Alexandra Bracken on A New Hope, the Expanded Universe, and the Fit of Han’s Pants

SW_Jackets-ANHTomorrow sees the release of another three Star Wars novels, to add to the five released earlier this month on Force Friday. These three novels are special, written by three different authors with three wholly different adaptations of the Original Trilogy for a middle-grade (ages 8-12) audience. If you’ve read any of my reviews of middle-grade books on this site, you’ll know by now that I think that the Star Wars middle-grade novels are basically the best of the new canon and should be read by adults just as well as kids. A few months ago, I wrote a rave review of a three chapter sample of the A New Hope adaptation by Alexandra Bracken, The Princess, the Scoundrel, and the Farm Boy. I can’t wait to dig into the final book. The other two books in the series, which I hope to review in the near future, are So You Want to be a Jedi? by Adam Gidwitz and Beware the Power of the Dark Side! by Tom Angleburger, adapting Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi respectively.

Alex was kind enough to take the time to answer a bevy of questions about her love of Star Wars, her writing, and her stellar adaptation of A New Hope. Her book brought me back to a lot of what I really loved about Star Wars, so I had a lot to ask her! I’ll be running this interview in two parts: today’s piece is about Alex and her writing and Wednesday’s piece is about The Princess, The Scoundrel, and the Farm Boy itself. The book releases tomorrow, September 22. Please look into the book, I promise you won’t regret it — especially if you have kids or if you want to feel like a kid again (and don’t we all, when we watch Star Wars?).

My questions below are in bold, Alex’s responses are in plaintext.


I. What do you love about Star Wars? What drew you in initially, and what draws you back?

Honestly? The characters, forever and always. It’s why, when given the opportunity to retell ANH any way I’d like, I knew I wanted to play a bit with the characters themselves and really peel back their layers. I pitched this retelling to my editor as the “Star Wars Breakfast Club,” and the title is a little nod to that.

I also really appreciate how grand the scale of the story is while still maintaining that intimacy with the central characters. It carries you through the full range of emotions—it’s thrilling, heartbreaking, uplifting, romantic, funny. I guess the better question is, what’s not to love about Star Wars?

 II. You’ve mentioned before that you’re a long time Star Wars fan who read a lot of EU books. I grew up on the Bantam EU as did many of our readers. Tell us what it was like to go from that to actually writing a published Star Wars novel, because I think a lot of us have imagined being exactly in your shoes but honestly I just can’t imagine. Did it feel real? Did you have moments when you were writing where you had to stop and think to yourself, “holy cow, I’m writing Star Wars!”?

I got the call from my agent asking me if I was interested in working on this project out of the blue, after running errands all day in New York City—it really caught me off guard, and I’m not sure I actually processed what was happening until after I’d hung up with her. Would you believe my initial thought was a terrified “I can’t, no way”? I had genuinely fantasized about writing Star Wars from the time I was a kid and I should have been running around, screaming with joy, but… I felt conflicted. I had lost my dad—who had introduced me to the series and was a pretty avid Star Wars collector—a few years before and hadn’t really been able to engage with the films or EU since then because of how closely I associated him with the series. And, like you said, after years and years of reading the EU I just felt this instinctive panic that I could never live up to my own expectations or really do it justice. I didn’t want to let another Star Wars fan down.

But love won out in the end over all of those fears and insecurities. I told my editor that it felt like getting a high-five through the Force from my dad, like… some sort of circle being complete. But the pressure definitely didn’t disappear. I ended up handwriting most of the book in a notebook as a way to trick my brain into calming down and relaxing—something about handwriting makes it feel less official. So I spent all of Leia’s section terrified, but by the time I hit Han’s, I was cruising and having an absolute blast. One of the most surreal moments was sitting on a panel at Star Wars Celebration this past spring—I’d sat through so many panels at the Celebrations over the years, it was bizarre and wonderful and terrifying to be on the other side of the table, squinting past the lights into the audience. And, actually, the book is coming out so soon and I still can’t even believe it—there isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not thanking my lucky stars for the opportunity.

III. You were already a successful author before you touched Star Wars, having completed The Darkest Minds trilogy. I just finished the first book, by the way, and I quite enjoyed the character interaction, especially the Ruby-Chubs scenes. I also liked the actually plausible political-economic origins of your take on dystopia (as an aside to the audience, I recommend the book! It’s for a young adult rather than middle grade audience, mind.). What’s different about creating your own fictional setting versus working in someone else’s sandbox? Do you prefer creative liberty or do you prefer not needing to reinvent the wheel?

darkest-minds-trilogyThank you for the plug! That’s so nice of you to say. For those curious, The Darkest Minds is published through Disney-Hyperion, the teen imprint of Disney Publishing Worldwide, so I did have a bit of an in over there from the beginning. (My teen editor knew that I was a huge Star Wars fan and she suggested me.)

The experiences aren’t so different, actually. The Darkest Minds involved a ton of research, not just about economics (got to have a plausible reason for an economy crash!), but also the layouts of cities, mapping routes on Google Maps, weaponry, chances of dying from various wounds, and neurological matters. Anything set in our world needs to be accurate, obviously. But with fantasy and sci-fi you have to set rules for your version of the world and work within those rules. In this instance, though, you are deciding on those rules.

Working within an established universe has its challenges, too—I can’t even tell you how many times I had to stop and alter my earth-specific idioms or double-check that something actually exists in that galaxy. Sometimes making something work can feel like trying to shove a square peg into a round hole, and you have to be creative in a different way in figuring out how to work that language or element in. I don’t know that I necessarily prefer it overall, but I had such a strong grasp of the galaxy and worldbuilding of Star Wars going in that it did feel like a little bit of a relief to be able to limit my research to mostly just small fact-checking.

 IV. You grew up on Star Wars and have a long association with it, but you wrote an adaptation of the original Star Wars movie for young readers who don’t have the same experiences with Star Wars as you do. I gather that one of the purposes behind these OT adaptations was to bring these stories to a new generation. How do you reach readers who are only experienced with the Prequels, or who perhaps aren’t Star Wars fans at all? I think A New Hope is the most mythically resonant of the Star Wars films: how did you approach capturing that magic for this younger audience?

Exactly—these retellings were pitched to me as a way to introduce a generation of fans who have entered the Star Wars universe through Rebels or The Clone Wars, or even the prequels. Obviously die-hard fans will have shared the films with their kids and grandkids, and they’ve already welcomed them into the wonders of the galaxy (I think these kids will still like these books—I got to include a number of off-camera scenes, Adam’s is interactive, and Tom’s is just exploding with detail and humor). There are definitely casual fans out there, though, who know they like Star Wars and just aren’t as familiar with the original trilogy and trio. And, as hard as it is for me to believe, there are still plenty of potential fans out there waiting to fall in love with the saga. Because the original trio play a role in the new film(s), I think Lucasfilm/Disney saw an opportunity to create very kid-friendly introductions.We were really encouraged to make these stories ours storytelling-wise—obviously we’re not tampering with the core story or stepping too far out of bounds with the characters! I wasn’t allowed to read the other two adaptations and knew only a little bit about what Adam and Tom were doing with theirs. The amazing thing is, as different as they all are, I think they work together really well. I was extremely cognizant of the fact that I was first up, so to speak, and I wanted to make sure that readers had a firm grasp of who Luke, Leia, and Han were before launching into the ESB and ROTJ retellings. I knew it would only enrich the reading experience with those books, too. I love the mythic feel of A New Hope, and I keep saying that it’s a perfect story in its structure and arcs, and I definitely wanted to capture that epic, grand feeling, even as I was zooming in on the specific characters. I set this up through the prologue and the epilogue (I hope!)—the language in them was inspired by Journal of the Whills and the introductions to each episode of the A New Hope radio drama by Brian Daley (my other primary source I was allowed/encouraged to adapt from beyond the film script).

 V. Do you have a favorite EU book? Feel free to list more than one if you want, I sort of hate the “favorite X” question because it seems so arbitrary. I’m only really asking to get at what you loved most about the EU, since I find that the answer widely varies among people.

I entered the EU through the Young Jedi Knights series by Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta, so I have a soft spot for those books. My first round reading the EU (from ages 8-13) was spent trying to find Jaina, Jacen, and Anakin in the other adult books and not paying that much attention to the adult plots!

As I got older, I really connected with Shadows of the Empire for some reason—the Vader characterization made me take another look at Vader in the films and was… oddly touching when it came to Luke? The Thrawn trilogy rules my heart and I am forever grateful to Zahn for introducing Mara Jade. I also read and reread The Courtship of Princess Leia (which maybe isn’t a surprise since it also gives the backstory for how Tenel Ka’s parents met)—that book gave me one of my all-time favorite Leia lines: “I like some things about you, Han. I like the way your pants fit.” I mean… who doesn’t? Oh! And speaking of Han, I also really loved Ann C. Crispin’s Han Solo Trilogy and was a bit sad to be barred from using any of the established facts of that series for Han’s section in my retelling. (I snuck in a few EU tidbits where I could, but Han’s backstory was pretty off limits… it was the first clue I had that they were eventually going to do a young Han Solo film.)

 VI. Dare I ask you about favorite character or characters? I’m basically just curious at this point.

Leia is my #1 girl, but I adored the leading ladies of the EU and I’m still a bit sad that they’ll fade into the background of Legends. That said, it seems like we’re getting a host of new awesome female characters, so I’m really excited about the future.

As a kid, Luke was actually my favorite—I just really connected to his journey and, having been born and raised in Arizona, understood his frustrations about wanting to leave the desert! (Just kidding.) Han is probably my favorite next to Leia now, if only because his character dwells more in gray areas. I was pretty surprised by how much I loved writing him. He has a really strong voice, to the point that I actually found his section the easiest to write. I love that he injects much-needed humor into a story that might otherwise be very stoic and serious.

I also have a real affection for Wedge and was happy to give him a little more to do in my retelling!

VII. What was your reaction as a long time fan to the idea of new Star Wars films? I had a mix of trepidation and excitement myself–but now I think I’m all-in. What about you? And how did Celebration or the release of the teasers for TFA affect that?

Hah! I felt like I had to eat a metric ton of crow because I’d spent years telling people that VII, VIII, and IX were never going to happen. That reasoning, of course, was based on the fact that the EU existed and I thought for sure they wouldn’t contradict those established stories, and the original actors had aged out of those parts. Silly me!

I’m honestly very excited. I would rather live in the light of hope and potentially be let down later than try to moderate my expectations now. I tend to be a bit of a spoiler hound but I’ve been largely avoiding reading them beyond the watching the trailers and glancing through different magazine articles—I just want to live in the moment and really experience it! I had Episode I ruined for me by Celebration I—they had all of the film novelizations out early, and I flipped through the kid’s version and saw an image of Qui-Gon’s face floating in the sky Mufasa-style and spent the whole film waiting for him to croak.

One of the best things about Celebration is that you’re feeding off everyone else’s excitement; there really was a buzz in the air at this past Celebration. It actually reminded me a bit of Celebration II and III in that way—there was a lot of really exciting news and tidbits and clips being released over the course of those conventions, versus, say, Celebration IV.

 VIII. Is it true you got started writing by doing Star Wars fanfic? I don’t want you to have to out your stories or anything, but what about writing SW led you to writing generally?

Yes! I wrote so much fanfiction in middle school and high school, some of it Star Wars. All of it still lives online because I cannot figure out what my fanfiction.net password is and the email account I registered with was deleted. Alas!

Star Wars taught me quite a bit about storytelling and character arcs, actually—ANH is such a pure version of the classic hero’s journey. Of course, I had no idea what that was as a kid. It was like a game to me to try to figure out what elements of, for example, the Force, were pulled from real myth and legend. Watching those films so many times and obsessing over the characters helped me internalize those story structures and archetypes, and I feel like I’ve been playing with them and twisting them ever since.

I also think Star Wars predisposed me to write stories about teams of characters from very different backgrounds coming together for a common goal!

 IX. Do you have any other literary influences? Favorite authors outside of Star Wars? I know that you’re very into history–I sometimes find when I encounter a particular historical building or anecdote, I like to think about the stories of the people involved and I get lost researching and/or creatively daydreaming. Does your appreciation of history play a role in your writing? Do you have other inspirations or sources for ideas?

I read a good mix of everything these days, from non-fiction to romance to sci-fi to fantasy. Some of my favorite authors are Erik Larson, Diana Gabaldon, Nora Ephron, Tim O’Brien, E.M. Forster… I could go on forever, here. I’ll tell you, though, the author that made me want to be a writer—and specifically write for children—was Roald Dahl. I was absolutely obsessed with his books while I was growing up, and I had so much fun reading them that I imagined writing would be equally as fun.

I do really love history, especially early American history. I picked my university based on the strength of their history program. Many of my professors took a very humanist approach to history, rather than try to drive raw data and dates into our heads; I think I’ve always been predisposed to viewing history as a kind of collective story that we’re all writing together, and it’s fascinating to try to pick apart how that narrative is crafted and who decides what is included. I’m very much the same as you—I like stopping to read historical markers and reading biographies that range from rulers down to more “common” men and women. Studying history has definitely played a role in how I do worldbuilding; I like to borrow from history when I’m writing fantasy or sci-fi for sure, but through studying it, I’ve come to see how all facets of life are interwoven and connected and a failure or tragedy or success in one area of it can ripple out and have unexpected consequences.


 

Jay here again — that’s all for now! I am very grateful to Alex for chatting with me and letting us get to know her a bit. Please join us again on Wednesday for the second part of the interview, where we discuss her take on the Big Three and where she reveals who shoots first!

The Princess, The Scoundrel, and the Farm Boy releases September 22.

3 comments

  1. […] of the Dark Side! (Return of the Jedi). Bracken has been making the rounds, with an interview on Eleven-ThirtyEight and a blog entry on […]

  2. […] Monday, I presented Part One of my interview with Alexandra Bracken, where we discussed her relationship with Star Wars, her approach to writing, and her literary […]

  3. […] of last week are amazing — particularly Servants of the Empire — and this week’s brilliant ANH adaptation brings that to […]

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