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Agent of Chaos – An Interview with James Luceno
The New Jedi Order, an epic tale of an alien invasion into the Star Wars galaxy, is now a year old. What began with an explosive hardcover novel in October of 1999, Vector Prime by R.A. Salvatore, has recently been expanded by a duology of paperbacks, Agents of Chaos. Author James Luceno answers some questions about his addition to the ever-growing saga.
Your two novels, Hero’s Trial and Jedi Eclipse, comprising Agents of Chaos, are the first books in Del Rey’s New Jedi Order series to focus on Han Solo. After all the controversy surrounding the death of Han’s partner, Chewbacca, did you have mixed feelings about accepting the assignment?
None at all. I jumped at the chance, because Chewbacca’s death allowed me to take Han through something more than a rousing adventure. The Star Wars films concern themselves with heroic journeys, and I tried to bring some of that sensibility to Hero’s Trial. Ultimately Han returns to the land of the living, but he is forever changed.
How is the Han Solo of your books different from the Han we know and love from the original movies?
Hero’s TrialObviously he is grief stricken during Hero’s Trial. But he also has a wife, three kids, and a lot more miles under his belt. He’s living a somewhat cush life — though Leia has clearly been the principal bread winner — and he has become a legend in his own time. Fortunately, life in the Expanded Universe hasn’t allowed anyone to rest on his or her laurels, so Han has at least been able to keep his blaster hand strong. Even so, I figure that he has days when he misses having to embark on a risky spice run just to square with the Hutt. And he probably daydreams about past exploits while he’s fine-tuning the Falcon’s drives. You know things have changed when you can suddenly purchase whatever hardware you need, instead of having to rely on suspect after-market parts.
One thing in particular that struck me in your books is the relationship between Han and Leia. That quick-witted, back-and-forth banter is there again, but it’s taken on a darker, more adult coloring . . . even as Han seems to be sheltering in the habits of his younger, less responsible days.
Grief can test the limits of even the strongest relationships, and grief can affect people in very unexpected ways. Grief can sometimes immobilize the toughest, or afford surprising spiritual strength to people who might have appeared overly dependent. In terms of Han and Leia, I didn’t want to treat their estrangement as anything less than real. But Han’s recidivism is a sham, as well as a conceit. Deep down he knows there is no escape along that route. But even Han is not above deceiving himself.
Chewbacca’s death has sent shock waves through Han’s life. He blames Anakin, for one thing. His loss has distanced him from his other children, and even from Leia. What was it about the friendship of this human and Wookiee that made it so central to both their lives?
Deep, enduring relationships often spring from shared experiences, and Han and Chewbacca certainly had more than their fill. During their long years of adventuring they came to appreciate each other’s strengths and weaknesses; they watched each other grow — even though Chewbacca was, what, 200 years old when he met Han? Their loyalty to each other was boundless, and they certainly loved each other. But that love wasn’t complicated by passion. They could disagree, argue, hurl insults at each other, without having to worry about long-term repercussions. They knew each other as well as each of them knew the Falcon, which, in a sense, was their scion. Though he never said this, Han might have blamed the Falcon for Chewie’s death, as much as he blamed Anakin.
You co-authored the Robotech series with your sometime writing partner, the late Brian Daley. Did those books help prepare you for working in the Star Wars universe?
Robotech disciplined me for tackling epic stories. It trained me to absorb details about hundreds of characters, countless ships, a score of alien lifeforms. And like Star Wars, Robotech was a franchise that spilled over into comic books and role-playing games; so I quickly came to appreciate the importance of continuity — which I believe is essential for sustaining that “willing suspension of disbelief.” The universe has to be made real; and it’s the writer’s job to keep everything consistent and internally logical. You have to adhere to the guidelines.
Robotech also gave me insight into fandom. There are legions of readers who know more than I will ever know about Robotech or Star Wars, and it’s a sometimes daunting task to write for them, as well as for the casual reader. I’m being paid to contribute to the vision, but let’s face facts: Unless the creator of the franchise is doing the writing, it’s all a kind of fanfiction, isn’t it? But I have to add that The New Jedi Order is a whole other species. Considering that each book is only going to tell a piece of the story, we’re asking for a good deal of trust from the fans. Instead of inviting everyone to sit down to a huge repast, we’re asking that they content themselves with single bites — differently spiced and hopefully savory. If all goes according to plan, four years from now everyone will be able to sit back, blissfully sated. But until that time, readers have to accept that what may seem a dangling plotpoint is setup for a recurring theme. To some extent, the series mirrors what George Lucas is doing with the prequel films — save for the fact that we know how that one concludes.
Brian, of course, wrote some wonderful Star Wars books himself. Did you feel him looking over your shoulder at any time as you worked on Agents of Chaos?
More like berating me for failing to pump up the battle scenes or come up with funnier lines of dialogue. And there are places in both novels where I wish he’d yelled a bit louder. Aside from being sometime collaborators, we were best friends for 25 years. Without putting too fine a point on it, we shared a kind of Han/Chewie friendship that took us on adventures all over the world — Nepal, Thailand, Central and South America …. Brian was the first author to write a Star Wars tie-in, and considering that his trilogy dealt with the early adventures of Han Solo, it was a sweet-and-sour irony to be commissioned to write about Han, in the wake of his partner’s death.
Let me turn to a new character. Tell us about Droma, the Ryn whom Han takes on as a partner. Is he going to be a regular?
I modeled the Ryn on the Rrom people, that is, the so-called gypsies. It was tricky coming up with someone who could complement Han without being a simple replacement for Chewbacca, thereby cheapening Chewie’s death. Also, we wanted Droma to complement Han in a different way; not so much in the maintenance bays, as someone who could guide Han through his grief and dislocation. As a guide of that sort, Droma’s place in the scheme of things is not necessarily a permanent one. All involved in The New Jedi Order weren’t certain how readers were going to react to Droma, so his path in the story arc is not fixed.
Are the Yuuzhan Vong evil . . . or are they simply alien?
Jedi Eclipse This is one of the principal points of The New Jedi Order, and one that will be explored until the very end. One of the cultures we looked at when fashioning the Yuuzhan Vong were the Aztecs. When the Spanish arrived in present-day Mexico, they immediately decided that the indigenous cultures were evil, and they planted crosses atop every Aztec temple they razed during their march on Tenochtitlan — crosses that eventually grew into the very churches and cathedrals in which the Christianized Maya and other groups now worship. Yes, the Aztec were ferocious warriors, ruthless empire builders, and disciples of human sacrifice — but all in service to their sense of the cosmos. Do those cultural traits brand them as evil? Were the Aztec more or less evil than the Europeans, who, like the Yuuzhan Vong, essentially forced Christianity on the cultures of the Americas?
Will you be writing any more Star Wars books?
I’ve been commissioned to write a prequel to The Phantom Menace (due out Summer 2001) — a novel of political intrigue that will delve into the fall of Supreme Chancellor Valorum — as engineered by Senator Palpatine. It’s like being entrusted to write about what was going on in the Garden before the serpent decided to chat up Eve.
What about Robotech? Those novels remain quite popular, and fans routinely write to Del Rey asking for more.
I feel that Brian and I brought the Robotech cycle to completion — though, granted, not everyone agrees with the manner in which we wrapped the saga. For a time it looked as if Robotech’s creator, Carl Macek, in partnership with the folks behind “Babylon 5,” were going to resurrect the story as a television series, called “Robotech 3000.” But I’m not certain where things stand just now.
Do you have any advice for the fans out there who dream of writing Star Wars novels of their own some day?
The current prerequisite is that one have a reputation in science fiction, or, better yet, fantasy. You need to be able to work fast, and work well. But more than that, you have to be willing to let yourself be subsumed by the Star Wars universe, and not attempt to make the characters your own. Han, Luke, Leia, and the rest, all have distinctive voices, and you need to have an ear for those voices, as well as a facility for writing swashbuckling action scenes, lightsaber duels, and full-scale battles. In terms of developing stories, it’s best to consider the elements that work so well in the films: mythic characters and situations, narrow escapes, unexpected reversals, drama, derring-do, romance, humor, hi-tech alternating with primitive … A lot of voices contribute to Star Wars novels, so you have to be adaptable, a team player, willing to jettison even what you might consider to be a great scene if it simply doesn’t work well within the framework.
Are you working on any new writing projects?
I’ve just completed a memoir that details a solo trip I took to Guatemala to deliver some of Brian Daley’s ashes to a remote archeological site we had always talked about hiking into. The site is called Calakmul, and, as the quetzal flies, it is about 150 miles from the extraordinary Maya site of Tikal — otherwise known as Yavin 4.