It’s difficult not to geek out with Kiersten White. For hardcore “Star Wars” fans, there are any number of questions they’d be dying to ask since Disney and Lucasfilm Ltd. tapped White to pen “Padawan.” The young adult novel, set to be released in July, will center on Obi-Wan Kenobi’s formative years. To hear her tell it, the Carlsbad-based writer says it wasn’t too long ago that she had little hope of writing a “Star Wars” book.
“I had given up,” says White, who had initially met with the “Star Wars” storyboard team over four years ago to pitch ideas. “I just thought they’d moved on and that they didn’t feel like I was a good fit. Then they asked me to contribute a story to this anthology, but even after that I thought that was it.”
The anthology she references was “From a Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back,” a collection of short stories from various writers centering on monumental events from the original 1980 movie, but told from the perspective of a supporting or unknown character. Then, early last year, she got an email asking her if she’d be interested in writing about one of the franchise’s most iconic characters.
“I was like, ‘Obi-Wan Kenobi, are you kidding me?’ It was like the one thing I couldn’t say no to,” White says.
Until she was approached to write “Padawan,” however, White says she was attempting to move away from the YA genre despite being one the most successful writers in the genre. Over the years, she’s penned dozens of YA novels and series, including the best-selling “Camelot Rising” and “And I Darken” trilogies. She loved penning these stories but had long hoped to break out of the YA box to start other projects, including a novel for adults.
“I feel like I’ve become a lot braver,” White says. “In the early days of my writing, I very much limited what I would engage with as far as topics, tones and ideas. As I’ve become more self-assured in myself and in my writing, I’ve expanded the number of things I’m willing to engage with on the page and in the storytelling.”
Those things include suspense, horror and decidedly adult themes in “Hide,” her first adult novel to be released on May 24. She’d been toying with the premise of the book for over a decade after reading about a real-life adult hide-and-seek competition in Italy and how “murdery” it sounded.
“You invite a bunch of people to come to an abandoned resort town in the middle of nowhere and you tell them they’re going to play a game of hide-and-seek,” says White. “I’m sorry but that sounds like the beginning of a horror movie to me.”
There are a number of reasons White cites as to why she was either reluctant to tackle “Hide” over the years. Some are practical, everyday things such as raising a family (she has three children), but some are more nuanced. First, there’s the element that it’s sometimes difficult to break out of a genre once an author is known for that.
“For years, I would approach ‘Hide’ and back off, approach it and back off, until I was finally in the right space to fully commit,” White says. “I’ve had success in young adult and that’s a genre that is very much dominated by women. It’s an area where women writers can do well, but take the ‘And I Darken” books — if I were a man and I hadn’t been previously published in YA, those would have been published as adult novels.”
“It’s an interesting industry in the way that there’s this assumption that if you’re a woman writer, you’re going to be writing for children,” White continues. “There’s the idea that if you’re doing well in this, why take a risk on something else?”
The other reason for White’s reluctance to tackle adult themes is a bit more personal. During our interview, she mentions the more conservative side of her family, many of whom still live in Utah, where White grew up until moving to San Diego in the early 2000s. Raised in the Mormon faith, White says her family was very supportive of her early dreams of becoming a writer, but adds that the Mormon community at large has “very rigid gender roles.”
“Me saying I wanted to be a writer was acceptable, but for most women it was like, ‘you have to be a nurse or a teacher,’” White reflects. “It was that perspective of, ‘you have to have some sort of nurturing job if you have a job at all, which you probably shouldn’t.’ That was the general consensus when I was growing up.”
White doesn’t practice Mormonism anymore and says it’s likely most of her family won’t like “all the swearing” and subject matter in “Hide.” Still, she thinks some of them will find something to like in her “Sinister Summer” books, a new series of middle grade novels about a set of twins solving mysteries at various theme and resort parks. The first two books in the series, “Wretched Waterpark” and “Vampiric Vacation” are being released in June and September, respectively. She says writing for even younger audiences presented just as much of a challenge as writing for adults.
“Middle grade novels are much more difficult to write than YA or adult books,” White says. “It’s a lot harder to find the right tone and the right pacing. That was another one where I felt that I needed to get better as a writer before I started it.”
So while she’d been putting these books on the back burner for a while, White says the pandemic gave her a lot more free time to tackle these projects. And even with the internal and external voices telling her that she should, perhaps, simply stick with the YA genre, she says she’s pleased that she finally fulfilled a lifelong dream — that she “found the courage to take that leap into something new.”
“There’s part of it that has to do with the way I was raised, but I also felt that I just wasn’t capable of engaging with certain ideas,” White says. “As I’ve grown and matured, I finally feel like I can.”
Mysterious Galaxy presents Kiersten White
When: 7 p.m. May 24
Where: Mysterious Galaxy, 3555 Rosecrans St., No. 107, Midway District
Combs is a freelance writer.