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Michael Moreci on writing a Star Wars-but-not-Star Wars adventure

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An interview with author Michael Moreci about his next novel, We Are Mayhem

Graphics by Michele Doying / The Verge

Last year, author Michael Moreci released his debut novel, Black Star Renegades, about a young man named Cade Sura who finds himself chased by agents of an extremist galactic empire when he comes into possession of a powerful weapon. If that sounds a bit like the plot of a Star Wars film, that’s by design: the book is an admitted homage to George Lucas’ franchise.

Black Star Renegades is a fun, pulpy, familiar read: a dash across space with a lovable band of misfits trying to stay one step ahead of Queen Ga Halle of the Praxis, an evil empire with plans on total galactic domination. Cade and his brother Tristan are brought into a group of spiritual warriors known as the Rai, and after Tristan is killed, Cade discovers that he can wield the Rokura, a mythical, unstoppable weapon, and confronts Ga Halle, ultimately destroying a Praxis superweapon, the War Hammer.

One of the more appealing elements of Black Star Renegades was the idea of taking something like Star Wars down to its base elements, and reconfiguring them into something new, but recognizable. Moreci’s book reflects this attitude: it’s clearly an homage to the film franchise, but it takes the things like starfighter battles, fight scenes, and characters struggling with larger destinies and fights of good against evil, and reimagines them in a new mode. The book reads as though it was Star Wars imagined in 2017, rather than 1977.

Next month, Moreci will return to the universe with a sequel, We Are Mayhem, which takes place shortly after the events of the first book. As was the case in A New Hope, the fight against the Praxis has only just begun in Renegades; the loss of the War Hammer kicks off a wave of oppression across the galaxy, with Cade and his companions leading a rebel movement to face off against them. But while Cade possesses the Rokura, he doesn’t know how to use it, and sets off on a journey to uncover the origins of the legendary weapon to try to discover how to use it.

We Are Mayhem is due out on April 9th, and Moreci spoke with The Verge about what to expect in the sequel.

Image: St. Martin’s Press

You were up front about Star Wars’ influence on Black Star Renegades; what about the franchise appeals to you the most, and what elements did you want to do for yourself?

I could answer this question all day long and still have things to say. For the sake of everyone’s time, I’ll be very brief: all my life, I’ve wanted to be a storyteller. It’s the only thing I’ve ever dreamed myself being, and it’s the only thing I think I’m capable of doing. And at the core of my storytelling heart is Star Wars. It’s been there since I was born, and like so many other people, it touches me in a way that nothing else does. It’s heroic and romantic; deeply innovative and so very human. Star Wars captured my imagination like nothing else, and it does so in a way that connects to me personally. I understand Luke’s journey, even Rey’s journey. Yoda’s Dagobah speech about what the Force is, is one of the most spiritual moments of my life. I can go on, but suffice to say Star Wars has been there with me, and for me, my entire life, and that’s why I have no qualms writing a book that is considered to be a love letter to this galaxy far, far away.

And when I sat down to write that love letter, what I wanted to do was capture that feeling. Black Star Renegades is an adventure, first and foremost. It’s big on characters and their bonds; it’s about self-discovery and heroism, responsibility and galactic turmoil. I wanted it to feel big and intimate all at once, and I hope, at least some of the time, I hit the mark.

What is it about Star Wars that appeals to audiences, and do those elements translate into a non-Star Wars environment? What types of things do you need to change or create yourself to improve upon those tropes in your own works?

There’s a good number of things that have broad appeal, but maybe the most powerful is its ability to be simple but profound. I love sci-fi, but let’s face it: The genre has a tendency to be really complicated at times, in its stories, world-building, and even its message. And don’t get me wrong — I really enjoy that stuff. But for the masses, it ain’t. Star Wars takes a lot of the elements of sci-fi and gives them a more mainstream appeal, focusing more — as Lucas has said countless times — on an epic family story than anything else. Despite being set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, it’s infinitely relatable in very straightforward terms.

Similarly, that’s what I strive for when writing in the Black Star Renegades universe. Granted, there’s a fine line between simple and broad, but I want to capture that sense of intimate reliability. I do so, though, in reframing the story through my own particular lens. Cade Sura is not a hero like Luke — in fact, he actively avoids the adventure and responsibility Luke seeks. While similar in approach to Star Wars, Black Star Renegades and We Are Mayhem are telling a story that questions a lot of the things Star Wars endorses, particularly its reliance on hero’s journey tropes.

What were some of the challenges that you faced in writing a Star Wars-but-not-Star Wars adventure?

As much as these books are very much love letters to Star Wars, I wanted them to be my own thing. And I think they are — especially We Are Mayhem. It was a challenge to straddle that line, but the more I wrote, the more I realized the books are deconstructing a lot of the Star Wars mythos as much as they’re celebrating them. I found the beating heart of my story in breaking down and reframing the messiah complex that threads throughout the Star Wars stories, this idea that one lone person can — and should — save the galaxy. (Though The Last Jedi stole my thunder with this!)

I wanted my story to consciously divert from that and relegate power from the hands of one to the hands of many; that’s the message I wanted to convey, and I think, in our tumultuous political / cultural times, it’s an important one. We’re our own saviors; we don’t need one lone person with a laser sword (as Luke puts it in TLJ) to solve all our problems.

Beyond Black Star Renegades, you’re best known for your work in comics. How has that experienced helped you with this novel?

Writing comics, to me, is all about stories that move and have movement. You’re writing for art, for things that will be drawn, and you want those things to be propulsive, to be big and explosive in the way only comics can be. I’ve been complimented a lot — and very grateful for every compliment — about how the first book reads so fast, and how the action sequences are so fluid. That’s something I definitely learned from comics — how to choreograph action, more or less. And it has served me well. I like writing big, I like writing fun, and I’m fortunate that both comics and novels let me scratch both creative itches.

Black Star Renegades featured a condensed hero’s journey from unwilling hero to saving the galaxy; what comes next for the characters, and how are you building on this for the next book?

My main goal was to mature both the characters and the story. In the first book, Cade came of age, so to speak. Now, he has to deal with what that means, what it means to accept responsibility and actively pursue the fight for freedom and justice. Similarly, Kira experiences her own turmoil; she’s gotten what she wanted — to lead an uprising against the evil Praxis kingdom — and now she has to face what that really means. The stakes are higher for all the characters in the book; their personal stakes as well as the more general “the galaxy is at war” stakes. And that has lead to a story that’s a bit deeper than the first book, and it certainly has more gravity.

The Empire Strikes Back has become a sort of short hand explanation for “make things darker for the heroes.” How are you avoiding the cliché trap with this sequel, We Are Mayhem?

That’s a good question, because everyone says that about their sequel, in any genre: “It’s like Empire Strikes Back.” But what I don’t think they get is the shorthand they’re using is inevitability. By law of storytelling, the second part has to be darker; the stakes are higher, the goal has not been achieved, and the Honeymoon period of meeting the heroes is over. You’re neck-deep in conflict now, and there’s hardly anywhere to go but darker (assuming this is a continuing story, of course).

What can readers expect with Mayhem?

I wrote the first book with a lot of nervous energy powering my engine. It was my first published novel — something I’ve wanted to do my entire life — and I wrote it in eight months, which isn’t a whole lot of time. And I think that book is a reflection of that nervous, compressed energy. Don’t get me wrong — writing a book still terrifies me. But with book two, I felt more in control of that energy. And I had more time to write it. The result, in my opinion, is a book that’s a little more patient, a little more introspective. The characters are richer and deeper; the story is more complex. The fun is still there — there’s no way I would leave that out. The backbone of the Black Star Renegades universe, now and forever, is the way in which I tap into the things I love — specifically rollicking space adventure stories in the spirit of Star Wars, Guardians of the Galaxy, Buck Rogers, etc. That’ll never change.

Beyond the publication of your book, what impact to you see the new glut of Star Wars films having on the publishing industry?

To be honest, I haven’t seen much. I feel like the world can use some more swashbuckling, rollicking space adventures in all shapes and forms. I know I’d read those kinds of books all day long. But sci-fi is more or less doing what it’s always done, which is great. If it ain’t broke, after all. Still, I wouldn’t mind seeing some space carved out for these kinds of pulpy adventures.

We are Mayhem is due out in stores on April 9th, 2019.