Author Joe Schreiber is well known to readers as the mastermind behind the inspired Star Wars meets zombies novels Death Troopers and Red Harvest. Both New York times bestsellers, the novels have gained numerous fans and spawned an entire legion of stormtrooper zombie cosplayers.
Now, Schreiber has focused his talents on everyone's favorite Zabrak Sith Lord, Darth Maul, in his third Star Wars novel, Maul: Lockdown. I recently spoke with the author to discuss the nature of the Sith and the darker side of Star Wars. The interview appears below.
You've written some of the darkest, most violent stories the Star Wars Expanded Universe has to offer. What attracts you to the dark side of the Galaxy Far, Far Away?
In all honesty, I don’t really think about it as being the dark side. Is that wrong? Like our world, the Star Wars universe is a complex and deeply conflicted crucible, full of imperfect characters whose actions aren’t always noble and whose motives aren’t always pure. Aren’t we all broken vessels? In the case of Maul: Lockdown, I was excited about the idea of writing a main character who’s openly an antihero. There’s no pretense of self-righteousness in him, no false heroics.
With the recent acquisition of Lucasfilm by Disney, the impending release of a sequel trilogy, and the comic book rights to Star Wars going back to Marvel, there's a lot of speculation over the future of the EU. As both a Star Wars fan and Expanded Universe contributor, what's your take?
I think – or maybe “hope” is a better word – that the Powers That Be have the wisdom and common sense to realize how much pleasure the EU has brought to Star Wars fans over the past couple decades. Regarding Disney, there may be some changes (I can’t imagine that there won’t be, since they’ve already started) but in my heart of hearts, I can’t imagine the comics and novels that comprise the EU being significantly curtailed, even if it’s just a financial decision…which, of course, is exactly what it will be in the final analysis. The fanboy in me just wants them to stick around.
Being a big fan of the Sith, I appreciated the way you wrote them in Lockdown. They stay true to character, scheming, killing, double-crossing, but you don't write them as being evil for evilness sake. Could you share your opinion of the Sith? How do you see them? Their philosophy, their goals, etc?
I think it was James Luceno’s excellent Darth Plagueis novel that really made me realize the sheer narrative potential of the Sith, as far as the role they play politically within the Star Wars universe. James did such a terrific job giving us this penetrating x-ray of the ruthless, almost Watergate-style dynamic between Sidious and Plagueis, and in their scenes together he created a kind of lab for examining how true power and deception works within the Star Wars universe -- and our own hearts as well, for that matter.
Of course evil people don’t realize they’re evil. They don’t wake up in the morning twisting their mustache and tying helpless maidens to railroad tracks. They are individuals with the ambition, authority and intelligence to achieve their goals, and disregard the consequences. Chuck Klosterman talks about this in his new book which examines the phenomena of villainy, called I Wear the Black Hat, where he says that true villains are the ones who know most, but care the least about the consequences of what they do. In showing that they will do whatever’s necessary, with cold and remorseless efficiency, the Sith are far more chilling than some cackling, cartoonish Snidely Whiplash who’s just trying to demonstrate how draconian he is.
Along the same lines, I really enjoyed your characterization of Darth Maul. His desire to please Sidious, his unwavering loyalty to him, and genuine desire to contribute to the Sith's Grand Plan. In your opinion, who is Darth Maul?
To go back to the Darth Plagueis novel (because it’s really kind of my Rosetta Stone for this sort of question) James Luceno describes Maul in one scene as a kind of lethal house pet who has an intuitive awareness of what’s going on around him, but in another sense, is somewhat puzzled about the larger plan…and even the whereabouts of his master. That’s one side of it. Another side – one that we look at more closely in Lockdown – is Maul as an end-product of decades of the harshest training imaginable.
He’s an individual who will, without really stopping to think about it, exploit every aspect of his environment to his advantage, and refuse to give up until he’s dead. He’s not big on talking, doesn’t really have much use for threats. He is the threat. That nonverbal presence is far more evocative than some “watch out for me” monologue. He just has to look at the guy, and that’s the message.
I've read in several interviews that you don't consider yourself a "horror guy", that you just happen to gravitate towards stories with supernatural elements in them. What Star Wars character would you most want to write a story about along those lines?
A supernatural story about a Star Wars character that I haven’t written about yet? That’s an exciting question. To me, the ultimate supernatural character in Star Wars will always be Vader. He’s the lynchpin, the cornerstone of the castle -- he’s so deeply gothic in the old sense that the Germans and the Victorians wrote about, confined and defined by darkness, secrecy and the idea of aristocratic decay and, in some ways, madness. He’s a Poe character, in some ways, profoundly dark and doomed, the Roderick Usher of the Star Wars universe. Despite (or maybe because of) his last-minute redemption.
Your novels have included a level of gore and gritty violence not usually associated with Star Wars. Have there been any moments while writing them that you've wondered if you were going too far? What were some of those moments?
Looking back, there was probably some stuff in Red Harvest that could’ve been dialed back, scenes where the zombies were building a barrier by chewing up people and spitting out their flesh build a kind of wasps nest of congealed skin. That probably could’ve been toned down. Oh well. In general my tendency is to go as far as I think the scenario warrants, rather than deliberately holding back. Otherwise what you’re getting is a kind of watered down attempt, and that’s even worse.
Music seems to be a big influence on you. As I read Lockdown it was hard not to hear the songs you referenced for chapter titles in my head, particularly "Immigrant Song", which is a favorite Led Zeppelin song of mine and perfectly fit the chapter in which it was used. What drives your integration of music into the books you write?
I personally love it when authors refer to songs and bands in their work -- the more esoteric, the better. Besides “Immigrant Song” and some old blues music, Lockdown gave me a chance to go back and visit some of my favorite Rush songs – I went to go see them live last summer as I was doing the revisions, and their music flows just all through the book. I still love the idea of the whole 20th Century Fox fanfare going into some really nasty, snarling guitar. The driving force propels the story forward for me, whether it’s there overtly or not.
Sticking with the music theme, and as a big music fan myself, I have to ask, what would be your five song playlist for Lockdown?
Okay, so not counting the inevitable 20th Century Fox fanfare, we’ve got:
“The Devil’s Right Hand” - Johnny Cash (I’ve come to think of this version as Maul’s theme song in a long of ways. Cash’s fatalistic delivery, just him and his guitar, is as stark, straightforward and irrefutable as a crime scene photo.)
“Immigrant Song” - Led Zeppelin (when I heard the song as a kid, it scared me silly. Bonham’s drums and that blood-curdling scream...you just feel your whole body tighten up.)
“Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed” - Blind Willie Johnson (I stumbled across the original 1920s version of what would later become “In My Time of Dying,” and it’s as raw and as real as it gets. This song as much as anything shaped the Artagan Truax’s comments of what it means to take another man’s life.)
“Supremacy” - Muse (sounds like it was written for a Bond flick, which it might have been, but it’s got a soaring, monomaniacal arrogance that fits the scope of the Sith’s plans just fine.)
“Damage Inc.” - Metallica (in so many ways, the perfect Sith song for the last act of the story -- if you listen to the opening guitar part, it actually kind of sounds like a paranoid bathtub-crank version the Imperial March.)
Lockdown is loaded with Star Wars references. You include allusions to other EU novels (including a ship readers of your previous books are familiar with), both Clone Wars television series, Star Wars actors (I literally laughed out loud at the fat CO's name being Hootkins), and a host of locations and species that made Cog Hive Seven feel like a natural part of the Star Wars galaxy. What goes into deciding those connections? How do you decide which species, locations, tie-ins, etc, are included in the novel?
I’m glad you dug the Hootkins reference. He’s one of my favorites. Like virtually every other aspect of the novel, I sort of discover those things as I go along. There were some tie-ins that we wanted from the start. From the beginning we agreed it would be fun to include some component of Death Troopers, with Kloth and his ship, the Purge.
My editors Frank Parisi and Erich Schoeneweiss at Random House are so well-versed in the different species and locations that I’m constantly turning to them for insight and guidance. Ultimately when it comes to the how and why, I can’t describe the decision making process any more logically than a kid with a giant box of action figures can tell you why he picks the ones he does – sometimes you just want to have Batman fight a dinosaur, you know?
Finally, with your third Star Wars novel now in the rear view mirror, what's next for you?
Well, I’ve got a novel for middle grade readers coming out in March, about a kid who discovers his dad’s old video game system in the basement -- one of those ‘80s systems like the Atari 2600 -- and he sells it for ten bucks at a garage sale. Afterward he finds out his father’s really a CIA agent, and the game system was actually a top-secret portal to the government’s biggest database, which leaves the US vulnerable to attack from a ruthless cyber-villain with a giant mechanical cockroach. It’s called Game Over, Pete Watson. After that, I’m hoping to start a dysfunctional detective novel that I’ve been planning l called Death Wears a Big Hat. But we’ll see. This stuff is always changing. This time next year I could be writing a rock opera.
Thanks to Joe Schreiber for a fun interview and great playlist for Sith Lords in training! Maul: Lockdown hits shelves Tuesday, January 28. Come back then for a review from myself and Eric Carrasco!
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