- Matt Wilkins
Star Wars New Jedi Order: Round Robin Interview (Part 5)
DR: Probably the single most controversial aspect of the NJO was the death—some fans would say the murder— of Chewbacca. How was this decision reached?
LW: In the Star Wars novels published by Bantam, no preexisting Star Wars character ever died. It was our policy that no author could kill anyone who originated first in a script written by George. However, we knew that for anyone to really take a new intergalactic war seriously, and to realize that the New Jedi Order was not just Star Wars fiction as usual, someone who mattered would have to die. This was a unanimous agreement. Who would die was the subject of much debate, however. Our first thought was that the death of Luke Skywalker would have the biggest impact on the readers. However, this was not okay with George Lucas! I think it was Randy Stradley from Dark Horse who said, “Kill the family dog—Chewbacca.” In our own emotional response to this suggestion (it made us unhappy just to come up with the idea), we knew Chewie’s death would generate the biggest reaction from the readers.
SR: As time went by, I had more than second thoughts about this decision! I came to think that Chewie’s death was a really, really bad thing. I remember going home and thinking about it and grieving even before Bob Salvatore submitted his outline. I couldn’t believe we were going to kill Chewie. He was so great. So much like the family dog that everybody loves, as Lucy points out. And here we were going to kill the dog! I remember my partner’s son telling me that the worst thing we ever did was to get him the book Old Yeller. How could we do that, have him fall in love with this dog, only to see him killed? And here we were doing much the same thing with Chewie. So I had misgivings about it at first.
SS: We didn’t get George’s permission to kill Chewie in particular: Chewie was simply not one of the characters George said we could not kill. But I think we made the best choice. Not because he wasn’t a beloved character, and only partly because he seemed a difficult character to utilize in the books. Mostly it was because his death would strongly affect every other major character in the series, so it would serve as a unique emotional catalyst. And it did.
JL: Right. We wanted to throw the major characters into immediate turmoil—to shanghai them into new spiritual journeys, replete with abysses, demons, dark nights of the soul, rebirths, what have you.
DR: Were you taken aback by the fan reaction to Chewie’s death? I mean, there were even death threats against the author of Vector Prime, Bob Salvatore!
SR: I talked with Bob often during this time. His brother had just died, with Bob at his bedside. Getting threats from fans was very upsetting for Bob, and for everyone here. It didn’t make me wish we hadn’t done it—Bob created the scene and wrote it with care and great insight. It was such a shock, though, that the readers had such emotion! But if you think about it, it shows the strength of Star Wars and of the publishing program that our readership is this invested in the characters.
LW: When Chewie died, people sat up and took notice that the NJO was going to be different from what had come before, and that the Star Wars galaxy was not necessarily a safe place anymore. I always felt very badly that Bob got the brunt of the criticism, however.
SS: I knew people would be sad and shocked, but I didn’t expect the anger. Bob was very upset at the anger directed at him, and I felt really bad about that. He shouldn’t have had to face such mean-spiritedness and nastiness. I didn’t worry that we’d made a mistake, though. I thought Chewie’s death was heroic and incredibly moving—exactly what the New Jedi Order needed as an emotional catalyst.
JL: I had gone through something similar when adapting Robotech, so I expected a flak storm. Bob, who was brought in late to launch the series, also expected as much. Regardless, he was terribly wounded by the fan criticism, and it’s something we still discuss to this day. Some readers wrongly assumed that Bob had taken it upon himself to kill Chewbacca, when in fact he had been instructed to kill Chewbacca. There was a kind of contract out on Chewie! So, by all rights, the criticisms and threats should have been hurled at Del Rey Books, or the NJO creative team itself. Um, maybe I shouldn’t have said that . . .