“Too Many Notes”: An Interview, Part I

Back in December, I sat down for an extended interview with a Polish journalist to discuss George Lucas: A Life — but we also talked quite a bit about biography, fandom, choosing subjects for books, and the writing process. The original interview is somewhere on the Interwebz, translated into Polish, so I’m posting it here in three parts, and in English (and if my original interviewer wants me to take it down, please shoot me an e-mail).

Here’s part 1.  I’ll post the next part shortly.


  1. When I went to see your official website I’ve notice these words: Many Bothans Died To Bring You This Website. I immediately thought: he must be a Star Wars fan so George Lucas’s biography is really in good hands. Am I right? Are you a Star Wars fan?

You’re right indeed. I’m Star Wars Generation 1.0. I was nine years old when Star Wars premiered in theaters in May 1977. I was George Lucas’s target audience. It was a film aimed right at me, and I even remember seeing the preview and what an impact it made on me. My brother and I had all the Kenner Star Wars toys, we had posters, bedsheets, trading cards . . . you name it, we probably had it. Since then, I’ve seen every film in the theater. Star Wars is part of my pop culture nerd DNA.

2. Lucas created a unique phenomenon in pop culture. I know that for many people Star Wars is not a movie, but a way of life. What does this creation mean for you?

As I said, it’s sort of in my own pop culture DNA, too. However, I’m not one of those fans who can name every planet or spaceship, and I’m terrible when it comes to what’s known as the “Expanded Universe.” But I can geek out pretty hard on the original three. For me, Star Wars is fun and familiar. It’s a mythology that we all feel we own a piece of, and we can discuss it and debate it endlessly. That’s all part of the fun.

3. George Lucas is one of the most iconic names in pop culture. Was there a moment in your process when you thought it might be too difficult of a challenge? Millions of fans around the whole world will probably analyze every detail in your book, and they sometimes can be scary . . . 

Well, fortunately, with Jim Henson, I’d already written about another hugely iconic figure with an equally as devoted fan base, so I knew the dangers of jumping into that particular pool. Still, as I did when writing about Jim Henson, when writing the Lucas book, I’d look at my reflection in the mirror each morning and tell myself “Do NOT mess this up.” Lucas and his work are too important to too many people.

4. Can you describe your writing process?

I hope people aren’t disappointed when they find out I don’t have some high-tech system for all this – because when it comes to writing and research, I’m horribly analog. I do a lot of archival research, and I still like to make hard copies of everything — whether it’s an interview Lucas did with Starlog in 1980, an article about the SIGGRAPH conference in 1985, or even a Kenner Star Wars toy ad. Then I three-hole-punch the papers and file everything in black binders in my office, usually organized chronologically, though sometimes I do it by topic.

While I’m researching, I type my notes on the laptop, but I still write my chapter outlines in longhand. And then, when I finally write that particular chapter, I write the outline up on a gigantic white dry-erase board so I can see the entire thing, move pieces around, or note other areas I want to make sure I cover.

My process hasn’t really changed all that much over the last decade. It’s horribly messy, I know, and many of my fellow biographers swear by electronic organizers or programs, but it all feels like a forced extra step to me. But as I always tell anyone who’ll listen, the right way to organize your research is the way that works best for you.

5. Did you meet George Lucas in person when you were writing this book? If yes, can you say something about that situation?

No, I’ve never met him. I’d like to.

6. I know that readers in Poland would like to know this: Is your Lucas biography only for fans of Star Wars and his other movies? Or maybe normal person who know who he is will also have a blast with that book? Or maybe it is a little bit for both?

It’s for more than just fans of Star Wars or Indiana Jones. Readers might know a little about Lucas, but perhaps not much beyond what he’s done beyond those movies. But Lucas is actually a really big story – he’s the story of modern filmmaking. This book for those who want to know more about the trials and tribulations that go with filmmaking, and how Lucas really kicked down the door for creator-driven films.

It’s also for artists who value the creative process and want to learn how Lucas fought, sometimes painfully, to maintain as much control over his own art as he could. Lucas is all about giving artists what they need to realize their own projects, without interference from meddlers – in Lucas’s case, the Hollywood studios — who, he feels, don’t appreciate the artist.

Finally, it’s also a business manual, about running a company absolutely aligned with your own artistic priorities, investing in yourself and your vision, and resisting the constant appeals to compromise that vision in the name of the bottom line.

7. I know that sometimes biography books can be boring as hell and you can have an impression that you are reading Wikipedia — that a book can be empty facts without a heart, you know? But your book is different because you read it with fascination. What is for you the most important aspect of biography book? What do want to achieve during your process?

Biography, even more than history and other non-fiction, really needs a great narrative. That often demands great organization of your materials. I often tell aspiring biographers that it’s not just what materials you use, but how you use them. Can you present them in an interesting or dramatic fashion? You don’t want your book to be a textbook or a recitation of facts – that’s a user’s manual, not a biography. What’s the drama in your subject’s life? The humor? The compassion? What did you learn, and how much of yourself will you inject into the narrative? These are all the questions we deal with as we wrestle with telling someone else’s story.

Still, it does amuse me when reviewers and readers complain that a biography or history has “too many facts in it.” That’s almost like the moment in Amadeus when the Emperor complains that an opera has “too many notes.” Just as musical notes are the foundation of opera, facts are the building blocks of biography and non-fiction. I think my job as a biographer is to take those facts and put them in context with each other, see how they relate to the overall story and life we’re telling.

We tend to think of Lucas in silos – “he did Star Wars and then he did Empire Strikes Back and then he did Raiders of the Lost Ark” — but real life is never actually that neat. Lucas was juggling lots of projects all at once all of the time. He was building a company and producing one movie and developing another one, all at the same time. The man is constantly in motion, and I wanted readers to see Lucas in that light.

Up next: The Empire Strikes Back! (yay!) The Star Wars Holiday Special! (yay?)

Back at the Book Fest

gaithersburg_book_festival_logo_001If you’re near Rockville, Maryland tomorrow evening, come on over to the Johns Hopkins University, Montgomery County Campus, where I’ll be speaking about George Lucas at 7 p.m. as part of the Gaithersburg Book Festival.  (Yeah, I’m back in my old neck of the woods — and I also know I’m competing with one of my old employers, since the Montgomery County Council is holding a Town Hall meeting at the same time down in Silver Spring.  Choose the event that best suits your particular wants and needs…)

I’ve spoken at the GBF before — back in 2014, I talked Jim Henson — and I’m looking forward to getting back again.  If you’re thinking of attending, doors open at 6:30 p.m. at  Gilchrist Hall Auditorium on the JHU MC campus at 9601 Medical Center Drive in Rockville.

Come on out! It’ll be fun! Really!

The One in Which I Enjoy Being George Lucas’s Biographer

Last week, I had the great pleasure of speaking on George Lucas as part of the Great Lives lecture series at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.*  If you missed it . . . well, it doesn’t look like I had a LICK of fun, does it? (I call this Study in Big Gestures, Number 1483 in a Series).

And I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that all these terrific photos were taken by the remarkable Karen Pearlman, who manages to make EVERYONE look good.

* Yeah, I’m Associate Director of the series now.  But I was asked to speak here LONG before I signed on for the AD gig. DON’T JUDGE ME.

Your Mountain Is Waiting…So Get on Your Way!

Who do those crinkling, smiling eyes belong to? Why, none other than Theodor Seuss Geisel — the good Dr. Seuss, whose birthday just happens to be today.

seuss-with-figuresI’m SO thrilled to be working on the life of yet another wonderful, creative, inspiring iconic subject — and I’m just as happy, too, that I’ll be working with the same terrific team at Little, Brown that helped put the George Lucas bio in your hands.

The Eyes Have It…

Who’s the subject of my next biography? Yesterday, over on Twitter, I let slip that it was yet another American pop culture icon.  That led to a number of good guesses: Walt Disney. Elvis. Stan Lee. Frank Oz. Johnny Carson.

All good guesses, but wrong.

Here’s another hint.

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Got it yet?

More later.

Four!

Pretty much every book talk biographers do ends with the inevitable question, “What are you working on now?” (As I always joke, the BIO conference and the AVN awards are the only two venues where people greet each other by asking, “Who are you doing next?”)  As I indicated in this article that ran in my local newspaper yesterday, I’ve been circling for several months now a really terrific subject for Book Four — and I’ll tell you more shortly.  Stay tuned.

Buried Treasure

At the beginning of December, after spending nearly fifteen years living in a little town in Maryland — we had taken care of our main task, namely ensuring that our daughter got out into the world safely and successfully — Barb and I sold our old farmhouse in Damascus and moved about 80 miles south to Fredericksburg, Virginia. As you can imagine, packing up fifteen years worth of stuff required digging through every nook and cranny and drawer and box.  Lots of stuff got thrown out — user manuals, old atlases, plenty of random cables that didn’t connect to anything any more — as we made our best effort to simplify and downsize.

That can be tough work for me — I’m notoriously sentimental about things, and I’ve been known to hold onto receipts, guidebooks or business cards for decades. But I vowed to try my best to carefully sort through the countless boxes, bins and files in my office and throw out anything I thought might be considered clutter. And I did pretty well, too — or so I thought.  Imagine my surprise, then, when my wife — who is famously non-sentimental about things — looked at my pile of stuff to go into the trash and said, “Don’t you think you might want to keep that?”

She reached into the pile and pulled out this:

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It was the pile of assorted drafts for Jim Henson: The Biography, going all the way back to my first handwritten notes and outlines from early 2010. It wasn’t everything, but it was some of the earlier versions I’d written, printed out, proofed, then filed away as I moved on to the next draft. I was trying hard to be remarkably stoic about them, but when Barb pulled them out of my pile, I have to admit it I very eagerly put them into a banker’s box, on the side of which I scrawled JIM HENSON in fat black Sharpie.

As a bookend to the story, while unpacking in Fredericksburg, I opened a small wooden box — one I hadn’t actually looked in while packing, and had instead just thrown it into a larger box with some other stuff — and discovered another little bit of buried treasure:

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Much of this predates those early drafts shown above, as this is actually the proposal for the Jim Henson biography, which I was calling at that time, Ridiculous Optimism: The Life of Jim Henson (a title I still like a lot, but I totally understand the need to give it the shorter, clearer title under which it was eventually published). You can see at the top corner I’ve written “March 2010 — Proposal and Chapters Pitched.” The sample chapters, in case you’re interested, were eventually massaged into the much more greatly expanded first two chapters of Jim Henson.

Now flash forward three years or so, and you’ll arrive at the roughly bound book sitting on top of the proposal: the first reading copy of Jim Henson, containing the first round of edits from Ryan Doherty, my editor at Ballantine. This version still had to go through another round of editing and a legal read, and there’s not a single photograph — we were still working through photo clearances with Disney. All of this, too, went into that same banker’s box with the early drafts, with Belloq’s admonition from Raiders of the Lost Ark ringing in my ears: “Who knows? In a thousand years, even you may be worth something.”

The People’s Princess

416_carrie_fisher_princess_leia_20thcenturyfox_1Back in 1978, when playing with our Star Wars action figures, even boys never seemed to complain if they had to ‘be’ Princess Leia when we played out our homemade Star Wars adventures. And that’s because Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia was such a spunky, smart-mouthed, tough-talking badass — much like Carrie Fisher was in real life.

leiacardconcept_0We were fans almost immediately, and we followed her wherever she went, whether she was corralling Munchkins alongside Chevy Chase in Under the Rainbow, harassing John Belushi’s Joliet Jake in The Blues Brothers, or, later, offering sage advice to Meg Ryan’s Sally in When Harry Met Sally.

Still, we knew her first as Princess Leia, and it was a mantle Fisher herself wore with both pride and some trepidation–after all, being an icon is no easy task.  As Fisher wrote in her 2016 memoir The Princess Diarist:

I had never been Princess Leia before and now I would be her forever. I would never not be Princess Leia. I had no idea how profoundly true that was and how long forever was.

And yet, did anyone ever look like they were having as much fun on a movie set as she did?

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princess-leia-behind-the-scenes-starwars13

carrie_fisher_2013But Fisher was more than an actress. She was a talented script doctor (she did uncredited work on movies like Hook and Sister Act) and a really terrific — and terrifically funny — writer. She also struggled for years with addiction and depression, and very publicly discussed those battles in hopes of de-stigmatizing them for others. Her novel Postcards From the Edge was both funny and personal, a thinly-fictionalized account of her own struggles with addiction, mental illness, and her lovingly complicated relationship with her mother, Debbie Reynolds.

Yesterday, George Lucas issued a statement in which he noted that Fisher had a “colorful personality that everyone loved.” Steven Spielberg has referred to her as “a force of nature.” Both descriptions are apt, but for the rest of us– and with all due respect to Diana — there really was only ever but one “People’s Princess.”

Thanks for being here, Carrie Fisher. We’ll miss you.

Father Christmas

St-nick-by-foc-darley-1862.jpg

Who’s the original Father Christmas? Why, Washington Irving, of course, who beat Clement Clarke Moore to the punch by 11 years:

“…and lo, the good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings yearly presents to children…And when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe, he twisted it in his hat-band, and laying his finger beside his nose…he returned over the tree-tops and disappeared.”

Washington Irving, A History of New York (1812 edition)

Have a warm and safe and happy holiday, everyone!

Central Podcasting

screen-shot-2016-12-10-at-7-56-35-amOne of the really great joys of being the biographer of Jim Henson was having the opportunity to know the legion of devoted Jim Henson/Muppet fans. And it’s exactly the same way with George Lucas. Whether it’s discussing the prequels, arguing whether Han shot first, exploring Lucas’s influences, or debating the merits of CGI, George Lucas has one of the most active, vocal — and, frankly, fun — fanbases. It’s been a true pleasure appearing on so many podcasts and having the chance to converse with so many well-informed fans on pretty much everything.

Here, then, are links to my appearances on Coffee With KenobiStar Wars 7×7, and Star Wars Underworld.  And my thanks to Dan Zehr, Allen Voivod, and Dominic Jones (and his gang) for having me on.