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TFN Interview With Author Ryder Windham

Posted By Adrick on January 23, 2012

Ryder Windham is well known for his many contributions to the Star Wars Expanded Universe over the years. His contributions include the Droids comic series, Jedi Vs. Sith: The Essential Guide to the Force, and the upcoming Millennium Falcon Owner?s Workshop Manual. His series of Star Wars biographies for young readers includes the newly-released Wrath of Darth Maul, which provides a detailed look at the life of the young Sith Lord. Here we discuss the series, how Maul?s existing backstory was integrated into the newer material, and the making of a Sith Lord.


You?ve been writing for Star Wars since the mid nineties, and have probably written more regularly for the franchise than just about any other recent author. How do you maintain a fresh approach to stories and characters?

It helps to keep in mind that every Star Wars book could be a reader?s first Star Wars book, that it?s fresh for someone else. I might be very familiar with the characters and situations, but the goal is to make each Star Wars story exciting and memorable, and leave the readers simultaneously satisfied and eager for more. I think it also helps that I genuinely love playing in the Star Wars universe, that I get a kick out of revisiting various stories from different perspectives. I never get tired of a return trip to Tatooine.

The Star Wars biography series for young readers has had four installments based on the lives of Darth Vader, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke Skywalker, and now Darth Maul. How did this series come to be?

Scholastic editor David Levithan contacted me in 2006, asking if I?d be interested in writing a novel that was essentially the Star Wars saga from the perspective of Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader. The publishing plan was to release the novel in 2007 and exploit the thirtieth anniversary of Star Wars. I?d already written the junior novelizations of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi for Scholastic, so Vader?s life was definitely familiar territory, but I thought it was a great opportunity to do something slightly different.

I had no idea Scholastic was planning more biographies beyond the Vader book, and I?m not involved in the planning at all. For each biography, Lucasfilm and Scholastic editors choose the main character to focus on, and then Scholastic contacts me. I?ve joked that I?ll eventually write R2-D2?s memoirs, and the entire book will be in binary code.

How has your approach to the subjects of the biographies changed over the last four volumes?

For The Rise and Fall of Darth Vader, I was initially instructed to focus primarily on writing an adaptation of every scene featuring Anakin and Vader in the movies. I can?t remember why, but Lucasfilm was somewhat hesitant to let me incorporate a lot of details from the Expanded Universe. I very politely protested, suggesting that readers would expect something more than a replay of Anakin and Vader in the movies, that the Expanded Universe information would be new for a lot of young readers. I was also keen on adding some new bits, like how Anakin and his mother arrived on Tatooine, and how they met Watto, not because I wanted to claim bragging rights for scripting those particular moments, but because I thought such sequences would help shape Anakin?s character. It was also my idea to tell the story in a somewhat non-linear fashion, beginning with Vader just before the events of Return of the Jedi, and then flashing back to Anakin Skywalker?s childhood, and proceeding up through the end of Jedi.

After the novel was released, young readers enjoyed it well enough, but a good number of older readers complained that that it didn?t contain more ?new? material. Annmarie Nye became my editor at Scholastic, and when she offered me the Obi-Wan assignment, she encouraged me to draw more from the Expanded Universe and also to create new sequences. For the Luke Skywalker book, I was further encouraged to develop new sequences, including an adventure for Luke after the events of Return of the Jedi, and I couldn?t resist resurrecting an old enemy from the Star Wars comic strip by Archie Goodwin and Al Williamson. As for Darth Maul, very few stories existed about his youth, so I was fortunate in that Lucasfilm allowed me to expand his biography quite a bit.

If there?s one thing all my Star Wars biographies have in common, it?s that they begin with the characters when they?re older, and then go back to when they were younger, and proceed from there, showing how the characters mature. But I wouldn?t say the biographies are totally formulaic because each character is so different. Lucasfilm may have encouraged greater leeway with the Expanded Universe after The Rise and Fall of Darth Vader, but I?m not sure my approach has changed that much with the other books. I just hope to entertain readers, and also make them connect with the characters.

This book comes out right before The Phantom Menace is released in 3-D, and just before Darth Maul makes his return in The Clone Wars. Was this the reason Darth Maul was chosen as the subject for the next biography?

Yes, definitely. When I got the assignment, someone, I can?t remember who, told me that Darth Maul was going to be the Star Wars poster boy for 2012. He?s everywhere.

Although Maul was ?resurrected? for The Clone Wars TV series, The Wrath of Darth Maul is the first story to reveal his survival after the events of The Phantom Menace. Did this affect the story you wanted to tell?

Unless one considers Darth Maul?s appearance in the Visionaries comic book as canon, yes, I think The Wrath of Darth Maul is the first official ?Maul survived? story to appear in print. The Clone Wars episode definitely helped shape Wrath, giving me various story ideas as well as a neat prologue and epilogue. I didn?t have any preconceived notions about the story before I learned details about Maul?s resurrection, so I really just took the info that Lucasfilm gave me and did my best to work with it, to shape a Maul story that worked with The Clone Wars.

What was it about Maul?s character that you wanted to capture in 214 pages?

I was mostly intrigued by the challenge of making Maul a sympathetic character, which was a challenge I gave myself. I can only imagine how other writers might have handled young Maul, but I suspect some would have been tempted to make him an evil critter from the very start, and Lucasfilm might not have dismissed that idea either. We see Maul in The Phantom Menace, and he?s totally vicious and terrifying, so fully formed, it?s hard to imagine him any different. But the way I figured it, he wasn?t born hating Jedi, wasn?t born with a lightsaber in his hand. I thought Maul would be a more compelling character if I could convey that he was a lifelong victim of circumstances, but one who has little awareness that he?s a victim.

What do you think appeals to people most about Maul? What sets Maul apart from other Sith Lords we?ve seen?

A lot of Maul?s appeal is in his appearance. He?s so visually striking and deadly looking, it?s almost impossible to avoid looking at him. He?d definitely stand out in a lineup of Sith Lords. As for what else sets him apart, and I?m just going to stick with Sith Lords from the movies? Unlike Count Dooku or Anakin Skywalker, Maul never had a choice about becoming a Sith Lord?s apprentice. He wasn?t lured to the dark side, didn?t start off as a Jedi apprentice and then lean toward darkness. One might argue that Anakin felt as if he had no choice when he allied with Darth Sidious, but my take was that Maul had no choice, that he?d been corrupted since infancy.

You previously wrote about Darth Maul in The Fury of Darth Maul, a novel/gamebook combo from the Episode I Adventures series. This was one of the first EU stories to focus on Maul. Did you give much thought to his background then?

No, not really, not at the time. I never wondered what Maul might have been like as a boy, or any other details of his past. I guess I took him at face value. Back then, there may have even been a mandate to not reveal too much about Maul?s past, just like Yoda?s origins have always been off limits.

However, I did have an indirect impact on Maul?s background. In 1998, Running Press hired me to write Star Wars: Episode I Who?s Who, and for that book, Lucasfilm encouraged me to create names of species and homeworlds as well as brief biographies for various members of the Jedi Council and also the Podracers. I came up with the word Zabrak to describe Eeth Koth?s species, and then another writer decided that the similarly horned-headed Darth Maul should also be a Zabrak. When I first heard a character say ?Zabrak? on The Clone Wars, I had to grin at that.

The Wrath of Darth Maul blends together a lot of material from different sources about Maul?s past. Was it difficult to integrate all this while still creating something new?

Because there wasn?t much info about Maul?s past, it wasn?t difficult to create and make room for new bits. The Darth Maul Journal written by Jude Watson provided a lot of information, and really served as a foundation for Maul?s past. The Journal includes several passages that start off with something like, When I was young, my Master brought me to a world for a training exercise, and it became my job to sort out when those events occurred, how old Maul was at the time, and so on.

The only thing I recall as a slight stumbler was that Lucasfilm used to endorse the idea that Maul was adorned with ?Sith tattoos,? but that idea seems to have changed with the introduction of the Nightbrothers in The Clone Wars, as all the Nightbrothers have similarly tattooed heads and bodies. I didn?t address the issue, just omitted any mention of Sith tattoos.

This novel names the previously unidentified worlds where Maul was trained. Mustafar in particular is used heavily. Can you explain the process behind choosing these planets?

Leland Chee, the continuity editor at Lucas Books, informed me that Darth Sidious secretly trained Maul on Mustafar. So, after reviewing Jude Watson?s Darth Maul Journal, and noting how Maul visited various unnamed worlds during his training, I examined Star Wars: The Essential Atlas to pick worlds that weren?t too far from Mustafar, which seemed practical. I figured Sidious wouldn?t want to travel too far with young Maul. The Atlas is one of my favorite reference books, and I use it frequently. I should just throw money at Dan Wallace and Jason Fry the next time I see them.

James Luceno?s Darth Plagueis, his Darth Maul short story Restraint, and the upcoming Clone Wars episode Brothers all influence the plot of this book, yet none of them was released while you were writing the book. What did you have to work with?

Shortly after I got the Maul assignment, I learned that James Luceno was working on Restraint, and Lucasfilm encouraged us to talk so we could make our stories mesh. I?d never met or talked with Jim before, and we had several long talks on the phone, which was a pleasure. He was very generous with his ideas. He came up with Orsis Academy, the Mandalorian instructor, and Maul?s fight with the Nightsisters, and I somehow wound up inventing the Mandalorian?s name, also the names of Maul?s fellow cadets at the academy. He sent me his outline and first draft of Restraint, and I sent him excerpts from my book. At first, I planned on just alluding to the events in Restraint, but the editors encouraged me to adapt Jim?s story from purely Maul?s perspective. I think my only significant contribution to Jim?s story was to suggest that Maul would do something that left the Nightsister?s leader, Talzin, in Maul?s debt, as I thought that would better mesh with situations in upcoming episodes of The Clone Wars, or at least what little I knew about the episodes.

As for The Clone Wars episode Brothers, secrecy was such that Lucasfilm Animation didn?t want to release a script. Leland Chee described Maul?s appearance to me over the phone, and also provided some dialogue from an episode featuring Maul. Leland really gave me everything I needed to get the job done.

One thing that really strikes me about this book is that Maul is sympathetic not because he once had love and friendship, like Anakin Skywalker, but because he had the potential for it even during his horribly brutal life. This gives his character an element of tragedy while staying away from a more traditional "fall" to the dark side. Were you aware of this when creating the relationships Maul had with Deenine and Kilindi?

Yes, that was deliberate. Every time the story seems to be building toward Maul gaining a friend or being the recipient of some small act of kindness, it just doesn?t work out, or the opportunity is yanked away from him. If I?d written Maul as a remorseless psychotic killer since childhood, there?d be no tragedy, and I did think tragedy was necessary for Maul?s story to hold any strong interest. Most readers can?t easily identify with a Force-using character, but they can identify with what it?s like to want a friend, to want praise from an adult, to want a life without pain. All of Maul?s relationships with other characters were engineered to mess him up, to make him more hateful and untrusting. The tragedy is evident in several sequences that suggest Maul secretly yearned for a friend at different times in his life, but that he could never have one.

As is appropriate for the character, this novel is dark and violent?at times it?s quite easy to forget it is meant for younger readers. Was this a hard line to walk?

I?m afraid this will sound pretentious, but I really never think about the age of the readers. I?m more conscious of the fact that I?m writing for Star Wars fans, and that I hope to please them all, children and their parents included. The editors knew from the start that this book would contain violence, that it wouldn?t have anything resembling a conventional happy ending. But as you noted, that?s appropriate because we?re dealing with Maul. I think the editors trusted that I wasn?t interested in glorifying violence, that I understood my job was to tell how Maul evolved into Darth Maul, and also indicate that he?d survived the Battle of Naboo.

The hard part was that I wound up dipping into very dingy areas of my own imagination to put Maul through some extremely cruel paces. I didn?t take any delight in making young Maul suffer, but I also knew the only way Maul could become Darth Maul was to really put him through hell. After working on some disturbing sequences, I just needed to get away from my computer. I took a lot of long walks to clear my head.

Only one bit of violence was edited out. In my first draft, when Maul fights an Abyssin student at Orsis Academy, Maul didn?t just bite the Abyssin?s nose. He bit it off and spat it out. I thought I was being clever by making Maul?s opponent an Abyssin with regenerative abilities, so his nose would have grown back. But the editors said, Nope, that?s still way too violent and gross. And they were right. Another writer might have tried to argue that a Star Wars character temporarily losing a nose isn?t a big deal compared to a character permanently losing a hand or head because of a lightsaber, but still? No need for gross.

What was your favorite part about writing this book?

Getting to know Jim Luceno was a terrific bonus. I?m still just tickled that I was selected to write it, that I was encouraged to flesh out Maul?s past.

I do have a favorite recollection while writing the book. After I?d finished the opening chapters, I gave them to my daughter Violet, who was just shy of eleven-years-old at the time. Before that, Violet?s only assessment of Darth Maul was to say, ?He looks freaky.? I just sat back quietly and watched her face as she read. She started off looking very serious, and then a few pages into it, she grinned. And then her brow furrowed. And then she said, ?Awwww!? and looked up at me with a pained expression. That?s when I knew I could make someone feel sorry for Darth Maul. A benchmark moment.

Thanks again to Wrath of Darth Maul author Ryder Windham for taking the time to talk to me. His book is available in stores now.

Related Stories

April 11, 2012   Ryder Windham Ultimate Visual Guide Signing
January 16, 2012   Wrath Of Darth Maul Reviewed
June 15, 2011   Darth Maul Bio Book Coming Next January
May 25, 2011   Star Wars: Darth Maul Bio By Scholastic

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