The following interview with Michael Stockpole was conducted by Star Wars fan Doug McCausland, who wanted us to share it with all of you. Enjoy!
July marks the 20th anniversary of one of the most ambitious and beloved chapters of the Star Wars universe: the X-Wing series of comics and novels. Originally planned as a spinoff of the critically acclaimed LucasArts flight simulators X-Wing and TIE Fighter, the project encompassed thirty five comic issues overseen by Michael Stackpole, six adult novels by Stackpole (including the companion novel I, Jedi), and five by the late, great Aaron Allston.
The series follows the exploits of the Rebel Alliance following the defeat of the Empire during Return of the Jedi, chronicling the group's transformation into the New Republic and its military campaigns against the fragmented Imperial warlords, such as the menacing Ysanne "Iceheart" Isard and the illusive Zsinj. The reader meets a huge ensemble cast of ragtag New Republic fighter pilots and military officers, scheming Imperial figureheads, shady denizens of the criminal underworld, and an ambiguously fictitious Ewok fighter pilot named Lieutenant Kettch.
With Star Wars Anthology: Rogue One on the horizon, as well as the twentieth anniversaries of both the comic series and novels coming in July and January, respectively, I thought it would be a good time to look back on the franchise with Michael Stackpole, touching on some of the more controversial points in the series as well as looking ahead to a possible future of the franchise in film and television...
With the 20th anniversary of the original X-wing comic coming up upon July 1st, do you have any thoughts about the series?
Everything from In The Empire's Service on I wrote the scripts for, and before that I did the story treatments. By and large the guys who scripted those early issues did a brilliant job. Jan Strnad is great, and Darko Macan's story arc, The Phantom Affair, was absolutely brilliant. It was great fun working with those guys and watching the project come together. When I started scripting myself, that was some of the most fun I've ever had writing.
Can you tell us a bit how the opportunity to write for the Star Wars franchise originally came about, and how the classic 90's flight simulators factored into the original plan?
Bantam had been having great success with the Star Wars novels, and Lucasfilm at the time was a little reluctant to extend their contract. I think they were a little concerned about having too much stuff out there. What Bantam asked is if they could take a subsidiary license and use the X-wing computer game. Because I had done computer games in the past. The editor called me up and asked if picking out a license for a computer game was a good idea, then we discussed it without naming what the property was. I was basically down on the idea.
At the end of the call she says, oh, too bad, we were thinking about picking up the Star Wars license, and I said, "oh, Star Wars?! Buy it!" About three months later, I get a waking call from my agent informing me I was offered a four Star Wars book cycle... I said yeah. What they wanted and what my mission was was to write military science fiction in the Star Wars universe. They suggested using Wedge Antilles, but other than that, it was wide open!
The protagonist of your books, Corran Horn, his family, and the whole CorSec culture was probably your biggest original contribution to the Star Wars canon. He's defined by two major character traits: his tragic backstory, and his brash attitude as a former cop turned New Republic fighter pilot. When you were creating the character, which came first?
I'd been researching about fighter pilots and knew fighter pilots; the cockiness is just a parcel of being a fighter pilot. Making him a Corellian and giving him a Jedi background... I knew that from the very beginning I wanted him to be a contrast to Wedge and Han. The only Corellians we knew had ties to smuggling. I really kind of hate the whole science fiction mono-culture... the whole Corellian mono-culture was devil haired smugglers! It struck me that you had to be smuggling because there was law enforcement. Making him from a law enforcement family, it gave me a great contrast and an inherent problem of joining the rebels. His father was dead, and the guy who was essentially his mentor in the police force was gone. I needed him in a crisis with no moral compass. For Corran, joining the Rebellion, he sort of sees Wedge in that role. That really allows him to come into the whole squadron.
Corran's Corsec officer/Imperial liaison, Kirtan Loor, seems to be a foil to his character, but also kind of makes a transition from being a one note villain when we first meet him to being morally gray and almost sympathetic by his last appearance.
He was Imperial. There were gonna be rivalry between Corran and Loor for the same reason there's resentment in local law enforcement when the FBI comes in. Same type of thing. Kirtan was of middle competence when he's in Corsec, Suddenly, when the series starts, he has to throw a bunch of people in the water and has to learn to swim better himself with the greater issues he's dealing with. These issues are where the waters are very murky and nasty. He was the country bumpkin who comes to the big city and sees what life there is all about. He was a very human character on that side of things. He was kind of necessary to have a character that the reader would have some appreciation for when Isard decides that a person has outlived their usefulness.
As you said before, you were setting out to write a piece of military fiction. In fleshing out the military of the New Republic, you introduced several military figures, such as General Cracken, and you had the chance to mold Admiral Ackbar into much more of a well rounded character. Did you draw from any real life military figures?
I tend not to model characters on historical figures because when I'm reading and I figure out what the model was, I tend to take issue with the author's characterization of that model. I studied military history, I know a lot of military guys, I have brothers in the military, friends who've attended military academies. Having a lot and knowing of these people's experiences, I just brought that weight to these characters. The real conscious model was that I had a sense of how the military functioned. What I tried to bring to it was not Doug MacArthur or Patton, but an understanding of the everyday military. I was well aware with the Battletech book and the X-wing books that I was going to have military readers, so I wanted the books to reflect their experience.
What really made the X-wing novels special was, in addition to the exciting combat, we really got to see the realities of a post-revolutionary government... making compromises, strained resources and budget to keep the peace, and so on.
Here's the funny thing: when the X-wing books were proposed I looked to set them 2 and a half years before Tim's books. We weren't sure if anybody wanted to read them. I said to Lucasfilm, "Look, at the end of ROTJ, the New Republic has killed the Emperor, but they haven't taken over." In Tim's books, five years out, the Republic is already on Coruscant. So I said, "let me tell the story of the takeover of the Imperial homeworld, because one, it would be a great campaign, and two, if readers weren't interested in the characters, at least they'd be interested in the history of what went on. So that was the reason I did that.
It's sort of a smaller scale story in comparison to some of the greater stuff Tim was doing, but it certainly fit with a more intimate look at another group of characters. That plan fit with the way the books were being written, so I was happy with it. Plus, the great thing is that I really like writing politics, and the fall of the Imperial homeworld and setting up the Republic is going to involve a lot of politics... that was my focus there.
I read The Krytos Trap while Ebola was making headlines last year. Probably not a great idea.
[laughs] Yeah. The Krytos Virus was inspired by Richard Preston's book, The Hot Zone. Rather, I proposed the virus, then I read that as part of my research. It made it far more nasty.
At least there's nobody exploding into gorey messes in real life.
Well, that, and to me the fact that a character turns his head and his skull moves inside his flesh, which I still remember now sixteen years later. [laughs]
With the prequel trilogy on the horizon in those days, how much input did you receive from LucasFilm?
We really didn't have any input. Back then, we were told that the Clone Wars happened 30-35 years before A New Hope. That was the timeline we were working off of. If you go into I, Jedi and timed out/measured out Corran's age, who is about the same as Luke, and Corran's father and grandfather's age, that's way more a chronology than 30 years ago. When Phantom Menace came, with the Clone Wars only 19 years in the past, that was a major shift. Because they were numbers that get attached to this stuff, measuring by generation and using hints and inference, it still sort of works.
There was a very controversial moment in I, Jedi where Corran Horn really puts Luke into his place, so to speak, at the Jedi Academy that has been hotly debated among fans.
Back when we were writing those books, there were things being done in every era of the Luke timeline. Tim Zahn set Luke up in one way, and in other books Luke really tended to be, for the lack of a better term, a little bit whiny. I knew that Tim and I were talking a good bit of I, Jedi, and Tim was doing Specter of the Past and Vision of the Future. Those three books came out six months apart and we knew they were form sort of an informal trilogy that encapsulated the whiney Luke period. What we did, and what Lucasfilm approved, was Corran pointing out to Luke that this was the way Corran would do it.
A memorable line from that was Corran saying if not for the occasional Sith Lord, the Jedi Academy would be a summer camp. Corran, coming from his background, having been trained in the military and police academy, has an idea of how he'd see a Jedi being trained. He reads Luke the riot act, saying "You gotta figure out what the hell is going on". If you were to read the Bantam books in chronological order, what you would have is Corran saying that, and Luke trying out all these different strategies trying to figure out what the hell is going on. You get to Tim's Hand of Thrawn books, Luke thinks, "You know, Corran wasn't wrong. We've really got to lock this in." And Luke does.
I knew that it was going to be a problem, and in the six months between I, Jedi and Vision coming out, I knew I was going to take a lot of heat for that particular passage. But it set immediately what happens in Vision. It was deliberate way of setting things up that way. If I take the heat for it, it's okay.
Characters like Tavira and Asyr had fates that were sort of left completely up in the air which were never followed up on by other Expanded Universe authors. Did you have any endgames in mind for them before you departed the franchise?
When you're working a franchise, you work a contract. The fact that they were alive and out there meant that I had those cards in the deck if I ever wanted to use them. I tend not to project forward into what I want to do until I have a contract. As a writer I have tons of things to do, and it's easier for me to project in my own universes. It would be a waste of my time to plan forward without a contract... the bank likes me paying my mortgage. [laughs]
Well, I'll still ask you this since it's been a controversial subject among Star Wars fans for the longest time: was Ysanne Isard killed by Iella aboard the Lusankya in Isard's Revenge, or do you think she really lived out the rest of her days in the bowels of the ship?
I sort of think of it as "Schrodinger's Villain". Either alive or dead. But certainly that would be an interpretation that is quite valid. If I was in a position to bring her back, that was the position she would have been kept. If it makes people happy to think she's alive and could escape and cause more trouble... if people think she's dead, knock themselves out!
What have you learned from your experience with the franchise, and how has it affected your writing since your departure?
I learned a lot of things. The best finite series of books in my career was the X-wing series. That was very valuable in how you can set up a project and go through with it. In terms of visual style... I was doing Onslaught, and during the first draft I got to go to a press screening of The Phantom Menace. The fight at the end, that glorious lightsaber fight... it was so beautiful in fluidity of motion that for a lot of fight scenes now, I got back to that scene, and make it about action and not just blocking and those sort of things. and it certainly reflected in the fight scenes of my New Jedi Order books.
Star Wars Anthology: Rogue One is releasing next year, and while it is set before any of your novels, it seems like the militaristic storytelling and "morally grey" characterizations from your novels will be influencing the film.
When Disney announced the EU is being decanonized if you will, even if it was, what I hoped for just given the timing was that most of the people who were working on the franchise were people who grew up watching the movies on video tape and reading the Star Wars novels. If they didn't use anything Tim, Aaron and I wrote, the fact that they read our books meant they shaped their vision. I'm 100 percent certain people working on Rogue One were not sitting down reading the X-wing books saying, "let's use this...". They're creative individuals on their own. I know how much it would bother me if I had to go through and do that. It could be annoying. If they did read the books, the cool stuff is going to stick with them. Don't get me wrong. If ABC Television decides they want to do a series and base it on the X-wing novels, I'd be the happiest guy on the planet!
Literally last week I was at Russia at a convention and a bunch of people wanted to know what I thought about the Episode VII previews, and I said, "I haven't watched any of them!" I want to go into the theater the way I did in 1977. I want my socks blown off. I don't need any amp, any spoilers or buildup. I can't wait. I'll be one of the first guys in line for Rogue One. Or hopefully I'll get a press pass to go see a screening... hint hint. Whatever it is, I'm sure it will be a lot of fun. If there's stuff in there, winks and nods to what I did, what Tim or Aaron or anybody else did, that's great. If not, it's the universe we all grew up with and I'm good with it.
I'm kind of hoping we see a "Commander Allston" or something along those lines as a tribute to Aaron. What you guys did together was unparalleled in the Star Wars expanded universe.
That would be great. I'm just not sure if the writers have that level of awareness. What I would like in the future for any of the films is to make us X-wing pilots! We can have our five seconds on the screen and attend shows and cons. Autographed pictures are much lighter to carry than books. That would be my dream.
All you gotta do is be the guy in the background of that one scene in Star Wars and you're set for life.
Oh yeah! Back during the Star Wars Card Game, they needed stand ins for Corran and Talon Karrde. Me and Tim did that! We already have the experience being models, which is great fun, it would be kind of cool. There would be people coming for autographs for the movie, and others who are getting their books signed. Those are the ones in on the joke.
If Corran Horn was to appear in a future movie under Disney, which actor do you think is capable of portraying him? Besides you, of course.
[laughs] I'm a little far along now to play Corran. I'm not one of those guys who cast their characters. I just never have. What I would want is an actor who is interested in playing the character. He's not an easy character. He's got quirks. He's got faults and makes mistakes, but he's one of those guys that always flies. I think that there's any number of actors that can embrace that role and that would be cool. The actor Kyle MacLachlan, who played Paul in Dune... I remember when the movie came out. He wanted so hard to play that role because he read the book as a kid. If they do anything and Corran is ever cast, maybe, just maybe the actor is someone who read the novels and cherishes the part.
When I read the X-wing novels last year, it was around the time Guardians of the Galaxy released. Thus, Corran Horn was cast as Chris Pratt in my head the whole time.
Wow... [laughs] I actually think Chris Pratt could do a hell of a job! I would not be against that casting at all.
Glad I'm not the only one. Well, that about wraps it up. Thanks for the time, Mr. Stackpole.