This is part four in a four-part series of interviews with the authors of the new book Ultimate Star Wars. The DK reference guide is intended to both introduce new fans to the Star Wars franchise and refresh the memories of longtime fans about the state of the universe.
As the first author contacted to work on Ultimate Star Wars, veteran Star Wars author Ryder Windham assisted DK in some of the early coordinating work that laid the groundwork for the collaborative writing process. Windham, a former editor and graphic designer himself, brought those skills to bear as he and his DK editors exchanged drafts of page spreads. In our interview, he revealed some of the debates that shaped the book, described his stylistic approach to writing encyclopedic entries, and shared a funny story about reuniting with foreword author Anthony Daniels at Celebration Anaheim.
What attracted you to this project?
I work by way of assignments. The way it came to me was a DK editor contacted me and asked, "Would you be interested in working on a new book that we're doing? It's called Ultimate Star Wars." And I wasn't attracted at all, I was just curious. I said, "Well, how is that different from the Ultimate Visual Guide?" Because on some level, I thought, "This sounds like stuff I've done before," as far as the material I was working with. I worked on an expanded edition of the Complete Visual Dictionary also.
The way it was explained to me was that information would be presented in chronological order. I thought, "I'm very familiar with this material. I've also worked on DK books and I know the drill, I know the procedure of it."
What was interesting about it was that it wasn't a simple matter of copying and pasting previously published information, because one had to keep in mind this whole new chronological order aspect. [With] various entries, you had to remember, "Oh, if we're moving this here, we have to change the introduction for this sentence."
I worked on 38 spreads, maybe a few others in addition. [But] I know there were specifically 38 spreads that I was hired to do. I was [also] asked to do the introduction.
I was the first writer contacted, and as soon as I figured out what DK's deadline was, I said, "You need to bring in at least three more writers to get this thing done." I recommended Dan Wallace and Jason Fry, simply because I'd collaborated with them before and I thought, "Well, if they'd be up for it…" But it's not as if we worked together.
Jason Fry declined because he was committed to other projects. Dan Wallace jumped in. Subsequently, I learned that Tricia Barr and Adam Bray were brought in.
My initial work on the book was also…the DK editors, they compiled these incredibly long lists of all the entries that they were going to be putting into the book. It was my job to go through those lists—and I was paid for this. This wasn't for fun! [Laughs] They asked me to go through the lists to weed out things that seemed too trivial. They wanted me to select things somewhat based on merit. What pains me is that there were various entries that, if it had been up to me, I would have said, "Yeah, I'd like to include that in the book." But [I was limited by] the parameters of the book's design and how much information could be fit on any designated spread. We could not include everything, but we included a lot.
What mostly attracts me to doing work with DK is they do publish really lovely books. They can be challenging to work on just because there are so many…[with] the editors, the designers, the other writers that are involved, problems can pop up just because there's almost too many cooks in the kitchen at times. But I like doing work for DK Books very much. I adore the publicists. For the past five years, I've been organizing and coordinating blood drives with the Star Wars costuming groups, and DK Publishing is the most helpful for donating books that I can give away to blood donors and their families. I appreciate that very much. They're a good outfit and I like working with them.
I prefer to do juvenile fiction, because it's just like, "Oh, I get to write a story. Yay!" It's a lot more liberating than, "Can you fit 50 words exactly into this block right here?"
Several years ago, there was a DK editor—and I swear this is true, this is for the Star Wars Blueprints that I worked on with Chris Trevas and Chris Reiff—an editor asked me, "Can you add three more words to this block of text?" And I responded, "How about this: 'And then some'?" [Laughs] You know, it's like, "What do you mean, three more words?" That can be maddening. But you know, it's work. It's what I do.
Am I aware of typos and omissions [in Ultimate Star Wars]? Painfully, painfully aware. The pace of the project was such…I only saw the pages that I worked on. I would be sent dummy text, rough layouts, I would write the copy to fit…it sounds really awful of me, but as far as where I'm writing things, I do rely on the editors and Lucasfilm to catch things that I miss—
Well, that's their job.
Well, yeah! [Laughs] So anyway, I don't mean for anyone to take the fall [for my mistakes]. For as much information that's in the book, there will very likely be a revised and expanded edition, and the errors and omissions will be corrected in that book.
I can't even remember…I think I finished working on the book late November, early December of last year. That might seem like a long time ago, but for the effort they had to [go through] to get it to the printers and all of that, it's considerable.
I like how you sprinkle in a few key events. Was there a lot of debate over which ones to choose, or were the choices obvious?
I found out the key events and what was selected, it was assigned to me, and…it's such a blur, Eric, as far as when I worked on it months ago. Thumbing through the book, I just think, "Yeah, I think I remember doing this one and that one." When I saw the list of key events, I do remember thinking…at the time, I had a concern about it. And even now, I can't remember what my concern was. But it had to do with redundancy where I just thought, "These key events follow too closely with information that we're already detailing on other pages." And I know I raised some kind of a red flag to the editors and said, "Look, I can write this, but I think that you might want to consider this key event to something different."
And again, I don't mean to sound like my memory is bad—because my memory is pretty good!—but just the jumble of visual information that was getting juggled at the time…I don't even remember, did they listen to me? Did they care? I don't remember.
I think part of my concern may have had to do in part with images selected from specific movies, something like, there were more so-called key events selected from Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back than from Return of the Jedi…I just thought there should be more balance, if I remember right. But there was also some sort of overlap, where…there were two key events which jus struck me as way too similar, or too close to each other somehow.
I know I can be a real pain to editors and designers [because] I used to be an editor and I used to be a graphic designer before that.
I'll digress only slightly. I have a degree in Graphic Design and Illustration, but I'm a dinosaur. To me, cut and paste means X-ACTO knife and hot wax. I was a designer before computers really came into how everybody does graphic design now.
But as far as my eye or how I look at things, when the DK designers were sending rough layouts to me to look at, there were a number of times where I'd look at it and I just thought, "Okay, we have to change this." And I would write to them and I'd explain why. My concern was about legibility, about reading from left to right and top to bottom, and I just thought, "If this photo is here and you put the caption for it here, I'm reading these things in the wrong order." And I would revise it. I'd say, "You need to switch it like this."
Fortunately, to the best of my knowledge, nobody cried—
Well, that's good!
Yeah, I mean they understood that, okay, if I sound like a control freak, my concern is just that, yeah, I want the book to look good too. It's not like I'm looking at these things thinking, "Oh gee, what can I pounce on so I can show off the fact that I used to be a graphic designer?" Which is ridiculous. It's not like I'm itching to prove a point.
Working on books like these, it has to be a collaborative process. The editors and the designers, I'd like to think that they respect me for that more than…the fact that I was the first person called on the thing, I think that was nice. [Laughs] I've done these books before, they might think, "Oh yeah, Ryder can be very persnickety about design."
If I read a block of text in the wrong order, I know if I do it, my gut tells me that thousands of other people are going to do the same thing. And if it can be corrected, then let's do it.
What about writing this book set it apart from the other books you've written?
The scope—that it was entirely focused on the movies and the CGI Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels. It was a very specific thing. Other books that I've worked on have included…the Ultimate Visual Guide included comic-book art and computer games and novels. There was a larger scope. In that sense, what interested me, too, was that, for this one, there was just a tighter focus on it. We were very specifically considering what is on-screen.
You might say, "Well, that's been done before, hasn't it?" Well, there was a Complete Visual Dictionary. [But] Ultimately Star Wars is a very different creature entirely because of the chronological format. It's not really so much an encyclopedia. I think the book is best suited for people who have already seen the Star Wars movies and want to watch them again, or maybe they've just watched them and they're curious about some aspect of it.
The way that I think of it is, let's say there's some fan who is wondering about the name of a certain alien in the Cantina. If you have the Star Wars Encyclopedia, you might have a hard time finding that character because you're trying to find a name, and if you don't know the name, how are you going to find it? But with this book, if you've seen the movie, you think, "I remember that the Cantina—well, let's see, that was after Luke leaves home and meets Ben Kenobi, and it's before they get stuck on the Death Star…" Just by thumbing through the pages, it's like, "Oh, here's all the Cantina aliens."
[With] the chronological aspect, it's not just easier for kids to find things; it's just easier for fans in general to find information that way.
The focus to on-screen Star Wars stuff, that was definitely one thing that makes the book distinctive. And also the chronological format.
What was your favorite part of working on this book?
Any time I get to write something that's related to either the very first Star Wars movie or The Empire Strikes Back. For me, it's sort of a "Pinch me" moment. I realize, "Oh, it's up to me to select an image," and I'm sifting through images, and I'm picking something specific, and then I see the layouts, and I'm writing something and realizing…it may not seem like the most imaginative work, say, relative to working on a juvenile fiction story. But still, I think…if someone had told me when I was 13 years old that I'd grow up and get paid to work on Star Wars books, it would have been impossible for me to conceive.
But yeah, there I was writing text about…Luke Skywalker training on Dagobah. I think I did that one, and also maybe the one about Han Solo and the tauntaun and rescuing Luke. [That] was more of a string of key events in hindsight.
There wasn't any one spread that I was working on where I thought, "Wow, this is the best thing"—I was just focused mostly on getting it done. But at various times, I'm just looking at images and thinking, "I'm amazed that I wound up having the career that I do. And I mean that humbly. I am amazed by it.
Quinlan Vos. I wrote the entry for him. And I recall, when I was working on it…maybe because it was among the first batch of spreads that I was working on. It just sort of suddenly occurred to me that all I could write about was Quinlan Vos in The Clone Wars and maybe some mention of him in The Phantom Menace also.
When you read the book, you will find that there are various little drops of previously published Expanded Universe information. When I first got the assignment, I was told, "Okay, we can only do what's on screen." And I said, "Look, that's not going to work." Because all those aliens in the Cantina, they don't have names on-screen. There's no dialog that reveals—their names were established years ago by writers for West End Games or Decipher or other sources.
There's some stuff that I figured, "If it ain't broke, why fix it? Let's just keep these names and some information as we can—species names and whatnot." I thought it was necessary, because otherwise all those aliens in the Cantina, the Cantina band members and whatnot, none of that stuff is mention on-screen. So I thought, "Let's work with what we have, but we're not going to make any mention of comic books or novels or things that digress too much. We have to keep it fairly tight."
One of the things this book emphasizes to me is how interconnected all of the canon stories are, especially the importance of The Clone Wars. Did you learn anything about Star Wars while putting this book together?
I don't know that I took anything away like that. To me, it's been painfully clear for over 30 years that Lucas and the writers that he worked with on everything from the movies to The Clone Wars, there was a lot of making up as we go going on. I still see the things that don't quite mesh. [Laughs] It's probably always going to bother me a little bit that Owen Lars didn't recognize C-3PO when he wandered back [in A New Hope]. Granted, I don't lose sleep over that, ever.
I don't remember anything specific, [but] I know that there are times when I was working on entries for this book that I had to consider, "Oh, I need to change this entry, because this chronological-order thing requires me to revise this in some way."
I didn't work on many spreads related to The Clone Wars TV series. I did do a few. I didn't touch Rebels at all. That was something that was sort of deliberate, but it wasn't about personal taste at all. I think Adam Bray or Dan Wallace, one of them had worked on some Rebels project, and I think had worked on it for DK. When I started working on this, Rebels hadn't even aired, so I hadn't seen anything on it. But one of the other writers had some insight into it, knew more about it than I did, because they needed to know, they had all that reference. [Ed. note: Adam Bray wrote DK's Star Wars Rebels: The Visual Guide.] So I didn't hesitate to say, "I should focus on this, someone else who already has expertise on Rebels should focus on that."
[In terms of connectivity,] when you have a key moment of, say, Luke getting his father's lightsaber, but then you also have an entry elsewhere for Luke's lightsaber, my concern was about the redundancy. I'm just trying to figure out how the information was distributed.
If you read any entry that I wrote and you think, "Oh, Ryder must have worked on that one," I must have failed miserably. I really strive to make [sure] you don't hear my voice at all, as far as just being downright wary of adjectives. I don't think I even touched adverbs. It's like, "Just the facts, ma'am." [I was] just trying to make it very encyclopedic, a very objective bit of information. That can be a challenge with the Star Wars stuff, where you think, "How much do I elaborate on this?" All you can do, in some cases, is look at what some of the surrounding images might be, so that you think, "Okay, I don't have to go into some exhaustive thing about some history of Tatooine for this entry, because I've already done that over here." It's [about] trying to find some balance with the entries.
So if I sound like I'm a neurotic wreck as I write these things, to some degree I am. I don't just sit down and think, "Oh, I'll just hack out 50 words in this entry. There, done. Now I'll move onto the next." For every single spread I worked on, I was looking at the whole thing and trying to figure out how [I could] present this so that it read well.
At one point, my editor sent some pages back to me, and I was just reading through my own stuff, and I forget what the word was, but I saw [that] I used it twice on the same page in two different entries. Whatever word that I found, I thought, "Ooh, I want to change one of those. There's an echo there that I don't like." And she said, "Oh, that's a good catch!"
Here's a goofy anecdote for you, if you want it. I just looked at the book's cover. DK had a book release party at [Star Wars Celebration Anaheim on April 18] and Anthony Daniels [who wrote the foreword] arrived. I've known Anthony for a long time. My first contact with him was I wanted him to write an introduction for the collected edition of [the] Droids [comic] that I edited and wrote when I was at Dark Horse. We're friendly; we see each other from time to time. Anyway, he walked in and I went over to greet him and he gestured at the book and [said], "So, how about that? You knew that I wrote the introduction?" I said, "Anthony, I recommended them to bring you in to write the introduction."
I hadn't told him [yet]. I said, "Sometime last fall. I've got the email to prove it." I'd said, "You should get Anthony Daniels to do this because it would be a nice touch to have him write the intro." He seemed touched that I'd thought of that.
It seems like you were the mastermind of this whole book.
Well, to be fair, it was DK Publishing, they conceived the thing. They conceived the chronological order and the content; that all came from them. As far as my input, it was more like I helped the editors do a lot of whittling and organizing before the pages were assigned to writers. By the time pages were assigned to me, I just thought, "Hey, I'm just glad that I got some stuff where I get to write about certain characters that I like." It was a real jumble [getting pages assigned].
I think I got to write about Jar Jar Binks, which, for me…I learned to like Jar Jar by way of The Clone Wars. I thought they did a good job with him.
I was hardly the secret ringleader on this one. I was the old war veteran. [In crotchety voice:] "I've done this before, this is how we have to get this thing done!"
Ultimate Star Wars is now available from DK Publishing. My thanks to Ryder for taking the time to talk to me, and to DK for providing me with a review copy of this book.