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Interview: Essential Reader's Companion Author Pablo Hidalgo

Posted By Eric on October 2, 2012

Today sees the release of Star Wars: The Essential Reader's Companion, Pablo Hidalgo's compendium of Expanded Universe stories. The book, which includes a chronological listing of every novel in the EU's 36-year history, also features incredible new artwork and fascinating behind-the-scenes information about the making of the EU. I recently spoke to Pablo, an established Star Wars expert at Lucasfilm, to learn more about what went into producing this book.

This is part one of the interview. The second part is on Suvudu.


*********

Before we get into the book, tell me about your personal history within the Star Wars community. How did you go from a fan to an official authority on the saga?

I was a fan from the start, part of the original Star Wars generation, part of the folks who were of that age where you grew up with Star Wars on the playground. It was pretty much inescapable. And then around the mid-1990s, when Star Wars was coming back through the Expanded Universe with the Timothy Zahn books and all the material that was coming out of Dark Horse and Bantam, I had hooked up with West End Games and was a writer for their Star Wars roleplaying game. Through that project I kind of established myself as a guy who knew a lot about Star Wars minutiae. Right around that time, Steve Sansweet was doing research for his first edition of the Star Wars encyclopedia through Del Rey, and I think through my contacts with West End, I connected with him.

It might have been at GenCon, a roleplaying game convention in 1996, that I first met Steve. I introduced myself and I told him that I’d be happy to help out in any way I could with his encyclopedia. He sent me a draft of it, and this was fairly early on Internet-wise. I was not doing much online at the time, so I think I ended up faxing him a ton of changes, so that kind of dates us. What would have happened via email was done very inefficiently through eighty pages of faxed notes with corrections and changes to make to the encyclopedia.

Right around that time, I was starting to get more online and I met folks like Jason Fry and Dan Wallace. We were all kind of Star Wars experts in our own particular way and we would compare notes and exchange emails on the most esoteric minutiae. We would also keep ourselves abreast about Star Wars news, not only new material that was coming out but also obscure material that had kind of fallen by the wayside. This email group kept growing and growing and adding more experts –– folks like Abel Peña and Rich Handley and Joe Bongiorno and James McFadden. We jokingly referred to ourselves as the Star Wars Fanboy Association, because this is where we’d have extremely long and detailed conversations about the most esoteric subjects. We would exchange photocopies or original copies of really obscure Star Wars publications that had fallen by the wayside. We became this kind of brain trust in that regard.

What then happened in 1999 was that Lucasfilm put up a job posting for an Internet Content Developer, basically a writing position for StarWars.com. I applied for it. I had attempted to put Steve on as a reference and he said not to because he would be one of the people that would be interviewing me. I’m sure Steve went a long way in making the case as to why I would be an asset to the company in that capacity, and sure enough, I got the job in 2000. Ever since then I’ve been working here at Lucasfilm beyond whatever my stated capacity was at the time. My job may have been listed as someone who writes content for the Internet, but it basically grew to being involved in a lot of Star Wars productions at the time, offering whatever insight and expertise I could.

This is not your typical Star Wars Essential Guide. When did this project get started, who had the idea, and how closely does the final product resemble what you had in mind in the early days?

The book existed as an idea before my involvement. It had shown up on a couple of internal calendars listing projects that Del Rey wanted to do. It was called The Guide to Fiction. It wasn’t necessarily branded with the “Essential” name to start off with, but we knew that it was going to be part of that library. We also knew that it was going to be different; we knew that it was going to be the first non-fiction book within that label. The others are written from an in-universe perspective, and this would be one that makes no allusions as to what it would be. It’s a non-fiction guide: it talks about books as books, as opposed to events within a universe.

My involvement started in January 2010 when Erich offered me the book as a project. I’m sure that it was based on experience that he had with me directly, working on The Complete Star Wars Encyclopedia. He knew my writing style, he knew my working style, and he knew that I was okay taking on some rather large projects and some very tight deadlines. Early on, there was some discussion as to, “How do we handle all of these materials? What’s the scope of the book? What are we going to cover and what aren’t we going to cover? Do we handle everything equally? Are short stories treated the same way as novels?” I took the first chapter –– I started with the Old Republic era –– and said, “Let’s use that as a shakedown cruise, as it were, for this concept, and see how that works. That way, if it all works, then we’ve got Chapter One done, and if it doesn’t work, then we’ve learned our lessons from the first chapter. Either way we’re making forward progress on it.”

My first stab at Chapter One actually included the comics. We took the Old Republic-era comics and put them in there and we attempted to treat every short story as its own entry, and there was some learning from that. The first thing was that the chapter was just too big. I ended up using nearly half of my allocated word count just doing the first chapter, and I realized, “Something’s not working here.” We had to take comics out immediately; the comics took up way too much room. So we realized that comics were beyond the scope of the book and we would focus primarily on prose fiction.

The other thing we realized is that with multi-book series, there was something to be gained from making a single entry for those. Things like the Darth Bane books could be handled under one entry as opposed to creating entries for individual books. That saves a lot of text because you don’t need to re-introduce the subject; you’re able to continue along and summarize the story in one entry.

Then we realized that doing sidebars for short stories that were directly tied into an existing book was also much more economical. There was still room to do short fiction as self-standing entries when it made sense, but in other cases, when it saved you a lot of words, it was decided to do them as sidebars. For instance, with the Old Republic novels, Paul Kemp’s Deceived had a sidebar; he had a short story that he wrote, called "The Third Lesson," that appeared in Star Wars Insider. It was easier to do that as a sidebar on the Deceived entry than to do a standalone entry on "The Third Lesson." A lot of these decisions were made in an attempt to save word count, because we knew that this was going to be a big book, and whatever we could do to streamline the process, the better.

You said that multi-book series are grouped under one entry. I noticed that for Fate of the Jedi and Legacy of the Force, you didn’t do that. Was it just that those books lent themselves better to individual entries, or did you particularly want to keep more recently published books as distinct as possible for people who were looking through their options?

I should clarify. When it comes to multi-book series, we meant things like duologies and trilogies. In some cases we broke that rule, just because of how much was covered in individual books. But when it came time to do things like the Brian Daley Han Solo Trilogy or the Lando Calrissian books by L. Neil Smith, or the duologies that occur within The New Jedi Order, it made sense to collect those into single entries because there’s not much that happens in between them. They pretty much lead one into the other, and they tend to focus on a single story.

The nine-book arcs would be too big to collect together in a single entry. We looked at it in terms of reading habits. If we’re trying to help readers by making recommendations about what to read, there are certain books that lent themselves to be handled in composite entries, and there are other ones that were more spaced out, with other stories occurring in between them.

So for example, you might not want to read anything in between Dark Tide I and Dark Tide II in The New Jedi Order, but if you finished Abyss, you could go read other stories before you continued with Fate of the Jedi?

Yes, if certain things fell in between those books, exactly. For example, The Jedi Academy Trilogy is pretty tightly connected. Even though I, Jedi happens in the middle of it, we still recommend reading The Jedi Academy Trilogy as a whole and then going onto I, Jedi. There was a certain degree of taking it case by case. What we have in the book is basically a strong recommendation. Some readers may agree with it and some may not.

Describe for me the process of culling all of the behind-the-scenes material for this book. You write about working titles that evoked later-discarded plot themes, George Lucas’ involvement in the early planning of The New Jedi Order, and other production stories. How much of that did you experience as a participant in those meetings and how much did you get from other sources?

A lot of it depends on when the book was published. Since I started at Lucasfilm, I’ve been lucky enough to have been invited to the development of a lot of publishing initiatives. But even in those cases, I always tried to back it up with notes that were taken at those story meetings. I didn’t want to solely be relying on my firsthand experience because that’s just one limited perspective. What’s great is that whenever those meetings occur, a lot of notes are taken. Especially after 2000, so much of this has existed in emails that were archived. Leland Chee, in addition to keeping track of the in-universe material, also keeps track of the material that went into its story development, including documents that describe the evolution of certain stories and that are basically collected notes from the authors and correspondence between the authors and the editors themselves. So that came in very handy. For The New Jedi Order, there are several binders dedicated to the correspondence that went into its early development, because they knew that this would be something that would require a lot of bookkeeping.

The stuff before that is a little bit trickier. There were some attempts, especially by Sue [Rostoni] and Allan Kausch in the early 1990s, to keep track of as much documentation as possible. To their credit, there were some very interesting memos written out and collected at that time that were very helpful. Going earlier into the history, especially into the 1970s and 1980s, that stuff was harder to find.

Going into the making of this book, there was no prerequisite that every entry would have to have some sort of behind-the-scenes tidbit. Some material simply doesn’t exist anymore.

What other kinds of documents did you mine for behind-the-scenes information?

Memos, correspondence, and notes were my primary sources, because they were trustworthy. There were some undocumented things. During a series of lunches that I would have with the editors who were working with the company during the development of the books, they would point me to materials that I wouldn’t have otherwise known about. That was another way of doing it, having in-person conversations, particularly with the editors who would point me along the way.

How much behind-the-scenes material did you gather and not include for space reasons?

I made a conscious choice not to include information about books that were, for whatever reason, canceled. It’s fascinating, and maybe there will someday be a good place for that kind of stuff, but it just opened up a can of worms. I don’t want to get into the reasons why a book didn’t come to pass. There are multiple reasons why that may happen, and I don’t want someone taking a note and deciding, “Oh, this particular detail from this story summary must be why that story never got published.” Ultimately, there was not enough room to present that material in a way that would answer the questions that it would raise.

Do you think there will be a venue for those stories at some point in the future?

Potentially. I think there’s a great outlet for that in blogs and potentially in the Insider magazine. As for a book itself about the making of Star Wars fiction, this is probably the closest we’re going to get to it. I might be wrong. There might be an appetite for that and we’ll see. I love, for instance, the [Jonathan] Rinzler approach on the making of the movies, where he actually presents the documents as scans within his books. I came across similar documents like that in the making of this book, but it wasn’t the right place to present them. It did not end up being that book. It’s not a “Making of Star Wars Fiction” book. That material does exist, but whether or not there’s an appetite for it is something that we’ll have to see.

It seems like it would be tough to judge the audience for that kind of book.

Right. Also, because the EU is always going forward, is there an appetite to do that kind of looking back? That’s why I think that online and in the magazine might be good ways to test the waters and see if there is indeed that appetite. That kind of thing relies on the readers. Let Del Rey know that this is something you’re interested in.

What was the most surprising or interesting behind-the-scenes tidbit that you learned about the EU while writing this book?

I think, again just because of its depth, it’s the New Jedi Order stuff that was really a page-turner in terms of figuring out what might have been. Legacy of the Force was like that to some degree as well, but with The New Jedi Order, it was so extensively documented, and it was so ambitious at the time. I mean, the early documents really defined The New Jedi Order as being potentially thirty books, and as we know it did not end up being that long. But just the idea of it being thirty books was so ambitious at the time. That’s practically a whole shelf devoted to one storyline. It was interesting to see the way it was broken out, and there was feedback and correspondence directly from George’s desk on what to change and what to do. It really set it apart.

I thought The New Jedi Order was successful, but I know that there was a lot of learning involved. The people who were involved in it will say, quite candidly, that there were some missteps and there were changes that were made as the series went down. Personally, I think it was worthwhile, just as a risky endeavor.

Before that, other material that I found included evidence of there being an attempt by Del Rey to secure the license to do Star Wars fiction in the early 1990s. That license ultimately went to Bantam, but it was Brian Daley who was tasked [by Del Rey] to come up with creative story pitches. I didn’t find enough material about that process to include in the book, but I have subsequently discovered what it was that he was putting together. I talked about it briefly at Celebration VI. I’ll most likely post a blog entry that talks about this. I found that it was primarily for business reasons, and not creative ones, that the Del Rey deal never came to happen. I have reason to believe that the [Daley] creative pitch never made it to Lucasfilm. The business reasons are what caused that pitch to collapse before it ever really happened. So there’s a story that was too nebulous to include in the guide itself, but I still intend to keep researching it, because I think it’s fascinating to find out what might have been.

You mentioned George Lucas’ involvement in The New Jedi Order. A lot of fans know that he gave LucasBooks and Del Rey a list of characters who could not be killed in the series, a list that resulted in the creative team picking Chewbacca. How much were you able to learn about his other involvement in this landmark series?

It was largely reactive. The editors on the Lucasfilm side, especially [then-Director of Publishing] Lucy Wilson, would figure out the key questions that needed to be floated in front of George. They gauged what kinds of things he wanted to offer feedback on. As the Prequels became more active, he basically conceded more and more of those decisions to the editorial staff, and said, “Well, you guys take care of this, I’m going to be focusing on this universe. You guys go ahead and keep focusing on your stuff.” I found more memos related to the earlier Bantam-era stuff, vetting what is the definition of a Sith, what is the definition of a Jedi, when could we say the Clone Wars happened or didn’t happen, what are our parameters. It was largely handled through yes-or-no memos or some additional feedback. That’s the kind of paperwork that still exists from that day.

For context, you have to remember that in the early 1990s, no one knew what a Sith was, and authors would want to attempt to define that, especially in comics. In Zahn’s books, he wanted to make them a species –– they eventually became the Noghri –– and that feedback came from a series of memos that were floated to George.

So initially, he didn’t want the Sith to be depicted as they have subsequently been depicted in the Legacy comics and the Lost Tribe of the Sith stories?

I think it was more that he didn’t want the authors to explore “What are and what aren’t they?” The specific description that Tim had of a culture that Vader had ruled over, that was nixed.

What was the most obscure or unusual source that you referred to during your research?

It all largely came from the same kind of well. One of the things that made this book doable was going into it knowing that these kinds of resources existed. At the same time, we also knew that the majority of the book would be synopses of the stories, so it wasn’t contingent on there being that deep a well of behind-the-scenes material that we could mine. Thankfully it existed to allow us to supplement the synopses and make sure that these stories were in the book, especially for long-time readers who were seeking out new information and stuff that they hadn’t been exposed to. But that wasn’t a make-or-break requirement for the book’s existence itself.


You can read part two of this interview right here on Suvudu.

I’d like to thank Pablo Hidalgo for being so generous with his time and for providing me with so much great information about The Essential Reader’s Companion, which went on sale today. If you are a fan of the Expanded Universe, you owe it to yourself to pick up this book. You will not be disappointed.


Related Stories

October 3, 2012   10 Star Wars Short Stories Available To Read At Suvudu
October 3, 2012   SW: The Essential Novels Ebook Bundles Now Available
October 2, 2012   Star Wars Art Illustration Now Available
September 27, 2012   io9 Presents 10 New Pieces Of Art From The Essential Reader's Companion
September 14, 2012   Random House Previews SW: The Essential Reader's Companion
September 12, 2012   New Artwork Revealed For The Essential Reader's Companion
May 22, 2012   More Essential Reader's Companion Art
May 12, 2012   NJO Teaser Note From The Essential Reader's Companion
April 5, 2012   First Art From The Essential Reader's Companion





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