Empire Strikes Back

Origin story

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As I write this it’s May the Fourth, an adopted Star Wars celebration day (as in, “may the ‘fourth’ be with you…”), just a few days after the death of Peter Mayhew, who played the beloved Chewbacca. My favorite TV station, Comet, was playing a clear Star Wars knockoff, the 1978 Japanese film Message from Space.

And just a couple of days ago, I interviewed a young woman, who, through a flight scholarship program, got to fly a private plane with the original Han Solo himself, Harrison Ford. I was trying to play it cool, but it was hard to hear her answers over the sound of my twelve-year-old self screaming at me from across time. I’m only one of millions of people who were hit with a bit of The Force growing up, and as a writer, its influence and impact on the shape of my imagination are undeniable.

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The original Star Wars film came out when I had just turned 7 years old. The truth is I wasn’t interested, or I was too busy with my Barbies to notice. I didn’t see it until a few years later, as I recall, when the library put on a showing of Star Wars in anticipation of The Empire Strikes Back. Then I was totally in orbit, so to speak.

The Empire Strikes Back expanded my understanding of storytelling. It was the first film I remember where I felt truly shocked by the twists and the pain inflicted upon a main character: Luke got his hand cut off! By his father! Who he didn’t know about until just now! It was also the first film I recall that didn’t have a completely happy resolution—what? They can leave us hanging like this? Where is Han??

While my young pre-teen/early-teen years I was mainly interested in Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, the presence and influence of Princess Leia was undoubtedly the most impactful. My mother likes to tell a story about when I was four years old and had said something about becoming a nurse. ‘You could be a doctor,’ my encouraging mother said. I apparently snorted derisively and said, to her horror, ‘Girls can’t be doctors!’

Clearly, such a notion didn’t come from my mother, and demonstrated how a misogynistic society had already wheedled itself into the unsuspecting brain of a toddler. To that point had witnessed no females or female characters in roles of authority. Princess Leia began to turn that around. Soon afterward Sigourney Weaver sent a scary Alien flying out of an airlock, all by herself, though I didn’t watch that one until much later.

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Also much later, I learned the screenplay for Empire Strikes Back was co-written by Leigh Brackett, a longtime novelist and screenwriter who died shortly after turning in a first draft of the screenplay. Early on in her career she was called in to work with William Faulkner on the film The Big Sleep by director Howard Hawks, who assumed she was a man. Brackett also wrote, among many things, the acclaimed post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel The Long Tomorrow. I found other ‘hidden’ writers, Andre Norton among them, and began to question why science fiction—a genre launched by Mary Shelley—was a ‘male’ domain.

The Star Wars franchise, like for so many others, also offered me heroes when I needed them. Around the time of Empire Strikes Back we moved to a rural town that seemed to have a different mindset and a different vibe. The kids were different. We moved in the middle of the school year, and I was something different to them, an easy target for bullies. I retreated into my imagination, creating my own internal fan fiction, putting myself in the Star Wars universe as Luke’s Jedi sister (yes, before I knew he actually had one!). Later I began writing my own stories, an oddball fantasy series casting my enemies as the antagonists.

I dove into other books—my mother’s Trixie Belden mystery series, the off-the-wall Hitchhiker’s Guide books—and I set the foundation for an inner world that has become a strange, delightful and gothic bit of architecture with lots of weird staircases. That’s part of my creative origin story. What’s yours?

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