J.J. Abrams may have rebooted the beloved galaxy of far, far away forward into the previously static Star Wars timeline, but to truly appreciate the expanse of George Lucas’ universe, it is perhaps better to take a step back. By exploring the unexamined nooks and crannies of the Star Wars universe, we are exposed to regions, realms, and characters that, even though they have never seen the big screen (yet), have a compelling and inspiring tale to tell.
Expanded Universe writer John Jackson Miller has dedicated much of his life exploring the previously overlooked regions of the Star Wars legacy. Inspired by Lucas’ original films, he continually adds characters, stories, and histories to the ever-growing universe created by the biggest fans of Star Wars. Not only does Miller create in the Star Wars universe, but he crafts in the realms of Star Trek and Mass Effect as well. A man of many science fiction talents and one of the best Star Wars authors, John Jackson Miller sat down with OMNI to give those who lack the proper amount of midi-chlorians a look into his craft.
OMNI: What are the essential ingredients needed for a great Star Wars story?
John Jackson Miller: The root of everything is the movies. It’s essential to capture the spirit and the feeling that the Star Wars movies gave us when they first premiered. In the beginning of it all in the 1970s, the only way to experience a film after it was out of theaters was to read the comic books and novels that came from it. Other than that, you had to wait for the next film premiere. We needed something to bridge the gap between the movies!
Those [comic books and novels] were some of the earliest books I read as a kid. They tried to recapture the flavor of what was going on onscreen; It was Good vs. Evil, a fun space adventure, and, most importantly, a space opera. The Empire and the mystical Force only added to its appeal, creating a wonderful Star Wars inspired experience.
I always try to incorporate humor into my stories. If you watch A New Hope, in the scene where the characters escape from the Death Star, there’s a joke every 15 seconds. I try to bring that spirited feeling to all of my Star Wars books. The characters may not necessarily want to be together, but they are thrown together because of fate. Star Wars: The Force Awakens captures that essence perfectly.
What is it like writing in a world that has already been created?
I’ve been doing this for a long time. I started working in the industry back in the 90s editing a comic magazine. At that time, I was involved in a number of magazines and books that had license connections.
I understand what the companies who own the properties are looking for in cases like that. What they’re looking for is something that will expand and enhance the brand without taking it in a direction that the fans won’t accept (for that particular franchise).
Star Wars is like working in a National Park. You want to make sure that you don’t do anything to damage the park that you’re in. Anything you do to the park should only enhance it, and you need to pick up the garbage you bring in. Be respectful of what’s there, because you’re not the only person writing in the franchise or timeline. You need to be careful not to create story problems for someone down the road—which could even be your own future problems!
If I said that there never was a Wookiee Chancellor of the Republic, I wouldn’t be able to create one. The different worlds in Star Wars need to be cultivated like parks or gardens. It will always reflect the spirit and the feeling of the original franchise, while still maintaining a coherent whole together.
Is there an author community for Star Wars writers?
Lucasfilm has a new story group—Lucasfilm Story Group—which was involved in The Force Awakens and Star War Rebels. There are representatives from the panel for film, TV, comic, novels, etc. The first novel to be released in conjunction with the story group was my book Star Wars: A New Dawn.
In the early stages, I communicated with the story group and had a chance to talk with the Executive Producer of the Rebels TV series about what they had planned. I received notes back on my proposals from all three Executive Producers. It’s crazy that they are making it possible for me to write about the characters that they’ve created for the screen, while at the same time drawing from characters in my books, or other author's books, transporting them into new mediums. This is a huge difference to how it worked 20-30 years ago with other franchises.
Back then, when you had tie-ins or comic books released after the movies, they rarely had any bearing towards the future of the brand. Now, we’re in a new era of synergy between the different outlets and we have the ability to cross fertilize everything.
The fans are a great help in this because they are exceptional indexers for what has happened in the brand’s past. There are great fan bases for Star Wars, Star Trek, Planet of the Apes—the list goes on. They’ve created a wiki with everything indexed in meticulous detail.
Which of the new Force Awakens characters would you like to create a story around?
That’s difficult. I love all of the new characters—they’re all very interesting. Certainly Rey, who is very popular. I think the interesting thing about these characters is that we’re given limited information about their background and history—which is a gift to writers. So much lost history has the potential to be filled in!
It was great seeing Han and Leia again, along with all of the other original characters. It’s a fascinating question to think about what happened to those characters from Episode VI to Episode VII. I’d love to fill in those blanks.
But who would I pick? Honestly I’m flexible; I wouldn’t be able to choose just one! In my Star Wars work, I went seven or eight years without working on any of the movie characters. My first "movie" character was a single issue Darth Vader comic before I promptly began work on the Old Republic. I slowly worked my way towards the "present" day of the Star Wars universe. It wasn’t until Obi Wan Kenobi that I had the opportunity to write about one of the movie characters.
My most recent work, Star Wars: A New Dawn, takes place between Episode III and IV. Slowly but surely, I’m creeping forward to the "present"...very slowly.
Does the past or present of Star Wars allow for more creative writing freedom?
It’s difficult to say. What I can do, though, is govern the period by using the other elements that surround it. In my Knights of the Old Republic comic series—reprinted by Marvel—I set the storyline several years before the video game series of the same name. This gave me some room to run around in. In my series, we could occasionally run into any one of the video game characters. That being said, I had to be mindful of what would occur later in the timeline, where the game picks up.
Lost Tribe of the Sith was entirely self contained onto one planet that no one in the galaxy visited for over 5000 years. I could tell any story that I wanted to there. It’s more of an all "villain," no technology, and sword and sorcery story than anything else.
Each subsection of the Star Wars timeline has a different feel to it. Knight Errant is more about Sith Fiefdom, The Knights of the Old Republic features the Republic at its most highest and most powerful vantage point—and features an awesome war with the Mandalorians—and Kenobi is really a Western at heart. It’s a Western Romance, entirely set on Tatooine, with no epic space battles or lightsaber fights. Even New Dawn is a complete 180 change from that, as it takes place during the rise of a totalitarian state.
Every era and every book has a completely different feel to it. If I only wrote for one timeframe, it would not nearly be as interesting. The variety is what keeps everything alive and vibrant.
What is your craziest convention story?
There’s a convention I attend called MidSouthCon in my hometown of Memphis. Every year, the local fan group tries to persuade me to arrive dressed up as one of my characters (laughs). I don’t do that. I know my limitations! Even as a fan...I was a sad cosplayer.
So I said, "Tell you what, I’ll only dress up as one character, the Gryph." The Gryph is a con-artist character from the Knights series. I obviously can’t dress up as him because he’s three feet tall. Oops!
The next year, the fans presented me with a life sized Gryph puppet! I carried it around with me all weekend. I even did a panel with him, where a puppeteer provided his voice. After that, I drove 800 miles home with a large Gryph in the child seat of my car. The woman at the drive through window I went to said it was the ugliest child she’d ever seen.
If Lucasfilm/Disney took one of your characters and created a series around him/her, who would it be?
The character I worked with the longest was Zayne Carrick, a Jedi fugitive from the Knights of the Old Republic series. Because we worked on that series so long, there is a huge amount of material there. I’d love to see that as a movie—even a cartoon. But, the most fan-requested work in my canon to be created into a film is the Kenobi novels.
How does your experience writing in Star Wars compare to writing in other sci-fi universes like Mass Effect, Planet of the Apes, and Star Trek?
One of the things you have to understand when writing in large universes like this is that every sci-fi fantasy world has its own visual, descriptive, and thematic language. As a kid, I read a Star Wars comic and thought, "Wow, that would have been more appropriate as a Star Trek story." Even then I understood!
Let me explain: If I had an idea for a story where science was at the center of it, or if it is technical in nature, it would most likely be Star Trek. Star Trek is all about transporters, cloaking devices, and phasers. In most stories, those scientific and technical items are at the center of it; Others, it’s the idea of simply being in another dimension.
Star Wars doesn’t do that; It doesn’t explain as much as Star Trek does. It’s more of a fantasy and a space opera surrounded by conflict. If I did a story about exploration, it would fit more in line with Star Trek. If I did a story about conflict, it would be Star Wars.
After a while, you just kind of know what feels right in each universe. Thematic details and physical details play an important role in all of this. It’s helpful to look at other stories in the franchise as well.
In terms of language, Star Wars users "Blasters" and Star Trek uses "Phasers"; unless you’re not from the federation, in which case you use a "Disruptor." It’s little details like that that make it so specific—even spelling. I misspelled "lightsaber" as two words instead of one time after time when the series first came out!
John Jackson Miller's extensive works span three sci-fi galaxies throughout many eras of time. To explore his writing is to dive headfirst into science fiction and immerse yourself in the genre. A full selection of his work can be found here, but to narrow it down we have included a few of our favorites below.
The Rise of the Empire is a bind-up compilation of John Jackson Miller's A New Dawn and James Lucen's Tarkin. It also includes three new short stories, connecting the two storylines and providing further insight into the power behind the Galactic Empire.
John Jackson Miller's Kenobi takes place between Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith and Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope. Set during the early days of Obi-Wan's exile on Tatooine, it explores his transformation from Obi-Wan Kenobi into Ben.
A New Dawn serves as a prequel for the TV series Star Wars Rebels and is considered by many to be one of the best Star Wars Sith books. Set six years before the show takes place, the storyline was included as part of the compilation The Rise of the Empire.