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Interview: Chuck Wendig and Alexandra Bracken (Guide to the New Star Wars Canon)

Star Wars tie-in authors Chuck Wendig and Alexandra Bracken discuss some of the books set in the new Star Wars canon that help pave the way for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.

This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirtley and produced by John Joseph Adams. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the interview or other episodes.

David: Today on the show we’ll be discussing some of the books in the new Star Wars canon. I’m joined by two guests: First up, we’ve got Chuck Wendig. As a game designer, he’s contributed over two million words of material to the game industry, and he blogs about writing and pop culture at Terribleminds.com. He also co-wrote the short film Pandemic, and his recent books include Mockingbird and Zer0es. His new Star Wars novel, Aftermath, is the first book in the new Star Wars canon to be set between Return of the Jedi and the upcoming film Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Chuck, welcome to the show.

Chuck: Hey, thanks for having me.

David: Also joining us today is Alexandra Bracken. She’s a New York Times best-selling author who wrote her first published book, Brightly Woven, as a student at the College of William and Mary. She’s also the author of the Darkest Minds series of near future thrillers, which have been optioned for film by 20th Century Fox. Her new novel, Star Wars: A New Hope: The Princess, The Scoundrel, and the Farm Boy presents a fresh retelling of the original Star Wars film. Alex, welcome to the show.

Alex: Hi, thanks for having me.

David: Let’s start out and have you guys talk a bit about your background as Star Wars fans. Alex, I want to start with you because I know you have an interesting story about that.

Alex: I do. I have actually grown up with Star Wars in a very real way. My dad, right up until he passed away a couple of years ago, was a Star Wars collector. Pretty much from the time I was in first grade, so about age five on through the many decades. So, every weekend it just became kind of a routine of going to the toy store. He was on a first name basis with the store managers at Toys“R”Us. We got to go into the back room to find the new toys that were coming out every week. And this was The Power of the Force era in the ’90s, I should specify. But we were also going to a whole bunch of antique stores and shows trying to find a lot of the older ceramics, the older carded figures, twelve-inch figures, everything. He ended up with an incredible collection, and an especially incredible poster collection, I think. I’ve been going to Star Wars conventions, I mean, pretty much from the time I was . . . I guess 1996 was my first Star Wars convention, and I’ve only missed one Celebration, and it was the one that happened right after he passed away, so I think it was Celebration Six. All I wanted to read growing up were Star Wars expanded universe books, and it’s just been a wonderful thing to come back to Star Wars after losing my dad and kind of reconnect to the story and the characters I love so much.

David: Right, so when you’re a serious Star Wars collector like that, were there any particular items that he was particularly proud of owning, or that you were always on the lookout for?

Alex: He ended up being really, really proud of his poster collection because he started expanding into a lot of the foreign posters, and if you’ve ever looked at them, the film posters for Poland are especially really cool and kind of odd. I mean, he just thought they were wacky and wonderful. He was really proud of the fact that he has what’s I guess kind of colloquially known as the “Mylar Poster,” which is a really rare poster that took him forever to find. But he had sort of the mainstays by the end. He had classic cape Jawa, which is unique, I guess, for those of you who are not in the collecting world, because it was a very limited run of the original Jawa figure that had a plastic, kind of vinyl cape instead of the cloth cape, and they ended up changing it, I heard because it was a choking hazard, but I think it was also because Kenner felt bad about it being a smaller figure and having like a cheap material instead of a nice cloth, so I don’t know which one is true, to be completely honest. But he had Blue Snaggletooth . . . really everything, and he would constantly be going to all of the different shows. He went to the Celebrations basically to go around and meet all of the vendors. He was constantly trading up and having figures graded. Literally anyone we brought over to the house was drawn upstairs into his office/collection room, and they could not escape until they got like a nice tour and walk around. He loved that.

David: Well, Chuck, how about you? Can you compete with that? What was your Star Wars background as a fan like?

Chuck: Oh my god, I can’t compete with that. I want that background. I want that. That’s awesome. I’ve been sort of pickling and brining in the Star Wars universe for my whole life. Not quite to that degree in terms of the parents thing, but my sister actually did take me to my first Star Wars film when I was four, and it was Empire Strikes Back at a drive-in theater, and her boyfriend took her, and her boyfriend also brought his little brother, and she brought her little brother, me, and we watched the movie. I’m not sure what they were doing up front, but we kept our eyes very clearly on the movie. So, that, to me, was my first moment in the Star Wars universe, and then from there, I kind of became my own little collector, even as a kid, because you couldn’t just come home and go to iTunes and pull up the movie. You couldn’t just watch it again. You had to sort of recreate that stuff in your own head. So toys and the costumes and stuff was a part of my childhood in terms of recreating those memories, so Star Wars has always kind of been there. It’s how I learned how to tell stories. It’s one of the things that brought me together with friends, and it brought me together with family, and now my own four-year-old son is getting into Star Wars just at the time there’s a new movie coming out, so it’s kind of this lovely generational thing. And it’s a thing that actually feeds into the book. Aftermath makes a lot of effort to talk about the generational component of Star Wars and the generational component of there being these multiple wars and these multiple iterations of what’s going on in the story worlds.

David: Yeah, Alex was talking about these Star Wars Celebrations and conventions and things, did you ever get drawn into that world?

Chuck: No, I’ve actually never been. I would like to hopefully go this next year to Celebration, that would be awesome.

David: Alex, tell us a little bit more about these conventions and things. Do you have any memorable experiences from attending them?

Alex: Oh my gosh, okay, so I feel like I have a very random memory from each one. So, the first convention I went to was in Arizona. It was put on by a toy store that was then called Empire Toys and is now called Toy Anxiety, which is owned by a man named Ron Lewis, who we jokingly refer to as Uncle Ron because he was the main supplier of Star Wars vintage toys to my dad by the end. He just became a close family friend. The store, and I think like Steve Sansweet was involved with arranging this mini-convention. I dressed up as speeder bike Princess Leia from Endor, and I also made a matching diorama, and I did not win the costume contest, but I won the diorama contest, which is still a point of pride, I’m not going to lie. And that was really memorable because it was the first time I got to have face time with a lot of the stars. So, Kenny Baker was there, Peter Mayhew was there, just, like, so many of these actors who were willing to sit and chat with you and wanted to take photos with you, and that was my first real experience with any sort of convention.

Celebration One was in Denver, and it was at sort of a . . . I’m trying to remember, I think it was the aerospace museum, maybe, I can’t remember the exact name, but that one is memorable because it was so cold and it rained the entire time that all of the outdoor booths basically flooded. All of the vendors were complaining about damaged merchandise. They also had all of the Phantom Menace books on sale early, so you basically knew the entire plot of the movie by the time that you were done with the show.

Then Celebration Two and Three were in Indianapolis, and I really remember being freezing cold at those shows because of the line to get into the Celebration store to get all of the exclusive merchandise, which as a collector, my dad wanted. You would have to wait outside and line up in the morning, and you would spend like an hour or two in the freezing cold. It was, like, April in Indianapolis, and I grew up in Arizona, so anything under fifty degrees is really, really cold for me. And I remember Carrie Fisher came to I think Celebration Three, maybe, and I have this very random memory of her being on the stage for her interview and someone asked, “Oh, what’s in your drink?” And she was like, “It’s a little bit of Coke and a little bit of Diet Coke and that way I can always be a little naughty.” Which is very typically Carrie Fisher.

People are so patient at these conventions because you’re waiting in line for everything, but everyone is deliriously happy to be there. It’s one of my favorite things to do, to go to these shows. And I was at Celebration Seven this year in Anaheim, and it was amazing to be back and to see the new decorations mixed in with the old decorations, and sit in on a lot of panels, and it felt similar to Celebration Two and Three, where you were getting so much excitement about the new films that were coming out, and you were getting kind of fed juicy little tidbits. So, Chuck, I really hope you can go next year. I’m sure they would love to have you.

Chuck: It would be awesome. It would be really cool. Everything I see out of it is just such immense fan love, and I’m like, “Ahh.”

David: Sound like you should wear all your Hoth clothes because it sounds like it’s always cold at these things.

Alex: I think the next one is in Orlando, and I think it’s the second time it’s been there. I think Celebration Five was there. They did something special where they opened up Disney World to the Celebration attendees, and they were kind of retiring the old Star Tours ride, so you got to ride the old ride one last time before they switched it over. So, that was really cool. They are so much fun. Like I said, everyone is so happy and just into it, and you make so many line friends, and you kind of make line allies, so that you’re not necessarily stuck in a long line all day. You can kind of take turns. It’s great. I could not recommend it enough. Even as casual Star Wars fans, everyone should go.

David: Okay, like I said, the main topic for today is we’re going to be talking about the new Star Wars canon, and so Chuck, for people that are a little bit out of the loop, can you just explain what the deal is with this whole new Star Wars canon?

Chuck: Sure. Obviously, anybody who does not live under a rock knows that there is a new Star Wars movie coming out. I’m pretty sure my dog knows that there’s a new Star Wars movie coming out. So, with that in mind, the new Star Wars film generates a new plotline and it takes the post-Return of the Jedi storyline into its own direction, so you’ve got these new stories coming out of that, both starting with Aftermath and then continuing on with various novels and games like Uprising, and I think Battlefront will even touch on a little bit of it. It starts building a bridge, essentially, to Episode VII.

David: Right, and so how did you get involved in this whole deal?

Chuck: Uh, I tweeted about it, which is not really a way I recommend anyone get jobs normally, but it is actually how I got the job. In a puzzling array of numerical magic, I guess some sort of numerological force was going on. On September fourth last year, I tweeted that I wanted to write a Star Wars novel.

Alex: I remember that.

Chuck: Yeah, it was weird, and I was like, “I shake the internet to make a wish fall out, and to see if I can . . .” I was kidding. I didn’t really have any time to write a Star Wars novel, and people behind the scenes started to kind of make that happen. They started to conspire, including like Gary Whitta, who was one of the writers on Rogue One, the anthology film, and Jason Fry, another Star Wars novelist. These people kind of suddenly made that happen for me. It was at New York Comic Con that I met Shelly Shapiro, and she said, “Well, I read one of your novels.” And I said, “Well, it was nice to meet you. I’m sorry I won’t be writing Star Wars.” And she said, “No, no, I read Under the Empyrean Sky.” And I then wiped my brow and said, “Oh, you read the Star Wars-y ones. That’s very good that you didn’t read any of the other ones that are very not Star Wars-y.” And she said it felt like a very good fit, and that my voice would work there, so next thing I know, I was writing a Star Wars novel. I didn’t really know at the time I was going to be writing a very big Star Wars novel, that had not been explained to me, or described to me, so that was pretty exciting once I found out what I was doing.

David: Actually, speaking of Gary Whitta, he was a guest on the show a couple of episodes back.

Chuck: He’s awesome.

David: He’s a really, really fun guy. Yeah.

Chuck: Working on Rebels now, as I understand it.

David: He couldn’t say anything about Rogue One.

Chuck: No, no, because he would literally be beheaded by a lightsaber.

Alex: Yeah, it’s like Pentagon levels of secrecy over at Lucasfilm.

Chuck: Right now there’s probably a red dot on my forehead. Just in case.

David: At least you guys can talk about these books now because they’re out. It must be a relief to finally be able to say things about them.

Chuck: Yeah, it is.

David: Alex, how did you get tapped for this assignment?

Alex: So, I have kind of an interesting way that I came to the project. I guess I should start by explaining that my editor knew that I had this whole Star Wars background because I had been I think a little bit late on a deadline because of a Star Wars convention, so she knew, and knew about my dad and all of that. We have a big convention in publishing ever year in New York called BEA, which is Book Expo America, and the publishers usually have a kind of dinner, and they are presenting authors and titles to booksellers and news people and the whole media crowd.

At this dinner, they were introducing the Tony DiTerlizzi picture book using the Ralph McQuarrie art called The Adventures of Luke Skywalker, and they were kind of talking a little bit about their plans for their publishing program for Star Wars because Disney had recently acquired Star Wars at that point. I kind of turned and looked at her and must have had this maniacal look on my face because she was like, “No, you do not have time to write a Star Wars book right now. You owe me two other books. Like, no.”

So, I actually am sort of like, I guess, a little bit of a pinch hitter, maybe, because originally R. J. Palacio, who’s the author of the wonderful middle-grade book Wonder, was scheduled to write the adaptation of A New Hope, and she had to back out because I think her schedule is absolutely bonkers. I got a call one day from my agent, out of the blue, and she was like, “I am shocked and delighted on your behalf, like do you want to do this project?” I had this very immediate, visceral, panicked moment of almost saying no, like, “I can’t possibly write Star Wars. I love it so much. I could never do it justice.” And obviously my love for it won out in the end. I had the best time writing this, and it was a challenge for me because it was basically the first time I had written a true middle-grade novel, and middle-grade is just a term we use in the industry to describe books that are kind of written for the eight- to twelve-year-old crowd.

David: I understand that you have a background as a Star Wars fan fiction writer, did that play any role?

Alex: No, my Star Wars fan fiction is kind of . . . I don’t want to say it’s my secret shame, because I’m neither ashamed of it, and it’s obviously not a secret anymore, but I don’t like to go into specifics about it because it’s all still on the internet. I lost my password to FanFiction.net, so I’m terrified someone is going to figure out which story I actually wrote, but I wrote most of this between the ages of, like, twelve and sixteen, so you can imagine the quality level, but I made up for it, I think, in passion. But I definitely started out as a Star Wars fan fiction writer.

David: I know that there was already a novelization of the first movie by Alan Dean Foster. Could you say a bit about how yours is different and why they wanted to do this new version?

Alex: Yeah, of course. So my understanding, the way that this project was pitched to me, was that Lucasfilm and Disney Publishing Worldwide felt like a lot of the kids today, who were born decades after the original trilogy came out, are entering the series through Rebels, and through The Clone Wars animated series, and even through the prequels, so I think they felt that, with the reintroduction of the original three characters of Han, Luke, and Leia in the new films, they kind of wanted to go back and have a retelling series of the original trilogy, and we were pretty much given permission to go at it and have fun with it and approach it from any direction we liked.

So, all three of the novelizations are so different from each other, and they reflect kind of our personal style and our priorities as story tellers, so we’re not really messing with the story itself, but we’re finding different ways of retelling it, and in different formats. So, for instance, my retelling is just the straight plot of A New Hope all the way through, but it’s divided between the tight third-person point of view of Leia, who opens the book, and then it switches over to Han in the middle section, pretty much from the Cantina scene all the way until Obi-Wan’s death, and then it ends with Luke. So, the challenges of that were figuring out the priorities of each character and really kind of zooming in on their characterization and mining different elements of their personality, especially with Leia, because she gets so little screen time in the film, and she’s not quite as developed as Luke’s arc or even Han’s arc in the story.

I pitched this to my editor as basically being the Star Wars Breakfast Club, so the title is sort of like a nod to that, and the idea of playing with the simple labels that the characters give themselves and others try to pin on them. So, Leia is really dealing with the fact that she gets dismissed as a pretty princess, sort of like the Kate Middleton effect, where she’s a young senator, and she’s hungry for change, and she gets kind of brushed aside by the HoloNet reporters and their senators, and they’re basically more interested in what she’s wearing. And Han is really focused on the idea of him struggling with wanting to have something to believe in, but also holding firm to his own personal code of ethics.

And Luke was really fun too because Luke is a little bit of a blank slate, so I really focused in on something that was actually sparked by something I read in Brian Daley’s radio adaptation of A New Hope. I think that came out in the early ’80s, maybe? About the idea that Luke was basically raised in poverty and didn’t necessarily have the same opportunities as his friend Biggs did, and sort of casting Luke in that light as someone who is sort of making his own destiny.

David: You mentioned drawing from the radio play. Did you draw from anything else? Like the Foster novel or any other Expanded Universe kind of stuff?

Alex: When I was first talking to my editor, Mike Siglain, he basically said the two scripts, the two sources that we consider canon, and if not, we will tell you when we review the manuscript. The two safe sources to pull from are the radio adaptation and the Star Wars script. So, everything else, he was like, “In theory, as long as it doesn’t contradict something that will happen in the movies later on down the road or something that is sort of established in the films, you can really have fun with it, and you can do the off-camera scenes, and you can kind of play a little bit with their backstory, but not a ton.”

So, with the radio drama, I had the privilege of being able to adapt directly from it, and as someone who grew up reading the expanded universe, I was constantly trying to find ways to slip in little tidbits from the Expanded Universe, sort of as a little mini-rebellion. I guess I should start calling it Legends. I need to get in the habit of calling it that. So, certain elements of Leia’s backstory, I think Expanded Universe fans will recognize.

The only thing that I really was not allowed to include was the traditional backstory of how Han met Chewie, which I guess I did not realize had never actually been depicted in a book series, but it had been sort of generally accepted as to how he met Chewie and set Chewie free and all of that business, and that was really the only clue that I had that they were eventually going to make a Han Solo film, a young Han Solo film, was because they were like, “Nope, nothing about Han’s past. Nothing at all.”

David: Chuck, do you want to talk about this, too? In terms of how much of the idea of the book were you given and what were your constraints in writing it and what were you allowed to play with and make up on your own?

Chuck: The constraints were actually negative constraints, where they came to me and said, “These are the things you can’t do. These are the characters you can’t use.” Obviously we don’t have much of the big three, the holy trinity, in the book, and just as Alexandra said about certain things of no backstory, we had similar restrictions there under things we couldn’t talk about, and then with those negative restrictions in place, then it was a case of, well pitch a story. And so I pitched them a big novel, a big sprawling sort of novel for this thing, and the original idea was we were going to do something that was explicitly World War Z-flavored, that was going to be allowing us to look through various lenses and various interludes across this unfolding war. But to me, the value also in a Star Wars story is to actually still have a Star Wars story, to have that adventure, the swashbuckling, the fun, and have sort of that central theme of a small group of characters being able to change the galaxy. So, I wanted that as well. That’s actually the central A plot, then we do these things where we dip into these interludes that allow you to visit various quadrants and corners inside the galaxy, which sometimes lets us play with preexisting characters who have popped up before. It sometimes lets us look at new characters and lets us look at . . . how are the bounty hunters reacting to this, how is the criminal underworld dealing with this, what’s going on on Tatooine, what’s going on with this character and that character? And so pretty much what I pitched ended up being the book that people got, so I’m pretty excited to have people read it.

David: So when you say World War Z-flavored, you mean in terms of the structure of the story? Not in terms of there being zombies in it?

Chuck: In terms of the structure of the story. No, the zombie Star Wars book is done. I didn’t do that one. But in terms of the structure, in terms of that sort of dipping in and out of . . . creating a larger quilt of a narrative.

David: Did they tell you anything about what was going to happen in The Force Awakens so that you would kind of direct the story a little bit in that direction, or was that kind of a black box?

Chuck: A lot of verboten. I know kind of how we get there. That’s sort of what I know. But a lot of the details for the actual movie are going to be pretty new and exciting for me, too, which is great, actually, because one of the things going into this job . . . I was vaguely worried, like, in an excited way, but worried, because I’ve been avoiding spoilers so religiously and then to suddenly be like, “Well, here’s the whole story.” I felt like I was going to be suddenly spoiled by my own job. But I wasn’t, actually. The movie remains a big question mark for me. I know certain things on a few little tidbits here and there. And I know very much how we sort of get to that point in the galaxy, but I don’t know what happens actually in the film.

David: Was there anything in the book where you pitched it and they said, “No, that contradicts something that you don’t know about yet.”

Chuck: Yes, there were a few things, which I obviously can’t say, but I included a few things and a few characters I liked. They were like, “This is not an option,” and for reasons I don’t know. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with The Force Awakens. It may. But it’s also because this is like a big, organic garden, right? We’re all planting seeds, and certain things may pop up in other properties that they don’t necessarily want to share yet, so I don’t know that it’s necessarily something that happens in The Force Awakens, but it may be something that’s planned further down the line, or something that someone is already working on.

David: Alex, do you want to say anything about working with . . . you mentioned that other people wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi retellings. Did you guys talk at all as you were working to make it consistent at all?

Alex: I mean, I came on to the project so late that I think those two books were already done by the time I’d started it, and my editor, Mike, was very specific about not letting me read the other adaptations because they wanted them to have their own flavor, and I think it ended up working out wonderfully because they do all somehow still sort of work together, so my story is really an in-depth intro to these three main characters and setting up the galaxy, and then you move on to Adam Gidwitz’s Empire retelling called So You Want to Be a Jedi. And it utilizes the second person, so you are Luke Skywalker in this story, and it draws the reader, I think, more firmly into the galaxy. And then Tom Angleberger, who some people might know as the author of the Origami Yoda series, he wrote the Return of the Jedi adaptation, which is called Beware the Power of the Dark Side. And he has such an encyclopedic knowledge of the Star Wars universe that he’s utilized footnotes to cram as much information as possible into it. Mine is sort of an intro, Adam’s draws you more firmly in, and Tom gives you everything you ever want to know about the universe.

David: Is there anything, Alex, in these books that is a really significant addition, or that casts things in a different light than people might have thought from just watching the movies?

Alex: I think it’s true for Tom’s book more than Adam’s book, because Tom really felt like he needed to rehabilitate the Ewoks and the image of the Ewoks, so he made the very valid point that at the end of The Return of the Jedi, what are they feasting on? You just see all of these empty Stormtrooper armors, and they’re the apex predator of Endor. So he sets them up as fierce warriors. It’s really fun.

Chuck: Greg Rucka’s new comic, Shattered Empire, has a little tiny bit to that, too. One of the rebels asks, “What are we eating? It’s delicious.”

Alex: Things you don’t think about when you’re watching the cute bears dancing around. And then in my book, I felt like, so as I was saying before, I personally felt a little precious about Star Wars in terms of wanting to stay as true to canon as possible, or at least the canon that I had grown up with, so I utilized the radio drama to fill in a lot of the off-camera scenes that we don’t see in the film.

Like when they first arrive at the rebel base at the end, at Yavin 4, and getting the Han/Rebel commander interaction. And when Leia sees the Death Star for the first time. But, a lot of these I couldn’t directly adapt because it was written in the ’80s, so certain technology they were talking about, like data tapes, I was like, “I don’t know what that is. Is that like something you made up? Is that like an ’80s sort of technological thing that I missed as a child of the ’90s?” If there was something I really disagreed with, I kind of recast some of the radio drama scenes in a different light, but I did get to insert a lot of my own imaginings. For instance, I really felt strongly that Leia would have tried to escaped on her own at least once, so I got to write a Leia escape attempt.

A lot of my work, though, was fleshing out the emotional arcs, and kind of finally addressing some of those “Oh really?” moments, as I call them. My favorite example is after they get away from the Death Star, you see Leia consoling Luke, like “Oh, I’m so sorry this old man you knew for six hours died. Meanwhile, my whole planet and all of my family and my entire future just got completely blown up.” So, kind of like addressing that in a more sensitive manner, let’s say. And having Luke be more self-aware in moments like that.

David: It’s funny you mentioned the tapes, because that’s one of the big things of science fiction from the pre-digital era, is that computers used magnetic tape, and so science fiction writers imagined in the future we’ll have really advanced tape.

Alex: I was like, “Data tape, what is this?” It was like the Death Star plans were on data tape. So, I’m like, maybe I’ll switch this to disc?

Chuck: It’s one of the things I like about certain retreads of that era of science fiction, like in Alien: Isolation, the video game, kind of plays as a sequel to Alien, it carries this ’70s aesthetic very well, so it’s sort of interesting. They don’t assume that it has evolved any.

David: Chuck, why don’t you tell us just about the plot of Aftermath? What kind of characters and world did you invent for the book?

Chuck: Sure. The book begins with everybody’s favorite pilot who doesn’t get too much screen time in the films, Wedge Antilles. He’s basically trying to suss out the supply lines for the Empire. The Empire is failing, but they still are capable of doing attacks on the fledgling New Republic, and so they’re trying to find these supply lines. But he susses out something far worse than supply lines, in that he discovers a secret meeting of Imperials on this planet, this backwater outer rim planet, this jungle world of Akiva, and there he discovers that these Imperials are a secret cabal looking to figure out how exactly the Empire moves forward, what will the shape of the Empire be, will that have an emperor, how do they survive, or do they surrender? And he stumbles into that and gets captured and has to be rescued by a ragtag group of really, like, miscreants who sort of dial up that broken group of heroes you get from A New Hope. You have a pilot who’s got PTSD, you’ve got a bounty hunter, you’ve got a washed up AWOL Imperial loyalty officer, you have the pilot’s son who has built this maniac bodyguard droid from an old battle droid, so he calls him Mr. Bones, and this group of miscreants have to come together and both save Wedge and interrupt this meeting and discover the truth of what’s going on behind the scenes.

David: The battle droid character is Mr. Bones, right? Do you want to talk about why did you decide to use one of the battle droids in your story?

Chuck: Sure. First of all, one of the values of going forward in this new universe in this canon is that it allows us to acknowledge that the prequels and all of the surrounding worldbuilding around the prequels, like the TV show The Clone Wars, and also Rebels, which comes after, existed. It’s something you don’t necessarily see in the old EU because you couldn’t. It wasn’t the fault of the EU, but those things simply didn’t exist yet. So, to be able to refer back to certain things and certain artifacts that exist is cool.

And then, on the other hand, the battle droids were sort of terrible. Like, they were the most inept fighting force in all of Star Wars history. I mean, stormtroopers are notorious for literally not being able to hit anything, but the battle droids were even worse, but there’s something aesthetically fascinating about the battle droids, they sort of look like a human skeleton with a vulture skull on top. There’s something really cool there. So, I thought, well, okay, here’s a kid, he’s a little bit of a prodigy, and he’s capable of putting parts together very well, and so he engineers this battle droid who everyone will completely underestimate given the nature of battle droids, and he literally decorates the thing in actual bones, and half its head is missing, and there’s, like, a red reticule up there. Its face is sharpened to a point. So, he’s got this sort of terrifying murder droid who’s helping him out because he’s ultimately a black market kid. For as much as he’s a fifteen-year-old kid, he’s firmly ensconced in the criminal underworld of this planet, and so he needs this maniac battle droid to protect him. So it seems to be a character who is very popular with people.

David: I agree with you that the battle droids look really cool. I think you said that you had a battle droid toy before the movies came out, and you just imagined how awesome it was going to be.

Chuck: I did, yeah. They have their little flying jet thing, and I was like, yeah, this is going to be awesome. And then it was like, “Roger, Roger.” Oh boy, they’re basically just cheese to be cut in half by lightsabers. It’s constantly just bwoh, bwoh and dropped in half.

David: Right, so when you’re making up these new characters, do you think about what makes a character feel like it’s a Star Wars character? Just what makes a character feel like a Star Wars character when you’re inventing these all-new characters?

Chuck: Yeah, and that’s a curious thing, because you want to capture that pulp adventure vibe of the movies and the TV show, but obviously the novel allows you to have the . . . I mean, the form of the novel allows you to experience the internal dimensions. You want to get into some of the meatier character bits without losing the adventure and fun intrinsic to Star Wars. Like, obviously war is a big part of this book, and you want to be serious about treating war, and there’s parts of it that do that, obviously looking at PTSD, and examining the political stage across the entire galaxy, but one of the things that people might say was the mistaken part of the prequels was that they focused overmuch on the political side of things. When you start reading a crawl that’s about trade federations, you’re like, “Well, that’s going to be exciting for my son.” The goal is to balance a little bit of that, keep the adventure and the fun part of the characters, and then also give a little bit about what’s the true nature of the galaxy? What does war do to these characters?

David: You mentioned how is your son going to react, and my understanding is that Aftermath is the first “adult” book in the new canon. I was just wondering: Did you write it differently than if it were aimed at fourteen-year-olds or something? Was that something in your mind as you were writing it?

Chuck: It’s hard to say, because a lot of the most mature writing I have read exists in the young adult space. Young adult does not shy from dealing with big stuff, and Star Wars is notoriously accessible; even when it’s in an “adult” film, it’s accessible to kids. I’m not trying to write some vulgar pornfest here. It’s a Star Wars novel. It’s an all-ages book. But it’s adult in the sense that it does deal with these things like war. It does deal with post-traumatic stress. It does deal with family issues, generational issues, issues that I don’t think kids will necessarily shy away from or not understand, but it’s issues that also speak to, I think, people of my generation and even beyond it. It features characters who are older. It doesn’t always necessarily feature characters who are all kids or all young bucks trying to make their way in the galaxy.

David: Alex had mentioned that she had this secret program to try and sneak in as many EU things as she could. Did you have any sort of agenda along those lines?

Chuck: No, no real agenda. The EU for me, my reading of the EU kind of stopped probably with Stackpole. I obviously loved the Zahn books and the Stackpole books are great. Some of that feeds into it a little bit, so there’s some references there to those, but—and part of this was a direction given at the fore of writing this book—trying to keep it very explicitly in what we have already seen in terms of the current canon, meaning the films, the television shows, trying to keep it in that realm. I mainlined all of The Clone Wars. I had seen some of it before, but I hadn’t seen the entire the end to end, including the new Netflix-specific episodes, so I sort of digested all that in my brain, and I was already a fan of Rebels. So bringing Rebels into that, too, that was where my agenda was, connecting it to those things.

David: It’s funny, you mention that the battle droids seem a little silly, and it seems like such a big part of being a Star Wars fan is hating certain things about Star Wars, and I just wonder, now that you have this responsibility of carrying this forward, do you feel like you’re constrained at all in criticizing aspects of Star Wars? What are the dynamics of that?

Chuck: No, I don’t. I think engaging in the critical conversation is important, especially as creators, to figure out what we want to do either differently or what we want to highlight. To be clear, I don’t think hate is any good part of fandom, and there’s no part of Star Wars that I hate. I love kind of all of it. Even the stuff that I think is maybe a misstep is stuff that still exists in my head and I still play with it in its own way, as if it’s all toys in my sandbox. I think there is an aspect to fandom that sometimes goes beyond critical conversation and into that kind of grrr component of it. And I don’t think that’s necessarily healthy, and I think fandom is more about positivity and being a fountain and not a drain, so to speak.

David: Alex, do you want to talk about that at all? Has this changed at all how you talk about Star Wars?

Alex: I have always loved it so much that I’ve always hesitated to be critical of it openly. Because, I mean, I have certain gripes, especially with the prequels in terms of the story telling, but I can always find something that I actually like about the prequel films. We were talking about earlier, the battle droids, how cool they looked before we knew that they were just lightsaber fodder. Like, the designs and the costuming in the prequel films are amazing, as is the music, of course. And there are certainly specific scenes and moments within each of the films that are really cool.

Chuck: The worldbuilding in those prequels is amazing. It’s almost a deeper worldbuilding. Sorry to interrupt.

Alex: Yeah, so I think there’s maybe one character I could do without in the prequel films. He who must not be named. But, I mean, I feel very protective of Star Wars, and I think a lot of people who genuinely love it also feel protective of Star Wars, and that’s a very natural thing, because you’ve invested so much time and energy and love into it.

My reading on the fandom is that everyone is excited about the new film, but some people are more cautiously excited about it because they felt maybe burned in the past, and I know people who are not necessarily thrilled that the EU was sort of being brushed aside when they had invested, again, so much time and energy and love into these books and comics and video games. I think we’re in a really exciting time, and I feel very optimistic about it in terms of just how many new stories we’re going to get.

I’m really excited, especially, about the different anthology films that are branching off. All of these side stories that we’re going to get. Like, how cool to see how the Death Star plans were stolen. That is something I have never even thought to imagine, but it must have been really dramatic and like really, really dangerous. I like that we’re going to be playing with tones. You know the Han Solo movies are going to have a slightly different tone than, say, Rogue One, so I think it’s an exciting time. I can be critical of Star Wars, but I think, as a Star Wars author, I now feel doubly protective of it. I don’t know if that’s the best mind space to be.

David: Alex, speaking of the fandom and stuff, what sort of responses have you gotten from Star Wars fans to your new book?

Alex: Well, initially, I don’t think they were advertised as being for eight- to twelve-year-olds. So I think that people thought we were genuinely rewriting those original movies and were not particularly happy about it, and then once it sort of was explained, “Oh, these are really for young readers as a fun, different way of introducing them to this material,” I think people ended up really digging them, and we’ve gotten great responses from educators and librarians who want to bring them into schools.

I just did the Decatur Book Festival, and I had this little boy who was dressed in a stormtrooper costume, and his mom had done up his stroller to look like an AT-AT, basically. It was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. I just sat there and watched his mom read it to him and how he was riveted by it. I was like, “Oh, that’s exactly what I wanted, because that’s how I felt as a kid when I watched Star Wars.” I’m looking forward to it. The book comes out on the twenty-second and we’re talking a little bit earlier than that, so I’m very curious to see how the books are received, especially since the three of them are so different from one another.

David: And Chuck, your book is really, as we said, the first one venturing into the post-Jedi space in this new canon. I would imagine you must be getting a lot of the brunt of those who were really attached to the EU focused on you. What’s that been like?

Chuck: It’s been interesting. For the most part, it’s been amazing. Fans by and large are an awesome group of people. They are full of love and vigor and excitement and just a massive amount of enthusiasm for everything that we’re doing, and that’s great. We actually launched the book midnight at Dragon Con, and I was also at the Decatur Book Fest.

So, all weekend, I just had people coming up to me, and they were in the middle of reading the book, and they would be like, “Oh, I’m so excited about this part.” And then they would ask me all of these questions: “Who is this person?” “Is this who I think it is?” And then they would run away. I was constantly surrounded by a fog of people just like, “What about this?” It was awesome.

That being said, at the same time that that was happening, literally the moment the book landed at midnight on Amazon, it immediately began to collect a cascading waterfall of one-star reviews. And the reviews cover a wide variety, but there’s a lot of themes present. I don’t know what this is exactly. I haven’t really gotten my hands around it. I don’t know if we’re looking at a Venn diagram of EU fans who are upset that it’s gone. There is some talk that there are some groups organizing “raids” on the book to do these reviews. And there are also groups of people who are upset that I included homosexual characters in the book, one of them being one of the protagonists of the book.

And there’s also that component of the Gamergate/Sad Puppies who kind of, again, related maybe to the other two . . . and it sort of speaks to kind of an issue with certain aspects of fandom, and actually certain aspects of politics and culture in general, that there is kind of this weaponized nostalgia for things, that we assume everything was better back then and nothing can be new, and everything has to be a certain way. Sometimes that purity that you think you want is occasionally related to more toxic ideas, again sort of the anti-homosexuality thing. I’ve gotten some interesting emails too after all of this. So, that campaign seems to be continuing at Amazon, and they’ve gotten a little more venomous at times. But, you know, again, I don’t think that’s actually a dominant mode of fan. I don’t think that’s the dominant reader who’s reading this book, but I do think there is something a little more organized going on there.

Alex: Yeah, Chuck, I’m sorry you’re dealing with that. It just strikes me, as an outsider who didn’t realize that was actually happening, it just seems like such a vocal minority.

Chuck: I think it is a vocal minority. I think that’s usually how it is.

Alex: Spoiling other people’s fun.

Chuck: I know, right? But it’s all right. I think the book became a bestseller this week.

Alex: Yeah, congratulations, both USA Today and The New York Times.

Chuck: Yeah, and both like . . . I wrote that tweet on September fourth, it published on September fourth, so I’ve got the number four on both, so the “fours” is truly with me on that one.

Alex: Oh my god, that’s awesome.

David: I think I only read about maybe ten or so of the EU Star Wars novels, so I don’t know, but have there been gay characters in the Star Wars universe before?

Chuck: Yeah, first of all, I think the first time you actually see it really is in KOTOR, Knights of the Old Republic, the video game from Bioware, but I know there was a Moff in one of Paul Kemp’s books who was a lesbian. I’m not sure if there’s anything beyond that.

Alex: I’m not sure either. I’m trying to wrack my brain here.

Chuck: I don’t think any protagonists.

Alex: Certainly not a character that’s front and center, I would say.

David: You mentioned there’s been all of this hostility, and I didn’t actually get a chance to read your post, but I understand that you made a post in response to this, but do you want to talk about responding to this sort of stuff? And what’s the most constructive way to do that?

Chuck: It’s tricky because writers generally shouldn’t engage with bad reviews, and I specifically agree with that in terms of engaging with specific bad reviews. But, there did seem to be something a little larger going on here, so I thought I’d address the larger thing.

In general, people who have criticisms against the book are obviously welcome to do that, because no book is going to be loved by everybody, and that would be weird to write that book. I have a very explicit style, and I carry that style to the book, so much so that I do think it’s very intrinsically a Star Wars novel, but it can feel, I think, like a Chuck Wendig Star Wars novel, and I think that’s not something unusual going forward in terms of Star Wars. They’re hiring filmmakers who have very strong visual fingerprints: Gareth Edwards, Rian Johnson, even J. J. Abrams, these are characters whose films you can identify both visually and thematically when you watch them, and I think that will carry into the universe.

So, to sort of the general criticism, I have nothing to say except I’m sorry, and I hope you like it. But in terms of the criticism that’s either something driven by these raids by small fan groups who are so strident about bringing back Legends that they are angry at the new material, I don’t think that’s valuable, and I don’t think it’s valuable to their cause, which ultimately I agree with. I think the Legends were . . . I didn’t read super deep, but I think they were a great line of books, and I am sympathetic to them losing storylines. Because, I mean, it’s not that the books don’t still exist. One of the things you can say in response to them wanting these books is, “Well, your book still exists. No one came and stole them from your bookshelf and burned them.” So, they’re still there so you can enjoy them. In fact, a lot of these books are still being printed and published by the publisher, but their point, and it’s a fair point, is, “Well, we were investing in a big storyline, and that storyline kind of just stopped. It didn’t conclude to any satisfaction.” So, I’m sympathetic to that.

Ultimately, if your mission there is to then take that love for the EU and turn it into hate for something else, I don’t think that’s really a valuable way to be a fan, and I certainly don’t think that’s fandom. It’s certainly, in the Star Wars metaphor, you’ve kind of gone to the Dark Side on that one: anger, and fear, and hate, and all that good stuff.

And then the larger message is obviously for people who don’t want to see homosexual characters or any sort of LGBT representation inside a galaxy far, far away is very strange. That they’re comfortable with aliens and lasers and lightsabers, but they can’t really stomach that weird thing. Like, someone on my blog today left a comment where they’re like, “Well, I’m not a homophobe, but,” and of course any time they say the “but” you’re like, well, okay, here it comes, so let’s buckle down for that. He said, “I don’t read Star Wars to read about the real world, so why do you have to have this political intrusion of homosexual characters.” It’s such a puzzling thing because that assumes that straight characters are such a default that they couldn’t possibly be political. It’s just, “Well, that’s just how everything is. That’s the default. That’s normal. And so I don’t have to feel weird about normal.” But that’s a very toxic idea, and it’s troubling to me. So, for me, my message there was, “You are actually the Empire. Congratulations, if you think that Luke Skywalker is sitting around in those films being like, ‘Ugh, god, there’s a gay guy next to me,’ then maybe you really have miswatched those films and maybe you misunderstand kind of the awesomeness of the Light Side and the awesomeness of the Jedi. And what maybe these films are trying to get us to think about.”

David: It seems so strange to me, too, because the inception of Star Wars, as I understand it, is that Lucas wanted to talk about the Vietnam War, so it’s not as if . . . It’s like, “Hey, you’re getting politics into my Star Wars where it doesn’t belong.” I mean, that’s the whole . . .

Chuck: Right, science fiction is notoriously political. Even when it’s not overtly political, it has a great value and advantage to be forward-facing. Star Trek has been very political and very progressive in many ways. I think it’s puzzling to me that there is a sudden urge, sort of represented, too, by that Sad Puppies/Hugo Award controversy, of people who look back to a time of science fiction that actually maybe never existed. Or at least not in as big of a way as they think. They kind of want rocket ships and ray guns, they say, and then it’s like, they kind of don’t really want writers who are women, and they don’t want characters who hearken to political ideas, and they don’t want “agenda”-driven fiction, which is very strange to me when you don’t want that in your science fiction.

David: Yeah, Alex, do you want to add anything here? Just in terms of the passing of the EU and peoples’ feelings about it as a Star Wars fan?

Alex: I remember when they announced the films, and my initial reaction was sort of, “Wow, really?” And also because I felt like I was now going to have to eat a ton of crow because I had spent the last however many years telling people they will never make a seven, eight, and nine because now they have all of this material. It still centered upon the holy trinity of Han, Luke, and Leia. Those actors are so much older now, and Harrison Ford supposedly hates Han Solo, and they would never do it. I just had made the assumption that they would adapt from the material that exists out there, and it somehow never occurred to me that all of a sudden all of these characters that I felt very attached to would suddenly . . . they wouldn’t be gone, like you were saying, Chuck, but they wouldn’t be considered the solid truth, I guess?

Chuck: The real.

Alex: The real. I felt like with the Legends, formerly known as the Expanded Universe, we lost a lot of really strong female characters that were multi-dimensional. When you think about it, in the original trilogy, you really only had, what? Three female named characters: Mon Mothma, Aunt Beru, and Leia. I don’t think any of the other female characters actually have stated names, let alone personalities, really, which is sad.

I think that’s maybe why Zahn created Mara Jade, because he felt like there was a need for a really good, juicy female character that wasn’t just a type. So, I was really sad about losing Mara and I was sad about losing Jaina Solo, but it seems like a lot of these new characters are strong females, so I feel like hopeful and not so sad about it anymore, I guess. I’ve definitely fully gotten on this train going forward, so I do really understand where people are coming from and being upset, but I don’t know that everyone is necessarily making their unhappiness known in a productive way, as you were saying Chuck.

David: So, we’re pretty much out of time. Alex, do you want to tell us, do you think you’ll write any more Star Wars books?

Alex: I’m hoping to. I would be very happy to. I have to tell you, when I wrote this one, I was so nervous about sitting down at the computer every single day that I actually wrote it out by hand and then transferred it over to the computer because somehow that felt like less pressure, so now that I’ve gotten through that mental and emotional hurdle of worrying that it wouldn’t be good enough or it wouldn’t do the story justice, I’m ready to go and write something else, so if they had me back, I would love to. Again, as I was saying, I would really like to expand on Leia’s past a little bit more as a senator, or maybe explore Padme a little bit more. There’s a lot of fun areas to play. I really feel like we’re in an era of possibility with Star Wars, so if they’ll have me back, I would love to.

David: And, Chuck, you have some more Star Wars books on the agenda.

Chuck: Sure, Aftermath is [part of] a trilogy, so this is just the first book, and I’m writing all three of them.

David: Is there anything you can tell us about the other books?

Chuck: They will be book-shaped and filled with words.

Alex: No spoilers.

Chuck: I know, no spoilers.

David: The lightsaber would come and chop your head off, I guess, if you say anything, right?

Chuck: Yeah, my head would roll.

Alex: And then try to read the books.

David: Great, I think we’re going to wrap things up there. We’ve been speaking with Chuck Wendig and Alexandra Bracken. Guys, thank you so much for joining us.

Alex: Thank you.

Chuck: Thank you.

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The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy is a science fiction/fantasy talk show podcast. It is produced by John Joseph Adams and hosted by: David Barr Kirtley, who is the author of thirty short stories, which have appeared in magazines such as Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, and Lightspeed, in books such as Armored, The Living Dead, Other Worlds Than These, and Fantasy: The Best of the Year, and on podcasts such as Escape Pod and Pseudopod. He lives in New York.