Sunday, June 11, 2006

Guest Editorial: Mike Stackpole on Star Wars

If you're a Star Wars fan and you don't know the name Michael Stackpole -- how'd you manage that? Not only did Michael create the hugely successful X-Wing: Rogue Squadron book series and script the Dark Horse Comics series of the same name, he's also published some 38 novels so far, including eight set in the Star Wars universe. And we're not talking media spinoff hackwork, here; his Star Wars novels have bumped Stephen King off the NY Times bestseller list.

Not half bad, if you ask me, for a kid from Wausau.

Michael's personal site is and he writes an excellent writer's newsletter called The Secrets (subscription only, I'm afraid); he even has a podcast. In short, the kid has done pretty much everything I'd wished I'd done, if only life hadn't gotten in the way.

But never mind that. This month we're talking about Star Wars, and so, without further ado, I will hand the microphone over to Mr. Stackpole...

The impact working for Star Wars™ has on a writer's career—heck, a writer's life—cannot be understated. Way back when, in 1994, I was driving from Maine to Vermont with my father after a family fishing trip, and he asked me, "So, what does this Star Wars stuff mean for your career?"

I thought for a second and then replied, "Oh, it's a big deal."

Naïve, even then. I could not have guessed how big a deal it would be. I knew Timothy Zahn's novels had hit the New York Times Bestseller list, but even that was kind of a hazy concept. I'd figured that maybe once or twice, in the twilight of my career, I might have a book hit the list. I didn't understand that in the space of four years I'd have eight books hit, and that one of them would even knock a Stephen King novel off the list. (Okay, it was only for a week, but you take the victories where you can find them, right?)

From the start, however, I knew something special was going on. The week after I'd been offered the contracts I was in New Orleans having lunch with a friend. We were getting caught up and I told him about the Star Wars books. It was just a conversation between friends so we never used names. Didn't need to.

A couple from the next table gets up to leave. The man slides a piece of paper and a pen onto our table. "You're doing Star Wars stuff. Can I have your autograph? I love Star Wars." It didn't matter to him who the heck I was. I was playing with Star Wars, and that was enough.

I'd been a Star Wars fan from the start, but somehow I'd missed how deep the love for Star Wars was. A friend sent me some snippets of conversation on a usenet group about the Star Wars novels. A fan wondered, "Who the heck is this Stackpole guy, and why are they giving him X-wing novels?"

One of my BattleTech readers replied, "You guys are so lucky you're getting him. Our loss is your gain."

And even before I'd written word one, I got a long letter from a die-hard Wedge fan explaining to me all the things I needed to do and avoid doing. This wasn't a cranky letter, it was just a straight-forward, analytical letter that expressed a lot of love for the universe in general, and Wedge very specifically.

Writing the books was a lot of fun. I love the universe and being able to play around inside it was great. I very much enjoyed the freedom that Lucasfilm allowed me to invent characters and write stories within tiny niches. They were most generous in that way, and others.

After I'd gotten the job I went up to Skywalker Ranch and was having lunch with Sue Rostoni and Lucy Wilson. Lucy asked if I'd ever done any work in comics. I replied that I'd always wanted to, but none of the deals I'd worked on had come to fruition. She made a note on a napkin and the conversation moved on.

Three months later I got a call from Ryder Windham of Dark Horse Comics. "We want to do an X-wing series, and Lucasfilm said we had to talk to you." I was floored, and very happy. Working on the X-wing series was a lot of fun, especially when I got to script the comics and work ties back and forth between them, my novels, and the new books Tim Zahn was doing at the time.

Getting to work with Tim was also a great joy of writing for Star Wars. Tim and I had met several times before I started writing Star Wars. Reading his novels as research renewed my respect for his work. Our writing styles and sense of the Star Wars universe are highly compatible, which made our official and unofficial collaborations very easy. We have a lot of respect for each other's characters and were able to keep the characterizations consistent—which usually is a problem with big collaborative projects.

Working with Tim on the story Side Trip is one of my fondest memories. Granted, it may be a writer thing, but in the middle of this story which we co-plotted and then split into pieces for the writing, I got to have Corran Horn (in disguise) in a landspeeder with Grand Admiral Thrawn (in disguise) talking about the state of art in the universe. Completely surreal and yet appropriate for the two of them—neither of whom ever realized they'd met. It was kind of like imagining Rommel and Patton chatting at some diplomatic reception in Sweden during the 1912 Olympics.

Aside from getting to work with friends, how does Star Wars change your life? Well, I tend to get emails from 6th grade boys. Lots of it. Rogue Squadron, as it turns out, is often the first book they've ever read all by themselves. This is unbelievably cool. A number of them credit their love of reading to that book, which is also very humbling. I mean, reading is huge in my life, and to be credited with opening that door for others is a great honor.

Book signings have changed, and in a fascinating way. If I do one and the publicity lists me as writing Star Wars, I'll have a solid 45 minutes worth of customers at the start. If I'm just listed as an author, ten minutes, maybe twenty. Mind you, that's not a complaint, just an interesting observation.

Another big deal is foreign sales. My agent has found it much easier to sell my original novels into countries where the Star Wars novels are in print. And I must admit that it's very cool to get a copy of a novel in a foreign language—a language I can't even recognize, much less read.

Over and above all that, working with Star Wars is magic. Even folks who are snobby and want to look down on me because I write science fiction suddenly change their tune when they hear I've written for Star Wars. They become kids again, remembering when they saw the movies and used to fall asleep with a phalanx of Star Wars action-figures on their nightstand. Star Wars is a phenomenon that bonds us all.

And as special as it is for me, for some folks it is even more special. An artist who lives in New Mexico told me that when Star Wars came out, she was living in East Germany. They were not allowed to see the film there, so she and friends went on vacation to Czechoslovakia to see it. They were blown away, and coming out of the film, she and her friends resolved that they would escape East Germany.

And later did.

So, Star Wars really does have the power to change lives. It's changed mine, definitely for the better. To have been able to give back to the universe that entertained me for so long is a highlight of my career. If I had it to do all over again, I would, without hesitation. After all, when you have a chance to make so many people happy, how can you walk away from it?

You can't, which is why the Force will always be with us.

-- Mike Stackpole