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The man who killed off Chewbacca

Fantasy author R.A. Salvatore is entwined in 'Star Wars'

R.A. Salvatore
R.A. Salvatore, the author of "Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones" -- the book.  

By Todd Leopold

(CNN) -- R.A. Salvatore has seen the future. And he is not telling what is in it.

Salvatore, a fantasy writer best known for his DemonWars saga, is the author of the novelization of "Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones" (Ballantine/Del Rey).

To write the book based on the "Star Wars" movie, he got to have a look at several versions of the script -- and was entitled to pick George Lucas' brain about what's in store for Anakin Skywalker, Padme Amidala and the rest of the intergalactic gang.

"I had to hide my computer from my friends," Salvatore says half-jokingly in the flat New England cadences of his native Massachusetts.

The events that led to writing "Episode II" came quickly, the amiable Salvatore recalls in an interview from a book tour stop in Minneapolis.

His publisher, Del Rey, won the license to the "Star Wars" books from Bantam a few years ago and decided to launch a set of works, "New Jedi Order," based on the characters.

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Salvatore, known for creating vivid battle scenes, was chosen to write the first novel in the series, "Vector Prime."

"I had a good time with it," he says. Perhaps too good: In one sequence, he killed off Chewbacca, the beloved Wookiee partner of Han Solo. The move came with Lucas' blessing, but it ignited a storm of controversy from "Star Wars" partisans.

Salvatore, however, came out just fine. The book hit the bestseller list and he made a short list of authors Del Rey nominated to write "Episode II." The Lucas people, perhaps remembering "Vector Prime," picked him, for reasons obvious to Salvatore's fans.

"Bob writes great adventure stories, and at its heart 'Star Wars' is a marvelous adventure," says Del Rey Editorial Director Shelly Shapiro.

Quickly, Salvatore was flown out to Skywalker Ranch to meet Lucas -- and learn what was going to happen to the "Star Wars" creator's characters.

A blizzard of reading

Salvatore would seem an unlikely person to be writing the "Star Wars" books -- or any books at all. A math major in college, he acknowledges having practically given up on reading by the time he graduated from high school.

Then came the Blizzard of '78, a massive snowstorm that shut down the East Coast. Salvatore's college was shut down for a week, and with little else to do he picked up the reading material at hand -- a copy of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" his sister had given him.

"I went into Middle Earth and never came out," says Salvatore. When he finally did emerge, he was a new man. He changed his major to communications and started reading voraciously.

But he loved fantasy, and once he exhausted the existing canon, he believed there was little left worth reading.

While complaining about the lack of material one day to his girlfriend -- now his wife -- she made a suggestion: "She told me to write my own," says Salvatore.

Her idea eventually led to a manuscript that Salvatore sent to TSR, the game and publishing company behind Dungeons and Dragons.

TSR turned down the work, but the company liked Salvatore's style and in 1987 commissioned him to write a book. Within three years he had hit The New York Times bestseller list and had quit his day job.

Changing presidents, changing scenes

Salvatore was a longtime "Star Wars" fan. After seeing the first movie, in 1977, "I just knew the world had changed," he says. So the opportunity to write a novelization of one of the movies was like winning the lottery.

Changing presidents, changing scenes

But putting together "Episode II" was an unusual, start-stop process, Salvatore says.

It even started strangely. Salvatore arrived in northern California on Election Day 2000 and over dinner was given the working script to the movie. As he read it in his room, the presidential ballot numbers kept changing.

"Every time I glanced up we had a different president," he says.

The next day he was taken to the ranch where he viewed a slide show, with rough computer graphics, of the movie's scenes.

He met with Lucas' books department and put together a list of questions, then was taken to meet the master himself, asking him about plot points, character motivations, and overarching themes.

But even as Salvatore sat in his house in Massachusetts and wrote drafts of the novel, 3,000 miles away the movie itself was changing. Some scenes were dropped; others were added. "It was a living creature," Salvatore says of the evolving screenplays.

'I feel a sense of completeness'

In the end, Salvatore incorporated a plethora of "Star Wars" ideas, including ones Lucas had come up with but had no room for -- and even some of his own (approved by Lucas, of course).

And meeting the man was inspiring, Salvatore says. "He truly loves 'Star Wars,' " he observes. "This is his baby. When he talked about it, there was a sparkle in his eye."

Interestingly, although he knows the plot of "Episode II" and beyond, Salvatore still hasn't seen the final version of the new movie -- and, with the book tour, probably won't until June, he says.

He does believe that, old rumors to the contrary, after "Episode III" Lucas will be finished with his saga.

"A few years ago, I planned a six-book series [DemonWars]," he says. "It ended up being seven, but the sixth book just came out ("Transcendence"), so I'm at about the same place Lucas is now. I feel a sense of completeness with it, so I don't think [Lucas] will go on from [his work] if he feels the same thing."

Salvatore is a successful fantasy author in his own right. He did not need "Star Wars," and says he actually earns more money from his other books.

But he hopes he has the chance to write the novelization for "Episode III" when the time comes, and even if he doesn't, he knows he's had a terrific ride.

" 'Star Wars' gave me a chance to touch a half-million, a million readers," he says. "You don't get that opportunity very often. Besides, I got to work on 'Star Wars'; I got to pick George Lucas' brain."

He pauses, and you can almost hear a big smile coming down the telephone line. "What could be better than that?"


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