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'Star Wars' author Claudia Gray on writing the next epic 'High Republic' chapter
From the anxious disaster of Starlight to Phase 2 going 150 into the past, Gray shares all.
A star has fallen, and the light of the Jedi now shines a little less bright. Phase 1 of the interconnected storytelling experience known as Star Wars: The High Republic is almost complete, and lauded author Claudia Gray just helped speed us closer to that end with her novel Star Wars: The High Republic — The Fallen Star.
The “Project Luminous” author/architects behind the stories (Gray, Cavan Scott, Justina Ireland, Daniel José Older, and Charles Soule) have managed, in only a year, to give fans a ton of new characters that readers care about as if they’d been with them forever. Scott’s work in the book The Rising Storm seemed dark; with her new book, Gray is telling him to hold her spotchka.
In the story, the villainous Nihil launch a devious plot against Starlight Beacon, the High Republic’s base of operations in the Outer Rim. Many Jedi that we have come to know (Stellan Gios, Elzar Mann, Bell Zettifar, Burryaga Agaburry, Orla Jareni, etc) have to deal with the terror, as do many regular citizens of the galaxy, which include Leox Gyasi, Affie Hollow, and more. The beloved Vintian (sentient rock person) named Geode is thankfully there too.
SYFY WIRE caught up with Gray to discuss how she crafted her high-anxiety Star Wars book, and what changes occurred along the way. We also asked about Phase 2 of The High Republic jumping 150 years into the past, and asked about whether thesis truly the end for many of these incredible Star Wars characters.
***WARNING: From this point on, there will be spoilers for the novel Star Wars: The High Republic — The Fallen Star. If you have not read it yet, then we highly recommend reading that before reading this.***
By the end of the book, Starlight Beacon is no more. Was it always marked for destruction?
I'm afraid so, yes. I don't think I'm giving anything away there too much, but yes, that was always, or at least from a fairly early stage, part of our master planning.
You really put the reader in the midst of the disaster as it's unfolding, and the anxiety becomes very real. How did you manage to craft that slow burn?
My whole life I've been a fan of the great '60s and '70s disaster movies. The number one for me is The Poseidon Adventure. That's one of my top ten films, and sometimes I find it hard to put a finger on exactly why. There are things about it that are really campy and of course, it does get at one of the fundamental questions of human existence, which is: What would I do if my cruise ship turned upside down? But those movies, they're not slow paced, but they make it very immediate because there are all these little crises within the huge crisis and you don't get that same feeling if you're not in it with the people and actually experiencing them like, “okay, that chance is gone. Okay, that didn't work.”
I read a book years ago that was talking about worst-case scenarios and how people think they will react in an emergency situation usually has almost no relationship to how they will act, unless you've been in at least one major emergency before, then you tend to be able to keep your head a little bit more. But one thing that I really remember from that book, they said, "People don't panic when they know they're trapped. They panic when they think they're trapped.”
Promotional artwork made it clear that the whole thing was going down, but you made me hold out hope for the lower half.
You were meant to.
Adding to the anxiety was the insane dread that you conjured with the Leveler, which I find so much more worrying than the Nihil. I felt my own anxieties amplify when the Jedi were dealing with it. Was that at all intentional or am I reading way too much into that?
I would say that over the last almost two years, all of us have gotten really well acquainted with our anxiety, even if we weren't before, which I certainly was. But yes, the Leveler… I can't get into spoilers or anything, but clearly what you fear is part of what it pulls upon. That's as much as I can say.
You focus on the characters in the lower section of the disaster, and don’t really get into what is happening in the top section. Was that a deal made with your fellow writers?
Yes. Cavan and I had to work that out because the ending of his comic run was meant to feature the death of Starlight, and my book was meant to feature the death of Starlight. And it became very apparent to us that there's no way to do that coherently without a lot of repetition that readers both do not want, unless we did something that divided the station. That way we were able to have two different narratives going on. We felt it really does amp up the tension.
All of a sudden, half of the resources you had you can't get to. Half of the personnel you thought you would call on, you can't call on them. You're having to wonder what happened to your friend or your ship or whatever else is going on. So even though it was for us — as writers — a very convenient device, I also think it's a really valid way to inject more tension into that story.
Which character had you not written before that you enjoyed writing the most?
It was Stellan [Gios] actually, which to some extent surprised me because he was not one of the characters I'd felt most connected to, but because when I see oh, this person's meant to me the ideal of something, then I'm always like, well, the thing that isn't the ideal is usually a little more interesting, but then you start to say, okay, what's it like to have everybody looking at you and saying, you're the ideal? What expectations does that create? Don't you feel like you're on a pedestal and if you move an inch in any direction, all of a sudden you're going to tumble off it? And I think Stellan had gotten to a place where he was letting those expectations define his path a little bit.
That’s so interesting because I liked and appreciated Stellan before, but he wasn't one of my favorites. This book made me love him and also identify with him.
Well, that's great. That's great.
A big part of that was his final line, “I know who I am”, which is so beautiful and so incredibly Star Wars. Can you speak to just how you crafted that line?
It rose very naturally. Once I was able to streamline his story… because in the earliest stages of working on this book, Cavan and I were still figuring out what we needed, he was still editing The Rising Storm. Once I was finally in a place where I was able to go, "this is his arc, this is what he's going to do," that came very naturally out of it. He begins in a place where he's recognizing that his identity has become something very divorced from his inner self. And by the end of the book, those things are united again.
What happens to him, and the double meaning of the title, lead me to wonder if he was always marked for death along with the station.
He was not. No. In fact, he survived the first draft. I don't know if I should admit that, but it wasn't working and Stellan's story wasn't working. I realized he has to make a bigger sacrifice for that story to land the way it's supposed to. And for the station's death, as much as we love the station, and as much as Starlight Beacon is a symbol, you don't feel it emotionally the way you feel a character. You just don't.
And I was like, it's not going to land, no puns intended, the way it should land. This event isn't going to feel the way it should feel unless we have a sacrifice on this level. And it was really something we talked about a lot because there were already, there's a death count in the Wave 3 of these Phase 1 books. So it was not a thing we did lightly at all. I really felt that was a thing it absolutely needed. And I do think it makes the book. Another fun fact, I don't even know if I should be telling you this. It was named The Fallen Star before we knew that Stellan would die. So it didn't get the double meaning until later.
He’s hardly the only casualty in this book. You made me love Orla Jareni in Into the Dark and now she’s dead. Was that a difficult choice? Will we ever get the tale of her history with Stellan?
It was a difficult choice. She's a character I enjoyed writing a lot and we had a lot of fun with, but she was somebody who was marked from an early stage. It's a good sign, you should not care about a character that gets killed off. As a writer, your job is to make it really hard on you to do it. In terms of getting back to her and Stellan, I don't know whether they'll ever do that. I hope so. I think that would be awesome. I know there's a lot of appetite out there in the fandom for getting some backstory with Avar, Elzar, and Stellan, and it wouldn't surprise me a bit if Orla were to show up in part of that. As far as I know, nothing's planned right now.
You left the fate of Burryaga up in the air. I know you love Wookiees.
Oh, I do.
We're not going to know whether he’s alive or dead for at least a year, probably more. You had to have known what you were doing with that.
Yeah. I mean, again, I don't know if I should be admitting this, there was some pressure from way up higher, “oh, don't we need a lot of unknown outcomes?” I was like, “no, we do not.” People don't know the outcome and it's going to be a little while before we get into Phase 3. We can only have one big question mark, and I decided Burryaga is somebody we all love and we all care about.
And also, it really played well, I think with Bell's story in this, which is him rising up from all this loss that he's already endured and he takes another couple hits in this book. But I think you really see him come into his own so much more confidently. And he has a win. Bell Zettifar needed a win. And so at the end, he isn't crushed, he's like, “I'm going to find Burryaga, if there's any way he's alive, I'm going out there to find him.” He's going to go in there and fight.
At what point is the council just going to make Bell Zettifar a Jedi Knight, whether he wants it or not?
I would assume that moment is not that far away, but I don't actually know. Phase 3 is not yet more than a twinkle in our eyes. We have some ideas of what's going to happen, but the exact details of when and what, that's still going to get hammered out. We know the biggest things, but now I'm really getting to the zone, so I'm going to shut up now.
Speaking of phases, a big announcement happened recently that Phase 2 will go 150 years into the past.
That was always part of it from the very, very earliest stages. We always knew that Phase 2 was going to be going back in time. And it is a risk. We talked about this, too. It was like, we've just asked everybody to invest in this. And now we want to go back and do more. But I think when people see Phase 2, and they see what's being set up and the ways in which that era and that mood are different, I think they're really going to enjoy that adventure. And they're going to learn a lot that is going to be very vital in Phase 3.
Towards the end of the book, we see many civilian ships show up to try and help save Starlight. We see that the phrase “We are all the Republic” is more than just a nice saying. Do you think that kind of unity is possible in our real world, or is it only the stuff of fantasy worlds like Star Wars?
Oh. I do not know. I will say, we've seen examples of unity in the past… while there's never been one point in time where absolutely everybody in this huge group agreed on everything. That's just not natural, but you've seen unity in the past. And while we may be far from it right now, that doesn't mean it's an impossible thing.
Star Wars: The High Republic: The Fallen Star is on sale now.