Jerry Oltion (Author)

Jerry Oltion
Author: At the Crossroads: The Spacer’s Tale (from Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina)
Interview: December 2020

In 1995 the first Star Wars anthology book was released: Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina. This book had several short stories about the various characters we see in the most notorious bar in the Star Wars galaxy! The main character in one of those tales was BoShek, the spacer with the sideburns who had a chat with Obi-Wan Kenobi in A New Hope.  That story was written by Nebula Award winning author Jerry Oltion, whose writing career spans almost four decades. In December 2020 he did the following interview for this website.

I’d like to start at the very beginning: what got you into writing and how did your career take off?

My mother used to write magazine articles, and a neighbor also wrote and edited a magazine, so I grew up with the notion that ordinary people could be writers. I loved to read, so I decided very early on that I wanted to be part of all that. My mother loved telling the story of the day she saw me diligently scribbling something into a Big Chief tablet with a jumbo pencil (those big fat ones that parents gave kids so they wouldn’t be breaking the points all the time). Mom said, “Looks like you’re going to be a writer some day.” To which I replied, “I already am.”

I fell in love with science fiction early on, so it seemed inevitable that I would become a science fiction writer. I got serious about it when I was in college in the late 1970s, and started selling stories in the early ’80s. From there it was just full speed ahead as far as I could take it. I’ve remained mostly a short story writer because that’s my favorite medium, but I’ve done a few novels as well.

I heard that the first and second time you saw Star Wars was a pivotal, life changing experience, so I’m VERY curious to hear the full story!

I was a sophomore in college when the original Star Wars movie came out. I took my girlfriend to see it, and I was totally blown away by it, but she wasn’t impressed. She thought it was corny, and there was nobody famous in it! (Who did she think Alec Guinness was, chopped liver?) There was another girl I was kind of interested in, and she liked science fiction, so I invited her to see it a few nights later. She didn’t tell me she’d already seen Star Wars seven times — with seven different guys! But she went with me, too, and she was patient with me saying things like “Pay attention here, this pays off later.” She squeezed my hand when Luke said, “I have a very bad feeling about this,” and she cheered with me when the Death Star blew up, and I knew I’d found my soul mate. She even let me kiss her after the movie.

Then I found out about her seven other boyfriends, so I kept asking her out every night of the week until I was the only one left. She and I married two years later, and have been married for 41 years. We still celebrate the anniversary of our first date, and occasionally re-watch Star Wars, which is still a perfect date movie.

How did you get the assignment to write a short Star Wars story for the Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina book?

I knew Kevin Anderson, the editor, from mutual friends and from conventions, so when he got the go-ahead to create the anthology I was one of the people he asked to write for it. He probably knew the story of how Kathy and I met, so he knew Star Wars held a special place in my heart.

You wrote the story about BoShek, ‘the spacer’. Did you choose this character yourself? And if so; what made you pick him?

I did pick the spacer, because I’m mostly a hard science fiction writer and he looked like the most hard-science-fictioney character in the cantina. But I had always wondered what he was doing in the cantina with his spacesuit still on, so this was a great opportunity to make up a story that explained it.

What was your inspiration to write his story?

As soon as I thought about writing about this character, I knew I wanted to do an adventure story in the style of Bob Sheckley, whom I’ve always felt was one of the best short story writers in the business. My favorite Sheckley stories are the ones about space travelers who get into trouble on alien planets and have to use their wits to get out of it, so I plotted my story along the same lines. I had my character get himself into trouble through some basic character flaws, but get himself out of trouble by thinking his way out of them rather than just thud and blunder.

I was delighted to discover that Lucasfilm hadn’t named the spacer, so I called him “BoShek” just to call attention to Bob Sheckley’s excellent stories.

Did you get any specific directions or instructions regarding the writing of your story?

All the writers came up with story outlines first and we shared them around so everybody would know what the others were doing with the characters. Kevin Anderson and one or two of the continuity people at Lucasfilm went over the outlines to make sure we didn’t violate canon too badly, but we were more or less turned loose to make up whatever we wanted. Of course it was fun to put in references to the other stories, so you find things like the Jawa sacrifice from Kevin’s story as a plot element in mine.

West End Games gave us some information that they had already come up with about the characters and the layout of the cantina, so we weren’t completely without direction, but it was pretty loose. I just now looked back at my notes from when I wrote my story and saw that the revision requests were really minor. “Call it a flight suit rather than a space suit” — stuff like that.

How do you look back at your Star Wars contribution? And why did you never get to write a Star Wars novel?

I was really pleased to be invited to participate, and I’m still very happy with the story I wrote, and with the project as a whole. I think it was a great idea that proved to be very popular. I still get royalty checks every six months. They’re not as big as they were twenty years ago, but the fact that it’s still selling and people are still reading our stories is really amazing.

I did ask the Star Wars editor at Bantam Books if I could take a shot at a novel, but I never heard back from him. By that point my career was heating up with Star Trek books and short fiction, so I didn’t pursue it further.

In 2014 ago Disney declared the Expanded Universe was no longer canon. It became ‘Legends’. What do you think of this, seeing almost all of your Star Wars work suddenly become non-canon?

I hadn’t heard about that. I’m actually kind of amused by it. Now I can call myself the “legendary” Jerry Oltion. Honestly, it doesn’t matter to me if what I wrote is considered canon or not. My story is what it is, and labels won’t change it.

Since you’re Boshek’s creator/namegiver; do you have his action figure?

There’s a BoShek action figure?! I had no idea.

I Googled BoShek just now and got dozens of hits. Entries in the Wookieepedia, mentions of him appearing in further adventures from other writers, the story of a detective tracking down the uncredited actor who played him in the original movie…it’s incredible. I had no idea that character would take on so much more life after I wrote about him. I’m sitting here a bit gobsmacked over it.

I see that the action figure is still available. I’ll have to pick one up and put him in my “brag shelf.”

Thanks for letting me know about this. I’ve been having fun remembering that story and the times that led up to it.

You have written many other books. Which one stands out as your personal favorite?

Asking an author which book is his favorite is a little like asking a parent which child is their favorite, but the truth is we (both writers and parents) do often have favorites. Mine is Paradise Passed, which is the second novel I wrote but didn’t sell for many years. It was fairly ambitious and dealt with some uncomfortable themes, so I kept getting what I called “rave rejections” from editors who said they really liked it but they couldn’t publish it for fear of pissing off too many people. Finally a friend of mine started up a small publishing company (Wheatland Press) and asked me if they could publish one of my novels, and I was happy to let them have that one. Frank Wu did what’s probably the best cover illustration I’ve ever seen, and the rest of the book layout was done very well, too. I’ve never gotten a single negative word about it, and ironically, it’s the only one of my novels that’s still in print. So it’s kind of like seeing the clumsy kid with braces and glasses grow up to be a movie star. You have to have a soft spot for that. Plus I think it’s a whacking good adventure story.

You’ve written four Star Trek books. What’s the difference between writing Star Wars and Star Trek?

The Star Trek book universe was non-canon right from the start, so we had incredible freedom to tell whatever story we wanted to. The joke among Trek writers (and editors) was “Just don’t kill off any of the bridge crew.” So in my second novel I made a point to kill them all off, one by one, each in their signature style. Scotty dies when a heroic effort to jury rig a phaser to overload a shield fails. Sulu dies leaping headlong into battle. Kirk makes a resounding speech to the people holding him at gunpoint — and they shoot him anyway. Stuff like that until readers are pulling their hair out and screaming “You can’t do that!” Then of course I set everything back to normal by the end of the book. I don’t think I could have gotten away with anything like that in the Star Wars universe.

That said, writing for either universe was a ton of fun. I moved on to writing my own novels once I had built up a bit of a career with tie-in novels, but I thoroughly enjoyed writing for both Star Trek and Star Wars. It feels good to be a part — even if it’s a very small part — of both of those cultural icons.