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John Whitman talks 'Star Wars'

Galaxy of Fear: Clones
via Bantam Books

Last week, Examiner Alex Rybak sat down with author John Whitman. Whitman, a ‘Star Wars’ author from the 1990’s, wrote the young adult series titled ‘Galaxy of Fear.’ ‘Galaxy of Fear’ is comprised of twelve books that were published from 1997-1998 and take place shortly after the legendary Battle of Yavin. Chris Hamilton, of the Star Wars Kidscast, joined to assist in the interview. Chris is an expert in children’s literature, especially ‘Star Wars’ titles.

Alex Rybak: John, why don’t you tell us about your young adult series, ‘Galaxy of Fear’, from the 1990’s?

John Whitman: The request I got from Lucasfilm was to branch out from the standard Star Wars characters. To include them, and use them as cameos, but to create a new set of characters. To do a story set in the Star Wars universe, but [that] had its own scary theme.

Chris Hamilton: How aware of the ‘Goosebumps’ series were the people in the conversation for ‘Galaxy of Fear’?

JW: ‘Goosebumps’ was popular and Lucasfilm was looking to expand the Star Wars market. The licensing people I spoke with were fairly clear they were looking for a way to revitalize Star Wars for a younger generation. The request I got was to tap into that same market, which was scary books for kids, and try to set them in the Star Wars universe.

AR: So was the idea to have this series tap into the ‘Goosebumps’ market a directive from Lucasfilm or one you created?

JW: The basic concept came from them. In fact, I was flattered that they called me. I had done some other creative writing for Lucasfilm, so they knew my name. They called me and asked me if I would take this concept and run with it. The concept they gave me had two directives to it. The first one was that it should be scary stories that would tap into the same market as ‘Goosebumps.’ [The second one was] the idea to develop a very minor character that had appeared in some other works, Hoole. They said take those two ideas and come up with a concept.

CH: How many books were originally planned?

JW: Originally it was going to be six. After three or four books, they asked if I would do twelve. If you look at the structure of the first six, they kind of tell one story in different pieces, which all kind of fit together. The next six [installments] still connect, but are not as tightly joined.

JW: At first the kids and their uncle Hoole don’t really know what’s going on. The idea was to write one-offs that a kid could pick up a book and it would stand on its own. I couldn’t make them have cliffhanger endings, but as you read the stories you realize it’s all heading somewhere. The concept for me was that the Empire was actually working on new weaponry, biological weaponry. It turns out that Hoole is investigating this and his niece and nephew discover that he actually has a purpose.

AR: Let’s discuss some of the cameos in ‘Galaxy of Fear.’ We see Han, Luke, and Leis quite a bit. I also found it interesting that you drew upon other Expanded Universe works at the time. We see the legendary Grand Admiral Thrawn show up in this series. Was it up to you to decide who you wanted to include?

AR: The first six dealt with Borborygmus Gog, a mad scientist.

JW: At first the kids and their uncle Hoole don’t really know what’s going on. The idea was to write one-offs that a kid could pick up a book and it would stand on its own. I couldn’t make them have cliffhanger endings, but as you read the stories you realize it’s all heading somewhere. The concept for me was that the Empire was actually working on new weaponry, biological weaponry. It turns out that Hoole is investigating this and his niece and nephew discover that he actually has a purpose.

AR: Let’s discuss some of the cameos in ‘Galaxy of Fear.’ We see Han, Luke, and Leis quite a bit. I also found it interesting that you drew upon other Expanded Universe works at the time. We see the legendary Grand Admiral Thrawn show up in this series. Was it up to you to decide who you wanted to include?

JW: All that was me. Once I got the approval for the cameos, I started working people in who I wanted to see. I wanted it to be the kind of thing where an adult could read it to their kids and there would some hooks. Moments of pleasure, recognizing the author had thrown in this character [that the parents] knew. The only moment I had to get approved by Lucasfilm prior to submitting a draft was when I got to kill of Dr. Evazan. It got kicked all the way up to George Lucas and he said “fine.” Except for that one thing, as long as I stuck inside the basic lifeline of the character, I could do whatever I wanted. It was a lot of fun.

CH: You had twelve books released in the time span of a year and a half. How much lead time did you have?

JW: It was hard [laughing]. It was the most exhausting year and half of my life. Basically, at one point during that time I was coming up with a new outline, I was writing a book, and I was revising a previous book. I was working on three projects all at once. I don’t know if anyone knows this, but R.L. Stine (author of the ‘Goosebumps’ series) was a trade name and there were multiple writers. For the ‘Star Wars: Galaxy of Fear’ series, although there were only twelve, I was the writer for all of them. I was a pretty exhausting chain to try and keep ahold of. I actually remember one stint, on the third book, where I stayed up for forty eight hours straight. I will never read that third book again, ever, because of that. Though actually, I felt rewarded. I went to a guest appearance at a school. The kids were asking me what books I liked the most and the least and I mentioned that I would never read the third book again. Three kids jumped up and yelled, “That’s my favorite book!” So it was nice to have that moment.

CH: Did you know the hologram covers were coming, or was that a surprise?

JW: At the very beginning it was a bit of a surprise. When Lucasfilm first came to me, and when Bantam first accepted them, that was not part of the plan. Honestly that was more of a marketing thing so I couldn’t tell you if they were using that to help make the books popular, or if they were recognizing the books had gotten a good, initial response and were trying to add to it. But it was cool and I really liked them. They were eye-catching.

AR: So what happened at the end of the run? They seemed to be a successful series and then they never resurrected it again.

JW: I don’t know. Honestly by the end of the twelfth book, I was ready to move onto something else. So we did the first six and they asked me for six more. I had a great time writing all twelve of them. I really, really enjoyed [writing] in the Star Wars universe. I was a fan before the book, I was a fan after the books, and that’s why I did them. After twelve books with the same character[s] I felt like I was ready to move on to something else. The truth is, they never brought up the idea of writing more and I never asked to write anymore. I did a couple other small projects for Lucasfilm, which were fun, and then moved on.

CH: So you did a couple of other projects. There was the ‘Cruise Along Books’ that came with toy. What can you tell us about those stories?

JW: I have one if you want me to sell one to you [all laughing]. They are minor collector’s items now. Honestly though, those were in the same vein. The company that I worked for at the time had a silence with Lucasfilm and they wanted to find ways to introduce and vitalize Star Wars to a new generation. It was a book with a toy attached to it. The stories were pretty simple and meant for much younger kids.

CH: There is also something called ‘The Droids Tale’ which is listed as a “sound story.”

JW: I did a couple of things like that. I did a Death Star pop-up [book] and then I did ‘The Droids Tale’ which I barely remember. It was a fun time and Lucasfilm was doing a lot of creative stuff and I was happy to be a part of it. It was also a time when they were heavily endorsing the role playing game. I actually ended up writing a little bit and helping edit some of that work as well. I think it was all a prelude to them ramping up to do new movies.

CH: On your ‘Wookieepedia’ page, there are two unpublished books titled ‘Fairytales’ that centered around the Solo twins. What can you tell us about them?

JW: Those were great ideas and the artwork that appears for those was actually pretty cool. The idea was, different genres for ‘Star Wars.’ The concept came up, and I don’t know if it was our idea internally or Lucasfilm’s, to do fairy tales. They never were published, but we came up with some concepts. I loved the idea. The vision was: fairy tales that Leia would end up telling her kids. So they would probably include the twins, but the idea was not the twins really had these adventures. These were fairy tales that you would tell your child and of course you would include your child’s name in the fairy tale. But I guess the idea just never took root or the marketing didn’t work.

CH: So we got this guy who can write horror for kids, let’s get him to write fairy tales now [laughter].

JW: Well fairy tales and horror are not that far apart. Real fairy tales are cautionary tales for kids. If you look at the original fairy tales, they can be pretty gruesome.

CH: Was the plan for those two books with any discussion of trying to get more girls interested in reading ‘Star Wars?’

JW: I recall it being younger kids; I don’t remember it being girls, per se. I know that when I wrote the ‘Galaxy of Fear’ books, I proposed a brother-sister pair (Zak and Tash) because I wanted to make sure kids of both genders were happy. The single, nicest compliment I ever got was a review that someone wrote of the books. They talked about how strong the female character was and how she was as strong as the male character, which was one of my personal goals for the whole series. That was not a goal I had for the nursery books. With those it was about being more age-appropriate.

AR: Well John, we had a great time talking to you and we appreciate you doing this with us. I grew up reading your books as a child so it’s very surreal to be able to talk to you all these years later about them. My favorite book you wrote was ‘The Doomsday Ship.’

JW: Well thank you! I like that one too. If I can say one thing, it’s that I enjoyed writing the very first one probably the most. The first one is ‘Eaten Alive’ and the whole planet absorbs living creatures. I wrote that because the one thing that always drove me crazy about any horror novel is that people didn’t just leave. If the house is haunted, just get out. If the woods are dangerous, just leave. And of course, nobody ever does. So I promised myself, before I was approached by Lucasfilm, if I ever wrote a horror story I would make it so the people couldn’t leave. You couldn’t escape. So my solution was the entire planet would be dangerous. Anyways, thanks for having me! We are all looking forward to the new movies and these are exciting times.

John Whitman also founded and currently runs the ‘Krav Maga Alliance,’ a worldwide organization of Krav Maga schools. You can find out more about his program, here. To find out more about Chris Hamilton and his work of joining ‘Star Wars’ with kids, check out the official ‘Star Wars Kidscast’ website.