I recently had the honor of interviewing Nathan P. Butler, the creator of the Star Wars Timeline Gold (explained in the interview by Nathan), author of the novel Greater Good, the novella Echoes and a couple other novellas and short stories. He is also a host on the podcast Star Wars Beyond the Films with Mark Hurliman. I got to interview Nathan on his writing history and his thoughts and opinions on Star Wars’ past and future and his involvement in that galaxy far, far away. Enjoy!
How did you decide that writing was your passion, and how did you come to the point where you’re writing books today?
I feel as though I’ve always enjoyed storytelling, even in my “regular” profession, since that plays a large role in teaching history and related subjects. When I would write, though, I often either never finished or never considered it as something I could do professionally.
In 2004, though, I was approached by Jeremy Barlow, who was then the Associate Editor at Dark Horse Comics for the Star Wars line. He had been given the chance to extend the life of the anthology-style Star Wars Tales, and because it was a place for short stories and unusual creative teams, he was able to do what often is impossible in Star Wars – invite someone to write who wasn’t previously published. Based on my Star Wars Timeline Gold chronology knowledge, passion he said could be seen in my podcast at the time (ChronoRadio, 2002 – 2007), and my storytelling ability, he offered me the chance to write a fourteen-page story in Star Wars Tales #21.
That gave me the confidence that people might actually give something I wrote a try, so I then moved into self-publishing two books, the novella Echoes and my time travel novel, Greater Good.
It was those two self-published works and my Tales work that got the attention of Grail Quest Books’ Josh Radke, who then offered me the chance to write two official WARS: The Battle of Phobos novellas in the universe first fleshed-out by Michael Stackpole and others. That then opened the door to revising and updating Greater Good for professional publication through GQB.
So, I suppose the “short” answer (and how I hate that acronym) is “I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time.”
What is your favorite piece of writing (besides the Star Wars Timeline Gold) that you’ve created so far and why?
Definitely Greater Good. The story is a time travel tale involving a totalitarian state, telepaths and telekinetics, modern and future settings, and a lot of historical themes and moral dilemmas. That’s the one I’d most like to see be read by more people in hopes that perhaps it could develop more from there. I penned it as a standlone story, though, so a sequel is very unlikely.
What advice can you give to people who want to write science fiction and fantasy (like me) being that you write those things yourself?
Well, if we are talking about simply wanting to write at all, then the best advice I can give is not to give up on a story you are passionate about. If that means taking a long break (in my case, it was sometimes months between chapters of Greater Good being written), then do it. If that means writing chapters out of order to hit major scenes before fleshing out the connective tissue between them, do it. The biggest challenge I tend to see with new writers is a lack of follow-through.
As far as getting your stories out there, these days you can use something like Lulu.com or Amazon Createspace to self-publish your works and make them available in both print and ebook formats. The bad news there is that a lot of people are doing that, so it is tough to get noticed. In that case, social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, are your best bets to get that self-published work recognized by potential readers.
When it comes to hooking up with a publisher to write professionally, my case was a matter of circumstances falling into place. I can definitely say, though, that it is easier to find smaller publishers looking for talented writers than the big publishers, if only because your competition to get your foot in the door could be significantly lighter.
In one episode of SW Beyond the Films you and Mark Hurliman did an analysis on the female role in the Star Wars EU. You had very interesting opinions on that, and seeing that when it comes to female protagonists, you want to see strong ones that have the ability or eventually gets the ability to protect themselves. There’s been conflicting talk of the female role in 2013’s big video game hit The Last Of Us, what is YOUR opinion on the female role in The Last Of Us seeing where Ellie’s journey leads her?
I enjoyed the game, though its intensity didn’t hit me quite as much as it might have, given that I had just recently finished the largely unappreciated but highly enjoyable ZombiU. What made the game was the characterizations, and, yes, Ellie was one of the strongest female characters in games lately. Then again, they did not have a chance to foul her up by making her over-sexualized or the typical “damsel in distress” because they introduced her in a role that was not really a “woman” but a “girl,” relating to Joel like his late daughter might, rather than as an adult, despite her profanity-laden vocabulary. I would like to think that her being a strong, solid character is a step forward in how video games portray women, but her age just gives me pause. We could be looking at an industry patting itself on the back for what turns out to be a “false positive” – a step forward that turns out to instead be meaningless.
What was your first experience with Star Wars? What’s your favorite Star Wars movie and why?
I honestly don’t remember my very first Star Wars experience, but one of my earliest memories was of seeing Return of the Jedi in theaters in 1983 with my mother, who took me to see it multiple times.
A movie pecking order is always going to be nitpicked, but I personally find Revenge of the Sith to be my favorite of the films. I find the tragedy in the film rather interesting, and I feel as though it has a lot of depth. Of course, the problem is that the “depth” isn’t always in the movie, per se. I definitely gained a lot by reading Matthew Stover’s novelization of the film prior to seeing it. That “Stover Effect,” as I call it, let me see the film and infuse scenes with more depth than was probably shown on-screen at any given moment. A close second would be Return of the Jedi. (Yes, that makes The Empire Strikes Back my third favorite, near the middle. Such blasphemy.)
How and when did you fall in love with the Expanded Universe? What made you decide to make it a hobby to keep track of the Star Wars timeline and do podcasts discussing the EU, and what is your relationship with it like now that Disney is involved with Star Wars?
I started reading Star Wars comics when I was little, mostly the Marvel Comics of the era just after Return of the Jedi. For the modern Expanded Universe, though, I actually missed the boat on that by about a year. My first exposure to the modern EU was through Dark Force Rising, which I saw at a bookstore in 1992. That prompted me to also pick up Heir to the Empire and Star Wars comics that were popping up in specialty stores, beginning with some second printing copies of Dark Empire’s earliest issues.
My Star Wars Timeline Gold (or Star Wars Timeline Project back then) emerged out of necessity. I needed a means of keeping track of the various stories that were part of the Official Continuity at the time, so I created a list for myself that I then shared with a few friends. Over time, the demand grew, as did the document, which is now the most comprehensive Star Wars chronology available anywhere. I didn’t set out to make a name for myself in fandom, just to keep track of things for myself.
My podcasting “career” actually began before that term and the idea of releasing podcasts for automatic downloads (actual “podcasting”), back in 2002. I had toyed with audio files with thoughts on particular topics earlier than that, putting up a few to go with the timeline document. After becoming a fan of (and guest on) Digital Llama Radio (a Star Wars fan film podcast), I decided to try my hand at a show. The result was ChronoRadio, which was well received enough that I began some new podcasts. It was a rather busy time in that regard. Now, I guess you could say I’m in my golden years of podcasting, as I’ve ended all of the podcasts that I hosted and mixed, so that now I’m a host on Star Wars Beyond the Films and among the team of Republic Forces Radio Network, and I’ll soon be a host for an effort that merges those two teams into Rebels Roundtable. The trick to that activity, though, is that I generally no longer mix podcasts. My partners in those cases do the mixing, so I am able to focus on content and still churn out weekly episodes without the time-sink of my teaching profession making it impossible.
The Disney buyout of Lucasfilm is something that makes for interesting discussion and food for thought, but I find myself somewhat wary of what is coming next. Will the Expanded Universe change dramatically? Will there be a new timeline developed altogether? All of that factors into the hobby for me, especially since the Star Wars Timeline Gold chronicles the saga in its current continuity, which might be supplanted by something entirely different within the next couple of years.
One of the latest changes since Disney stepped in was that Disney’s Lucasfilm and Marvel Entertainment have now “joined forces” to create new Star Wars comics together which we’ll see in motion by 2015. What’s your opinion on this, and what do you want to see from these new comics? Do you think it was time for Dark Horse, the company that normally produced Star Wars comics, to step down anyway?
With Marvel, I think this is a mixed bag. On the one hand, they have managed to provide interesting twists on old ideas with lines like the Ultimate comics. In that sense, I have hope for something great with Star Wars at Marvel. Having read all of Marvel’s older Star Wars works (1977 – 1988), I can’t say that I was too impressed compared to Dark Horse’s materials, but I would imagine that is more a matter of when Marvel first had the license, rather than anything from a creative potential standpoint. It was a vastly different era for Star Wars and comic publishing in general.
My worry is that when the new films begin to hit theaters and Marvel launches their Star Wars line, they won’t make it a clean break with older, pre-2015 continuity. If they try to just let the films and new comics slam their way into the continuity, dumping books and comics left and right to accommodate for events in newer stories, that would create a rather large mess (The Clone Wars trampling the original Clone Wars tales, anyone?). I’m hopeful for a clean break with some fresh new ideas.
As for whether it was time for Dark Horse to lose the license, it was probably time, or close to it. Dark Horse set a rather high standard a few years ago with comics like Knights of the Old Republic and Legacy, but things feel as though that greatness has passed. It feels like Dark Horse has been on a downward slope recently, and that impression is only compounded by errors now creeping into the comics again (especially chronological references when they try to use the credits page to pin down the year the story takes place) and new series that don’t stack up to their predecessors (Legacy, Vol. 2 as compared to Legacy, Vol. 1, for example).
More recently, though, it is Brian Wood’s Star Wars, Vol. 2 that makes me feel that it is probably time for a change. That series consistently tosses thermal detonators into continuity of previous decades of storytelling, seemingly on a whim. Between Wood’s series smashing through the Classic Trilogy era and The Clone Wars blasting away the previous version of the Clone Wars that saw print starting in 2002, it feels as though continuity is mattering less and less in Star Wars. I am grateful to Dark Horse for giving me my first professional writing gig and for their decades of Star Wars entertainment, but with the likelihood of either an entirely new continuity or at last a major shakeup in continuity when the new films arrive, now is as good a time as any for a fresh start. That seems more likely to happen if the license shifts away from Dark Horse, if only so that the saga is being approached with new eyes.
With Dark Horse stepping down from Star Wars, what can you say was your favorite and your absolute least favorite Star Wars comic book series from them and why?
My favorites, hands down, are Legacy (the original series by Ostrander and Duursema) and Tales of the Jedi (Veitch and Anderson). There are some others that are pretty close, though, like Knights of the Old Republic and Dawn of the Jedi. I enjoy seeing new eras explored with familiar concepts in different context and practice.
As for the worst . . Comic-wise, it would have to be Tales form Mos Eisley (not to be confused with Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina, the prose anthology). Bad art, bad storytelling, pointless tales, and a slapped-together feel make that one something I’d like to forget existed.
I have to admit, even though Disney has done things such as (presumably) bring an end to The Clone Wars animated TV series, shut down LucasArts, and change the management behind Star Wars comics, they’ve actually been promising us things that fans have wanted for a while now such as a TV series that takes place during the Dark Times (between Episodes III and IV), a new Star Wars Battlefront game, and of course new movies that will give the newer generation a chance to see Star Wars in theaters. Many fans have decided to judge these things in a negative light without even waiting to see what happens. What’s YOUR opinion on this, being a major Star Wars/EU fan yourself?
I think it comes down to intellectual honesty. Anyone who is playing it straight should be able to recognize that the saga is changing. Episode VII will shatter post-ROTJ continuity like The Clone Wars did to its era. There’s nothing stopping this, it would seem. Thus, we basically have to just look at the reality of the situation, decide whether we want to remain fans or active in the fan community, and go from there. Some people will give up on Star Wars Expanded Universe publications if they see old beloved tales being dumped from the saga. The question is whether they will be able to “get over it” and enjoy the new tales. Every major shift in Star Wars has tended to bring out a lot of naysaying, and I’ve certainly added my voice into that mix from time to time, but when something is inevitable, fighting against it or allowing yourself to get unduly stressed out about something that is beyond our control and supposed to be just a hobby just seems to be a waste of time and energy. Like I tend to say, if fandom is causing you the kind of stress you’d get from a life crisis, then you are most definitely “doing it wrong.”
There’s lots of talk that the EU will probably officially die out by 2015 because of the new comics, the new Rebels TV series, and of course Episode VII. What is one thing that you can say was the best thing about the EU to you?
It gave me a fandom occupation! What am I supposed to do now???
Honestly, I think the best thing it did was give us a fleshed out universe that was able to both survive and thrive in the gaps between films and between trilogies. Few franchises could claim such a long period of growth, mostly within a single, unified continuity. It showed that it can be done; not flawlessly, but it can be done.
What are your hopes for the future of Star Wars, and will any future changes on Star Wars affect how Beyond the Films runs and how you manage the Star Wars Timeline Gold?
My hope would be that these new films recapture the feel and spirit of the original films and, along with Rebels, help usher in a new Renaissance of the saga. And I mean that literally; “renaissance” refers to a “rebirth,” not a continuation. Let’s see Star Wars get the kind of reinvigoration and fresh perspectives that Star Trek received in 2009. (Just don’t let J.J. Abrams turn Lando white or something; I’m still retconning some Star Trek Into Darkness stuff in my head…)
How this all affects the projects I’m involved with will depend on how the saga changes. Rebels Roundtable will owe its existence to Rebels, so as long as that series is developing, that podcast will move right along. Star Wars Beyond the Films will continue to address Star Wars stories and concepts outside of just the films, but we may have to start drawing the line in discussions between what is “old” continuity and “new” continuity. The same goes for my From the Star Wars Library videos on YouTube. I have a good 22 years or so of material still to get through before reaching 2014, so I’ll be amid the “old” continuity for a while still.
The Star Wars Timeline Gold is the big question mark here. On the one hand, the idea that the current Expanded Universe continuity could simply come to a halt means that the continuity timeline that I have been chronicling for going on 17 years would no longer be growing, which would be the perfect time to fill in the last remaining gaps of really obscure items and make it an even more definitive resource than it already is today.
On the other hand, it begs the question of how to deal with any new continuity that might arise. I will probably just add another (fifth) document into the SWT-G’s annual releases, focusing entirely on that new continuity. That is, if there is a clean break for a new continuity. If Lucasfilm ends up claiming that there is still just one continuity and simply starts throwing out stories that no longer fit due to Episode VII and such, I will just have to improvise and figure out a new approach. If nothing else, we might see the post-ROTJ era split into two separate timelines within the SWT-G documents, the same way I’ve had to basically keep The Clone Wars events and the previous version of the Clone Wars as separate timelines in their own document for now, as we await a reconciliation of the two into a single order of events that will likely never come.
Either way, I’m going to try to keep the SWT-G going. I mean, when I turn 36 in October 2015, right before the premiere of Episode VII, I will have been working on the SWT-G for literally half of my life. Why stop now?
How can people find you, and, being that you have helped me before with this, how can people get a link to their Star Wars podcast posted on your website starwarsfanworks.com?
My published works can be found via nathanpbutler.com, and the Star Wars podcast I’m currently involved with can be found on starwarsreport.com. The Star Wars Timeline Gold can be found at starwarsfanworks.com/timeline. My starwarsfanworks.com is also still around to provide a directory of where fans can find other Star Wars podcasts, and those interested in having their Star Wars podcast listed can email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.