This is part three in a four-part series of interviews with the authors of the new book Ultimate Star Wars. The DK reference guide is intended to both introduce new fans to the Star Wars franchise and refresh the memories of longtime fans about the state of the universe.
Dan Wallace is one of the most prolific authors in the Star Wars franchise. He's the king of Essential Guides, Star Wars Insider articles, and in-universe tomes (The Jedi Path, Book of Sith, The Bounty Hunter Code, Imperial Handbook). But this book was different for Wallace. It challenged him to let go of much of the Expanded Universe backstory he'd invented, collected, and presented in previous works. In our interview, Wallace discussed what he called the "'Unlearn what you have learned' process" of co-writing Ultimate Star Wars.
How did they pitch this to you?
I think it was after I signed on that it was made clear that this was going to be the new continuity as opposed to anything from the Expanded Universe.
I knew it was going to be a Star Wars encyclopedia type of project and it was going to be covering a lot of different things. I knew in general, "Alright, they're going to release it before the new movie is coming out, so that makes sense. I get why they're pulling this together." I'm pretty sure it wasn't until I was working on it that I realized how focused they wanted it to be on the new canon.
I remember I was working on something and it was the Jedi Council member Yaddle from Episode I. [I was] writing that, and [thought], "Wait a minute, I can't actually talk about that much from Yaddle," because most of Yaddle's backstory is from…there's a young-adult novel, there's a comic in Star Wars Tales. So I was like, "Oh, okay, I think I get it now. We really are going with what we know [from canon]." Yaddle's entry is [short] by necessity. The point is that we don't really know that much about Yaddle.
There are new storytelling opportunities out there and these are uncharted waters.
I like how you sprinkle in a few key events. Were you involved in writing those?
Yeah, we split those up. There were four of us who were doing it, and we all got different sections. I ended up doing a lot of the sections…around The Clone Wars and the prequels. [Those] were sort of mine, not exclusively, but that was kind of my wheelhouse. Usually the special moments that were associated with those things were things that we did. I think it had already been determined which moments we were going to do.
It was important because we structured the book chronologically, and Star Wars is obviously more than just technology and planets. It's a story, it's a saga. [The key events] really reinforced that, that there are some heroes and villains and protagonists and antagonists. It just reminds everybody that this is…an actual story almost as much as, if not more than, a setting. It really is a saga.
That's probably even more important now with the new canon. It really is focused on this particular narrative right now that we're continuing with Episode VII The Force Awakens.
This book lists entries chronologically. What was the process like to catalog every single entry?
The chronological thing…I think they might have put it up [to a vote], like, "Hey, does anybody want to work on this or does anybody have any preferences?" And generally speaking, I'm pretty cool with any of it, you know? I like the whole thing. So I ended up doing [the Clone Wars] era.
It was a little different [from previous reference books], just focusing on that era. I was doing a technology section [and] it was about the Republic war machines and Separatist droids and things like that. So I had to really be immersed in that for a long time.
Like you said, I have done a lot of different reference books. I needed to brush up on things, but at the same time, I think I know the SW universe well enough that a particular era or a particular time frame that I have to focus in on doesn't necessarily throw me off that much. I feel like I've done the research in a previous life, almost. It's like, "Oh, yeah, I remember this." I can almost play the movie in my head.
Did you get to create any new tidbits of canon in any of the character backstories?
I don't think I really added much, to be honest. Certainly I've done those types of things on books before, where I've added things. But because it's focused on the new canon, I didn't see a lot of opportunities where I would need to do that. I'm sure those things will come up. Usually the way these things go is you have enough facts and figures to tell half the story or maybe 80 percent of the story and maybe 20 percent is unclear, and you go in and sort of spackle, like Adam [Bray] did with Ezra's slingshot.
In this case, I resisted that impulse because I feel like we're still so early in this. In that case, they probably needed something for Ezra's slingshot. But in the case of the Yaddle thing, it was like, "We don't have a backstory, but at the same time, I don't exactly know if somebody's going to do anything with this. They might." I don't want to get ahead of ourselves. This is like Page One [of the new canon], a little bit.
That's the kind of thing that will become more common as the new universe that is being launched right now around this—with novels and comics and so on—becomes a little more fleshed out. That's usually where a lot of those fixes come into play.
What was new about the experience of making this book? How did it differ from your many previous reference books?
It was new in the sense that we're dealing with new material; it's the first time we had Rebels in something in terms of a reference book that I had worked on. It's [also] a collaborative process.
The one thing that was interesting was, I have done things like The New Essential Chronology and a lot of reference books that are pretty heavy on the Expanded Universe, and it was a different, sort of "Unlearn what you have learned" process. I [would] approach a thing and I'm like, "Alright, I think I know exactly what's going on here," and then it was like, "Maybe I don't. I should probably unpack my knowledge of this particular character or this particular setting and just make sure that all of the stuff that I have in my head is from one of the six movie episodes or The Clone Wars or Rebels." That was a little bit of a different wrinkle. It's not that hard to do, but it was different. It was almost meditative. [Laughs] Clear your mind rather than pack it in with new facts.
What was your favorite part of working on this book?
It's a tricky one because I'd have to go and page through it. Usually when you get a book like this, you end up looking at the images and you're like, "Oh, yeah, that's cool. That actually came out really well. That looks really good." I think I had more fun with the technology section than I did with the character section, in that…for people who are familiar with the previous Expanded Universe and who are picking this up because it's the new canon, where you're going to see a lot of [familiar things]…is in the technologies and ships and so on. A lot of the facts for that haven't really changed.
[This included] things like—and I think the Wookieepedians out there noticed this—starship manufactures. We have a stat block, and it's like, this ship was made by Haor Chall Engineering or something like that. Even though that name originated in the Expanded Universe, there's not really any compelling reason why you would change it. Why would we say "Made by unknown?" That's not significant enough [to want to leave mysterious]. Usually we would use those things. If so-and-so's homeworld was Balmorra, or something, we would still use those things.
I think the approach that you can glean from reading through this if you are a fan of the previous Expanded Universe is that a lot of the things that were introduced as technology or planets or parts of the galaxy are probably all still true. It's just that maybe some of the adventures that were told might not have happened in that specific way. I think that's sort of the philosophy. It's not like we're completely blank-slating [the universe]. [We won't] reinvent the wheel. If we have a name of something, we're not going to name it twice.
One of the things this book emphasizes to me is how interconnected all of the canon stories are, especially the importance of The Clone Wars. Did you learn anything about Star Wars while putting this book together?
What I was saying earlier with the story spreads [addresses this], especially when you think about [how] the new canon is focused on the movie episodes. Star Wars is a really interesting setting and a place to have stories and adventures and so on. But at the same time, it starts with Episode I and it goes through Episode VI, and [now] Episode VII. In that sense, if you think of it as a narrative with these scrolling letters that stretch out into infinity, and that it's a story of Anakin Skywalker and Luke Skywalker and the Force and Yoda, it does reinforce why Star Wars exists as a saga. It's like a tale that would be told, and it's centered around that. You can have a lot of things around the sidelines [happening] in other corners of the galaxy but none of it would exist were it not for this big central narrative.
When people say "Star Wars saga," I think that is true. It is, it's a saga, it's the saga of these heroes. It's put a new focus on that [as I was] working on this project, because of the new focus on [the canon].
Ultimate Star Wars is now available from DK Publishing. My thanks to Dan for taking the time to talk to me, and to DK for providing me with a review copy of this book.