Star Wars, Dave Trowbridge, and the Zing! of inspiration

by Sherwood Smith

I want to talk about Book View Café’s newest member.

It’s the summer of 1977.

The buzz along our apartment building in Hollywood is that Star Wars is better than it sounds. I’m thinking, gheck. Except for the Salkind Three Musketeers movie, I loathed seventies films, especially the sf ones: either they were fight-the-monster movies, or else long, boring screeds in which the furniture was plastic, and everyone wore these jump suits that looked like they’d take an hour to get out of if you wanted to pee.

This one (Star WARS? Oh please)  sounded like car-crash derby only with space ships.

The rest of the gang in our loose friendship association along three apartments went to see it while I went to bed (I had to rise at four for my job in those days) but when they came back, the reaction was a surprise: this disparate group of people who usually couldn’t agree on anything, but had fun arguing, all loved it.

My next-door neighbor, Dave Trowbridge, whose tastes matched mine in so many ways, said with great intensity, “You will go and see it.”

So late the night before my day off that next week, we walked down to Grauman’s Chinese and got in line. This was before they switched it across the street for the next few months. Lines! I had never seen lines before a movie before, or at most five or six people.

But we get in at last, and there’s that Twentieth Century Fox fanfare….how many even now hear that and get a faint echo of that intense expectation, that joyous sense of expectation payoff? I know I sure do.

Anyway, after the exciting crawl, on comes that big sky, and the smaller space ships running, wow, lookit the detail instead of the old cigar shapes or tin-hat-shaped flying saucers–and then that big sucker comes thundering across the screen and I am just totally swept away. I do. Not. Care. that you can’t hear sounds in vacuum, it was the sound effects and the music as well as the loving detail and the wisecracking, and oh yes, for the first time we’ve got a female who isn’t sporting B-52s in a tight outfit wiggling and squealing for the guys to rescue her, or help her, and then serving as trophy at the end.

Younger people cannot imagine what a breath of fresh air Princess Leia was at the time, after years of Doris Day and Bad Girls/Good Girls, all of them equally helpless before a male. And when the Millennium Falcon took off into hyperspace, there was a general suckage of every molecule of air out of the theatre and we all pressed back into our seats–and I felt that swoop behind my hip bones that I get at the top of a roller coaster just as it begins to rocket down. Woooo–eeeeeeee!

We get out at two a.m. (we’d miraculously gotten into the midnight showing), passed the enormous line waiting for the next showing, and Dave grins at me and says “Well?”

“I’m going back.”

And we did. We did for about six weeks, every weekend, and then we said, “We can do that.” So we got together one evening (I still have the notes) and wrote down all the elements that we loved in fiction that had been missing from movies for years, that Star Wars was tapping into, and we wrote down every extravagant swashbuckling trope we adored and wanted in a story, came up with Exordium, our space opera extravaganza.

The two of us had become friends when he introduced me to Jack Vance, and I introduced him to Dorothy Dunnett. (Er, the works of. Neither of us traveled in high literary circles!) We both loved the Three Stooges, and classical music, and swashbuckling. Over the years since, we’ve shared books and jokes back and forth, as well as our collaborations: now, when Dave introduces himself in the context of writing, he will often say that he is joined at the heart with his excellent, creative wife, Deborah J. Ross, and he’s joined at the wallet with me.

Since those early days we’ve both developed careers and had families, but (some of our relatives lament) we have not lost our taste for swashbuckling–or humor. When I turned forty, he gave me a pink and purple, nerdapproved (TN) Disguster Gun, which we found so funny that the two of us nearly had heart failure, while my ten year old daughter looked on in utter disgust, wishing her mother would grow up some day. An unfulfilled wish!

Because Dave’s wife is a writer, too, she totally understands the snickering that emanates the rare times we are in the same space-time continuum so we can plot and plan. But when Dave and I are not busy with our space opera, we will sit with Deborah, or other creative folk, and speculate about every subject in the universe. Like those days in 1977, and that glorious sense of Oh, that was just what I wanted. Which then turns into, Oh, I have to do that!

Art inspires art. Not every inspiration is all about cashing in, though yeah, that happens too. But sometimes the new art snags so deep into our DNA that we want to make ourselves a piece of it, and so we throw ourselves into the artistic conversation that it begins, and make our own artistic conversation that propagates its themes outward, whether the form is fanfiction, new stories, movies, music, etc.

It’s interesting to look back through history and trace the parabolas of these art forms, from first appearance through inspired conversations with it. Arthuriana, I think, has the longest arc for Western Europe. Like Harry Potter, it’s too soon to predict if Star Wars will last past a couple of generations, but it’s sure fun to look back at their first splash into the the world.

Anyway, Dave has now joined Deborah and me at Book View Café, and he will soon blog here about high tech computer stuff, futuristic Internet theory, the Stooges, playing in a chamber orchestra, organic gardening, and many other subjects. So a hearty welcome to Dave–and hey, if you have a  Star Wars story, share it here!

by Sherwood Smith,  (whose co-written space opera is coming out in ebook form, first volume here)

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Star Wars, Dave Trowbridge, and the Zing! of inspiration — 18 Comments

  1. Sitting in the theatre and being completely overawed by that momentous beginning … still brings a lump in my throat and a shiver down my spine.

  2. I remember those feelings watching Star Wars for the first time. (I’m not going to admit how many times I ultimately saw it.)

    And, you know, I think that was probably what brought me in touch with the fact that I really wanted to write speculative fiction.

  3. Lovely story! And I’m so glad you included the Disguster Gun.

    That first SW movie also gave rise to my first published short story. My process was not so much your “I can do that” as a sort of Mary-Sue-gone-amok with all the serial numbers filed off, The Force metamorphosed into an entirely different ability, and Wookiees who are silver, telepathic, and make tunnels shortcuts between worlds.

    SW was such a fun place to play in, not because of the military geekery but because there was so much juicy stuff underneath the trappings. It all fit together in one breathless whoosh, and we all wanted to go play there. Some of us even got to — hi, Maya!

    My first published novel (Jaydium, available right here at BVC) had some things in common with SW — beginning on a dusty planet whose only resource is a mineral essential to space flight, with a character who’s a miner, the daughter of a deceased scientist, like Luke restless and discouraged about ever getting off this barren chunk of rock. (Also, like Luke, she’s a terrific pilot.) I didn’t consciously imitate SW, but I did draw on the same emotional tropes. I think every teenager has felt like that at one time or another.

    Take me away from here! we cry. Give me adventure and heroic quests and romance! And cool stuff! And strange and wonderful characters, and dastardly villains to strive against! And cars/ships/dragons that go really, really, REALLY fast!

    Yep. SW did that for us, and we’re still on a roll.

  4. That was so cool to read ^^ – I bought Ruler of Naught yesterday and am pleased to tell you that I was the 3333rd purchaser of something at BVC – at least that’s what I think the running numbers at the beginning of the subscription page mean, heh.

  5. I didn’t actually see Star Wars for quite some time after it released. [wry smile] I was a Trek fan from way back; I watched the original run when I was little, played Star Trek on the playground with the boys when I was in first grade, and had become a pretty rabid Trekkie by the time I hit eleven or twelve.

    In the mid-seventies, there were nebulous rumors of a Star Trek movie. They were making one, they weren’t, it was on again, then it was cancelled again, then they were really doing it, then no that was just a rumor. :/ It was frustrating. Then I heard that they were doing a Star Trek movie for real and I was in heaven… for a while. Then I heard about this new movie coming out, Star Wars. And I heard another rumor (true or not — I have no clue, but my thirteen-year-old self believed it at the time — that they’d been ready to make the Trek movie, but they’d cancelled it to do Star Wars instead. O_O

    I boycotted Star Wars for months, ignoring all the people around me who’d seen it and said it was great. I was so angry about “them” dumping the Trek movie to make this stupid whatever-it-was that I refused to see that obviously inferior piece of garbage, until finally its sheer persistence within the culture wore me down. I went on a bus up to San Francisco with my great aunt and we saw it together.

    On the bus on the way home, my mind was spinning and I was weighed down with awe. I was determined to be a Jedi. 🙂

    Hey, I was thirteen!

    Angie, still a Trek fan, but now with expanded capacity allowing for other franchises as well

  6. Angie: I totally understand the thirteen year old logic, there.

    And I remember that loooooong wait through the seventies and the “will they or won’t they” about the Trek movies!

    Pilgrimsoul: heh!

  7. I thought that the Twentieth Century Fox theme _was_ the beginning of the Star Wars theme for a very long time. Then I saw another Twentieth Century Fox movie and thought, hey, they stole that from Star Wars!

    I actually got to see it in Spanish when I lived in Costa Rica for a year, with English subtitles. It was cool.

    I memorized the lines from a little gold Storyscope Storytellers cassette. When I was much older, I found out my boyfriend had the Star Wars Christmas Special on cassette. My favorite was “What do you get a Wookie for Christmas When he Already Owns a Comb.”

  8. Wendy: that must have been an awesome experience. (Or interesting . . . I remember watching BLAZING SADDLES in Paris, with English subtitles. My friend and I were the only ones laughing in many sections . . .)

  9. Pingback: Ruler of Naught: Coming December 27 from Book View Cafe | Dave Trowbridge

  10. As far as watching Star Wars in a different language, that’s the only way 1, 2, and 3 are at all tolerable to me: treating them like literal space opera by switching the sound track to a language I don’t understand. I tried Swedish once. It was delightful.

  11. Mm, just your mention of those first two notes was enough…!

    But what I remember is coming out of the theatre (each time!). Late afternoons, into a very prosaic, very hot, West Texas county seat street. Floating on the music of the final battle scene. Feeling that yes, Plato was right, that music is the only real thing, this whole world is an illusion caused by the music….

  12. You know I always had a problem with Star Wars. I loved the universe, but for the longest time I couldn’t get why people like the original trilogy. I ‘d like to think I understand better now – this post is kinda making that point. It was new, it was novel, it was amazing, and so forth. So I understand that.

    But I saw it in 2000. Considering I was only about 10, I’m still amazed that I was so cynical about it. I thought it cliched and badly done. It wasn’t the effects – it was (to me) the one dimensional characters, the obvious conflicts, and the lack of details. I couldn’t see what was so cool about either Jedi or Sith – they seemed to me like a group of warriors with magic powers. Nice, but nothing deep.

    When I grew up some more, and saw the second trilogy, I started to like it. It wasn’t good, but it had excellent elements. The Jedi weren’t just magic fighters – they were Warrior-philosophers, and I loved Qui-Gon Jinn for introducing that concept. The Sith weren’t just evil dudes – they were the counterpart of the Jedi, politicians who could plot and manipulate like no-one’s business. The Force itself suddenly became more than just ‘space magic’.

    And then I started on books, and so forth, and really loved Star Wars. The worldbuilding had always been solid, but now it had excellent details, deep conflicts, compelling characters. Today, my favorite Star Wars plotline and characters are from the Knights of the Old Republic I and II. And considering those are computer games – I think that says a lot about how much they’ve progressed with plot, characters and everything.

    And that makes me wonder. Is this a generational gap – if I had been born back then, would I have loved it as well? Is my generation spoiled by the variety offered to us? I think this may be the question determining art forms and classics.

  13. Koby, I strongly suspect it’s a generation gap thing. Many of my students are Star Wars fans (only the boys, unfortunately), but they mainly love the prequel trilogy and the Clone Wars TV series and the videogames. They’re not overly interested in the original trilogy. Meanwhile, fans of my age and older tend to love the original trilogy and dislike the prequels and the Clone Wars. I suspect that with Star Wars it’s as with James Bonds, Doctor Whos, Zorros, Sherlocks and Tarzans – the first one you see and imprint on is always the one that you will like best. And for today’s younger Star Wars fans, the prequels or the Clone Wars were their first Star Wars experience.

    I’m a bit the odd one out here, because while I was aware of Star Wars from the time the first movie came out on (when I was in kindergarten), it was something like the holy grail for the longest time – the thing I desperately wanted to see, but wasn’t allowed to, since my parents deemed me too young to watch Return of the Jedi, let alone the first two. And since I grew up in a household where renting, let alone buying videos was considered a waste of money and I had to fight to even get a functioning VCR, watching Star Wars was pretty much impossible until they showed up on German TV in the early 1990s. So the original trilogy was pretty much the holy grail for much of my youth. I don’t hate the prequels as much as many others, but they don’t have the same meaning for me.

  14. Hmmm, very interesting, Cara. But I wonder about the imprinting you write of. As I wrote, I saw the Original Trilogy first. And yet, I liked Episode I better. I saw the Original Trilogy as the cliched plot of ‘long lost heir defeats evil empire’, only in space. Episode I seemed to me much more developed – evil order trying take over using obscure plotting and political maneuvers, while the good organization is really unclear on what they’re doing, and seems to be caught up in the mess.

    I think a large part of imprinting is dependent on what you’ve already seen and liked. I saw too many ‘destined hero and rebels vs. evil empire’. This applies to the games as well. By that time, I had seen all the star wars plots I thought there were to offer. KotOR I and II offered new plots and characters, and they were excellent.

    So perhaps that is part of the answer: everything is judged by context, and not only of what came before it, but what there was at the same time and what came after. And while first impressions carry weight, they may lose out to the power of context.

  15. Koby: there is also that surprise element. Before the first Star Wars in 1977, there was nothing quite like it. Afterward, of course, media began to be in conversation with it, so by the time your generation came along, those elements were (as you noted) unsurprising, often dealt with–better dealt with.

    I liked the idea of the first three, but found the writing so banal, the emotions so one-note, in spite of the superior special effects, that I’ve only seen them once. (When each took me out, the kids took me for my birthday, but I notice neither of them liked it either.) Obviously, though, where Star Wars went is working for a big audience, it just doesn’t include me. Alas. I wish it did!