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 two of the interview. The first part is on TheForce.Net.
You are obviously heavily engaged in the EU, but how did you consume the entire novel and short story timeline without going crazy?
Who’s to say I didn’t go crazy? [Laughs] It was a challenge; there was a lot of learning to be done. But let’s face it, I’m not going to say that it was arduous, because there are so many other jobs out there that much better fit the definition of “arduous.” It’s hard to characterize this as a grueling effort. You’re reading Star Wars books all day; that’s not exactly punishment. But it ended up being a challenge and I found myself wanting to take a break from it at times. There was enough time in the process to take occasional breaks.
And you know, I’m not going to identify any individual titles, but we’re all fans here, and as fans we know that there are some books that we love and other books that we don’t. Getting through the ones that I personally didn’t quite enjoy was a challenge, but then I would be rewarded when I came upon the books that I did like.
A lot of it had to do with time management. There wasn’t a day that went by where I wasn’t reading some sort of Star Wars material. It became a challenge in terms of managing my forward progress: How much was I reading? Was I hitting the milestones that I wanted to hit? I would do things like purposely taking the bus to work, because that allowed me to read books on the way to work and maximize the amount of time I could work during my commute. I would also get the audiobooks and listen to them at double-speed to be able to get through them that much faster. I now find myself completely unable to listen to audiobooks at normal speed.
It’s funny to hear you describe the process. It almost sounds like a diet or exercise routine, with the goals you want to hit and the need to maintain a set pace. Was it still enjoyable? Were you able to have fun with it as you were going along?
There were moments, yeah. It is work, but it’s the kind of work that I signed up for and I knew what it was. There were definitely moments of pure joy. A lot of it had to do with revisiting books that I remember liking and wondering, “Will they stand up?” I had this great sense of affirmation: “Yeah, that book is a really good book, because it stands out amid everything that I was reading.” I also gave other books a second chance and realized, “You know what, I really dug this one.” If a book was different [from normal EU fare], I found myself appreciating it more for its differences while I tried to consume all of the EU at the same time. With some books that I may not have liked because they were different, I actually ended up appreciating their differences because they stood out.
Had you read all of these books and short stories already or was any of this material completely new to you?
Definitely, just because I had been busy. There was even a lot of material that had come out since I started working here that I’d just never had a chance to read or really dive into. In some cases I was just reading summaries at the time and this was an opportunity to read them more fully. There was a degree of catch-up and this gave me the excuse to read those. For whatever reason, I’d never read the Last of the Jedi series when they came out, and now I had the chance. I really enjoyed them. I think Jude Watson did an amazing job. When you look at how many books she’s written and the particular era of the EU she had carved out, it was fun to get that closure and finish her particular story.
Did you talk to any of the authors who haven’t written anything for a while, like Jude Watson?
No, I didn’t have that much opportunity to talk to them directly. What I ended up doing was talking to the editors who’d worked with them, to see if there was something there. Just because something [from those conversations] didn’t surface, doesn’t mean that there’s nothing there. We knew that, because of what was required to get the book done, I couldn’t go too deep into that territory. If this had been more of a making-of book, then that would be an absolute criteria and something that I would do. As it stood, I needed to figure out what kind of material I knew was at hand, readily available, and if there was something that I knew of, then I would chase that down a little bit more.
I’m sure there are many untold stories from Jude or some of the earlier contributors that are waiting to be told. Insider is interested in doing something like that, perhaps sparked by this book itself.
Reading all of these books and short stories must have illuminated some connections between the material that you hadn’t noticed before. Can you share some of the observations and revelations you had while going back through the EU?
Some of those observations are a little bit more mythic and some are on the quirky side of things. One of the things that I found interesting was the early New Jedi Order outline, which described Anakin Solo befriending a female Dark Sider and their having a close relationship and him attempting to redeem her and then for whatever reason it not working out. That was completely excised from the final New Jedi Order. I think her character kind of evolved into Vergere, but the idea of a close relationship was completely scratched. And then something like that surfaced later in the characters of Ben and Vestara, but I don’t think that was deliberate. I don’t think that someone said, “We should take this abandoned story idea from 1998 and include it in this story.” That’s more of an example of there being this kind of mythic archetype: a type of story that suits itself well to Star Wars, but it just wasn’t the right time to tell it. I would find evidence of those kinds of things happening from time to time, which I found very interesting.
On the quirkier side, I was a little dismayed at the number of times that Yoda was visited on Dagobah before Luke –– how many times someone had stumbled across him in the swamps and talked to him and found out that he was Yoda. I was like, “Really? We keep doing this?” People really wanted to tell Yoda stories. I don’t blame them. But taken as a whole, it starts to strain credibility.
One of the things that I love keeping track of –– and I have been doing this internally, but it’s not ready to surface yet –– is a tally of the number of times Luke Skywalker crashes and the number of times Princess Leia is kidnapped. If that was an actual reality that expressed itself, you would not want to fly anywhere with Luke or stand too close to Leia at any given time.
It must have been interesting and eye-opening for you to read the EU in a mostly chronological way.
Yeah, and one of the things that I found myself doing, because I tend to be very visual, is re-reading books that came out before the Prequels but having a Prequel-aesthetic mentality about it. For example, if you read the Zahn books again, you’re picturing Coruscant as the way you know it now, as opposed to the way he thought it would be in 1991, and it just gives it a whole different sheen to it, which I thought was a lot of fun.
Did you come across any short stories, or even novels, with unclear timeline placement that required you to make an executive decision?
Oh, definitely. Just as an example off the top of my head, there was a short story with Boba Fett called “No Disintegrations, Please.” The story itself is pretty nebulous. It starts off with a guy gathering a bunch of children around him and saying, “Hey, I’m going to tell you this amazing story of something that happened.” Then it goes into a flashback and it tells a story about Boba Fett. By the time the story-within-a-story ends, you realize that the storyteller is a former target of Fett who got away. The frame story ends with Fett confronting him, but ultimately the bounty has expired, so Fett’s not going to tag him.
There’s no indication whatsoever as to when that story took place, so we kind of made an arbitrary decision. While the flashback takes place during the Rebellion era, we decided that the frame story itself, with the storyteller narrating his escape, would take place shortly after Dark Empire. That’s when Fett resurfaced on the scene, and the guy was surprised to see Fett, so that kind of made sense. There were some cases where we just decided, “This is probably when it took place.”
Who was involved in that kind of decision?
I would make the suggestion and someone like Leland would vet it and okay it. Editorially, we’d decide, “Yeah, that’s okay. There are no conflicts. There’s no harm in setting approximately where this takes place.”
At the same time, the book is okay with saying that stories took place “circa” a certain date. In some cases it didn’t add any real value to tie down a story to an exact place on the timeline, and sometimes we realized that there were opportunities to give other people the leeway to establish a firm date.
How did you narrow down the characters and scenes that you selected for the new artwork in the book? Were there some illustrations that everyone knew had to be in there?
We knew what the structure of each chapter would be; we were following the era delineation. As I read through each chapter, I made a list of scenes from books that would work well in illustrated form. It’s not that I tried to get one for each book, but for the most part I did. From there, we culled it down based on what was most exciting for each chapter.
Early on, the thought was that the character portraits at the start of each chapter would serve as “yearbook photos.” We had a lot of them, including recurring characters who span multiple eras. There would have been Luke portraits for the Rebellion, New Republic, and New Jedi Order eras. It was supposed to be all the major players in each era, but that was way too ambitious. First of all, it would take up a lot of room. Second, those portraits cost money for artists to generate. If it was going to be Brian Rood doing all of those, there’s a price tag attached to that. It kind of strained the budgetary restrictions.
Erich said, “We can’t have all those, so let me take a pass at what your portrait recommendations are, as well as action scenes for each chapter, and then reduce overlap. So if we have a character who’s depicted just for the sake of depicting him, he won’t be in an action scene as well as a portrait.”
The other thing that Erich did is that, while I looked at art selection on a book-by-book basis, he would look at it more from a chapter-by-chapter standpoint and from an overall book perspective. He’d say, “You know what, we’re doing a lot of action scenes” or “We’re doing a lot of lightsaber fights, how about we streamline this or we change this illustration to be something else?” He was able to offer a larger, bird’s-eye view of the project. Together, we came up with what the illustration recommendation would be, and then he assigned the pieces to the artists and managed it at that end.
What is your favorite piece of Essential Reader’s Companion artwork and why?
You know, this changes almost every day. It’s hard to pick favorites, but one of the ones that I keep gravitating to is the shot of Admiral Daala from Darksaber where she’s gassing all the Imperial warlords and wiping the command slate clean. That’s by Darren Tan, and it’s just so vivid. The looks on the faces of those Imperials are so great, and it’s a badass scene.
The other one that keeps cracking me up is the shot of the brawl at Lady Valarian’s wedding from “We Don’t Do Weddings,” the short story about the cantina band from Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina. What cracks me up is just imagining that this is the only surviving wedding photo that they got of this event, and it’s just this crazy brawl.
The Daala image in particular was great because you sometimes forget how dark books like Darksaber can be, but that was one of those pieces of art that made me think, “You know, that was a pretty grim scene.” The art really brought that out in a way that enhanced the appeal of the book.
Oh, yeah. We also had to watch it a little bit because I would pick scenes that were indeed dark, and maybe to express them as literally as they were in the scene would be a little bit off-putting. There’s a great illustration by Chris Trevas of one of the Clone Wars: Gambit books. It’s Bant’ena Fhernan and Lok Durd, and Fhernan is clearly his prisoner. In the novel, she’s been beaten rather badly, and it would end up being a rather distasteful image if we were that literal with it. It was more about getting the spirit of it as opposed to showing all the bruises and blood.
I remember at the Essential Guides panel at Celebration VI, you mentioned that the Darth Plagueis image in this book was toned down significantly from what happened in the novel itself.
Yeah, I mean, that scene is an assassination attempt where they largely used edged weapons as opposed to our nice, hygienic lightsabers that cauterize wounds. The scene is described quite bloodily, and we don’t want a young kid not being able to buy this book because their parent turns to that spread and says, “You can’t have this.”
Because Dawn of the Jedi: Into the Void establishes a new pre-Republic era, The Essential Reader’s Companion was out of date before it was even released. Given that it and The Essential Guide to Warfare are the first Star Wars reference books to get eBook versions, has Lucasfilm considered releasing online supplements to keep this guide up to date?
Erich and I have vaguely discussed ways of keeping this book up to date. There are no solid plans yet. There’s going to be a lot of learning with respect to how the book performs. It is out of date inasmuch as there’s always new material coming out, and that’s a reality. But at the same time, as a starting point with over 140 novels in it, I think it’s still valuable for a new reader who wants to gauge where they are in the Expanded Universe. We knew going into it that there would be new books almost instantly, but it does go through the end of 2012.
We’re going to see how it performs and see what opportunities do exist online.
I like that there are appendices listing the complete prose works of the EU by publication order and by author. Did you consider including any other appendices for us list geeks?
The by-author appendix was a no-brainer. We basically wanted to give readers as many entry points as possible. If a reader knew only one thing, which was, “Boy, I like this book by Author X,” we wanted to have a way for them to immediately find the next book by that author. The by-publication-order appendix was something that I really wanted to have in there. Since this book is non-fiction, I wanted to be completely transparent with the idea that these are stories told in the real world, based in a fictional universe, and depending on when they were told in our world, that matters. That colors the work. Knowing that Heir to the Empire came out in 1991 is important, given that it talks about the Prequel era. Throughout the book, I constantly put the publication date in parentheses when referring to another title, because I wanted that information up front.
So the appendix for publication order was definitely something that I wanted to have in there. Even though this book makes a recommendation of reading chronologically –– just because I know that’s where a lot of people like to start –– my own personal recommendation, if you were to ask me outside of the book format, is to read it by publication date. Because I think that’s where you learn not only about the universe, but about what the reading experience has been for longtime fans who have read the EU as the books came out. That’s as valid an experience as any.
As far as any other possible appendices, we had thought about doing one that was sorted by publisher, but that doesn’t seem like a way most early readers gravitate toward books. I think they gravitate more toward the author.
I noticed that many of the acknowledgements in the back of the book went to fans like TheForce.Net’s Jay Shepard and Suvudu’s Tricia Barr. How much involvement did prominent EU fans have in the production of this book?
I made a point of thanking people who ran encyclopedic sites because that’s where I came from –– folks like Nathan Butler, James McFadden, Mike Biedler, and Joe Bongiorno. I cited them not because they did something specifically for this book, but because I like to say that this book has been in development for thirty years. It benefits from the fact that I’ve been a reader for as long as I have, and before I started working at Lucasfilm, I used these folks’ websites to help organize my thoughts about the Expanded Universe. I just wanted to give credit there.
I know that Erich reached out to some fans like Jay and Tricia, and I personally had some correspondence with Robert Mullin, who had a very interesting chronology that he maintained. It was just about getting their input.
Are there plans to release an equivalent guide for comics?
One of the things we did include is sidebars for important comics that affected a novel. Books that have comic counterparts have sidebars for those comics next to them. As far as a reader’s companion for comics, there is one from 2005 called The Comics Companion, written by Ryder Windham and Dan Wallace. What I’d love to see is, if this performs well and this is something that readers really like, maybe Dark Horse could be prompted to do another version of The Comics Companion, and maybe these two books would work together to keep readers up to date on what’s happening in the EU.
It’s a tricky thing to include everything. It would make a book so big that it then stops being useful. You want to have a lot of information but you also want to break up that information so that it’s consumable. There was some chatter online about the size of this book and how much it weighs, and that’s definitely a factor. If we had made this a hardcover, then you’d drive the price up and you’d immediately start placing this book beyond the reach of some of the readers that it would be most helpful to.
Lastly, and on a lighter note: The Essential Reader’s Companion is quite heavy. Have you come across any interesting unintended uses for it?
I have not, but the funny thing is that this is not the heaviest book that I’ve worked on so far. What takes the cake is the limited edition of Sculpting the Galaxy that’s over twenty pounds. And yet, as Leland pointed out on Twitter, that’s nothing compared to whatever Star Wars Frames weighs, because that’s furniture.
This one is pretty manageable. If you dropped it on a dog, your dog should be able to shake it off; he should be alright. It’s not lethal.
If you haven’t already, you can read part one of this interview right here on TheForce.Net.
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.
Eric Geller is a college student majoring in political science whose interests include technology, journalism, and of course Star Wars. He reviews The Clone Wars TV series and manages social media for Star Wars fan site TheForce.Net. He is originally from the Washington, D.C. area.