Warning! Major spoilers ahead! Please read Star Wars: Alphabet Squadron before continuing if you don’t want to be spoiled…
For fifteen plus years now, Alexander Freed has held many titles, game designer, novelist, editor, and comic book writer just to name a few. During his time at video game developer BioWare, he was part of the in-house writing staff where he served as Lead Writer on multiple projects.
After leaving BioWare, he continued to work on video game franchises such as Star Wars: The Old Republic, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age to great success.
His writing career would take a significant leap forward in 2015 with the release of his first Star Wars novel, Battlefront: Twilight Company. He would have successive releases after that with 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and 2017’s “Contingency Plan", his addition to the great anthology book From a Certain Point of View.
It’s his latest release, “Star Wars: Alphabet Squadron” that seems to be the culmination of all that effort and is indeed a high mark for Alexander. The book is a dense, character driven, exposition heavy examination of one of more chaotic times in Star Wars history and its people.
It takes place after the Battle of Endor and focuses on a group of New Republic pilots hunting down an Imperial group called “Shadow Wing”. It’s a soaring team-building achievement and introduces us to some of the more memorable Star Wars characters to come about in this relatively young canon era. And best of all, it's only just the beginning as Alphabet Squadron is a full blown trilogy, something they announced way back when.
I was fortunate enough to be able to speak to Alexander at length where we discussed many things about the story and its characters in depth. Here are the highlights of that discussion.
I should note that this interview took place prior to the book’s official release date of June 11th.
Hello Alexander! Thanks so much for doing this. Let’s start with the most recent bit of news, Del Rey dropping character art for the Alphabet Squadron. What were your thoughts when you saw them? I myself didn’t peg Nath for a ponytail type of guy!
I think they all look fantastic. As far as Nath is concerned, there was two looks for him that they drew, one with the samurai/top knot look and one without. The book doesn’t really contradict this look, the ponytail, and it looked great so that’s the one we went with in the end. He seemed like the sort of person that would cover up a receding hairline with a ponytail so that seemed right to me.
There’s going to be similar designs for the book two and three covers so certain characters will get the color treatment should they find themselves on the cover. But even just in black and white, they all look fantastic, Chass, Kairos, and Wyl.
Since the book is about the five Alphabets, let’s start with them. Quell is such a great character and is somewhat reminiscent of another famous defector, Iden Versio. We’re really seeing her struggle with her chosen path though.
Quell is relatively young but not as young as some of the others. And even though she had been well indoctrinated, she managed to retain some sense of independence. It helped that she never fully and truly bought in to the Imperial regime.
She’s in this interesting position where she wants to do something good, contribute to the New Republic. And having been part of the 204th they figured this is how she could be most useful to them. It’s not so much that she has a grudge against Shadow Wing, rather more of a burning desire to be of service to the New Republic. It’s these factors that lead her right back to Shadow Wing, not necessarily a yearning to fight them.
She takes all these feelings of loyalty and mixed emotions of fighting her old friends and sort of locks it away in the back of her head. She’s able to do that because she’s very good at compartmentalization and an overriding desire to prove herself to the New Republic.
But we see it come out now and then; we get some flashbacks thinking about her mentor and time within the group. She’s pretty good at locking away the emotions she doesn’t want to admit to, and that has an adverse effect on her mental health.
It’s not necessarily the healthiest aspect of her currently and why she comes across as not valuing loyalty, or at the least in the same way the others do.
We do see her grow across the course of the book into a more loyal person though, especially when it concerns Alphabet Squadron. This group that she helped build and has committed to, is starting to change who she is.
But for now, if it’s a problem for her and she has no other choice, she’s able to pretend otherwise.
A contributing factor to that mental breakdown is that she’s unrealistically hard on herself and is her own toughest critic. We’ve seen that potentially destructive behavior before from Imperials, that ultra-self-critical conduct.
In the Empire, they are trained to put their performance as soldiers and pilots first. So, part of that means seeing themselves and other pilots as replaceable units, and the idea of “am I doing my job” is inherently linked to this thought that they are just faulty components.
Yrica also doesn’t really have a whole lot going on in her world, aside from this fight. She left everything she knew behind to join the New Republic.
As with so many others, when the thing she is focused on most starts going wrong, it brings up a lot of other issues. Even if those other issues are only tangentially related. If this one thing that I’m trying very hard to accomplish doesn’t go well, then I’m totally worthless because none of these other things are going well either.
So, it just kind of piles up.
The book starts off with Quell and perhaps my favorite character from the book, the reprogrammed, multi-purpose, ex-interrogation droid, IT-O or “Ito”. Where did the idea to have a repurposed “torture droid” come from?
The idea of “Ito” started with just the notion that if I’ve got this group of pilots, none of whom are particularly well adjusted, how interesting would it be if they had a team therapist?
It wasn’t going to be a droid at first, but when I thought of inserting a droid into this role it made sense to not make it an obvious choice. I didn’t want it to be a medical droid or something. I’m not sure what made me think of IT-O, but I thought at some point why not a reprogrammed interrogation droid? It seemed to make a lot of sense to me after that.
I figured an interrogation droid must have a whole host of programming related to judging someone’s mental capacities, able to detect suffering, able to tell if someone is telling the truth. They must have all that built into their hardware and software, so gradually all those bits came into my head.
Honestly, I had always wanted to involve an interrogation droid in my stories, going as far back as “From a Certain Point of View”. My first idea for that book, which was discarded, was to write something from the perspective of that interrogation droid from the Vader/Leia scene on the Death Star. Those are frightening little machines, so it was something I’ve wanted to do for some time.
It was writing the Rogue One novel and writing from K-2SO’s perspective that really gave me the confidence that I could write from the perspective of a droid. So, once I had all of that, the pieces fell into place kind of naturally.
Now, deciding to play Ito straight was a revelation because there are already so many comedy droids of different flavors within Star Wars. And in the “scary droid” category we’ve already got the Mr. Bones and HK-47’s of the world so I didn’t want to go that route. I wanted to take this horrifying creation and go sincere as possible.
The concept is a little whacky but by playing it straight we were able to create a real character there. It’s also an interesting way, albeit a bit of a cheap trick; of peeling back some layers of the other characters. But Ito has more than enough going on that it doesn’t feel like a story shortcut.
Also, I have to say that while I was working on this book, it was pointed out to me that Robot Chicken has this character “Dr. Ball”, this whacky and delightful torture droid doctor. I consider that parallel development as I had not been aware of that prior, so no direct connection. I admit that I’m completely delighted by it.
For me, Ito never feels that Avant Garde. Maybe because I’m such a fan of droids and artificial intelligence, but I really connected with him from the get-go, even empathized with him. This was certainly the case in his interactions with Adan Caern.
I wanted him to be read that way so I’m glad to hear you say it. But, there’s enough oddity with the whole idea, enough layers to peel back, that readers will hopefully arrive there, just maybe at different points in the story.
The relationship between Adan and Ito isn’t always a friendly one, and it can be hard to tell when that line is crossed, from therapist/patient to friendship or respect. They have an interesting vibe between them and a complicated past that we sort of suggest but don’t get overtly told to us. We can certainly make some assumptions and most of those would probably be in the right general area.
Across the board, Adan is not someone who’s necessarily good at hiding his concerns or irritations, and often takes it out on others. And Ito is one of the very few people who can sort of role with that. He is one of the few that understands what’s going on in Adan’s head and unlike other folks, doesn’t lash out at him and doesn’t take it personally.
Speaking of droids, Quell’s relationship with them is problematic when the book starts. She’s learning that Rebels treat their droids much differently than the Empire does and that’s odd behavior for her. She even has a hard time connecting with her own droid, D6-L.
For sure. She sees someone like Wyl Lark, who is a droid person in the way someone is a dog person. He’s naturally empathetic and curious towards droids because of where he grew up, he’s drawn to them. They see a kindred spirit in him.
Coming from the Empire where even people are disposable tools, droids are certainly way down the line. So, Quell doesn’t view droids in the same way Wyl does, or the Rebellion in general. She’s deeply uncomfortable with the droid in her X-Wing and what that relationship is supposed to look like. She’s unsure what she ought to be feeling about D6-L, although that does change a bit by the end of this first book.
But even still at the end, she doesn’t have a firm grasp on how it works, even if she’s beginning to understand it a bit better.
Every successful coalition usually has a true believer, and for the Alphabet Squadron that’s A-Wing pilot Wyl Lark.
Yes, indeed. Wyl is obviously very good hearted and is pretty much an open book, certainly compared to the rest. This doesn’t mean he’s naïve necessarily, but he does lack a lot of experience. Because of that he understands the complexities of things but isn’t always sure what to do about them.
This also means he often falls back on solutions he’s more comfortable with when dealing with the moral complexities of any given situation. But honest to a fault, he also acknowledges he needs to learn more.
Helping him with that is his new buddy, Y-Wing pilot Nath Tensent. Nath seems like the anti-Wyl when it comes to morality and idealism, do you think Wyl has a firm grasp on Nath’s make-up?
Wyl is certainly aware that Nath is a questionable individual. He goes into that relationship with somewhat open eyes it’s just that he’s also willing to give Nath the benefit of the doubt. The surface level of it is that they get along well, they like one another, and they have a good time, and all of that is true.
But then there’s also this undercurrent where Nath is manipulating Wyl a little bit for personal gain. So, you’re not sure if Wyl is aware that he’s being manipulated or not. But, despite all these layers in the relationship, the fact is they do like one another.
Nath is sort of your classic rogue/rebel archetype, that we’ve seen before in Star Wars. Tough on the outside, but loyal, and capable of making real connections with people. Can we expect to see him through to the end?
I won’t say exactly, but Nath is in it at least for medium haul. He doesn’t have a lot of ideological attachments to the New Republic at this point, but we do know that he cared about his original crew. When he defected from the Empire, he took them with him and ran that crew for years, so he’s got vengeance on his mind.
He put that quest for vengeance aside for a while but in the end, his loyalty has at least played some motivation in joining the Alphabets. That and maybe some credits.
We see that he’s perfectly capable of being a decent human being and forming bonds with other people, something he’s done to an extent by the end of book.
But where does that go and how strong those bonds are is a reasonable question to ask, I think. He has risked his life for his squad before, so he has some sense of tribal loyalty, even if he is lacking ideologically. Whether he feels that way about the Alphabets is something we’ll have to wait and see.
One of the interesting bits of information about Chass na Chadic, and there are many, is her idolization of Jyn Erso. How did that come about?
The notion that some of this story relates so well to Jyn Erso and having Chass look up to her, was a late addition during the outlining process.
Jyn’s story, what would become the official version of it after Scarif, the way her reputation would be developed within the Rebellion; it just seemed like a great fit.
Having done the Rogue One novelization, her story is probably in my head more than most any other character. She’s very much part of my personal smaller Star Wars universe, so it was an idea orbiting around in my head that was easily plucked.
Chass is a character who has a very complicated and traumatic past, and by joining the rebellion, she was able to find a purpose in her life. As it turns out, Jyn Erso was the guiding light that managed to bring her to that important decision.
She clearly doesn’t have a personal relationship with Jyn, having only had that one minor encounter, so she’s more about the legend of and inspiration behind that character.
The notion of “is the galaxy too small when characters and events are too tightly packed together” is a tricky one when writing Star Wars. You want it to feel like it’s part of the same world as the films, but you can get too connected, and so then what’s the point.
For me I really like the middle ground, where we may not be spending time with certain characters, they still have an outside importance. Their legend is going to be viewed in different ways, by different characters and in different parts of the galaxy.
So, I liked getting to use Jyn in that way, it felt a little fresher than say someone idolizing Luke Skywalker. There’s room for that obviously, but we have not seen a lot of Jyn Erso idolatry before, so it had a lot of narrative appeal and benefits.
Without question, the most enigmatic and interesting character must be Kairos. There’s so much to unpack there, but one of the things I got from the book was that her fight with the “Emperor” seems like a personal one. And she’s also quite violent when compared to the rest.
Kairos and the Emperor don’t have a personal relationship, her reference to him is more indicative of how she views the galaxy. She thinks a lot in archetypes, in symbolism, and in big broad terms. Not in a naïve way necessarily but just in a framework where she relates these things to bigger concepts.
She chooses not to speak even though we know she can, and she’s wrapped herself up in something. What’s beneath that and what was Kairos before she cocooned herself in that mask and outfit? And is she coming out of it at some point? These are all questions you should ask yourself.
But behaving this way has served her well when dealing with the Empire. She’s really the only person on the team who’s been infused with a sort of vicious anti-Imperialism. All the other characters, including Chass, as brutal as she can be, doesn’t respond to the Empire in the same way Kairos does, with absolute abhorrence.
Her introduction to Adan and Ito seems to have been in unpleasant circumstances, likely having met at an Imperial prison. Will we get to learn more about their history together?
It’s obviously fair to say Kairos is part of the Ito/Adan triangle. Those three are intimately connected and we will explore some of their history, but it will be mostly told in broad strokes, explicit suggestions and generalities.
Adan is a tricky one because he’s an important part of the story but more on the periphery. So, anything that goes too deep into his background I must ask myself how relevant it is to the overall story.
As for Kairos, we will most certainly be learning more about her as an individual, where she comes from, and what is driving her.
The book drops us in the middle of chaos really. This point in the timeline is disordered, senseless, and the galaxy is amid great change. You deal with that head on, the problem of transitioning from one ruling body to another. And the messy business of a war coming to an end.
The Empire isn’t a small group or faction that managed to control the galaxy with the help of outside input. The Empire permeated everything which means if you’re the New Republic, your goal can no longer be to arrest everyone who ever worked for the Empire. That could potentially mean trillions of people in the entire galaxy.
Once you disregard the bottom layers of that, you’re going to end up with situations where you have refugee and prisoners of war camps. Where do you draw that line when dealing with this government that has perpetrated so many atrocities and a galaxy that was complicit in these atrocities?
If you’re the New Republic how do you view these people and how do you sort them? Who is deserving of a second chance versus who is deserving of a war crimes tribunal, possibly facing a life sentence in prison?
These are issues that are not only in the back of Quell’s mind, but also an undercurrent through everything else that is going on.
And that’s just one aspect of the galactic chaos that is occurring now. Even if you set aside the war, this is a massive upheaval in what civilization looks like and that’s meaty stuff to dig into.
That’s right and depicting both sides of this war and upheaval is something others have done, and so do you. The passage where Wyl and Blink converse across enemy lines is an example of that.
The scene between Wyl and Blink, even though it’s a bit of ruse, is there to show you what the chase looks like from both of their perspectives.
These aren’t people looking to make friends. These are people desperately scrambling for survival and trying to prevent this ship from getting to a place where it can get the message out that will help slaughter all their buddies in the 204th.
Sure, for the Hellion’s Dare there’s this absolute terror of being hunted and chased, but you realize there’s been attrition on the other side as well.
But we’re not done with Blink, that thread has not ended with book one.
It’s a confusing time for this New Republic and as Hera mentions, what they look like when they come out on the other side, will be drastically altered.
Fundamentally you’ve got a group of people, talking about the Rebellion, who for the most part is a good-hearted bunch. The rebellion is not a deeply morally gray organization; they’re pretty much the good guys in this fight. Individuals will vary of course but generally they are a group of good folks.
And up till now, they’ve had the privilege of being the underdogs, and that in a lot of ways can be a simpler spot to be in. They have been in a position where having the moral high ground has not been as difficult as it is about to become.
And although being oppressed is awful in almost every way, it does allow for a certain degree of moral clarity and insight.
Few would argue that they’ve done a great service to the galaxy by removing the Emperor and sending the Empire into this downward spiral. But for all the things they have gained, they have lost a bit of that moral clarity in the process. That’s something they need to struggle to maintain and reshape if they want a new Republic worth protecting.
One of the few things Kairos utters is, “the Emperor’s shadow is long” and that sentiment is once again represented by a “Messenger”. Is the Emperor and his sentinels something we can expect to see more of?
That is definitely a notion that is going to continue throughout the remaining books. The notion of the Emperor’s shadow stretching across this universe and the taint he left behind, not in a mystical sense but rather in a societal sense, is one of the core notions of the trilogy.
The notion is that these are people that grew up in a society built by a person who valued terror, pain, and just this utter greed and bitterness. What does that do to societal institutions? What does that do to people?
You can’t just get rid of this person at the top and expect those decades of cultural accretion to be washed away. The Messenger sentinel is a very physical representation of that idea and a very explicit notion that the Emperor may be dead, but he’s never really gone. He stays with you.
To counter this shroud of darkness and give us a sense of balance, Hera sends the squad to a Jedi Temple where they experience the influence of the Force. This comes at a pivotal moment for the group and it seems Hera knew more than she was letting on?
I think generally yes, although it’s left a little ambiguous about what Hera thought would happen at the Temple, in a specific sense. She thought it would be good for the team but whether she thought the Jedi Temple was just a healthy, serene environment for team building, or if she actively thought something more esoteric might happen, I left a little vague.
She may have not been totally sure what would happen herself, but she’s seen enough of the mystical side of the galaxy to have an understanding that the Force works in strange ways.
When the Force brings things together, it’s not necessarily overt and she’s got a nuanced enough view of that to be able to separate the two. She’s able to understand that while it may not necessarily be a magical Force nexus, it could just a place that seems peaceful. That there’s not a hard line separating the two.
That’s the only time, in book one anyways, where you explore the mystical side of Star Wars. Was it important that you included at least some aspect of the Force in the book?
Working in this part of the timeline, when most of the iconic characters/themes are off the table or busy doing other things, I wanted to make sure that it still felt very much in tune with the core Star Wars mythos.
The Force is an important part of Star Wars obviously, and I am deeply interested in the mystical side of it. I didn’t want to force it into a place where it didn’t belong, but it felt like this was an aspect that is relevant to these people at this specific time.
If you’re going to explore the state of the universe and what everything means, you almost can’t help but draw from this resource.
Meaning, if you’re going to have a bunch of characters who are having a bonding type of moment and searching for some element of peace, there’s a very clear and metaphorical way of dealing with that. And in the Star Wars universe that is the Force, that is what the Force is about.
So, rather than dealing with it in a more cliched and familiar “camping bonding experience” manner, let’s use those built-in metaphors. Let’s just take those concrete manifestations that we have of those ideas, that are already in the Star Wars universe, and wrap it all together.
Initially, I was concerned when I pitched the idea but was very pleased when I received no pushback from the Lucasfilm story group. The folks there were happy to bring it into play.
But I didn’t want to go more overt or mystical than I did in the book. These folks are ultimately pilots, not Jedi, this is not a Jedi story. But it is a story taking place in a universe where the Force is a fundamental part of their physics and moral landscape of the galaxy, it’s important to recognize that.
And yet, by having Quell go off chasing phantom scouts, you purposely removed her from that equation?
Quell keeps a certain distance from the team because she doesn’t feel completely at ease with herself yet. Because of that, she’s not at a place mentally where she’s fully open to the concepts of the Force, and what the Light side has to offer her.
She’s still very much dealing with some internal issues and so she’s not completely ready for that yet.
How do you tackle the challenge of creating new characters that co-exist with already established ones?
I’m honestly very comfortable working with new characters. There’s so much more creative freedom obviously, especially when deciding what to do with them. I can’t change anything about Hera, her past or where she’s heading, so there’s a simplification to certain known characters because of that.
The tricky part is that Star Wars has certain types of archetypal threads running thought it. As a writer, you want any new characters to feel of a kind with exiting ones, you want these echoes to continue while not creating slavish recreations of other existing characters.
Finding ways to take those archetypes and tweak them in ways that are somewhat fresh, that’s the challenge.
The book ends with a big “a-ha” moment where we learn that the character “Devon” is in fact, Major Soran Keize of the 204th, and Yrica’s former commander and friend. Is it safe to say he’s the main antagonist going forward?
Yes, most definitely. We are going to be seeing quite a lot more of Major Keize going forward and he will most definitely cross paths with Quell again. We are building him up for a lot more story to come, and to a certain extent, this book is an origin story for him as well.
He has a different moral compass than Quell and is someone who can be kind, and sympathetic, and compassionate on an individual level. But the wider you pan out from him, that does become secondary.
He clearly has a strong sense of loyalty towards his immediate group, but we’ve seen from some of his past conversations with Quell, he’s not overly concerned about the victims of the Imperial rule. He may not be in favor of the atrocities being committed necessarily but protecting the people immediately around him always comes first.
He’s a great character because if you put him in the right situation, he could be a hero. But, put him in the wrong situation, and it becomes much more frightening.
Tell me about the research you did for this book.
I did some reading scattered across many sources, mainly about fighter pilots and looking at WWII era material specifically.
It’s an interesting one because Star Wars starfighters don’t really operate quite like anything that’s real. There are certainly elements of starfighter combat that reflect some of the mid-century aerial combat tactics, but it’s dangerous to get too deep into that.
Do lots of research of course, but don’t try to replicate it if you can help it, because the mechanics start to fall apart very quickly.
But yeah, I did my share of reading on that sort of material. Lots of memoirs and even going to Air Force Reddit to see how people in those communities talk about this sort of stuff.
The “tech” side of Star Wars is hard to get right. You don’t want to begin to explain something in too much depth because eventually it stops making sense. Star Wars technology isn’t the most rigorous, so the trick is to find ways to talk about it that feels right and interesting without getting into a place where your questioning the real-world functionality of it. It’s a delicate margin.
I’ve just convinced myself that Star Wars space is filled with ether and that helps explain a lot of it away.
How is Book Two coming along and will the final books be called “Alphabet Squadron” as well?
My outlining process is extremely thorough when I write. By the end of all three books, if you were to combine all the outlines and notes, it could easily be a novel all its own.
During Celebration Chicago when we last spoke, I was still deep in the outlining process, but I’ve since moved on to writing the book. It’s coming along pretty well; I know every detail that I want in book two and now it’s just a matter of connecting all the story notes and threads together.
For titles, I’m assuming books two and three will get subtitles, you know “Alphabet Squadron: whatever” but I don’t know for sure.
Alexander was very generous with his time and we discussed a great many things. Some of those details couldn't be shared, but with two more books coming, all will be answered in due time.
"Star Wars: Alphabet Squadron" is published by Del Rey/Penguin Random House and is available now! Click HERE to get yours today.
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