An Interview with Ken Liu

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Interview conducted by Needs_More_Sprinkles

I sat down earlier this week with Ken Liu, author of the book The Legends of Luke Skywalker, to talk about all manner of exciting Star Wars stuff. Full interview below the cut.

Needs_More_Sprinkles: I wanted to start by asking how the idea to do a book of legends came about. I know in other interviews you’ve said you were inspired to do a project about the character of Luke specifically, and I’m curious what about that concept inspired you to use that structure to tell the story?

Ken Liu: The fact is, I’ve always been very interested in the whole idea of mythology and tall tales and oral history. It’s sort of fascinating, because in some ways, human beings are very peculiar in that sense–we are actually wired to understand the world only through stories, right? This is why it’s very hard for some ideas that have no narrative component in them to be understood by people. If you try to ask people to explain evolution to you, it’s very very hard to get an explanation of evolution that is actually correct that doesn’t have some kind of teleological narrative component to it. People always want to make a story about what evolution is tending towards, when in fact it doesn’t tend towards anything. We just have a hard time accepting that the universe is ultimately random. We like to attribute causes and effect and to impose some sort of plot on the universe. So that’s one aspect of it.

The other aspect of it is that we’re really suspicious of narratives. Whenever you hear a story about somebody, especially in this day and age, our initial instinct is “well, that just sounds too good to be true, there’s something not quite right about it.” When we hear a good story, in this social media, super-skeptical, post-irony world, everybody’s initial reaction is “Ahhh, well, something is not right about this story. Some aspect of it is not quite right.” Then you go into debunking mode, and then you find some minor detail, minor discrepancy, and then we think that the whole story’s a house of cards that falls apart. So we’re sort of attracted to stories in a way that we can’t even help, but at the same time we’re deeply suspicious of stories, and I wanted to play with that tension a little bit.

In the same way that we have this complicated relationship to stories, I think it’s no different a long time ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away. And I said, “we tend to take famous people in our world–celebrities, or historical figures–and we come up with all kinds of amazing stories about them, and a lot of the stories we know about important figures are just not true, right?” For example, the whole idea of George Washington and the cherry tree. Really, if you go visit historical revolutionary sites, you see tons of folk legends about our founding fathers, and I think the vast majority of them are not true, or only true in a very metaphorical sense. So I said, “it can’t be that different about Luke,” and then “Okay, let’s try and play a little bit with this idea.” Of course we all know that in The Last Jedi, at the very end we see the stable boys, enacting the deeds of Luke Skywalker. This is how legends are born, perpetually, and I wanted to tell the stories that result from this topic. That seemed to me a much more fun way to explore the SW universe than to just tell a straight story about what happened to the characters.

NMS: In terms of how you approached actually crafting that story, one thing that I personally really like about the book is how even though we were just getting these snapshots of Luke’s development during the time between the episodes, it still felt like there was an overall arc that we could perceive–you could see that things from one earlier story would pop up in another story. So I’m curious–obviously, without giving too much away–if you worked more starting from the individual stories and threaded them together, or if you plotted out “okay, here’s the arc that I want to tell” and built from there. What was that process like?

KL: I did want to build an arc. I mean, some of the arc is sort of given right there in the film. I think Luke is fascinating as a character in that Luke is often perceived as sort of the blank canvas, the hero that goes on the journey. But I think the way you actually respond to Luke changes as you grow yourself. The way that I responded to Luke as a character as an 11 year old is very vey different from the way I reacted to Luke when I was a 20 year old, and quite different later on when I became a father. Luke himself changes throughout the saga, and also in the expanded universe, and all the other canon materials. But I’m much more focused on the way that individual readers’ and viewers’ responses to Luke change over time.

You sort of see Luke going on this journey, and trying to think about how he feels as a teenager, when you are a teenager, is very different from how you feel about him as a teenager when you’re an adult. So I said, “Okay, so there are these two arcs that are interesting–the arc of the person of Luke himself, and also the arc of the individuals telling the stories.” So if you take a look at LoLS you’ll see two interesting things. One is that Luke as a character does change in the different stories. Depending on when the story happens, Luke feels like a different character, but at the same time that perception is also filtered through the narrator of the story. Each story has a different narrator, whether it’s a Force sensitive flea whose story has been retold many times, or an Imperial officer, or really literally a child, or a droid. All these different individuals, because of where they are in their lives, have filtered Luke’s character as well, so I wanted to get both of those arcs in there. If you read through the story you can perceive both the way Luke himself changes behind the story, but also in a sense the way the galaxy itself has evolved, with different individuals at different stages of life reacting to him in different ways.

NMS: The Legends of Luke Skywalker was marketed as a Journey to the Last Jedi book, and I think one of the things that all of us, having read the book before the movie came out, noticed was that we viewed the movie differently having known the journey that you gave us a look into the book. It sort of re-contextualized it. With how many thematic ties there are between your book and the movie, was it difficult to do that without having seen the movie? And now having seen the movie, do you think the book enriches the experience of it?

KL: I’ll preface this whole answer with one point, which is that there are very strict limitations on what we writers are allowed to say about the practice of working on books like this. Disney is obviously very careful about maintaining some level of control over both information about the films, and also information about how all those tie-in writers work with the story group, so I can’t give any details.

I can say the following: Legends of Luke Skywalker is part of the Journey to The Last Jedi project, which obviously means that the whole series of books was envisioned as a way to, exactly as you say, both prepare the viewer for the film in some sense, as well as after having seen the film and come back to the books, you’ll see them in a new light. In order to do that, they have to give the writers access to certain information ahead of time. I’m not that brave about what I can say, but I can point out that other writers have said that they were allowed to see the whole script beforehand. So you can draw your own conclusions from that.

NMS: When you actually did see the movie in its completed form, on a personal level, was it kind of cool to see ways in which you didn’t anticipate how the themes in your book tied in?

KL: It was pretty cool! I will say knowing what I know, there were no surprises, per se, but I really loved the way everything echoed together. Mainly what I needed to do was to tie in the books properly to the film’s themes, and I think the result worked out pretty well. There were lots of interesting things about Luke’s growth as a character that I wanted to either provide some context for the viewer; or also to add a little bit, layer a little bit, to that, to view it in a new light.

One of the fascinating things about Star Wars is that it is in fact a very collaborative universe, all the individual writers who are invited to contribute are here because we have unique visions, and Lucasfilm Publishing felt that these visions have a place in the Star Wars universe. I don’t think it’s surprising to learn that all of us who were invited to write are in fact huge fans [of the franchise]. And so in order to have so many people creating the same universe, you have to tolerate some level of chaos, as well as impose some level of discipline. Not too different, honestly, from the the individual stories in Legends of Luke Skywalker itself.

All the individual storytellers have their own unique take, but ultimately they are in fact constructing one unified, universal myth. It doesn’t mean they have to agree with each other, but everything they say reflects the truth. You can sort of envision each individual writer as a mirror of reality, and all of them mirror it from different viewpoints. By putting them all together, you get a better sense of the richness of the universe, and all of us of course were writing in the service of the canonical film. That was a really interesting, fun experience, and it was cool for me to see both how my book tied into the film, as well as how the other books in the series tied into the film. So, all around, a lot of fun.

NMS: It’s clear that the book leaves a lot up to interpretation (quite deliberately) and I’m curious when you were writing these mysteries, if in some cases there were clear answers in your mind that you were hoping people would deduce or if there were certain things that you left completely ambiguous so the reader would have to feel the same confusion that the people listening to the stories feel. As a writer, how do you approach writing stories with that sort of ambiguity? And what do you hope and expect readers to get out of that?

KL: Obviously there are different answers for different stories. In some stories, especially stories that are reimaginings of the Original Trilogy or other events in the films, the expectation of course is that the reader does in fact have knowledge of the original films, and can contrast their knowledge of the canonical view with the perspective being given in these legends, and then try to either resolve the ambiguity, or to see, perhaps, the films in a new light.

One of the fascinating things to me is the way the saga itself has a legendary quality to it–as we all know, the films went through multiple edits, sometimes quite extensively, between different editions. In fact, one of the stories makes a meta comment about that, which leaves you questioning reality, because you can perceive the idea that Han Solo runs through this turn in the Death Star and bumps into two Stormtroopers, versus a different version in which he runs around and bumps into a room filled with hundreds of Stormtroopers. So the question is, what version is actually true? Or is this an example of a tall tale being told in cantinas, and two Stormtroopers became 200 over time? I like to think that that’s actually kind of a nice way to think about it.

In the cases where I reimagine the stories from a different perspective, I do obviously want the reader to compare and contrast the version in the legend and the version they’ve seen, and resolve the ambiguity that way. But sometimes that ambiguity is inherent in the nature of the saga itself. My point is that even what the canon tells us is not very clear, the canon itself leaves plenty of room for interpretation as to, for example, “who shot first?” And at the same time, in other cases, I do in fact want to leave certain things completely open. I think in terms of mystery, it’s actually important to the saga. There are questions in the saga that have never been answered, and I think it’s actually better to never answer them. Some things are better in the imagining than they ever would be being resolved. Some of my legends do have that quality.

There are certain things in which I have a hope as to how things would turn out, but I’m not in control, so I just write it and leave it open. And in that case, the fans and the readers themselves would be the myth makers who’d join this collective act of myth-making and fill in blanks the way they want to.

NMS: I’m glad to hear that [the readers] are not totally crazy for saying, “Oh! This detail connects to that! That connects to find this answer!” I think the book encourages that.

KL: It does! Not only is it written that way, there’s literally one character in there who does exactly that, who connects the dots, if you will, albeit in a very incorrect and ridiculous manner. But she does connect the dots. It’s a little bit of a tongue in cheek comment about the way we fans think about [the saga]. One of the joys of Star Wars fandom is, in fact, the many, many theories we spin about what actually happens, and what could explain all this stuff. 99.99% of the time we’re wrong, but sometimes we’re right! [laughs]

NMS: Clearly our blog is really interested in the mythos of the franchise, so the story “Fishing in the Deluge” has been very core to a lot of our analysis. It seems like a really good encapsulation of where the mythos of the Force is going right now, with intervention vs. non-intervention, trusting in the Force, and so on and so forth. So I was wondering if you could go a little bit into the inspiration for that story? It definitely seemed to us like there was a lot of narrative weight to it, and it seemed to have a lot of influence over Luke even in The Last Jedi. So I’d love to hear a bit about that story and what that story means to you.

KL: Obviously, everything I have to say from this point on about this story is purely my personal opinion. I’m not presenting any of this as somehow hints about the future of the saga, or what the official view is. This is purely me, as a fan and as a writer. So, something about the Force that always really fascinated me is the way [George] Lucas explicitly drew on tradition from multiple religious traditions from around the world, including many traditions from East Asia, and that the whole idea in the saga of the balance, restoring balance to the Force, is, in a lot of interpretations, a very “Eastern” idea. I always want to caution people about labeling things as Eastern or Western, because I think these labels are often much more misleading and problematic than they are helpful. But in the shorthand that’s called Eastern.

To me, the idea is very fascinating, because we don’t always really get a clear answer as to what it means to restore balance to the Force. The prophecy was, “this is the boy who will bring balance to the Force.” But what does that mean? The Jedi don’t actually seem to know definitively what that means. I don’t think anybody throughout the saga knows what that means. In fact, everything we’ve seen so far seems to be people attempting to answer that question, and to impose their own interpretation on that prophecy.

We know there are multiple different Force traditions, so I wanted to see, is it possible to to to try to come at this idea of balance in the Force from a different direction. Instead of viewing the Force as this constant struggle between the dark and the light, can we view it as not a struggle, but really a dance in which there is no such thing as the light or the dark? They are, in fact, different facets of the same thing. It’s a Taoist idea, a very Zen idea–and of course, Buddhism is heavily influenced by Taoism, so that explains the commonality.

The idea of “there is no actual separation between light and dark,” that they are in fact different aspects of the very same thing, and that this insistence on binary opposition is the problem rather than the solution–I wanted to get that idea in there. And I wanted to make sure that Luke, in my book, is exposed to that idea. What he does with the idea, of course, afterwards is up to him. But I wanted to make sure that there’s a story in which that particular view of the Force is exposed to him and allows him to come to grips with it.

The other interesting thing that I don’t know if everybody wanted to accept, is that I also wanted to subvert this idea that you go somewhere as an adventurer and learn “native wisdom,” and you become “a better native” than even the natives. That’s not what happens here. Luke goes there, and it’s not even clear really if he successfully learns the lesson or not. By some measures, he fails, by other measures, he succeeds. At the same time, he teaches something to the girl who’s supposed to teach him. She also learns a little bit from him, to see his view of the Force. That’s actually pretty important.

Throughout The Legends of Luke Skywalker and throughout the saga, there’s this inherent idea that there’s not a single view of the Force that is absolutely correct. You lose when you believe there’s a single vision of the truth. The Force is much much more grand and beautiful and simple and also concentrated than any single theory and any single model can encompass. So in this case, Luke learns a little bit about how the people of Lew’el see the force, what they call the Tide. At the same time, the young girl also learns something about how the Jedi see the force and she doesn’t. At first she’s very repulsed by it, but at the end you can see that she has come to some appreciation for it. The book suggests that she may in fact believe that there’s a way to harmonize this view of the Force with her own view, which is why she decides to leave.

So I wanted to get this idea in there that we’re all teachers, and also all students at the same time. That this whole idea of teaching the Force is a very prominent model in the saga, but throughout the saga you also see that model being subverted. The students always actually end up teaching the teacher in some way. Rey teaches Luke something quite important that he cannot obtain on his own. I think that’s important, this whole idea that we’re all actually learning from each other.

NMS: I also loved the reflections that the two main characters, Luke and Aya, had of each other. He’s the older, teacher-like figure, and she’s the younger, student-like figure, but they also teach and learn from each other. And there’s even this sort of symbolism that I think a lot of us picked up on–they both grew up on a planet that’s “farthest from the bright center of the galaxy.” They both fly things with X-shaped wings. They both are twins. I don’t know if that was [intentional]?

KL That’s exactly right. Yes. Yes, all these little things in there are things you put in as a writer. Because here’s one funny thing: real life is never that neat. But in fiction, sometimes, especially in a mythological fantasy like Star Wars, the more you can put in of those kinds of coincidences, or echoes, or something that makes sense only on a metaphorical level, it actually makes the story better. We hate that when it happens in a story that’s trying to go for realism, but that’s not what we’re going for here. This is done in a legendary mode. So yes, all the things you pointed out are exactly the same thing. [laughs]

NMS: And was that sort of to draw a connection between the two characters’ personalities? What specifically were you trying to evoke by drawing those parallels?

KL: It’s actually meant in some ways to both evoke the idea of Luke’s own journey, and Luke reflecting back on his own journey. Luke, with Aya, in some ways is playing the Obi Wan role, but it’s a little inverted, because he’s actually here to learn from her. That was ostensibly the purpose.

What I wanted to get across there was this idea of “What does Luke think about his own successes as a teacher?” He was a teacher for much of his life, and in The Last Jedi, we see that he has very deep, conflicted feelings about his legacy as a teacher. He’s not sure he succeeded, and we all know why. And so, I think in the “Fishing in the Deluge” story, what we’re seeing is him recover a little bit of his boyish enthusiasm for seeing something new, in the same way he was so excited when he first learned to use the Force. When Yoda was teaching him and he could actually get something done, he was so excited, because he got to see this new way of understanding the Force. At the same time, I wanted there to be an echo of his own journey as a student, as well as a teacher, in the figure of Aya, to allow him to reflect what methods of teaching were successful, and what methods were not successful. What are things that you can actually teach, and what are things you cannot teach, that must be experienced?

Luke and Aya are not the only pairing there–there are multiple other figures in LoLS that have a similar kind of metaphorical thing. They come from desert planets, or they have this lonely [personality], and they all in some way evoke Luke’s own journey to him. I think the idea of reflecting on your own journey, backwards, is an important way for us to come to understand ourselves. I view, in some ways, Luke’s search for understanding the Force as a search for understanding himself, and his own legacy, as well as his family’s legacy.

NMS: With the character of Flux telling this story–we were talking about stories reflecting on themselves, and how Luke has been this person bringing hope to people who have met him across the galaxy, then you have this young girl telling this story that probably, maybe, happened to someone in the past before her that maybe inspired her. And I like this idea that you have Luke influencing this character, who maybe then grew up and went off and inspired this other character to grow up and go off and have her own adventures. He’s sort of planting these seeds for these other characters to be Luke Skywalkers not only within themselves, but to other people. I know you can’t confirm or deny that, but…

KL: No, that idea is definitely there. The idea that we’re all Luke Skywalker. One of the characters actually says that. I think that’s actually pretty important. Because what is the point of stories about heroes? Why do we celebrate heroes in the first place? Is the point just to admire them? I’m not sure that’s right. I think a large part why stories about heroes are attractive to us, is because we’re all heroes of our own stories. And the point is, in some ways, we are in fact all Luke Skywalker. That’s why I tend to favor stories and narrative directions that make what’s possible with Luke available to everybody, rather than limit it to a small number.

NMS: One of the things that Rian Johnson said about creating The Last Jedi is that he started with the question “Who is Luke Skywalker?” Since you clearly have such a love for the character, I would love to hear how you would answer that question. Who is Luke Skywalker to you?

KL: Wow. That’s a really tough question. I guess the best way to answer it is to tell you about how I ended up becoming a Star Wars fan in the first place, which is also a journey in itself. I was born in China, and when I was a little child, the Original Trilogy wasn’t shown in China, they weren’t available. So I didn’t know Star Wars through the films, my first exposure to Star Wars was done through the books.

In elementary school, we had this free reading period, where the teacher would just bring a box of books, and we were supposed to pick a book and read it for fun. When the box got to me, I had a choice between two books. One of them was, I kid you not, literally a children’s biography of Confucius. The other one, on the cover, had this guy with a laser sword on a snow lizard, and overhead there are spaceships with lasers shooting out of them. And I was like “Oh man, this is the coolest thing ever.” So I picked that one, and my teacher was actually very disapproving of the choice. Even with books meant for fun, my teacher said, “You really have to think about your choices, it would be better to learn about the wisdom of the great sage as opposed to some random junk food book.” I was like, “Nooooo!” [laughs] So I picked [the Star Wars book], and it was an amazing experience.

That was The Empire Strikes Back. That was my first exposure to Star Wars, and I just fell in love with it immediately, this idea of this universe in which magic and science are both true, and both real, and there are people who can wield the Force to do great good, and also to commit great evil. The whole thing was fascinating to me. And so, from that point on, I devoured every Star Wars book I could find. It was actually years before I got to see the films.

In some ways, that, for me, is the archetypal Star Wars experience. I think of the moment I encountered ESB, similar to the moment Luke looked up and saw the lasers in the sky at Tatooine, between the Rebel Alliance and the Empire. The moment when he realized that there’s something greater out there that he wanted to get to. And that was sort of the moment for me. And the fact that decades later, I get a call from Lucasfilm publishing, asking me to join the saga–it’s sort of incredible for me to remember my own journey from that first moment when I encountered the book to this moment. And I think about that original choice I made, when I picked the book, and I wish I could go back to my teacher and say “See? Sometimes choices do have consequences, and sometimes they work out wonderfully.”

To me, that’s what Luke is about. About the idea of yearning for something grander than ourselves, this deep understanding that we are in fact mortal and human and very small in the grand scale of the galaxy, but at the same time we’re part of something much grander than we are. That we can fade into the Tide, if you will, and ride it to heights that we can’t imagine. And that we can do something great, bring joy and hope to everybody around us, even those who will never know it personally.


KEN LIU’s collection of original short fiction, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories (which he highly recommends for fans of The Legends of Luke Skywalker), is available in stores now. The third installation of his Dandelion Dynasty series (which he characterizes as “silkpunk epic fantasy”) is scheduled for release next year. The first two installments, The Grace of Kings and The Wall of Storms are also available in stores and online. For more information on Ken Liu and his work, visit his website at www.kenliu.name


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