+ By Ryan Abbott + Photos by Allison Zaucha
Jim Luceno is cool.
Maybe not James Dean cool—although he slides into the bustling City Dock coffee shop with a relaxed yet poised gait, wearing dark shades and a faded T-shirt—but an informed cool. Appropriate for a writer tasked with plucking the mythos of Star Wars off the screen and putting it onto the page while keeping a sometimes-ornery-sometimes-downright-hostile fan base satiated.
After a friendly handshake, he sits down and puts his shades on the table. Our chat stretches from classic rock guitar licks to Japanese anime, to classic horror movies and, of course, the expansive Star Wars universe.
Jim Luceno is a nerd, in the coolest way possible.
He’s lived in Annapolis for 20 years, but has never felt that he’s really fit in. “I don’t sail, and I didn’t go to Navy,” he says. He revels in the local arts scene, however, and mentions several musicians with admiration.
Luceno’s own art is nothing short of admirable, if not exceptional. If George Lucas is god to the Star Wars universe, then Luceno is an apostle—one of a few chosen writers entrusted with filling in the gaps around the Star Wars movies.
Although he’s written books focusing on Star Wars fixtures Han Solo and Darth Vader, many of his books are told from the perspective of characters that appear on the periphery of movie plots or are anecdotes in dialogue.
His most recent book, Tarkin (Random House Publishing Group, 2014), tells the story of Governor Wilhuff Tarkin, who fans may remember as Darth Vader’s gaunt military henchman; he stoically watched as the Frankensteinian Anakin Skywalker force-choked an obstinate advisor aboard the Death Star at the beginning of the first released Star Wars film (later retitled A New Hope).
Before Tarkin came Darth Plagueis (Random House Publishing Group, 2012), the story of the Sith lord of all Sith lords who took a young politician named Palpatine and covertly turned him into a raging menace who shoots electricity from his fingers. Palpatine becomes Darth Sidious, the craggy-faced antagonist of the franchise.
Only the most shrewd Star Wars academic will recall the conversation in Revenge of the Sith (Star Wars—Episode III), where Palpatine, somewhat resembling a conniving Dick Cheney, tells the ever-fussy Anakin about Plagueis, his former master.
Luceno was fascinated by the possibilities of a Plagueis backstory, and pitched an outline to Lucas at his Skywalker Ranch, but was initially shot down like an x-wing on its way to the Death Star’s nuclear exhaust vents. Later, Luceno managed to get the project approved, and he embarked on a four-year effort to tell the story.
The four years spent conjuring Darth Plagueis was an anomaly; Luceno usually pumps his novelizations out in a matter of months. He likens his craft to writing a season of television.
His writing process is governed by a combination of hard work and meditative practice. His wife leaves their log cabin on the South River early in the morning for her job with a statewide nonprofit. This leaves Luceno to a routine that might include listening to National Public Radio and Howard Stern and watching YouTube instructions on how to play whatever Jimmy Page riff is stuck in his head.
He takes long walks and tackles the numerous home maintenance woes that come with living in a log cabin. Carpentry work paid his bills for many years, before he became a New York Times bestselling author.
After lunch, he sits down to write—not in an office, but wherever the mood grabs him.
For Luceno, writing is much like carpentry. “It starts with framing and putting your studs in, then the walls go up,” he says. “And then, after a while, you’re just touching up the paint.” The next day, he goes over what he’s written the previous day, tweaking in places and rewriting in others. It’s a meticulous process.
Luceno has churned out dozens of novelizations, not only in the Star Wars universe, but also for other famed franchises like The Shadow and Zorro. He has an impressive list of original novels under his belt, informed by years of globetrotting. He’s traveled across Peru, Croatia, Tanzania, New Zealand, Nepal, and other remote areas of the world, visiting landscapes that look as alien as the bogs of Dagobah to the average American.
He published his first book, Head Hunters, with Random House in 1980. It’s a story about American backpackers who happen upon a large quantity of cocaine in South America. The story was born out of ten years worth of journals he kept during his travels.
His friend and collaborator, the late Brian Daley, introduced Luceno to science fiction, and was his link to the Star Wars franchise through a project to write a trilogy of books set around Han Solo’s adventures after Return of the Jedi. Luceno went on to write 11 books for the franchise, including extensive reference guides that provide details on the numerous planets, alien races, ships, and characters that appear in the books and films.
Boxes brimming with Star Wars facts help him maintain continuity; they also hold the answers to the many trivia questions posed to him at conventions by super fans sometimes dressed up like Jango Fett.
Often, he has to admit he has no idea what they’re talking about.
Jim Luceno is not that big of a nerd.
His Star Wars work seems uncertain, however, in the shadow of two giant black mouse ears. In 2012, Disney bought Lucasfilms for four billion dollars, handing the fate of the Jedi to the king of reboots, director J. J. Abrams.
Apparently, Lucas tried to pass on an outline explaining where the story is intended to go, but Abrams reportedly disregarded it. “I’ve read the script for The Force Awakens,” says Luceno, “and it departs significantly from the chronicity established by the universe literature.”
It seems that Disney’s way of reconciling its approach with the years of content produced by Luceno and other writers is to deem those books “legends” in the Star Wars universe. By doing so, it essentially ignores established characters and plots, affecting overall continuity. “That’s the power of the Mouse,” Luceno says, and shrugs. “Many of the super-fans are frustrated.” He’s not sure if he’ll be asked to write another novelization, but supposes he could, if he can get over the idea of writing a story that bulldozes one that he’s already written.
I pack up my notes and laptop, and we leave the shop. As we walk through the crowd, I show him my Crocs, etched with tiny x-wings swarming the Death Star. “Cool,” he says. I’m disappointed when he hops into a car instead of the repto-mammalian tauntaun he needs to keep the perimeter of his rebel base safe from the forces of Darth Disney. █