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Inferno Squad author Christie Golden on injecting moral ambiguity into Star Wars

Inferno Squad author Christie Golden on injecting moral ambiguity into Star Wars


Everyone has a story, even the Empire’s most devoted soldiers

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When Star Wars Battlefront II hits stores in November, it will present the Star Wars universe in a way that’s seldom seen: from the viewpoint of the Empire’s soldiers, who are fighting against the characters we usually root for. Next week, the game will get a prequel in Christie Golden’s Inferno Squad, which will unveil the origins of the game’s characters, and set after the events of Rogue One and A New Hope.

Del Rey Books published a special San Diego Comic-Con edition of the novel this week, and Golden was on hand to sign copies and meet fans. I sat down with her to talk about how she tackled writing Inferno Squad, working with the video game designers, and why the lead character, Iden Versio, brings a new level of complexity to the Star Wars Universe.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. There are some minor spoilers for the book.

Tell me a little bit about what Inferno Squad is about and how you got involved.

Inferno Squad is a prequel to Battlefront II, which is coming out in November. The book takes place four years before the events of the game, and it's where we're really introduced to the characters. Two of them already know one another, while the other two are new to the squad. We see a little bit of them in their native environments before they answer the call, and then we see them going off on some of their first few missions together, getting their feet underneath them and learning how to work together as a team. They’re then given their pivotal mission, which is to take down and recover information from the remnants of Saw Gerrera’s Partisans, which we saw in Rogue One.

What is it like introducing a new, major female character, Iden Versio, to the Star Wars universe, and what can you tell me about her?

I love it so much. Iden grows up in a city that was willing to join the Empire, and benefited under it. Her father was an Admiral and her mother painted propaganda posters. All she knows is the inside of ships and school rooms that have drilled this into her. She completely believes in the Empire.

She’s so strong, because she’s been battered, emotionally and intellectually. Her father doesn’t want to be seen as someone who was nepotistic, so she has to work so hard her entire life. She was in this military school, she has killed by the time she was 15, and she had to be an overachiever to get any sort of acknowledgement.

Your book and Battlefront II span the franchise from the end of Rogue One all the way up to The Last Jedi. How did you pick up after Rogue One, and how did you integrate your story into that timeline?

We open with the destruction of the Death Star, and Iden Versio, our heroine, is survivor of that because she gave in to an impulse and chased a Rebel starfighter a little further away than she should have. That's how she wasn’t close enough to be caught up in its destruction.

This is something that I do a lot. I'm a tie-in writer, so I sometimes come in during a certain break in a video game. In the case of World of Warcraft, for example, I’ve written novels filling in gaps between games, so this is something that was kind of old hat to me.

What’s it like working in such an interconnected universe and add to it?

You have to not get overwhelmed by the amount of information there. You have to figure out what storyline you want to do, and what you need to bone up on in order to tell that storyline really well.

I'll find out what characters or events [there] are that I'll need to be conversant with in order to write the story well, and then I'll watch the show or movie. Sometimes, they'll send me some of the other books. I read [Beth Revis’s] Rebel Rising, and there is a character from that book that we see in Inferno Squad, and there are some other characters that people recognize too.

The game script was pretty much set when I started writing the book, but the actors hadn’t been cast, so that was a challenge.

Lucasfilm / Del Rey

When the actors were cast, did that change anything in the story?

No, the book was pretty much set in stone. Once I learned who the actors were, I was able to research them and listen to them to hear their cadence, whether their voices are higher pitched, guttural, gravelly, or what have you. I also watched how they move, which really helps when you're doing media tie-in work, because you’re able to really delve in deep into the physicality of the actor, because that's what a lot of people are going to relate to.

Did you speak with the actors at all, or did they read the book to research their characters?

Oh my God. Janina [Gavankar], who plays Iden, found out there was a prequel, and reached out to me. Next thing I know, I'm talking to her via Skype, and she's still got a little [motion capture] marks on her face from a filming session. I went over the events of the book with her and the main plot points that I thought would be pertinent to her performance.

Do you do you think that the book impacted her performance?

I do. She did know all of the story going in, but now there would be certain scenes that now have this extra gravitas to them in her mind.

Star Wars has had this level of close-knit kinship with their tie-ins before. (The X-Wing novels are one example), but has there been this level integration before?

I've been writing for 25 years and have published over 50 books, and I have never seen anything [at] this level. I was really invited into the family, and was even on the stage at Celebration for the big reveal of the game.

Not only do they not have to do that, but nobody usually does. Nobody has bothered. As a media tie-in writer, you don't have the luxury of writing for yourself. You have so many other people who are involved, so you've done your job well not just when you're happy with the book, but when all these other people are happy with it. It's their book, [and] they're hiring you to write it. That's different from original fiction when you’re writing your own book.

How is the media landscape changed since you started?

I think a bias is lifting. There was genre fiction, then there was movie novelizations, and at the bottom there was gaming fiction. And now look where we are today! It’s right below movies in popularity. My Warcraft books have sold amazingly well, the Star Wars books have sold incredible well. We're seeing people growing up who weren't taught that, “Oh that's that's junk, that's crap.”

There are very few Star Wars novels out there that take the point of view of the Imperials. So what is it like writing a story that asks the readers to empathize with characters on a side that does horrible things?

You know, at first I was a little bit leery, because I am a total Jedi and I'm all about The Force. To me, it’s been very interesting to write about its mythic overtones, and I really enjoy that.

I think it was a great idea to put them up against the worst the Rebels had to offer. They were capable of doing some very cruel things on the same level of the Empire — they were just on the other side of it.

The thing is, there’s a person under the helmets. I was trying to build up their quirks, their sense of humor, the things that are important to them, because everyone’s got them. So you take these two super-gray sides and put them together, and ask, “Okay, who’s the bad guy?” And then you’re like, “uh?” and have trouble picking out who is on the right side.

That’s interesting to hear because Star Wars presented these very clear-cut morals that harken back to the Second World War. Nowadays, the battle lines are very fuzzy. Do you see the franchise as being influenced by this?

I think so. The world was a very different place back then. We now have a better chance than ever to know the people who aren’t like us. We can watch their movies, listen to their broadcasts, and we can do things to reach out to any part of the globe. It’s not as easy to demonize people and make them one dimensional any longer, because you can look at them as people. To be sure, we’re more polarized than ever, but the opportunity to see and get to know other things outside of your world view is there.

After writing Inferno Squad, did you find that you look at the Empire differently now?

I kind of do! I now have an idea of all of those nameless people just sitting on the Star Destroyers, and it reminds me that everyone has a story. So I think if I were to watch the films again, I’d be a lot more aware of the extras in the movie.

Inferno Squad will hit stores on July 25th.