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E.K. Johnston and the women of Star Wars

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Aug 1, 2018, 3:02 PM EDT

One of the most exciting announcements to drop during this year's San Diego Comic-Con was a new novel set in the Star Wars universe. E.K. Johnston, the author who gave us Ahsoka, has written the Padmé Amidala book we’ve been waiting for, Queen’s Shadow. It’s the story of Padmé’s transition from the teenage queen of Naboo to full-fledged Senator.

“Planetary politics to galactic politics,” Johnston tells me. And she is no stranger to writing amazing women in extraordinary circumstances. The powerhouse author has several books under her belt with more on the way, including not just the Star Wars title, but also a new, delightfully subversive fantasy novel, The Afterward, due out next year.

EK Johnston

In Ahsoka, we read about Ahsoka Tano’s time between the stories we know. Just after the loss of the Jedi, but before the true rebellion had begun building, we got to see a vulnerable Ahsoka learning to be who she needed to be. That’s a running theme in Johnston’s work: women building themselves up despite (or because of) the circumstances they find themselves in. So why this part of Padmé’s life?

“I just remember when I was 14 The Phantom Menace came out and I absolutely loved it. I loved Padmé. Because she was 14 and I was 14. I thought, 'I feel like we would be great friends.'” she says. “I loved the girl gang that came out of this story. How you have these girls who are really good at fashion and espionage and hand-to-hand combat. And they can fly ships. And they can shoot people. But they can also read body language really well and infiltrate meetings and they're completely invisible. I loved that idea of a character. So when they asked, ‘Do you want to write a Padmé Amidala book?’ I was like, ‘How many of the handmaidens do I get?’”

Possibly a byproduct of the way the prequels are derided, Padmé’s handmaidens are oft forgotten when it comes to conversations about women in Star Wars. But Johnston wants to shift the spotlight onto these very important young, female characters.

“There's this distance around Queen Amidala that there can't be around Senator Amidala. She has to be much more approachable. Amidala herself is not one person. She's always been two people. So, the other part of the book is where Sabé fits into the new organization and what the handmaidens are going to do. Again, they've been like running a planet as 14-year-olds, what are they going to do now that they're moving on to the next stage of their lives.” Johnston pauses here and considers the group of young women she’s talking about. “The handmaidens, for me, have always been the epitome of [hope and working together] because they're these girls who are the best of friends, in this slightly complicated friendship. They know that someday they might have to take a bullet for Padmé. And Padmé knows that someday they might take a bullet for her. And that, I believe, probably makes a friendship a little weird."

“I think of it sometimes in terms of Frodo and Sam. The relationship between them. That was my approach to writing the dynamic. You have these two people whose bond is just incredibly difficult to explain. And people will spend decades theorizing about it.”

Queens Shadow Cover
The relationship between the handmaidens and Padmé sounds like it will be central to the story of Queen’s Shadow. There’s a deep mythology around Padmé Amidala in the Star Wars films, but she’s not someone that we know as well as her daughter, Leia. “In the movies [Padmé’s], for the most part, professionally un-crackable.” Johnston says, “And a lot of that is a team effort. All of the handmaidens are involved. It's a very long con, they're always on camera, they practice so much that they very rarely relax, even when they're just with their own personal guards. You very rarely catch them — even if it's just like Padmé and a couple of handmaidens–in an unguarded moment because they just operate on a really high-level of ready-to-go-ness. Being able to break into a few of those moments was fun.” Johnston’s information understandably gets vaguer from this point on. The book isn’t out until March of 2019, after all. “A couple of the characters get isolated. Or they're in different situations and then you get to sort of play around with who they meet and how they interact with who they meet.”

What she can say is how wonderful it was to be able to write these characters at all. “It was just such a gift to write super intelligent, highly competent girls.” Johnston continues, “I love reading [about] stoic female characters who have a ton of emotions going on, they're just not showing them to you right now. Padmé and Sabé have mastered that as pre-teens and now they're 18 and they're really good at it. Learning that they're going to have to start letting people in and that they're going to have to sort of adapt if they're going to do the sort of large scale thing that they want to try… it was really fun to write that.”

One thing is very clear when talking Star Wars with E.K. Johnston, and that is that she loves the women of the galaxy far, far away. “I think in a lot of ways it's because they are quite aspirational. They're all relatively young. Jyn, I believe, is the oldest, and she's 22. Iden might be older than Jyn. But they're basically teenagers, or in their early twenties. And even if they don't necessarily have a firm direction, they just have so many goals. They're so passionate but they are also so compassionate about everything. And to have these multitude of characters with that background, I just love.

“Everyone from Leia, who grew up as a princess, to Rey, who grew up with nothing, to Rose and Paige Tico, who had this incredibly traumatic childhood… you get the hope and the compassion and the team-working-ness of all of them.”

Who can say no to strong, smart women in our favorite franchise? Queen’s Shadow comes out March 5, 2019.

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