Jedi News Interview: James Luceno: Continuing the Galactic Quest for Prester John

As almost every Star Wars reader knows, Jim Luceno is a best-selling Star Wars author whose most recent novel, Tarkin, was released this past autumn. Big Shiny Robot called Luceno’s Tarkin “another home run in the new canon.” Among his well-known titles are Darth Plagueis, Millennium Falcon, Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader, Cloak of Deception and Labyrinth of Evil. He’s also done the New Jedi Order novels Agents of Chaos I: Hero’s Trial and Agents of Chaos II: Jedi Eclipse, The Unifying Force and the eBook Darth Maul: Saboteur. Of course, Jim has published a lot of work outside the Galaxy, the first being his 1980 action-adventure novel Head Hunters that Amazon précises as “three Americans, one kilo of cocaine and a wild adventure through South America.”

Jim and Dak are at their favorite tapcaf in Tierfon, 49 West, a noted “Johnny” haunt where students of the Great Books Course at St. John’s College come for the conversation, music and blue milk. At one of the window tables facing West Street, the veteran Galactic road warriors swap war stories over a macchiato and chai latte in advance of Celebration Anaheim. Here’s how it went down.

Dak: So Jim, it all begins and ends with the music, doesn’t it.

James Luceno: Yeah, I just enjoy the music. I played no instrument, initially.

Dak: So what got you started playing?

JL: I had a friend who was a jazz guitarist in Bridgeport, Connecticut. One day in 1965, we pass this pawnshop with an electric bass hanging in the window. He says to me, “Jimmy, you ought to buy this and play. You’d get work. Everybody plays guitar, but nobody plays bass.” So, I do, and then he pushes me on stage. And so suddenly here I am—not really knowing what I’m doing—just playing the bass root note in cover bands singing Dylan songs and Dave Van Ronk around Bridgeport and in New York at places like Max’s Kansas City, Gerde’s Folk City, Café Wha? and the usual spots on Bleecker Street.

Dak: What was the band called?

JL: Oh, I was just playing in pick-up bands. You remember the scene. And then later in the 60s, I played in cover bands doing Cream and Led Zeppelin and doing session work, doing commercials. So all this led me to Manhattan Transfer in 1970. And that was a challenge. By this time, I was used to being up front, but now I was in a back-up band for four vocalists doing jazz standards. I suddenly had to learn to play jazz. They also had a country guitarist. So I had to learn to play country too. It was all new material for me, and sometimes I was in over my head. But what was really good was it was my first time on the road. I became a traveller. I got to go out in the world and see what was going on.

Dak: So what was going on?

JL: I found there were others out there on the road too.

Dak: You mean kind of like they were fulfilling Kerouac’s ‘58 Dharma Bums vision of the rucksack revolution.

JL: You got it.

[Here’s Jack Kerouac’s visionary passage from Dharma Bums that Dak’s recalling: “I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and old girls happier, all of ’em Zen Lunatics who go about writing poems that happen to appear in their heads for no reason and also by being kind and also by strange unexpected acts keep giving visions of eternal freedom to everybody and to all living creatures.”]

JL: About that time, 1971, I was leafing through a magazine and came across a photo of a church in Ethiopia that really captured me, and I knew I had to go there.

Dak: Questing for Prester John?

JL: Or the Lion of Judah. But no, my interest was piqued more by the other-worldly setting of this church. And its obvious antiquity. So I left New York and TMT and hit the road to Europe. When I got to Egypt, I found there were others on the road who had similar ideas about drinking in the greater world. The church was one of a number of rock-hewn structures in Lalibela, a remote religious center in the Amhara Region of Ethiopia. The Coptic Church of St. George. It’s been called the Eighth Wonder of the World. Anyway, I came to see myself as part of a community of like-minded people out there on the road, all motivated differently.

Dak: In what ways?

JL: Oh, some wanted to go to exotic places. Some were into exotic drugs. Some wanted to find themselves, or find something. It was post-hippie. We were all reading Carlos Castaneda and Erich von Däniken.

Dak: I remember the time well and what all we were reading. Chariots of the Gods was big. I discovered The Morning of the Magicians, Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier’s 1960 book. It had been translated into English in ‘63 as The Dawn of Magic. A workmate doing lights when I first worked in the Soho strip clubs in ’73 turned me on to it. I read it to blow out all the political science that had crystallized in my mind while doing thesis research at the LSE [London School of Economics] in ‘71-‘72 for my masters. Like von Däniken, they wrote about UFOs and the Nacza Lines in the Andes.

JL: Yeah, I went there. Don’t think they were made by aliens though. I lived in Peru for a time with my first wife.

Dak: Peruvian?

JL: American. From New Jersey, where I’d gigged with many bands. Yeah, so suddenly I was in this big community out there, on the road chasing dreams of one sort or another. To give you an example, I ran into this guy in Kenya for about only five minutes, and then a year later, we crossed paths again in La Paz, Bolivia. I think some of us were attracted to the idea of surviving tricky situations in foreign cultures. I tell young people today, you have to understand that this was travel before cell phones and fast food, before the Internet and the Google Translator App. You were forced to rely on your own devices. There was no support group, except other travellers. More or less on your own, you had to learn how to deal with sickness, accidents, addictions, bandits.

Dak: After my first stint in Soho, in the summer of ’73 I went to join some American friends in Pays Basque who were doing a documentary film. I was offered a chance to soundtrack it with my guitar-playing. It was the year when Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon was the soundtrack for all of Europe. So my girlfriend— later my first wife—and I were down there running with the bulls like Hemingway at Pamplona and hanging out with the California surfer-musicians on the beaches north of Biarritz. These guys had their own triangular trade going that was a seasonal cycle. They would be in New York in the winter. Each of them would buy a Gibson Les Paul, fly to London and sell it, easily doubling their money. Then fly down to Morocco where they do a little surfing and score some spice. In the late spring, they somehow transport it up to Biarritz and live off it through the summer. If they need to top up, they go back to Morocco and repeat. Then in the early autumn, they go to Spain and buy flamenco guitars cheap, fly to New York and sell ‘em dear and start the whole cycle all over again.

JL: Yeah, well, it’s all very different now, I’m sure.

Dak: So what years were you on the road?

JL: This was from 1971 to 1980. But for a time I lived in Peru and Mexico.

Dak: Did you ever do the overland route to India? Hesse’s Journey to the East? Rishikesh was a destination for a lot of my Brit friends. And then my Aussie friends were all doing their version of the Grand Tour coming westbound, overland from Singapore to Australia House in the Aldwych in London, where you would find them camped out on the street selling their VW “Kombi-Vans” to other Aussies going back overland eastbound.

JL: I did not. I got as far as Greece, which was then a hub for those heading east to India through Iran and Afghanistan. Most were on that path. But I chose to be one in a smaller group headed south to Egypt and the Horn of Africa. Remember I was personally drawn to Lalibela. I continued south through Sudan, Kenya, Uganda and Malawi. There was this really tricky route that you could take trans-Congo and up to Morocco. But I went south, nearly all the way to South Africa.

Dak: Then what?

JL: I came back Stateside to get money together for my next trip, which would be to Latin America. I thought of returning to the music scene. But the music had moved on, and I had lost my chops. So I did a little carpentry in Westchester County, where a friend mentored me in the trade. I’ve been lucky to find mentors at every transition in my life. In 1975, my wife and I were living in New Jersey. She was working as a waitress, and I was trying to write. And she had a waitress buddy who was going with a writer. They thought they should introduce us. Well, that writer was Brian Daley.

Dak: Your other half of Jack McKinney.

JL: Yeah. We immediately became close friends. Brian mentored me as a writer of science-fiction and space opera, and I got him interested in travelling. And we did a lot of trips together. At times the road was a bit much for him, though. I remember a time in Chiapas in 1980 when we were following a river to some Mayan ruins along the Guatemalan border. We got stranded and ran out of food. But Brian was not put off entirely. We later traveled in Peru, Nepal and Tibet. He told me once that he was not as keen as I was about travelling, but he couldn’t bear the thought of his being home and my being on the road having adventures. In Katmandu in 1983, after Brian had adapted Star Wars and The Empire Strikes back for National Public Radio, he got word—by telegram—that he’d been commissioned to adapt Return of the Jedi. He found a grainy bootleg copy of the movie in a funky Nepalese market and screened it for the Sherpas who had led us on a five-week trek in the Himalayas. I don’t think they any idea what they were watching.

Dak: How did it go down?

JL: It went down good with a lot of beer… Indian pale ale. Nepal is one of the places I visited that made its way into my Star Wars novels. Same with Lalibela, in Cloak of Deception, and Tanzania in Tarkin. It was really the road that led me to writing in the first place. Some of the people I met had great stories to tell. So I kept a journal. When you’re on a steamer stranded on a sandbar in the Nile for days with only one dog-eared paperback, you have to do something to kill time. So I wrote in the journal, which was my training as a writer.

Dak: Did you always know you were a writer?

JL: I was always a story-teller. My father was a movie buff, and I grew up watching films of the 30s and 40s. I was raised on non-stop re-runs of films on WOR’s Million Dollar films Movie. I wanted to tell stories like those in the movies. I wanted to take that final scene of Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains walking off in the airport fog in Casablanca and tell what happened to them next in Africa.

Dak: I can dig it. Million Dollar Movie was running in my time in New York. I remember the intro with the cars and city lights and “Tara’s Theme” from Gone With The Wind. Travel gave you a lot of knowledge for your settings.

JL: Yes. And I loved movie dialogue. I wanted people to actually speak like that.

Dak: Jim, as a canonical Star Wars writer, what do you think about this persistent canon issue that so exercises Star Wars fandom? Tim Zahn and I had to deal with this question at some length last spring on a panel at Washington’s AwesomeCon. What’s your take?

JL: I think there are at least two kinds of Star Wars fans. First, you have the hardcore fans who feel they were led to believe that the books and comics that made up the Expanded Universe were part of a canonical saga. Even though Lucas said time and again that the films were not to be confused with the books and comics, a lot of people became emotionally and financially invested in the notion that they were one and the same. Now they’ve been informed that those stories no longer comprise the one and true story. What they got was only a version of the truth, and they’re understandably ticked off. Then there’s this other group, in which I include myself, who have a kind of internally-edited Star Wars saga. It’s not that the second group is any less emotionally invested; simply that they’ve already decided for themselves which stories have canon status. A third group, I guess, is made up of people who simply read for enjoyment and aren’t concerned with canon.

Dak: Dave Filoni has said that the Story Group will take stuff from the EU that they may find dramatically interesting and repackage it. So it’s not like the now supposedly non-canon stuff goes away. So where’s the beef? I mean, doesn’t that make retconning acceptable?

JL: Again, it depends on one’s level of involvement. Anakin has no apprentice in the Prequels. The fact that he hasn’t been deemed a Master Jedi is part of the frustration that drives him over to the Dark Side. If you accept that as canon, how do you square that with Ahsoka Tano, who plays such a large role in the Clone Wars animated series?

Dak: Well, you’re making the case that the issue has always been with Star Wars and not just because of the Disney acquisition.

JL: To a certain extent—certainly since the special-edition films. I mean, that’s what the Han-shot-first fuss is all about. As for the acquisition, Disney has given the Star Wars brand a huge boost in clout.

Dak: What do you mean?

JL: Well, for one thing, the New York Daily News now regularly reviews Star Wars novels and individual episodes of Rebels. That never used to happen!

Dak: Getting back to what you said re the gripes of the hardcore fans, on that AwesomeCon panel, Tim made the case that as writers we are just conveying a recording of things that happened in the Galaxy. And sometimes we get it wrong. Sometimes new information comes forward, and we have to revise. I echoed his points, saying that’s what happens in real reportage and asking why should we hold Star Wars to a higher standard than reality.

JL: Well, that’s a solid way of framing the argument to keep everyone happy. But one could also argue that it’s a kind of appeasement, a form of newspeak. For many of the hardcore fans, the EU is sacred because it had the imprimatur of LucasFilm. There was nothing “legendary” about it. Let me make my point with Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. In the original, you have Harrison Ford’s voice-over narration. But then came Scott’s director’s cut—the version he regarded as his film; the film he would have released were it not for studio-imposed compromises.

Dak: You saw both.

JL: Yes.

Dak: At the time when they came out.

JL: Yes. And I happen to prefer the second—without the narration. So that Blade Runner is canon for me. Others might say, “Well, I saw the initial release and emotionally invested in that, so that version is my canon.” I say, fine, I have no problem with that. So what about George Lucas? George was the creator of the Prequels; so the Prequels are the true saga. Now, as we move away from George Lucas, a purist could ask if what’s coming down the road should even be regarded as canon.

Dak: But George has said recently that Disney did not accept any of his ideas for the Sequels.

JL: Well, that’s where we are now. At a point where Star Wars has become a franchise. The Force Awakens and Rogue One are the first “franchise” films.

Dak: What are you expecting at Celebration Anaheim?

JL: I’m eager to see if Celebration will be slicker now that it’s moved into the main tent. I suspect Anaheim will center on the movies and the TV animation. Will there be any action in the licensing room? Because I don’t think they have announced any new toys from The Force Awakens. Although they could surprise us and introduce them on the day.

Dak: They had licensed collectables at Celebration 1 in Denver. My daughters came away with a Princess Amidala blow-up chair. Where are you going to be appearing and signing?

JL: I don’t know where I’m signing yet at Anaheim. I haven’t gotten any convention details yet. Have you?

Dak: Not yet. I’m just announced. I’m also doing a Thursday panel as part of the Star Wars University on the military and Star Wars costuming organizations, the 501st.

JL: Ah-huh. At Indianapolis and Orlando, I signed at the Barnes and Noble kiosk.

Dak: Jedi News said we could reconvene afterwards and give our recap of Anaheim, if we want. Would you like to do that?

JL: Yeah. That could be fun. It could be interesting to compare and contrast how a Star Wars author and a Star Wars actor experienced it, don’t you think.

Dak: Good. So let’s meet up while we’re there and check in on each other.

JL: I’d like that.

Dak: In the meantime, let’s go out with some extended Peter Tosh singing about his Ethiopian spiritual home.

JL: Why not.

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Follow John “Dak” Morton on Twitter @tapcaf

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.