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Posted: 25th November 2008


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[ Interviews ]
Karen Miller

[ Karen Miller ]

This month the second novel in The Clone Wars series, Wild Space, will be published. Although written by Star Wars newcomer Karen Miller, Karen is herself an established author with two Stargate tie-in books and eight original novels published. Her first novel, The Innocent Mage, was published in 2005 and was a finalist in Australia's Aurealis Awards for Excellence in Speculative Fiction (Fantasy Division) in the same year. And just last year the same book was UK publisher Orbit Books' bestselling science fiction or fantasy debut, while two other of Karen's books, Empress (of Mijak) and The Riven Kingdom, were selected for The Tiptree Award Honor List, the annual gender-exploring science fiction literary prize.

Star Wars Books are pleased that Karen has taken time out of her busy schedule to participate in this interview.

Karen, welcome to Star Wars Books.
Thank you so very much for having me! I mean, what a hardship, talking about Star Wars! *g*

If you like, could we begin with a short resume of yourself and your work to date?
Well, like a great many writers I've been scribbling stories for about as long as I can remember, but my first professional novel sale was in 1990, when I wrote 3 light young adult romances for a local Australian publisher. Then came a long break while I worked towards my Masters degree in Children's Literature and ran my own science fiction, fantasy and mystery bookshop and tried to write some epic historical fantasy. My big break came in 2003, when I sold my first fantasy duology, Kingmaker, Kingbreaker, to Voyager, the speculative fiction imprint of HarperCollins Australia. I followed that story with the Godspeaker trilogy, and then the first of the Rogue Agent series under the pen name K.E. Mills. All of these books books were onsold to Orbit in the UK and the US. The publications times are lagging a bit behind Australia, but all are available, or will soon be available. As well as the mainstream fantasy, I've done two Stargate novels and I'm currently finishing my third. And then, of course, there's Wild Space, my first Star Wars novel set in the Clone Wars era. Right now, as well as finishing the Stargate novel and looking towards my next Star Wars novel, I'm finishing the next Rogue Agent novel and working on the first of a two-part sequel to the Kingmaker, Kingbreaker story. That's out next year.
As for me, well, I'm a Canadian-born Australian living in Sydney, writing full time, and having a blast. I'm a very lucky person -- so many folk dream the same dreams I did. It's still hard to believe mine are coming true.

You are a successful science fiction and fantasy author in your own right, what do you believe is the key to your success? And do you have any tips for budding authors?
First and foremost, I never gave up -- and believe me, there were times when I was so convinced I couldn't write to save my life, I nearly did. But this little voice inside me wouldn't shut up about keeping on with it no matter how discouraged I got, and I'm so very pleased I listened to it. Also, I really worked at it. I studied other writers and books on writing. I did writing courses. I did my best to learn what could be learned about the profession. People don't pick up a scalpel and presume to be able to perform brain surgery. You have to learn how to do that. The same goes for crafting stories.
Writing is a tough gig. And while there are some things you can absolutely learn how to do, because there's a craft and a technique to writing that can be developed and improved upon, there's also an element of art - and art can't be taught, any more than you can teach someone to sing in tune. So the trick is to discover for yourself if you do have a dash of the art in you - and if you do, then you work your fingers to the bone to marry craft and technique to that innate gift you've been given. I'm very lucky, in that I was born with a dash of art in me. But that would have meant nothing if I hadn't worked hard to learn how to tell a story well.
Also? You have to love the process. You have to love story. You have to love the journey you take while writing a story. Too many aspiring writers are focused on getting published. Yes, that's a great goal -- but it can take years. It took me years. So if you don't love writing for its own sake, chances are you're going to crash and burn. Love story. Live story. Dedicate yourself to story, and perfecting the craft of creating story, and let the publishing part of it take care of itself. Getting published is the end of the process. Many writers never reach their goals because they're so focused on getting published that they submit work way before it's ready, get rejected, get angry, and give up. Be patient. Be humble. Learn to be a ruthless critic of your own work. Never be satisfied. Don't get complacent. Strive for excellence.

In a recent blog entry[External site - opens in a new window/tab] you listed a random sampling of the many books and DVDs you had purchased in the US and UK "for research". As a student of history myself, I recognised both the historiographical nature of many of those titles and that they are not exactly the lightest of reading material. So just how much research do you have to do for say just one book or story arc?
That very much depends on how 'new' the backdrop of the book is to you. For example, in the worldbuilding phase of Empress (of Mijak), the first in the Godspeaker trilogy, I researched the Hittite Empire, the Spartans, Persia, Babylon, Sumer, Mesopotamia, visited antiquities musuems and read up on the history of amulets. For the next two books I didn't have to do much because my ongoing general interest in British history gave me what I needed. But as an added extra, I did some classes in longsword fighting. That was beyond fun, and I hope to get back to that next year.
On the other hand, for an upcoming project I have in mind, I'm looking at a solid six months of focused research on a dauntingly wide range of topics -- much more focus on European history, France and Italy in particular, plus pirates. *g* And of course the further I get into that, the more I'll find I need to find out.
When it comes to media-based storytelling, the primary focus of research is knowing the source material. And then find out specifics as needed. Just the other day I was on the 'net looking up whether emptied ammo clips get tossed or recycled. It's an odd gig, sometimes! But so much fun.

Star Wars is one of the best known and established science fiction franchises and extends around the globe so, as both an author and as an individual, how does it feel to be contributing to this franchise?
I'm honoured, humbled, terrified and excited. I mean, in Wild Space I'm getting to tell a story that' s never been told before. If I'm not careful I start thinking about that ... and then I need to go have a valium and a little lie down. *g*
I realise it sounds like fanwanking to say this, but Star Wars is directly responsible for the life I have today. Truly. I saw the original film while I was in high school, and it reignited in me the love I'd always had for speculative fiction. Because of Star Wars I met some wonderful people, and because I knew those people I met other people, and by a long and complicated process it meant that I got my first fantasy novels published. Star Wars introduced me to fandom, back in the days before the internet and message boards and all that. It lit a fire in me that never went out, in terms of passionately loving a story and a set of characters. Whenever I get discouraged, I go back to Star Wars, fall in love with story and character all over again, and remind myself why I do what I do.

How did you get the Star Wars writing job?
Well, of course I knew about the ongoing Star Wars publishing program, and I loved that we fans could still visit that galaxy far, far away. So after my first fantasy novel was published I contacted the editor of the publishing program and said, Well, I adore Star Wars and I'm a professional writer, and if you're ever looking for new authors I'd love it if you'd keep me in mind. We had a chat about what I loved in Star Wars, and then I didn't hear anything for a long time. I thought, oh well, you gave it a go. And then out of the blue I was asked if I'd like to tag team the Clone Wars novel series with Karen Traviss. Funnily enough, by that point KT and I had become friends -- I dropped her a line to say how much I was loving her original sf series, The Wess'har Wars, and we kind of hit it off. So it was a double dream come true -- working in Star Wars, and working with someone whose work I respect so very much. The whole process has been delightful, because we get on the phone and talk for ages about plot and character and stuff like that. We don't have identical views of the Star Wars universe, but we've been able to make our perspectives mesh in a way that I think works well.

How much and what was the nature of the research you had to do for your Star Wars novel?
Because the novels are set at the beginning of the Clone Wars, my major research focus was on the second prequel film, Attack of the Clones. I literally sat in front of the tv with the dvd in and a laptop in my lap, making notes as I watched. I was looking for character stuff, story implications, speech patterns, mannerisms, body language. Anything and everything that would help inform my story. I also took notes on The Phantom Menace, for the back story, and looked ahead to Revenge of the Sith so that I could note important elements/moments that perhaps could be foreshadowed or used as a contrast. Where the characters were, knowing where they were heading. After that, during the actual writing, it was a case of keeping all the Essential Guides by my side. I was dipping into those every single day, double checking facts, using them to help me create a believable atmosphere. And also, very importantly, I was referencing the scripts to the first season of the new Clone Wars cartoon series, because Wild Space takes place in and around events as portrayed in a few cartoon episodes. Also there was the Holocron, and the support teams at Del Rey and Lucasfilm, who were always there for me. So it was a kind of tapestry of research, really.

You're an established writer in the field of science fiction and fantasy, receiving accolades for your own material, do you find it easier to write for an established franchise such as Star Wars and Stargate or creating your own material? And as such, does it require a different approach to writing for such franchises?
Easier? No. It's all hard work, really. Fun, but hard. I mean, whether you're creating your own world or working in a world created by someone else, you still have to know the rules that apply. Either you've worked up your own characters, or you're using someone else's ... but you still have to know them inside out. The only difference is that you approach the description of the worlds and the characters slightly differently. With an established franchise there's a common frame of reference for you and your intended audience -- but that doesn't mean you can get lazy and make assumptions. You just need to find different ways of discussing that information. Also, you need to accept the fact that no two people 'see' a story in precisely the same way. If it's my world I'm working in, I'm the ultimate authority about it. Nobody can argue with me about what a character does because that' s my character, my creation. But fans are all authorities, and they often know the franchise world as well as -- if not better than, sometimes -- the folk writing the novels. And I'm speaking as a fan here, you know. I mean, I'm a fan of a bunch of franchises, not just Star Wars and Stargate, and I can get as passionate and as protective as the next fan when it comes to stories being told about them. I really, truly do get what it means to be a fan. So of course all I do now is hope and pray that I haven't let the fans down by telling a story they feel is disrespectful to one of the greatest stories ever told! *g*

How does writing for Star Wars compare to writing for another franchise such as Stargate?
In terms of approach, there is no difference. But simply due to the sheer scope of Star Wars, and the fact that millions of people round the world love this story and its characters so much, I feel a lot of pressure not to let them down. The idea of disappointing fans does haunt me a bit, but I also recognise that you can't please all of the people all of the time. Basically, I'm walking a fine line right now between hopefulness and terror. *g*

While readers will be very familiar with characters such as Obi-Wan Kenobi and without divulging plot points, how would you describe your development of lesser known characters such as Bail Organa within your novel?
Well, without giving away plot points ... *g* I was always intrigued by that one line in 'A New Hope', in Leia's message to Obi-Wan: "Years ago, you served my father in the Clone Wars'. Then we saw those brief glimpses of Bail in 'Attack of the Clones', and I liked what I saw -- a hard-working, honourable man who felt strongly that the Republic had to be defended. But then, at the very end, when he's on the Senate building balcony with Palpatine watching the new Clone Army, we see a man who's just been smacked in the face by the reality of what that means. And he's so distressed by that. I found it fascinating. Finally, looking at 'Revenge of the Sith', I was intrigued that both Yoda and Obi-Wan turned to Bail for help without once questioning if he could be trusted. Their world was going up in flames all around them, they were lost and in terrible trouble -- and not only did he come flying to the rescue, they didn't hesitate to be rescued by him. And I thought -- hmm. How did we get from A to B? And then, in the course of looking at the season one Clone Wars cartoon scripts, I saw an opening to show the beginning of the relationship between Bail and Obi-Wan -- and to a lesser extent, Yoda. So that's what I did. We'd already been given hints of Bail, the man, on film. So I took those hints and ran with them -- successfully, I hope. Of course, the journey Bail and Obi-Wan undertake isn't always smooth -- Obi-Wan has little time for politicians, and Bail Organa is a powerful political figure who comes from a highly privileged background. So a few sparks fly, shall we say. *g* But in the course of the story, in which they're severely tested, they come to recognise each other's quality and mettle.

After completing the draft copy of Wild Space you remarked on your blog that you received the assistance of fellow Star Wars author Karen Traviss in naming the story. You described Karen as someone who "rocks every rocking chair in the known universe", how important was Karen's assistance and how much support do you receive from LucasBooks and its book licensing department?
I can't praise Karen Traviss enough. She has held my hand every step of the way, reassured me when I was feeling overwhelmed, helped me work through plot points, provided wonderful feedback on the draft manuscript. She's a wonderful person to collaborate with, and so incredibly generous. She knows Obi-Wan is my favourite character in Star Wars, and so she said right -- he's all yours. I'll focus my stories elsewhere, so you can play with him. Phenomenal. Also, her take on Ahsoka really helped me to see that character -- I hadn't seen the film when I started writing -- which proved to be very important.
As for the folk at Lucasfilm -- truly, I don't have the words. Sue Rostoni has been an angel. So supportive, so committed to excellence. Leland Chee, likewise. And Jason Fry, who's doing the upcoming atlas? Wow. He got sent the manuscript so he could check it against what he's doing. Not only did he say lovely things in public, but when I asked him if he could point out any mistakes I'd made he not only found a couple of geographical things I'd missed, he made fabulous suggestions as to how we could fix them. Again, such incredible generosity.
And then there's Shelly Shapiro, my editor at Del Rey, and her assistant. I am so blessed. So much hard work so that I don't look like an idiot.
The other person who's been just fantastic is Sean Williams. Sean and I live many many miles apart in Australia, and don't see each other very often, but we ended up on the same flight from LAX to Denver recently, for Worldcon. We shared a taxi out to the con hotel, and we talked Star Wars nonstop, and his insights, his viewpoints, his encouragement and support, were just incredible. Some people are just too talented and too nice for their own good!

Under your current Star Wars contract you were originally going to write just two The Clone Wars novels but due to prior commitments, fellow author Karen Traviss will be unable to complete her quota of three novels and has given you one of her books to write. Once your three books are published this will mean that you have written more Star Wars books than several other authors who have also contributed to the Star Wars universe, what do you believe your own contribution, or even impact, will be to the Star Wars universe?
Honestly, you know, I don't know that it's for me to say. Ultimately the fans will decide if what I've done helps or hurts the overall mythology of Star Wars. It goes without saying that I want my story to resonate, to be believed and enjoyed, but that's not my call. All I can do is cross my fingers. You'd be surprised how hard it is to type right now ... *g*

Do you plan, or would you like, to contribute further to the Star Wars franchise?
At this stage there's nothing planned beyond the three books we've been talking about. I'll always love Star Wars, though, so if something comes up that I believe I can do justice to, I would always consider it.

During the writing of Wild Space you commented on your blog that you were "having so much damned fun with this book", would you care to elucidate?
Are you kidding me? *g* Playing in Star Wars? Sending my favourite Jedi Obi-Wan on a heartbreaking, hair-raising adventure? Getting to look at his evolving relationship with Anakin, getting to explore Anakin's relationship with Ahsoka, and with Padme, doing my best to illuminate Bail Organa? Watching Obi-Wan and Bail get all snarky with each other? Putting them through the wringer so we can find out what they're made of? This little writer thought she'd died and gone to heaven. And you know what else? Writing this novel has made me better at my job. I didn't get it right in the first draft, far from it, and the process of working through the manuscript to iron out the wrinkles has been a wonderful education. So that's something else I now owe George Lucas.

Throughout this interview we have made references to comments and remarks you have made on your blog, Karen's Musings (http://karenmiller.livejournal.com[External site - opens in a new window/tab]), on which you make regular, almost daily, posts. Just how important is your blog to you and if so, in what ways?
Blogging is a funny thing. I'm often torn between wanting to blog a lot, and wondering why anyone would want to read what I have to say! I suppose I see it as a chance to connect with readers and fans, to demystify some of the writing process, to show people that writers aren't gods, we're not gold-plated, we're just people who do this fun thing and sometimes we struggle and sometimes we screw up and sometimes we get it right, and that it's the act of reading or watching a great story that connects us to our common humanity. And because writing is often a lonely experience, well, it's a way of reminding myself that I'm not alone.

Finally, if you could meet face-to-face with any fictional person and could only ask them one question, who would that person be and what would you ask them?
Francis Crawford, from Dorothy Dunnett's 6-book historical saga The Lymond Chronicles. I would ask him: What the hell happened next???????? Because we never found out what happened to him once we reached the tumultuous end of Checkmate, and I have always been desperate to know. And we'll never know now, because Dunnett is dead. I can't begin to tell you how much I wanted him to have some kind of happily ever after, because he endured so much trauma over the six books. Francis Crawford is one of the greatest characters ever created in fiction, I have to tell you. Amazing. But man oh man, how much do I still want to know what happened next...

Thank you Karen for your time, I understand that with another two Star Wars books to write as well as your current commitments, time is valuable commodity. It has been a pleasure and wish you every success in the future.

Karen's first Star Wars novel, The Clone Wars: Wild Space will be published in the US in paperback by Del Rey on December 9th and in the UK in hardback by Century on December 18th.
You can also follow Karen writings on her blog, Karen's Musings, at http://karenmiller.livejournal.com
[External site - opens in a new window/tab].

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