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The stories that fall under the banner of Star Wars: The High Republic aren’t only unique because they take place hundreds of years before the Skywalker Saga. The multiple books (adult, YA, and middle grade) and comics all intertwine together, with five authors working in harmony to craft a massive, sprawling history.
Justina Ireland is one of the five “Project Luminous” authors, a group that also includes Claudia Gray, Daniel José Older, Charlies Soule, and Cavan Scott. In Wave 1 of the initiative, she introduced readers to Jedi prodigy Vernestra Rwoh (and the highly empathic Padawan Imri Cantaros) in the middle-grade book A Test of Courage. Now, Ireland is back to close out Wave 2, which has so far featured extreme tumult as well as Jedi randiness thanks to Cavan Scott and The Rising Storm, as well as Race to Crashpoint Tower by Older.
Though Vernestra was seen in both of those previous books, she comes to the forefront of Ireland’s new YA novel, Out of the Shadows. Rwoh crosses paths with Reath Silas and Cohmac Vitus, both introduced in Gray’s novel Into the Dark. Ireland also has Vernestra meet a new character, the often unimpressed Sylvestri Yarrow. Taking place a few months after the disaster of The Republic Fair, Ireland’s new book has the Jedi taking the threat of the monstrous Nihil a lot more seriously.
SYFY WIRE caught up with Ireland (a few hours before the High Republic panel at SDCC 2021) to discuss her new book, how the five writers work together, Jedi crushes, and more.
How does the process work when it comes to deciding which member of the team is going to write which book?
Before we start a phase, we all know who's writing what, and it's really a matter of personal preference. I've written a middle grade and a YA, and that's because I like to write middle grade and YA. Charles [Soule] led off with the adult novel, because that's where he is, he's comfortable with that and comics. So everybody got a voice and they were like, "What do you want to write? Who wants to write what?" Because, I mean, obviously, you guys have seen, there's a lot of stuff coming out and there's a lot of opportunity for a lot of different storytelling.
Once we know what we're writing, once we figure out who's on first, it's really about what the storytelling is going to be at that point in time. And then it's about coming up with a plot and making sure... we have the big rocks, we know the big story beats… and then we work to bring it down to that story level. So it's a lot of interaction, a lot of working together, a lot of cooperation.
I don't know that I've ever worked on something that's been so interwoven and so comprehensive. There's not a day that goes by that I don't talk to one of the other creators, and say, "Hey, what are you putting in this? Do you have anything like this?" Or, "Hey, I have the scene where I'm doing this. Do you want me to drop some breadcrumbs for your stuff?" And it's just really kind of a fun way to write, because I think writing tends to be such a solitary exercise that it's really different and fresh to be able to say, "I know what the person who's writing before me is writing. I know what the person who's going to write after me is writing," and kind of weaving those threads together.
I imagine you all might have the most entertaining text chain of all time.
Our Slack is amazing. It's half work stuff and talking about this and the storytelling we're doing and trying to figure out the nuance there, and then it's also half just talking about, like, Loki and [The Falcon and the]Winter Soldier and all that other kind of nerd stuff. So, yeah, it's a pretty great place to be… and then of course we do a lot of video chats as well.
Where you come up with what horrific event is going to take place in each wave to scar readers?
Right. We're like, "Who can we kill that they love."
Which is ridiculous, because we’ve only known these characters since the beginning of the year, and yet you're ripping hearts out.
I know, it's insane. It's just like, "Oh, do you like that character? Now they're dead."
I'll never forgive Cavan Scott, and you haven't done me any favors either. But talking about characters that fans grew to love really quickly, there’s Vernestra Rwoh. We first encountered her in A Test of Courage, which was written by you. Did you mostly create that character?
Yeah. We all kind of have our pet characters that we created, that we're kind of ushering along. And Vernestra was definitely one that was mine. And then, same thing with Cav, like Keeve Trennis and Sskeer are really his little babies, and then the twins, Terec and Ceret. And so like you see these characters, for Daniel in The High Republic Adventures, you have Lula Talisola and Farvala, and all these characters that we bring with us. And I think that's one of the great things, those characters pop up in other pieces of media.
One of the things that's hard as a creator is at some point, you start to worry that all your characters feel one note, because you have like a spectrum of types of characters you can create. And usually some characters are just going to be too far outside of that spectrum of your comfort range of who you are as a person to create a character. Because every character has a little piece of the creative inside of them and whether it's a bad trait or a good trait or whatever.
I think that's one of the great things about having this be such a cooperative initiative is that, I might not have created Sskeer or Keeve, or Reath, for example, but I can bring them into my storytelling. And now I have a character who's completely unlike anyone I would create that I can now write about. And it really makes, I think, the storytelling feel fuller, so it doesn't feel so one-dimensional.
With Vernestra or Imri, even though they've popped up in other stories, here we get things from Vernestra's perspective, so it feels like that's your voice. Would that be fair to say?
Yeah, I think that's fair. Even when she pops up in other media, I know she's in Race to Crashpoint Tower, and even then, Daniel sent me those chapters, and he's like, "Hey, does this sound like how she would talk? Does this sound right? And I'm like, "Yeah." Same thing when I did the first draft of Out of the Shadows, and Reath was in there. I sent it to Claudia [Gray] and I was like, "Hey, can you just read through Reath's chapters and make sure this sounds good, make sure that the arc tracks right?" And she's like, "Oh, I love it. Yes, this is exactly how I saw him." Because the thing you don't want to do is, you don't want to derail somebody else's storytelling.
We're all storytellers for... We write Star Wars, but we're also successful in other parts of our career as well. And so, we all have that, not just the professional respect, but also the respect to another creator of like, "Hey, I love this character, are you using them? Or can I borrow them for this storytelling?" And usually, it's like, "Yeah. I'd love to see what you do with them.” We're all in it together.
I was about to ask about it and you already got into it, but you pick up with characters like Reath Silas, Cohmac Vitus, and love her or hate her, Nan. They started in another book, but they feel right at home.
I mean, and that's part is Claudia's work. Obviously. I read numerous drafts of Into the Dark… one of the things that was great is I got to see numerous drafts as Claudia was submitting them. I kind of got to see Reath grow up as a character. So when it came time to work him into Out of the Shadows… obviously, he and Vernestra would know each other, because they're about the same age, the Jedi Order is big, but it's not super-duper big. And so when I was reading the book, I was sitting there reading what I had written. And then I went back to Claudia and I was like, "Yeah, this works, right?" And she's like, "I love the way he's grown." Our characters get to grow and change, because this is the format we have.
Time for a silly question. Will Vernestra ever be rid of her dreaded nickname, which I wouldn't dare to use, or will she come to embrace it?
I think Vernestra's still growing and changing, and I think the fun part of Vernestra is that she takes herself a little too seriously, which is kind of what we expect from a Jedi prodigy, so I think at some point she will. I think at some point she'll loosen up a little bit. I think Imri's helping her come out of that comfort zone.
Was her lightwhip your idea?
Oh yeah, of course. I love all of the things that most people hate from the expanded universe. And I know people have like deep feelings about the lightwhip, but I'm like, "It's such a bizarre weapon. It's so dangerous. This plasma blade just whipping around you." And I was like, "Of course, I'm going to give my girl a lightwhip.”
One character unique to this book is Sylvestri Yarrow, and I loved her point of view because we don't really know what to expect from her. She's not a Jedi, she does not go in for the rich lifestyle of Coruscant at all, she’s not impressed by any of it. I never really knew what to expect from her or her story as it played out. Did that go as planned, or were there moments where she surprised you, or did something that you didn't expect?
For the most part, her story went as planned. I think the first draft, I was expecting her to have a love triangle between her, her ex-girlfriend Jordanna and Xylan Graf. And then after I started writing, I was like, "She doesn't like him. She doesn't like him at all. And I don't particularly like him.” And then as I was about halfway through the first draft and I was like, "No, this doesn't work at all." There was nothing there. It was just no sizzle.
She's a hard scrabble pilot. She loves what she does. She wants to be independent. She's not going to be really excited that this guy is rich and like all this stuff, it's going to get uncomfortable. And I think that that was why that never happened. But yeah, so there's like stories... No matter how many, like synopses you write, no matter how many outlines you write, there's always something surprising in the drafting stage.
Speaking of romances, and for the record, you brought it up first, not me… I can't help but notice that in the High Republic, the Jedi are, not to be unprofessional, but they’re a little randy?
Are you talking about Elzar?
Yeah. I was going to say horny, which is definitely Elzar. With this book though you have multiple Jedi with crushes on other Jedi, some are not returned. All these younger Padawans are having crushes on each other. How many issues would be avoided if they were just allowed to explore some of those feelings?
I think what we're seeing in this phase and in this time period, the Jedi are a little less restrictive about that sort of thing. They're at the top of their game, right? They are going out and saving people and doing great things. So I think it's normal for them to have those emotions and to work through them and try to figure out what it means in the larger context.
And I think that's one of the things that does make this time period feel different than the other storytelling we've had, is, these are Jedi who are not like, "Avoid the bad feelings, push them aside." They're like, "No work through them." Like, "What is this emotion telling you?" Because I've always really disliked this idea that like, I'm going to be an unfeeling, laser sword-wielding space wizard, and I'm not going to feel anything at all.
It's like, no, it's about recognizing those feelings and working through them, which I think is also really honestly key to like our mental health as human beings. We have feelings. We should understand why we have those feelings, and work through them. Because suppressing them… it just leads us to breakdowns and disaster.
The Order gives you the guidance, and whether you follow it or not is still on you as an individual. And I think there are some individuals, some Jedi, who are making excuses for the things that they're doing, that maybe they're not really working with the Force or in the name of the Force. But the Force and the Order are two different things. And I think that's where we start to see... we're starting to see the difference now between.
I can't help but think that if poor empath Imri was around in the prequel era he would be put in an institution with all of the repression going on around him.
He would have been a Sith. I think we have to figure out where our stories don't just fit in the larger storytelling of Star Wars, but how they also fit into the human experience. Because I think we tend to forget that stories are really about teaching us what it means. Even though we're talking about space war, or whatever, we're still learning lessons about ourselves and about human beings and what it means to be a good person, or what it means to be a bad person, or what it means to be selfish, or what it means to be generous, or whatever. And I think the Jedi should always… they've always been held up in a way that is sort of unattainable.
And I think that's what we really see in the sequel trilogy, for Luke, is like, "I wanted to be a Jedi, but it was unattainable." Like it was, "I did everything I was supposed to do and I still messed up." And I think we have to look at that and say, “Was it always like that for the Jedi? Or was there a little bit more space for them to have those conversations with each other?" And I think when you have more people, as part of an organization, you have more latitude. You have more space to have those conversations and figure out the right and the wrong path. When you're the one, it's really hard to figure out, if I'm doing the right thing or the wrong thing, because you have nobody to bounce it off of.
For more of Justina Ireland’s work in Star Wars, check out the recent Marvel comic title Star Wars: War of the Bounty Hunters: Jabba the Hutt, as well as the upcoming High Republic tie-in manga, Edge of Balance. Star Wars: The High Republic: Out of the Shadows is available on July 27. For light and life.