How to Write a Top-Secret 'Star Wars' Book: 'Force Awakens' Author Alan Dean Foster Tells All (Spoilers!)

Warning: If you’ve managed to put off seeing The Force Awakens, big spoilers follow.

Much has been written about the many and varied ways that Star Wars: The Force Awakens deliberately echoes the very first Star Wars film, A New Hope: the Starkiller Base is basically a bigger version of the Death Star; Maz Kanata’s castle/cantina resembles the Mos Eisley watering hole at which Luke Skywalker first met Han Solo; new villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is trying really, really hard to be the next Darth Vader, etc. But the similarities carry over off-screen as well. Back in 1977, sci-fi author Alan Dean Foster was hired to ghostwrite the novelization of George Lucas’s risky gamble, Star Wars, and later penned its follow-up book, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye.


Flash-forward four decades later, and Foster was chosen to write The Force Awakens’ novelization. Available digitally on Kindle and Apple iBooks now (a hardcover version will be published on Jan. 5), the book hews closely to the film’s narrative, but does feature a number of scenes and details that aren’t present onscreen. Yahoo Movies spoke with Foster about keeping his involvement in The Force Awakens secret, the sequences that didn’t make it into the movie and the scene that almost brought him to tears.

When we talked earlier in the year, you kept your involvement with The Force Awakens quiet. Necessary evasion or had you not booked the job at that point?

The project was assigned to me in January, but I wasn’t able to say anything. Plenty of people asked, and I had to do the same evasive stuff. Del Rey Books has the rights to the franchise, and the editor, Shelly Shapiro, inquired whether I would be interested, through my agent. I said yes, because I thought it would be fun. And it was, thank goodness! As soon as I read the script, I thought, “This harkens back to the spirit of the first three films.” It was much more relaxed after that. And I expected the references to the previous films, because it’s a continuing story. You can’t do that without referencing what’s gone before.

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What level of security was required for you to access the script? In my imagination, it involves a flash drive that self-destructs after two hours.

They didn’t say that, but then, that would be part of the secrecy! [Laughs] No, there are a couple of systems that studios use now to send stuff like that. It probably makes the encryption at the NSA look amateurish. It was sent in pieces to me via email, and it was very, very secure. I used the same system when I did the novelizations of J.J.’s two Star Trek movies, so it was quite easy.

Did you have any direct contact with J.J. Abrams during the process?

No, I’ve never met J.J. and vice versa. Doing a small film is a 24/7 project, and a film like this more like a 25/7 job. I’ve been on sets with directors making nine figure-plus films and you’re lucky if you can get a midnight meeting with them while they’re eating dinner…. I’m sure we’ll bump into each other one of these days, and talk about anything other than Star Trek and Star Wars.

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Were you at least shown the film in advance?

No, I just saw it on Saturday morning, the day after it opened. Unlike the two Star Trek films, I didn’t get to see the film while I was writing, which was a shame — it would have made the novelization even better. It always does! I did get to see a fair number of still photos of the settings and the characters in costume. I really made a case for that. I told the studio, “The screenplay describes Rey’s scavenger outfit as being a certain way, but it would be useful if I could see the thing instead of having to invent it — pun not intended — out of whole cloth.” They relented, so I got to see pictures of devices and sets. For example, the descriptions of Maz Kanata’s cantina in the book reflects the images I saw, some of which were completed and some that weren’t.

I’m already getting emails from readers saying, “Why didn’t you explain this part?” or “Why aren’t there more details about this sequence?” I would have been delighted to add those details, but if I do that in the official novelization of the film, then it becomes canon. And if there’s something the creators want to do in the future that might be contradicted by something I’ve invented in the book, it might restrain them. I ran into the same thing on Star Trek. Simon & Schuster commissioned four original Trek novels that were going to take place in the rebooted timeline after the movies. I finished mine, but then Paramount said, “We can’t publish these.” Not because they were bad books or contradicted anything that happened, but because they might restrict something they wanted to do in the third, sixth or 10th film. If you have a long-running franchise, you don’t want to do anything that restricts your future possibilities. It’s a real careful dance that I hope fans will understand.

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Alan Dean Foster (Wikipedia Creative Commons)

The book does expand on scenes that aren’t in the movie. It was interesting to get more hints about the background of Lor San Tekka, the Max von Sydow character.

They let me do a great deal; there are whole sequences in the book that aren’t in the movie. For example, there’s a scene in Maz Kanata’s castle where Chewbacca saves Rey from [Jakku junk dealer] Unkar Plutt’s attentions. There’s also a whole bit were we see what happens to Poe Dameron after he ejects from the TIE Fighter when it crash-lands on Jakku. And the scene where Poe gives Finn his name is longer in the book. You have to expand the story somehow, otherwise you may as well just publish the screenplay.

Poe’s escape from Jakku is notably missing from the film. As far as you know, was that scene ever shot?

No, it was something I was asked to write. It was never in the screenplay, but they thought, “Wait a minute — this is something fans are going to question.” Because one minute, he’s not there and then he’s back with the Resistance. So they wanted to show how that happened [in the novel], even in a brief fashion.

Did they divulge any details about upcoming storylines — like the mystery of Rey’s origins — as background for the book?

They didn’t share any of that with me and I’m glad they didn’t. If they had, it might have slipped into the book, and they’d have to take it out. It was better going in there not knowing any of that stuff, because if there are no mysteries, it’s no fun for fans. If I already knew who Rey’s parents are or what Kylo Ren’s backstory is, and I let it slip, it kills it for the future. And if I write something for a character that doesn’t agree with the films, it still becomes canon, which is a problem if you’re trying to control continuity down the line to, say, Episode 23.

Certainly the emotional high point of the film is Han Solo’s death, and that passage in your novel is very touching as well. Did you experience any sadness writing that moment?

Sure, I was sad! If I wasn’t, the scene wouldn’t work. As a creative person, you can’t distance yourself emotionally from what you’re writing, because the reader can sense it. I didn’t cry, but I got welled up inside a little bit, and that told me it was working. Interestingly, I thought I did that passage well the first time, but my editor, Shelly, sent it back to me, saying, “This needs more heft.” And she was right. I tend to write very fast, which is one of the reasons I’m asked to do these novelizations. But sometimes you can write too fast and skip over something that needs more attention. That’s where a good editor comes in. So I went back and expanded on that scene even more than I already had, and the result shows.

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I think the decision to [kill Han] was a wise call on everyone’s part. At a certain point, a character can become a case of diminishing returns. I just hope we don’t see any more Force ghosts! I don’t like the Force ghosts. I think it’s a cheat storywise. When I saw Alec Guinness return in The Empire Strikes Back, it took me out of the film. You think, “Wait, this is the wrong movie! This should be in a fantasy film.” And it takes the focus away from where it should be — on the living characters. But nobody asks me! [Laughs]

Overall, how did the experience of writing The Force Awakens contrast with writing the very first Star Wars novel?

When I wrote the first book, I got a copy of the script along with some of Ralph McQuarrie’s pre-production paintings and went to write the book. I turned it in, George [Lucas] read it and said, “That’s fine.” And that was that! There were no changes requested. It was much more laid back and personal because the fate of the financial universe wasn’t at stake. It was just somebody making a movie. With this film, you had a lot of money, as well as peoples’ jobs and careers at stake. It’s been cold where I live, but there was a breath of warm air that came through when the film premiered last week and the first ecstatic comments rolled in. I realized that was the relieved exhalation of numerous executives in Burbank.

George Lucas was credited as the author of the original Star Wars novelization, before your involvement was made public. Is it nice to have your name on the cover of The Force Awakens?

It’s funny, Star Wars is the only book I’ve ever written that didn’t have my name on it. It didn’t bother me; as I’ve said many times, it was George’s story, not mine. I just polished it up for longer publication. It didn’t even bother me to have to lie to people for a number of years, and it wouldn’t bother me if I had to do it again. It’s like the names of all the forgotten assistants who worked on the Sistine Chapel. It’s Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, but a lot of people did painting up there besides him. That’s part of the job. If you don’t like it, don’t take the job.

Will you have any involvement in future Star Wars novels?

Not at this point. I’d be happy to be involved depending on what the involvement is. I am writing an original story for Star Wars Insider magazine, which comes out in January. It has nothing to do with the film, but utilizes one of the characters in Maz Kanata’s cantina. Remember the big walrus-like alien with the girl who makes the phone call to the First Order about BB-8 and Rey being there? His name is Grummgar, and the story is about him. Stories like this are one of the ways they’re trying to expand the rebooted canon. It always seems to be humans fighting humans in Star Wars movies, or clones or robots. The aliens don’t seem to get involved physically in a big way. That’s something I’d like to see change in future films. It would be really interesting, for example, to see alien Stormtroopers. We have alien Resistance fighters like Admiral Ackbar, but we don’t seem to have alien First Order guys. Except, possibly, for Supreme Leader Snoke. And I’m not giving anything away! We’ll just have to watch and see.

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Nobody’s ever asked me to work on the script for one of these movies. Believe me, I have plenty of ideas. I’ve got one that would absolutely kill for Episode IX, but I believe they already have that script ready. One of these days, after I’m dead, someone will say, “This guy really knew these characters in the franchise! It would have been interesting to have him write one of the screenplays.” But I won’t come back as a Force ghost to write it. [Laughs]

I should ask — after writing The Force Awakens novelization, what did you think when you saw the film?

It’s weird, whenever I see a film after having written the novelization, I automatically feel sorry for people like J.J. and Larry [Kasdan], because they’re never going to have the same pleasure of experiencing this movie like an ordinary audience member. There are compensating pleasures, sure, but that particular pleasure is denied to them, just like it’s denied to the ones who write the books. But I enjoyed The Force Awakens. There are things I’d change here and there, but that’s what fans do. Everyone makes their own directors’ cut; the only difference is that I get to see mine in print!