A Conversation with Karen Traviss
Question: Your new novel, The Clone Wars, is an adaptation of the animated film set for release in August. What's it like to write an adaptation? How do you turn the script into a novel, and do you have any freedom at all in terms of plot and characters?
Karen Traviss: The words "based on" mean just that — in fact, the phrase "very loosely based" would probably comply better with the UK's Trades Descriptions Act!
It's an animated feature film, and this is a novel, so the book can't be the same as the movie; there's already a gulf between what works in movies and what works in books anyway; you have two completely different products. Readers expect (and need) much more complexity and much deeper characterisation, and they're more demanding of plot logic - you have to tweak plots, because what is convincing to people watching a visual spectacle in a cinema very often doesn't work at all in print. And, inevitably, there's only so much movies can ever cover — they can never, ever see inside a character's head like a novel can. They have what's known as an omniscient viewpoint, and my books are all very tight third-person POV. So it's as different as chalk and cheese.
I'm pretty process-driven when I tackle a job like this, so I read the script, noted the main plot points, then worked out how I was going to cover the ground so that it started and ended in the same place as the movie and hit the same plot beats. Then I just...wrote it.
Now that movies are available on DVD, people buy books to get an experience that's different from what they can see on screen. They don't need or want a print version of the movie. They want something extra. It's my job to see they get it.
Q: The animated film is kicking off the new Clone Wars animated TV series. Does this new series pick up where the old Clone Wars series left off?
KT: No, it doesn't. It covers the same ground, although some of the continuity in the movie has changed from that in the last CW animated series. Because this is such familiar territory to SW fans —- I wanted to give them some things they'd never seen before. So they'll see the characters from a whole new perspective. Jabba, Ventress and Dooku may be a big surprise for some readers, as will some of the droids.
Q: Are you going to be involved in the new series–perhaps more novels set in this era of the Star Wars universe?
KT: I'm doing three of the five books from this series, with the other two being written by my good friend Karen Miller. It's a lot of fun to work with a buddy, and especially with someone who has the same take on fiction — that it's about character, character, and more character. We spend hours on the phone having debates about the psychology of the characters — often at weird hours, because she's in Australia and I'm in the UK.
Q: Can you set the stage for us? Where does this novel fit in the Star Wars chronology, and what do readers coming to the book with little or no knowledge of the Clone Wars need to know?
KT: The movie starts soon after the Battle of Geonosis, and Anakin has already been made a Knight -- and then he gets a Padawan he doesn't want. Any reader can pick up the books and dive right in. I believe in making books accessible to the casual reader. You shouldn't have to pass an exam in SW trivia before you can get into a book. And as I say, the power of a story isn't about dates, the length of star destroyers, or lightsaber colours - it's all about the characters. You just sit back and see where they take you...
Q: As in your other Star Wars books, you have a real affinity for fleshing out dark characters, getting inside their heads and portraying them as more than stereotypical baddies. Here you get to work with some juicy ones: Darth Sidious, Count Dooku, Jabba the Hutt, and the renegade, Asajj Ventress–not to mention Anakin Skywalker, the future Darth Vader. What is it that draws you to the dark side?
KT: It's because I'm still a reporter at heart, and therefore I don't take sides; I just present different points of view. It's also because I despise and fear simplistic binary thinking — good or evil, right or wrong, us or them, this dangerous desire for fast and easy answers about complex issues. That thinking is responsible for most of the suffering, bigotry, and violence in this world, and I don't want to add to it. I certainly don't want it in books read by youngsters. Like it or not, fiction subtly shapes how people see the world — trust me on that, I was a journalist and a political spin doctor, so I know it has more power to sway than hard news ever has — and anyone who reads my stuff has to confront the fact that there are at least two sides to any story, and usually many more. The idea that Jedi are all saints and the dark siders are all irredeemably evil doesn't fit with what real people are like, and so it makes for bad fiction, quite apart from being a dangerous mindset for folks to be lulled into. It's not moral relativism; it's simply presenting the facts for the reader to draw their own conclusions. I don't give the answers, and I usually don't have them anyway. I know what I believe in, but I'm also old enough to know that I might need to hear the other guy's point of view too. Because I've had to change my mind about ethical issues a lot in my lifetime. Life just isn't that simple.
Q: There is one other type of character that you seem to really enjoy–and that is the soldier, the grunt. In this book, that role belongs to Clone Captain Rex and Torrent Company of the 501st Legion. How much of your own experiences in the military do you draw on in your portrayals of soldiers like Rex?
KT: I grew up in a naval port in a family where nearly everyone had either been in uniform or had worked in defense at some time. Later in life, I was a defense correspondent, and I was in the reserves for a while. Some of my dearest friends are in uniform, and currently fighting a very bloody war. So, yes, I understand how service personnel think and feel. I also regard it as my duty to tell the truth in fiction, given its power to create stereotypes for good or ill, so I show the fighting man and woman as honestly and as accurately as I can. There's been way too much nonsense peddled in fiction (and the media) over the years about soldiers and how they feel. I respect servicemen and women far too much to give them anything less than a fair portrayal. I have a lot of military readers, and what matters to me more than anything else — absolutely anything - is that I do right by them. They're the people I do this job for.
Q: Tell us a bit more about Captain Rex. Is he going to be a recurring character in the series?
KT: I'll be using him in my books in the series, yes; I don't know yet if Karen is making much use of him, because we're trying not to cover the same ground. Rex is a good solid commander, learning fast about the outside world he's been thrown into, and — like all the clones — he's learned to find his own private space in his thoughts, a place where he isn't regarded as subhuman and expendable. He's got a bit of an edge to him; and he has a sharp sense of black humour with the banter to match. He likes Anakin and is loyal to him because he sees him as a soldier's soldier — Anakin treats his men with respect, not as droids, and leads from the front. Discipline and loyalty is not the same as blind obedience. When push comes to shove, the 501st are loyal to Anakin, and they go on being loyal to him when he becomes Vader — and you understand exactly why they'd follow him anywhere.
Rex is a typical soldier; he does heroic things without seeing himself as a hero. He does it for his buddies, not for ideology. He's scared, like any normal human being would be in combat, but he still does the business. And he grieves for his comrades. He's a man like any other.
Anyone who's seen the epic 60s movie ZULU will, I hope, recognise a certain scene and have a quiet smile about the discussion between the clone troopers ...
Q: Ahsoka is a fascinating addition to the Star Wars universe. Anakin is obviously a difficult person to be around, but she gives as good as she gets. Is she going to be a recurring character in the series?
KT: She'll be back in later books. But because her backstory is off limits, there's a limit to what I can do with her. I can't write a character's point of view if I don't know where they've come from. It's absolutely fundamental to my approach to characterisation, which is psych profiling. I'm right inside the character's head when I write; and unless a character has amnesia, they'll be aware of their past and that past will shape every thought and action in the present. (And if they do have amnesia, it's a whole new story!) So I'll only ever be showing Ahsoka in the various ways that others see her. But that works better sometimes than I imagined possible: I've just done another novel for a game where I couldn't use the main character's POV, and it actually helped create the sense of his being a closed book to most people.
I based my characterisation of Ahsoka on the fact that her species — Togrutas - evolved from a cat-like predator, and so I saw her as a carnivore, a hunter, with all a hunter's instincts and sometimes skittish and unpleasantly violent reactions. She's rough around the edges because she's a child, and it's as much Rex as Anakin who helps her mature. As Rex ribs her about her eating habits. Rodent jokes abound.
Q: One of the elements of this novel that I really enjoyed was seeing the bond between Anakin, Rex, and the other soldiers of Torrent Company–a bond forged in battle and strengthened by loyalty and trust. Anakin, unlike many others, sees the clones as human beings and treats them as such. He even sees machines as more than just lifeless automatons. Normally we think of empathy as a virtue, but sometimes it seems to me that Anakin feels too much, that his powerful empathy is as much a curse as a blessing.
KT: Yes, Anakin fell because he loved too much. He's passionate and compassionate, but he's also had so much taken from him that he's damaged and dangerously afraid of loss. That makes him ripe for manipulation by Palpatine, the greatest psy-ops maven and spin doc of all time. Anakin has been messed up and treated badly, and as Dooku says in the book, the Jedi make their own nemesis there.
A Jedi with that much empathy is also a dangerous threat to the Yoda school of thought, even if he never turns dark. Empathy makes you question everything. And after centuries of having things his way, Yoda's not up for gut-level back-to-basics questioning like that. He's great on the philosophical theory of compassion, but lousy on its day-to-day application to flesh and blood beings — like so many in the real world who talk a good game about decency and morality but never practice it.
Q: What other projects are you working on, both Star Wars—related and in your own fictional universe?
KT: I'm concentrating wholly on military and political fiction for the foreseeable future. I'm having a wonderful time working on Gears of War, which is a profoundly intelligent and well-created universe about a squad of soldiers in a post-apocalyptic world — yes, there are chainsaw rifles, but it's also very smart stuff - and I'm continuing the Republic Commando series in Imperial Commando books. There are a few other SW books in the pipeline too, including a Boba Fett one. In my creator-owned work, I'm writing a political thriller series about mercenaries, set in the very near future . I'll also be doing some comics work, which is something I've wanted to do for a long time. So, no vacation for a few years....or sleep....!