Two weeks ago, I had the honor of moderating the Aftermath panel with author Chuck Wendig. I was super excited for this event because, as I explained at the start of the panel, I love Star Wars, I love the Expanded Universe, and I love Chuck Wendig’s writing.
I was nervous, of course, as I always am before panels. Even though 2015 marked my third year (!!!) doing panels at Dragon Con, and even though I’ve been co-hosting the podcast for over 3.5 years (!!!!!), I still worry about freaking out while talking in front of a crowd. Not only that, but this was my first panel interviewing someone famous and my first panel without Brian on stage as well. I was all on my own. Could I handle the pressure? Would I say something really dumb? Would I have to run off the stage to barf?
Thankfully, none of those things happened. (Of course they didn’t. Anxiety sucks!) And most of that had to do with the fact that Chuck Wendig is a hilarious and awesome human being. I’d had a few Twitter exchanges with him prior to the convention, and met him the night before the panel at his Barnes and Noble signing. It was comforting to know he was just a regular guy, and that he would be just as tired as I was come Friday at 8:30 pm after not going to sleep until some godforsaken hour that morning. (We were up all night to get Star Wars!)
The panel started off with the requisite introductions and question about how Wendig became a Star Wars fan (after his sister took him to see The Empire Strikes Back). We talked about how he got the gig writing Aftermath — by tweeting that he wanted to write a Star Wars book on September 4, 2014, exactly one year before Aftermath‘s release — and the process of developing the story. Other than telling him the time frame and purpose of the book, Del Rey gave him a lot of freedom to develop his own characters and plot, although there was still collaboration with the Story Group in regards to the events in the galaxy at large. Wendig said he was surprised by how much freedom they gave him, with the exception of a few topics that were off the table. He also wasn’t cognizant of how important Aftermath would become until a few months ago. When I asked if he ever succumbs to the pressure now, he joked, “I cry in the shower, that’s all. Once or twice a day. That’s okay, right?”
I asked Wendig about the recurring characters in the book, mainly Wedge Antilles and Rae Sloane. Wendig described Wedge as a Swiss army knife type character that can be used in any sort of situation. Because he has such a small presence in the films, it’s very easy to delve into his personality on paper. Wendig also used Wedge to invert tropes regarding the hero in distress and the woman having to come rescue him. As far as Rae Sloane is concerned, Del Rey wanted to use a preexisting character in the novel and Wendig chose Sloane from the list of possibilities. He described her as a pragmatist, a believer but not faithful, and more interested in the governmental aspects of the Empire. Sloane truly believes in what she’s doing. He promoted her to admiral to give her the weight necessary for the plot.
We also talked about Wendig’s original characters. Wendig developed Norra and Temmin Wexley because he wanted to explore the generational aspect of the Star Wars saga. One of the missions of the book was to explore why people rebelled against the Empire, and how it’s usually more of a personal thing rather than large ideological issues. In the case of the Wexleys, this occurs when Norra’s husband is taken away by the Empire and Norra decides to join the Rebellion. Meanwhile, Temmin has no desire to rebel and blames his mother for abandoning him.
I commented on the number of female characters in Aftermath, and that it seems like every other character named is a women. After thanking him for that, I asked Wendig why writing diversely is important to him. He discussed his childhood playing Star Wars with his cousin Julie, who would play Leia, while he would play “everybody else.” Later on, he began to realize, “there’s a lot more women in life than there are in that movie. You start to count, and actually it’s like half. Oh, shit!” While it’s not some sort of “diversity bingo,” he sees no reason not to include more people who don’t look like him, and why shouldn’t we speak to audiences who are not him. “The diversity of the audience should represent the diversity of the stories and the characters,” he said. “And ideally the writers, too.”
We also broached the topic of Legends and canon, as the fandom is wont to do when talking about Aftermath. Wendig says of Legends, “They’re great and they’re still out there. Hopefully they’re on your shelves now, no one took them from you. I didn’t!” He thinks it’s awesome that readers continue to love those books. Later on, he mentioned his fondness for the Thrawn Trilogy and the X-Wing series in particular.
The audience questions ran the gamut from general Star Wars to questions about specific plot points and characters in Aftermath. We kept most of the discussion spoiler-free, as the book had just come out the night before.
Q: Can you tell us about Mr. Bones?
A: Wendig wanted to utilize the battle droids because they’d been so ineffectual in the prequel trilogy, but he liked the shape of the droids and found something horrifying about them.
Q: If you could write a Star Wars book about any character or era, which would it be in why?
A: Wendig would love to write in the Old Republic era, specifically about HK-47. He tried hard to sneak HK-47 into the book in the form of an interlude (which he’d actually written), but was shot down.
Q: Did you read any of the old Legends novels to get a sense of the characters? “Basically, I’m asking, does Tycho live?” (Note: I did not put this gentleman up to asking that question!)
A: “I am not involved there, but sure? We’ll see?” Basically, that’s far outside Wendig’s purview at the moment. (But we can always make a request for Aftermath 2 and 3, right? Right?)
Q from Twitter: Is your beard full of secrets, and is your beard made of bees?
A: “My beard is full of secret bees. Because you can’t see them, so they are secret.”
Q: As a Star Wars fan, what did it mean to write a book that’s helping build the foundation for everything going forward?
A: “That cannot be put in words. It can only mostly be put in squeals.” He described how surreal it felt to have his head canon for the events after Return of the Jedi become part of actual Star Wars canon.
Q: What’s it like to work with the Story Group?
A: Initially Wendig pitched to Del Rey, who then liaised with the Story Group. Eventually, the process became a direct collaboration with the Story Group in the form of meetings and conference calls. He discussed the process of developing Star Wars canon between all forms of media as an organic garden.
Q: What were some of the challenges you faced writing Aftermath in regards to the expectations of the Expanded Universe generation?
A: Wendig didn’t really have a whole lot of time to worry about the expectations and the challenges. Mostly he wanted to write a great book and a great story. Obviously he didn’t want to be redundant, and wanted his story to fit in with the others that are being told. I added that liking Legends and liking the new canon is not a zero sum game. Wendig likened this comics fans, and how they often experience reboots.
Q: Are there any aspects of Wedge’s character that you incorporated from Legends books?
A: Not explicitly, although the “Wedge vibe” seeped into the narrative because that character doesn’t have many scenes in the films and “really comes from the books.”
Q: Given the massive list of characters that survive Return of the Jedi, did you actually have a list of people you couldn’t kill?
A: While Wendig didn’t have a list of characters he wanted to kill in Aftermath, that conversation has been happening for the second and third books of the trilogy. He can’t say who or what, obviously. As far as Luke is concerned, “Well sure, yeah. I can kill Luke, so I did that. I killed him. Luke is dead.” Wendig then took a moment to commend the Ewoks, or as he described them, “furry monster bears,” who were going to cook people and eat them.
Q: Can you discuss the LGBT characters? Was it something you were conscious of?
A: It was a conscious decision. Wendig commented on why some readers feel the need to have a character’s sexuality play a huge role in the plot, or else not have it mentioned at all. It’s not “Gay Empire.” He dislikes the idea of the straight white male being the default character, and that there has to be a specific reason to create diverse characters. Representing an audience that is diverse means putting diverse characters in your book. He also commented on science fiction as a genre, and how it should be progressive as far as taking risks is concerned.
Q: “I don’t want you to spoil anything–”
A: “Luke dies. Page 85. I lightsaber him to death.”
Q: How much information were you given about The Force Awakens and what happens between that and Jedi?
A: Wendig knows a good bit about the time between, but not about what happens in TFA itself.
I asked Wendig if he could tell us anything about the Aftermath sequels, but he could not for fear of death by lightsaber. Aftermath stands alone, but the second and third books are more connected. The release timeline will be one book per year, so all three books should be out prior to Episode VIII. Wendig has finished the outline for the first sequel and will begin writing it soon. When I asked about fake spoilers, he replied, “Luke Skywalker dies again. Page 94.”
Q: Did you deliberately write anything with such perpetuity that it would have a good chance of getting onto the movie screen? Did you try to get a prop into the film?
A: Not in The Force Awakens itself, although Wendig has heard rumblings about getting something into Episode VIII. If that happened he would make a subsonic shriek and then he would die, right there in the theater.
Q: Did Wendig borrow anything from the Expanded Universe novels?
A. Nothing overt, although there are a few references here and there. He hasn’t read those novels in many years and purposefully did not reread them prior to writing Aftermath, although he’s sure there was some cross-pollination since he grew up with some of them.
I asked Wendig about writing in third person present tense. He finds present tense to be very urgent and cinematic, like you’re always at the edge of the story.
Q: What’s your favorite piece of current canon?
A: Wendig loves the bounty hunters, and mentioned that one of the Aftermath characters is related to Sugi from The Clone Wars. Later on, he mentioned his fondness for the current Marvel comics, and Darth Vader in particular.
Q: How many times will you see The Force Awakens opening weekend?
A: That will depend on whether or not someone can babysit that weekend. He’d like to take his son, but will have to see the movie himself first to make sure it’s okay for a four-year-old.
I asked Wendig what he’s most looking forward to in TFA, and he said “how can the answer not be all of it?” He’s excited to see the new characters, and resists the nostalgic urge to only care about the old stuff. But that the end of the day, it’s BB-8. “BB-8 is my master now.” He even managed to pick up a Sphero BB-8 toy at the Barnes and Noble signing the previous night! He would love to write a team-up novel with just HK-47 and BB-8.
Wendig talked about his introduction to Star Wars fandom and how everyone has welcomed him at Dragon Con. He also touched on some of the dark side of online fandom.
At the 51:30 minute mark, we get into spoilers regarding a passage on page 52 (not about Luke dying on Life Day, despite anything Wendig says).
Before I read the spoiler, there’s also one of my favorite exchanges ever:
Me: This is from Wedge’s perspective–
Wendig: When he kills Luke.
Me: You know Luke is my favorite character, this is very distressing–
Wendig: Was your favorite character.
I may have died laughing right there on that stage.
Regarding the spoiler, I asked if he’d been told to do that or if it was his own idea, and he said it came down from on high. Then we discussed the possibility of exploring that spoiler in another medium.
Thanks again go to Brandy and the entire Star Wars at Dragon Con staff, and to Chuck Wendig for such an entertaining panel. It was definitely the highlight of my Dragon Con.