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+
TF.N is delighted to be able to bring you an interview with Abel G. Peña – the author of nearly two dozen in-depth articles in print and online, defining the story behind all sorts of on-screen Star Wars coolness. His work includes a biography of General Grievous, a scholarly survey of the interface between technology and the mystical energies of the Force, and authoritative histories of the Mandalorians and the Sith.
If anything in Star Wars has a substantial backstory that doesn't come out of a film, book or comic, you'll probably find that Abel G. Peña wrote it. And even if it didn't originally come from his imagination, it's quite possible that he's played a role in shaping it, giving sense and coherence to three decades' worth of storytelling from a vast Galaxy of Star Wars material.
He backs all this up with a subtle, subversive intelligence, which may have something to do with the degrees in literature and philosophy; and an interest in bodybuilding, which intimidates me in the way a good Matt Stover novel does.
I'm not sure what it says about me that I'm really looking forward to doing this interview....
Now, the first question: most of your contribution to the Star Wars mythos has taken the form of articles of one form or another, ranging from the journalistic to the highbrow – but in reality these have generally been a medium for creative storytelling.
Would you say it's fair to point to an interplay between concepts of fact and fiction (or idiom and content) as a recurring theme in your Star Wars work?
Coming out swinging, eh? First of all, thanks for that fine introduction. I'm also looking forward to this interview. I can already tell it's going to be interesting.
As for the question, you've basically hit the nail on the head. I'd say the relationship between fact and fiction is one of the chief concerns of all my writing because the question of Truth, with a capital T, has always been the obsessive heart of my existence. In a sense, I never got over that natural impulse toward infinite regress, that childish desire to ask "Why?" until you arrived at something that made logical sense other than being inevitably stonewalled with a version of, "Because" or "Because I said so"—equally childish insistences that are admittedly useful in the disciplines of science, religion, and BDSM. As that convincing foundation never came to me divorced from some sort of appeal to faith or trust (which are certainly not bad things, but most certainly irrational things), I learned to live in a sort of perpetual state of epistemological ambiguity, similar to what the Pyrrhonian skeptics call "suspension of belief."
Suspension of belief isn't dissimilar to the literary concept of suspension of disbelief, which asks us to keep our preconceived notions of reality from intruding on our enjoyment of a story. Likewise, suspension of belief asks us to keep our illogical preconceived notions of reality from intruding upon properly defining what reality is. It's easy to see the potential for paradox in that concept, and scientists and mathematicians quite reasonably proclaim, "But you've got to start somewhere." (Of course, the obvious response is, "That is why you fail.") In any case, they've got their game and I've got mine.
All that isn't to say that I am actually succeeding at anything, except perhaps at illuminating the seeming inevitably of hypocrisy or paradox in the search for Meaning—with a capital M—and Truth. This fact (and I use the term loosely) is another premonition from our infancy, isn't it? We suspect it quite early, I think. Except, most of us learn to reject it, because "proving" this suspicion true not only takes a considerable degree of mental dexterity, but has little practical use in the context of what is the psychological/sensory default for the majority of us, what most of us call "reality." We might say, however, that no other human enterprise can ever be more meaningful than the elucidation/creation of meaning at its most fundamental level, reminding us that existence is not just "this crude matter." And I suppose that's the job of the artist, as I understand it.
So yes, the rift, or lack thereof, between fact and fiction, idiom and content, is integral to my Star Wars work and all my writing. In fact, I believe my disposition toward "suspension of belief" is the very reason my Star Wars work is so popular among fans’ fans. It's particularly useful for dealing with superficially incongruent and coincidental elements of the Star Wars mythology. In medieval times, I might've been a theologian and undoubtedly a heretic; instead, in this life, I'm a Star Wars author and canonista.
So you're saying that Star Wars occupies the place in the modern psyche that religion occupied before the Enlightenment – or at least that canon debates have taken the place of theological dialectic?
Alternatively, you seemed to return to the psychology of early childhood as something of a recurring motif. Is it because we're exposed to Star Wars at an early date that it assumes such a powerful role in our imaginations?
I don't think it's a stretch to say that art and entertainment produce in us many of the same feelings of hope and euphoria, even fear, that are the most appealing aspects of religion. Now, when you've got a story like Star Wars that’s systematically encoded with the patterns of successful religions (some of which, with enough time, we retroactively call mythologies), and combine that with the global and sensory-overwhelming “pulpit” of cinema, art of this kind very easily begins to imitate the function of faith. The thought may be sacrilegious, but I’m hardly the first to think it. The recognized Star Wars mythos is called “canon,” for goodness’ sake, “Jedi” is a recognized religion in some parts of the world, and one of George Lucas’ nicknames is “The Maker.”
I think, at least for me, it’s definitely true that my exposure to Star Wars at a very young age is part of the reason it took such a powerful hold on me. The power of nostalgia is almost frightening, isn’t it? We might say that our early memories and experiences wield an almost supernatural influence over us and our futures (which is to say, our present). That’s part of the reason why some religions like to indoctrinate early. The Jedi of the prequels understand this too. I think most everyone can identify with the themes of Star Wars at an early age.
Life jades people, though. I have to say, I sometimes find it bewildering how some people, primarily adults, have reacted to the prequels, particularly Episode I and Attack of the Clones. Of course, a lot of these adults were the same “cool” teenagers that didn’t like Return of the Jedi, so their testimony is naturally suspect. Perhaps they think life should always be like The Empire Strikes Back and Revenge of the Sith. Or worse, that it actually is. If so, they have my sympathy.
Moving laterally onto something more concrete, I suppose the next question raised is where you'd place yourself in more objective literary or artistic terms. I often think I can see something of Borges in the way you treat the ideas of truth and fiction, and you also list Dante, David Lynch and the Epic of Gilgamesh among your influences. A lot of your work seems to dwell in a similar way on the interface between two contrasted states of being.
So, what are your perceptions of where you stand?
Borges has a beef with reality too, and an obsession with the concept of infinity, so it's no wonder we get along. He along with these other storytellers and stories you mentioned—Dante, Lynch, Herbert Mason’s translation of Gilgamesh—when I found them, I felt as if I’d found a misplaced piece of myself. As if, walking along the road, I tripped on something, and seeing what it was, realized it was my own arm, which I apparently hadn’t realized was missing in the first place.
Come to think of it, that’s an unintentional Splinter of the Mind’s Eye allusion.
And in the end, it may be that simple. You can see me wax philosophical about writing in “Plot, Subtext, Metatext, Transcendental Fable,” but, for whatever reason, certain stories, certain authors, simply push our buttons—we have found a kindred spirit. Or we think we have. As Borges says in “The Library of Babel,” you who read me—are you certain you understand my language?
Finally, if my work seems to focus on the contrast between two different states of being, that may be due to an undiagnosed multiple personality disorder.
Kidding. I hope.
I’m not quite sure what you mean by contrasted states of being, at least as found in my writing. I guess maybe the “before and after” pictures I paint in “The Story of General Grievous” would be what you mean. The Mandalorians and Sith also go through a great deal of transformation in my work. I suppose you’re right, though I’ve never explicitly thought of it in that way. Even my most recently published non-Star Wars stories—““Eloquence,” about road rage, and ““Between Naples and Memphis,” about love in a foreign country—show obvious signs of that theme, the latter in the title alone. One reader was slightly shocked those two stories had come out of the same writer. People I speak to are sometimes puzzled by how I can have one foot firmly planted in science fiction and the other in literary writing. But again, while my mind acknowledges the contrast, it doesn’t dwell in it. I’m far more concerned with reconciliation.
Still, duality, I suppose, is an ever-present undercurrent in my writing and life, as much as I sometimes try to deny it. To acknowledge you even understand what the concept of duality means is damning, after all. But it’s a sneaking suspicion of mine that when arguing, we’re often really rapping about the same Bantha poodoo, just in different contexts or with different emphases. We might rightly retort that context and emphasis are everything—nonetheless, just make sure to poke your head out of the little fort of cyclical logic you’ve built up around yourself every now and then and holler a what’s up, brother. That’s what I think I’m doing right now.
In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois wrote, “One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” Now, after reading that sentence, I had to double check and make sure I wasn’t black, because the rest of it resonated so strongly, I could’ve sworn he was talking about me. But I think this internal struggle is felt by a variety of persons, perhaps all persons, American or not, black or not, which lends DuBois’s statement its empathic force. It’s what makes Star Wars and the Force, with its good and dark sides, so compelling to millions of people around the world.
I feel I am one of those people, to answer your question.
You've moved effortlessly there from truth/fiction dualities through alienation and belonging onto the dark/light concept inherent in Star Wars (or, "good" and "dark", to continue with the movie terms you used).
You've covered a lot of the ground I was thinking of when I mentioned "contrasted states of being" – though I was also thinking of the "clash of phenomena" between the Force and technology, and perhaps even the duality between life and death – or is that "known" and "unknown" states of being? – which we see introduced right at the start with that vignette squaring off Mara with the "reanimated" cyborg Lumiya in "The Emperor's Pawns".
(... and how much does this always come back to Vader?)
Abel’s answer follows in Part 2. Meanwhile, you can visit his website and his StarWars.com VIP blog.