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Shared Worlds
Elaine Cunningham
interviewed by Cristopher Hennessey-DeRose
"If I had to characterise Star Wars, I'd say it's primarily an
adventure story with a fantasy heart and an SF wardrobe."

"in e-publishing... particularly books set in shared worlds,
there's a lot of creative potential in annotated novels."

How did writing your Star Wars book, Dark Journey, differ from the works regarding worlds you've built yourself?

Most of my work takes place in one 'shared world' setting or another, so in many ways Dark Journey was not much of a departure. It's like writing historical fiction, except for the fact that the history is imaginary. Star Wars has a much more detailed history than many shared worlds. The source materials include dozens of novels, reference books, game accessories, short stories, comic books, and, of course, movies. There was an enormous amount of reading involved, but even so, I was grateful for the eagle eyes of the LucasFilm continuity team.

What made you pick Jaina Solo as the primary character for the story?

I didn't, actually. Jaina was assigned to me. The folks at Del Rey wanted a smaller scale, personal story focusing on a difficult moment in Jaina's life. I've written about several conflicted female heroes, and apparently the publisher felt that Jaina and I were a good match.

How do you feel about the loss of Anakin in Star By Star?

Devastated! I haven't wept over a book since Beth bought the farm in Little Women. After reading Greg Keyes' two books, which really brought Anakin to life and made him an incredibly appealing hero, I read Star By Star again and felt even worse. In fact, for a while, I had a hard time writing. As I told my son, "Anakin is gone. There doesn't seem to be much point in going on." He smirked, being under the misapprehension that I was kidding around!

Did it affect the way you approached Jaina?

I think so, yes. Anakin was special, and his loss made an impact on readers. It seemed to me that his sister would suffer a profound blow, first because of the family tie and their shared Jedi perspective on life, but also because she had some understanding of his importance and his potential. This, coupled with the severing of her twin-bond with Jacen, was simply was too much for her. She went into emotional overload, and responded by sublimating her grief.

Do you usually sell your work from a proposal or a completed manuscript?

This varies. For some books, especially if there's an established relationship with the publisher and the story is similar to books I've done before, a proposal is fine. If I'm approaching a new publisher, or trying something different from most of my published work, I'd definitely offer a completed manuscript. Short stories are always submitted as completed manuscripts.

You worked as a music teacher for some time. Is listening to music while you write part of your regimen? If so, who/what do you listen to?

Actually, I can't listen to music while I work. It's like trying to carry on two conversations at once.

Is writing more an instinctual or a learned thing?

In other words, what's more important: talent or hard work? They're both important, and what's more, they're co-dependent. I've had diligent music students who never progressed, and talented students who never practiced. Writing, like music, requires a certain inherent talent, but it also involves a set of skills that can be learned through practice and study.

When writing Dark Journey, did you talk to any of the other past Star Wars authors for continuity?

Absolutely. Dark Journey followed directly after Star By Star, and it was one of several books that took place at roughly the same time. This required a considerable amount of coordination. Troy Denning was particularly helpful. We spoke by phone several times and exchanged lots of email. I've got a huge file of email conversations with several other authors. We batted around ideas in ongoing discussions that made the rounds, not only among the authors, but with the Del Rey editors and LucasFilm people.

As both a Star Wars fan and one who has worked in the George Lucas universe, can you compare the experience with the work you've done in Forgotten Realms?

The Forgotten Realms has been around for about 20 years, and it's a setting for role-playing and computer games as well as novels. Many readers and gamers invest a great deal of time and creative energy in this world and its continuing characters. Their devotion to 'their' setting helped prepare me for the passionate and occasionally vehement reaction of Star Wars fans to any new story or novel. Star Wars fans span three generations, and they're a diverse and highly partisan group. Anyone working in a shared world setting needs to understand this and be prepared to ride out the highs and lows.

You've worked quite a bit in the Forgotten Realms series; what did that teach you about the craft of writing?

Working in a shared world setting teaches you to be flexible. When you don't control all the details of your setting and background characters, you have to be willing to revise and rethink. That's a skill that translates well to any kind of writing.

Do you go into a different mode of thinking when writing SF than you would use for fantasy?

This question presupposes that Star Wars is SF. This might be opening a very large and recalcitrant can of worms, but I consider Star Wars to have more in common with fantasy than SF, cool gizmos and space travel notwithstanding. SF is based on ideas. Fantasy involves magic (in this case, the Force,) fantastic creatures, and most importantly, a struggle between good and evil. If I had to characterise Star Wars, I'd say it's primarily an adventure story with a fantasy heart and an SF wardrobe.

The Wizardwar brings the Counselors & Kings trilogy to an end. Was it difficult to be done with Halruaa and its people?

In a way, yes... both of the protagonists answered important personal questions, but these answers left them poised on the threshold of new adventures. I think that Matteo and Tzigone are in a good place, but the story ends at a time when changes are sweeping the Realms, things that will have a profound effect upon the magic-rich kingdom of Halruaa. It's not easy to walk away from that!

There's been some debate of late in regards to publishing being motivated more by politics rather than new writers. How do you feel about that?

I'm not sure that 'politics' is quite the right word. Economics hits the mark more directly. When businesses consolidate - and many publishing houses and book chains have done so in the past few years - the result is heavier debt and the resulting need to maximise profit. Emphasising best-selling books and celebrity authors is one way to do this. Some of the trends that help create bestsellers, such as Oprah's book club, support this strategy. Does this have a negative impact? In some ways, yes... a lot of mid-list authors are getting squeezed out. It's possible that good books are being overlooked in favour of potentially 'big books'. On the other hand, the media attention given to certain books has prompted a lot of people to read that otherwise might not have done so. I'm all for anything that introduces people to the joy of reading, be it Oprah, movie adaptations, or Harry Potter.
   As for new writers, what could be more exciting to an editor than discovering a talented new author? Perhaps newcomers are labouring in the shade of publishing giants, but is breaking-in really more difficult today than it was a few years ago? When you factor in all the possibilities, such as e-publishing, Internet promotion, print on demand, and online bookstores, one might argue that opportunities are more plentiful now than they have ever been.

When you wrote Elfshadow, were you concerned at all with being pigeonholed in one particular genre?

When I wrote Elfshadow, my only concern was writing the best story I could. I wasn't worried about genre identification. I'm not saying that categorisation will never be a problem, but so far I haven't had cause for concern.

Has the renewed interest in the Star Wars films (because of the prequels being produced) increased readership? Are you reaching more people since Episode One: The Phantom Menace was made?

I'm going to pass on this question. I have no way of knowing what the numbers are, or what they might have been under different circumstances, so anything I might say would be pure speculation.

What do you think about e-publishing in terms of books?

I hope the day comes soon when middle school kids are issued e-readers rather than 40 lbs of expensive textbooks. I think it's going to take something like this to get people get used to reading electronically reproduced material. Once that happens, the sale of e-fiction would really take off. There are intriguing possibilities in e-publishing. For fantasy, particularly books set in shared worlds, there's a lot of creative potential in annotated novels. E-publishing is a great way to make out-of-print books available again, and it provides publishers with a low cost, low risk method of introducing new writers. It also offers an inexpensive forum for new writers to self publish, or for established writers to try out something new.

Which one of your books would you like to see made into a movie, and why?

I seldom think in these terms. To me, a book is not raw material for a movie, but a thing worthwhile in and of itself. I love movies, and I'll readily acknowledge that some wonderful adaptations have been made from novels, but I seldom read a book and envision a potential cast of characters. But what the heck - I'll play. If I could adapt one of my books into a screenplay, I'd pick Elfshadow.

What projects in the works can you tell us about?

My next book is Windwalker, the third book in the Starlight & Shadows trilogy and the continuing story of dark elf 'princess' Liriel Baenre. It'll be out in April 2003. The first two books, Daughter Of The Drow and Tangled Webs, will be re-released just before. I'm very excited about the redesign - the new cover art by Todd Lockman is worth the price of the books!

What do you attribute to the success you've had in two, some may say very different, genres?

I attribute the opportunity to write a Star Wars book to R.A. Salvatore. When the New Jedi Order series was in the planning stage, the folks at Del Rey asked Bob to recommend two or three authors. I was one of the people he mentioned. Without that endorsement, I definitely would have been lost in the crowd of aspiring Star Wars authors! And yes, I will be naming my first grandchild 'Robert'. My future daughters-in-law will just have to adapt.

How important is it for authors, both new and established, to have their own websites as you do?

I'm not sure how you could quantify the importance. It's expected - let's put it that way. A lot of authors don't have websites and do just fine, but readers today expect a certain level of accessibility. The Internet is an important way to connect with readers, to promote upcoming work, and to introduce your work to new readers. Sometimes the oddest things can pull in new readers. I have on my website several 'reference centres' on subjects related to my work - elf lore, Arthurian myths, Renaissance Faires. After the Lord Of The Rings movie, a surprising number of people found my site through a search on Elf languages! (And to those who are thinking about asking, no, I do not know of a book along the lines of 'High Elvish for Dummies'. It's not a bad idea, though. Someone ought to schedule a meeting with Tolkien's heirs and get to work on it!)
   For those of us who write in a shared world, websites, email, and message-boards provide opportunities to 'share'. To me, that's an important and enjoyable part of the job.

Books by Elaine Cunningham:                               visit Elaine's website
Evermeet: Island Of The Elves (1999), First Quest: The Unicorn Hunt (1995),
Spelljammer - The Cloakmaster's Cycle: The Radiant Dragon (1992),
Star Wars - New Jedi Order: Dark Journey (2002).
Songs & Swords -  The Dream Spheres (1999), Elfshadow (2000), Elfsong (2000),
Silver Shadows (2001), Thornhold (2001).
Counselors & Kings -  The Magehound (2000), The Floodgate (2001),
The Wizardwar (2002).
Starlight & Shadows -  Tangled Webs (1998), Daughter Of The Drow (February 2003), Windwalker (April 2003)
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