Jedi News Interview: Ryder Windham: A Star Wars Ultimate

While at Star Wars Celebration Anaheim, Dak and Star Wars author Ryder Windham got a chance to chat while he was signing at DK’s launch party for Ultimate Star Wars, an illustrated guide to characters and storylines that he authored with Adam Bray, Daniel Wallace and Tricia Barr. Anthony Daniels wrote the foreword.
Ryder has penned over fifty Star Wars books and has edited Star Wars comics for Dark Horse Comics. He’s worked with Del Rey, Grosset & Dunlap, HarperCollins, Random House and Scholastic Inc. A Rhode Island native, he lives in Providence. When not hyperspace jumping through the Galaxy, Ryder’s an instructor for comic and sequential art classes at Rhode Island School of Design Continuing Education.

John Dak Morton: Looks like this DK signing is winding down. I think you folks have signed for everyone in the room. Shall we start?

Ryder Windham: Sure. Let’s go!

Dak: Folks are clearly excited about this book. What was the most fun for you doing this Ultimate Star Wars project?

RW: DK Publishing’s editors and designers conceived the book, and I was one of four writers who worked on it. The other writers are Dan Wallace, Tricia Barr, and Adam Bray. A lot of time and effort went into making the book look good and read well. I greatly enjoyed working with my editor, Jan Hughes. For me, I guess the most fun part was seeing the end result, after all the work was done. It’s also fun knowing that this book will be, for many readers, the very first Star Wars book they’ve ever read.

Dak: Ryder, forgive me, I have to digress. Talk to me about your connection with RISD. I’ve been fascinated by the place and was a fan of some of RISD’s most famous students, the Talking Heads, David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, and all.

RW: My parents met at RISD in the early 1960s, and divorced when I was a kid, but I’ve lived in Rhode Island for most of my life. I wound up getting my BFA in Visual Design, a double major in Graphic Design and Illustration, from what is now known as the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Around 2004, a program manager from RISD Continuing Education invited me to teach evening classes about writing and drawing comics, and I’m still doing that on the side.

Dak: I should say I knew Tina Weymouth vaguely as a child. Her dad, Ralph Weymouth, was a World War II Navy Cross recipient and at the Naval Academy in the late 50s. So we were at grade school together, although she’s several years younger. Later I stayed with them when they lived along the Potomac River just down from Washington when our dads were stationed at the Pentagon. A buddy and I camped out in their back yard while we were on a canoe trip down the Potomac. The Weymouths were friends of my parents. Of course, her older brother Yann at one time was married to Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham’s daughter Lally. Were you a Talking Heads fan?

RW: Oh, yeah, a huge fan. My earliest awareness of Talking Heads was by way of their first appearance on Saturday Night Live, performing “Take Me to the River.” I remember that telecast vividly, thought the group was fantastic. I never saw them perform live, but I had a few odd brushes with local rock musicians. When I was in college, I was working at Provender, a café in Tiverton, where one of the regular customers, Jim Hersh, introduced me to his daughter Kristin Hersh of Throwing Muses. Then in 1989, I rented a place in Providence where my neighbor was Gail Greenwood, who was, at the time, bass guitarist for Boneyard. Gail would give me free passes for her concerts at Club Babyhead and other clubs. It was a fun time. A few years later, I’d moved to Portland, Oregon, and was standing in a supermarket when I saw Gail on the cover of Rolling Stone with her new group, Belly. She was standing alongside singer-guitarist Tanya Donelly, formerly of Throwing Muses. It’s a small world.

Dak: Indeed it is. So back to Star Wars, I get a sense you enjoy using Star Wars to be helpful to others. You’re known for your blood drives with the 501st. Talk to me a little about that.

RW: I’ve been a blood donor since high school, so for most of my life, I’ve been aware that hospitals and medical centers have a constant need for blood. About five years ago, I found out that the 501st New England Garrison had participated in a blood drive in my area, and I decided to follow their lead. I helped them organize a blood drive at a library in Providence, and we made it a fun, family-friendly event. Our goal was to encourage Star Wars fans to give blood, and to inspire kids to become blood donors when they’re old enough. The Rhode Island Blood Center wound up collecting a lot more blood units than they’d anticipated, so the event was all-around successful. Since then, whenever I’ve been invited to a library, bookstore, or convention, I try to arrange a blood drive too. It just makes me feel useful. For example, as soon as I found out DK Publishing was sending me here [to Celebration Anaheim], I contacted the Heinlein Society, an organization with a long history of doing blood drives at sci-fi and comic book conventions, and they helped set up a three-day blood drive here with the Red Cross. Last year, I helped the Star Wars costumer clubs set up their first international blood drive, which we called the World Blood Drive. Twenty-two countries participated, which was phenomenal. This year, we’re doing the World Blood Drive on June 13, which happens to be Ralph McQuarrie’s birthday. Everyone involved is very excited about this event, and I’m glad to be part of it.

[The blood drive at Celebration Anaheim was very successful. The American Red Cross collected a total of 122 pints, of which 69 pints came from first-time donors. All donors went home with complimentary DK Star Wars books signed by Ryder Windham.]

Dak: You also support using Star Wars to get kids to read.

RW: Absolutely. Star Wars is a great hook for reluctant readers. I’ve lost count of how many parents, teachers, and librarians who’ve told me how children totally embrace Star Wars books, can’t get enough of them. Rachel Kempster, the vice president of marketing and publicity at DK Publishing, is the mastermind behind the annual Star Wars Reads Day events, which are incredibly fun. I love working with Rachel and her team.

Dak: Ryder, a while ago you told me a little about LEGO Bionicle books and your work with them. I was amazed at the huge lines here at Celebration all day long around the LEGO exhibit. What’s that all about? And how did LEGO get you involved in Bionicle?

RW: For many Star Wars fans, their interest is all about LEGO Star Wars. It’s really a phenomenon unto itself, isn’t it? I haven’t had a chance to get up close to the LEGO exhibit here, but hope to get a good look at it tomorrow. Last year, Rex Ogle, who was then working as an editor at Scholastic, asked if I’d be interested in working on juvenile novels for a reboot of Bionicle. Bionicle is a LEGO property, about fifteen years old, and it features bio-mechanical heroes with elemental powers on a mythical island. I agreed to write an outline, but then Rex left Scholastic for Little, Brown, and I was afraid the assignment might fall through. As things turned out, my new editor at Scholastic, Michael Petranek, kept me on for the novels, which was a relief. The big surprise came a few weeks later when Rex contacted me again, informing me that Little, Brown has the publishing rights for Bionicle comics, and he invited me to write them. Fortunately, my editors get along, and LEGO is fine with me writing both the novels and comics. I’m genuinely enjoying the work. Bionicle is a fun world to play in.

Dak: People tend to assume that everyone comes to Star Wars initially via the films. But don’t some children see LEGOs more than films as an entry point into Star Wars? Why do you suppose that is?

RW: I suspect it comes down to the fact that the live-action Star Wars movies may be too intense for young children, especially Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. However, while parents may be justifiably hesitant to show the Star Wars movies to their children, they see the LEGO toys as good, safe fun. And the toys really are great. Also, LEGO Star Wars manages to routinely turn the dark side of the Force into whimsical opportunities for humor in their animated cartoons and video games. They’re by far more kid- friendly entertainment than the live-action movies.

Dak: Ok, so what was your entry point into Star Wars? I think you once told me it was your experiencing in the cinema a collective sharing of a gasp with the “Luke, I am your father” reveal.

RW: Oh, yeah, I remember telling you about how I saw The Empire Strikes Back on its opening day in 1980, how Vader’s revelation produced a incredible gasp from the entire audience. I’d never experienced anything like that in a movie theatre. It was a tangible sensation. Everyone was on the edge of their seats.

Dak: And what about Ralph McQuarrie’s artwork? You saw that in a magazine. That grabbed you too, right?

RW: Ralph McQuarrie was definitely my true entry point for Star Wars. I first saw his concept paintings in Starlog magazine, months before the movie’s release in 1977. I thought if the movie looked as fantastic as those paintings, I definitely needed to see the movie. My brother Corey bought the novelization of Star Wars, which featured Ralph’s cover art, and that art made me want to see the movie even more. Later, I bought Ralph’s Star Wars portfolio. I’m a terminal fan of his work. Stan Stice and John Scoleri of Dreams & Visions Press are here at the convention, and their new book, The Art of Ralph McQuarrie Archives, is a must-have.

Dak: Also, remind me of how C-3PO led you to your self-awareness of being an editor.

RW: Ah. I remember that conversation. During my first viewing of The Empire Strikes Back, even though I was totally absorbed by the story, one minor point kind of jumped out at me. On Cloud City, stormtroopers blast C-3PO. Subsequently, Chewbacca rescues C-3PO’s shattered parts before they land in a smelter, and he delivers the parts to Leia’s quarters, where he leaves them. Later, after Darth Vader captures the Rebels, Chewie is in a cell when he turns around to examine a container filled with C-3PO’s parts. I thought: Who delivered C-3PO’s parts to the cell? And why would anyone do that? Why would the Imperials give an assortment of metal and wire to a technologically-savvy prisoner? If Lando had done it, don’t you think he would have mentioned it to try and get on Chewie’s good side, maybe before Chewie nearly strangled him? I know it sounds crazy, but those questions casually rattled around in my head for a long time. Years later, I became a comic book editor, and then a writer, and The Phantom Menace came along to inform us that young Anakin Skywalker built C-3PO on Tatooine. That sliver of info inspired me to write a short comic story, Thank the Maker, which offered an explanation for how C-3PO’s parts arrived in Chewie’s cell. And which is a very long-winded way of me saying I realized, in hindsight, that I thought like an editor instinctively, long before anyone paid me to think like one.

Dak: Ryder, as Star Wars moves forward, do you see it keeping up with the advance of science? I’m thinking of a couple of things that take us past purely the outer space story aspects of the seventies. Don’t midi-chlorians, for example, incorporate where biotech and genetics are going. However, isn’t it true that George came up with the midi-chlorians idea in 1977 to give a cellular explanation for Force sensitivity? Or did that actually happen later when he gave the go-ahead for the first Expanded Universe titles? I think he was working on this with Carol Titelman, right? I guess they got their ideas from the discoveries associated with the mitochondria life forms, yeah?

RW: I don’t know when Lucas came up with the idea for midi-chlorians, but yeah, I’m pretty sure I read an interview with Lucas in which he admitted that mitochondria played into the idea. My introduction to midi-chlorians came by way of reading the screenplay for Episode I in 1998. Before then, all we knew from Star Wars movies, novels, and comics was that the Force was in all living things, and that Luke Skywalker, like his father, was strong with the Force. Expanded Universe stories set after Return of the Jedi indicated that Leia and her children were strong with the Force too. Still, it was news to me, when I read the Episode I screenplay, that Force powers could be detected with a blood sample, and that heredity and genetic factors could determine high aptitudes in the Force. As for whether the idea of midi-chlorians was an attempt to keep up with understandings of actual science, or if Lucas had that idea as far back in 1977, I don’t know.

Dak: What about the Yuuzhan Vong? What do you suppose inspired that? I think you once said these zealots reminded you of some kind of organic Borgs from Star Trek. Where is all this taking us? Do you see this as going into canon?

RW: The Yuuzhan Vong always struck me as too similar in concept to the Borg. Both are powerful galactic threats, determined to conquer all other life forms. The Borg use technology to assimilate their victims, and the Yuuzhan Vong use biology to enslave their victims, or at least that’s my possibly simple-minded take on it all. Given Lucasfilm’s revised stance on Star Wars canon, it seems unlikely that the Yuuzhan Vong could be considered canon unless they’re reintroduced in a new, Lucasfilm Story Group-approved movie, TV show, novel, or comic.

Dak: By now, everyone’s familiar with the distinction between canon and legends. But what’s your take on canon and legends?

RW: I see it as essentially a branding thing, a way to simultaneously start fresh with new stories while allowing the possibility to reprint older stories. And I totally understand why Disney-Lucasfilm decided to brand many previously published Star Wars stories as Legends, especially the stories that were set after the events of Return of the Jedi. Those stories were created before anyone had an inkling that Episode VII could ever be a possibility, let alone a reality. I can’t say I was even fazed by the first announcement about canon and Legends. Disney-Lucasfilm’s goal is to produce new movies and stories, not to adhere to 30-plus years of novels and comics. If I’m lucky, maybe they’ll hire me to work on more Star Wars projects.

Dak: I think I’m getting the stage hook, and it seems you have more signing to do. Any last thoughts?

RW: I think you and I should collaborate on a book so we can spend more time yacking at a book-signing.

Dak: So let’s do this again sometime, eh?

RW: Yes, let’s!

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Ryder can be found here. Ryder Windham Interview Copyright 2015 Jedi News. No part of this interview can be reproduced without prior written consent from John Morton and Jedi News.

John 'Dak' Morton
John portrayed Dak Ralter, Luke Skywalker’s Gunner during the Battle of Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back. When Jeremy Bulloch played an Imperial Officer, he needed someone to cover him as Fett. Morton being similar in height was a body double for two days in costume. He filmed with another unit, the sequence when Fett confronts Darth Vader in the Bespin hallway during Han Solo’s torture – while Bulloch filmed his scenes as the Imperial Officer. Afterwards he left Hollywood and eventually settled in public relations work back in Annapolis.