Star Wars Interview: John Jackson Miller Talks Past, Present, & Future

We had a chat with John Jackson Miller, writer of fantastic Star Wars Expanded Universe titles, such as Knights of the Old Republic!

John Jackson Miller is one of the most highly-regarded Star Wars authors of the present day, perhaps even one of the greatest tie-in authors.

A comic book aficionado and Dark Horse veteran from Tennesee, he penned his latest Star Wars tale, “Orientation” for Star Wars Insider #157.

We talked to Miller about “Orientation,” a story about Darth Vader and Palpatine that ties in to both the recent Lords of the Sith and Miller’s own A New Dawn. In it, Vader and Palpatine are traveling on a Star Destroyer operated as a training academy by Pell Baylo, a commandant who may not be as loyal to the Empire as he appears.

Along with unpacking “Orientation,” Miller spoke a little bit about his upcoming story in the Rise of the Empire bind-up and his long history as writer of many of the Knights of the Old Republic comics.

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The novel Kenobi was essentially a Western, and you have described your first Star Wars story (the 2005 “A Model Officer” in the Star Wars: Empire comics) as Vader doing detective work. Does “Orientation” also refer to a genre outside of space opera?

It is very much a military school story. It takes place at the equivalent of an Annapolis or West Point for the Imperial Navy. Of course, it is a special time for the Imperial Navy because this is a very early story after the rise of the Empire, so the Empire is still bringing together various parts of the Republic’s armed forces. I wanted to explore this particular flight school that was not really officially part of the Republic navy for a very long time.

There are parallels to that in history. There were various sailing schools and technical, navigation schools in British naval history. We have somewhat of an equivalent here in America where you have the Virginia Military Institute, which is not technically part of the armed forces, but everybody who goes there has a commission.

It struck me that this would be a really good place to show the clash of cultures between the old way of doing things the Republic would have done, and how things are done under the Empire. So it should feel similar to other stories in that regard.

What kind of ideas lead to the development of Baylo?

I wanted him to even predate the Clone Wars. This is a guy who has been running this institute, this flight school, even back before the Clone Wars started, and it’s revealed in the story that it did become part of the Republic navy during the wars. We might ask ourselves whether Palpatine had some involvement in that or not. I wanted to show somebody who could very honestly reflect an earlier time, and a time where the Republic was really not in the business of knocking over other planets or invading places or starting wars.

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I did a lot of work on the Republic navy back when I was writing Knights of the Old Republic – certainly writing about Admiral Karath but also the campaign guide for the roleplaying game – and I was able to get a bit into what was, in the Legends era, the institutional history of the Republic navy.

The navy very much serves as a bodyguard for the commercial transit lanes, for the hyperspace lanes. They’re out there basically doing security, and one of the plot points in the comics was that the Republic had actually extended its responsibilities way too far in order to protect the planet Taris, and you had guys like Admiral Karath who thought it was a bad idea. And there’s that tension between the people who want the navy to provide protection, to be a defensive shield, and the people that really just see it as a mechanism for expanding Republic commerce.

So I figured that [Baylo] would have come from a similar time. He would’ve been protective of the traditions that had come before him. We don’t know now how long those traditions had gone on, but certainly it’s hundreds of years, we would think. So certainly he’s protective of his practices and, as we see in the story he’s protective of the institution of the Republic itself. He believes that there is a role for the military, but ruling people is not that role.

Baylo is described as “spewing aphorisms” in a similar manner to Count Vidian, the Imperial antagonist in A New Dawn. Did you intend to make, or continue to make, a statement about Imperial bureaucracy in “Orientation?”

They’re opposites, aren’t they? They represent opposing viewpoints, and one of Vidian’s whole things in A New Dawn is he’s trying to wheedle Rae Sloane into doing things that will help him in his job, but also we get the sense that these things will help him financially as well. He’s using the navy pretty much as we might expect the Republic industrialists would use the navy. This is the hired muscle to make sure the pirates don’t come along to take things away. Certainly, there’s also a Vidian allusion in his lines, one of which is fairly close to a paraphrase of “forget the old way,” which is Vidian’s catch phrase.

A younger Rae Sloane appears in “Orientation” as a student. Whose idea was it to include her and thereby tie the story to both A New Dawn and Lords of the Sith?

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I’m trying to remember. I think it was probably mine. [Del Rey] approached me with the notion of doing a story with the Emperor and Darth Vader, and that it needed to take place before or during Lords of the Sith. Once I saw when it was, I saw, well, this will probably fall in this realm of time where both Sloane would be getting oriented to her life in the navy and also a similar time for Darth Vader, because he would be getting oriented to his new role as the enforcer for the Emperor.

At the same time as she is going through dealing with being subservient to Baylo, we’ve got Vader thinking that he’s being sent around on busywork jobs and beginning to react to that the way Anakin Skywalker would have done if the Jedi had given him a routine job to do. I knew I had already planted that element in A New Dawn. I think it’s right there in chapter one, where I said that she has met Darth Vader.

I’m trying to remember when I wrote that. I may even have thought that if I had time to do a story for Insider for A New Dawn like I did with Kenobi, that was a hook I could use. It turns out I didn’t have time to do it, but we ended up running an excerpt from A New Dawn instead.

Can you name any other notable instances in which you’ve put “hooks” in other stories you write in shared universes, and were or were not able to use them?

We were going to do a Gryph limited series with Gryph and the Moomo brothers [from Knights of the Old Republic]. And there was a story I had already built in to the story line, but it turned out we ended up doing something else instead. I left that hanging out there and did not have the time on the page to deal with it. I thought, I can deal with it in the next arc or the next arc. So it became a running joke, you know, what happened to Gryph on Serroco? But I would have been very upset if the series had ended and I hadn’t been able to resolve it.

The Palpatine of “Orientation” matches the voice of Palpatine in Lords of the Sith so exactly. The line “A teacher who could so easily kill his students could be molded into something I could use,” seemed to fit both stories very well. Did you read Kemp’s book before writing “Orientation”?

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I did have a copy of one of the drafts of Lords of the Sith. I don’t remember if it was the first draft or the last one, and I read quite a bit of it and was looking for a place where I could insert the story. The funny thing, speaking of that particular line about how Palpatine and Vader want to be able to possibly use this guy somewhere, that actually is a callback to my very first Star Wars story, which was the Darth Vader story in Star Wars Empire #35 called “A Model Officer.” It was in many ways very similar because it took place on the bridge of a Star Destroyer.

In that story, Vader captures a traitor, and in my first draft the idea was that he was just going to Force choke the traitor and that would be the end. [Dark Horse Star Wars Senior Editor] Randy Stradley suggested – and this was the only change in the story – why don’ t you have him say it would be much worse to torture this guy by making him live out his life in a slave camp knowing that he was living out his life in the service of the Empire? That story was set between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, so my thought was you’re showing a change here [in “Orientation”]. This is where Vader learned that there was more than one option besides just killing somebody.

We also see here that his impulse is to kill. He gets from the Emperor this advice, that it’s better to do it this way and people will fear you more. This is Vader being schooled in the same way as Rae Sloane is being schooled.

“Orientation” refers both to the heading and direction of the Star Destroyer in the story, but it also is in line with some other story titles that I’ve done in that it refers to something collegiate or educational. The first story arc in Knights of the Old Republic was “Commencement.” Then there was “Homecoming.” We’re going in reverse order here. I put a lot of thought into the titles. Someone asked why I do that and I said I have to live with them for a long time. Very rarely have I had a title changed or a title I didn’t care for, but sometimes I can’t remember them.

What is your modus operandi when writing Vader? The line that struck out at me that summed him up in this story was “Every job I do is important – because I am the one doing it.”

This line is very Sith. Remember, the Sith are self-centered beyond measure. The Emperor is trying to re-craft Anakin into the perfect Sith underling, and if he’s trying to get it into this guy’s head that being Sith is about the elevation of yourself and the oppression of everybody else, he needs to not have this kid – Anakin, I mean – walking around [bored.] Anakin would be depressed about being given a terrible or boring job and eventually he would find a way to make it interesting. Darth Vader is not allowed to be sullen. He’s not allowed to be disinterested by the Emperor. He needs to always be this model Sith lord and a Sith lord would approach any situation by thinking, “Hey, you know what, I’m in the room, so the party has started.”

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One of the fun things about it was I got to call back to some advice I got almost ten years ago now, which is to have Vader say as little as possible. Obviously the story takes place from his point of view, but if you go and count the lines he says, it’s very, very few, and I don’t think he talks until maybe the bottom of the first page of the story. That again goes back to what I was taught at Dark Horse, which is that Vader speaks as little as possible.

Next for you is a short story in the Rise of the Empire bind-up, along with your novel A New Dawn. Can you tell us anything about the new short story?

Just that it was announced officially about an hour ago! I don’t know that we officially said that I was going to do one of the three at Celebration, but that was always the plan. Jason Fry was also announced, and the third is Melissa Scott, a science fiction writer whose Twitter handle you can find on the announcement. As for exactly when these stories are placed relative to Tarkin and A New Dawn, I cannot tell you, and I cannot tell you about the one I wrote.

I think the idea here is we have a whole lot of people coming into the universe that are going to be attracted by The Force Awakens and looking for a one-stop place to get all of the earliest stories in the story group era, and that’s what you get with the first two novels, and this other material is additional, to be a bonus, I suppose.

I just now saw the cover today, and it’s really cool because it gives us Vader, and also Kanan and Hera together.

Would you take on another big comic book project like Knights of the Old Republic if you were asked?

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If I were asked and if it was something that made sense for everybody, certainly. My heart is certainly still close to comics as well as to prose. I’m doing some comics work on and off in between the novel projects, and as for Marvel specifically, they know where to find me. I have a lot of projects that I’m in the middle of that are not announced yet, but certainly it would be something that I would look at doing.

Also, on July 1, Marvel is collecting Knights of the Old Republic in those Legends Epic Collections. People can even start pre-ordering that now.

What would be a dream Star Wars project for you?

Getting to write any of this has all been a dream. Almost all of my work has still been outside of the movie eras. I have yet to write Luke Skywalker for more than a single panel – I think we did one panel in the first issue of “Vector” in Knights of the Old Republic – I’ve never written Han Solo, never Princess Leia, never Lando, never Chewbacca. These are all things that would be on the to-do list at some point. But any day I can go to work in a different galaxy, whether it’s Star Wars or Star Trek or any of the other places I’ve done work in, or in my own galaxy, is a good day.

Where else can people find your current work?

I have a new Overdraft story, which appears as the lead story in the new anthology called Apollo’s Daughters, which is out from Silence in the Library press in ebook and physical book form. There are a number of other names that people should be familiar with in that collection – Mike Stackpole is one of them, and it also includes Aaron Allston’s last story, from what I understand, so that’s interesting.

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I will eventually do more in that [Overdraft] universe. It’s just a matter of getting the time.

Thank you, John Jackson Miller!