“Nothing is the Same After This Book”: Justina Ireland on Out of the Shadows

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The Republic and Jedi are scrambling after the Nihil’s brutal attack on the Republic Fair. With the Nihil asserting their dominance over the Frontier and proving they’re more than just a band of reckless marauders, sands are shifting in the galaxy. The new Young Adult novel Star Wars: The High Republic: Out of the Shadows, available now, picks up after the tragic events of the Republic Fair. To celebrate its release, StarWars.com called author Justina Ireland to discuss why she wanted a “regular civilian” character, why some Jedi may feel conflicted about taking on the Nihil, and how Out of the Shadows will impact The High Republic going forward.

StarWars.com: Let’s set the stage for readers looking to jump into Out of the Shadows. This book is part of phase 1, wave 2 of The High Republic publishing initiative. It’s been about a year since the Great Hyperspace Disaster, which we saw in Charles Soule’s Light of the Jedi, and a few months since the Republic Fair, which we saw in Cavan Scott’s The Rising Storm and Daniel Jose Older’s Race to Crashpoint Tower. Can you tell readers about writing this installment? What were your priorities in terms of the storyline, picking up where Cav and DJO left off?

Justina Ireland: We get to the end of The Rising Storm and Race to Crashpoint Tower, and then there’s still a lot of questions about what comes next because the Republic is at a point where they know the Nihil are bad news and are willing to go to great lengths to make sure everyone knows they’re important. So I definitely think that was one of the storytelling priorities I had going into this. What would be the logical next step in the storytelling? What are the questions I have or I would have as a reader? What is the Republic doing? What’re the Jedi doing? How are individual people being affected by these changes in the galaxy? And so that was really where I wanted to dig in. 

When we look at Light of the Jedi and The Rising Storm, there’s so much happening and we don’t necessarily get a lot of time to spend with characters. For me, I’ve always really liked those character moments. Even in the original trilogy and those moments when the characters have 30 seconds to exchange that look. The nuance to me always builds a character more than big bombastic things. And so when it came to Out of the Shadows, YA [format] is really well suited for digging into characters in a way that I’ve always loved as a writer. I started my career in YA and still write YA books. 

So I really wanted to say, who are the people we want to have [in Out of the Shadows]? We had to have Vernestra. What’s she doing? She’s come a long way; it’s been a really busy year for her. [Laughs] A lot has happened. And she has a Padawan who’s only a few years younger than her, which is always interesting when you’re trying to have someone be in charge of another who’s almost the same age. 

But then I was also like, “What about Nan?” We haven’t done a lot of that low-level worker bee of the Nihil perspective. Why would you go and join the Nihil at this point? You know they’re bad. It’s not like, “Oh no, I thought we were just here for fun!” [Laughs] And so, I wanted to check in with that. 

But also, I really wanted just a regular civilian. That’s one of my favorite things about Star Wars. In a lot of fantastical storytelling, everyone’s somebody really important. But Star Wars starts off with Luke the farm boy. And I know that’s part of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, but even with stuff that follows the Hero’s Journey, our heroes are always people that are above reproach, and they have no flaws. But I really love characters who are like, “I’m just trying to make the best decisions with the information I have.” And so that’s why I really wanted that point of view and brought in Sylvestri. 

And then, of course, we couldn’t just leave Reath out. Reath was in the first YA book [Into the Dark], and readers are going be asking, “What happened to Reath? What happened to Cohmac? What’re they doing?” And that’s how we end up with that main crew of the storytelling. And then asking, “What came next? What was the response after Valo?” 

That’s where the storytelling came from by having this all on a plate and asking, “What can I make with this? Is it a salad? Is it a pasta? Is it a lasagna?” I don’t know, but we’ll figure it out. And that’s how Out of the Shadows came along.

StarWars.com: So you talked a lot about the characters that are in this story. How do you and the other authors decide what characters are going to be featured where? Is everyone up for grabs, or is there a plan? How does that work?

Justina Ireland: I think we all have our pet favorites. We have the shared characters that everyone’s going to use at some point like Stellan, Elzar, and Avar. But then we all have our own personal favorites. And for me, Vernestra, of course, is my Jedi. Everybody knows that if I’m going to write a book, Vernestra’s going to be there. Same thing with Cav, he’s been writing Avar, but he also has Keeve and Sskeer. They’re his characters. That doesn’t mean they won’t pop up in other media, it’s more like, “Hey Cav, what’re those two characters doing at this point in time and can I bring them over to this, or are they busy?” And he’s like, “Well, they’re fighting the Drengir.” [Laughs] “Okay, not them. Who else you got?” And that’s how it comes about. 

You see Vernestra pops up in Race to Crashpoint Tower because DJ’s the same way, where he’s like, “I think we want Vern in this book. What’s she doing right now?” And I’m like, “What do you want her to be doing? ‘Cause I don’t have anything for her until later.” It’s a lot of those conversations. And I think that’s why everything feels like it works together, because we talk back and forth all the time. To the point where sometimes when we get notes back and we’re like, “Hey, I got notes back that you did this, this, and this. Is that right?” And we’ll be like, “Well, no, that was an earlier draft. We’ve changed that by now.” And so, we’ll go back and say, “[The authors] got this worked out and this is what we’re doing.” And usually [Lucasfilm Publishing creative director] Mike [Siglain] or Story Group or [editor] Jen [Heddle] will be like, “Okay cool, got it.” And that makes the storytelling coherent and, hopefully, free of plot holes.

It’s really a lot of sharing and having conversation about that. This isn’t like the original trilogy where you really only have three or four or five main characters. We have so many cool characters, and that’s really one of the nice things about this initiative, [which] is that we’ve been able to build out the galaxy in a way that feels big. Even though we’re still following, for the most part, a handful of characters, we’ve been able to bring other characters in and out, and weave them through the storytelling, so it does feel like a big storytelling initiative. Which is what I love. I like things that, even if we’re only following one character through a story, I want the world to feel like a real world, not like a small town. [Laughs

StarWars.com: [Laughs] Absolutely.

Justina Ireland: It’s not just a backdrop. Like in the 1930s where you’d see something that’s obviously not a town. That’s a movie set. I want an actual town, not a movie set. 

StarWars.com: Totally. So, speaking of characters, Out of the Shadows has such a great cast. There are all-new characters like Sylvestri Yarrow. There are people we’ve seen before in the High Republic like Vernestra Rwoh and Imri Cantaros. And then there are scions of families known to the galaxy like the Grafs, the San Tekkas, and the Starros. I want to talk about all of them but let’s start with Sylvestri because she’s the newest addition to the High Republic. Can you tell readers what you were looking for in Sylvestri, or what inspired you for the character?

Justina Ireland: I always love the regular people in Star Wars. Like, at the end of The Last Jedi when that kid is just sweeping up the stables and he’s using the Force. I’m like, “I want to know about that kid!” He’s got this cool crew, he works at the stables, he’s got these cool little riding critters. Like, what’s their deal? I don’t care about the kings and the queens and the people in power. I want to know about the regular person who just owns, like, a noodle cart. Who’s the person that owns a noodle cart on Coruscant? What’s that like? Like, “Yeah it was great, but then they built another level and now my noodle cart’s in the basement.” I want to know about those average personal struggles because I feel like that makes the galaxy feel realer. 

Sometimes we forget that the Jedi are space wizards. That’s pretty badass, but there are a lot of people in the galaxy who are just farmers, or haulers, or work behind the bar at a tavern or cantina. I really wanted to bring in more regular people as main characters. The first wave of books is so Jedi-heavy. It kind of feels like everyone in the galaxy is a Jedi. Or you walk outside to grab your newspaper and there’s a Jedi next door. But the reality is that, even at this time where there are a lot of Jedi, the galaxy is a really big place and they’re really spread out and they can’t be everywhere at once. And so, I really wanted to show what that average perspective of the Jedi is like. How do most people feel? It’s not usual [in the galaxy] that you see certain kinds of people. I wanted to make that clear through Sylvestri’s point of view that the Jedi, even though we’re following them, for most people in the galaxy, they’re still considered like a strange type of people who do these amazing things. Most people have probably never met a Jedi, or they’ve run into one only once in a blue moon. For Sylvestri, I really wanted to have just an average teenager who’s like, “bad stuff keeps happening.” Sometimes you just have a bad year. We’re all coming out of a pandemic, we’ve all come out of a bad year. And it’s like, what does it mean when things just keep getting worse and you’re in this downward spiral? That’s where I came to with Sylvestri. 

My initial concept for Sylvestri was Han Solo with worse luck. [Laughs] The Han Solo who can never get a break. There’s something really intriguing and endearing about someone who’s trying to pursue that entrepreneurial spirit but they keep getting road blocks thrown up left and right. Or I guess hyperspace blocks. [Laughs] And so that was where I started with Sylvestri. Regular person. Doesn’t know any Jedi. Doesn’t really care about what’s happening at the high political levels. Just wants to live day to day but bad things keep happening.  

Epic Stories. Tons of TV. Live Sports.

StarWars.com: The next two characters I want to chat about — which you’ve already mentioned — are Vernestra and Imri. They were featured first in your book A Test of Courage. How does it feel to get those characters back after they’ve gone through so many other things? What’s it like writing them again now that they’ve progressed in their storyline?

Justina Ireland: It’s really fun. It’s kind of like sending your kid off to summer camp and they come back and you’re like, “Oh my God, you learned so much! You’re so different! It’s only been a month! Crazy!” It was like that. They were in Cav’s The High Republic comic, and then they were in Race to Crashpoint Tower and a little bit in The Rising Storm. So they’ve gone through all these things and they’re still the characters you met before but now they have a little bit of dirt on them, and now they have a little bit of baggage, and now they’ve been through some things and they’ve grown up a lot. Being able to show that, and then also show that — y’know, we don’t get a lot of internal monologue in the middle grade books, because there’s just not space for it. Little kids tend to not want to read hundred-thousand-page books. For the most part, kids want a shorter read and they don’t necessarily care about a character’s existential crisis. But in YA, we can dig into that a little more. So, being able to bring Vernestra into a YA book after she’s gone through all this stuff and other experiences and ask, “How are you different? How are you still the same?” And just following that track of what feels like authentic growth. 

Sometimes authors want characters to grow and change in service to the plot, but I always feel like the plot should work in service to the characters. What kind of normal decisions would these characters make? What kind of doubts would they have? Because I do think that one of the things we should see with our Jedi — even in this era — is what are their doubts? Yes, of course they have the Force and a higher calling, but you still have to have those quiet moments in the night that keep you awake. “What are you thinking about?” I’ve never met anyone who’s brilliant that didn’t have massive doubts. And people who are like, “Well, I’m brilliant and I have no doubts.” I’m like, “Are you really brilliant?” [Laughs]

StarWars.com: [Laughs] Absolutely.

Justina Ireland: But I do think that comes with the territory. And I think especially when you’re a younger person thrust into adult situations, you really have to struggle. Anyone who came out of high school and had those first couple years where they’re like, “I’m supposed to be a grown up, but I can’t pay my bills and I don’t know how to feed myself,” knows what that feels like, which is an authentic YA feeling. Now we have Vernestra, she’s a year older and she’s gone through a lot. So, let’s dig into that. 

And then Imri is such a cinnamon roll, I love him so much. He doesn’t think he deserves to be a Jedi. He’s like, “Is this where I’m supposed to be?” And I don’t think we get to see that a lot, especially in Padawans. Because Padawans are usually like, “Yeah, I’m going to be a Jedi! It’s going to be amazing!” But Imri’s over here like, “I don’t know guys, I don’t really like sword fighting.” [Laughs] And that’s one of the reasons I like Reath, as well, honestly. Because he’s just like, “These are the steps I have to go through. I’m going do it. I might not be great at it, but I’m going to get there when I get there.” So, putting those three together, I think gives us a fun dynamic. You have Vernestra, who’s gotten to the top of the mountain and asked, “Wow, is this all there is? I still don’t feel like I have the answers I thought I’d have.” You have Reath, who’s like, “I don’t know, maybe I’ll get to the top of the mountain. Whatever. I’ll just read this book.” [Laughs]

StarWars.com: “I’ll get there when I get there.” [Laughs]

Justina Ireland: [Laughs] Right. And then you have Imri, who’s like, “I don’t even know where the mountain is! How do I get there?!” [Laughs] Those feel like people I knew! That’s what I think a good character is; they should feel like someone you know or have met at some point. And they should be someone you want to spend time with because books are long! Especially if you don’t like the characters, it’s really hard to get through a book.

StarWars.com: So in contrast to characters you originated, there are also characters in this book that originated from other High Republic authors, like Reath and Nan. How is it writing characters that didn’t necessarily come from you but you’re now picking up their stories and writing?

Justina Ireland: I was nervous. I mostly wanted to make sure I was careful in writing someone else’s character. And we of course say, “We’re all the High Republic,” but there is still some territoriality. You get a little territorial about the characters you create. If someone came to me tomorrow and said, “Hey, I killed Vernestra,” I’d be like, “Wait, what?! I had plans! I was going to have her do things!” I always think of the campfire rule where you leave the place better than you found it. You should always leave the shared character better than you found them. And if you’re not going to leave them better than you found them, then you need to let the other person in that shared universe know and ask, “Are you good with that? Are you going to be able to get them out of that? Do you have an exit plan?” 

With Reath, I had read Into the Dark and then I reached out to Claudia [Gray] and asked her to read what I had written on him. I was like, “Just give me a thumbs up, thumbs down.” So I flagged the chapters from his point of view for her and she was like, “Oh my God, that’s so perfectly Reath.” And I was like, “Okay! Great! I did it!”

StarWars.com: Nailed it!

Justina Ireland: And that’s really what it’s about. It’s really about understanding the foundation laid for a character and taking them in a direction that makes sense. Like, if Reath would’ve showed up in this book as the first Jedi to jump into battle with his lightsaber, saying things like, “I’ll show them with my lightsaber!” People would’ve asked, “What happened to Reath?” He must’ve gone through something. In Out of the Shadows, he’s a little bit braver but he’s still mostly the same character we met in Into the Dark. He’s been through some new stuff, and he has new experiences behind him. And that’s what I think makes characters feel authentic.

StarWars.com: Finally, I mentioned the scions of Star Wars. There are the Grafs, the Starros, and the San Tekkas. What’s it like writing for these families that we know what happens to them later on down the timeline, but this is a completely separate look into those families?

 Justina Ireland: It’s a lot of fun! You have to wonder — the Starros clan is a really big, important clan. What happens that one of their descendants [Sana Starros] is no better than a bounty hunter? She’s basically the galaxy’s best con-woman, but what happened? Same thing with the Grafs and San Tekkas. They’re both powerful families but when we get to The Force Awakens, [Lor San Tekka] is living in a dirt compound. Where’d your millions go, buddy? It’s really fun to have these families because it answers the question of, “Who are the rich people [of the galaxy]?” And we kind of get that in The Last Jedi when [DJ] explains that the [stolen] ship belongs to an arms-trader. These are people making money off of this war that’s been going on for so long. So, who are the people that’re rich? Because it doesn’t seem like a lot of the people in any of the movies or in other media we get are doing things for money. They’re not trying to build a legacy with money. 

I always wondered, especially when we look at Coruscant, it has these multi-levels – obviously, Padmé is not living in a budget hotel — so who are the rich people? Who are the people making money? We know Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos because they’ve been in the news every week. We know the people who are rich in this world. So, who are the people in the galaxy that’re super rich and they’re like, “Yeah, I’m going to do this other thing because I have a kajillion credits and I don’t care?” That was what I was interested in. And what does that look like from Syl’s perspective? She’s like, “I’m broke, I have 5 credits to my name. I just want a bowl of soup and now I have 4 credits to my name.” And then you have Xylan Graf who’s like, “Whatever. I can afford a whole tower. And maybe a part of space.” It’s really fun to play with those ideas of what it means to be wealthy in the galaxy. That was fun to write.

StarWars.com: Like we set up earlier, this book is set after the events of the Republic Fair, so this is readers’ first glimpse into what the Jedi, the Republic, and the Nihil are all up to since then. Without spoiling anything, what can readers expect to see from these groups in Out of the Shadows?

Justina Ireland: I think we have to understand that the Nihil are more than we think they are. So far, we’ve only seen them as this loosely organized group of pirates who maybe make some really bad decisions. But I think what we really see now is that the Nihil are a little more organized than we thought. We see Marchion Ro take them in a direction that’s a little more familiar than we’ve seen — we’ve seen the Empire and the First Order — but the Nihil are not trying to rule. They’re just trying to push their own agenda, which is more money for me. Me, me, me — that’s their agenda. There’s no philosophy behind it other than the short-term gain. So, that’s what we’re starting to see. Even though Marchion always seems like he’s flying by the seam of his pants, he has plans, he has ideas. He knows the direction of where he wants to take the Nihil. So, we’re starting to see that a little bit more as he cements his power.  

The Republic are like, “Holy crap, the Nihil are a big deal!” Before they were like, “Whatever, take care of them, Frontier.” But now we’re starting to see that [the Nihil] have real impact on the galaxy. What happens if they bring that to the Inner Rim? What happens when we see those Core planets start to deal with that as well? So, the Republic is definitely trying to scramble. Remember, we’re in a time where the Republic doesn’t have a standing army, they’re not about war. They were about having a fair, hanging out, and having a good time, but now they have to deal with the Nihil.

And for the Jedi, this is a turning point for them. Because now they’re doing more than just peacekeeping. They’re peacekeeping but they’re also actively engaged in these missions to root out the Nihil. Which is nothing that they’ve necessarily done. And so, a lot of them are like, “Wait, I didn’t sign up for riding through space to chase people down in a Vector, I signed up for philosophy and deep meditation.” And so, we start to see what that’s going to look like, and we see that with some of the characters who are like, “I never expected to see this much death.” Fighting takes a toll, and if you’re someone who believes and knows we’re all connected, and you’re out there taking lives, that has to take a toll on you emotionally and mentally and spiritually. That’s where we are with some Jedi saying, “This is the right thing to do!” and others questioning, “Is it the right thing to do? I feel like maybe we’re a little aggressive right now.” And we should see that. No group is a monolith, so we should see that diversity of opinion. 

That’s one of the fun things when we dig into this is to see how everyone debates over what the “right” thing to do is. We get that in The Rising Storm with Senator Tia Toon who’s like, “We need a standing army!” And everyone else is like, “No, man, why would we do that?” So, we do see that diversity of opinion on the Republic side too, and I think that’s really important in building out this time period.

StarWars.com: Yeah, I really saw the gears turning in a lot of characters in Out of the Shadows who are like, “Is it right to preemptively strike? Or do I not do that? It goes against what I’ve been taught, but also what’s happened makes me believe differently. The Republic Fair was a tragedy so maybe what we think we know isn’t right anymore.” 

Justina Ireland: Right. That’s life. We learn lessons and then we learn new lessons and then we have to apply those lessons in a way that’s beneficial and kind and hopefully not a human rights violation. That’s kind of where everyone is in Out of the Shadows. Bad things are happening, and we didn’t expect it, but how we respond is just as important as the bad thing that happened. 

StarWars.com: Shifting gears a bit, hyperspace has been at the forefront of the High Republic so far.  We’ve had the Great Disaster, the Nihil’s Path engine technology, and so on. What can you tease about Out of the Shadows and how it continues this exploration of hyperspace?

Justina Ireland: What I can tease is that the hyperspace conversations were so complicated that at one point there was an astrophysicist that was consulted. That, to me, is the funniest thing.

StarWars.com: I love that.

Justina Ireland: Right? There was actually a note in one of the earlier drafts of Out of the Shadows from Pablo [Hidalgo of the Story Group] that was like, “I consulted my astrophysicist friend and he says this is completely correct in how this would work.” And I was like, “Yay, me!” But also, Pablo has astrophysicist friends, that’s super cool. [Laughs]

I love hyperspace. One of the things I’ve always loved about Star Wars is the science isn’t too science-y. It’s a lot of hand-waved science, and there’s a lot of magic. It’s really space fantasy. But when you get into the hyperspace stuff, it really is based on theoretical physics. A lot of people who like Star Wars don’t tend to get hyperspace. And anyone who reads a lot of sci-fi and those theoretical conversations about worm holes, slipping dimensions, string theory — it really matters. There might be a document floating around about mass shadows and their impact on hyperspace and distances. I remember when Charles [Soule] was writing Light of the Jedi and he was like, “So this is how I think hyperspace works.” But the rest of us were like, “Wait, no!” So, we had this long conversation where we were linking to theoretical physics, and that made me go, “I really want to have a book that’s hyperspace-heavy.” Because we really take it for granted. It’s the same way we take cellphone technology for granted. Who knows how their cellphone works? I know, because I’m really interested in signals and data packaging, but we take things for granted. So I think it’s really funny to have someone who uses hyperspace all the time, and then someone else trying to explain to them how hyperspace works and the person is like, “Eh, I don’t want to learn about that. That’s too hard.” 

But then I also really feel for Mari San Tekka in Light of the Jedi. This is a bit of a spoiler: She is in this book. But I really wanted to check back in on that character. The way that she’s able to use hyperspace and manipulate hyperspace is something we haven’t ever seen before. And probably something we’ll never see ever again  [Laughs], because it’s incredibly unique. And I really wanted to tie that whole idea of hyperspace a little bit back to the Force. Is hyperspace part of the Force? I don’t know, I’m not a Force expert. But it’s one of those things that you have to believe that people in the galaxy are having these conversations. It’s fun to read people have differing opinions on things, because that feels like something that’d happen. When we’re writing fantasy or science fiction, it should still feel like something people would do. It should feel like an authentic story. Of course, people are wondering, “Why is hyperspace all glitchy in this part of the galaxy?” 

StarWars.com: I love the idea of Pablo just hitting up Neil deGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye and being like, “Hey, quick question…” [Laughs]

Justina Ireland: [Laughs] I hope it was Bill Nye and he’s like, “That would never ever happen, Pablo! What is wrong with you!” 

StarWars.com: Wrapping up here, this is a bit of a straightforward question of what we’ve already been talking around: How will Out of the Shadows impact the future of High Republic storytelling?Justina Ireland: Nothing is the same after this book. I know a lot of people are like, “You only have to read this book or that book,” but if you’re doing that, you’re really going to miss some important storytelling. Daniel, with the IDW comic series, has been setting up a lot of important lore that people don’t know is important yet. Same thing with Cav and the Marvel comics. The Del Rey books set up the bigger beats, but this book is really going to change the future of a lot of the characters. It’s a turning point. And if you don’t read it, you’re going to ask, “What happened?” And you’ll be sad. But also, it’s fun! It’s Star Wars! More Star Wars is always better.

Star Wars: The High Republic: Out of the Shadows is available now.

Emily Shkoukani is a jr. creative executive at Lucasfilm who helps to maintain the lore and continuity of the Star Wars galaxy. And sometimes, they write for StarWars.com!

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