Troy Denning – Part One

FG: Do you see changes happening in Star Wars fandom?

TD: We’re seeing the rise of the geek girl element, not just in Star Wars but in comic books and all of fantasy. I don’t know if it’s organized, if Her Universe got the ball rolling, or if FANgirl Blog did, but there are a lot of people building up a female fan base. People are more aware, and I think it’s growing, which is awesome. I was at GenGon last week and I would say that if fifty percent of the fans I saw there weren’t female, it was pretty darned close. It was huge and it’s great. When I started in the business, GenCon was ninety-five percent male and the five percent who were female were people who worked there.

FG: That’s a big change! I wonder if the female audience has just been silent for a long time. We’ve been here. I’ve been here since 1977.

TD: Yes, I think that’s a fair assumption too – that there’s been a silence. Now women are more assertive. They talk about what they like.

FG: And I think you may be right about Ashley Eckstein and Her Universe. She was the right person, at the right time, doing the right thing.

TD: Yes, she probably had a lot to do with energizing a movement that was kind of just waiting for someone to come along and get things started.

FG: You receive a lot of fan reaction just by virtue of working in the Star Wars universe. How do you deal with the fact that so many people are very opinionated about what you do?

TD: It’s hard. One of the things I think that readers, especially the fans that comment on the boards, don’t understand is that a lot of writers read their comments. The legitimate criticism of the work is actually useful. But the responses that stray over the line into personal comments, things with a personal tone – those actually hurt. So to a large extent, I just don’t read fan comments, unless I’m looking for a specific thing, trying to figure out “did they like this, how are they reacting to that.” Over the last few years, the boards seem to me to have grown less constructive, and as this happened, I stopped going there to mine them for reactions about what’s going on. Maybe that’s self-defense or maybe it’s just recognition of the fact that they are not as useful as they used to be.

FG: Do you think that the Star Wars audience is a tougher audience than other geekdoms?

TD: I don’t have a good comparison because I’m not a member of a lot of other geekdoms, but Star Wars fans are very passionate and there are a lot of them.

FG: There is passion in all geek culture, but you could be right that there are so many of us that our voice is louder.

TD: Yes, it could be. If you have a thousand fans and somebody has a strong opinion, he doesn’t have to scream as hard or be quite as strident as someone who is trying to rise to the top of ten thousand fans to make his opinion heard.

FG: What do you think is the best way for fans to make sure their opinions count?

TD: Just be honest and respectful. I’ll listen, and I think this is true of most writers. If I see them, I will heed honest, respectful opinions pretty regularly. If there’s nastiness involved, or a personal tone, then I begin to discount what I hear – and not just because my feelings are hurt. It’s because I don’t feel that the person who writes spiteful comments is as in control of what he’s saying as someone who is respectful and clear and concise.

The truth is that we – writers and editors – do listen. But it can be hard to ascertain what the message is, because there are a lot of different messages coming at us from all directions. Sometimes it’s hard to say where the majority of opinion lies. A lot of times, to some extent, we’re guessing and going with what feels right to us, based on the comments we do hear.

The other thing that I think frustrates the fans – as well as the writers – is that fans don’t understand the lag-time involved in this business. If I make a decision to write a novel that has a seventy-five percent female cast, and I think that’s a really good idea and I want to make an effort to write that, it’s going to take a few years before that book can happen. So between the time somebody says that we need more female characters, and the time that I actually get the story out, there’s a big lag. I haven’t forgotten they said it, but it takes time. It might be four or five years.

FG: People tend to want instant results.

TD: Yes, and it just can’t happen with this kind of publishing. It takes time to write it, time to plan it, to edit it, then publish it…or even to sell somebody on the idea of doing it. You could say to somebody, “I’ve got a great idea for a novel.” They may agree but there may not be an open contract slot for three years, and then it’s going to be a year or two after that before the book is published.

FG: You’re going back to do a series in the Dungeons & Dragons gaming universe with your friend Bob Salvatore and Paul Kemp. That’s a return to where you started.

TD: Yes, it is. I’m going back to visit and have fun. Bob called me up and asked if I would talk with the people at Wizards of the Coast about doing a Forgotten Realms novel, and I said, “Sure, I’d be happy to do anything for you, Bob.” Bob’s a great guy, he really is. He’s one of the most supportive authors of other authors out there. He has helped so many people. And so any time Bob asks me for a favor, I’m pretty much going to do it. I’ve known Bob forever. I’ve worked with Paul on Star Wars, obviously, but I haven’t known him as long.

I just thought here is a great bunch of guys and I’d love to see what’s going on. So I spent three days brainstorming with the group and I thought: “Oh, yeah! This is cool! I want to do this.” Then it took a while to work out exactly how I could do it.

FG: It sounds like it’s going to be fun. How different will it be to write in that fantasy realm again after so many Star Wars books?

TD: It’s just stepping through a different door. It’s like going to a different amusement park. I step through and see the milieu that I’m in and that’s the kind of thinking cap I put on. It will be fun because, to me, it’s all about characters. When I sit down to write a story, the characters and how they relate to the plot are the driving elements. It really doesn’t matter that they’re fantasy characters or Star Wars characters as long as they’re good characters. A lot of the window dressing and the ways that the plot fits together will be a little different but that’s all just technical. The true fun of the writing all lies in the characters.

FG: You look like you’re going to have fun with it.

TD: Oh, it’s going to be a blast.

FG: Is there any other genre you would like to write, other than SciFi and Fantasy?

TD: Yes, some day I will probably write some thrillers or mysteries, more along the lines of John Sandford’s work than Agatha Christie’s. I love to read those as well.

FG: Also very character-driven stories?

TD: Some of them are, but some aren’t. I have a few in the back of my mind. My Dad was an undersheriff in Colorado when I was growing up, and some of the experiences that he had, and that I had as a result, are really cool books. So I’ve got quite a few of those just kind of fermenting in the back of my mind, and as soon as I have time, I’m going to put one out!

FG: You have created a really impressive section of the Star Wars EU and now your stories are being passed on from one geek generation to the next geek generation.

TD: Oh, I know!

FG: Your writing is a permanent part of the culture.

TD: Yeah, it is. I do a library day for kids in Minneapolis. The 501st puts it on, so little kids come in and they do these activities with Star Wars themes with local 501st members. I’m this adult author in the room – the one all the parents come to see. They drag their kids over to the table where I’ve set up my books. I’ll sometimes show what a manuscript looks like being edited and so forth. The kids are bored silly but I’m there for the parents. That’s cool and it’s a real pleasure.

FG: How do you feel about the, for lack of a better term and pardon the pun, “legacy” you have created in Star Wars?

TD: I feel a tremendous sense of privilege. It really is a privilege to work in Star Wars. And I also feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to try and get it right. Those two things are part of the joy of doing this work and being involved in this cultural phenomenon.

I’ve been involved since I did Galaxy Guide 4 when I worked with West End Games in the 1980s. I was a Star Wars fan then, and West End called me up and asked if I’d be interested in doing some Star Wars work. So I said, “Yeah, sure,” thinking it was roleplaying work. Then they said, “Here’s what we want you to do.”

This was a time when we only had VHS tapes and the only copy of Star Wars that they had was a tenth-generation copy that somebody had actually recorded in a theater, because nothing else existed at the time. They said take this and go to the Cantina scene and write up a description of each of the aliens in that scene. It was like, “Oh my god! What a pleasure!” I had this enormous sense of, “How did this happen to me?” I was a big Star Wars fan. So I did it, and because I didn’t want all the aliens to have just one person’s take on them, I asked my wife – who is also a writer and game editor – to contribute, plus a friend named Stephen D. Sullivan. So I did about one-half to three-quarters of the aliens and they did the rest of them. It was just so much fun. We also got to create a few completely new species.

Years later, I’m reading Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire and I see that he’s used my species. Oh my God! My names and my descriptions of their biology! And I was thinking, “Holy cow! Look what I contributed to the EU!” I was in seventh heaven. I still have that same feeling today.

FG: I can see that. You look like a kid in a candy store.

TD: That’s exactly the right description.

FG: I suspect that the best authors in Star Wars – or any place else – are fans first.

TD: Yes, I think so. I have a hard time understanding how anyone could write Star Wars if they don’t love Star Wars.

To be continued…