Journey to 'The Force Awakens': Meet the Authors of the New 'Star Wars' Universe

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Now that the Force Friday dust has settled, leaving a lucky few with remote-controlled BB-8s, Captain Phasma action figures, and Kylo Ren lightsabers, Star Wars fans find themselves in a quandary: how to kill three more months until Star Wars: The Force Awakens arrives.

Let us recommend a book — or six.

Aside from the legion of toys released on Friday, the Disney Lucasfilm machine also delivered its first wave of titles, collectively called “Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which establishes new Star Wars canon. While each of the books offers a stand-alone adventure, the authors scatter clues and context to the new film throughout, providing an Easter egg-hunting expedition for fans in the leadup to the Dec. 18 movie release. However, as one of the writers, Jason Fry, assures us, “Nothing in [these books] is going to spoil the new movie.”

Three of books focus on the expanded adventures of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia Organa, and Han Solo, and are set among the events of George Lucas’s original trilogy. Fry’s The Weapon of a Jedi takes place post-A New Hope and finds Luke, C-3PO, and R2-D2 on a strange planet with a sketchy alien named Sarco “The Scavenger” Plank — a character who, as revealed in production stills, plays a part in J.J. Abrams’s upcoming movie. Greg Rucka’s Smuggler’s Run follows Han and Chewbacca after the destruction of the original Death Star on a mission to rescue a Rebel Alliance officer named Ematt, who will ultimately serves under Leia in The Force Awakens. And Moving Target, co-written by Fry and Cecil Castellucci, is a Leia-centric adventure taking place between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. The story is recounted in flashback by now-General Organa on the cusp of The Force Awakens. The book teases Leia’s affinity for hot-shot pilot Poe Dameron (who is stationed on the planet Jakku) and reveals a few more details about the Resistance.

The other trio of books, all stretching beyond the events of Return of the Jedi, relegates the core ensemble to secondary roles, allowing new characters come to the fore.

Lost Stars, by Claudia Gray, tells the story of Thane Kyrell and Ciena Ree, two star-crossed lovers who wind up on opposite sides of the Galactic Civil War through the major moments of Episodes IV-VI; again, Jakku factors in the plot, and fans are already theorizing about the relationship between Thane/Ciena and the heroes of the new movie.

Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath is the first of a trilogy bridging the time between Jedi and The Force Awakens. While the main plot focuses on a group of new heroes (including the Star Wars universe’s first gay protagonist), Aftermath also fills us in on the continuing adventures of Han and Chewie and supporting characters like Wedge Antilles, Admiral Ackbar, and Mon Mothma, while also introducing a cult of Sith devotees (possibly connected to Kylo Ren) and revealing more about Jakku.

The immediate post-Jedi era is the same period explored by the new Marvel comic-book series Shattered Empire, written by Rucka and illustrated by Marco Checchetto. The first issue arrives in stores this week and introduces two Rebel fighters who appear to be the parents of Poe Dameron.

With all these original stories being woven together into the expanded Star Wars universe on the precipice of the film release, we decided to go the source. We grilled the authors separately — querying them on their Star Wars bona fides, how they worked within the boundaries of a clearly defined universe, and what they hope lies at the end of this journey to The Force Awakens — and assembled their responses below.

From left: Jason Fry, Claudia Gray, Greg Rucka, Chuck Wendig, Cecil Castelluci

First things first: How would you gauge your level of Star Wars fandom coming into this project?

Greg Rucka (Shattered Empire, Smuggler’s Run): Spinal Tap level. Definitely an “11,” you know? This is the mythology I grew up with, it’s hard-coded into my DNA as a storyteller. I’m not the greatest fan you’ll ever meet, but, oh yes, I can quote most of the movies by heart even today.

Chuck Wendig (Aftermath): I never really know how to gauge fandom — is it a rating? A percentage? One through five stars or like a grade in school? Star Wars is a part of who I am. It’s a part of me as a storyteller. It continues now to this day, and it’s becoming a part of who my son is, too, I think.

Cecil Castellucci (Moving Target): I mean, I am a lady who still has the Star Wars comforter she got in 1977 on her bed. I have action figures displayed all around my house. I wrote a song about seeing Star Wars when I was in an indie rock band. I waited in line for six weeks in a tent for Phantom Menace. I have an Amidala symbol tattooed on my body. So, you know, Star Wars is a pretty big deal to me.

Jason Fry (The Weapon of a Jedi, Moving Target): Off the charts? I’d just turned 8 when A New Hope hit theaters, and it changed everything — I can’t think of anything I’ve written that doesn’t owe a debt to Star Wars somehow. As a Star Wars fiction obsessive, I own every bit of Star Wars lore that made up the old Expanded Universe, from comics on the back of cereal boxes to choose-your-own-adventure books that only appeared in the U.K. My friend Dan Wallace and I mapped the galaxy in Star Wars: The Essential Atlas. I could go on, but you get the idea.

Claudia Gray (Lost Stars): I could hardly believe anything this incredible could really be happening to me. Basically my soul instantly went back in time and high-fived my 7-year-old self. Episode IV came out when I was 7, which was the prime age to imprint on Star Wars forever! I stood in the sun for four hours waiting for Phantom Menace tickets, wrote a lot of fanfic, immersed in the Timothy Zahn novels, etc. Here in New Orleans, I’m a member of a Mardi Gras marching krewe called Chewbacchus, which celebrates sci-fi in all its forms — but you can see who we named ourselves after. We built a mini Millennium Falcon for Peter Mayhew to ride in our parade, even!

OK, so you’re well-qualified. Did you feel any weight when you were writing a new chapter to an iconic franchise, especially involving core characters like Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, and the droids? Was there a voice saying, “Don’t mess this up?”

Wendig: Initially, I didn’t have any pressure — in part because writing the book felt so natural. As I noted, the galaxy is a part of my storytelling DNA, so writing that first book felt like just telling a story I’d told in my head a hundred times over.

The pressure came after! When I knew how excited people were for this book, when I saw how big it was maybe going to be — and of course as we start the big lead-up into the new film! — that’s when my jaw started to tighten.

Castellucci: I’d be a fool not to! I mean, Leia is a core character, so first and foremost she was and is my priority and I felt a great deal of weight. She’s also a girl, and to my generation, the girl. So it was important to me as a lady — actually, to all of us, Jason and Michael my teammates on this, too — to get her right. That said, you can’t think about that too much because otherwise the weight will crush you. You have to write a great story, and when you do, the heart will follow.

Gray: Maybe I should’ve been worried about not messing it up, but… you know, I wasn’t. I was too incredibly hyped about the opportunity to play in that sandbox to even ask myself what the down side might be. Probably a good thing!

Rucka: Of course. Not really out of fear, but more out of a sense of respect, really. We’re talking about characters and stories and a vision that so many people genuinely, deeply love. I want to do right by that at every turn. But you can’t really look at it for too long, otherwise you’re caught in the headlights, you know? At a certain point, you have to tell yourself, “OK, look, they could’ve gotten anyone to write this, but they asked you, and that means that someone somewhere thought you were the person to do the job, to deliver what they need and what they want. It’s time to stop worrying and get on with it.”

Fry: You always hear that voice, and I think that’s a good thing. Luke and the droids are beloved characters in Star Wars, and fans — including me — are very protective of how they’re portrayed. When I’d write dialogue for Threepio, I’d close my eyes and make sure I could imagine Anthony Daniels saying it. But that was pretty fun.

One challenge, I’ll admit, is that I’m more of a Han guy than a Luke guy, in the same way that there are Mick people and Keith people, I suppose. I addressed that by going back and watching the classic trilogy again (probably for the 300th time), focusing on how Luke reacts to people who are questioning him or teaching him or disagreeing with him. That was fun, and made me appreciate what a good actor Mark Hamill is. For most of the key scenes in The Empire Strikes Back, he’s essentially alone, acting opposite a puppet and some snakes or a robot or a stuntman he can’t hear because of wind machines. Yet he makes you believe in those scenes and those characters. He deserves far more credit for that performance than he’s received.

That challenge turned out to be really rewarding for me. Once I got what makes Luke tick, I felt I had the grounding for making the story work. I hope The Weapon of a Jedi is a book that appeals both to new fans and to veteran ones. For new fans, it’s an introduction to Luke Skywalker right after A New Hope, when he’s wrestling with his duty to the Jedi tradition and his place in the Rebellion. For veteran fans, it’s a tale they haven’t heard before, one that I hope ultimately feels like a celebration of a character they love.

How much latitude were you allowed in creating new characters, new lifeforms, new planets, new droids, and new stories for established characters? Were there any constraints to what you could and couldn’t do in the Star Wars universe?

Wendig: The characters were all mine, though of course they had to pass muster with the Story Group [the Lucasfilm division that makes sure all the different pieces fit together and remain consistent across all works]. Everything I created in this book had to sing for its supper in terms of belonging true and proper to the Star Wars universe.

Plot- and character-wise, I had a few constraints that were clear up front — largely in part because this is an organic garden, now. This is a storyworld not growing up in isolated pots, but all as part of the same dirt. That means, practically speaking, that different stories serve different functions in terms of theme, character, plot. The Story Group is there to direct that kind of narrative traffic and to make sure that we as the audience are getting a huge variety of stories and aren’t having to churn through redundant tale-telling.

Rucka: The two aren’t mutually exclusive. I was given enormous latitude, actively encouraged in many places to build and explore. That’s part of the beauty of the Star Wars universe — it’s enormous, and it’s living, it’s inhabited. It’s not a question, in a way, of “adding” as much as “discovering” what was, in a sense, already there.

Gray: In all honesty, I was astonished how much leeway I was given. I’d expected to be given a very narrow set of parameters, but instead they suggested a basic idea — star-crossed lovers in the Star Wars universe — and let me run with it. That said, every once in a while one of my ideas would clash with canon, which is when the editor would step in and suggest, “Hey, let’s go another way.” None of that substantially affected the characters or core story, though.

Fry: I’m a pretty experienced Star Wars author, so I know how to color within the lines — I know better than to set an adventure on Yoda’s home world, for instance. That said, there really weren’t too many constraints. I had the freedom to do whatever the story needed, and the folks at Lucasfilm were great partners, as always, in helping me figure out what that was.

There’s so much going on with Star Wars now that you can be warned away from problematic areas, should you stray into them, but you can also get suggestions for a piece of a story or an aside that might fit with something down the road. That’s pretty intriguing as an author; as a fan it makes me excited to see how stories will dovetail and speak to each other in the future.

Castellucci: When you are writing in someone else’s universe, there are always going to be constraints and things that you can and can’t do. That’s just the nature of writing something that is not your own creator-owned thing. And that’s the fun of writing something that is iconic — to have those constraints and to have these limitations. You know that actually helps creativity, having boundaries. So yes, while I had things that I couldn’t do, or that I proposed that were nixed, I was also given latitude to create new characters, whom I love and I think that you will love. It’s no secret, too, that Nien Nunb is in my book — he’s on the cover. What a total treat to write him. I think another fun part was expanding a character who we’ve only seen small glimpses of. As for guidance, yes, of course. That’s what editors are for!

Did you have access to a Star Wars bible to keep the universe sorted out?

Castellucci: I worked closely with was Michael Siglain, my editor. And as for my bible, it was the end of Empire Strikes Back and the beginning of Return of the Jedi. That’s the sliver of the universe and time period that concerned me, so that’s where I kept my head at.

Gray: No bible. Instead I just worked with my editor on the project, and he let me know what I needed to know — which, as I said, I wanted kept to a minimum. Lost Stars is set in the era of the original trilogy, mostly, so simply knowing the movies by heart was almost enough. And I do know them by heart.

Fry: Leland [Chee, Lucasfilm archivist and so-called “Keeper of the Holocron”] and other folks at Lucasfilm are an invaluable source of assistance for authors like me, as well as super-patient – I’ve sent Leland 500-word proposals for placing obscure planets and asked him minutiae about Slave I [Boba Fett’s ship] and he’s never so much as sighed.

But a story is so much more than world-building and an assemblage of references, whether those references are new or not. That material’s always there to support the story you’re trying to tell; constructing a tale to tie together world-building material rarely if ever results in good storytelling.

These are all promoted as part of “The Journey to The Force Awakens.” How much do you know about the new movie? There seem to be hints to The Force Awakens in there.

Rucka: Possibly…but you’ll just have to read the book and then go see the movie to find out.

Wendig: See, I can’t tell you that, because that would ruin all the fun.

Castellucci: Hints is a good word. I don’t know what I know, and I’ll be delighted to find out how any tiny puzzle things fit into the larger fabric! At the end of the day, I am a gal who is pouring over the trailer and wondering and excited just like everyone else.

Gray: I want to be totally clear: My Force Awakens knowledge was indeed given on a need-to-know basis only — because I insisted on getting absolutely no more information than I absolutely had to have to get the job done. I’ve avoided all the rumors so far, and I want to go into The Force Awakens as unspoiled as possible. It’s going to be more fun that way.

Fry: I was told what I needed to know for this project and for other things I have in the works. That level of information varied from not much to quite a lot. But I always had enough to do my job, and people to help me if I needed it.

Back when I was doing tie-in projects for The Clone Wars, I learned that being privy to secrets isn’t really as fun as you might think. As an independent author, it’s no fun knowing stuff like this because there’s nobody to talk about it with — you have to wait for the rest of the world, and then it’s new to them but not to you, and so you wind up feeling weirdly left out.

I tell kids that whenever I do school visits, and they never believe me. But I swear it’s true.

Because fans have asked, I want to make sure something’s clear about The Weapon of a Jedi and the other “Journey to The Force Awakens” books: Nothing in them is going to spoil the new movie. In Weapon of a Jedi, for instance, Luke’s story is bookended by brief chapters set in the same timeframe as The Force Awakens, but that material isn’t part of the plot of the film. The idea is that fans — of whatever age — get a satisfying tale that stands on its own, and as a bonus they’ll encounter some stuff (to be horribly but necessarily vague about it) that they’ll see again in December and will make them go, “Hey, I remember that!”

Is there anything you’re really looking forward with The Force Awakens?

Wendig: Seriously, I could not be more excited. If you had to pin me to the corkboard for an answer, I’d say BB-8. BB-8 is my master, now.

Castellucci: I can’t wait to see the band of rebels back together again. And I’m excited about every new character even though I have no idea who they are. Pretty much, I’m looking forward to falling in love with them.

Fry: All of it! But then that’s true of Star Wars Rebels, and the books and comics coming out, and everything else. This is such a rich, exciting time for Star Wars storytelling, and I pinch myself every day that I get to play some small part in it.

Gray: The better question would be whether there’s anything I’m not looking forward to with TFA, because I’m hugely psyched for it. But my prediction is that I’m going to lose it, possibly to the point of tears, the first time Princess Leia appears. As a little girl growing up in the 1970s, Leia was one of my great heroines. Seeing her again after this long — I’m getting a little misty just thinking about it.

Rucka: All of it, man. All of it.