talk to you again about your future Star Wars projects!

Well, thank you. That would be great. I'm very happy to say I'm working on a new Star Wars project now, and unfortunately I can't talk about it at all. Just trust that there will be more Star Wars books coming out!

I want to thank Ryder Windham to taking the time to speak with me. His new book, the Death Star Owner's Technical Manual, is on sale now. Buy it and cover up that exhaust port!

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