Interview: Ryder Windham on Death Star Owner’s Technical Manual

RyderWindham-Death-StarRyder Windham has written over fifty Star Wars books, across the spectrum from comics to junior books to hefty reference books. His latest book, the Death Star Owner’s Technical Manual, came out this week as a Haynes manual, and focuses on the saga’s favorite armored space station. Windham spoke with me about the new book, illustrated by Chris Reiff and Chris Trevas, who had worked previously with Windham on the Haynes Millennium Falcon Owner’s Technical Guide which came out in 2011. Here’s the interview with Ryder Windham about the new Death Star reference book:

Jawajames: The Death Star is one of the most iconic concepts from Star Wars. What do you think is the appeal of the space station which Darth Vader termed “this technological terror?”

Ryder Windham: The very idea of a battle station that can destroy entire planets is simultaneously fantastic and beyond frightening. Not just the idea that a space-traveling superweapon could exist, but that anyone would build such a thing, that anyone would want to build such a thing. And the Death Star is fascinating visually as well as conceptually, and has a great introduction in the first Star Wars movie. Until the Millennium Falcon gets drawn into one of the Death Star’s docking bays, we can’t fully comprehend the station’s enormous size.

Death Star Owners Technical Manual US coverJames: The Haynes series of manuals typically has technical and repair information for the vehicle covered in the manual. Can I use the Imperial Death Star DS-1 Orbital Battle Station Owner’s Workshop Manual (title of the UK edition) to help me with my own Death Star, like how to upgrade that faulty uncovered thermal exhaust port?

RW: The manual will definitely help you find your way around numerous areas of the Death Star, and draw your attention to the few sections that could have used improvement. But I suspect even the most capable mechanics technicians would be at a loss with much of the machinery and technology on the Death Star unless they received specialized training at the Academy and had more than a few droid assistants.

James: The manual is filled with details about parts of the Death Star that we don’t see in the films: security centers, medical wings, and even fitness centers – how did you and the artists build these sections?

RW: Most of the offscreen areas were culled from the Death Star Technical Companion by Bill Slavicsek, which was published by West End Games over twenty years ago. We incorporated a great deal of data from Slavicsek’s book, but a side-by-side comparison will reveal that they are very different in appearance, how the information is organized, and especially the illustrations. The manual’s artists, Chris Reiff and Chris Trevas, used the Technical Companion‘s for reference, but they weren’t obligated to replicate every floor plan, and were encouraged to develop their own ideas. For example, in the Technical Companion, the stormtrooper barracks featured stacked bunks, but Mr. Reiff and Mr. Trevas took inspiration from The Clone Wars TV series, and created enclosed, ladder-accessible “sleep chambers,” similar to ones used by clone troopers.

James: I enjoyed that callback to The Clone Wars, though it does seem a bit space inefficient and potentially hazardous to have troopers in enclosed pods that are stacked pretty high – some guys are just one bad step or faulty door mechanism from their doom. But considering the lack of guard rails along those chasms, workplace safety doesn’t seem to be a big concern for the Empire. How else does the design of the Death Star fit into Imperial philosophy?

RW: To make sure Imperial pilots know who’s in charge, the Death Star’s TIE fighter hangars are designed so departures and arrivals are completely controlled by tractor beam projectors. And if you look at all the heavy scrap metal inside the trash compactor, it seems that the Imperial Navy isn’t a role model for recycling either.

Death Star Owners Technical Manual spread2

James: What were some of the challenges of putting together the most definitive guidebook on the Death Star?

RW: For me, the initial challenge was breaking down all the information into a series of spreads, but then I realized a slightly bigger challenge was deciding on the narrative angle. I considered the possibility of making all the text read as if the manual were an official publication of the Imperial Navy, but the fact that practically every reader already knows the Death Star’s fate encouraged me to write most of the entries so that they referred to the Death Star in the past tense. I also had to figure out a plausible explanation for how photographs of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and friends weren’t lost in the Death Star’s destruction. The artists definitely had the greater challenge, as their work was more time-consuming than mine.

James: Besides including just the technical aspects of that “small moon,” the manual also cover the history and politics involved in the Death Star projects. Was there any information you wanted to reference but ended up not using? What about Star Tours?

RW: I love Star Tours, and I did consider it, but decided it was practical to stick with the Death Stars that appeared in A New Hope and Return of the Jedi. I also regret that I never played the online game Death Star Designer, but I did incorporate mention of a few things from that game, like mooring towers for Star Destroyers.

James: Was there any particular section of the book that you feel most proud of, either for creating new information, or resolving a potential discrepancy from previous sources?

RW: Generally, if I have a choice between creating something new or maintaining continuity with previously published sources, I opt to maintain continuity. I’ve already mentioned Slavicsek’s Death Star Technical Companion, but I used other books for reference too, gleaning whatever information I could find about the Death Star, information that already had Lucasfilm’s seal of approval. I did a few minor retcons here and there, but nothing tremendous because most of the previously published information was still sound.

This will sound schmaltzy, but with this project, the thing I’m most proud of is my association with Chris Reiff and Chris Trevas. The Death Star manual was our fifth project together, and our second project with also Haynes editor Derek Smith and designer Lee Parsons. I enjoy the collaborative way we work together, and I think we’re a good team.

A photograph of a previously unidentified Imperial soldier gave me the opportunity to come up with a name for the guy. It’s not unusual for writers to use a friend’s name for a fictional character, but with Star Wars books, such names usually have slightly different spellings. I decided to name the guy after my friend, Jad Bean, whom I met by way of our shared interest in Galoob’s Star Wars toys, the MicroMachine and Action Fleet series. I’d learned that Jad, some years back, had playfully lobbied Lucasfilm to create a Star Wars character named “Jad,” and I knew he’d be floored to see his unmodified full name in a Star Wars book.

James: I’ve seen Jad’s response to finding that he’s been made into an Imperial (that is seen in Return of the Jedi). Are you worried that now that this story is out, all of your friends through Star Wars are going to want minor characters named for them?

RW: At the risk of sounding already defeated, I have a good number of friends, and can only imagine whether I’ll have more opportunities to name obscure characters. So no, I can’t be worried about that. Jad’s a great guy, and he’s given me some incredibly cool Star Wars collectibles without asking for anything in return, and I just wanted to say “thanks” in a fun way. I knew he’d totally flip when he saw his own unadulterated name in a Star Wars book. I did run the idea by Lucasfilm first, to make sure they were okay with it, and I’m glad they approved.

Death Star Owners Technical Manual spread

James: Back to the teamwork with Chris Reiff and Chris Trevas, how did the collaboration work? I could see that sometimes they’d create a schematic and you might then have to identify likely components in it, or that you’d list a bunch of items, and they’d have to weave them into a diagram. Or did working together follow a different way?

RW: I wrote a rough outline for the book, and then Chris Reiff and Chris Trevas reviewed it and added more stuff to the outline. After we resolved a rough plan for how the book’s contents would be distributed, I began writing text for various spreads while they began working on the art. At some point, I gave editor Derek Smith all the text I’d written thus far, and he put together a very rough dummy book so we could see how much text might appear on each spread, and also which pages still required text. As the art began to trickle in, the layouts would be revised to accommodate both art and text, and it wasn’t unusual for Derek to ask me to write a few more lines of text here and there to fill out the pages. I supplied text for annotations and callouts, the little numbered “bullets” that help readers identify specific details of the illustrations, but the artists expanded on those annotations, adding bullets for more info. A few times, I suggested slight design changes to the layouts, just shifting bits of text or rearranging the placement of photos, to make the information read more clearly. I think we must have tweaked almost every two-page spread at least three times before we were satisfied.

Death Star Owners Technical Manual UK coverJames: The British version of the manual is actually published by Haynes, with a slightly different cover and title. Besides that, are there any other differences between the UK and US versions?

RW: I don’t think there’s any other difference. I just flipped through both editions, and the word “neighboring” is spelled the same in both, not “neighbouring” in the UK edition. I wouldn’t be surprised if Imperial officers with British accents will prefer the UK edition, just because Imperial officers are quirky that way.

James: Since the Owner’s Technical Manual is written from an in-universe perspective, who in the galaxy far, far away would be its intended audience?

RW: That’s an excellent question! In the Star Wars galaxy, anyone with an interest in spacecraft, weapons technology, or the war between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance would want to read the Death Star Owner’s Technical Manual. But now that I think of it, the book will appeal to the same audience in our own galaxy. I hope you enjoy it.

James: So it’s not just for would-be Death Star owners! With the lack of used Death Stars, I was concerned that there might be a limited market both in the Star Wars galaxy and in our own, especially since the White House nixed the petition to build one. There are a lot of fans on Earth who are interested in the spacecraft of Star Wars and the original trilogy movies. As a reference book, it builds on an impressive amount of existing material, yet remains very accessible to fans who might pick it up as their first Star Wars book. Thanks again for giving us the secrets of the Death Star Owner’s Technical Manual, without a single dead Bothan spy!

RW: I suddenly regret that the indicia doesn’t include the following text: No Bothans died during the making of this book.

James: Now I know how I’d want my copy personalized!

Thanks again to Ryder Windham for taking the time to answer Club Jade’s questions. You can learn more about the book and download several spreads at the Haynes site for the Imperial Death Star Owner’s Workshop Manual, or view the first two dozen pages at the Random House page for the Death Star Owner’s Technical Manual. For even more info on the making of this book, check out Ryder Windham’s entry on the Official Star Wars Blog.

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