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TFN Interview: Crucible Author Troy Denning

Posted by Eric on July 9, 2013 at 10:00 AM CST

Troy Denning is no stranger to the Star Wars Expanded Universe -- and he's no stranger to writing major moments in the EU, either. His latest Star Wars novel, Crucible, which was released today, represents a turning point in the adventures of the so-called "Big Three" Original Trilogy characters: Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, and Han Solo. In a lengthy interview, Denning explained that one of the goals for Crucible was to ease the Big Three into a new phase of life and prepare for the rise of the "next generation," led by Han and Leia's daughter Jaina Solo. "We didn't want to do anything permanent, so we didn't want to kill the Big Three," Denning told me, "but we wanted to show them coming to the realization that it was time to pass the torch."

Below, check out a lightly-edited transcript of my interview with Denning -- but beware of Crucible spoilers!


Why did you choose the title Crucible?

We spent a lot of time talking about titles and trying to figure out what to call the book. I had proposed several different titles and finally Shelly [Shapiro, Del Rey editor] informed me that they had come back with the idea of the title "Crucible" for the story. We all agreed that it fit. It has a couple of different meanings. One was the whole basic melting and re-forging idea, and then also the crucible that you go through as a transition -- the idea of changing people. We all agreed that it fit and the only hesitation I had was that I had already used it in the title on a Forgotten Realms book about fifteen years earlier. I guess that kind of shows your age when you're recycling your titles! I told them that and they were fine with it. We chose it because it really worked on several different levels.

Crucible felt like a swan song for the Big Three and a first step in the transition to the next generation. Were you asked to write the book that way, or did you just think it was time to push the characters in that direction?

When we start talking about passing the torch and transitioning to the next generation of characters, I think we need to look at a bigger picture. I actually started that in Apocalypse. A lot of what happens in Apocalypse is designed to set up the EU so that we can tell a lot of different kinds of stories, and bring in a lot more characters in a bigger way.

After I had finished Apocalypse, I think everybody recognized that it worked and worked well, and the editors asked me to write Crucible. The idea they approached me with was to write a swan song. They didn't quite put it that way, because I think there was a lot of uncertainty about exactly how we wanted to walk this tightrope. They knew they didn't want to kill the big three, but I had the feeling that they had all agreed it was time to make room for the next generation and pass the torch

When you first started writing books set after Return of the Jedi, did you expect that the Big Three would still be fighting after this many decades?

I don't know that I actually expected it. I don't know if, ten years ago, I was thinking about whether or not Han, Leia, and Luke were still going to be leading the charge in the EU in 2013 -- or whether I would be writing them. I can't honestly say I had that much foresight. But it doesn't surprise me. It's hard to imagine Star Wars without them at least in the pre-Disney era. But we've advanced the timeline to the point where that question has started to come up in people's minds: Are the big three too old? I don't think that question is really as appropriate as, "Is it time to emphasize the next generation? To give them some limelight and allow them to take the lead in the stories?"

In what ways have you tried to show Luke, Han, and Leia changing with age?

Primarily, what I tried to do is show them growing wiser and more at peace with their place in the galaxy. That's the crux of what I've been trying to get at especially with Luke, but with Leia and Han as well. I was showing them going from being people who are a little bit restless and always trying to change the galaxy to [people who have] acquired the wisdom to realize their place in the galaxy,� to understand what the galaxy is all about, and what life is all about. I deliberately tried not to concentrate too much on the physical effects of aging -- to acknowledge those effects, without really concentrating on them.

I guess that's because, when I was in my 30s and 40s, I was still doing a lot of athletic stuff -- judo and so forth -- and I was coming across guys in their 60s and 70s [who] were just incredible. So I had a sense of what was really possible even in our own real world. People that are 60 and 70 can still be very formidable. They may not be what they used to be, compared to when they were a top-notch Olympic athlete. They may not be able to run 100 yards in 9 seconds anymore, but if they've stayed in shape and continued to train, they can still probably run it a lot faster than most people. I think most people underestimate what somebody in their 60s or 70s is truly capable of, if they've been training every day -- as a Jedi would be.

And then we also need to account for the medicine that these people would have. Think about it: We don't have the Force. The big three do. We know that the Force helps with aging. We don't have bacta, and they do. Their medicine is presumably quite a bit more advanced than ours. And they have cybernetics. So, yeah, I have always felt that physical aging was not really the key to showing the big three mature in the galaxy.

Is your attempt to show the Big Three learning more about their place in the universe an attempt to transition away from showing them in combat? And if so, is that related to their age -- even if they are Jedi with incredible health and medicine?

I get where you're going with that, and I'm going to say no, and I'm going to tell you why. When I turned 35 or so, I earned my first-degree black belt in Judo. I was a pretty decent Judo player. There was a year in our federation [when] I never lost a match in our little tournaments. But we would go down to the Grand Master's schools once a month and we would randori our fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-level Masters and Grand Masters. These guys had been doing Judo their whole lives. They'd been doing it every day right up until the time that I was randori-ing with them.

These guys are half my size, they're twice my age, and we would go out on the mat and they would just wipe it with us. They'd throw us around like we were rag dolls, and I would be so exhausted -- and I was in great shape at the time -- that I could hardly stand up. There would be two or three of us regular black belts for every one of these guys, and we would cycle through and rest for ten or fifteen minutes and then go back out. Those guys never sat down, and they were sixty or seventy years old. Just incredible.

That really gave me some insight into what a lifetime of good, hard physical training -- staying in shaping and really toeing the line -- can do for a person. Basically, when I think of an old Jedi, those are the guys I think of. I can't imagine, if these guys had the Force, how long they could live and still be tossing youngsters like me around.

But what about Han? He's not quite on Luke and Leia's level, but he seems to be keeping up with them in a way that I would not have expected.

One of the things that I'm trying to do with Han [is] show him lagging a little bit in terms of the physical stuff. He's just not quite up to the level that Luke and Leia are. I view him as the guy who's constantly working really hard to keep up, but things are taking a bit more of a toll on him. I think I've shown that increasingly through all of my later books. He's always getting beat up a little bit more, and we talk about his age a little bit more. But I still view him as basically the equivalent of these Judo masters. He lives with the Jedi, he hangs around with the Jedi, and I imagine he's working out every day pretty damn hard -- and getting some pretty top-notch medical care -- to make sure that he stays with them. But he's definitely the guy for whom aging is starting to take its toll.

I was not expecting Luke and Leia to basically die and be resurrected at the end of the book. What were you trying to say or show in that scene?

I always have two sets of goals for a book: there are the goals I'm assigned, and then there are the goals I add. My assigned goals were basically to write a passing-of-the-torch book. We didn't want to do anything permanent, so we didn't want to kill the big three, but we wanted to show them coming to the realization that it was time to pass the torch. That's a pretty big deal. These are not characters who step back lightly. They don't say, "Ah hell, I'm tired, I need a break," or "It's time for me to retire." They would never do that. So I had to come up with something that showed them coming to the realization that it's time.

One of the things I began to think was that it really had to be big. It had to be something that really rocked them. Luke has been fighting Abeloth, so it takes a lot to rock him. Luke is accustomed to functioning on a spiritual frame. And then I had to figure out how to take not only Luke, but also Leia and Han, to that spiritual plane, because that's really what we're talking about -- coming to this realization spiritually. I had to show all three going through the crucible together, to make them come to this epiphany. That was the thinking behind having it occur inside the monolith.

I'm debating how much I really want to say about the physical process of what happens to them inside, in terms of their dying and being resurrected -- as you put it -- because there's a lot that's being said about the Force in those chapters. I don't want to spell it out for people. It'll be more fun for people to read it and come to their own conclusions. Sometimes I'm surprised what people think and sometimes I'm not!
Everything that happens [in the monolith] happens because of the nature of the Force.

And then after the "resurrection" of sorts, there's the memory loss that they experience. How did that factor into your goals as far as passing the torch was concerned?

Okay, I don't want people thinking I'm dodging the question, so I'm going to go a little bit more in-depth here. I think people have to go back to what Yoda said: "For my ally is the Force. And a powerful ally it is. Life creates it and makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings we are, not this crude matter." That's really, at heart, some of what happens inside the monolith chapters. When [the Big Three] sort of die and come back, it's almost as much a statement about the Force as about them.

So is it like a rebirth of the Force through them?

No, I wouldn't say that the Force is reborn through them. Not at all. I would say that they're reborn through the Force. It would be much closer to that. But I'm not even willing to take it that far. [laughs] And certainly not in any religious sense. What happens to Luke and Leia inside the monolith is closer to becoming one with the Force --- without a physical death -- and extracting themselves again.

The epiphany they arrive at is the result of their crude-matter "beings" being taken apart and stripped down to their luminous core. They go through the transition and the epiphany and then they come back. When you see Luke, he comes back with his memory a lot more intact than Leia does when she comes back and has to rebuild herself. It's a function of seeing him second, of course, but also of him having a little stronger essence in the Force.

Allana Solo doesn't appear in this novel. Was that a conscious choice or a coincidental omission?

I wanted to focus on the idea of the transition to the next generation, but the story is about these characters [the Big Three]. What I was looking for, as far as Jaina, Jag, Ben, and Tahiri are concerned, was a little bit of a symbolic presence. I didn't want to have them too involved in the story, because then it would have felt like a normal story, where we have both generations involved. I wanted to have enough of the younger generation involved for Luke, Leia, and Han to realize, "Okay, we can pass the torch to these people and they can handle it, they can take care of it." That's really why the younger generation was there at all [in Crucible].

Allana not being there was just a reflection of the fact that I only needed a handful of characters to create the symbol. And Allana is one generation removed from the generation that's coming up next. It had much more to do with her age and her position in the story, in terms of who has reached the time in their lives where it's appropriate for them to step up and take the lead. Jaina is there and Tahiri is there. Ben is getting there. But Allana is still quite a ways away from that. That's not to say she's not important in the galaxy. But in terms of being the character who's going to drive the story forward by being the main action hero, she's not there yet. She would still be somebody who is the object of the plot rather than the subject of the plot.

Did you have any particular reason for bringing back Vestara? What is the goal as far as her character goes?

Vestara is in the story for two reasons. One, we want to take the stories in a new direction, but we don't want to drop the threads that we have already weaved into the stories behind us. In my view, Vestara is probably going to be a pretty important thread to the future of the EU. So I didn't want to drop that thread completely. I wanted to keep it there to emphasize that we're not just starting over [and] we're not turning away from what we've been doing. We're just opening up the possibilities, and there are still going to be these threads. But we're going to weave them in a different way and open up some new possibilities.

With the nine-book Fate of the Jedi series, you had two other authors working on the project and there was a lot of collaboration among the three of you and the folks at Lucasfilm. While Crucible is a standalone, it's still very closely tied into the broader arc of this era. How much were you conversing with other authors working in this era, like Sword of the Jedi trilogy writer Christie Golden? To what extent were you thinking father ahead for this standalone than you might have been for a book set in a more circumscribed era?

I had quite a bit of conversation about it. I don't want people to misinterpret what I'm saying and think that I'm driving the future of the EU, because that's not the case. But I have certainly been apprised of what the editors were thinking would follow Crucible. I was apprised of Sword of the Jedi long before it became public because I needed to know what my goals were and where my endpoint was -- and why the editors were looking for a swan song.

So I was told about Sword of the Jedi, and about a few other plans they were considering for the rest of the EU. When I heard about them, I was so enthused. I was like, "Oh god, this is going to be great!" I saw that what I had tried to open up in Apocalypse had, in fact, been opened up, and there were going to be tons of different kinds of stories to explore with the Jedi. We wouldn't find ourselves constantly coming back to, "Oh, we have to have a war; we have to have a political crisis." We'd finally moved ourselves into a position where we could move in some new directions and still tell very big stories. That's about all I can actually answer about that.

Let's talk about the Qrephs. Were they entirely new characters? What appealed to you about them? What made them cool enough to be the villains of this book?

They were new. Their only relationship to the previous EU is that their mother was a character whom Han and Chewbacca visited in Scoundrel's Luck, which was a West End Games book that I had written in 1990. They'd visited the Qrephs' mother in one entry in that game book.

There were a lot of things that appealed to me [with the Qrephs]. One of the things I wanted to do with Crucible was deal with a different kind of threat. I'm so used to dealing with Sith and big villains that can kick your ass physically. I really liked the idea of coming up with a villain who had something else going for him. With these guys, obviously, it was their intelligence and technological savvy. They could create all of this stuff that would be very difficult to deal with, and they could put these galaxy-spanning plans into motion and everybody else was left trying to catch up, always three steps behind. I really enjoyed that about them.

I also wanted a villain who would be dangerous without being all-powerful. The Qrephs deliberately have some very vulnerable places. They're pretty good at planning and dealing with technology, but when it comes to the Force, they are absolutely clueless. That's the fulcrum of their ultimate hubris. They can pretty much take care of anything, but they can't understand the Force.

I wanted to have some fun with characters who were a little bit quirky and not ... I mean, the Qrephs present a serious threat, but they're not always taken seriously. If you think about Darth Vader, there's not a moment on-screen where you're laughing or snickering at him. I wanted villains where you could actually do a little bit of snickering at them.

They did have that element of funny grandiosity.

Yeah, and it's also that they're not human villains. I wanted to try and get that across. Their frame of reference and the way they think is not the same as a human villain. They have unique vulnerabilities and unique strengths. I wanted to explore that aspect too.

Other authors have staked out positions in earlier time periods, like Drew Karpyshyn in the Old Republic era. What draws you to the outer edge of the novel timeline, which you have helped push farther outward since Dark Nest I in 2005?

There are a lot of different factors. One is that I like living dangerously, and when you're working on the front edge of continuity like this, almost anything you do is going to upset somebody's apple cart. I've found that you have to be willing to do what you and the editors think is right. You just have to be willing to commit and go. I like that purity of purpose, realizing that I've got to commit and I've got to go and I'm going to make mistakes and I'm going to do things that people don't like. You just do it, and you're a lot more at risk out there.

For instance, if I go back and think about Tatooine Ghost, the biggest risk I took was introducing a cameo of Thrawn. With everything else in that book, I'm not really going to be taking the timeline anywhere new and surprising people. But up in front [of the timeline], whatever decision you make with a story, you're upsetting an apple cart. Is Jaina going to marry Jag or is she going to marry Zekk? No matter what you decide, somebody is going to be disappointed, because she didn't marry the guy they wanted her to marry.

There are a million decisions like that, and what that requires of you as a writer is to focus on what you think is the best story and on the goals and� parameters� you've worked out with the editors -- as well as what you're trying to achieve in the balance of the whole EU.

Another thing that I really like about working in this era is that I'm almost always thinking about the EU as a whole. I'm always thinking about what is going to keep the Expanded Universe interesting and alive and vibrant. Especially with Apocalypse, that was one of my primary goals, and what I loved doing was being able to open it up.
Another thing is that I love working with the Big Three. They live on the forward edge of the continuity.

Do you have any interest in writing books set much earlier in the EU?

I think I would [be interested]. It would all depend on the project and what's going on with the EU at the time. All of that's a big question right now with the Disney takeover. I would say I would always be interested in writing any Star Wars story, but I think the jury is out about exactly where until the new script is in.

Let's talk about the Sequel Trilogy and the spinoff films. It seems clear that Lucasfilm won't be drawing stories directly out of the Expanded Universe, but if they did want to pluck some characters or locations from the books and comics (like George Lucas did with Aayla Secura and Coruscant), which ones would you most like to see on screen?

Jaina Solo, first and foremost, is the EU character that I would be dying to see on the big screen. She's the one who would contribute the most. I don't know what story they're telling, but I can tell you that she has a lot to offer to just about any story� I can see them telling. I'd want to see the "sword of the Jedi" involved.
As a bit of ego-stroking, I would love to see Saba Sebatyne get a cameo or play a minor part as a Jedi Master. I think that would be really cool for me. That'd be fan service to Troy; I'm not sure how many other people would be dying to see that, but it would be fun for me.

I'd like to see my StealthXs brought to life on the big screen, too. I think that'd be a blast. I invented them, and I've had a lot of fun playing with them, and I think they'd be a cool gizmo for the Jedi to have.

Disney executives have said that they're looking into possible Star Wars television projects. Which era of the EU do you think offers the greatest potential for a TV show?

As I look back at the success of Game of Thrones, and that kind of political soap opera and the amount of suspense and intrigue brought into the story, I think I would go with the Legacy of the Force and Fate of the Jedi, telling the story of Jacen's fall. I think that would be cool to do on TV. (Did you really expect me to say something else?)

Do you have an actor in mind to play Jacen, in case Disney came to you and asked for help casting that TV show?

That is such a remote possibility that I haven't even daydreamed about it. [laughs] I don't really have an actor in mind that I would automatically think of as Jacen, but I'm sure they're out there.

Obviously you can't speak for Lucasfilm here, but I want to ask you about the next stage of the Expanded Universe. How would you like to see it play out? Do you want the EU to adapt to the chronology of the new movies, take a totally separate path (maybe continuing the way it was going before the Sequels were announced), or something in between?

That is a really excellent question, and I have no idea where they're going with the EU or the movies. I know nothing about any of that stuff. I wonder...should I be worried about that? [laughs]

It's very hard for me to even contemplate what should happen without knowing what is going to happen, but my general thought is that I want to see the screenwriters have the freedom they need to make a great movie. That's first and foremost, that's my primary goal, and I think it should be everybody's primary goal -- to get some more, really kickass Star Wars movies out there. Whatever the movie people need to achieve that, I would be good with. If that means keeping the EU, great. If it means not keeping the EU, I'd be sad to see it go, but I still think that, ultimately, Star Wars would be better-served by having these guys tell the story they want to tell.

That being said, I think there are a lot of things they could pull from the EU, that they could use and incorporate and build on. But I don't know that I would want to see them try to adhere too strictly to the EU. I worry that there's so much material out there that it would be a straightjacket for them.

Before you say, "Should the EU become the AU, or should we go back and restart it and do a new EU?" I think we can't even begin to answer [those questions] until we begin seeing what the movie looks like. I'm sure there's somebody out there who does know the answer, but it isn't me.

Big thanks to Troy Denning for being so generous with his time and getting into some fundamental Expanded Universe topics at this exciting time for Star Wars fans. Star Wars: Crucible is on sale now from Del Rey Books.

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