The Mary Sue Interview: Author Claudia Gray on Fanfiction, the Enduring Appeal of YA, and What It’s Like to Write a Star Wars Novel
Claudia Gray is the New York Times bestselling author of Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Lost Stars and Star Wars: New Republic: Bloodline, as well as the YA sci fi book Defy the Stars. We talked to Claudia over the phone about her fanfic roots, why she’s fascinated by artificial intelligence, and what it’s like to get paid to write about Star Wars.
The Mary Sue: How did you first get interested in sci fi, as a fan or as a writer?
Claudia Gray: Oh, as a fan. I was 7 when Star Wars came out, are you kidding me? It warped me for life. No, I’ve had a long, long career of fangirling, I’ve loved everything from The X Files through to Supergirl, everything. Have written so much fanfiction. So, so much fanfiction. And I still do when I have time, which isn’t as much anymore. But I do still do that, so it was inevitable that it would eventually catch up professionally.
TMS: Absolutely. And what was it like as someone who was a Star Wars fan from age 7, to get an opportunity to kind of mold the Star Wars Universe and be approached to write Star Wars books?
Gray: Mold the Star Wars Universe might be not quite the case, but it was wonderful to be able to tell a story. It was like ‘hey, would you like to think about Star Wars except you get paid?’ And it was like, ‘yeah!’ It was very, very exciting, very enjoyable.
TMS: What were the creative challenges of being beholden to a larger canon, and writing a smaller part of the overall Star Wars story. Was that something that had benefits as a writer, or challenges to it?
Gray: The benefits were that, unlike any other kind of writing, I had basically zero world building to do. You know, if I had a question like ‘hey, what kind of ship would somebody take,’ I would just send an email: ‘hey, what kind of ship would somebody take?’ and a couple of minutes later, ‘it would be this kind of ship!’ I have huge visual dictionaries with pictures of all the things already, so that was a great boon. The difficult thing was that, unlike any other kind of writing, I could be wrong about something, which you’re just not used to. There was one ship I wanted to be somewhere, and they were like ‘no, that ship isn’t there.’ And of course you’re like, ‘well why can’t it be there?’ But it’s not, it’s just not there. It has other things to do, this ship. So you have to work around that kind of thing, that was the difficulty. But I definitely think the ease of not having to work with the worldbuilding way outweighed that.
TMS: I didn’t think of that, but of course it makes sense that there are certain elements you just can’t use.
Gray: And you’re just not used to that, when you’re working creatively out of your imagination, to someone going ‘no, it’s not that way.’
TMS: I imagine that having a background in fan fiction was helpful for working in this preexisting world. Was that the case at all?
Gray: Yes, not so much in specifically writing, but in terms of getting used to playing with a universe that already exists, and all the what if questions you naturally ask yourself if you’re a fanfic writer, even before you start writing fanfic. You start writing fanfic because you are this kind of fan, because you’re like what if this happened, what if this happened, how would they think about it. So, that mindest is definitely one I have exercised at length. That part came very naturally.
TMS: As a woman in sci fi, have you ever felt like your gender influenced the kind of jobs you were given or the way people perceived your writing?
Gray: I have not, because up until now, everything that I have done has been Young Adult. And that is a place where there are many, many female writers, where the audience still skews, generally speaking, maybe not as much as people perceive it, but still skews more female, so that’s never been an issue. I did wonder a little bit how people would take to Star Wars Lost Stars with it being a love story, but the reader reactions have been wonderful. A lot of guys gave that book a fair shot, and wound up enjoying it, and were not in the least bit slow to go ‘hey, I had this one idea about this book, but I was wrong, and I really enjoyed it because of x and y.’ So no, I’ve had a very charmed existence so far as a woman on the Internet. We’ll see how long it lasts!
TMS: Is Defy the Stars a book that you see as being aimed at Young Adult readers?
Gray: That is a Young Adult book, I think it can have some crossover appeal, I think it will maybe read a little bit more like a science fiction book for adults than some YA science fiction does, but it is a Young Adult novel. Basically, my second Star Wars book, the one coming out in March, that will be the first Adult book that I’ve done. But yeah. Defy the Stars is definitely YA.
TMS: When you approach writing a YA book as opposed to an Adult book, do you have to put yourself in a different mindset for the different genres, or does that just happen organically as a result of the story?
Gray: I think the difference is, once the story is Young Adult, that’s going to flow very naturally. One thing I say a lot, and I really believe it, is that no one has ever fully recovered from being sixteen. The experience you have then just shape you so much emotionally, that I feel like you can get in touch with that pretty deeply. So if you have a YA story that is about coming of age, sort of having to step forward and take responsibility, and to find yourself for the first time, because up until this point in life, probably your parents or your caretaker or your school or whatever, that has defined you. As long as your story is rooted in that, I feel like that is very natural. It doesn’t feel different at all.
TMS: I was wondering about Defy the Stars‘ focus on Artificial Intelligence. How did you get inspired to write about that angle?
Gray: This entire series, the whole Defy the Stars thing, came when Prometheus came out. That is not a good movie, but I kept going to it. I think I went and saw it four times. I could tell there was something in there trying to get out that had not been done, and it basically came out of both Michael Fassbender’s performance as David 8, where he just walked right into the Uncanny Valley and stayed there, it was fantastic. And the main female character, played by Noomi Rapace, who is a very introspective character. She’s not fundamentally worrying about David 8, or thinking what he is or what he isn’t, but she does treat him differently than the other humans do. The other humans are very much, he is a machine and that’s it. She doesn’t quite. She’s taking his measure in some ways, and he is taking her measure in some ways. And it’s not a huge element of the story, honestly it’s really more in the performances than it is in the script. I realized what I was interested in in that story, the story Prometheus did not tell, was the story of this female character who is on this other incredibly important mission, having to evaluate the humanity or lack thereof in this person who is not quite a person and not quite a machine. And that was really the genesis of the idea.
TMS: That sounds fascinating.
Gray: Yeah, it was fun. Those Prometheus movie tickets were actually money well spent.
TMS: It was an investment. Obviously Star Wars is a cinematic influence, and you mentioned Prometheus. Have you ever thought about writing specifically for the screen?
Gray: Only in the most general sense, it’s not something I’ve ever dedicated attention to trying. I think it would be fun to try, it’s something I would like to maybe turn some attention to in the next couple of years. But no, I mean really, what I hope is that somebody will come along and be like ‘we will take these ideas and make them into movies for you,’ that would be my ideal set-up.
TMS: Who would you cast as your protagonist, ideally, if someone came along and wanted to make Defy the Stars into a movie?
Gray: You know, I don’t know that I can fully ‘castify the’ Stars yet. I know what the characters look like in my head, but I haven’t really found the performers that I think would absolutely totally get them yet, that will come in time. I think for Lost Stars I imagine younger versions of the two lead actors from the movie Belle, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Sam Reid, because I’d just seen that movie when I was approached to write the Star Wars book, so I was still sort of in love with them, and very naturally the characters began to look like them. And of course, you’d have to go back in time and get teenaged Sam Reid and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who are not available. But yeah, I think it’s actually kind of good not to have rock solid casting ideas in your head. If, miracle of miracles, anything were ever to happen, you would want to be totally open to whoever was good who showed up.
Star Wars: New Republic: Bloodline comes out this March; Defy the Stars is set for publication in spring of 2017.
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