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January 16, 2010

Of Corellians, Wookiees and Things That Won't Stay Dead

Author Joe Schreiber discusses what's different—and what's not—about writing horror set in the Star Wars galaxy.

Jason Fry

Star Wars: Death Troopers begins with an Imperial prison barge, the Purge, broken down in an uninhabited part of space, full of killers, rebels, scoundrels and thieves. The barge's crew is hopeful when it discovers a drifting Imperial Star Destroyer nearby, and sends a boarding party to the abandoned ship to scrounge for parts. But the members of the boarding party return infected with a horrific disease. And that disease is only the beginning: those afflicted die, but then rise again.

Joe Schreiber
"Han's innate smart-ass 'what now?' incredulity was perfect for this kind of mayhem."

Joe Schreiber

Lucasfilm works with its various licensees in publishing and videogames to shape new stories set in the Star Wars galaxy and make sure all these tales and narratives fit together logically, but horror is definitely a new tack for Star Wars. It's deftly handled by the veteran writer Joe Schreiber, though, whose other non-franchise-related horror novels include Chasing the Dead, Eat the Dark and No Doors, No Windows.

Schreiber, 40, has lived a nomadic life: Born in Michigan, he lived all around the continental United States and Alaska before settling down in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Those itinerant experiences have helped inform his novels. Chasing the Dead begins with a single mother receiving a phone call that her daughter's been kidnapped and she must follow the kidnapper's instructions exactly if she wants to see her alive again. The book is set on the shortest day of the year, in snowy rural Massachusetts, which Schreiber says was inspired by driving to and from school along desolate backroads in the dead of winter. No Doors, No Windows—the story of a son taking up his late father's unfinished novel about a rather peculiar house—started to cook in Schreiber's mind when a realtor showed the author and his wife a small house, and Schreiber was struck by the thought that perhaps there was more inside than could be seen from the sidewalk. Eat the Dark concerns the last patient to be treated on the last night of a hospital that's set to close—only that patient is a prisoner who's decidedly extraordinary. Where'd that one come from? Look to Schreiber's day job working as an MRI tech, and the time a patient from the psych ward wandered into the hospital's basement.
In the following interview, which has been edited for clarity, Schreiber tells Gelf about the lure of the horror genre, how he came to write licensed horror for the Star Wars franchise, and what it's like to put words in Han Solo's mouth.

Gelf Magazine: How did you wind up writing in the Star Wars universe?

Joe Schreiber: My editor for my earlier novels, Keith Clayton, was involved in Del Rey's Expanded Universe books. They'd been kicking around the idea of a Star Wars horror novel and Keith threw my hat in the ring. It was too good an opportunity to pass up.

Gelf Magazine: How does a Star Wars setting change a horror writer's playbook?

Joe Schreiber: Well, you have to play by Star Wars rules and work within the canon, of course. But the same things that make horror compelling and readable are the elements that keep Star Wars culturally relevant after 30 years—sympathetic and recognizable characters with fears and aspirations that we can all identify with, in high-pressure situations.

Gelf Magazine: Part of what gives Death Troopers its power is the descriptions. There's the vat full of lungs like "tiny, skinned angels," the "gleaming steel prairie" of a hangar deck, or the "soft vast creaking" of a derelict Star Destroyer in space. How does imagery come to you? Do you think of things like that and find a home for them? Do they come to you as you write?

Joe Schreiber: The phrases themselves are like small treasures that you discover on the way. I'm always happy to lock onto a piece of compelling imagery because for me it makes the writing fun and I don't have to worry anymore, because I'm enjoying myself.

Gelf Magazine: Horror is an interesting genre for characterizations, it seems to me—we have to learn about people to care about them, and then we see their character under unimaginable circumstances. Does writing horror require any kind of different approach to characterization?

Joe Schreiber: I really don't think so. Storytelling at its best is always character-driven because when you boil away all the extras, story is a function of character. If you can create people that the reader and viewer can't take their eyes off of, then you can write horror … as well as romance, melodrama and espionage fiction, not to mention "literature," whatever that is.

Gelf Magazine: To add to that question, what was it like writing Han Solo and Chewbacca? As iconic characters, they can be difficult for authors to get a handle on even when they're not fighting zombies.

Joe Schreiber: I couldn't wait to get my hands on those two. Han's innate smart-ass "what now?" incredulity was perfect for this kind of Sam Raimi-style mayhem, and I got a chance to write internal dialogue for Chewie, which is this writer's dream come true.

Gelf Magazine: Why does horror appeal to us?

Joe Schreiber: We live in stressful, trying times. That's no secret. You can't get on an airplane or go to a football game without being reminded that somewhere, someone is aspiring to kill us. As the atmosphere of paranoia builds to a fever pitch, horror gives us a chance to rehearse our own deaths, to revisit—in a safe environment—our deepest dreads: helplessness, loss, confusion, panic, physical pain. If it's done well, it provides catharsis that few other things can. That's always been true, I think.

Gelf Magazine: What can you tell us about the Death Troopers prequel?

Joe Schreiber: Well, it's about the virus, and how it started. It's a horror novel, and it's due out in February of 2011.

Jason Fry

Jason Fry is a writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.







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Article by Jason Fry

Jason Fry is a writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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