For all the high-profile events a Celebration convention can bring – Mark Hamill or Carrie Fisher, Last Tour to Endor or The Clone Wars Red Carpet Premiere, even The Maker himself – there is always great fun and insight to be had at the smaller, less prominent panels. One of this year’s true highlights for me was a Thursday evening panel in the Star Wars University room: Ryder Windham’s “Secrets of the Chiss Jedi,” discussing the Secret Missions young-readers series and its starring character, Nuru Kungurama.
I’ve been a huge fan of the Chiss for basically my entire Expanded Universe fandom experience. There’s Thrawn, of course, and the brief hints at the Chiss forces under Soontir Fel’s command in the Hand of Thrawn duology. But what really sealed the deal for me was the New Jedi Order series: Jagged Fel and the Chiss squadrons, his Chiss second Shawnkyr Nuruodo, and the many hints about the Empire of the Hand, the Chiss Ascendancy, and their politics and military. We’ve seen occasional appearances from Chiss since, but they’ve remained intriguing and mysterious.
So when I found out there was a Clone Wars tie-in young reader series featuring a young Chiss Jedi, well, I had no choice but to pick it up. I devoured all four books as they came out, as well as the comic digest story. The books are great fun, and Nuru and Breakout Squad provided a welcome respite from some of the darker, heavier content in much of the recent adult-line EU. Later a fan-made custom action figure of Nuru showed up on eBay, and naturally I had to snag it. I previously had corresponded with Ryder for one of my convention-stories posts for Suvudu, and he insisted I bring along little Nuru to his panel. How could I refuse?
Most of the panel involved Ryder sharing a tremendous amount of behind-the-scenes perspective on the creation and progression of the Secret Missions series and Nuru as a character. After consulting about thirty different foreign-language dictionaries, Ryder settled on two words from Swahili to form the character’s name: nuru (“light”) and kungurama (“growl”), although the actual choices were made more for sound than symbolism. In the first draft, interestingly, Nuru was just a “boy” – his species was never specified. That decision only had to be made when the need for cover art arose. Rob Valois, the editor at Grosset & Dunlap, suggested that Nuru be an alien rather than human. Frank Parisi, then the editor at Lucasfilm, suggested a Sullustan. Having worked on the Heir to the Empire comic adaptation at Dark Horse, Ryder suggested a Chiss. He also suggested Nautolan, Kit Fisto’s species. Ultimately it was the art director who insisted Nuru should be a Chiss, to provide a visual look that young readers would most readily identify with.
It was interesting to hear Ryder discuss the many ways in which connections to other material can make their way into an EU book. For Secret Missions, Lucasfilm initially requested that the Malevolence be included in the series, and Ryder had to work the warship into the plot in a way that would not constrain the entire series to the timeframe of Season One of the television show, given than most of the books would come out years after the episodes had aired. Frank Parisi also asked for the inclusion of a commando droid who wants to be a Jedi. Later, Lucasfilm asked for Savage Opress’ inclusion in the Nuru comic, released for Free Comic Book Day and later incorporated into the Strange Allies digest. On the other hand, some of the other connections were added directly by Ryder, particularly the use of the swoop bike gang member Big Gizz from the Shadows of the Empire comic, another project from his time at Dark Horse. In a later comic, The Jabba Tape, one of Big Gizz’s gang compatriots, Spiker, removes his helmet and is revealed to be a Chiss. In a delightful application of Occam’s Razor, given the rarity of Chiss in the rest of the galaxy, Ryder suggested to Leland Chee, much to the Holocron Keeper’s delight, that Spiker might actually be Nuru – the fate that befell him in the years after Order 66 and the rise of the Empire. Of course, it is only a possibility, nothing more, until it’s officially incorporated into canon, but it sure sounds like a fascinating tale to tell down the line.
Ryder also shared a slightly different perspective on franchise work than some other Star Wars authors. Unlike many authors, who pitch their own story ideas to Del Rey or Dark Horse, Ryder has written for Star Wars primarily as a freelance writer by assignment. Consequently his creative process is often different, too. Rather than having the freedom to design a story of his own devising, instead his stories are significantly shaped by the constraints built into the nature of the assignment. This makes his writing process more like problem solving: starting with the end idea in mind, then figuring out the best way to get there. And not just the end in plot, but also emotionally for the characters and the readers. Almost every engineering project I work on involves exactly this kind of problem solving – thinking backward from the desired outcome, until I can find a way make it work for the client – so it was fascinating to hear Ryder describe working on fiction writing in a similar manner.
Finally, I have to end this post with a special note of thanks to Ryder for his incredible generosity to me at Celebration. He took the time to introduce me to a great many people, and opened doors I wouldn’t have been able to walk through otherwise. I’ll be sure to pay it forward at a future convention. Thanks, Ryder!
For the rest of our coverage of Celebration VI, click here.
Tricia Barr took her understanding of brand management and marketing, mixed it with a love of genre storytelling, and added a dash of social media flare to create FANgirl Blog, where she discusses Star Wars, fandom, and strong female characters. She also writes about Star Wars for Random House’s science fiction and fantasy blog Suvudu.com. Her interview with X-Wing: Mercy Kill author Aaron Allston can be found in this month’s Star Wars Insider Issue 135.
In her spare time, Tricia puts the finishing touches on her first novel, Wynde. For excerpts and tales of her adventures in creating a fictional universe, hop over to TriciaBarr.com.