I got the chance recently to talk with Jack Mitchell, the author of the new Abrams release The Odyssey of Star Wars. The book caught me by surprise when it came out a couple of months ago and I did a thorough breakdown of it at the time. Be sure to check it out, both because it’s a great book and to encourage more releases like it, and check out Jack’s site.
How did a project this unique come together? Did you have to put together a pitch for it?
I had always been a Star Wars fan, although not a real scholar of SW; I was roughly at the level of being able to quote dialogue easily without knowing the deep background. When my older son was five, in 2016, he heard about Star Wars from friends and wanted to watch the movies, but I – being a bit overprotective, as parents often are with their eldest children – was worried about shots featuring Beru and Owen’s skeletons, the Rancor, the Sarlacc, and such, shots that had definitely made an impression on me at the same age. So my solution was to read him a kids’ book version of the OT, and the eagerness with which he and even his younger brother took to it made me realise that, culturally speaking, I was actually passing on a myth. This gave me the idea of making it the basis of an epic poem, as I had been searching for some years for a topic for a serious epic poem with potentially wide appeal.
After I’d finished the first three “books” (i.e. chapters) of my poem, covering ANH, I tried cold-emailing a few agents and publishers, but with no success. Since I was really enjoying the process of composition, I decided to finish the OT, even if it would never see the light of day, and towards the end of that process I was able, thanks to a kind friend, to get in touch with a first-rate literary agent. I did some market research to prove how big the Star Wars audience is, she took me on, and thanks to her skill the manuscript found a warm welcome at Abrams, with the blessing of Lucasfilm.
What were your favorite moments from the saga to look at through this lens?
I’d say my three favourites were Luke and Vader’s duel on Bespin, because the film dialogue is so epic to begin with and I really relished handling a full-scale sword duel, surely the greatest ever filmed; the Battles of Endor (because I’m an Armada player) and Hoth (because I’m a Legion player), in which, besides the action, I could really go to town on catalogue poetry, one of my favourite sub-genres of epic; and then Yoda’s three capsule narratives on Dagobah, which bring up key material from the PT, for the technical challenge of handling complex stories told in miniature.
What was the process like working with Lucasfilm and the Story Group on a project like this?
It was a true pleasure to work with them. They are real experts in the art of storytelling, they obviously have a minute knowledge of the SW universe, and they care deeply about the SW audience. I benefited greatly from their input, and it was really gratifying, as a poet, to have them take the text seriously. They were also very respectful of the traditions of the epic poetry genre.
Was it difficult trying to find a balance between the style of epic poetry and the Star Wars saga or did the two come together for you pretty naturally?
It was even more natural than I had expected. I thought I was going to face a challenge in handling the lighter elements of SW, e.g. the droids or the Ewoks, but actually those served to steer me toward moments of humour in the Odyssey itself, like the Cyclops adventure or the earthy character of the swineherd, Eumaeus. The grand spiritual side and the military side didn’t need much in the way of adaptation at all, mainly just figuring out ways to get SW terminology into iambic pentameter.
The book goes into an impressive amount of detail at times about geography and fleet compositions, just like the Odyssey itself. Did you do a lot of research on that while writing? Was there any guidance from Lucasfilm to make sure everything lined up?
I did do a lot of research, and would generally research as much about a scene or location as possible before tackling it. Partly this was for inspiration, as I found that learning the deep background was a good way of inhabiting the moment; only after I had researched the background would I go back and carefully watch the scene in the films, usually many, many times, and study the script. But of course I also wanted to make sure I was not departing from canon, or at least no more than the act of adaptation required.
The sources I went back to most often were Daniel Wallace and Jason Fry’s Essential Atlas and the Essential Guides from the 1990’s, mostly written by Bill Smith; also the Complete Locations. I would then follow up by reading Wookieepedia carefully, as well as the Databank; but more Wookieepedia because of the in-depth footnoting, which allowed me to then track down the sources for certain details, and I would read or watch those sources. (I am truly in the debt of Wookieepedia, one of the wonders of the Internet, and made sure to thank its writers and editors in my Acknowledgements.)
Meanwhile, as I was writing, new SW content was appearing, which I tried to keep up with, e.g. Charles Soule’s Darth Vader series and the FACPOV volumes. In some regards my ignorance showed, however, in that for example I would not have referred explicitly to Hobbie’s death if I had been aware of how sad his devoted fans are about it; I had simply learned about it in research and included the reference as a way of wrapping up the battle.
I think it’s fair to say that, by the time the manuscript reached Lucasfilm’s hands, it was fairly accurate in terms of preserving canon, but in addition to other help the experts there did correct a number of points of fact, saving me much embarrassment.
With all of the details and references in the book, do you have a particular favorite that you’re pleased you were able to slip in?
The names of minor pilots! I also play the FFG tabletop miniatures game X-wing, and being able to name Horton Salm, Lepira, Norra, Arvel Crynyd, and others – to lift them from tabletop into verse, as it were – was always a pleasure.
What are some of your favorite Star Wars stories? How did you first become a Star Wars fan?
I’ve mentioned Charles Soule’s Vader series, which I really enjoyed. Among novels, I particularly appreciate Timothy Zahn’s new Thrawn series, including Vader’s appearances. I regret that the intensity of the past year has put me a bit behind on reading the High Republic novels, but I hope to get caught up before Claudia Gray’s Fallen Star appears.
I’ve been a Star Wars fan my whole life; Return of the Jedi is the first film I remember seeing in a theatre, when I was six; my ROTJ lunchbox was a prized possession, along with my Wicket stuffie. Before this project, my interest, as for many casual Star Wars fans, tracked with the movies; the re-release of the OT in the mid-90’s was a big event, and then of course the PT releases. Each wave renewed my fandom.
Do you have any interest in revisiting the franchise or telling other Star Wars stories through this lens in the future?
It would be an interesting challenge to try and tackle non-OT storylines through the lens of epic poetry. The main difficulty would lie in the scale of the narrative, which in the PT spans many years and is complex to say the least – perhaps exceeded only by the ST! Historically, epic traditions do feature large cycles of stories; in the Greek tradition these got boiled down to the Iliad and Odyssey, and I think a discrete epic poem works best when it has a relatively tight storyline to follow. If I were to do further SW epic poetry, the key might be to find a moment in other story arcs that could serve as a dramatic focal point and relate other story elements to that. At the moment I do not have plans for another SW poem, but perhaps that might change if this one does well.