James Luceno Interview: Star Wars, the Sith, Tarkin & Palpatine’s First Name

We had a chance to speak to author James Luceno about his latest book, Star Wars: Tarkin, the Sith, and Palpatine's first name.

As soon as I read Tarkin, I knew I wanted to talk to James Luceno about the Sith. 

Luceno’s ninth Star Wars novel (he has also written several short stories and The Revenge of the Sith: The Visual Dictionary) features characters from both Star Wars canon and the defunct Legends universe. Part of the novel becomes one long chase scene, as Tarkin and Vader hunt down the proto-Rebels who stole the future Grand Moff’s high-tech starship.

Make sure to check out my review of the book. I was fortunate to be able to ask Luceno some questions about canon, Darth Sidious, and why Alderaan had to die:

What inspired the idea of Tarkin undergoing the primitive rite of passage at the Carrion Plateau?

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A photo – actual a color slide – I found among a box of stuff that dates back to the early ‘70s. I spent about a year traveling overland from Egypt through Sudan and Ethiopia, and eventually into East Africa. The photo, which I figure I shot somewhere on the Serengeti or in Maasi Mara, shows a pride of lions basking in the sun atop a rocky outcropping. There is no volcanic spike, as there is on the Carrion Plateau in Tarkin, but the photo conveys a sense that, at least in that environment, the lions — composed and self-assured — were the lords of all they surveyed.

Do you hope fans will think of Tarkin’s scenes in A New Hope any differently after reading the novel? Is there any particular message you wanted to add or reinforce in those scenes?

While I don’t mean to imply that Tarkin’s actions aboard the Death Star are justified, one goal of the book was to suggest that his seemingly heartless disregard for life owes more to his being an instrument of Imperial authority than to full-bore psychopathy. It could be that Alderaan was chosen as one of several insurgent targets, both to make the station operational and to spread the fear of Imperial reprisal to all sectors of the galaxy. Alderaan may not have been as innocent, or even as “peaceful,” as the Princess claims. Leia, after all, is not merely a senator; she is, as Vader says, a liar and a rebel spy, and Tarkin views her as a thief and a potential threat to Imperial order. As such she is an enemy; therefore her execution is warranted.

I also wanted to suggest that when Tarkin refers to Vader as his “friend,” there is some measure of truth to his words. They have history and a deep personal respect for each other. More to the point, Tarkin is one of the few to know that Vader was once Anakin Skywalker, as he is not surprised when Vader openly refers to Obi-Wan as his former master.

Similarly, Tarkin has a personal relationship with the Emperor. When he learns that the Imperial Senate has been dissolved, I suspect that not only did he hear the news from the Emperor himself, but also that Tarkin felt the action was long overdue. Finally, I don’t fully buy that Tarkin was in denial about the Death Star’s vulnerability. Yes, that comes as a shocking surprise, but Tarkin is willing to down with his ship – his fortress. Throughout his military career, it was always been death or glory.

I thought that one of the book’s strengths was the voices of the characters, the cadence. How do you capture the signature voices of characters like Tarkin, Sidious, and Dooku?

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By studying their appearances in films. I have been writing Palpatine/Sidious since Cloak of Deception, but I watched the entire Star Wars saga before making a start on Tarkin. With Tarkin and Dooku, I had not only the Star Wars films, but also countless Hammer horror movies I’ve enjoyed over the years. For Peter Cushing’s Tarkin, I drew from his portrayals of Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Who, and Sherlock Holmes; and for Christopher Lee’s equally brilliant Count Dooku, there was Dracula, Fu Manchu, and Jekyll and Hyde. Once I put words in their mouths, so to speak, I read the lines of dialogue aloud and continue to work on cadence, contractions, and inflection until I can actually imagine the characters – the actors – speaking those lines.

Palpatine’s first name caused a bit of a stir on the internet when it was revealed. What do you think of “Sheev Palpatine” as a name?

Like many fans, I’d grown accustomed through decades of Expanded Universe sources to think in terms of a more Greco-Roman first name — one that worked euphoniously with the surname Palpatine and at the same time offered a knowing wink as to the nature of the character. Palpatine is certainly close enough to Palatine to conjure thoughts about the Roman Empire, patrician life, and power. Even if the name seems as odd fit for Palpatine, it does confer the wink, suggesting — to me, at any rate — Shiva, sheave, and of course, shiv, which is a slang term for an improvised bladed weapon.

I would love to know George Lucas’s reasoning, but – in-universe — I’m intrigued by the possibility that on Palpatine’s native Naboo the name has such a negative connotation that he rejected it, and revealed it only to his closest confederates, as a means of bringing each into his inner circle.

What did you learn from your previous Star Wars books that helped you write Tarkin?

Star Wars novels that focus on a single character are few and far between. The films of the original trilogy are ensemble works, and their climaxes set the template for intercutting among three or four distinct action sequences. Adhering to that formula, however, would have lessened the focus on Tarkin; so I decided to substitute political intrigue and a bit of mystery for action of the customary sort. Even in the book’s battle sequences I tried to keep Tarkin as close as possible to the center of the action.

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I already had something of a handle on him as a character, but depicting him as a galactic “colonial” as opposed to a galactic elite was something new. I also wanted Tarkin, rather than the omniscient narrator, to fill the reader in on the backgrounds and motivations of his opponents, in the same way that they provide information about Tarkin undisclosed in the biographical flashbacks.

Like in Darth Plagueis, Sheev’s machinations are all over Tarkin. Did Sidious ever surprise you, or come to a conclusion you didn’t expect?

For several years now I’ve been thinking about Sidious’s ultimate ambitions — his endgame, as it were – beyond avenging the Sith, eradicating the Jedi Order, setting himself up as Emperor of the galaxy, even attaining everlasting life. If those were his goals, then he has fulfilled most of them by the end of Episode III. But perhaps there is something more – something on the order of winning the Game of Thrones or “covering the lands in a second darkness,” as Sauron hopes to do in The Lord of the Rings. In Tarkin, Sidious reveals something about his idiosyncratic endgame that came as a surprise to me, and its something I hope to be able explore more fully.

Tarkin is a book about three heavy-hitting men: Sidious, Tarkin, and Vader. Fans have been calling for many years for more prominent female characters in Star Wars books, and Tarkin has a few, like the ambassador of Murkhana. Did you ever consciously decide to make a character one gender or another when you were creating characters like the ambassador or Anora?

As was the case in Darth Plagueis – even going back as far as Cloak of Deception — I was well aware that I was writing what used to be called “men’s adventure” fiction. Not only are the main protagonists men, several members of the Ruling Council and the Admiralty are male. But most of these characters come directly from the Classic Trilogy films, and it’s not much of a stretch to think of them as Nazis in outer space – though without Eva Braun. In Tarkin I pictured the Murkhana ambassador and the holonet investigative journalist as female characters from the start. I did, however, make deliberate choices when it came to the staffers that serve Tarkin, both at Sentinel Base and aboard his ship, the Carrion Spike. I suppose I could have tried to shoehorn Admiral Daala into the mix, but, well, there just didn’t seem an appropriate role for her.

The novel refers to characters like Armand Isard and places like Murkhana which previously appeared in Legends canon. Was it delicate work to fit those in? Or will the new canon simply look similar to the old?

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When it came down to it, I was faced with inventing a world like Murkhana — which has EU/Legends history for Darth Vader and is a credible source for Separatist “shadowfeeds” — or I could simply use Murkhana. The same held true for characters like Intelligence chief, Armand Isard, who — though he never appears as a character in the films – shows up in many earlier novels. In some instances, I solicited feedback from the story group beforehand; in others I went with my gut and figured that things would be sorted out during the editorial process.

I do think that the so-called new canon will share much with the old – especially in reference to ships, planets, and some “historical” events and secondary characters – but that is not my call to make.

If you were a Star Wars character, what faction would you choose? Light, dark, or something else?

I would undoubtedly be trying to make ends meet as a tomb raider and spice smuggler.

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