The Star Wars: The High Republic co-authors of Escape from Valo talk about their longtime friendship and latest collaboration.
Authors Daniel José Older and Alyssa Wong have been friends and fans of each other’s work for nearly a decade. After meeting in 2015 at the launch party for Older’s first novel, Half-Resurrection Blues, they quickly formed a mutual appreciation that went beyond the page.
Their shared beliefs in creating chaotic and flawed characters, an affinity for imagining a wide spectrum of individuals whose identities reflect the full array of real Star Wars fans, and a shorthand that includes sharing pictures of birds during brainstorming makes them uniquely suited to co-write Escape from Valo, the newest middle grade book in Star Wars: The High Republic. With a cast of kids that bring the charm of The Goonies crew to the world of Valo, their story imbues a sense of hope and self-discovery to a younger audience during a period of anarchy in which the Nihil remain victorious.
In the latest installment in the StarWars.com series celebrating Phase III in Star Wars: The High Republic, which continues next week with Escape from Valo arriving January 30 and the monthly release of Older’s ongoing Star Wars: The High Republic Adventures comic series tomorrow, listen in as the two writers reflect on their collaboration, their fictional kids, and avian character vibes.
Daniel José Older: It's so great to see your face.
Alyssa Wong: It's great to see your face, too! I owe you a call and three emails.
Daniel José Older: I hope you know we don't keep track of that stuff. When did we first meet?
Alyssa Wong: At the launch party for your very first novel in New York City.
Daniel José Older: It's so wild that you were at that we go that far back. And the second time we met was at the Nebula [Award]s, right? You probably won something, because you've won every award in sci-fi.
Alyssa Wong: That was the year I won for Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers. I was like, “Daniel's really great. It's so good to see you again.” You were like, “I dunno who you are.”
Daniel José Older: [Laughs.] No, not true! I knew exactly.
Alyssa Wong: [Laughs.] I’m just messing with you.
Daniel José Older: For the record, I was really happy to see you. I was a fan of your work already, and you were a friendly face in a room full of people. We had no idea how well we would one day know each other. But you won all those awards before you were even…excuse me, this is your first book, right? You are one of the most award winningest authors of the genre, and you haven't written a book until now? Do you realize what a flex that is?
Alyssa Wong: You're so sweet. Isn't this your 20th book?
Daniel José Older: Yes, it is my 20th. And you dragged me out of retirement. I was literally the aging hitman in a cabin with a dog. I was the guy who's just like, “I'm retired!” And then it was a combination of you and Mike [Siglain], but I wouldn't have done it if it wasn't for you. I told Mike, “I love comics. I've written millions of words in my life in prose at this point, and I'm good for a little while.” And, then, I don't know how exactly it happened; I knew you were doing the middle grade, but you were having second thoughts about it. And I think we were kind of like “What if we did it together?”
Alyssa Wong: So, what you're saying is it's my fault.
Daniel José Older: Yes, absolutely. 100%. I blame you. Affectionately.
Alyssa Wong: I blame you, too. I was like, no one's going to let me write kid lit. I was asked to do a short middle grade comic once for an all-ages and they were like, “No, this is too dark.” And I thought it was really happy! So, I figured nobody would let me do it, and I was really nervous about it. You are the reason why I was like, “OK, maybe I can do this.”
Daniel José Older: And [before that] I knew I wanted you to show up in Star Wars. [Alyssa laughs.] I thought you were going to be on me the second I asked this question, but I was wrong. You had no idea. I don't remember if I texted you or not, but I know I was like, “So Alyssa, if you were in Star Wars just hypothetically, what would your role be?” And you had no idea what I was talking about.
Alyssa Wong: No. I just thought it was a question that you asked your friends.
Daniel José Older: That's why I got away with it. It'll never work again now that I've done this. What did you say? You would be the stressed-out coordinator of an assassin ring?
Alyssa Wong: I did because I couldn't hack it as a Jedi. This is really what I would be a hundred percent.
Daniel José Older: That's perfect. And I took the assassin thing and made [Crash Ongwa] a bodyguard. And then you said pink hair and I was like taking notes in the corner. [The Phase I YA novel] Midnight Horizon came out of that conversation, basically. It makes so much sense because who has access to everybody and everything? Bodyguards. They are in every space where important things are happening. They have to know the city backwards and forwards. They have to understand the dynamics around them. All that and all that is really cool to write. And especially for it to be a teenage girl. It made it really interesting and so much of the story just naturally grew out of that. Just that one conversation became Crash and the crew and Midnight Horizon just unraveled before me. I infamously wrote it in 20 days because of that. So here we are.
Alyssa Wong: We wrote the first draft of Escape from Valo in 21. We're vibing.
Daniel José Older: That's right, man. Not that it's a competition, but we're beating ourselves constantly. And that was so much fun.
Alyssa Wong: Crash is so fun. You caught me completely by surprise. I had no idea. And when Tales of Light and Life came around, the fiction anthology… [The editors asked] “Can you write Crash?” And I was like, “I don't know. Can I?”
Daniel José Older: Meanwhile, my plan all along was that one day you would write yourself, so it worked. What was it like writing yourself? Was it weird?
Alyssa Wong: It was a little weird, but it's fun. She feels real to me now. And we get to meet this new character Ruu, who is a Jedi. Well, he's not a Jedi anymore…He's gone from Padawan to vigilante. He's sort of a Ronin kind of figure trying to find a place and whether or not his heart is just consumed by vengeance. He's showing up more in Phase III. He's my sweet baby.
Daniel José Older: We're really good friends outside of the page, no question. But in any good friendship, especially in a working friendship…we have different strengths and we pull each other in different directions in a way that makes the work stronger. It is never about ego. And I love that. I think that's such a cool thing that's true throughout The High Republic, but I think that's particularly true in our partnership and the way that we create.
Alyssa Wong: I think so, too. And I feel like I learned so much from this book and so much from you.
Daniel José Older: We have different tropes. I was thinking about this the other day when someone tweeted something about the two different kinds of villains and it was really hot villains and then absolute loser villains. And those are the two villains that we always write. Except I'm always writing losers and you're always writing really hot villains. But between the two of us we have lots of hot loser villains.
Alyssa Wong: We do. And it's my favorite now. I love a hot loser villain, so good. I feel like one of the things that I learned from you is that we write families very differently. For me, family is a perfect catalyst for trauma and stressful feelings. I'm thinking about all the characters I wrote for Aphra. I write lots of stressed out, sad characters, but I never really write anybody crying about it. They're just like, I guess I'll just fold this into myself and implode messily at some point.
Daniel José Older: Makes sense. In a fictional landscape, that is a good move, if not in real life.
Alyssa Wong: That's true. Not in real life. It's important to not do that, and get therapy. And you were like, “But Alyssa, consider there's this character who has a great relationship with her family.” Your characters are so open with their emotions and really joyful. It shows a sense of both vulnerability and strength that I really, really appreciate. And it's one of the things I love about High Republic Adventures and especially Zeen. I love Zeen! You write good people really well, and that is not one of my strengths, but I think after writing this book, I've gotten a lot better at it.
Daniel José Older: I would argue that it is one of your strengths. You just don't recognize it as such. What we share in common is …it’s hard for us to write just straight up lawful good. But you write really good people with really good hearts who are in really bad situations and do their best and fail and then do their best again. I think you just have an understanding of character that goes really deep and isn't just like, “Oh, this guy has a cool power. Now I'm going to put him against this guy who has a cool power. Bunk bonk whoa!” Some stories just feel like that over and over. Your characters have lived life so deeply. They always have to pick themselves up from the ashes of their own terrible decisions and learn how to love again over and over. That's so beautiful.
Alyssa Wong: Now you're going to make me cry. [Laughs.]
Daniel José Older: Cry! Do it.
Alyssa Wong: I mean, that makes me really happy to hear…and in Escape from Valo we have characters who are struggling with how big their emotions are. We get to see people make really difficult choices in impossible situations. It makes me really happy that we get to do that in a middle-grade because I think a lot of kids are going through that. Whether or not adults want to acknowledge that, I think that there are a lot of kids who are really struggling. It's nice to be able to see that reflected in the stuff that you read.
Daniel José Older: Right. Have you read Hans Christian Anderson? Fairytales are dark and that is a lot of where middle grade comes from. Because kids do go through horrible experiences and it's not fair to deprive the kids who have been through that of literature that speaks to them in order to protect the ones who haven't. The heart of so much children's literature is having fun, telling a good, fun adventure story and also doing it in a way that speaks to all the different truths that kids are living, including the really hard ones and not trying to shield them from it or pretend like everything is awesome. I think we, as writers, owe it to them not to BS them, not to lie to them. Something I was excited about going in is knowing the edge that you bring, the darkness that you bring to the story. I bring it, too. And that we [would] be able to find balance within that, which we did.
Alyssa Wong: The discovery is my favorite part of writing. My creative process requires an element of chaos. When we were talking about what this book was going to be, we broke story together and our original idea was like Star Wars, kind of The Goonies, but with the worst kids in their Jedi class, basically. I think you took the first crack at the outline and you broke it down chapter by chapter.
Daniel José Older: If the outline is holding you back, you're doing it wrong. It's a great scaffolding, but you cannot be beholden to it. And I think we both knew that instinctively. Let's talk about these kids!
Alyssa Wong: Yeah, let's talk about the kids.
Daniel José Older: I love these kids so much. First of all, we need to pour something out for the two that didn't make it, because we went into this with two Scooby crews, practically [Alyssa laughs.]
Alyssa Wong: I can't remember if it was you who was like, “This is maybe too many kids.” I think it was you. I was three chapters in and I was like, “It's too many kids.” We lost two characters who we had planned out, but what it did was open up so much space for the rest of them to really develop and sing.
Daniel José Older: Yeah, exactly. Ram [Jomaram] was kind of our throughline. All these kids are Valo kids that were in the Valo temple. I love this notion that these kids are basically feral. They've been living in the woods on their own with no adult supervision for the past year, ever since the Nihil took over. They don't have guidance and haven't for a long time and are also dealing with the trauma of losing their Masters. They’re living under occupation of war, but they also have each other. So, there's so much light and darkness just in their backstory.
Alyssa Wong: Yeah, absolutely. You get to see those moments of joy. You get to see, I think, very real trauma and impossible struggles and choices that you shouldn't have to make as a kid. And you also get to see people pull together in these intense moments and find comfort in each other. The three Jedi kids…I love them all. Gavi, who ended up being really the heart, I think, is this short little Jedi guy who used to be the most promising youngling in his year, essentially. He loves the Force and the way he sees it is as the connections between things as if they're threads running between every living thing. He sees how everything's all held together and when Valo is invaded and occupied, he sees his Master's murder and his fear just obliterates his connection to the Force. He can still sense it, but he can't access it. His whole thing is “If I don't know how to use the Force, who am I?” And he has a huge crush on his friend Kildo. Jedi aren't supposed to do the whole love thing.
Kildo and Tep Tep are the two other [Alcedian] Jedi kids. Kildo is a prankster. His design is actually based off of a magpie. He really fun and funny. He likes to play pranks and he also has a lot of trouble focusing. I have pretty crushing ADHD and so does Kildo! Then there's Tep Tep who is a perfect angel. She's very sweet, shy, just bubbly. Tep Tep is my spouse's favorite. And her design's based off of one of the fancy curly pigeons.
Daniel José Older: I just love that I would get these character sheets that were full of birds [Alyssa laughs.] back and forth. It would be like, all right, now here's the fancy pigeon and this is going to be Tep Tep. It would just be like two lines and a pigeon and I would know exactly what we were dealing with. Very effective character work. Love it. Zyle is my personal favorite. They are this incredible pirate kid, the great grandchild of Saya Keem, who is a Force user and a pirate from Phase II of the Star Wars: The High Republic Adventures run. Zyle lives a little bit in the shadow of that power. They're in awe of their grandma, but also a little bit jealous because they don't have the Force. And I love their journey because they really just, they come into their own. They're such a big personality, so much swagger!
And, of course, Ram Jomaram: my buddy, my boy, my guy, my son. I love him. I was so happy to write him again! We've seen him go from this super awkward kid out in the world to someone who's forced into really taking on a leadership role. And particularly in this book, we see him have to come into his own in terms of how he's dealing with the world: fighting the Nihil, but also helping these kids get by. Ram does it with his whole heart. And then lastly, Niv Drendow Apruk. Oh my God.
Alyssa Wong: I love it.
Daniel José Older: Where did he come from? I wish I knew. We knew we wanted a mad scientist bad guy, this kind of sidekick to the Boolan character, but I always assumed it would be, I don't know, a little old guy. And then somewhere in there, I was like, “This needs to be a kid.” It needs to be someone who's on the level with the other kids to really make it lock. And that's what opened up Niv Drendow and then he just became that petulant, extremely smart and absolutely cutthroat, obsessed with the Nameless, boy baby jerk that we all know and hate. I think, Alyssa, you put it best when you said everyone else in the world is an NPC [non-player character] to him.
Alyssa Wong: He's a scene stealer. Everybody's an NPC to him, but occasionally he sees somebody and he's like, “Oh, you're a real person. Finally, a player character I can talk to.”
Daniel José Older: And you see that moment click for him and he's like, “I suppose you have humanity.” He's so ridiculous and over the top. He just showed up fully; characters will do that. They just show up fully formulated. He's just extremely obnoxious and wound up and very stressed out. Stressed out bad guys are a lot of fun to write because it's like you're giving them all your stress.
Alyssa Wong: Every single bad guy in this book is so stressed out. I feel like the only person who isn't stressed out in this book is maybe Zyle.
Daniel José Older: Absolutely. Zyle's having a blast. Zyle's just living their best life, meeting new friends, having new adventures. This is the pirate life through and through and I respect Zyle for that.
Alyssa Wong: Speaking of scene stealing, we ended up with this character, a local Nihil kid to kind of balance it out.. Her name is Driggit Parse. She is — I am not supposed to play favorites. She's my favorite. She and Gavi were really tight and they look eerily alike. That was your idea.
Daniel José Older: Really? I was about to be like, “I love that idea!”
Alyssa Wong: I'm really bad with descriptions, which is why I just keep attaching pictures of birds. Her picture was just a little kestrel. I was like, “This is the girl. She's tiny, she's intense, she's aggressive, she's mean.” And you were like, “I don't know, maybe she just looks like Gavi?” Perfect. Done. Twins. Love it. She's my favorite because she's messy, she's complicated, and she is that character who for me represents kids who are faced with choices that they should never have to face. She's a survivor, and I'm really excited for everyone to meet her. [Alyssa laughs.]
Daniel José Older: Yeah, I love her, too. And also, all these characters show up again beyond the pages of Escape from Valo, which is cool. We see [Driggit] transform over the course of the book and also have a sense that she's already transformed so much from who she was when there was peace on Valo. There's lots of fun, exciting chases, shoot outs, heists, and battles. In the midst of that, we see the characters really respond to everything that's happening and really become who they're going to be for the next part of their life during the course of this story, which is so beautiful to write. And I think people are really going to connect to it when they read it.
Alyssa Wong: I'm so excited that we are going to keep seeing them throughout this Phase. As they keep getting pulled into stuff going forward, it's going to be fun to see where they're going to end up.
Daniel José Older: There's so much ahead for all of them. And one of the coolest parts about The High Republic being so cross-platform is being able to write them in different spaces and see how they'll grow as characters. Watching them grow, watching them be created in different mediums and show up in different places, and then having the ability to tell that long arc of a story of a character is so exciting. So, stay tuned for all that's yet to come with all these kids.
Alyssa Wong: One last tag to Tep Tep, I forgot to mention her whole thing is she feels strongly connected to animals. She uses her Force connection and abilities to take care of them and comfort them and they love her. And basically, the bigger and more dangerous the animal is, the more she loves them and the more they love her. So, you'll get to see that play out a lot in this book.
Daniel José Older: Relatable. And we have a lot of exciting things ahead in Adventures. I know, Alyssa, I've been sending you pictures and ideas.
Alyssa Wong: Yes. I'm so excited for Adventures! Adventures is such a delight. I'm borrowing one of your kids, but I won't tell you which until after this call.
Daniel José Older: That's perfect. That's the joy of it, to just see them pop up in different places and realizing they come to life for different people. And shout out to the fandom and the readership. There's fan art, there's fanfiction, and then I think there's a secret third thing that is like the memology of it all. Just memes. Seeing that play out online has been just one of the great joys of The High Republic, how creative, how hilarious, how honest and open and vulnerable the fandom is. Just the way that people interact with each other is so loving and the creativity behind it and the stories that they create around these characters that we created. It's just a whole other level! I just feel like we're in conversation and that's such a blessing. It's just something I'm always grateful for.
Alyssa Wong: It feels really special. I think it's the warmest fandom that I've ever experienced for something that I've made. There's also a pretty big queer High Republic fandom contingent and seeing how supportive they have been of each other and how excited they are about the books makes me really happy. Queer Star Wars is something that I hold dear in my heart and I'm always like, “Let's have more queer characters! Let's have more people who reflect our fan base and our writers and our team.” There are so many queer characters in our stuff in particular. Obviously, for me, it's very important and something that drew me to The High Republic when Phase I was just launching. These characters are so full of feelings and also queer Star Wars. Zyle's non-binary. Ruu is trans. And there are other trans characters I'm very excited about in particular, but I feel like this isn't the Star Wars that I grew up with. This feels like a Star Wars that welcomes people in where they are. Not to say that the previous Star Wars didn't, but I never grew up seeing people like me in Star Wars, so it's really cool to get to do that for other people.
Daniel José Older: I cried so many times at Celebration just having interactions with fans who were just overwhelmed with excitement about seeing themselves, about seeing Kantam [Sy], and that changed my life. To be able to be a part of that conversation, I think it's changing our lives as individuals. I think it's changing the fandom as a whole. I think it's because it's Star Wars and the power that Star Wars has in the world. It is changing the world and it's changing sci-fi, and that's incredible. I'm just so happy about it.
Alyssa Wong: Me too, me too. And I hope that what it does too is when I think about fan works, they feel so special to me because the idea is that someone read or watched or whatever, something that made them want to create something. And I think that the idea of inspiring people is really special. And my hope is that people who feel that way who saw themselves in Star Wars are going to go on and be able to make Star Wars in the future.
Daniel José Older: I'm just really, really excited for people to read all that is in the pipeline for Adventures. We have not forgotten about our long-lost friends, which doesn't mean they're alive, but I'm just saying we haven't forgotten about them and we hope to find out more about their destinies soon. I will tell you that we have more familiar and unfamiliar faces ahead of us, but I'm not going to tell you which ones. Look out for the Warden who is one of the evilest characters I've ever written. And a Nihil prison ship is floating around somewhere with some kinds of secrets on board. But that's all I'm going to say about that.
Alyssa Wong: I can't wait. It's going to be so fun. I know [the secrets], but also, what if I don't?
Daniel José Older: You only know some of them. [Daniel laughs.]