Interview with Aaron Allston, Author, “Star Wars: Fate of the Jedi: Conviction”


Star Wars fans should be very familiar with Aaron Allston, a man who is responsible for bringing to the page some of the universe’s most popular heroes (and villains!) and their hair-raising exploits. His most recent novel is Star Wars: Fate of the Jedi: Conviction, the latest installment in the Star Wars: Fate of the Jedi series. Allston stopped by to answer questions about his new book as well as to share a few secrets about his upcoming novel featuring the ever-popular Wraith Squadron.

You worked with authors Troy Denning and Christie Golden on the Fate of the Jedi series, each of you responsible for writing three books. How did you guys make sure it all meshed together? Were there concerns about making sure the characters and tone were consistent from book to book?

Coordinating a series like this is a multi-stage process, and at each stage we get to see whether we’re all on board together. It starts when we’re doing the initial proposals for series elements. Do we all buy in on the same atmosphere — dark or light, romp or life-changing experience? That sort of thing. Then we do the preliminary work on the arc of the entire series and ask the same sorts of questions. Then we divvy up the arc among the writers and begin to generate outlines for the individual books — and we all get one another’s outlines. At that point we can ask for things of each other that not only make characterization and tone consistent, but allow for pursuit of subplots throughout a series, that allow for smoother handoffs from book to book and writer to writer.

Then there’s the writing of the books themselves, same thing.

And that’s just the writer interaction. Each one of these stages is also being examined closely by Lucas Licensing and Del Rey Books. The series editor, Shelly Shapiro, and Sue Rostoni and Leland Chee from Lucasfilm are looking at all these things with the same questions in mind.

Anyway, that’s the long answer. I guess the short answer is “tons and tons of e-mail.”

If you could choose your own dream team of authors to tell another tale from the Star Wars universe, who would those authors be, and what kind of novel would you write?

That’s kind of an unfair question, because it doesn’t establish much in the way of criteria. Would it be a “dream team” of writers I’ve worked with before because I know what they’re capable of and how I interact with them, or a “dream team” of folk I’ve always wanted to work with but never have? Can I choose dead writers? (Regardless of whether it’s for a new novel, I’d kind of like the power to raise the dead.) Am I choosing them because they’d do something way outside of the box, something that might, in the real world, never be approved for publication, or something I know fits within the publishing program as it exists?

Assuming we’re going the “people I’ve never worked with” and “anything goes” and “no, you can’t raise the dead, dummy” routes, I might go with Elizabeth Moon and Joe R. Lansdale. The series would be set in one solar system and take place over a span of many years, showing the effects of the universe’s wars on a broad cast of characters, mostly original characters. For example, choose a world that is strategically critical in the struggle between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance and then follow it from 4 years or so before the Battle of Yavin through 18 after. Multigenerational, original characters so nobody’s even remotely safe, alternately poignant and hopeful and tragic and preposterous — James Michener meets Alex Raymond.

We’ve got a lot of serious Star Wars fans here, and they’re going to want to know a little bit more about Conviction. Can you give us a few hints about what we can expect?

Everyone and everything, from individuals to major institutions, is under ever-growing pressure. Some of them are buckling under the pressure and some of them are showing surprising resilience. Luke returns to one of the spookiest environments created for the Star Wars universe some thirty years after his first visit and has to operate under a really difficult set of revisions… plus the Ben-and-Vestara situation is continuing to give him grief. Allana has to make some tough choices all on her own because she’s the only one who can. Leia and Han are dealing with a political crisis which, in addition to having the potential of getting them killed, is about as simple and elegant as herding greased cats. And the Jedi Order takes a big, big step it’s not really prepared for.

There — that’s about a novel’s worth, isn’t it?

Aboleth, the villain in the Fate of the Jedi series,  seems like some kind of supernatural evil, like one of Lovecraft’s alien gods. I also noticed that she shares her name with a race of similarly Lovecraftian entities, the Aboleths of the Dungeons & Dragons game. What kind of being are we talking about here, and are there any inspirations from outside the Star Wars canon that has influenced her creation or how you and your fellow authors present her?

I can’t speak to her inspirations — all I did in the early stages of Abeloth was foreshadow her appearance through the mind-to-mind contact Allana experienced on Kessel. Nor can I share much of what I know about her — unlike most monsters, she has several stages of “reveal” and not just one. But if you’re talking horror elements, H.P. Lovecraft, who pioneered the notion of pantheons of alien intelligences who have so much power and so little regard for intelligent mortal life that we often end up like bugs and chewing gum on the bottoms of their boots, is definitely a great inspiration for an eerie, science-fiction-compatible horror tone.

At this time in the saga much of the universe sees the Jedi as dangerous rogues. How do you think the Jedi would be perceived in our own world?

Let’s assume, to be compatible with the way the Order works in most of its history, that they’re a special, somewhat insular philosophical order — with military capability surpassing most special forces units — operating as an investigative arm and an elite enforcement arm of the United Nations. The Shaolin Temple intermarried with the Iga Mountain Ninja and the Screen Actors’ Guild, and their progeny went to work for the U.N. I suspect that they would be generally popular around the world, but would be under constant criticism and pressure from U.N. member nations who did not receive some sort of ill-defined “equal share” of Jedi Knights benefits. The Jedi would be the targets of terrorist attention, meaning that tragedies in their ranks would certainly not be confined to their activities in the field. There would be movies, TV series, comics and novels about the Jedi Knights, and action figure sales would be very brisk…

… Wait a second, now we’re back in the real world again.

You’ve been working in the Star Wars universe for almost two decades. How did you first get involved? Do you have any favorite characters or eras?

I got involved in part because of Michael A. Stackpole. By the mid-1990s, we’d been friends and sometimes collaborators for more than a decade — for instance, we and Hero Games’ Steve Peterson had co-designed a “pulp 1930s” role-playing game, Justice, inc., which was published in 1984, and I’d edited some of Mike’s fiction for a gaming magazine, The Space Gamer, even earlier than that. Timothy Zahn had also been a contributor to the magazine.

Anyway, Mike had already done the first four volumes of the X-Wing novel series for Bantam. They wanted him to do four more, but he was working on I, Jedi and didn’t have time to do all four — he could do one. The Star Wars line editor at the time, Tom Dupree, asked him for suggestions for a temporary replacement writer for the series, and I was on the list of names Mike offered. I’d met Tom at a CoastCon a couple of years earlier. Anyway, my agent sent Tom some of my novels, and Tom apparently decided that my style was pretty compatible with Mike’s, so he penciled me in on the schedule for three X-Wing novels.

Here’s where the story gets a little weird. Shortly after that, Tom left Bantam for an editing position elsewhere. His replacement, Pat LoBrutto, came in and saw that I was on the schedule for the next three X-Wings. As far as he knew, everything was good. The problem was, there had been a communications breakdown somewhere — even after all this time, nobody remembers where — and nobody had yet contacted me. So months go by, and Pat calls my agent to ask, “How’s Aaron coming on those X-Wing novels?” So the upshot was, the thrill I received at discovering that I was doing Star Wars fiction was somewhat offset by the terror of discovering that I was already months behind on my assignment.

Favorite characters? Han Solo and Wedge Antilles give me the most to write about with the ways they wrestle with problems. Wes Janson was, hands down, the most fun. I really enjoy Jaina Solo, who has to handle being the heir to so very, very much expectation and trouble. And, of course, I greatly enjoy my original characters — else why have original characters?

What is it like to know that you’re adding to one of the biggest ongoing stories of all time? Do you ever get nervous about it? Are there any things you’ve done of which you’re particularly proud?

A while back, the TV series Lost aired its final episode, and the hype leading up to that moment was, of course, immense. At a certain point during the hype, I was momentarily at a low point, emotionally, not for any reason related to Star Wars, and for some reason all the media attention the Lost finale was receiving was getting me down. Kind of sulkily, I said to myself, “I wish I was involved with some sort of big thing that vast numbers of people get emotionally involved in…” Then my more rational side spoke up and said, “Hey, stupid, you are.” Then it began slapping me around. I’ve been laughing about that for a year.

Anyway, yeah. The scope of the Star Wars universe can be very intimidating, and its fans are, quite reasonably so, very demanding. I do occasionally have to jack up my confidence, to deal with it. But I have two ways to do that. First, I remind myself of how the fans have responded to some of my work in the past. Second, I remember that most of them really, really want you to succeed. They want to re-experience their favorite characters, they want to see how those characters’ lives are progressing, and they want to read something good.

Things I’ve done to be proud of… a few moments in the novels stand out, moments that, as I was writing them, were making me bawl my eyes out or otherwise react very strongly. Such as the Jaina/Leia reconciliation in the Enemy Lines duology or Face Loran’s last sight of Ton Phanan’s body in Iron Fist. But most of the emotional gratification that has come my way has been from contact with the fans. Like one e-mail I received, very early in my involvement with Star Wars, a guy who wrote to say, “Dear Mr. Allston, I didn’t use to like to read, and then I read Wraith Squadron and now I do.” Since then, on those occasions when someone tries to tell me that escapist fiction is of no consequence, I whip out that little anecdote and bludgeon him half to death with it. Metaphorically speaking, that is.

Let’s talk about the new novel featuring the Wraith Squadron. I know the book isn’t scheduled for publication until 2012, but can you give us just a little information about that?

Sure. Most of the action takes place in the same approximate period as Fate of the Jedi, but there are critical chapters that revisit the Wraiths in earlier years, starting just after they made the jump to become an Intelligence unit. The current-era story reunites some of the longtime Wraiths, introduces new ones, and even has second-generation Wraiths.

Not every subplot that arose in Fate of the Jedi will have been resolved by that series’ end, and it’s up to the Wraiths to clean up a big mess left behind. That’s about all I’m willing to say at this time.

Except that I grew up in the 1960s, the Golden Age of movie and TV spies — The Man From U.N.C.L.E., James Bond, Mission: Impossible, Derek Flint, The Wild, Wild West, countless others. They’re with me still, occupying a psychotic little wing of my brain. And if you don’t hear some of those theme tunes in your head when you’re reading the new Wraith Squadron novel, I haven’t done my job.