Interviews

Interview with Troy Denning, Author, Fate of the Jedi: Apocalypse

 

Ever since authors Aaron Allston, Troy Denning, and Christie Golden began weaving their tale of a father and son’s search for answers on a galactic scale, readers have been anxious to know where it was all leading. After eight books that built on twelve books before them (which in turn built on decades’ worth of character development in the post-Return of the Jedi era), Del Rey’s Fate of the Jedi series concluded with Apocalypse by Troy Denning, which went on sale last week.

I’ve been immersed in Fate of the Jedi since it began with Outcast in 2009, and I’ve had a lot to say about its introduction of new characters like Vestara Khai and its depiction of familiar faces like Luke Skywalker and his son Ben. I wanted to share these thoughts, as well as some of my Apocalypse-specific questions, with Troy Denning, and when I did, I learned a lot. We discussed not only what went into this series, but also what went into the series before it, and how that buildup carried us to Apocalypse. The Skywalkers’ quest to discover the cause of Jacen Solo’s fall didn’t start in Legacy of the Force, as Troy reminded me –– it actually started in his Dark Nest trilogy. You’ll find that explanation and a whole lot more in the interview below.

 

WARNING: This interview is heavy on spoilers, so read on at your own peril!

 

The big shocker of this book is that Abeloth has a connection to Mortis and that Luke brings up his father’s experience on the planet (as seen in The Clone Wars Season 3). Can you talk about how you developed that connection and the process of collaborating with The Clone Wars crew?

Basically, we started the development of Abeloth with the idea that she was going to be attached to the Celestials somehow. We thought originally that she would probably be a servant to the Celestials, and that they were the ones who had inhabited the planet in the Maw. We never really thought that we would actually be showing the Celestials as characters. We came up with the idea that she would be a servant who had become corrupted. About the time we were writing Allies and Vortex, we were emailing back and forth and, of course, copying in the continuity people at Lucasfilm. At that point, one of the people –– I think it was Leland Chee –– said, “You know, they’re doing something in The Clone Wars that will deal with characters that are kind of Celestials, so we should probably check on this and coordinate. We really don’t want to have two different groups of characters of this nature running around the galaxy.” This made a lot of sense, because you don’t want more than one being that’s in charge of the balance of the force.

We were a little bit nervous about whether this would be something that caused us a problem or not. But of course we said, “Well yeah, we really don’t want to be doing anything that’s going to duplicate efforts in the EU.” So Leland approached Dave Filoni and explained what we were doing and said, “Can we work with them on this?” And Dave was really gracious and very accommodating and did everything he could to help us make this work. From that point on, we never really wanted to call the Ones in Mortis “Celestials,” but that was what we were thinking of them as. We didn’t want to pin them down, because you don’t want to pin down anything about Mortis, but that was our concept. The Ones became what we were going to do with the Celestials. They’re not really Celestials –– that’s why, if you look at the way the Killiks think of them, they are “what Celestials become.” The Killiks really don’t remember anything quite accurately. It’s all filtered through the minds of people who’ve become Joiners. That’s kind of a useful tool in this process, because I don’t really want to spell out exactly what the Celestials are. There are two reasons for that. One, they’re beyond our understanding, and I think the Killiks come back to that point. That’s probably the most accurate thing they say: you can’t understand what the Celestials are. Two, I don’t want to pin down in EU continuity that the Celestials are this and this and this. I just wanted to have them out there and say that Abeloth was someone who was involved with them.

Were you told by the higher-ups to keep the nature of Abeloth, the Ones, and the Celestials mysterious, or was that your choice because it made sense for the story?

We wanted to keep it mysterious up until Apocalypse because she just worked better as a mysterious, powerful being. She’s as much a symbol as an actual being. We wanted to keep that mystery, because she’s really beyond what a mortal being can truly understand. We wanted to explain what was explainable and understandable about her without making it seem like that was what defined her. She’s beyond anything we can understand; we can understand a few things about her, but not everything. I really presented more facts about her history than I did about her powers or what her true nature is.

Tell me about the challenges of writing a mysterious villain like Abeloth compared to writing more familiar ones like Jacen or Lumiya.

We started with a general idea of who she is –– she’s related to the Celestials, she’s a servant of them –– and we just kept painting her in with a little more detail as we got nearer to the end. Part of that was that we were developing more detail, and part of it was showing more of the detail that we already knew. It’s a little bit difficult going back and trying to remember what parts we developed at certain times as opposed to what parts we showed at certain times. We used very broad brushstrokes when we began, and we just kept defining her more narrowly at the end.

Did you always intend to leave the identity of the Sith Lord who meets Luke Beyond Shadows a mystery? I was thinking he might be White Eyes, the leader of the One Sith that we saw in Inferno and Fury.

I have a very definite idea of who he is, and he’s not White Eyes, I will say that much. But he’s definitely a character who appears in the future of the EU. If I define this too much, then people are going to be out there debating it and arguing about it. I would much prefer to let people come to their own conclusions. Even though I know what my conclusion is, it doesn’t necessarily mean that someone coming to a different conclusion is wrong. When you start getting into the mystic stuff and starting talking about symbols and the spiritual realm, there really never is one right answer. It’s always a matter of interpretation.

I was a big fan of Vestara in this series. To me, her perspective was one of the most interesting parts of the entire story. What do you think about her overall? She wasn’t your creation, but do you feel that her potential was realized in this series?

I think that Vestara turned out wonderfully. She was Christie’s idea, and I recall when she popped up in the meeting. Christie said, “I know what we should do. We should have Ben’s first girlfriend be a Sith.” Aaron and I got these big grins on our faces and everybody else just had big round eyes. They said, “You know, I don’t think we can do that.” We talked about it and the writers were pretty intent on wanting to do this. Everybody else was a bit worried about it, and finally we came to the conclusion that, as long as they don’t end up together, we could do that. I think that that was absolutely the right decision. I love her character development, where she ended up at the end, and I’m hoping –– I’m just a writer, so I don’t know what will happen in the future –– but I’m hoping that she will be a big continuing villain in the saga.

I was hoping for more of a battle between Vestara and Ben at the end of the series. Did you and the rest of the creative team always intend for her to escape in the finale? How much thought did you give to the possibility of Ben killing her?

I’m trying to remember if we ever thought we were killing her. There were a couple of scenes in Apocalypse that were decided within the first half-day of the meeting.  Of course, the very end scene –– the wedding –– was one of the things that we came up with first. That was going to happen at the end of the series no matter what; we knew that almost as soon as we started the meeting. The other thing was Vestara’s fate, that she would leave and go off on her own. I can’t remember whether we debated killing her or not, but certainly within that first half-day of our meeting, we knew that she was going to escape and disappear into the galaxy to become a possible recurring villain.

That’s interesting, because one of the scenes in Ascension that I found most promising was when Ben and Vestara finally got together. Obviously, the end of Ascension left me feeling a little worried for their future, and I was hoping that Apocalypse would steer them in a different direction. What motivated the decision that they could never stay together?

 

We didn’t want to repeat Luke/Mara. It’s okay to echo something, but when you repeat it, fans justly have a little bit of a down reaction to that repetition. If you echo it and turn it in a different direction, it tends to have a little bit more resonance.

I really liked how it turned out; I didn’t think it was in Vestara’s nature to become the next Mara. I mean, she was a Sith, she was raised a Sith. I think she came to the conclusion in Ascension that she couldn’t be a Jedi, that that’s just not who she was. There was that scene when she kills for Ben and realizes that Ben can’t and won’t kill for her under the same conditions. She realizes, “I’m never going to be what Ben is.” By the time Apocalypse started, she had very much made that decision. What I was intending to show early on in Apocalypse was that she seemed hopeful that she could lure Ben into a life that they could enjoy together.  She kind of has this fantasy that Ben could be something other than a Jedi, but realizes very quickly that he can’t be, that Ben is a Jedi in and out. She loves him for it, and loves who he is, but she can’t be with him. She can’t be the same thing.

So part of Vestara’s purpose in the series was to push Ben into the position of having to let go of someone who was fundamentally different from him? Was this part of his journey in reaching the point that his father reached?

Absolutely. A big theme in Star Wars is the redemption angle, and we were pretty consciously playing with that with Vestara the whole way through: “Is she going to be redeemed?” Redemption is only important if it doesn’t always work.  Not everybody can be redeemed; not every character can survive. You lose the suspense in a story if you just know that anytime a character is placed in peril, they’re going to survive it. I think the same thing applies to the redemption theme in Star Wars on a slower, deeper level –– there have to be some characters who aren’t redeemed.

I’d like to hear how the final scene in the book (Jag and Jaina’s marriage) made it in there. Did the marriage finally happen because they’d been together long enough and fans were calling for some sort of payoff, or does it maybe advance some future plotline?

We had originally intended to do that wedding at the end of Invincible, but we weren’t too far into that series when I said, “You know what? Jaina kills her brother at the end of this series…and then she runs off and gets married?” That just seemed to be such a cheapening of her character that I didn’t think we should do it. I didn’t have to work too hard to convince everybody else. They saw that, while getting married is a positive thing and we were looking for positive ways to end Invincible, that one just felt like it would have been a cheapening of what Jaina had gone through in the book.

So when we began to plan Fate of the Jedi, one of the first things we said was that at the end of this series, Jag and Jaina have to be married. That was one of the first things we established. Now, some of the fans know that I was a Jaina/Zekk shipper early on, and everybody thinks that that was because I like Zekk better. It was really because I didn’t want to see Jaina go off to live in what early on would have been the Chiss Empire and then later would have been the Imperial Remnant. I didn’t want to lose Jaina for the main storylines. She’s an important Jedi, and we’ve known for a long time that she’s going to become more and more important to the core of the Jedi, so did we really want to have to go through plot hoops and come up with plot devices to bring her back into the main story every time we wanted to use her? Or did we want to risk losing her from the main story all the time? Once we came to terms with the need to use Jaina and decided to find a way to bring Jag back into the main story for a few years (so that Jaina could be in the main story too), that pretty much solved the problem.

Was that why Luke appointed Jag the Imperial Head of State?

At that point, I think we were trying to line up the Legacy comics and acknowledge that continuity. But we also needed to maintain what worked for the novels. We had a delicate balancing act as to how to achieve all of that. We basically had two conflicting goals there. It took a while to figure out how we could do that –– serve two masters at the same time –– with Jag.

Is there anything you can tell me about the vision that Ben has on the pinnace toward the end of the novel (Page 415)? It seems to connect pretty explicitly with the events of Dark Horse’s Legacy comics and the emergence of the One Sith.

 

Visions and symbols are always subject to interpretation and the future is always in motion. I look on a vision as one of many possible things that could happen. What I’m doing there is giving a nod to that continuity, but I’m just a writer, so I don’t know how or even if we’re going to get from where Apocalypse ends to where Legacy begins. That’s a big mystery to me, certainly. And I would be surprised if at this point even the editors and the folks at Lucasfilm had a clear picture of everything that’s going to happen in the next sixty years of EU time between Apocalypse and Legacy. That’s a long, long period of time, and to tell you the truth, I don’t think that anybody really has a firm grasp on how we’re going to get from where we are now to where Legacy begins.

And I don’t think they should –– I don’t think anybody should have that all pegged down right now. I think there’s too much fun to be had playing with that time period right now. That’s one of the things that comes up in Apocalypse –– has the future been changed? That’s a question that I don’t think I know the answer to right now, and I’m hoping the readers won’t know the answers to it. I suspect that probably the Lucasfilm people have an answer to that, but they haven’t shared it with me –– and I wouldn’t want them to. I hate spoilers, and that would be the biggest spoiler of all.

Were you given specific instructions to foreshadow those comics as the potential future for the galaxy?

They didn’t really give me an explicit instruction to do it, but one of the things I try to do as a writer –– and I think that most of us try to do this –– is to at least give nods to the continuity that other people in other eras have established. For example, in Dark Nest, I tied into the Prequel era with the information about Luke’s mother that R2-D2 had in his memory banks.  I do that to make the EU seem like a more cohesive whole. Of course, the peril is that a lot of that stuff is not firmly tied down, and you don’t want to nail everything down tightly.

Allana does quite a bit of shooting in this book. Was that a controversial decision? Was there any hesitation in putting this eight-year-old girl into combat? The Solo kids famously grew up rather fast in their own youth.

We knew that she was going to have to be a character and we wanted her to be involved in the story. We didn’t want to keep shoving her off to the side like they did in the Bantam novels with the Solo kids when they were growing up. That left involving her as the only other choice. I tried to make her involvement realistic. It wasn’t like they were saying, “We need another soldier! Allana, get your gun, let’s go!” When she became involved in an adventure, it was because something else was dragging her into it. In Apocalypse, it was her vision that kept drawing her into the story. We didn’t have any overall editorial direction on, say, making sure that Allana was in one combat scene per book. We just tried to let it evolve organically as to how she would be involved in the story as Han and Leia’s charge.

It does seem like she is being groomed, in the same way that the Solo kids were, to take part in the next generation of Star Wars adventures.

 

There’s this whole theme about Allana’s destiny that goes all the way back to the Dark Nest trilogy. I tried to hammer that pretty heavily: she’s a special child in the Force, she’s the one that they keep seeing on the Throne of Balance, and she’s got a destiny. One of the things that the Solos have been trying to do is prepare her to meet that destiny. They’re not just being guardians and protectors; they’re trying to teach her how to live a perilous life. She understands the things that she’s going to face in her life and she’s doing her best to prepare herself. There’s a lot of stuff that’s going on off-stage to prepare her to be a character of destiny in the future.

It’s interesting that you mention the Solos’ role in Allana’s life, because some fans have been critical of Han and Leia for constantly bringing Allana with them into dangerous situations. To me, it seems like the Solos recognize her future importance and want to prepare her by involving her in their adventures.

Exactly. They don’t want to take risks with her, but because of who she is and what her destiny is, the risks come. I think Allana recognizes that long before they do.

I know that one of your favorite scenes to write was the death of journalist Madhi Vaandt, who was covering the slave uprisings and the subsequent involvement of the Mandalorians. Do you have any thoughts about that whole slavery subplot and how it ties into the overall themes of Fate of the Jedi?

We developed the slavery subplot after the first three books had been written. In addition to our initial story conference, we would have other conferences every time we got together at a convention. We used those story conferences to do course corrections and make sure we were all on the same page. At the second story conference –– I think it was at San Diego Comic-Con ––Christie brought up the idea of exploring the slavery angle that she had briefly introduced in Omen. She felt like the Jedi needed to have more of a moral center, and I think that she was really right about that. Up until that point, the Jedi had almost been just another political entity. They really weren’t acting as the moral center of the Galactic Alliance.

The slavery angle seemed like a really good way to bring that out and give the Jedi a moral struggle to pursue. I really enjoyed having that plot point to work with in Vortex. There’s that whole scene where Saba says, “We’ve got to follow the Force, we’ve got to follow what’s right, we’ve got to be Jedi first and political entities second.” That was the source of conflict between her and Kenth Hamner, who was loyal to the Galactic Alliance first. Again, you had the Jedi serving two different masters at that point. Until the slavery revolt came to a head with Madhi Vaandt’s death, the Jedi had been serving their political masters above their spiritual masters. In Vortex, I wanted to have them shift to serving their spiritual masters more.

So it was almost like a wakeup call for the Jedi.

Exactly. The whole slave revolt popping up really did serve to remind the Jedi of who they were, what they should be doing, and who they should be serving.

How did Freedom Front play into that? What was the impetus behind involving some of the Moffs in the slavery subplot?

One of the things that the Moffs do is have really intricate plots. Once again, we had that same problem: we wanted Jag involved in the story, but he was the Head of State, so we had to find a way to get him involved. We had to have an excuse for him to be on Coruscant, and that dragged the Moffs and their political intrigue into it. These are some of the things that you struggle with when you have characters who you really want to involve, but they’ve been placed off in a different part of the galaxy. You have to find a way to bring them back into the main story. Of course, Moffs being Moffs, they have to be plotting and doing stuff. I wasn’t the one who wrote the initial appearance of the Freedom Front, so I can’t really speak to what went into that process, but I liked the irony of it: first it was a manipulation to cause a problem for Daala, and then all of a sudden the Moffs have sparked a genuine movement.

Who was your favorite character to write in this book? Personally, I’ve always enjoyed the way you write Saba.

You know, I love all of my characters equally. Honestly, I would say that, of the movie characters, my favorites to write are Han and Leia, especially together. Of the characters that I’ve created, Saba is probably one of my favorites to write. She’s a lizard, so you can do some fun things with her –– you can get into her head and play with the irony of having her be the moral center. Even though she’s really a vicious hunter at heart, she’s one of the Jedi who sees things most clearly in black and white. Within her mind, within who she is, she is by far the most rigid Jedi in her views of what the Jedi should be doing. I enjoy playing with that kind of irony. There’s an internal conflict between Saba’s species identity –– a hunter who doesn’t hesitate to go out and hunt –– and her view of Jedi honor.

Every character brings such different things to the story. Vestara was just a blast to write, in terms of getting into her head and trying to figure out what she wanted. She was by far one of the most complicated characters in the series. What she wants for Ben and herself is what everybody wants: a life with someone she loves, family life, success, and all of that. But they’re just two really different people and she recognizes that. I think her recognition of that is something that really rang true for me.

One of the other great things about Saba is your ability to play with a more comedic side of her. So on the one hand, she’s all about the honor component, but then there’s also this other aspect of her personality that comes from her unfamiliarity with human culture.

I kind of modeled the Barabels on my own sense of humor. A lot of people don’t get my sense of humor. [laughs] I’ll say something that I take as a joke and people will take me absolutely seriously, and on the other hand everybody will be cracking up with laughter about something that goes right over my head. I think that aspect of Saba is probably where I let a little bit of myself show through.

Your only standalone novel is Tatooine Ghost, although you did write the Dark Nest trilogy alone. Do you prefer writing installments in long, nine-book series to writing standalone novels?

It’s two different pleasures. With standalones, it’s fun because you’re in control of everything. You have a vision that is more cohesive and united, because it’s this single vision that’s in your own head. You’re never guessing about what somebody else is thinking. It’s easier to write because of that. We do try to plot things very carefully when we’re working in groups. But you’ll agree on a certain set of plot and character guidelines, and then somebody will write a character in a book preceding yours and hit all of the guidelines exactly as you agreed, but it’ll be five, ten, fifteen degrees off of what you were thinking. You’ll just see that those plot points meant a slightly different thing to them than they do to you.

For instance, when I was writing Star by Star, I got the manuscript for Balance Point and saw that Kathy Tyers had followed the outline exactly. She did exactly what the outline had called for, but it was all about fifteen percent off of what I thought she meant. I was 400 pages into Star by Star and I thought, “Oh my gosh, I have slightly different interpretations of these characters than Kathy does!” So I had to go back and rewrite the first 400 pages before I could go on.

That kind of thing happens all the time when you’re doing these author switch-offs, and not just with the authors. There’s more coordination and continuity checking for everybody involved. That doesn’t mean that it’s not worth doing –– it is. It’s a lot of fun, and that’s why I’ve enjoyed doing them. The brainstorming sessions, working with other people…as a writer, you don’t get to do that very often. When you have a chance to sit down and brainstorm a story through with five or six people who are a lot of fun, I can’t tell you just what a pleasure those things are and how much energy develops in those brainstorming sessions. But with the energy comes that extra hard work and coordination, because no matter how carefully you plot and how hard you try to all be on the same page, everybody’s mind works just a little bit differently and we have to make adjustments all along the way to account for that.

How do you think Fate of the Jedi compares to Legacy of the Force?

 

I think that the fairest thing to say is that we learned a lot. Each time you do one of these series, you learn a lot from the previous series. Comparing Legacy of the Force with The New Jedi Order, you’ll see that the editors decided they didn’t want to have a whole bunch of authors involved. That simplified things a great deal, because then you’re only dealing with three different interpretations and three different personalities versus fifteen or something in The New Jedi Order.

From Legacy of the Force, we learned a lot of things about handing off your story. One of the things we did with Fate of the Jedi was when an author finished their book, they would write a short summary of where their characters were and what they were thinking at that time. “So-and-so is on this planet with such-and-such, and he’s wounded and sad.” The continuity improved a great deal because of those hand-offs; they helped a lot. Christie is a great team player and she was really good about that.

What do you think this series will be remembered for? How has it left its mark on the Expanded Universe?

 

I view the collection of books starting with Dark Nest and going all the way through Fate of the Jedi as the Jacen Solo saga. He’s the main driver behind all of those series. It started with his losing his way in the Dark Nest series, where he returned from his five-year sojourn and took the weight of the galaxy on his shoulders. That hubris leads him to fall in Legacy of the Force, and then Fate of the Jedi deals with the consequences of his fall, which are much larger than anybody could have expected. We moved from what was basically a personal journey in the Dark Nest series into a social journey in Legacy of the Force (which was very much concerned with the Second Galactic Civil War). By the time we get to Fate of the Jedi, we’re talking about a spiritual journey, and Abeloth is very much a spiritual monster. She’s something that’s beyond our understanding. She’s in the realm of mythology. So there’s a progression through those three series. I would love to say we planned that from the beginning, but the truth is, it just developed that way.

Speaking of Abeloth, can you give me any hints about the italicized passage at the very end of the novel?

[laughs] It’s an interesting interpretation you have of that passage. I really don’t want to say too much about it, except that your reading isn’t the one that I expected people to have. It’s very vague whose mind you’re inside of. We wanted to wrap that up, to do a framing of the Fate of the Jedi story. I really like the way it worked. We were debating whether or not we should frame it that way. I think you can read those lines as being in several different characters’ minds, both at the beginning and at the end of the story. What you get out of those lines is going to depend on which character’s mind you think you’re in. They operate on more than one level.

You mentioned that there was a similar passage at the beginning of the story, and sure enough, the first Fate of the Jedi novel, Outcast, begins with an italicized passage as well. Can you tell me more about the decision to use that framing technique to encapsulate the events of the series?

When Aaron began Outcast with those lines, it was a little bit of a surprise to us. We didn’t really confirm that we were going to end Apocalypse with another set of lines until I was halfway through writing it. We started talking about whose perspective those initial lines were from, and it was interesting that all of us had different ideas of whose minds they were in! We were talking about, okay, do we need to explain that (whose mind they were in)? Do we need to pick one? I’m very much of the belief that when you start getting into the area of the symbolic, you really can’t explain things. You’re operating on a level that goes beyond conscious comprehension; you start to touch on the unconscious mind. I thought, “You know, it’s better to leave this working on a couple of different levels.” I will go ahead and say that I didn’t write those lines from Abeloth’s perspective. I was thinking of someone else when I wrote them.

Is there any chance we’ll find out in some later book who you had in mind?

I don’t think so. I think that that mystery will probably be left open to each reader’s interpretation. I would be hard-pressed to see that coming back out. I mean, never say never –– somebody may pick it up and run with it and surprise me, but I don’t have any intentions to develop that particular thing any further.

Many thanks to Troy Denning for taking so much time to discuss his Star Wars work with me. Apocalypse, his latest book and the last installment in the Fate of the Jedi series, is on sale now.