You will believe. Not in a religion or a higher power, but in the talent of Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff. She, along with Michael Reaves, wrote the genre-bending Shadow Games and thought-provoking The Last Jedi. In this interview, Maya boldly and beautifully shares her views on droid rights, spirituality, and more!
EUCantina (EUC): How’s your take on Darth Vader different from other Star Wars authors?
Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff (MKB): This is a question I enjoy answering because when Del Rey released Patterns of the Force several years ago, some fans had issues with the way we portray Darth Vader. What we wanted to get was Anakin’s revolution – angry, obsessive, out-of-control – to the cold implacable menace that most us Star Wars fans met for the first time in A New Hope (episode four).
What’s at the core of our portrayal of the Dark Lord is that the Darth Vader who confronts Jax Pavan is not the Darth Vader who confronts Luke Skywalker. He is a young man—Jax’s age, in fact—and he’s in unbearable pain. Not just physical pain, but every kind of horrific pain imaginable. He has lost the love of his life, his best friends, and himself both physically and spiritually (or psychically as you prefer). He has committed atrocities that would cause any person with a conscience to up and shrivel away, but the Force and the enviro-suit and the will of the Emperor keep him going.
That’s the Darth Vader that lives inside the black suit in THE LAST JEDI. He is not the master of his own soul and he is struggling to attain the cold detachment that he has to have in order to maintain even a shred of sanity. He is an open wound inside that disguise. And that’s what we wanted to get at in our portrayal. What dominated my mind as I worked on scenes between Vader and Jax was what Jax represented to the Dark Lord. AND what Jax knew of him that few others did—who was really behind the gleaming black lenses.
I’m sure other Star Wars authors must have had similar thought processes, but I am aware from fan reaction that it’s not the common wisdom about Vader.
EUC: Jax Paven and Laranth (last name) are so attuned to each other that they behave similar to Joiners in Troy Denning’s Dark Nest trilogy. What’s your favorite part of their dynamic?
MKB: I think Aren Follee sums it up when she notes that they finish each other’s sentences. That’s a cool dynamic to have with someone—that you’re so attuned you can look at the other person and know what they’re thinking or you complete each other’s sentences without really being aware of it. There’s a level of complete comfort and unity in their relationship, even though they have seemingly opposing views on being a Force adept. Jax has a dialogue with a Dathomiri witch about this, in fact. But despite the fact that they don’t see the role of Force users the same way—among other differences—they are one in purpose and goal.
EUC: I-Five begs a few questions about droid sapience. Do you think droids are capable of human level self-awareness and emotions? If so, what should governments do? Should they change their policies?
MKB: I think I-Five is. And that’s part of his appeal and his mystery. There’s something about his programming that’s unique and it causes him to generate a Force signature. No one knows why (I’m not telling), but something Lorn Pavan did or had done to Five’s matrix has enabled sentience—or at least an ability to channel the Force. Now, Jax’s daddy was no programmer, so that begs further questions.
Someone asked me about the differences between writing Five and writing Leebo. That sentience is the difference. Leebo seems to have wit and sentience, but ultimately it’s just the way he expresses his programming—something that we were very conscious of as we worked on his character. Five is something else again. And because he’s unique, a change of policy might be jumping the light saber. Ah, but what if you had a whole cadre of these sentient droids? What if, for example, I-Five knew why he was able to generate a Force signature and think independently and was self aware, etc. and could pass that on to other droids—well, then you might have some interesting issues going forward, both in the legal sense internal to the GFFA, and in the storytelling.
I mean, Jax is very clear in his own mind that Five is not his droid. He’s Jax’s friend and companion. There’s no ownership. But if Five were to run amok, say, and commit mayhem, the constabulary would come after Jax for it. On the storytelling side, you almost get a Dr. Who effect—the ageless being who watches everyone around him grow old and die and who never, ever forgets. This is something we address in the book, actually.
EUC: The Last Jedi tackles the issues with Mandolarian canon head on. Without spoiling anything, what went on behind-the-scenes to make that happen?
MKB: When we decided to put some action in Mandolare, I went into full research mode and found everything I could lay a hand on – official guide, a Star Wars encyclopedia our editor sent, Wookieepedia, subject matter experts. And we extrapolated the situation on Mandolare as near as we could based on those sources. During the editing process, though, our editor – Shelly Shapiro – said she’d heard something from the Clone Wars camp that they’d be dealing with a situation on Mandolare and could pull the specifics about the political situation.
We only tipped and nucked in a few places – a couple of sentences here and there – and went with what we had. So if, the question really is, how much did we do know about what was going on in the Clone Wars, the answer is, we didn’t know a darn thing and even our editor only knew there was some serious upheaval in the works.
EUC: Although The Last Jedi is a fun, action-packed novel, there’s a lot of philosophical discussions especially between Den and I-Five. To what extent did your beliefs shape the viewpoints of the characters?
Insofar as Den and Five are concerned, in some ways they fulfill the role of the Greek Chorus. While the hero is up to his ears in Inquisitors and Black Sun functionaries, they can tease out the philosophical consequences for the reader. I-Five also supplies the spiritual anchor and reality check for Jax and Den both. And I believe generally that people make it through hardship intact.
In fact, there is a core belief that Michael and I apparently share, that beings are interdependent – we made to co-exist, to feed each other’s strengths and bolster each other’s weaknesses. That’s a realization that Jax has to come to – the Force binds everyone and everything together…for a purpose. Chaos happens when that purpose is contravened.
Michael and I are both deeply fascinated by the philosophical, and yes, spiritual issues that are inherent in the ways the Force works. We’re not alone in that. There’s been discussion, for example, around whether the Force actually possesses a dark side and a light side (as it’s commonly expressed) or whether the Force is benign (or neutral) and the darkness or light is in the heart of the adept. This is addressed in one of the Essential guides, in fact – one on Jedi and Sith.
Naturally, this debate echoes similar philosophizing in the mundane world about the nature of good and evil and God and sentience and all the complex, non-material aspects of life, such as, “what does it mean to be human?”
I, personally, believe in a God, and in many ways, the Force is a good metaphor or mental model for That. Possibly that predisposes me to a belief that the Force is benign and that the darkness lies within the heart of the individual Force-adept. I think Michael leans that way as well. BUT where the GFFA is concerned, this is a belief I have arrived at through the process of writing the books and being in Jax Pavan’s head a lot.
In practice this means it’s a question we at least wanted Jax to contemplate, even if he didn’t arrive at a conclusion. I think he had to consider it. He’s confronted over and over in The Last Jedi with the different ways that the Force adepts conceptualize the Force – Jedi and Sith (exemplified in their respective mantras), Gray Paladins, Dathomiri witches, Cephalons, and Inquisitors. Even individual Force users relate to the Force differently – Jax visualizes ribbons of light, Tesla sees it as a flow of water, etc. Is the Force really a ribbon of light or water? No. So what is it?
EUC: What’s next for you?
MKB: I’m working on a number of projects. Book View Cafe just released an eBook version of my first novel, The Meri, which is the first book of a trilogy. The next two books – Taminy and The Crystal Rose are scheduled for March and June releases. I just turned in a new SF novel over to my agent that I’m hoping will be the beginning of a series about a guy named “Trouble” Matthews who has a memory (he can’t remember his past; he just knows he has to keep running from it.) And Michael and I are collaborating on several projects – two science fiction series (one of which he’s co-writing movie scripts for) and a supernatural thriller trilogy.
We’ve also pitched a couple ideas to our editor for future Star Wars projects, so who knows…?
We’d like to thank Maya Kaathyrn Bohnhoff for kindly answering our questions. If you’ve enjoyed this, check out our previous interviews – including Timothy Zahn and Sam Witwer – right here. The Last Jedi is on sale now, and you can read our review here.