Alexandra Bracken on the Symbol, the Skeptic, and the Sponge

starwars-450x556[1]On 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 interests. Today brings part two of this interview, where we discuss her adaptation of Star Wars A New Hope — released yesterday — called The Princess, the Scoundrel, and the Farm Boy. The title of the novel signals its focus on the “Big Three” of Leia, Han, and Luke, so naturally I wanted to ask her about her approaches to characterizing the most iconic figures in Star Wars.

Not only has the novel itself come out since the publication of Part One of the interview, but posted a beautiful, heartfelt essay that Alex wrote about her late father. She discusses her experiences growing up with Star Wars and how she associates it with her loving family, and how the Star Wars fandom, too, is a family. It’s a very moving piece, and I highly encourage everyone to read it if you haven’t already… The Princess, the Scoundrel, and the Farm Boy itself reads like a love letter to family and fandom. Scenes where Leia confides that she copes with trying times by remembering the fun and hope she associates with her parents or where Luke imagines his departed loved ones as beams of sunlight have this emotional heft to them, especially read in context of where Alex was writing from. This book is something special — from the mythic grandeur to the funny little additions and observations (ever thought about who put down the Falcon‘s landing gear on the Death Star? She did!), a lot of love and thought went into this book and it shows.

But that’s enough from me! Let’s hear from Alex and get her insights on Leia, Han, and Luke! As before, my questions are in bold and Alex’s answers are in plaintext.

X. Okay so on to The Princess, The Scoundrel, and the Farm Boy at last. You were brought in to the project to adapt A New Hope–what are your thoughts on ANH and its place in the OT?

Oooh, this is an interesting question. I’m not sure I’ve ever really thought about this before…

You know, for the longest time, ANH was actually my least favorite film of the original trilogy. I love endings for whatever reason—I guess the sense of resolution and watching all of these disparate threads get tied together, so ROTJ was my favorite for many years. The scene in which we see Luke lighting Vader’s funeral pyre is one of my favorites in the whole saga—visually, it’s so striking, and emotionally, it’s a catharsis.

I see ANH as having so much more innocence than the other films; it inspires a kind of wonder in you, because, like Luke, you’re being thrust into a much larger world that’s so very unlike anything you’ve known. Truths are much more simple in this part of the story: a found family of friends comes together, heroes are heroic (and if they’re not initially, they make the right choice by the end) and good does triumph over evil, despite crippling odds. And then, much like Luke going into the cave on Dagobah, ESB draws you into the story’s heart of darkness. The other side of the coin flips up, and we see heroes fail, friends separate, and we question the very themes and ideas that ANH established. It makes for some intense drama and twists, but I’ve always wondered if they’d be so impactful without the shining light and triumph of ANH.

XI. As you know, I love how you wrote Leia and balanced her courtly upbringing with her toughness and idealism. What’s her role among Big Three, or in the Saga? How did you come up with your portrayal of her? I saw echoes of SW Tales, Children of the Jedi, the radio drama, and even the old Princess Leia “Captive to Evil” journal there — what other places or ideas did you tap into for Leia?

The first thing I wanted to do was really establish the fact that while Leia is kick-ass, and she’s incredibly driven, she’s also a whole, complete person—she struggles with self-doubt, frustration, and makes mistakes. We often seen Leia reacting in the film, but I don’t know that we ever get enough of a sense of who she is to understand what’s motivating those responses (for instance, why she doesn’t cry when she watches Alderaan get blown to dust, or where her courage comes from squaring off against the absolutely terrifying Darth Vader). So mission #1: flesh out Leia’s emotional arc.

This adaptation is meant to play with the idea of labels, and she’s sick and tired of being seen as simply a princess who’s incapable of taking care of herself and someone who’s been given everything simply because of her title. She’s burning to prove herself, first in the Senate, and then, later, to the Rebel Alliance. At the same time, she does struggle a tiny bit with the weight of responsibility, and she’s also very aware of the fact that some hold her up as being infallible as a leader. Her section opens with “Leia wasn’t the girl they thought she was,” not to establish her as being exceptional, but because she’s beating herself up over making a bad judgment call because of her desperation to see the mission to collect the Death Star plans through, knowing it’s going to cost precious lives.

I wasn’t thinking of any one, specific portrayal of Leia; I think her section is kind of an organic braiding of all of this information my brain has stored about her and her past from the EU, and from discussing her character with friends over the years.  I wanted to draw out the idea that Leia joined the Senate to get something done—to make a true difference in the galaxy–and was thwarted at every turn by incompetence and corruption, and she was constantly dismissed because of her age, and her station in life. This, along with her close relationship to Bail, is the main reason she’s fighting so hard in this adaptation to earn the respect and trust of the Rebel Alliance. She wants them to give her responsibility and let her right the injustices she was powerless to stop as a senator.

Leia struggles with what I call the “Kate Middleton Effect,” which basically means that no matter what cause she’s trying to represent, no matter what situation she’s trying to diffuse, the press are more interested in what she’s wearing and how she’s done her hair for the day. I wanted to give her a touch of real-world struggle that kids might be able to easily identify. It’s just the way of media to build young women up to then pick them apart and tear them back down again.

XII. So, now we know you were told to avoid going into Han’s backstory. With it struck out, did any of his backstory in Daley or Crispin still affect your portrayal of him? Who is Han Solo and how did you explore that?

I wasn’t allowed to touch on Han’s backstory in a meaningful way, unfortunately, aside from making some vague allusions to past disappointments in people that have set his mind to thinking it’s better to go it alone (with Chewie, of course).

One of the things I’ve always loved about Han in ANH is that he’s kind of the audience’s stand-in when Obi-Wan is teaching Luke about the Force on the Falcon. He’s the skeptic, the one to voice the valid question of whether or not it’s all religious mumbo jumbo… I mean, think about it: Luke basically stumbles onto an old man living in a cave in the middle of nowhere (albeit, one he’s heard stories about, apparently?) and believes every single word he tells him, almost without fail. Han would never.

The fun thing about Han is that while he doesn’t play by anyone else’s rules, he has his own moral code. I played with that a bit—because we get Han’s voice before Luke’s, we’re introduced to Luke and Obi-Wan through his eyes. He takes advantage of people occasionally, yes, but he doesn’t like the idea of a kid “fresh off the moisture farm” being taken advantage of, and thus feels surprisingly protective of Luke. It’s my way of slowly forcing him question his long-held belief about not signing up to be anyone’s friend or for anyone’s cause. My hope is that readers get the takeaway that, no matter what Han tries to tell himself, some secret part of him does want to believe in something bigger than himself.

XIII. I’ve gotta ask, even though the book’s not quite out yet: who shoots first? [note: the book was not yet out at the time]

Han, of course!

XIV. What’s your read on Luke? There are some widely differing portrayals of OT-era Luke.  Shadows of the Empire has him essentially carefree and still enjoying blasting TIEs out of the sky, even post ESB, while the more recent Heir to the Jedi has post-ANH Luke as essentially non-violent, peaceful, etc. The radio drama has Luke as generally heroic and caring but he occasionally burns for vengeance. What’s your Luke?

Of the three, Luke gave me the most trouble while I was drafting—I think for this exact reason. There are so many ways to interpret him, and all of them feel right for different reasons. I decided to really zero in on Luke’s innocence, and his absolute wonder at finding himself in the middle of this epic conflict after such a sheltered upbringing, but stayed away from making him seem too gee-whiz, oh golly. He’s really a sponge, and is absolutely fascinated by everything he’s seeing, because it’s so new. I ended up really loving his section for all of these small, revealing moments about him–for instance, when they arrive at Yavin IV and he sees a tree in person for the first time, and he experiences a jungle after living on a harsh desert planet. That’s actually kind of huge, but not something you dwell on as a viewer when there’s a Death Star to worry about.

I also kept in mind that he’s young, much younger than Han and many of the Rebels, and his chapters needed to reflect that to a certain extent. He balances out Han’s world-weariness, but there’s a cockiness to him, a temper, and also a need to (like Leia) prove himself, even if he questions whether or not a farm kid can fly with the veterans. I also felt it was important for Luke to have a little more, shall we say, self-awareness. Rather than simply letting Leia comfort him after Obi-Wan is killed, it turns into a discussion on loss and how to persevere in the face of it.

Actually, the radio drama teased out something about Luke that I’d never really considered before. Daley positions Biggs as coming from a family that owns and operates multiple moisture farms, and the implication is that he comes from a place of wealth and privilege by Tatooine standards. I’d never really taken a look at Luke’s story through the lens of him being somewhat economically disadvantaged—I mean, watching ANH we know that Uncle Owen is trying to protect Luke by keeping him hidden, but there must be some truth to Luke needing to stay and help out on their little moisture farm because they can’t afford to hire extra help beyond the droids.

Adam Gidwitz, the author of the ESB retelling, likes to talk about how Luke is somewhat of an empty vessel that you, the viewer, can insert yourself into. I’m not sure I totally agree with that, though I take his point. I just think aspects of Luke are incredibly relatable to a wide audience, especially his desire to see a bigger world than the one he’s known. You experience everything with him for the first time, and there’s a special sensitivity to the character, a gentleness, that I think endears him to the viewer and makes him so easy to root for.

XV. Lastly, let’s give a little plug to your other upcoming book — Passenger. It’s a time-travel romance set in the 18th century age of sail, which sounds really cool to me. I read some of the opening chapters and it seems very different from your other books. The prose was very lyrical, which suited all the discussion of music and instruments in the opening chapters. What would you tell your fellow Star Wars fans about this book that might get some of them take a look at it?

Alexandra-Bracken-Passenger[1]It’s set partly in the 18th century (1776 to be exact—couldn’t resist!) but it shifts to other centuries and continents as the story goes on. My short elevator pitch is that while there is a strong, central romance it’s really a kind of treasure hunt through time. It is prettttyyyy different from The Darkest Minds series, but after working on those books for almost five years and feeling emotionally taxed by how dark and, occasionally, sad they are, I needed to try something a little different. (Also, it’s important to keep growing as an author!) Hopefully Star Wars fans will appreciate the blend of action, humor, and high-stakes! Passenger is out  January 5, 2016.

Jay here again. It’s no secret that I really like this book. It taps into the things I really love about Star Wars: the mythic tone of the Journal of the Whills, the high politics (especially in the Leia chapters), the heroism and wonder, and just that warm, fuzzy feeling that shared fandom gives us. Anybody who’s ever been to a Star Wars Celebration understands the latter point. I find myself returning to my fond childhood and teenage memories of Original Trilogy and the Bantam EU during this The Force Awakens resurgence of the fandom, and this book reaches those exact feels, as it were.

I am very appreciative of the time that Alex took to talk to me about her book and the thought she put into her answers (I asked a LOT of questions!). I’m also very thankful that she wrote a book that tapped into all of those things I mentioned above. I’d simply have been happy with a book that did Leia justice, but this book did much more than that. It actually, genuinely adds to the experience of A New Hope with its added scenes which provide context and character development. I’m pretty sure I could go on about this book at further length, switching from the sentimental to the analytical, but I’ll leave with one last observation. September’s been a wonderful month for Star Wars fans — I’ve read six new novels now, enjoyed every single one of them, and have two more to go. This one is my favorite.

Thank you, Alex!