Tag Archives: interviews

“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?)

Take The A Train . . . Provided It’s Going The Right Way, Of Course.

I hopped the 6:21 a.m. Acela train to New York yesterday, on my way up to have my second extended sit-down session with An Amazing (and Important) Person. It was my first time on the Acela — normally I’m a Northeast Regional kinda guy, but I couldn’t make the generally skittish NER work, as one arrived waaay too early, while the other pulled into Penn Station much too close to my meeting time. And given that the NER is famously delayed on its arrival in New York, I didn’t want to risk missing one moment of the three hours my subject had generously set aside for our conversation.

After riding the NER almost monthly for the last year or so, being on board the Acela seems like stepping onto the set for Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Everything seems vaguely futuristic: doors open between cars at a touch (and without the rattle of the NER), the seats look like command chairs, and the cafe car features a streamlined bar area where diners sit on stools, rather than at the cramped booths of the NER. There’s even wi-fi humming throughout the train, allegedly for the courtesy of business passengers who need it for work, but I notice that most passengers — including yours truly — are using it to check Facebook or update their Twitter feeds.

On my arrival in Penn Station, I decide to see if I can navigate the underground tunnels that will take me to the Red 1 subway line I need to get to my destination (usually I exit Penn Station then walk outside for the two blocks or so it takes to get to the station at 34th Street). I’ve tried to do this before, but ended up either dead-ended or completely turned around, and thus simply headed for the closest EXIT sign, which, more often than not, seemed to eject me into the middle of a shopping mall.

This time, however, I manage to successfully weave my way to the subway station, follow the arrows for the 1 and board the train marked 242nd Street.  For a moment, I’m very pleased with myself for my successful navigation of a system that your average New Yorker can navigate drunk—then immediately realize, as I watch the street numbers at the subway stations go down instead of up, that I’m headed the wrong way.

Unlike the Metro in Washington — where you can exit any train boarded in error, cross over to the other platform and board the correct train without ever exiting the Metro — most stops in New York require that you exit the station, cross the street, and re-enter the station (and pay again) for the train going the other direction.  I had learned this lesson months earlier when I boarded the wrong train from Long Island to Brooklyn, but that apparently didn’t stop me from boarding the wrong train at 34th Street.  Rats.

Humbled, I exit and re-enter and board a train going the right way, and make it to my interview with gobs of time to spare — so much so that I have enough time to sit for a bit in a park overlooking the Hudson, where I watch a young woman get pulled along like a waterskiier behind the five large dogs she was walking at once.

At ten on the dot, I ring the bell at my destination, where I’m greeted like an old friend. While we’ve traded e-mails several times, this was only our second face-to-face — but I’m welcomed enthusiastically and ushered into a cozy living room with comfortable furniture and framed by a large open window overlooking the street. For the next three hours, as a cool breeze and birdsong flutter in through the open window, we have a wonderful conversation, during which I scribble notes frantically on a yellow note pad, trying to get it all down and completely ignoring the lines on the paper as a I scrawl in large cursive with a black felt tip. At one o’clock, we’re done. We shake hands warmly, and my subject makes me promise we’ll get together again soon.  It’s a deal.

Afterwards, I sprint for the subway — and board the correct train this time — then slide into a booth at the TGIFriday’s at Penn Station, fire up the laptop, and start typing my notes as quickly as I can while everything’s still fresh, stopping only a few times to squint at my handwriting to figure out what I’ve written.  By 2:45, I’m only about a third of the way through my notes, but it’s time to catch my train back to Maryland.  This time, I’m on the Northeast Regional, which gets up in my face by pulling into Penn Station right on time.

On the ride home, I grab a seat, as I usually do, in the Quiet Car, where chatter and phone calls are strictly prohibited. I do this even when I don’t have work to do because if I don’t, it seems I always end up with someone in the seat next to me who spends the three-hour train ride back to DC discussing the results of their latest physical, their aunt’s rocky marriage, and the personal lives of everyone in their office.  I drop the tray at my window seat, crank up the laptop again, and return to my task at hand for the next 90 minutes or so.  The seat next to me is eventually occupied by a Richmond-bound passenger in a ballcap and shades, who plays video baseball on his iPhone, and tries briefly to engage me and the woman across the aisle from him in conversation. From our stage-whispered responses, he realizes he’s committing a breach of protocol — but that still doesn’t prevent him from answering a phone call and chatting for several minutes before a conductor stops by and loudly announces that those who wish to talk on the phone must move to another car — “or I will put you out,” he adds matter-of-factly. The phone disappears.

I get off at the BWI stop, pay for my parking (when will the BWI station finally get all their ticket booths working??) and head for home in DC-Baltimore rush hour traffic.  To my surprise, I’m home before 7 p.m, just in time for Barb, Madi and I to take in the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie, which we all thought to be a bit plodding and about 45 minutes too long — but that’s for another time.