Delilah Dawson has been a powerhouse Star Wars author since her novel Phasma told the radiation-soaked backstory of the First Order enforcer. Since then she has published several novels outside the Star Wars universe (most recently No Country For Old Gnomes with co-author Kevin Hearne).
She’s now part of Batuu history with her novel Black Spire, a tie-in to the Disney Star Wars land, Galaxy’ Edge. At New York Comic Con we sat down to talk with her about how Resistance spy Vi Moradi developed over the course of the two books, what it was like to step into the galaxy far, far away at a Disney park, and more.
Black Spire is available now from Del Rey. Dawson’s other most recent Star Wars book is The Skywalker Saga, a fairytale retelling of Episodes I through VIII, available from Disney Publishing.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Den of Geek: Black Spire is about Vi Moradi, who was introduced in the novel Phasma. How has she grown and changed since we saw her last?
Deliah Dawson: We brought Vi Moradi to life in Phasma because we wanted to tell a One Thousand and One Nights Scheherazade story, because the thing about Phasma is no one ever gets behind the mask. So all of the stories about her are … stories. Throughout Phasma, Vi is captured by a First Order officer named Captain Cardinal. She is tortured for information and it’s pretty rough, but she’s holding out, and in the end she manages to escape. But she’s been tortured, dehydrated, beaten, starved—it’s a rough time.
Then, we get to see her go back to the Resistance and see what happens between The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker. We get to see the Hosnian cataclysm and some of her healing, and then she gets sent to the planet Batuu, which is where Galaxy’s Edge is, to build a new kind of Resistance cell. Because as we saw after the battle of Crait, the Resistance needs warm bodies and hidey holes. That’s what they have the least of.
When she arrives there, she’s accustomed to being a spy. She works alone, she infiltrates, she gets intel, she sometimes gets tortured, but she’s trained in withholding. So she suddenly has this new job, which is to build a Resistance cell.
The characters there start calling her mother hen, because she pulls this family together. It’s a very new experience for her. She is also dealing with trauma. That’s one of the things I wanted to talk about in this book that we don’t see a lot in Star Wars. We’re in the middle of the war. These people are veterans. And the war just isn’t ending. We get to see what it’s like for her finding a new purpose, finding a new family, and pushing through the various things that make life hard for pretty much anybody over 30.
The other main character is Cardinal, Vi’s former enemy. What is the heart of his story in Black Spire?
Cardinal is one of my all-time favorites. He’s my little cinnamon roll! When we were building out the story for Phasma, we said who would be Phasma’s foil in the First Order? And the first thought was a bigger, badder Phasma! But there isn’t one. The idea is he firmly believes, at least in Phasma, that the First Order is the answer. He was saved by them when he was starving to death, after a life of slavery. He was given good food and a warm place to sleep for the first time. Throughout Phasma he learns all of that is a lie and they don’t have the populace’s best interest at heart.
You don’t have to read Phasma to read Black Spire, but it does build a foundation for the main characters.
When we see Cardinal again, he’s broken. He’s lost his life’s purpose, his family, everything he was working for. He realizes he was basically training murderers. He’s also been stabbed by Phasma and bacta can’t fix the poison.
So he’s trying to find his purpose, along with this woman who he recognizes that he tortured. So he’s a pretty messed up guy. I love seeing these characters with history, and how, realistically, people have to work with other people that are maybe not the person they want to work with. You have to look these people in the eye and go on. Respect is still something to build a relationship on, even if you have nothing else.
What was your experience with Batuu via Galaxy’s Edge before you wrote the book? Had you visited the park?
I had a very big dossier of information with several maps that were too small for me to read them! And they couldn’t be blown up, and they were watermarked with my name. So my experience with most of the book was begging them: I am an hour away from Orlando, let me see a miniature version or show me a map I can read! So they did the best they could. Once, they sent a map that was a half inch bigger, and I was like, no!
But they were so gracious as to let me come to the soft opening of the Disneyland Galaxy’s Edge—Batuu West, as we call it—and so after exploring the world and taking some notes I got to go back to my document and do one final edit. Super helpful not only for the walkthrough, but also for things I had read a description of and I had pulled out certain details where I had read their description and put it into my story, and I had been wrong. In Dok Ondar’s Den of Antiquities there is a chandelier, and from it are hanging Ithorian wind chimes. The way they described it, I took and described it in my own words. But when I got there I realized I did a bad job! So I got to fix that.
The Den of Antiquities is an incredible place, but the list of items they had provided to me were not what caught my eye when I actually walked in. I was able to look at the things that literally caught my eye and put those into the narrative to reflect more of what the reader will experience. Which was incredible! There’s nothing like the land and capturing that feeling of loving Star Wars and then living it.
The theme of hope and resilience was important in this book. What does that mean to you personally?
Black Spire is a book that had to serve many masters, but every book I write, whether it’s my creator-owned work or in an IP sandbox, has to have a heart and a theme. It has to mean something. One of my favorite shows right now is Brooklyn 99. I can’t go to sleep without a TV on, so I watch the shows that I love and that are comfortable over and over again. It’s a show that is warm, funny, has that found family. It’s about damaged people who love and support each other. And it never punches down. So I wanted to do the Brooklyn 99 of Star Wars.
The people of Batuu don’t think of themselves as heroes. Most of them don’t even believe that the Resistance and the First Order exist. So Vi has to explain to them that trouble has never come their way, but it’s going to and they have to be ready. There’s one character who says straight up they’re not strong enough to help. And Vi has to convince her, yes, you are, that’s what a hero is: someone who feels the fear and does it anyway.
On the flip side of that, this is also a book involving war and torture. What is your approach when writing the darker tone?
In any Star Wars book, no matter how sweet it is, when the First Order shows up things are going to get dark. There’s actually a note from one of my editors that said “I am concerned you think about torture this much.”
I knew we needed a torture scene. I had to find something new that no one had done before, but was still at a Star Wars level of violence. I was very adamant that there not be any implied or threatened sexual violence, so that was off the table immediately. So I went for the eyes with this one.
My brand is whimsical and dark. I’ve done some horror books, and Phasma is a pretty dark book. So when there had to be darkness there was, and I tried to temper it with moments of light and mercy to give the reader some breathing room in those scenes. The First Order character I created for this book, Wulfgar Kath, was another case where I was looking for something new in Star Wars. So he’s a First Order officer that is very fastidious. He gets a ping from General Hux when he’s working out in the officer’s mess, which he does at night so he doesn’t have to talk to anybody. And he won’t answer until he’s finished his set. He’s that kind of fastidious, sociopathic character, like Hannibal without the style. He will beat you senseless and then put his hair back in place.
Phasma was a much grittier book. Was it easier or more difficult for you to write a more hopeful one?
They’re both sides of my personality and my experience. Every book I write relates to what I’m experiencing in the moment. While I was writing this book I pinched a nerve, and I had to write a lot of the book on my back, on a heating pad, with a special setup. I was in a lot of pain. The line in there where someone says to Vi after her ship crashes “You have the spine of a 90-year old woman,” that’s what my doctor said to me that day. The pain and the trauma is part of me, and when that comes through in the books, that’s because it’s a part of me, and I think that’s important to show in books.
But I also have a family and play with my kids and my dog and have a really nice life, so I think those are balances that most readers will have in their lives.
How is the process of writing a tie-in novel different from writing a creator-owned work?
With IP you’re in someone else’s sandbox. You have to love it—I don’t think you can write Star Wars if you don’t love it and haven’t been internalizing it forever. I think of Star Wars as history. It’s more real to me than Herbert Hoover and William Howard Taft. So I’m already there. I write a lot of IP, and I feel like it’s something I’m good at because when someone gives me parameters I don’t think I’m stuck in a box, I think there are so many things I can do inside this box.
With Star Wars, I don’t just start writing at home. There is a process with a group of people. We develop an outline, and I don’t start writing until I have an outline that is probably 14 pages single spaced. Then I work from there. I can’t randomly deviate from that outline, although there’s always some room to play with day to day stuff like the Indiana Jones sequence in this book, which you’ll know if you’ve read it. That was one line in the outline and ten thousand words of this experience Vi goes through. When you get to the line for Rise of the Resistance [the ride], you’ll hopefully see some of the places Vi goes. But that I can play around with.
But when I write for myself, I have to know the main character, the beginning, the instigating factor, the main conflict, the climax, and the ending. I leave a ton of room to play around. But in Star Wars we don’t get quite that much room.
With Star Wars books, I usually get one to two months. With my own books I get up to three months.