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Face To Face With The Masters

Any citizen of the galaxy may be summoned to answer to the Jedi Council. Here you may read the transcripts of such sessions.

Cellblock 1138 - 1997-1999 - 2000 - 2002 - 2003+

February 2002, by Michael Potts, Scott Chitwood, and Chris McElroy

We recently had the opportunity to chat with Elaine Cunningham, author of the New Jedi Order book "Dark Journey". Elaine has also written two short stories for Star Wars Gamer magazine. They include "Red Sky, Blue Flame" about Jag Fel and "The Apprentice" about Jaina and Kyp.

If you have not read Dark Journey yet, you may want to turn back. Spoilers from the book are openly discussed here.

Q: Dark Journey has a rather large cast. Which was your favorite character to write for?

Looking at the world through Jaina's eyes wasn't always comfortable or easy, but her POV quickly became my favorite.

Q: Is Jaina fully back from the Dark Side by the end of Dark Journey?

I'm with Yoda on this one. An experience with the Dark Side is going to make an enormous impact on any Jedi, and I believe it will continue to dominate Jaina's destiny. I've heard it said that an alcoholic is always an alcoholic, even if he never takes another drink. The temptation to fall back into old ways is always there, and the knowledge of what's possible is a constant shadow in the back of the mind. What happened to Jaina is not a trivial thing, and those who believe that she "came back" too easily have obviously never had to loose weight - and then tried to keep it off! For someone like Jaina, keeping away from the Dark Side is not a single decision: she has simply made the first in what will be a lifetime of tough decisions.

Q: Will you be writing more short New Jedi Order stories for Star Wars Gamer magazine?

I like writing short stories, and I've always enjoyed working with Dave Gross, the SWG editor (formerly editor of DRAGON Magazine.) Since I'm new to the SW universe, I was particularly pleased with this opportunity. But I had stories published in issues 5, 7 and 8. I'd be happy to contribute in the future, but I think SWG has heard enough from me for a while!

Q: Jag and Kyp seem to be competing love interests for Jaina. Are they?

I know there's a lot of discussion about Jaina's love life, but I don't see things in quite those terms. Jaina is not exactly focusing on relationships these days. In fact, the events of Troy Denning's STAR by STAR left her profoundly distrustful of her own emotional responses. During the "breaking" the young Jedi suffered at the hands of the Yuuzhan Vong, Jaina was the first one to crack - not because she lacked courage or fortitude, but because she couldn't bear to see the others tortured. She sees her own empathy as a failure, a weakness, and she reacted to this perception by trying to separate thought from feeling. You can see this manifested in her refusal to come to terms with Anakin's death, her almost callous avoidance of the grieving process. Jaina is likely to view any possible "love interest" as a distraction, and at this point in her life, distractions make her impatient and even a little bit angry.

As I mentioned in the interview for Star Wars Insider, this question was bound to come up; after all, we have a pink cover, a female protagonist, and a female author. What we do NOT have, however, is a romance novel.

Q: What are the best and worst aspects of each character as far as Jaina is concerned?

I'm assuming you're still speaking of Jag and Kyp. Jaina had mixed feelings about Jag Fel from the beginning. Her first experience with him was during a space battle in Michael Stackpole's RUIN, and she perceives his first words as "patronizing." Not a good start. Their next encounter is at a formal reception in which Jag pointedly insults the politicians. Though it was not specifically stated, it seems likely that Jaina's mother was one of the people Jag declined to acknowledge. Leia managed to gracefully smooth over the situation, but her gracious diplomacy only underscores an interesting point: given the standards of Jaina's upbringing, Jag's behavior was not likely to make a favorable impression. Even so, she was intrigued. He's a topnotch pilot who has earned his own command. He's impressive physically, possesses the sort of compelling personality that often characterizes natural leaders, and, although not a Jedi, projects a powerful presence through the Force. In short, he's a hard guy to ignore. There's also the matter of Jag's perception of Jaina. He measures her by unfamiliar and perhaps unfavorable standards. Jaina hasn't had an easy life - not by a long shot - but as a Jedi, an ace pilot, and the heir to a heroic family tradition, she is accustomed to being regarded as a sort of galactic golden girl. I imagine that could get a bit tiring, especially to someone who would rather just put on a pair of coveralls and work on her dad's old spaceship, thank you very much. Jag's perception of Jaina fits more closely with her own private view of herself. Given the contradictory nature of self-image, I suspect that this both intrigues and annoys her.

Jaina knows Kyp Durron's history, and that would inevitably color her opinion of him. Throughout the course of the Yuuzhan Vong conflict, however, Jaina has been moving closer toward Kyp's stated position. In fact, she has admitted more than once that she wasn't certain whether he was right or wrong. Her attitude toward him suffered a setback with his deception over the Sernpidal attack, but she learned from this event - and not all the lessons she picked up were bright and shiny. Jaina isn't accustomed to being used or tricked, and this event had an enormous impact upon her. Once she got past her outrage, however, she couldn't help but notice that, hey - this tactic WORKED. Kyp's deception prompted her to wonder how trickery and misdirection might be used against the Yuuzhan Vong. Kyp gets results, and that matters to Jaina. She also idolizes her father, and Han has always had a soft spot for Kyp. She probably recognizes the similarity between the two men, and she definitely realizes that, for good or ill, she has quite a bit in common with the rogue Jedi Master.

Q: How much of an influence were the Young Jedi Knight books?

I read all of them, trying to get a feel for the developing personalities of this generation of Jedi. Granted, a sixteen-year-old student is not going to respond in quite the same fashion as an experienced warrior, but certain trends and traits are there. Jaina's personality in DARK JOURNEY owes a great deal to the outgoing, impulsive, take-charge girl depicted in the YJK series.

Q: How much of an influence are fans on your writing?

This is a tough question. Shared world settings have an interactive element, certainly, but should an author tailor a story to message board discussions and informal polls? I have serious reservations about the wisdom of this path, and I doubt that many readers truly want stories that are aimed at a consensus opinion - assuming such a thing could be found to exist. The fans' enthusiasm and genuine love of Star Wars is an influence, in that the collective energy can be a tremendous source of inspiration, but I don't think that an effort to fashion a story from debates, polls, and wish lists can go anywhere good.

Q: How would you describe your journey to become an author? Was this something you felt driven to do when you were young?

I've always loved books. My first ambition was not to write books, but to illustrate them. Then music came to dominate my teenage years and early twenties, edging out art as a creative focus, so I never did pursue that avenue. Reading was always a passion, however, and when I came back to the idea of writing, it felt like a good fit.

Q: What are your influences in your writing career? What were your favourite books and authors when growing up?

Poetry is a strong influence. I love the music inherent in language, the fact that words can portray mood as well as meaning. A single concise, vivid verbal image can make my day. Folklore and mythology was another influence. As a kid, I was hooked on Greek and Roman mythology, Slavic folklore, Celtic legends, fairy tales, ghost stories - you name it. Novels that made an impression included Hilton's Lost Horizons and classic adventure stories such as Ivanhoe and The Scarlet Pimpernel. One of my favorite books was Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. It's got a bit of everything - wonderful dialogue, great characterizations, slapstick humor, irony, tragedy, and social commentary. I was a big L.L. Montgomery fan - loved the imagination and optimistic outlook of the red-haired heroine. Oscar Wilde's plays cultivated a fondness for irony and snappy come-backs, as well as an appreciation of life's absurdities. And Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover series got me hooked on the notion of fantasy world-building.

Q: How long does it take you to write a book? Do you ever suffer from writers block?

I don't keep a time card, on the theory that there are some things you're better off not knowing. Suffice it to say that I'm not a fast or fluid writer. Dialogue, in particular, requires numerous passes before it starts to sound spontaneous - one of those nifty little paradoxes in which the writing process abounds.

No writer's block - at least, none that I'll admit to. A viciously funny little satire in a James Frey book about "bricklayer's block" forever punctured any pretensions along those lines. Let's face it: everyone has days when they don't feel like going to work, and few people have the luxury of taking a day off whenever the mood hits. That said, there are times when writing is more difficult than usual. After reading a draft of STAR BY STAR, I had a rough patch. As I told one of my kids, "Anakin is gone. There just doesn't seem to be much point in going on." He chuckled, being under the misapprehension that I was kidding.

Q: What was your first reaction when seeing Star Wars?

Star Wars was the first movie I saw in a theatre. When I mentioned that to a recent acquaintance, she blurted out, "What were you - Amish?" Well, not quite, but I did grow up in a tradition that frowned upon movie-going. Imagine the impact of seeing that opening sequence - not only as a first Star Wars movie, but a first cinematic experience, period. That moment of wonder and discovery has colored my view of Star Wars ever since.

Q: What is your favourite Star Wars movie, and why?

ANH, for the reasons given above.

Q: Who is your favourite character?

While I deeply admire steadfast, unwavering heroes such as Leia and Tenel Ka, I'd have to say Han Solo. It's hard to resist a charming rogue.

Q: A monumental project on the scale of the 'New Jedi Order' is seldom seen in literature. Obviously, we fans have many expectations on the series, but what expectations do you, and your fellow NJO authors, have for the series?

I can't speak for any other author, and I suspect that expectations vary. For me, the goal was to tell an entertaining story that was as true to the original tone of the movies as possible. I also kept in mind that this story is not 300 pages long - it's 20-some BOOKS long. After the drama and heartbreak of STAR BY STAR, I felt that the characters needed a chance to catch a breath, take stock of who they were and where they ought to be going. I felt that readers needed a change of pace, too, and maybe a bit of laughter. The movies alternated intense action with bits of introspection and humor, and I think the NJO storyline should follow that pattern.

Q: What does the 'establishment' (Lucasfilm, Del Rey and the authors) set out to achieve with the NJO -- what goals do you have? To shake up the galaxy? Passing down of the torch? What underlying themes so far have been presented? Were these themes a part of the planning, or a natural progression of the story line?

Wow. I'm going to have to pass on this one. An answer to this series of questions would more closely resemble a doctoral thesis than an online interview! Also, this would require me to speak for other people, and that's not something I feel entitled to do.

Q: What is your opinion of Star Wars fans, and fandom in general? Would you agree that fans of Star Wars are a passionate group?

To answer that question, here's an anecdote about the release of Episode V. We'd recently moved to the Boston area, and were determined to see the movie the first day out. It was shown around the clock at the downtown theatres, but the earliest tickets we could get were for the 3:00 A.M. show. So there we were in downtown Boston in the middle of the night. I was fighting claustrophobia in the midst of this milling crowd and feeling more than a tad uneasy about the whole idea. Then, on the edge of my peripheral vision, I caught a glimpse of a gun muzzle. My first response was a bambi-in-the-headlights freeze. After an uneventful moment passed, I hazarded a glance over my shoulder. There stood a storm trooper in full regalia. Behind him were several other people in various Star Wars costumes. At that moment it struck me that this wasn't just a movie: it was an Event. The participation was - and is -- part of the fun. Star Wars fans are definitely a passionate group, and on balance, that's a very good thing.

Q: What is the hardest character you find to write?

Luke Skywalker. He is a complex and pivotal character, and, like the rest of the people in the NJO story, he's struggling with a paradigm shift. It's hard to do him justice when he's only allotted a minor role. It would be great fun to put Luke front and center and let him really cut loose, but this wasn't the story I was hired to write.

Q: Who is the most fun character to write?

I had a good time with Jaina. Granted, she is going through a very difficult time, and she is doing some less than admirable things, but she is still tough, smart, and passionate. And I enjoy writing the acerbic dialogue that's in character with her tart, no-nonsense persona.

Q: Can you share with readers how you prepare for writing a Star Wars book? What material do you use to research the massive volume of back story, history, information? What does Lucasfilm and Del Rey provide in assistance?

Del Rey provided a broad story arc and a considerable amount of background detail in a hefty NJO "bible." The outline went through several revisions and multi-layered approval processes (first the Del Rey editors, then the LFL continuity team.) Ditto the first draft and the revision. Throughout the writing process there were several packages of novels, game accessories, and comic books, which were gleefully received and assiduously devoured. I read stacks of material - even some of the old Star Wars Journal magazines. Another important resource was the willingness of some of the other writers to share ideas and information. Troy Denning was terrific in this regard.

Q: Can you explain how the editorial process works? If something is suggested to change that you disagree with, does your opinion count, or does Lucasfilm inevitably have the final say?

STAR WARS belongs to LFL, and these folks have the final word. That said, there's a lot of give and take. I have a big file of emails that bounced around among authors, editors, and LFL continuity team members. This interaction with a group of talented, creative people was, at least from my perspective, part of the fun. Opinions do count, and sometimes one person's interesting idea opened up new possibilities. My outline had nothing in it about Jaina becoming Kyp's apprentice, but when Greg Keyes tossed in this apparent throw-away line, it made such intrinsic sense I had to pick up the notion and run with it. When you're working in a shared world - and especially in a multi-author storyline - getting territorial or defensive is just plain silly. Revision is an important skill, and if you're not flexible about it you'll very quickly make yourself crazy. If an editorial suggestion results in one door closing, well, so be it. You take a deep breath, then work on coming up with another idea that you like even better.

Q: Obviously you cannot please anyone with a work of art; have you received any criticisms regarding 'Dark Journey' -- and if so, what is the main point of detractors?

Of course there have been criticisms. On the whole, however, the response seems to be fairly balanced. I don't read every thread on the discussion boards - in fact, my online time has been curtailed by recent real world, personal events - but when I did visit the boards, I noticed a couple of recurring themes. I'll address one of them.

Given the title of the book, some people were looking for Jaina's "dark journey" to be a clear cut, definitive freefall into the dark side. I get the feeling that some readers were looking forward to seeing what a full-fledged Sith could accomplish against the Yuuzhan Vong. And I've got to admit that the notion of a powerful "Darth Buffy" avenger has a certain appeal.

So why didn't I go this route? Because Star Wars is fantasy, space ships and cool gizmos notwithstanding, and at the heart of fantasy is the struggle between good and evil. Right from the beginning of the saga, this struggle took place on two levels: Luke Skywalker battled the evil and powerful Darth Vader, as well as the darker side of his own nature. One of the major issues in any war, real or fictitious, is the question, "At what cost victory?" On a certain level it might be satisfying to see a NJO Jedi go deeply into the dark side, grimly and efficiently kicking tattooed butt, but this path struck me as contradictory to the fundamental spirit of Star Wars.

Q: Do you hope to again write in the Star Wars universe? I know that Mike Stackpole felt that he needed a break from Star Wars, do you feel this way after 'Dark Journey'? Would you like to write a prequel-era novel?

As you've probably gathered from the tone of my responses, I had a good time with this book. Offhand, I can think of a half dozen stories I'd love to write, and if the opportunity arises, I'm there. On the other hand, as much as I enjoy Star Wars, there are many other stories I hope to tell. If DARK JOURNEY and the related Star Wars Gamer stories represent my only foray into this universe, I'll be content. It never occurred to me when I walked into a movie theatre twenty-five years ago that I might eventually write a Star Wars book. This has been a rare experience, one worth appreciating for what it was, rather than what it might lead to.

Q: What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

First off, you have to write. This might sound self-evident, but many of the aspiring writers I hear from haven't actually gotten around to writing anything. A lot of people seem to like the idea of being a writer, but not the process. Writing is like singing or painting -- you can't learn to do it unless you DO it. Write every day, even if it's just a little. Look at it this way: if you write just one good page a day, within a year you'll have completed a manuscript for a 90,000 word novel.

Second, read. Read voraciously, read widely -- not just books in the genre in which you plan to write. You can learn about pacing from a good thriller, and hone your characterization skills by closely observing good mainstream and literary fiction.

Finally, what are you waiting for? I hear a lot of people wistfully talk about writing "some day." No one can be sure of "some day." All we've got is today, and what better use for it than to pursue our dreams?

Thanks to Elaine for taking the time to chat with us!

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