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

Last week we published the first part of my interview with Alan Dean Foster. This week we talk to Alan about his more recent incursions into the ‘Star Wars Galaxy’ and the reintroduction of the planet Mimban in ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’;

You came back to the ‘Star Wars Galaxy’ when you wrote ‘The Approaching Storm’ after a long sabbatical from ‘Star Wars’. This was the lead in novel for ‘Attack of the Clones’, which is based on the border dispute on Ansion, which Mace Windu alludes to at the beginning of the film. How did this project come about?

It started with a general enquiry and obviously I had been involved with Star Wars from the beginning, other people had tried to get to me to right other books, but I was busy on other projects and my own original work. I had seen nice work and some not so nice work coming out, but didn’t want to write a novel about Chewie’s uncle’s brother’s cousin! That didn’t interest me, but then they came back and said how about doing a book that actually fills in the gap between episode one and two. I thought that was more interesting, also they presented me with these interesting characters. Two female Jedi, which was new, Luminara Unduli and her Padawan Barriss Offee. I loved the idea of being able to explore the fact that the Jedi Order was not exclusively male and it presented the opportunity to present the Jedi from a very different point of view, plus the fact that it did sort of fill in to become episode 1B. Those were the things that persuaded me and I had fun doing it. Except for the Ansion reference, that was all the information I was given before I was sent off to write the book.

The on screen relationship between Obi-Wan and Anakin was unknown at this point, but had become quite fraught. How did you approach their characters?

It was more complicated relationship and I enjoyed being able to write Kenobi, who is one of the most interesting characters in the whole saga. The trick to writing Anakin was, he is Obi-Wan’s Padawan, but we know what is going to happen to him. We know he’s going to become Darth Vader, but I could not be too explicit in writing that approach in the book because that would have been heavy handed. I had to show Anakin as Obi-Wan’s Padawan and a student listening to his mentor, but somehow trying to hint that in his thoughts, which is easier to do in a book, that he was conflicted. He was not an easy going person and dedicated Jedi in waiting, there were other things going on in the characters mind.

In true Star Wars style, the circle was complete when you got the call to novelise ‘The Force Awakens’, which means that you have now written novels across all 3 trilogies of the saga. Did you apply to do this or were you approached?

I knew the film was coming out and my agent knows that I am available for those sorts of things if it’s an interesting project and Del Rey approached me. They were looking at other people as well, but Shelly Shapiro who was editor at Del Rey responsible for ‘Star Wars’ books at that time, thought as people did as it was a group decision as you’ve just said, it would be kind of squaring the circle. I was particularly delighted to take it on especially after seeing the screenplay, but I was nervous as was everyone wondering what JJ Abrams was going to do with it. I started reading it and started thinking, this is ‘Star Wars’ and it made it very easy to write, not a difficult project at all and it was fun.

Was the novelisation completed in 2014?

Yes, it also took 4-6 weeks.

As the years have gone by has the process for novelising screenplays changed, do you get more information now?

There have been a number of changes. If it’s a franchise film there is much more scrutiny from the studio as there is for a one-shot feature, like ‘Clash of the Titans’ for example. If it’s part of a franchise every word and idea is scrutinised and gone over and analysed, but I am still left alone to write it on my own. The process is essentially the same, I get the screenplay, if I’m lucky I get some pre-production art and now I may actually get stills from the actual film set. I may also request stills of related items to what I will need to describe the book, like costumes, devices and vehicles. I want to be able to describe them as accurately as possible in the book. In the early days those things had to come through the post, but they were slow to arrive and I was on a tight schedule. I am still on a tight schedule, but things get here via the internet and actually with the novelisation for ‘Star Trek: Into Darkness’, I was actually able to see a rough cut of the film before it was released. There are very secure software systems that allow you to do that and they would send it to me in sections for security reasons. When I finished writing one section, the studio would delete it. By using this process I can describe what is going on in much more detail. So, yes it has changed technologically, but the writing process hasn’t changed at all.

Did you have a favourite character to write in the new ‘Star Wars’ generation of characters?

There is always a favourite. Obi-Wan Kenobi is that one, but I really like Rey. I think she is a good central character, I think I may write her differently in some ways, but any writer would probably say that, otherwise you’d just have clones of the original writer. She is interesting and resourceful and hopefully her background will be developed in different ways and in more detail. I would have gone a different way with her in the recent film, but a lot of people would say that. I also like the character of Finn, he is very under developed and there is an enormous amount of potential there for his character. His character harks back to the people in the German army fighting who disagreed with what was going on, but I think there is a lot of internal conflict there that needs to be explored other than just kind of using him, as you will, occasional comic relief and he seems to be a filler right now. We don’t know what he is thinking or what is going on and he just exists to advance the plot at certain points. I think he is a much more interesting character than that.

On to your tie in short story for ‘The Force Awakens’ called Bait.  This focuses on Grummgar who is seen in Maz’s castle with Bazine Netal. Was this another free rein project and how did it come about?

I was asked if I would like to write a short story for ‘Star Wars Insider’ about one of the background characters in Maz Kanata’s castle. Some characters had already been parcelled out and among those left I picked him. We are always interested in big tough guys otherwise there’d be no professional wrestling and I thought I could make something of the character if they let me go in whatever direction I wanted. There was nothing to go on except for he was a big game hunter type and I took that idea.

I liked the tension and aggravation between Grummgar and Nysorly, how did you come to your decision about path of the story?

I needed a foil for Grummgar and I am always intrigued by characters who are more than what they seem to be. I thought it would be an interesting idea to have someone do the same thing as the big tough guy does, but doesn’t look like the big tough guy. He doesn’t realise what she is either right away and this gives the opportunity to put a little twist in the story. Instead of her becoming bait, she becomes a competitor and what you get between the two is a grudging respect for each other.

We spoke about Mimban earlier in the interview and when Disney acquired Lucasfilm, ‘Splinter’ became a Legend and no longer canon. Yesterday (7th February 2018), we had some announcements about ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’, where what had been rumours that Mimban was returning to canon were now confirmed. How did you find out about Mimban returning?

I was putzing around on the web and I ran into things and I forget which blog or website it was on. I do still follow all these universes that I’ve been involved with, whether it be ‘Star Wars’, ‘Star Trek’, ‘Aliens’ or any of the others I’ve been involved with because it’s fun. Low and behold there it was and I thought, yeah I remember that! It’s kind of nice to see what they do. Are they just going to take the name or do they use a bit more from ‘Splinter’, which they are perfectly entitled to do. This is what happens when you work for hire. You are selling absolutely everything, it’s just business, you go into it with an open mind or you don’t. It would be fun to see some of the other stuff from the book in the film and that would be cute, yeah that would be nice. I think it’s good that they pick and choose stuff from the expanded universe, because it offers a lot of material that is already there and some of those things fans really enjoy. We will see what the future brings with that as well.

I personally would like to see it brought back in as a tribute to yourself and what you have contributed to Star Wars especially as ‘Splinter’, for me is the original sequel.

Well you never know, somewhere in the 20 minutes of credits that you see there may be a mention somewhere between the caterer and the dog wrangler!

Do you see yourself writing any more Star Wars novels?

I don’t know, there have been long gaps between the books I have done and it depends on which way the franchise goes, what they ask me to do and what I’m doing at the time. I certainly have no objections to it, but it certainly needs to be the right project.

Can I ask for your opinion on the new generation of movies, but especially the new novels that are coming out?

My eyes are getting pretty bad for reading and that started about 30 years ago and thank goodness computers came along as you can adjust the font size. I pretty much have to restrict my reading to research and keeping up with general current events. I don’t have enough time for reading any fiction unfortunately, it is very ironic in a way as I haven’t been able to read any of the new material. I am aware because it’s there online when I look at it, so even if it’s something that interests me, it’s not something I can say I’m going to spend ‘X’ number of hours reading this book as opposed to doing research for the next project or original novel. It’s a matter of time, if I was like Buckminster Fuller and could train myself to only sleep 3 hours a night I know it would be a lot easier. It’s that or bionic eyes, but unfortunately I can’t do either. I did try sleeping 3 hours a night, but it only lasted 2 days as on the third day I slept 18 hours! So, that was the end of that experiment.

You’ve written many novels and for many of the major franchises, no pressure here, but the answer doesn’t have to be ‘Star Wars’. Do you have a novel that you would say is your favourite?

As far as novelisation’s go I enjoy them all as a fan, back to the kid at the back of the movie theatre. To pick out one, it would have to be the novelisation of ‘Alien’. There wasn’t a lot of action, but more of a heavily pressurised level of psychology really and I personally was under a lot pressure at the time of writing it and it had to be done before yesterday. I did that in 3 weeks and everything about it was pressurised, the story, the timeframe I had to write it in, the personal pressure I was under and I think it turned out, in spite of all that, very well. So I have a definite soft spot for that.

Can you tell us a bit about what you are working on currently and what we can expect next from you?

I have an original novel coming out from Del Rey called ‘Relic’ in August, which is about the last surviving human being in the galaxy. Tentatively in July I have a series of fantasy Western stories revolving around a single character named ‘Mad Amos Malone: The Complete Stories’ which is a collection of 18 stories involving this rather strange mountain man which I have been working on for decades now, but it’s nice to finally have them all in one place. I also have a book called ‘Secretions’ which is not yet submitted, but finished and at the moment I am working on a novel called ‘The Horde’ which is about an invasion of earth written from the viewpoint of the human first contact team, which doesn’t go as people would expect. That’s true for both the humans and the aliens.

Wow, that’s what you call keeping busy and very impressive. So in summary you’ve got your feet up and having a quiet time!

I like to tell stories, if I sit around for 2 or 3 days without writing anything, I feel uncomfortable. It’s the reason I don’t get as much reading done as I’d like to. The vision notwithstanding, I just feel compelled to tell stories.

To bring the interview to a close I would like to extend my gratitude and the thanks from the team at Jedi News for agreeing to do this interview and for giving up your time. It has been a great experience for me personally and I hope you’ve enjoyed it too?

I enjoyed it, please feel free to keep in touch.

The bibliography of Foster’s work is impressive and not many authors can rival this list. Yes, there may be some authors with a higher number of ‘Star Wars’ novels, but to have ghost written the original novelisation and then to be given the task of coming up with a sequel is quite something. But then being given the chance to help JJ Abrams nearly 40 years later is a mark of the quality of the work Foster has produced.

I don’t think anyone can deny that Alan Dean Foster is ‘The Pioneering Star Wars Novelist’!

If you want to find out more about Alan and his amazing career you visit his website for his latest up to date information.

Remember to check back to Jedi News tomorrow for your chance to win a copy of ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ signed by Alan himself. We have 3 copies up for grabs, so watch this space!