Tony DiTerlizzi - Battle for WondLa

Bounded Enthusiasm #1: Tony DiTerlizzi Talks About WondLa, Dungeons & Dragons, and Star Wars

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Tony DiTerlizzi - Battle for WondLa
Tony DiTerlizzi (Photo: Angela DiTerlizzi) with the cover of his latest book, The Battle for WondLa

Tony DiTerlizzi is one of my favorite author-illustrators, and his WondLa series is a family favorite. I spoke to him two years ago when book two, A Hero for WondLa, was released. The final book of the trilogy, The Battle for WondLa, is out this month, and I got a chance to speak with DiTerlizzi before he heads out for his book tour. You can listen to the full audio of the interview (the first episode of my Talking About Stuff podcast), or read the (slightly abridged) transcript below. We talked about all things WondLa, his upcoming Star Wars book, Dungeons and Dragons, and more. Stay tuned–I’ll have a review of the book soon, too!

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Update: After posting this, I discovered there’s already a podcast called Talking About Stuff, so I’ve renamed the podcast. You can find episode two here under its new title, Bounded Enthusiasm.

Liu: I’m really excited about this book. It was one of my 10 Things I’m Anticipating in 2014, and it’s finally out.

DiTerlizzi: You and me, we’re the two people waiting for this book to come out!

Liu: Well, my family is excited. My wife was home when the package came, I was out of town, and she said: “I saw what was on the address label, and I didn’t open it.” Because if she did, I think she would’ve been done with it by the time I got home.

DiTerlizzi: Awww. So she’s like, “Instead I’ve used it to hold the door open. It’s a big book, perfect for that.”

Liu: We’re excited because I read the first two to my kids so now we get to see how the story ends.

DiTerlizzi: That’s so awesome. You and I have talked about this before. It’s my favorite time of day with my daughter Sophia: we always sit in bed and read together. Even though she can read her own books now, she still wants me to read to her, and I will ride that train as long as she lets me. And I always think about that with the WondLa books–that’s totally what I was thinking about when I was writing all three of them.

Liu: My kids are now 10 and 7, and I’m still reading to them in the evenings. It gets busier; they now have a little bit of quiet reading time to themselves at bedtime, but we still love reading books out loud to them. Actually, WondLa was one of the first ones where I was reading the same book to both of them. It was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and I forget what the other one was, and then we started on the WondLa series. It’s been fun being able to have that shared experience, as opposed to when they were younger and I’d read to them separately.

DiTerlizzi: I still have memories: my mom read to us kids growing up. I remember that carried into even high school. My mom and I would read a lot of the same types of books. She likes fantasy, and in the ’80s that’s all I read: obviously Tolkien, and Piers Anthony, Anne McCaffrey, Elric, and we would always then talk about the books afterward. “Did you read it? What did you think? What do you think this is about?” I hope that’s what happens and how it evolves with both your girls and as well with me.

Liu: So what other books do you read with Sophia?

DiTerlizzi: We just finished the last Ramona book. We’ve gone through every single Beverly Cleary Ramona book. It was great, she really enjoyed them. I read a couple of them when I was a kid, I mean, I remember them vaguely. I remember the characters and some of the things that happened. She loved them, and so we’ve been tearing through all of them. In fact, we were just talking about what we’re going to dive into next. We may start the Little House books next. She’s six, so there’s certain books she can read on her own and so chapter book-wise, they’re still kind of the younger chapter books that we’re enjoying.

What’s interesting to me is the stuff that I loved as a kid that she’s not as into. So for instance, I tried and tried to read her Winnie the Pooh. Because I loved Winnie the Pooh, House at Pooh Corner, When We Were Very Young, and, no, she wasn’t buying any of it. She wasn’t into it. I was a little bummed out about that. We did get through Mouse and the Motorcycle, which was another favorite of mine. She liked that one, but I don’t know if she was just being nice to me or not.

Liu: My kids are pretty adventurous in what they like, but what I’ve found they really enjoy are things that are just silly, lots of humor. So the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang books, the new ones, are really great. We’ve been reading The Last Dragonslayer series by Jasper Fforde. It’s really good, but a lot of the humor I’m sure is just going completely over their heads. It’s his first book that’s meant for younger readers, but there’s a lot of British humor that they’re not really getting, and a lot of the puns are a little sophisticated. But it’s a fun story.

DiTerlizzi: Yeah, there’s always that element. We’ve been talking about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I read it to her when she was really young, and I think she just kind of sat through it. So now I’m like, “We should read it again. You like the film, so we should read the original book.” And it’s such a short read anyway, we could probably read it in a couple nights. Sometimes that humor or something from another time period transcends with a kid, and sometimes it doesn’t.

The Battle for WondLaLiu: Back to the WondLa series, how does it feel to have this third book wrapped up?

DiTerlizzi: A bit surreal. You know, I started them in 2009 and they’d been in my head for years before that. So I feel it’s a great accomplishment that I was even able to see it through. You know, with Spiderwick it was with Holly [Black] so there was always someone to spur the other person on to keep going, when you get tired, or a deadline is looming, or you get distracted. With these books, it was just me, and that was a good thing and a bad thing. The good thing is you can come to the end of it and go, “I did this.” I made this whole story that I had in my head and I got it down on paper. And the bad thing is you have to do all the writing and all the illustrating on your own.

So I really intensely focused on this third book for all of last year. That’s all I did, was work on this one book. It’s interesting, when you get to the third book, you know the characters well enough. When I outlined the trilogy as a whole, I already knew what the big, general beats of the plot were gonna be and I knew that they would probably change and evolve as the story started to come into focus.

But the good thing about it is, you know the characters well enough by the third book that you kind of know, well, this is what Eva would do in this situation, or this is what she would say. This is what Hailey would do, and this is what Rovender would do. So that kind of thing helps an awful lot; it makes it a lot easier to do.

I think the trick is, how do I raise it and deliver what I hope would be a very grand and satisfying conclusion? That’s where you get nervous and the jitters and you hope that you can really provide … for all the people who have read over a thousand pages before this, that when they’re done they feel like, “Okay, that was worth the read. That was a good read. I really enjoyed it.”

Liu: I’m in chapter eight so far, so I’ll let you know.

DiTerlizzi: If the interview never airs, I’ll know how you felt about it.

Liu: When you wrote, I know you said you had your major beats planned out. Did you ever find that you had more things that you wanted to write than you had room for? Did the book get any bigger than you had planned?

DiTerlizzi: Yeah, the first one was the longer book, and then the second was a little shorter, much to my surprise. I actually thought it would’ve been the other way around. I thought the middle book would’ve been the longer one. And I thought that this one was going to be closer in length to the second book, but in fact it ended up being a bit longer, and closer in length to the first book. It’s gotta be 500 pages, I think, with all the art. And I think part of the reason for that was the ending. I don’t like a “happily ever after, the end” ending to a story. I want there to be … ripples. I want there to be a little bit beyond it. It helps in this book because of the theme, being the things we do in our life, the people we touch in our life, the actions that we take, we don’t always see the repercussions or the conclusion or the response immediately. Sometimes it takes time. It’s definitely a theme in this book, it’s talked about in this book, so I realized I had to do something along those lines.

I was having a conversation with a friend of mine, Ari Berk. He’s an author and he’s written a lot of great books on his own, and he’s also worked with Brian Froud on some of Brian’s books. And Ari was the one who suggested: You know, why don’t you really push that idea? Like, go further and further out with it. After Eva’s story is over, how does Eva’s story ripple through time? And it was such a fascinating idea and I took it and ran with it. So that added a bit to the end of the book, but I think it will give you that feeling, like: Man, that was such a great meal, so delicious, and the dessert was really good … I feel like I need a little espresso afterward. You know what I mean? You want that one little thing, just a little more. So I’m hoping that this delivers that.

That was a big part of it. And it also extended the story, made it a little longer than I had originally anticipated.

Sketchbook proof
Press check for the Battle for WondLa sketchbook. Image: Tony DiTerlizzi.

Liu: You’d mentioned doing, like you did with the Spiderwick Field Guide, some sort of Orbona field guide or travelogue type book…

DiTerlizzi: That was definitely the idea, and I thought that we could do that. When I first signed the books up we talked about doing the three books and then do kind of this “art of” book. The interesting thing that happened was, we ended up doing these little sketchbooks that go along with it. And between the sketchbooks and then the sheer amount of art that I had to do within the books, I kind of felt like I didn’t know if it needs a big field guide. Because I felt like the sketchbooks are pretty exhaustive and then we have all the art in the books. I think what we may do, and I could get in trouble for saying this, but I think when they all go into paperback I think we’ll probably put all the sketchbooks into one finished book and release it that way.

Liu: I’d love to see the sketchbooks be more widely available, because those were more like promo items, right? Not something you could go to the store and buy.

WondLa Sketchbook 3
The Battle for WondLa sketchbook cover.

DiTerlizzi: Yeah, not something you could go to the store and buy. I wanted to do something special for the people who I got to meet, people who would come out to a book signing… You know Ang [DiTerlizzi] and I had been going to Comic-Con for years, and that’s one of my favorite things to purchase in the sea of stuff to buy at Comic-Con. Artists will make these little limited-edition sketchbooks that you can only get from them. I love that feeling because I think for me, I started out doing stuff like that, back in my Dungeons & Dragons days. And I love that I’m with a huge publisher and that they support my books, but you do sometimes long for that hand-crafted, grassroots kind of thing. Like: I got this thing, and the only way to get it was you had to meet him.

And so that was kind of the idea behind doing those little limited-edition sketchbooks. But I think, once they’re done, you know, I don’t want them to not be available. So, that’s the plan. A year from now the plan could change, but the idea is that we’ll eventually put them all together into one supplemental book.

Liu: Since you brought up Dungeons & Dragons, I figured that’s actually a good topic for GeekDad.

DiTerlizzi: Let’s go! Let me get my dice!

Liu: So, I’m actually a role-playing newbie. I have not played a lot of roleplaying games, but–

DiTerlizzi: I’m sorry, we’re breaking up. I think I gotta go now, dude. You call yourself a geek, come on!

Liu: I know, I grew up in a pretty conservative family, so at the time Dungeons & Dragons was not allowed. So I made up my own little role-playing games that I played with friends but I had idea of how D&D actually worked. So I just made things up, right? But a lot of our writers have been playing D&D, so I wanted to know: what did you do and how did you get involved?

Planescape nightmare
Nightmare by Tony DiTerlizzi from the Planescape Monstrous Compendium

DiTerlizzi: Well, I played Second Edition in the ’80s. When it first came out I was in middle school, so like most kids I was playing it. In fact, I think my parents bought it to play with some of their friends and that lasted a night or two and they were done with it. They were over it. I think when they realized what a time suck it was they were like, all right, give it to the kids. And we loved it, so we played

Then I lost interest. Moved on to the next thing. And I forgot about it. I kept all my D&D books as I got older and I’d still look at them and loved that, but mostly I forgot about it as I finished high school. When I was almost done, just about ready to graduate art school down in Fort Lauderdale at the Art Institute, and I had moved back in with my parents, because that’s what you do when you’re a poor art student… some of my friends were finishing up school and they were coming back, and there was a group of us hanging out at the bar one night, and were talking about D&D and we started reminiscing about how much we loved it when we were kids, and we were like, “Let’s play again. Let’s do it. Next Saturday, let’s all do it.”

And one person had one book, one person had another book, and between the group of us we had everything we needed. So we started playing, and everyone was like, “Oh, you gotta draw my character” and stuff. It was great, it was fun. And I remember I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Hobgoblin by Tony DiTerlizzi
Hobgoblin by Tony DiTerlizzi from AD&D Monster Manual.

One of the things that was so interesting about it was I always played with the little lead miniatures. That was one of my favorite parts of D&D. You know, you made your character, then you went to the toy store, the hobby store, you bought a little lead miniature that looked a little like your character. You took it home, you painted it. Or if you were the dungeon master you’d buy the goblins or the lizardmen or whatever you were gonna use. I loved all that part of it. I liked it because it was like a way to play with toys, but you weren’t really playing with toys–they were more like game pieces. But really, you were still using toys to tell a story. I loved that component of tabletop games.

So my younger brother, who’s nine years younger than me, hadn’t experienced Dungeons & Dragons. And he was also playing with us and he was kind of fascinated by these little lead miniatures. So we went and got these miniatures and I showed him, oh, you paint them and all this stuff. And so later we started drawing the miniatures and everything like that and then, at the encouragement of my gaming buddies and my brother, I sent a bunch of stuff to TSR. They were still there, in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and they were still publishing the game. This would have been the early 1990s. And after a few failed attempts to get in, I got in and they started hiring me. I worked with them through most of the ’90s.

DiTerlizzi D&D artwork
A few pieces of Tony DiTerlizzi’s artwork for D&D Planescape.

I worked on the first ever color edition of the Monster Manual. And then I worked with some original game designers like Zeb Cook. I was the illustrator for a series of campaign settings in a series of adventures for the Planescape line, which was kind of a crossroads or a confluence of all the mythologies of D&D realms, and you could plane-hop to different realms. It was a great time in my life. I have no bad memories of working there, except the deadlines were always pretty tight. It was such a great time. The people were amazing, and I learned a lot. I really, really learned a lot as a storyteller.

I feel that a lot of things in life kind of happen to you for a reason, and I think it was important that I work for those guys before I started making kids books. I really do. Because I learned how to world-building. I learned it wasn’t just about the character–it was about the costume, and the artifacts, and the other characters, and then the creatures and monsters and the environment and the architecture and all that stuff is all integral to each other, to one another. I think about all those things when I work on and create a book. It helped with Spiderwick and it certainly was absolutely integral for WondLa. I used a lot of the same skills that I used illustrating Planescape to design the world of Orbona.

Liu: Have you played any role-playing games with Sophia?

DiTerlizzi: We have, we started up this winter a new campaign, and we’re just playing Second Edition because, again, it’s the books everyone has. And I’m running it, I’m the dungeon master. We’ve had a couple sessions. The trick now that’s harder is that everyone’s so busy, so it’s hard to get everyone together in one room. But she absolutely loved it. The way we did it–because the adults are like, “I’m good from 5 o’clock until about midnight or 1,” and then everyone’s kind of done. Obviously we’re not going to keep our six-year-old up that late. So we made her a pixie. She’s either a pixie or a sprite, I don’t recall. I’d have to go back and look at her character. We looked at the stats in the Monster Manual. So that allows her to kind of come and go in the adventure.

And Angela, my wife, is this dwarf fighter who’s just amazing. Arrogant, totally in it for himself, not a team player. But he’s got this little pixie that he grew up with, and so they’re kind of buddies. So we’ve had already some really great adventures. And she’s great, she totally gets it. It’s been a lot of fun.

Prehistoric animals
Tony DiTerlizzi’s collection of plastic animals.

As a complete tangent, I have a lot of lead miniatures. I don’t have as many as I used to when I worked for TSR. But one of the things we thought would be kind of fun was I had written this article about the plastic toys that had inspired a lot of the Dungeons & Dragons monsters, and I had a lot of them. And I thought, what if we just played using these plastic toys. After all, that’s what the original guys were using. You know, Gary Gygax and Tim Kask, and Dave Arneson, when they were first creating the game. So I had been on a quest of just buying little plastic figures and characters and rubber monsters. At the end of the day I think it probably cost me about two or three hundred dollars off eBay, buying all these little lots of cheap toys. But if that was lead miniatures, it would have been like a thousand dollars.

So I have this crazy tackle box filled with, you know, How to Train Your Dragon plastic figures and bad Hong Kong monsters. Everybody loves it. Everybody’s really into it. Everyone felt like it added a lot of fun back into the game. I think, too, they can take the wear and tear of a bunch of people playing a game. Always, when I was a kid, the thing was you’d paint these lead miniatures and then the DM would go, “Okay, that guy’s dead.” And he’d tip him over and slide him off the game board and you could see the paint just smear on the game table. And you’re like, “Noooo! That took hours!” With these guys, they can take the hit. You can throw them across the room and they’re fine.

Liu: So when does the WondLa RPG set come out?

DiTerlizzi: Oh, man, don’t I wish. But there’s a lot of similarities. If you know your classic D&D monsters, there’s a lot of similarities–the ankheg and the sand snipers are very similar creatures, kind of burrowing crustacean monster. I know Otto’s a water bear, a tardigrade, but his lines to me are very much like an owlbear. He’s very big, burly, he’s got the claws and the little beak like an owlbear would have. So it’s there, it’s all there, it’s still in my DNA. It’s still gonna come out. All my years of working on Planescape and stuff. It’s part of who I am and it’s part of me that I really love and sometimes miss.

Liu: I bet if you just tweet or post on your blog that someone should make a WondLa RPG that someone’ll do it for you.

DiTerlizzi: Someone tweeted me recently and said that they had run, I think, Numenera, to do a WondLa adventure. I was very tickled by that. I thought that was really awesome. And who knows? Maybe down the road, we’ll see.

You know, I’ve come to this and it’s kind of an interesting thing for me, especially coming out of something like Spiderwick. You come to the realization, I think a lot of times in the industry of–I can’t speak for adult publishing but children’s publishing, you think of things almost like a movie. You put a lot of pressure on them to open big. You know, the book came out: did it get on the Times list? Did it make any other bestseller lists? Did it do this? Did it do that? And certainly those things are gratifying and they’re important to the sales force and stuff like that to sell a book.

But unlike a film, which takes maybe 90 to 120 minutes of our time to consume, these books take a really long time to read. And if you’re ten years old, all the more longer. WondLa has always done well and I’ve gotten great, beautiful letters from people. But it could be, like the type of thing like a role-playing game, it could be three or four years from now when someone’s like “I finally read all three of them. There should be a game!”

Liu: Yeah, that’s the thing–it takes even longer reading them out loud. And there are so many books I want to share with my kids but it’s like, I gotta finish this one first. My ten-year-old, she reads constantly and she reads fast. So I feel bad sometimes when I’ve got a book, and I know we’ve all been waiting for this, Book Two, Book Three, and she’ll say “Can I just go read that one?” and I’ll say “Nonono! I want to read that one to you!” But at some point I end up saying, “It’s going to be a while before I get to that with you, so go ahead.” But she can’t have WondLa yet.

DiTerlizzi: The next day, she’s like, “Done.”

Liu: But I like the idea that the first time we read this, we’re gonna read this together and really savor it, get to experience it together for the first time. I really love doing that.

DiTerlizzi: That means a lot to me. That’s really awesome. And like I said, that’s something I thought about while I was writing these books and putting them together, the idea of an adult–and it doesn’t even have to be a parent, it could be a librarian or a teacher, just a favorite adult in someone’s life–sharing that. I feel like WondLa works on multiple levels, at least that was my goal. It asks a lot of philosophical questions. They’re questions we’re aware of when we’re children, and we start to realize them and think about them, but they’re questions that remain with us even when we’re adults.

Liu: Do you feel like the three stories are for progressively older readers, or more mature readers–emotionally and philosophically?

DiTerlizzi: I definitely planned in Eva’s arc to have her see the world very black and white in the first book, a little more tinge of grays in the second book, and then by the time she gets to the third book she realizes that everyone’s operating on their own set of morals. And it’s up to her to find out what set of rules in life guide her that just sit well with her, despite what other people may say.

I guess you could say that that is aging it up as you go from book to book, but it is a coming of age book. This is kind of where Eva really, really grows, where she kind of starts to understand that concept. And it’s a tough concept to learn. Because, for me at least, when you’re a child and you’re young, you view all adults as right. You think everyone is good, and you think everyone is looking out for children. They would never do anything that would be harmful in any way. As Eva learned right from the get-go, that’s not always the case.

She starts to understand … Besteel, the huntsman in the first book, he’s a bad guy, right? And then in the second book, she finds her sister, but then her sister’s not quite exactly what she thought. Then by the time she gets to the third book, she starts to rethink things about a lot of the characters that she’s met previously. Really, almost every character returns in some form in the third book. There’s really only one or two new characters, but I really felt like the stage was set and now Eva, with this little more understand of the world now is going to go back to some of these places. But she’s a little more enlightened now, based on the experiences she’s had.

WondLa Book 1 artwork
Besteel takes Eva Nine for a walk in Book 1.

Liu: Is there a significance to the color choices? So I noticed the first one has the illustrations with the green tint, and the second one is blue. The first one really was set a lot in the nature scenes, and this last one has this orange-red color.

DiTerlizzi: Oh, the second-color printing. Yeah, definitely that was inspired by the Wizard of Oz, which uses a two-color printing process, actually throughout the book. They kind of changed it from chapter to chapter or section to section. So we decided to do it but on the WondLa books each book would get its own thematic color. And I knew green was one.

WondLa Book 3 artwork
Eva Nine and Caruncle have a chat, from Book 3.

And I knew this other kind of honey, peachy … it does a lot of neat things. It was a designer friend that I’ve worked with named John Lind who said, “You’re not gonna believe this, but if you go with an orangey peach, it works amazing in two-color.” I’m like, “Really?” And he says, “I know, it doesn’t sound like it, but when you overlay the black tones and gray tones on top of it, you’re going to get some amazing mixes.” I realized that, and so I held onto it and didn’t use it in the second book because I wanted to save it for the third book.

WondLa Book 2 artwork
Eva Nine and Muthr marvel at New Attica, from Book 2.


And then definitely [for the second book] we said, let’s go with the blue, because so much of it took place in New Attica and I wanted New Attica to feel very Brave New World, a city that looks like it was made by … Apple. So I kind of wanted that antiseptic feel to run through the whole book. That blue was the bane of my existence, though. It was such a tough color to work with. You’d think it wouldn’t be, but we had a really hard time because tonally it can be so close to the greys. It just doesn’t feel as colorful. So I was glad to get back to a color that is much more rich, like the green in the first book.

There’s a couple of sunsets, because the sun is setting on our hero. This is the end of it. So it worked out, in a serendipitous sort of way.

Liu: It’s really gorgeous. I see what you mean, with the more black or grey, it does have that really rich red look to it, but also it works for the paler skin tones.

DiTerlizzi: Yeah. I think that color can be such an integral part to setting the emotional mood and tone of the entire book. It’s an important decision to make.

Liu: Is there any plans for any Augmented Reality on this one? I noticed the little Omnipod icons, but there wasn’t any mention of it.

DiTerlizzi: We’re done. We questioned whether to do it. It was amazing to do it on the first one. It wasn’t ever part of the plan at all when we worked on WondLa. The folks who designed the Augmented Reality had come to Simon & Schuster and shown them the technology, and the folks at Simon & Schuster were understandably blown away by it. They were kind of waiting for the right book. I remember very well my editor calling me and saying, “We have this technology and we’ve been waiting for the right project and we think your book is it.”

I was really torn, to be honest with you. I thought, aww, I dunno, it feels a little gimmicky. I worked so hard on this book and I don’t know if it needs that. And he said, “Well, think on it overnight.” I went to bed, going: “What would Lewis Carroll do? What would L. Frank Baum do?” And I thought, they would go for it. They would think this is really cool–in my mind, they would. So I went for it, and I’ve no regrets on it. I loved it, and it was amazing.

But our browsers … I don’t know about you, but I’m on Safari and Firefox and they’re constantly requiring updates and so the software to run it becomes obsolete fairly quick. We talked about it pretty heavily in the second book, whether we should do it or not, and they made a good case, and showed us some pretty neat stuff. And I liked the idea of almost playing a video game with the book. But by the time it came to the third book, I felt like it didn’t need it anymore. We’d kind of grown past it.

In fact, I don’t think it even works on the books anymore. I think moving forward the subsequent printings of books one and two won’t have the AR element any longer. But I loved those flourishes, so we put them in. Hopefully nobody will be too baffled. The twenty people who got it to actually work on their computer, hopefully they won’t be too disappointed.

Liu: I know, in addition to WondLa, you’re also working on Star Wars, because you just need to take over another universe.

DiTerlizzi: That’s right. I know, my geek cred, it’s going up, man! I wish I had, like IMDb has their star meter, I might have like a blip on it now.

Liu: How did you get involved with Star Wars? For people who don’t know, there’s some novelizations. It’s the first three movies, plus your book. (See the announcement video here.)

The Adventures of Luke Skywalker

DiTerlizzi: Yeah. LucasFilm, now working with Disney and Disney’s publishing division, Disney Press, is going to start its own imprint, basically Star Wars-themed books. And I had the unbelievable honor to be the first book on the list.

Liu: No pressure.

DiTerlizzi: No pressure. The folks at LucasFilm knew I was a huge Star Wars fan and have been since I saw the films originally. Carol Roeder, who’s head of the licensing, actually came from Simon & Schuster, which is where I’ve published almost all of my books. So she and I have known each other for a long time. I think she was waiting for just the right project for me. Because I would dance around some projects but I was just so darn busy it was hard for me to really commit the time.

She called me last fall and said, “We would like to take Ralph McQuarrie’s and make a book out of Ralph’s art.” And Ralph, if you don’t know, was the first concept artist to work with George Lucas. He painted paintings of iconic scenes for the first film that, as far as I understand it, helped George actually even get the funding to make the first film. And he also designed–if you’re a Star Wars geek like me–a lot of our favorite characters, like C-3PO, R2-D2, Darth Vader… He designed the Death Star, a lot of major components of Star Wars, Chewbacca, he designed.

You know, I have the “art of” books, the ones I’ve had since I was a kid, so I was familiar with his work. But if you asked me, I probably knew about ten to twenty images. So I thought, well, yeah, maybe there’s something there. And then they’re like, “Ok, we’ll send you over a PDF of his art.” And 200-plus images show up, and I’m like, holy cow, I had no idea. Tons of paintings, tons of sketches, a lot of stuff that I had never seen before, and that was really, really cool.

So, the trick was, they wanted it to be like a picture book, and so they kind of were like, “Can you write this and assemble this and make it into a picture book?” So I said, all right, I think I can do this, and I want to do this. I printed out all of Ralph’s art. Obviously, I know the story. My daughter knows the story, she can tell you the story. So the trick now was, how do I present it in a book format, in a narrative form, using my philosophical approach of how a picture book should read, and be paced, etc. But you’re not creating the artwork, nor can you get the artist to create new artwork. So you’re bound by the art that you have.

In some ways it answered a lot of questions, because I was able to see right away where the art could do a lot of the storytelling and where the text was going to have to do a lot of heavy lifting. For instance, Ralph painted a lot of amazing images, but he never painted Obi-Wan and Darth Vader fighting with their light sabers. He never painted the destruction of, really, both Death Stars. There’s an explosion on one of the Death Stars but there was no painting of the Death Star blowing up. So big moments were missing.

And a lot of his paintings were very scenic vistas: this is what Cloud City looks like. You’d have figures, but they were not always the predominant element in his paintings. There’s some that were, but there were a lot that weren’t. So that was also a challenge. I feel like for me, a picture book is so much about the human element, where you have to project ourselves into the character, whether it’s Max going to where the wild things are, or the Once-ler talking to the Lorax. I’m a very character-driven person. The books I like tend to be character-driven.

So based on compressing the stories down to such a short length, we knew right away that it would have to focus on just Luke Skywalker. And unfortunately things like bounty hunters–as much as there were so many cool paintings of Boba Fett and the other bounty hunters–there was no room for them. We kept it focused on Luke, and it also helped answer a lot of questions and kept it moving. In the end I tried to mix as much of Ralph’s iconic paintings that, if you’re a Star Wars geek, you’ve known, you’ve seen, along with some lesser-known and lesser-seen images that he did.

Splinter of the Mind's Eye
Cover art for Splinter of the Mind’s Eye by Ralph McQuarrie.

In fact, in the scene where Luke goes back to Dagobah and he’s talking to Yoda and later to Obi-Wan. Yoda confirms that Darth Vader is his father, and through his conversation with Obi-Wan he realizes that Leia is his sister. There’s a cover that Ralph did for the first spin-off book called Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. It came out in the late ’70s or early ’80s. It has on the cover Darth Vader, and it looks like he’s on Dagobah because he’s in this forested area. He’s facing you, and then there’s Luke and Leia looking at him, and I’m like, there’s the illustration! And they had the art, and they were like, “Yeah, you can use this.” So I was super-psyched to be able to tie that in. So if you’re an old die-hard fan of Star Wars stuff, you’re gonna see some of these amazing pieces of art that Ralph did that maybe not everyone has seen.

Liu: So how long is this book, then?

DiTerlizzi: It’s 64 pages. So the trick then is, “storybook” can be a bad word in publishing, because it’s kinda neither fish nor fowl. It’s not a picture book, because it’s longer, it’s denser, but then it’s not really a chapter book either because it’s presented in a picture book format, it’s got a lot of art that can be viewed as juvenile… Though I love a picture book, they are hard books to do. Although it’s 64 pages, we really adhered to a picture book kind of word count and length. There are passages that are a little longer than I would’ve liked but for the most part it’s like two paragraphs, three paragraphs on a page and that’s it. It keeps moving. So the story’s obviously truncated. But I wanted to give all the real estate to Ralph and all the amazing art that he did.

Liu: There needs to be a new word, then, for these bigger picture books. I feel like I’m seeing more of them.

DiTerlizzi: I think it’s just silly categorization, and it happens. We do that. Someone will break it and blow it out huge, and then there’ll be five million of them. Robert Sabuda did it with pop-up books, the folks that did Dragonology did it with the interactive lift-the-flap books. Someone’ll do it and then all of a sudden it’ll be the new thing. Maybe I’m doing the wrong thing. Maybe I should get back to WondLa and that big guide, a big storybook.

Liu: The junior novelization of the movie.

Wonder, A Tale Dark and Grimm, Origami Yoda

DiTerlizzi: Yes! So I’m doing this picture book, and then they tapped these beloved middle-grade authors to write middle-grade adaptations of the original three films. Raquel Palacio, who did Wonder, which is a great, amazing story, and the main character is a Star Wars fan in that book–she’s doing A New Hope. Adam Gidwitz, who did A Tale Dark and Grimm, which I love love love those books, he’s doing Empire Strikes Back. And then Tom Angleberger, whom many Star Wars fans know as the author of the Origami Yoda books, he’s doing Return of the Jedi. My book, The Adventures of Luke Skywalker, is out in October, and theirs I’m guessing are going to start early next year, probably throughout the year. I think they’re all out by the time the new film comes out.

Liu: So December 2015.

DiTerlizzi: Not that we’re like counting.

Liu: I heard they just announced the cast–I hadn’t gotten to go read it yet, but we’ll see.

DiTerlizzi: In some ways I’m very excited to see that the original cast is going to be in it. It’s to what extent are they in it, and to what extent are the new characters given a chance to do their thing. That’s the trick.

Liu: You put the old guard in, because that’s gonna call out to the older audience, but the newer audience isn’t going to care quite as much.

DiTerlizzi: Yeah, most children today… because I’ll talk about Star Wars a lot when I do my book presentations in schools and in bookstores, and when I ask kids what their favorite Star Wars film is, or character, it’s not the original trilogy. It’s the prequels that came out afterward. That’s what most of the kids like. Sorry, I know that’s like blasphemy.

Liu: It’s one of those things where, you know, the parents hope the kids love Empire Strikes Back because that’s the best one, but they like the pod racing, right? And Jar Jar. They just think he’s hilarious, and you’re like, “Noooo!”

DiTerlizzi: Exactly. You’ve hit the nail on the head, that’s it. Or the bounty hunter on the head. The Gungan.

Liu: Yeah, hit the Gungan on the head. It’s been fantastic talking to you. Good luck on your book tour! I hope The Battle for WondLa does really well and I’m excited to read it.

DiTerlizzi: Thank you. I’m excited to share it finally. Even the artwork, I’ve been very tight-lipped. I would say this, you almost don’t want to flip through the book and look at the art, because it was hard to not put spoilers in the art. And even then, the artwork appears sometimes several chapters after the spoiler is revealed. And even then, there were scenes I just didn’t draw because I was worried it would give too much away if somebody just casually flipped through the book. So that’s why I’ve been really not sharing. I’m going to start putting some art up here leading up to the release of it, but I’ve been really careful about not putting a whole lot of art because I don’t want to give anything away.

Liu: I’m a no-spoilers sort of guy, but I had to at least look at it a little bit–I hope I don’t see anything I don’t wanna know yet!

DiTerlizzi: I tried to be thoughtful about it so when you see it, if you happen to flip through it, you think you know what it is, but then hopefully you realize, oh, it’s not exactly what I thought it was. That’s the idea at least, we’ll see.

Liu: Well, good talking to you. I’ll have to find some other excuse to talk to you again soon, now that the WondLa series is done.

DiTerlizzi: Let’s do it again in October.

Liu: All right, sounds good!

The Battle for WondLa will be released on Tuesday, May 6. Here’s a list of Tony DiTerlizzi’s tour dates and locations.

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