Category Archives: Star Wars

“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?)

Two Weeks To Go…

. . . until publication of George Lucas: A Life.  I got mine from my editor the other week (and it’s a beaut); there’s still plenty of time for you to pre-order yours. (Click here to order from the bookseller of your choice.)

Many Bothans died to bring you this message.

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Today’s Mail

A box of these showed up on our doorstep this morning — it’s advance reading copies of George Lucas: A Life. And boy do I still love that cover.

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George Lucas Is Covered.

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Nice, huh?

Apparently, this has been up on the Hachette Books page for a bit, but I checked anyway to make certain it was okay for me to share this with you. I’ve actually had it for several months now, and I’ve been dying to show it to you, I think it’s so terrific.

I should also offer the caveat that there may still be some minor tweaks made to the cover as we get closer to the publication date — which as of this morning is now Friday, December 16, 2016. 

It’s not available to pre-order just yet, but should be soon.  I’ll let you know the moment I hear.

There Is Another.

A reviewer for The Washington Post once remarked that when it comes to choosing biographical subjects, I seemed to have a fondness for “slightly off-center American geniuses.” I liked that a lot, and I have to say that’s actually very true. And if I had to get even more specific, I’d say my particular proclivity — at least at the moment — would seem to be for Enigmatic American Pop Culture Icons. Once you’ve done Washington Irving and Jim Henson, then, I think the next one should be obvious.

With that in mind, then, I’m thrilled to finally Officially Announce The Subject of My Next Book:

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C’mon, I don’t really have to tell you who that is, do I?

It’s George Lucas. And if I hit all my marks, you should have it in your hands in the Spring of 2016.

Project Blue Harvest Revealed

…well, not quite.  But for those of you who keep kindly asking me, “What are you doing next?”  . . . you’ll have your answer shortly. In the meantime, I’ll take a moment to address the next most popular question, which is: “What’s the first Beatles song to feature an Epiphone Casino guitar?”*

Ha ha! No, actually, it’s “What is this ‘Project Blue Harvest’ reference anyway?”

(My fellow Star Wars nerds can stop reading and come back tomorrow.)

Back in the early 1980s, when George Lucas was hard at work on Return of the Jedi — the final installment of the Star Wars series, until later, when it wasn’t — speculating on the plot of the final film was something of a parlor game.  Would Han Solo survive? (rumors were that he wouldn’t, since Harrison Ford now had the Indiana Jones franchise and was on his way to making Serious Films) Was Darth Vader really Luke’s father? (many argued that Vader had lied, and that some sort of change-up was coming down the line in the final film) Who was this other hope Yoda spoke of? (Leia?  Chewbacca? Or, god help us, the hopelessly cheesy Lando?)  To keep information from leaking out — and to throw nosy reporters and fans off the scent — Lucas and his film makers began production on Jedi under a fake working title, a horror film called Blue Harvest (tagline: “Horror Beyond Imagination!”) As Jedi producer Howard Kazanjian said later:

When shooting Jedi in the United States, we called the film Blue Harvest. Camera slates, invoices, hotel reservations, call sheets, production reports, and crew hats and T-shirts all read Blue Harvest. So when a visitor would ask, ‘what are you shooting’ and we said Blue Harvest, they went on their way. Can you imagine what would have happened if we had said, ‘We’re shooting the next film in the Star Wars trilogy’?

In fact, if you watch the special features on the Indiana Jones DVD boxed set, you’ll see Steven Spielberg in one scene wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with a Blue Harvest logo.  And I want one.

Anyway, since the publication of Washington Irving: An American Original in 2008, I’ve been pursuing another project, involving those Really Amazing People you keep hearing me talk about.  But until we could all make it come together, I promised them — and myself, since like most writers, I’m a notorious jinx — that I would keep quiet about it.  For a while, then, when asked what I was working on, I would hem and haw and deflect or say I wasn’t really sure.  Eventually, however, I settled into admitting that, yes, I did have a project I was pursuing, which I started referring to as “Project Blue Harvest.” And it just sort of stuck.

So, given the origins of the name, then, you might rightly ask if my project has anything to do with Star Wars?  Am I, perhaps, pursuing a biography of George Lucas?

The answer is:  No. While there is a remote Star Wars connection, my subject is not George Lucas.  It’s someone even more exciting than that. And I’ll tell you who it is this later this week.

* It was “Ticket to Ride,” and the jangly opening was actually played by Paul McCartney, on a left-hand strung six string.  Now you know.

Sailing to Philadelphia

On Wednesday, March 5, I had the great pleasure of making an appearance at the Central Library branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia — a really terrific venue, as you can see in the photo below. It’s one of those old library buildings (this one dates from the 1920s) that looks like the set of an old movie.

I took the train up to Philadelphia, only about an hour and some change away from the BWI station here in Maryland. The 30th Street station in Philly also looks like something off of an old movie set, with a departures/arrivals sign that still uses rolling numbers to indicate what time and at which gates trains are arriving, and the numbers flicker past with an audible whirr.

My reading wasn’t until 7:00 p.m., so my 10:24 a.m. arrival in Philadelphia left me plenty of time to do . . . well, something. I was considering heading straight for the library and spending the day just reading when I saw hanging above the south doors an enormous black banner advertising STAR WARS: THE SCIENCE BEHIND THE IMAGINATION over at the Franklin Institute. Decision made.

I found the Franklin Institute — which happened to be cattycorner to the Central Library — paid my sheckels, and headed straight for the exhibit. C-3P0 and R2-D2 (or, as it was always spelled in the Star Wars comics, Threepio and Artoo) stared down at me from another enormous banner, practically begging me to step inside. Who am I to ignore the icons of my childhood? In I went.

And I loved it. Much of the exhibit was geared towards hands-on exhibits for the younger set (“Build your own hovercraft using electromagnets!” one sign dared — this was, after all, a science exhibit) but to me, the real goods were the models and costumes. There was the actual landspeeder from the movie (on three wheels, ready for driving!), costumes for Threepio, Artoo, Darth Vader, and a Stormtrooper, even a display of their guns (though to my disappointment, Han Solo’s way cool pistol was not included).

Oh, and there was also this:

It doesn’t get much cooler than a four-foot model of the Millennium Falcon (or “Fulcun” as Harrison Ford — and even the model builders in the accompanying video — always pronounced it). My museum experience was complete.

As for the event I came for . . . well, I couldn’t have asked for a nicer, more responsive crowd. I spoke for about 30 minutes (hey, they came on a Wednesday evening, and I wanted to give them their money’s worth), mainly about Irving’s work on A History of New York and the hoax he pulled off to promote the book, then took questions for an hour. (The first question I got: “How come they don’t teach us this in school?” I couldn’t answer it.) All in all, a good time all around.

I walked back to the train station (passing on Market Street the first adult movie theater I can remember seeing in years) and was lucky enough to catch an earlier train back to Maryland than the one I had reserved. I made the 70 minute drive back home, finally crawling into bed around 1 a.m. And I still had to get up for work the next morning.

My thanks to everyone who came out to see me on their Wednesday night — and a special thanks to Lee Fishman at the Philadelphia Library for helping make the event possible.