An Interview with Alan Dean Foster: The Pioneering ‘Star Wars’ Novelist (Part 1 of 2)

In 1975 Del Rey, on behalf of George Lucas, contacted a short list of authors to help him to produce the novelisation to accompany the movie he had in production. He had the screenplay, but this had to be novelised to produce the novel of his cinematic vision. On the list was an author who has since gone on to help expand the ‘Star Wars Galaxy’ in a way that could not have been envisaged at the time.

Alan Dean Foster was the author who said ‘yes’ to Lucas and Del Rey’s deal to produce the manuscript and a sequel novel. An initial book entitled ‘Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker’ was released in 1976 to whet the appetites of the public ahead of the film’s release and the rest is as we say ‘history’.

Foster was born on the 18th November 1946 in New York, he was raised in Los Angeles. He attended UCLA where he received a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science and Master of Fine Arts in Cinema. After some success writing short stories for a bi-annual magazine, his first published novel was bought by Betty Ballantyne and ‘The Tar-Aiym Krang’ was published in 1972. This was the start of an illustrious career as there were plenty of publishing deals to follow.

March 1st 2018 saw the 40th anniversary of the release of the sequel novel that formed part of his deal with Del Rey. That novel was ‘Splinter of the Mind’s Eye’ and Jedi News celebrated that with an anniversary review on the day by our very own Richard Hutchinson. Last month I was lucky enough to have a long conversation with Alan about his career and his work in the ‘Star Wars Galaxy’;

Can you give me an overview of your career before Star Wars came knocking?

I sold my first story and had my first story printed in 1971, I subsequently sold a number of short stories and thought it may be an interesting idea to become a writer as opposed to going into law. And it all worked out, my first novel ‘The Tar-Aiym Krang’ came out in 1972, that is still in print and sold a couple of others to Random House Del Rey at that point. Then I got involved with novelisation’s through the interest of the then editor at Del Rey and I was offered some off-beat projects, one of the being ‘Dark Star’. Then Del Rey purchased the rights for the ‘Star Trek’ animated series and passed them along to me as they didn’t know what to do with them. They became very popular and at that point I was writing other original novels and the ‘Star Trek Log’ novelisation’s which ended up being a 10 volume series. Then in the midst of all this came the offer or request; if I would be interested in a novelisation and sequel novel, so a 2 book deal for an up and coming director named George Lucas, who I knew from ‘THX-1138’ and ‘American Graffiti’. Being a young writer of course I said ‘sure’ and that’s how it all got started.

You have become the ‘go to’ guy for Hollywood for the novelisation of movies since Star Wars, including the ‘Alien’ series, ‘Terminator’ series, ‘Chronicles of Riddick’, ‘The Black Hole’, ‘Krull’, the list seems endless. Was it your intention to go into that side of the writing business or did it come to you?

I never gave it a thought, I always looked at novelisation as a side effort, but not an unwelcome one. I seemed to get a name for it for a couple of reasons; one thing I brought to the project was being a professional writer and having been a 14 year old fan sitting in the back of theatre with his friends criticising the lousy special effects. I could approach the projects from both of those angles and the other one being that through no particular drive of my own, I happened to be a very fast writer. These projects need to be turned out very, very rapidly because the studios invariably take forever to make changes and the publishers want as many of the changes included in the finished book, but at least in the old days when we only had printed media it generally took 10 to 12 months for the publisher to receive the finished manuscript until you saw the book in the book store. With film novelisation you don’t get that time frame. So, the publishers really wants the finished manuscript yesterday! While I wasn’t that fast, I was able do it and still am able to do a novelisation in 4 to 6 weeks.

Wow, to novelise a movie with probably up to 400 pages that is quite rapid. So, the ‘Star Wars’ approach was a 2 book deal, what were your initial thoughts on what was sent to you at that point in time?

Well, it looked like a lot of fun when I saw the screenplay and I was allowed see some of the Ralph McQuarrie’s original preliminary concept art. I thought that this actually looked like science fiction and they would never be able to get any of it on the screen, but if they did, we might see something that was really nice and I proceeded to write the story on the assumption that what was in the screenplay would appear on the big screen. Low and behold, it did!

Yes, George didn’t make a bad effort at it did he? As we’re still talking about it 40 years later, I think he did a good job.

Well, it’s not only the fact that we are talking about it 40 years later, we’re now talking about the latest iterations of it. People are still talking about ‘Citizen Kane’, but nobody as far as I’m aware has ever proposed a sequel.

Did you have any personal guidance from George Lucas or Ralph McQuarrie, or was it all done via paper media?

Things have changed now as these days you have the story group and every word is scrutinised and analysed and gone over and you can’t really write anything without it being vetted. With the original novelisation of the first film ‘A New Hope’ it was basically like, here’s the screenplay and some production art, go write the book! I then turned the book in and it was fine and that was the end of it, which from a writers stand point is wonderful. I got to do everything essentially that I wanted to do and the same can be said for ‘Splinter of the Mind’s Eye’ as it was an original novel. There were only 2 things I was asked to take out of ‘Splinter’, one of which is lost to the mists of time and the one is that the book originally opened with a really complicated space battle, the whole of chapter one which shows how Luke and Leia are forced down onto this planet Mimban, which has been resurrected decades later, but other than that it was fine. There was very little interference, I suspect as George, Gary Kurtz and everyone else were working 24/7 to make the movie to get it finished before they ran out of money. There is no time to deal with ancillary rights, now it is a giant enterprise and everything is analysed in depth.

How long did it take to novelise ‘Star Wars’?

Around 4 to 6 weeks. I am told I am a very visual writer, essentially I am looking at a screen the size of the one you’re looking at, only it’s inside my head. The resolution may be worse, but I can see what’s going on! I describe what I am seeing, so as I’m going through the screenplay and it’s the same with an original novel, I am writing down what I am seeing. It’s hard to describe, I’m not conjuring up from nothing and I have a visual image in my head. This is what comes of growing up learning how to read with comic books, everything in little tiny panels. All I have to do is then describe what I am seeing on the panels.

The original ‘Star Wars’ novelisation was published in George Lucas’s name, how did you feel that this successful book of the movie didn’t carry your name?

It wasn’t a mega hit as it came out 6 months before the film did. It was part of the contract, it’s not my universe, it’s not my story, and it’s George’s, well at least it was until recently. It didn’t bother me at all, but it is the only time I’ve ever done that. It’s just that I haven’t been asked to do it that way since and I have no problems with it at all.

Splinter of the Mind’s Eye’ is 40 years old on the 1st March 2018, which is the original Star Wars sequel. I know we now have ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ and that Marvel Comics did beat you by the matter of weeks to be the first stories of the expanded universe as fans know it. How soon did you start writing ‘Splinter’?

I started writing it straight after I submitted the manuscript for ‘Star Wars’, so it was entirely written before ‘Star Wars’ the film came out.

Did you have a brief for the storyline of ‘Splinter’ or was it completely your own choice?

The people making the film had no time to deal with this sort of thing, just go and write a sequel novel. The only restraints that were put on me were as you may already know, George had the idea that if the film was hugely successful he could go do whatever he wanted, if it was a complete flop nothing else would happen, but if the film made some money he might be in the situation to make a low budget sequel and the idea was to use as many of the props, backgrounds and costumes from the original film as possible. I was asked to write the sequel that could be filmed if necessary on a low budget. That’s why I set it primarily on a fog clouded planet to exclude the need for expensive backdrops and underground in canyons would have been cheap to shoot. Other than that I was allowed to write whatever I wanted, so I came up with this idea of Luke and Leia, well you’ve read the book and you know the story. The other restriction was I could not use the character Han Solo because Harrison Ford had not yet signed for any kind of sequel material or the use of his likeness. So, if you don’t have Han Solo there isn’t much point putting Chewbacca in there. Also if you note the wonderful cover painting by Ralph McQuarrie you only see Luke and Leia from behind. This was because Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher had not signed for the use of their likenesses in promotional material. McQuarrie then cleverly painted both characters from behind so you don’t see their faces.

You talk about key characters such as the Emperor in the book, how much information were you given about him?

Nothing. There was no information on any of these characters and that sort of question is asked about many things and characters throughout, but again this was proposed, written and handed in before the first film even came out. This meant I had to invent a lot of things, other than very minimal information I had to make it up. If I was going to use a character like the Emperor, who was only mentioned in ‘A New Hope’, I had to come up with my own Emperor. I did know he was Senator Palpatine, but as far as his background, there is no ‘Star Wars’ universe at this time except for the first film, which was still and production and no one had seen as yet. Everything had to be invented for ‘Splinter’.

Halla is a force sensitive in ‘Splinter, although she is not fully adept in the ways of the force. Were you given free rein to develop her character?

Most of what was new in ‘Splinter’ was material I had to invent. That includes Halla, and everything about her. 

Also, where did the idea for an adjustable blade for a lightsaber come from? We have never seen this in the movies, but it is definitely an interesting idea.

Same for the idea of an adjustable lightsaber blade. As little was known about lightsaber’s at the time, I thought making the “blade” adjustable would allow it to be used for other things besides combat. Roasting, as opposed to incinerating food, for example.

Do you think that any of the plot lines in ‘Splinter’ we reworked for the Ewoks in ‘Return of the Jedi’?

I have no idea. You’re asking me to speculate on things other people did. Since no one ever told me anything about the other things, I can’t say if they were based on ‘Splinter’ or not. People do speculate that sequences in the subsequent films that ‘Splinter’ may have been adapted, but you would have to speak to the people that did them. Writing is a very solitary profession, if you’re involved with the film, you speak to the director, producer and actors, but if you’re writing a novel it’s just you in a room. I had no real interaction in the course of writing both books with anybody involved with the film until the book was finished. Someone then read it and said this is ok or this not ok. This is fine, it is work for hire. If you build a house and you decorate it and then sell it. The new owner doesn’t have to let you know he wants to change the décor.

Were you aware of any storylines that Marvel were working on?

Although I do know Stan Lee, that was a completely separate project and we had no interaction what so ever.

In part 2, I talk to Alan about his return to the ‘Star Wars Galaxy’ with ‘The Approaching Storm’, ‘The Force Awakens’, the reintroduction of the planet Mimban in ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ and what he has in store for us in the future.

Also look out for our competition to win a copy of ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ signed by Alan himself. We have 3 copies up for grabs and the competition details will be announced after part 2 is out!