Author: The Weapon of a Jedi, Moving Target, The Esential Atlas, and many more…
Interview: December 2015
How did you become a Star Wars fan?
I was eight years old when A New Hope – which back then was just Star Wars – hit theaters. I went with my folks to see it in a crummy theater in Lake Grove, N.Y., with no idea what to expect. Princess Leia’s ship came roaring across the screen, which was cool, but then Darth Vader’s Star Destroyer came across the screen chasing it – and kept coming and coming. By the time I saw that Star Destroyer’s engines I was hooked and knew my life had changed.
How did you land the job in the Star Wars industry?
I got to know my friend Dan Wallace through the old America Online Star Wars discussion boards in the mid-1990s. Dan and I both loved Star Wars geography, and he’d landed a gig writing The Essential Guide to Planets and Moons for Del Rey. I had a database of Star Wars planets that I’d created, and wanted to send it to him but hesitated because I was worried he’d think I was trying to step on his turf. When I finally did send it Dan was basically done with the book, and he was like, “Man, this would have been really helpful – why didn’t you send it before?” So lesson learned. Dan very kindly suggested that we team up to work on some articles for the old Star Wars Adventure Journal from West End Games, and I got vetted by Lucasfilm as part of that. I was so excited – and then the Adventure Journal folded. And I thought, “Oh no, there goes my big chance!” (We wound up working together with our friend Craig Carey from WEG to write articles for the short-lived magazine Star Wars Gamer.) Happily, I got another shot – the Star Wars Insider was looking for a books columnist, and took a chance on me. If I recall correctly my first column was about Vector Prime, which I read under a strict vow of silence before interviewing Bob Salvatore. That was my first Star Wars publishing credit, back in 1999. From there I put my hand up for any Star Wars job I could get. I wrote RPG material for Wizards, relying on what I could remember of first-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and spent years as the Insider’s book columnist. All of that was fun, but I got my big break when DK hired me to write the Clone Wars Visual Guide (which came out in 2008) and Del Rey gave in and let me and Dan try to turn our crazy idea about mapping the Star Wars galaxy into an actual book.
You have written a lot of Star Wars books and stories. Really a LOT. Which book/story are you most proud of? And why?
Hmm. That’s a tough one, because my projects have been so different.I loved writing The Essential Atlas with Dan. That book was quite literally a dream come true. Back when I was 13 or 14 I dreamt I’d gone with my parents to the bookstore in our mall and bought a book called The Atlas of the Star Wars Galaxy, which I’d read avidly in the back seat of the car on the way home. It was one of those vivid dreams that leaves you a bit confused when you wake up about what’s real and what’s not. I was lying in bed and thought happily about my cool new book, figuring that I had school and track practice but then I’d be free to come home and read some more. Which was when I had that “Oh no” moment and realized it was just a dream. Years later Dan and I made that dream a reality. I mean, sure, it took 30 years, but it happened! So that book will always be really close to my heart. I also loved writing the four-book Servants of the Empire series, about Zare Leonis. Those books got into some pretty deep stuff while being entertaining adventures, and I really liked Merei, a character I invented as a foil/ally for Zare. And I loved working on Weapon of a Jedi and Moving Target, because they gave me a chance to tell stories starring two characters I’ve loved since I was eight years old. If we can step outside of Star Wars for a moment, I think the second book in the Jupiter Pirates series – The Curse of the Iris – is the best thing I’ve ever written. (If you’re not familiar with Jupiter Pirates, I hope you’ll check out jupiterpirates.com.) Of course I hope to top that someday soon, whether it’s with a Star Wars tale or something else – you always want your most recent book to be the best thing you’ve ever written. Honestly, it’s pretty rare that I have a Star Wars project I don’t love. I pinch myself every day that I get to do this. I’ve been insanely lucky.
On Force Friday your book ‘Weapon of a Jedi’ was released. I’ve read it and (just like everyone else) love it. It is already a fan favorite; every review I’ve read is very positive. What is your secret? How did you approach the task of writing this novel and why do you think it’s so popular?
I’ve read some negative reviews of it! But that’s OK – as an author it’s really important to understand and accept that you cannot win them all. One person will think your book is an instant classic and another person will hurl it across the room. That’s showbiz, baby. Lucasfilm gave me the basic plot of The Weapon of a Jedi – Luke explores mysterious ruins on a jungle world in search of Jedi lore, and winds up dueling a determined enemy – and we went from there. Which definitely meant some pressure. Luke is such a beloved character – there are many Star Wars fans who have spent their whole lives watching and reading his adventures, and they have superb radar for how he thinks, speaks and acts. If you get that wrong, they’re thrown out of the story. I should know because I’m one of those fans, and Luke is a tricky character to get right – one I’ll admit I’d never felt I had a handle on. To figure that out I went back to the movies, to Mark Hamill’s performance and how that shaped the character George Lucas had created. I watched how Hamill held himself, and how he reacted to other characters, and delved into Hamill’s stories about interacting with Lucas in finding the right tone for the character. That helped, and so did a fan’s note on TheForce.net discussing what an odd action hero Luke is – he’s more reactive than active, almost gentle. Which is absolutely right. Think about it: In A New Hope Luke destroys the Death Star by letting go and allowing the Force to guide his X-wing’s proton torpedo. In Return of the Jedi he defeats the Emperor by throwing his lightsaber away and appealing to his father. It’s only in The Empire Strikes Back that he behaves like a conventional action hero – he rushes off to fight Darth Vader and save his friends. So what happens? He nearly gets killed and his friends have to risk their lives all over again to save him. That exploration turned out to be really rewarding. It unlocked Luke for me in a way that hadn’t happened before, and that was simultaneously helpful as a writer and a lot of fun as a fan. As for why the book’s been popular, it has nothing to do with me. I mean, come on — it’s a Star Wars book about Luke Skywalker! My name is far and away the least important thing on that cover.
In ‘Weapon of a Jedi’ we meet a new character: Sarco Plank. Could you tell something about how you created this character? And will we see more of him in upcoming books or comics?
The character started with Lucasfilm, and was always intended to be Luke’s antagonist. I originally wrote him as a kind of placeholder – known just as “the Scavenger” — because I knew I wouldn’t have access to any art or descriptions of him until later in the process. That turned out to be pretty interesting: I tried leaving the character essentially as a “blank” in the narrative but found I couldn’t do it, because having him undefined messed up the dynamic between him and Luke and the droids. So I shrugged and made the Scavenger into an old, scarred Devaronian outcast. His first name was mine – I was riffing on “sarcoma” – and I’m pretty sure the last name came from Lucasfilm. The funny thing is I knew that Sarco’s description would change, but I still felt a little sad when I got the art reference and had to switch out the old Sarco for the new one. We get really attached to our characters, even when we know better. Another unexpected aspect of that process was there are pretty profound differences between how the original Sarco perceived the world and how the character you’ll see in The Force Awakens does. Sorry to be vague, but you’ll know what I mean soon enough. That was an interesting challenge given the interplay among the characters – some scenes still worked fine, some had to be tweaked, and a few had to be rethought. Something similar happened with the mounts Luke and Sarco use in The Weapon of a Jedi. There, once again, I was a little bummed to sub out the cool creature I’d thought of as a placeholder even though I’d known that was going to happen. Fortunately, I found myself needing mounts for scenes in the fourth Zare Leonis book, The Secret Academy. So the creature I’d invented – the diplopod — got to live another day.
With Cecil Castellucci you co-wrote another new Star Wars novel: ‘Moving Target’. What in this novel are your ideas/influences?
Collaborations are interesting things that can be pretty personal for the authors involved. So sorry, but I’d rather keep that one between me and Cecil. We relied on the Force, let’s say that. Well, the Force and the kind folks at Lucasfilm and Disney. What I will say beyond that is Cecil and I both had spent our whole lives loving Leia Organa as a character – she deserves so much credit as an assertive, no-nonsense boss who did a lot to break down the traditional confines about gender roles. We were both thrilled by the chance to work together in telling a story that would dig into Leia’s thoughts and her character.
Suppose there are readers who want to write official Star Wars books as well; what advice would you give them?
No one wants to hear this, but it’s my duty to say it: If your starting goal is to write Star Wars, stop. I got really lucky and even then it was years and years before I got to write anything in that setting, let alone tell stories of my own. If you start off as a writer with Star Wars as your goal, you’re almost certainly going to wind up discouraged because it will take so long and so much has to go right no matter how hard you work. If, on the other hand, you love to write and tell stories and your goal is to do that, full speed ahead. Develop a professional track record and start figuring out your own stories and characters and bringing them to life. It will take a long time to get openings and to get command of your craft, but if you love what you do you’ll enjoy the journey. If things go well and you get some breaks, you might eventually be offered the chance to play in someone else’s universe, whether it’s a galaxy far far away or something else. And if not you’ll still be having fun and hopefully seeing a little success. The biggest reason I got hired by the Insider back in 1999 was I had years of newspaper experience, which meant I had a track record of writing successfully, meeting deadlines and being easy to work with. Yes, I was a Star Wars fan, but that was essentially a coincidence. It was my professional background that got me the shot. For anyone I haven’t scared off, the good news is it doesn’t particularly matter what you do to get that professional track record – you can work for a local newspaper, magazine, website, etc. Editors want to see that you can write and are reliable — the subject matter isn’t so important. So go out and write. Do good work, prove you’re reliable, and enjoy yourself. Success – in whatever form it takes — starts there.
What is your favorite Star Wars planet you’ve created?
Anaxes, which I created way back at the beginning of my Star Wars career for Coruscant and the Core Worlds, a roleplaying book for Wizards of the Coast. I’ve always liked the Imperial Navy and its traditions, so I thought it would be fun to create a planet that was basically its Annapolis – an “Officer and a Gentleman” type setting steeped in tradition, history and the lore of the service. So I proposed that and Wizards and Lucasfilm said yes. It was really cool when the Clone Wars production team decided to use Anaxes as the setting of an arc – it’s in the “Bad Batch” series of animatic episodes on starwars.com. Though they did decide that Anaxes then got blown up somehow. Oh well!
Is there a Star Wars character you’d love to write a book about?
Han Solo. The funny thing about writing The Weapon of a Jedi is I was a Han guy as a kid. I didn’t really get Luke – I thought he should have joined Han and Chewie at the end of A New Hope instead of becoming a rebel. I mean, Han and Chewie get to hang out in cantinas and blast bad guys and play pirate aboard their cool starship – how is that not more fun than taking orders as a soldier? (Yes, I would have made the worst member of the Rebel Alliance ever.) I admitted this at New York Comic-Con on a panel where I was sitting next to Greg Rucka, who wrote Smuggler’s Run. And Greg looked over and said, “the funny thing is I grew up as a Luke guy.”
What is your favorite Star Wars book that was written by another author?
The original Han Solo adventures by Brian Daley, written in the earliest days of what was not yet called the Expanded Universe. They’re just great – exciting, fast and funny. And I still think they’re the best portrayal of Han Solo outside of the movies.
What can we expect from you in 2016 and beyond? I love scoops (especially when they’re Star Wars related) so please tell us!
Sorry, I can’t reveal anything before it’s announced by a publisher. I do have two things in the works, but they’re still under wraps. Also, the third book in the Jupiter Pirates series comes out in June, and I’ll have a free short story on jupiterpirates.com, probably in January. And lots more, I hope!