Helen Keier co-wrote The New Essentials Guide to Alien Species and created a Women of Star Wars website. She was also a staff writer with TheForce.Net for many years. Helen was kind enough to answer a few questions via email for 365 Days of Star Wars Women.
What was your introduction to Star Wars? Do you have a favorite film, character, or time period?
My introduction to Star Wars was seeing A New Hope when it came out in 1977. I saw it at the Loews American theater in the Bronx, New York, sometime during its initial run. I remember my Mom dropping me off with a couple of my siblings. To this day, my favorite character is Princess Leia and my favorite film is A New Hope. A summer or two before A New Hope came out I wasn’t allowed to even play little league baseball because back then the girls weren’t allowed to play with the boys. Seeing the detention block scene, with Princess Leia – the girl – taking the blaster and saving them all, meant a lot to me. And Carrie Fisher was such a role model. She was always unapologetically herself. That inspiration is even more powerful and poignant, now that Carrie Fisher has passed away.
In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s there were a lot of online fan communities starting up. Which ones were you active on and why did you pick those forums/lists/etc.
I don’t know if I picked these communities or if they picked me. It all happened organically. My initial online fan community was the Star Wars Fanboy Association, a small, invitation-only mailing list. After seeing the Women of Star Wars site, someone from the SWFA list reached out to me with an invitation, which kickstarted a series of events. Although I was the only woman amongst a dozen or so men on SWFA at the time (other women came later), I found a place where I fit in.
From SWFA I wrote for TheForce.Net for a few years. Through TFN I met Tish Pahl and Chris Cassidy, who had contributed short stories to the Bantam Spectra Star Wars anthologies. They are members of Club Jade and invited to join that group as well. To this day, many of the members of SWFA and Club Jade are among my closest friends. I think rather than asking why I picked those groups, a better question is why I stayed in them. In both SWFA and Club Jade there was an appreciation for spirited but smart discourse and acceptance. Being a geek wasn’t unfashionable – it was celebrated by my friends in these groups. What mattered to me mattered to them and created a sense of belonging that’s hard to replicate.
How did you get involved with TheForce.net and what position did you hold there? Have you noticed differences between Star Wars fandom then and now? What years were you on-staff at TheForce.net?
I met one of the founders of TFN on SWFA, who offered me a spot writing book reviews and news. Eventually, I worked my way up to editing the books section of TFN and conducting many of their featured interviews. If I recall correctly, I was on staff at TFN from mid-1998 to late 2000/ early 2001. In my opinion, fandom has changed since then. In general, the internet has been an empowering force, giving many people the confidence and means to express themselves. While this is a good thing in cases like SWFA and Club Jade, in other ways it’s also given rise to a sense of entitlement and ownership fans didn’t have 15+ years ago. Take for example the recent online calls for Lucasfilm to remake The Last Jedi and to restore the Star Wars Expanded Universe to canon. I can’t imagine that happening 15, even 10 years ago. We may not like some of the directions Star Wars has gone in, but that doesn’t mean we have the right to dictate the form the story takes.
You co-wrote The New Essential Guide to Alien Species with Ann Margaret Lewis in 2006. How did that job come your way? Do you have favorite sections from that book or were any sections more challenging to write than others?
I got incredibly lucky. Sounds silly to say that, but it’s true. Through the online community, I’d made some contacts at Lucasfilm. When I left TFN, thanks to those contacts, I spent some time as a volunteer outside reader on the New Jedi Order book series and wrote a few pieces for the Star Wars Insider. I knew Ann through SWFA and we lived near each other at the time. Ann wrote the original edition of The Essential Guide to Alien Species but when it came time to update it as The New Essential Guide to Alien Species, she’d recently had a baby so she asked me to co-author the update. Given I was already a known quantity to Lucasfilm, I was accepted as a co-author when the book’s editor at Random House suggested it.
Favorite section of the book is an easy question – I wrote the Togruta entry. That entry just flowed. I created the Akul and the Akul hunt right-of-passage. I was fascinated by the production stills of Shaak Ti wearing a headdress of what appeared to be animal teeth and why a Jedi would wear one. It struck me as very contrary to their role as the protectors of life. Even though elements of the entry have been retconned or contradicted, it’s still one of the things I’m most proud of and Togruta are still my favorite species. Collaboration with others when writing the book was also a standout for me. The Kaleesh entry was based largely on unpublished material Abel Pena had written for Star Wars Gamer magazine before it had folded. Dan Wallace was also a great resource for Ann and me, whenever we needed feedback or more material on a planet. We couldn’t have written the book without Abel and Dan. The most challenging section of the book was the entry on the Mustafarians. There wasn’t a lot to go on about them when I was writing the book and I hit total writer’s block on the species, a total lack of inspiration. I think that was the last species to get finished.
From about 1997 to 2000 you ran the Women of Star Wars Home Page hosted on Geocities (Geocities!). What inspired you to create this site?
I started my Women of Star Wars site on Geocities in 1996 or 1997 as a means of learning HTML, not necessarily to join the budding online community. A co-worker at the time who was teaching me HTML suggested that I create the site about something I enjoyed. Star Wars was a no-brainer, and the compilation of female characters was because at that time, nothing like it existed. On a personal level, I was going through a period of my life where I was finding my own voice and celebrating strong women was a part of that.
Did you get a lot of positive (or negative) feedback from this site?
Feedback was almost universally positive. I got a couple of trollish emails, but I ignored them. I expect it would be a lot worse today.
Part of the site was a list of female characters from Star Wars film, books, etc. Did you write all of the descriptions? What sources did you use?
I wrote all of the character descriptions. Sources were whatever I could get my hands on – the films, the books, the comics – even the video games. The books were probably the biggest influence. I also had great feedback from the SWFA members. From time to time they would offer suggestions and women to include, particularly from the comics.
You also had an entire section of the site that linked readers to other Star Wars sites run by women (which is something that’s been on my to-do list for 365 for quite some time). Did you feel like women, in general, were supportive of other female Star Wars fans?
Absolutely. In my experience, women are very supportive of other female Star Wars fans. That support led me to join Club Jade and writing The New Essential Guide to Alien Species. Both cases are examples of women opening doors for other women. I also had the feeling when I was brought on as an outside reader for The New Jedi Order that my bringing a woman’s perspective to the conversation was a plus. The support women give other women is very important. By supporting other female fans, we support ourselves.
You also linked to several Star Wars webrings. For the younglings reading this can you explain what a webring was and why they were so important years ago for fans looking for the content they were seeking?
Webrings were a network of websites, usually organized around a common topic or theme, that cooperatively linked to each other to help visitors find other sites. They formed a directory of sorts. In the ancient pre-Google days, they were helpful in connecting fans and the material they were seeking.
What are your thoughts on The Clone Wars, Star Wars Rebels, and the recent feature films?
I love that we have new Star Wars stories, whether it is a cartoon series or feature film, and that Lucasfilm is trying to tell an integrated narrative across various media and with many contributors. That’s not an easy task and not one to be underestimated. I saw it first-hand with New Jedi Order. The coordination needed to make that work is extraordinary.
Do you think female characters have improved over the years in films? Do you prefer the female characters in the books?
The female characters have improved over the years. In the original movies, Leia was often the only character of substance, but as time went on we also gained Padmé, Ahsoka Tano, Hera Syndulla, Jyn Erso, Rey, and so many others. As the universe has expanded, over time women have gone from singular characters in the films to focal points of the stories being told. Women have taken center stage not as women but as protagonists regardless of gender.
Has your fandom changed much over the years? Are you keeping up with the TV shows, films, books, etc.?
My fandom hasn’t really changed. Looking back, the same properties that I fell in love with as a kid are still important to me now (other than Star Wars, I’m a Doctor Who fan). The meaning Princess Leia had to me at 10 is just as important to me now, maybe more so. I’m keeping up with the tv shows and films, but I don’t have as much time to read as I used to so I’m sadly behind on the books and comics.
What are you working on now?
I’m not currently working on anything Star Wars related, unfortunately. After the book came out family obligations got in the way of pursuing more professional writing work. I would have loved to write more. Professionally I’ve been working as an educational technologist and online learning specialist for the last twenty years. However, I am still a member of SWFA and Club Jade, and I’ve become involved with the 501st Legion. My husband is the Commanding Officer for the Empire City Garrison so we spend a lot of time at 501st events.
You can check out Helen’s The Women of Star Wars webpage here!
Check out the entire list of women in 365 Days of Star Wars Women in the Women in Star Wars Index. It includes highlights from each post plus notes which posts include new 365 interviews with actresses, writers, artists, and more.