Star Wars 7 exclusive: James Luceno on Tarkin & EU canon

Star Wars: Tarkin author James Luceno on what the EU canon change really means

Cover art to Star Wars: Tarkin by James Luceno
Cover art to Star Wars: Tarkin by James Luceno
Cover art to Star Wars: Tarkin by James Luceno

Having established himself as one of the fan-favourite authors of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, James Luceno is also kicking off the new full-canon continuity with the second book in the new era – Star Wars: Tarkin, out 6 November 2014 – which will be part of the same grand storytelling tapestry as the Star Wars Rebels animated series and JJ Abrams’ eagerly-awaited Star Wars: Episode VII.

We spoke exclusively to Luceno to find out about his new book which will do for Peter Cushing’s icy Grand Moff Tarkin what 2012’s Darth Plagueis did for Palpatine, and what life is like behind the bulkhead of ‘new’ Star Wars.

Here are the highlights:

Nobody knows anything about Star Wars: Episode VII

“Right now in terms of Episode VII, I know nothing. I think that’s what the Story Group has been created to contain. Without spilling secrets they can say, ‘I think this isn’t a good place to go with this book’ or ‘You might want to steer clear of this topic.’”

Star Wars: Tarkin ties in with Star Wars Rebels

“Once I said ‘Yes, I’m interested in doing that’ I came in with a number of ideas of where I wanted to go with the story and those were generally discussed – some of them in relationship to what’s coming with Rebels”

Star Wars Rebels has a multi-season plan

“I read the series bible and I see where they’re going in the first season and I have a sense of where they’re going to go through the seasons that follow.”

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is no longer canon and Star Wars: Tarkin contradicts it

“We’re going to lead up to A New Hope in a way that may contradict some of the stories that have been told, mostly in The Force Unleashed and books that came out around that videogame.”

Star Wars: Tarkin is inspired by Hammer-era Peter Cushing

“I grew up watching those great old horror movies that I remember him in. Everything from Revenge Of Frankenstein and Hound Of The Baskervilles – he was even in [an Amicus] Doctor Who film, at one point! I did try and make use of that in terms of helping flesh out his personality, his mannerisms, his general style.”

The Star Wars Expanded Universe still exists… for now

“I chose not to really reference too much EU material only because of the setting of the story, but it was still there. It was still there to pick and choose from. I think going forward what may happen is you may see writers writing around some of that older material that’s now classified as Legends – writing around it rather than trying to overwrite it.”

The Star Wars canon reboot could do more harm than good

“I suppose there’s some logic to that from a marketing point of view, but I worry about alienating the fans and the readers who have been with this franchise for however long it’s been, because it’s a large group and they’re very loyal.”

Now read on for the full interview…

James Luceno by Old Line Garrison on Flickr
James Luceno by Old Line Garrison on Flickr

How did Tarkin come about?

A year ago I was working on a story that would have been set during the Original Trilogy that would have involved the Emperor. That wasn’t really going anywhere and that’s when Lucasfilm pitched the Tarkin idea to me.

Grand Moff Tarkin has one of the greatest establishing scenes in Star Wars history: you get such an incredible sense of who he is from the Death Star briefing room, so where did you go from there?

Two things struck me about Tarkin, just going back to watching the film. The first was who is this guy who has been placed in command of the Empire’s seemingly ultimate weapon? And the other thing that struck me was his relationship with Darth Vader because they seemed at times to be on kind of a parity with one another.

It’s hard to know who’s in command because there’s a line that Leia, the Princess, utters at some point that makes it seem like Tarkin actually is the guy in charge [“Governor Tarkin, I should have expected to find you holding Vader’s leash.”]. So those two things, the relationship and the fact that was the commander of this massive weapon, they both provided a jumping off point for what I wanted to get at in the novel.

I wanted to explore Tarkin’s past – what put him in the position where he would be in command of the Death Star, and also how he came to be in that relationship with Vader.

Did you find yourself revisiting earlier Cushing performances to capture his mannerisms?

Absolutely, yeah. I grew up watching… those were Hammer movies if I’m not mistaken, those great old horror movies that I remember him in. Everything from Revenge Of Frankenstein and Hound Of The Baskervilles – he was even in [an Amicus] Dr Who film, at one point! So all of my early filmgoing, he was a regular person who I saw on screen.

I did try and make use of that in terms of helping flesh out his personality, his mannerisms, his general style.

With Dark Lord, Labyrinth Of Evil, Darth Plagueis and now Tarkin, you’ve become the go-to-go author for these darker corners of the Star Wars universe. Is that what you’re naturally drawn to or is it a happy accident?

Yeah, more the latter. More the happy accident. When I got into this franchise one of the things that appealed to me was that you got to write about heroes, heroes and adventurers, and tackling the myth behind heroes. Beginning back with Cloak Of Deception I seem to have taken a turn for the darker side myself with writing about Palpatine – ever since then I’ve been the go-to-guy for the bad guys.

I do find them fascinating characters to write about. There’s a lot of challenge there in trying to depict an evil character in a light where you’re not turning the readers off, not making them monsters that are so beyond the pale no-one can relate to them. I enjoy trying to find a way to push them a little into the grey – remove some of that blackness from them.

What makes Tarkin one of the most chilling villains is that he’s grounded in the banality of evil rather than the mystical Force-wielding evil of Palpatine and Vader, how do you get further into that without it coming across a little too Third Reich?

I agree with you. I think what makes Tarkin fascinating is you don’t have to deal with the Force. You’re dealing with the psychology or commitment to an Imperial philosophy that in itself is questionable, is evil from many points of view. I struggled, again, with trying to find that line between the monster and the human within.

The setting for Tarkin though allows me to do that because the novel is kind of an origin tale for Tarkin. It’s set only five years after Palpatine declares himself Emperor so things are still moving toward the darker elements of that period leading up to A New Hope.

Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope

Reading about the process behind the first new canon book, Star Wars: A New Dawn, there was a lot of involvement with the showrunners of Star Wars Rebels as well as the new Story Group, was that the same for Tarkin?

With every book that I’ve written for the franchise I’ve participated in story conferences and brainstorming sessions with different people representing both my publisher and Lucasfilm, so the process wasn’t any different. Usually it’s more a matter of deciding which elements of the story are going to work the best.

There were no constraints placed on me. Once I said ‘Yes, I’m interested in doing that,’ I came in with a number of ideas of where I wanted to go with the story and those were generally discussed – some of them in relationship to what’s coming with Rebels, some of them in terms of past continuity. For it was very much the same process that I’ve been used to all these years.

How did the Star Wars canon change affect you with Tarkin?

This is such a complicated issue. Frankly, I’m still not sure what this so-called ‘canon change’ is all about.

Yes, on the one hand Rebels is going to introduce a whole group of new characters that we’re going to follow in this television series and yes, we’re going to lead up to A New Hope in a way that may contradict some of the stories that have been told, mostly in The Force Unleashed and books that came out around that videogame, but really there’s been very little in the Expanded Universe regarding the Dark Times, regarding this period.

Most of them [are] flashbacks that have been told in novels that take place years after A New Hope, even years after Return Of The Jedi.

In terms of the existing canon, these are still out there. I chose not to really reference too much EU material only because of the setting of the story, but it was still there. It was still there to pick and choose from.

I think going forward what may happen is you may see writers writing around some of that older material that’s now classified as Legends – writing around it rather than trying to overwrite it. This is a new development, so I think we’re going to have to wait a while to understand what this so-called ‘new canon’ is about.

Do you feel Tarkin, along with the other new books, is under a greater degree of scrutiny from fans because they’re looking out for changes?

Yes, yeah. It’s funny because I think this has come about because of the issue that’s been made about the new canon and the other books being classified as Legends. I think there is gonna be more scrutiny.

You know, A New Dawn is out there and there’s nothing that contra-… there’s a Jedi that I suppose earlier had been thought dead, but those kinds of little tweaks, they’ve always been there. They’ve been there from the very start in Star Wars, even from George Lucas when he released his Special Editions was changing things, so if a character was thought dead and suddenly that character is alive or vice versa, it doesn’t seem really major to me at this point.

I was on the Facebook page for Star Wars Books and the guys there are so patient with everyone, even when they’re being subject to some appalling abuse. Have you been subject to any hostility online for the new book?

To be honest with you I don’t really follow those kind of discussions on Facebook. I stay away for my own good because I just don’t want to be misled while I’m writing a novel or taken to a place I don’t want to go. There’s not much you can say about of that kind of thing. I haven’t seen too much…  maybe everybody’s out there expecting the worst but I’m not even aware of it.

I think people are going to be surprised by Tarkin. I think that they’re gonna feel that Tarkin is like the other books that I’ve written. I don’t think they’re going to see any great change.

James Luceno by Old Line Garrison on Flickr
James Luceno by Old Line Garrison on Flickr

It’ll probably take a few books and the angrier of the fans will remember that they’re here for the stories, the writers and the characters…

Yeah. I think so, I really do. I think with the move over to Disney… You know, there’s a couple of things at work: Disney buys Lucasfilm, so they want to start fresh, and there’s always this notion, it comes up – I don’t know – every ten years or so about bringing new readers, bringing new fans into the franchise.

One way that many franchise owners or companies think this can be accomplished is buying saying ‘We’re starting fresh’, so you don’t have to know anything to be able to jump into the franchise at this point. I suppose there’s some logic to that from a marketing point of view, but I worry about alienating the fans and the readers who have been with this franchise for however long it’s been, because it’s a large group and they’re very loyal.

You were writing Star Wars books while the Prequel Trilogy was in full flow, how does the atmosphere in the run up to Episode VII compare to the atmosphere around Attack Of The Clones and Revenge Of The Sith?

The big difference is this: with the Prequels, at least when I got involved, I had access to a lot of the information about the films that were coming, because it helped me get a sense of where I could go with the novels that I was being asked to write.

Right now in terms of Episode VII, I know nothing. I do know about Rebels, I read the series bible and I see where they’re going in the first season and I have a sense of where they’re going to go through the seasons that follow, so that I think that the main difference is there seems to be a tighter control in terms of the information.

I think that’s what the Story Group has been created to contain. Without spilling secrets they can say, ‘I think this isn’t a good place to go with this book’ or ‘You might want to steer clear of this topic.’ This is part of an effort to maintain a so-called continuity where every book and every game and every comic will all be part of a single story going forward, and that wasn’t the case earlier on.

Star Wars: Tarkin is out 6 November 2014. You can pre-order it now from Amazon.co.uk priced £13.59. For more on Star Wars Rebels and the new Star Wars canon, pick up the new issue of SciFiNow.