domingo, 1 de mayo de 2016

Interview with Michael Kogge

Michael Kogge is the author of the Star Wars Rebels series books and most recently the junior novelization for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. On October 2015, he was kind enough to send us a message to children for our Star Wars Reads Day event, and this time we sat down (virtually of course) with him and talked a bit about the port of Veracruz,  the Mexican editions of Star Wars novels and other things before we started the interview.

Star Wars Veracruz (SWV): I would like to ask if you can tell us something about yourself.

Michael Kogge: Absolutely. I'm a screenwriter here in Los Angeles, I also write books and comic books. I wrote Empire of the Wolf, which is a graphic novel (note from Editor: you can get it on Comixology, where you can try the first issue for free). My original graphic novel is basically about werewolves in Ancient Rome, it's Romulus and Remus as a werewolf story transplanted to the Roman Empire. I really encourage Star Wars fans to check it, I think if they love mythology, they’ll love that kind of epic storytelling. They’re really going to like that book. And the artists on Empire of the Wolf, Dan Parsons, he inked and worked on over a hundred Star Wars comics for Dark Horse and David Rabbitte, was an illustrator also for Star Wars Insider. So we have basically a big team of Star Wars people, we're all part of the same community. 
And then I write books too, I worked on the Rebels series, it started with Rise of the Rebels and The Rebellion Begins which is an expanded novelization of the first Rebels episode, The Spark of Rebellion, and I added more to the episode, I give it kind of a bigger scope, this is something you can actually do in prose because they don’t have the time or the money to do it on the screen. And then I did the first season of Rebels. 
Then I was asked to write Star Wars: The Force Awakens junior novel which was a real treat because I got to fill in some of the gaps in between some scenes, that was quite a bit of fun to do.

And most recently I wrote Cross Fire, the original prequel, what they call a companion novel to Batman vs Superman, I don’t know if that has reached Mexico yet but hopefully it will, and it’s my own story, it tells the tale of a kid called Rory Greely who is a middle school kid and how he gets caught up in the world of Metropolis and Gotham, and Batman and Superman. That was really a pleasure to write also.

SWV: How did you became a Star Wars fan?

Michael: A long, long time ago, when I was a kid my dad designed the computer system within the space shuttle for NASA. And one day when he came back after he saw the first space shuttle launch, he took me out to the movies, and I was maybe four or five years old. Star Wars was in a rerelease, this was a time before VHS, so I saw it and I loved it. It was the first move I had ever seen, and I remember fondly the cantina sequence and all the monsters. And from that point on I was a Star Wars fan. I got the coloring books, I developed my own games with Star Wars. Empire Strikes Back was rereleased the next year so I saw that a year later and then Return of the Jedi came out, so I just saw them one after the other and I never knew the difference. And then after that I continued to be a Star Wars fan even when it wasn’t popular anymore.
I had a lot of the Star Wars roleplaying games by West End Games and I always wanted to be a writer, regardless of Star Wars. It was my dream career, so I pitched West End Games some articles in my senior year in high school and they decided to publish one of them. So I was a professional writer in high school and it was fantastic.

I wrote what was called The Business of Bacta, it’s the story of the fluid that Luke floats in, in Empire Strikes Back, that heals him from the Wampa attack. It was a lot of fun to write. And after that I kind of continued to work with Lucasfilm, it’s been a long process. I’m very much a fan and a professional writer now, so I used my passion and my love of Star Wars. But also when I look at it, it's a profession, something I use to pay the bills. So that changes some things.

SWV: Precisely in The Business of Bacta you created the planet Thyferra and the Vratix. So, did you just pitch your story to the West End Games editorial team when they were still accepting non published writers?

Michael: Yes, they were looking for people for their Adventure Journal, a quarterly supplement for the roleplaying game. It was such a great magazine because it had stories,  source material and little histories. The great thing about the Star Wars roleplaying books is that you didn’t even need to play the game. The material they developed, the world building was absolutely incredible and inventive and fun and cool. I still go back to them when I’m writing Star Wars books, because I don’t know if anyone has gone to the bureaucracy of the Empire like they did in The Imperial Sourcebook. Some of it was so dense by the way, you can’t write it for fun, it was so dense and so detailed that it was an amazing piece of work. The writer, Greg Gorden, really built up the behind the scenes of the Empire and all the bureaucracy. It's an incredible piece of work and world building.

SWV: Yes it is, it’s one of my favorite books ever. And I saw you had also some credit for the new version of the roleplaying game in Edge of Empire?

Michael: Yes, I had. So I’ve been asked and I worked on Edge of Empire and I was asked to design the aliens and the planets. I’m very good with lore and I love world building as you probably can tell. I did their eight core alien races and the eight or ten planets for their gazetteer in the book. It was a lot of fun to do, I’ve worked on three different iterations of the game in some capacity: West End Games, Wizards of the Coast and Fantasy Flight Games.

SWV: Oh great, just like Sterling Hershey. So, what did you do for Wizards of the Coast?

Michael: I did an article for their magazine called the Star Wars Gamer, about the Centrality. Of all the Star Wars material that has been produced, the things I love the most are the radio dramas, which I don’t know if they’ve been dubbed into Spanish. They’re wonderful, they’re just magical, and then Brian Daley who wrote those plays he also wrote the Han Solo novels. I assume those haven’t been translated. Those are my favorite Star Wars novels, the first novels that really came out in the late 70s and early 80s. And then there were the Lando Calrissian Adventures, those are my number 3. They are fun, and L. Neil Smith he’s an interesting guy with a lot of different views and he makes wonderful books. In the Centrality article I got to take those Lando books. I always wanted to do this, to write a sourcebook for the Lando books when I was writing for West End Games but there was never enough market for that. I guess that a lot of fans don’t really appreciate those books. But I did and I took the world of Centrality, and I pitched it to the Gamer magazine and they liked the idea and I made it into an article for their magazine. This was many, many years ago, I was actually living in Iceland at the time. It was a huge article, I had to cut it down by half but it covered all the cultures and all the planets in Centrality and it was a lot of fun.

SWV: What inspires you most about the Rebels TV show? How did you get to write all the stories and the expanded scenes that you said before? What is what makes you interested in Rebels?

Michael: I think it is because it has the same sense of adventure of something like the West End games. When I first read the script to Rebels I said, oh my gosh! They are actually doing that era of Star Wars, as a TV show, I got to do this. I have to do this, this is great! And it was like a call back to my youth of course, so I like that a lot. Rebels it’s set in the classic era of Star Wars. My favorite character in the whole sphere of Rebels has to be Agent Kallus. I just thought he was a great villain, because he wasn’t someone gifted in the Force per se, but he was like Inspector Javert in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. He’s the guy that completely believes what he is doing and he’s willing to go any length to get it done. But he doesn’t have the Force, he’s not like the Inquisitor, so he has to use his wits and his brain. And of course he fails, but he doesn’t fail to the extent that he dies, as the Inquisitor does. So I always respected that about Kallus, I just found him to be a really interesting foil to this ragtag bunch of Rebels.

SWV: And what about the junior novel for Star Wars The Force Awakens? How did you get to write that one?

Michael: It was a thing where I was there. I had done the Rebels books and they liked the work I had done on those, so they said hey, do you want to do The Force Awakens? It was a very short deadline, and it was an assignment where I was writing at all hours of the day for a very short time, a couple of weeks. It’s a great way to write, you have to be completely focused.

SWV: From your novel I loved the part of Chewbacca’s reaction to Han Solo’s fate. What can you tell us about Chewbacca, how is he feeling, why is he using the natural weapons that he has, which is a taboo on his species?

Michael: That was the last scene I wrote for the novelization, but is one of the scenes that I dreamed about writing. It was a scene that is not a part of the core story, it happened in my mind but it was not really necessary. But when I turned in my first draft, Lucasfilm came and said 'hey we really like this, can you write more scenes?' And so that is what I did, I really wanted to write this Chewie scene and this was the chance.
The ebook was coming out at the release of the movie in December, but they couldn’t print the book until February, and they wanted to have exclusive content for the print version so the Chewie scene became part of that exclusive content. I did feel that Chewie deserved a moment, thinking and reflecting on Han’s death. I mean, this is his friend who’s died; why not give Chewie a moment? The great thing of the novel is that you can get into his head; you can’t really do that in the film. But in the novelization you have the chance to get into his head and hear and see what he is thinking and know what he is feeling. And after this horrible thing that has happened, that should never have had happened. 
How many times have the two escaped from death? They’ve always done it. This time they didn’t and Han died. What of Chewie’s character would he never do, except at a breaking point? That is something about the Wookiees, they have claws, they use them for climbing. We’ve never seen them extract them, it’s not something you do. Use them in battle, you don’t do that, it’s against the honor code. And yet his honor has been violated by the First Order. Han’s own son killed his father and I felt that at this point Chewie is so angry and so furious and a little bit out of control, that he would use those claws. In custom you don’t use them on battle. It was a great moment to show his emotional reaction to the death of his partner.

SWV: You’ve told us some about your other projects, you have also been involved in Star Wars: Absolutely Everything You Need to Know?

Michael: I was one of four authors on that project, and we split up the book into different spreads. That’s what they call them, when you open up a book and there’s a two page entry on a character, planet, species, or an alliance. I had to go from subject to subject researching, finding all the things that hadn’t been found before, and so it was quite an extensive project. We had to count things in the movie that hadn’t been counted before. I remember looking up the number of starfighters that were arrayed against the Death Star, from the Yavin base and you had to dig that deep for those kind of numbers. Looking at the screenplay, pausing the screen, then just researching various things.
And you couldn’t use Legends information, you had to just stick only to the movies or the television shows like The Clone Wars, so we were very careful. And it was liberating in the sense that we just had the movies to work with. But it was difficult, it required us to find things that we probably wouldn’t have found without those guidelines.

SWV: This was the first reference book that was published after the Legends conversion of the old Expanded Universe. For example, you said that you split the spreads with all the authors and it’s the publisher that finally compiles and makes the book and you don’t have that much interaction with your other fellow authors?

Michael: No, it wasn’t until the book tour that I actually knew who else was working on the book. So I didn’t know [laughter]. You just do what you can in your little area, and that’s the way it is for a lot of things: the editors are the ones who coordinate the communication while the authors are the ones who are doing the writing.

SWV: I wanted to go back to the novels. For example the concept of junior novels is not well established here in Mexico, so when I tell everyone that this is the junior novel of Star Wars: The Force Awakens they would come back with “what is a junior novel?” So, can you tell us more about that, what exactly is or isn’t a junior novel?

Michael: What is a junior novel? It’s what we call a middle grade fiction and it’s for ages 8 to 12. A junior novel, it’s not a kid’s book, but it’s written aimed at a younger audience, or a more family friendly audience. And that doesn’t mean as an author you write down to your audience. I don’t try to change my voice too much when I write a junior novel because I want everybody to enjoy the book. And I don’t think that when you write down to kids they see that. If you go into any classroom, at least in America, an English classroom or a literature classroom you’re gonna see kids in 4th to 8th grade reading difficult material, sometimes struggling through, but reading it. 
And as an author I take pride in the fact that Star Wars is something that should push children to read because they love it, and you almost have a little more room to work with, to expand vocabulary, to elicit more interest in reading, to invoke the passion for reading, to tell a really good story, to be poetic. All the things that good writing does and that is what I try to do in a junior novel.
My junior novel is different than the Alan Dean Foster novelization and has some different scenes in it. I tell a story in a different way, and I think adults can enjoy it,  kids can too and you see the story of the Force Awakens through a different viewpoint. You have the movie, you have the adult novelization and the junior novel. The way I tried to construct the junior novel was, what if I just really kind of focus in the main characters, Finn, Poe and Rey? They are all the younger characters. So what if I focus on them, they are going to be the core of my story, and then the other young character is Kylo Ren and he is the villain, so he is playing a big part. 
But you can’t tell the story without telling the story of Han Solo, so Han even though he is an old character and you have to reintroduce him in a way and I have to use his viewpoint too to get across certain aspects of the story. And once in a while in my viewpoint, I go to Princess Leia, in a scene. Or I go to Chewie as I said. But for the most part, I think that 80% of the book is telling the story of Poe, Finn and Rey. And so, it doesn’t have every scene in the movie, if you’ve noticed that. But on purpose because it’s not slavish to the film, just doesn’t follow the film. It tries to be a broad adaptation of the story, and focusing on the story more than covering every bit of the film. 
And there are some different things like the prologue and the epilogue, I felt when I wrote that if you were a junior reader, and this is your first Star Wars book, you might not have seen Star Wars, you might not have seen the prequels, you might not know anything about the Republic or the Empire so I felt that we have to tell kids if this is their first entrance to Star Wars what has happened, what is this universe. I really felt that was necessary. And then I closed it in the same way, I closed the novel with an epilogue, and I felt that the Force Awakens is kind of a fairy tale, and it almost needs a “once upon a time”, it has that kind of feeling to it, so I try to bring that to my writing.

SWV: You said that you lived in Iceland.  Have you traveled to some other places? Have you been to Mexico or any other Latin American country?

Michael: Absolutely, I’ve been to Mexico, I love Mexico. But I haven’t been extensively to Mexico. The author Jim Luceno I think he’s been everywhere, to Latin America and South America. I’ve been to Tijuana, and all the places that Californians go. Tijuana, Rosarito, Ensenada, those are very beautiful places. And I’ve been to Peru. I went there two years ago, it was gorgeous. Food is delicious of course, and the sites are amazing, I loved the mythology of the Aztecs and the Incas and the Mayans and I’ve always been fascinated.

SWV: Do you speak any Spanish at all?

Michael: “Un poquito. Hablo Español un poquito”. Living in California you understand it and you see it all the time. I studied French in high school, and I’ve been a teacher for a long time in Los Angeles and most of my students are Hispanic, and it has formed my writing and my screenwriting. One of the great awards that I have is from the National Hispanic Media Coalition, they awarded me a TV writing fellowship because a lot of my original work, my screenplays, my teleplays, engage a diverse audience and they were heavily influenced by the Hispanic community and culture and that’s changed my writing. You might not see it in the Star Wars books, but if you’ve read my original work you will definitely see that.

SWV: You’ve told us previously about Empire of the Wolf, but do you have any other projects that you would like to recommend to our readers?

Michael: I hopefully will finish another graphic novel this year or next year, it will be really exciting and I have a number of television and screenplays that could be really positive and I am working on a couple of new books of my own work and I’m excited to get those out.  
What I love about this the most is, and the internet really allows this. Is that fans and readers and people from across the world can come together and we can experience this phenomenon called Star Wars. Hopefully we can go beyond Star Wars and talk about other things, other fascinations and other interests we have and we can share. Because that’s what makes us all unique and original. That’s also what is best for the world because we get to experience things that you might not have seen or even heard before. And you only get that by being interconnected and that’s what I love about the fan community and the whole global community. The fact that I’m getting to talk to you right now over the internet and we get to chat about Star Wars and other interests, this is fantastic.

SWV: And to wrap the interview, just a couple of questions from our readers. Mario Mejía from Mexico City says why didn’t you go deeper on the destruction of the New Republic on the book?

Michael: ¡Hola Mario! Very good question. The destruction of Hosnian Prime, I don’t cover it in the junior novel. I felt that it didn’t involve any core character, I only have so much space to write my story, and the movie itself doesn’t really say much about this world. So I just said, hey this is something that happens and our characters see it and they relate to it, but I felt that going to Hosnian Prime just took away the propellant of the narrative. It kind of slowed things down, so I don’t know if I need that scene. When you’re writing a junior novel you only have actually so many pages. It was one of the things I don’t need. I can still tell my story without using that scene, so that was the point behind that. I’m sorry if you missed that scene, I would have loved to have it in a more expanded   edition, but you can read more about it in Alan Dean Foster’s novelization.

SWV: And finally David Cruz, also from Veracruz. He said, what advice would you give someone who writes fan fiction or spin-offs and wishes that his work is published in an official way?

Michael: Absolutely I would say this, I would say keep writing. Write your own material, write stories that you want to tell, and I think that if you really, really want to be a writer it is an incredible investment of time to a job that not necessarily gives the most amount of money. Especially in these days when you have so much entertainment. But I would just be persistent, keep writing. 
The Star Wars stories you want to tell, is there a way to tell that same story in a way that delivers the same emotion with your own characters? And if there is, then go that route. Another thing you can do is also write to magazines, fan magazines, and develop a bibliography and start approaching, I don’t know if there is a Star Wars magazine in Mexico or Spain, but I would build my resume that way. Definitely original work. It’s what’s going to put you in the map as a writer.

SWV: Thank you very much!

Michael: This was a lot of fun, thank you very much, I really appreciate the invitation.

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