Jessie J. Holland is a cross-genre writer, touching everything from journalism to Star Wars. His work has been featured at The AP and he has been awarded for both his career as a journalist and a novelist. You may know him from his work hosting and commentating on C-Span or because, like all of us, you have had no choice by to stan T’Challa and Finn – two characters Holland has had a hand in shaping the literary destinies of.
In between penning two incredible books about race and American history (2007’s Black Men Built The Capitol: Discovering African American History In and Around Washington, D.C. and 2017’s The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slaves in The White House), and winning the silver medal in U.S. history from the Independent Publishers Association, Holland dove into the world of science fantasy with 2016’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Finn’s Story and 2017’s Black Panther: Who Is The Black Panther?.
(please know all four of the above titles come with my personal recommendation even before this interview opportunity came my way)
It just so happens Holland will be returning to the world of Wakanda this year with Black Panther: Tales of Wakanda from Titan Books as the editor of this anthology of short stories!
Major Spoilers caught up with Holland to talk about working on and revisiting Fashion in Action in the contemporary comic book climate.
MAJOR SPOILERS: You are known in the geek world for penning origin stories for two iconic characters. Was there more pressure taking on Finn or T’Challa’s stories?
JESSE J. HOLLAND: There was definitely more pressure taking on T’Challa because of his long history and iconic status as the Black Panther. With Finn, there was more of an opportunity to create, because he was such a new character at the time. His story was still being written in Star Wars canon because at the time of Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Finn’s Story, he had only appeared once and that’s in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I could play around with his character and motivations a little more.
MS: How long have you been a Black Panther fan?
JJH: I’ve been a Panther fan since the beginning of my comic book fandom.
My father bought me my first comic books: The Incredible Hulk, Fantastic Four and then Avengers #172. It had a Hawkeye cover and a Panther appearance, and it was the beginning of the Korvac saga. I remember reading that run, and as Korvac is killing off the Avengers he laments the fact that he has to kill T’Challa. Any character the villain was upset about offing was worth following, so I started following T’Challa from there.
MS: Same question for Star Wars?
JJH: The very first movie I saw in the theatre was Star Wars. I remember my teacher taking the entire class to see that movie in my elementary school in Memphis, Tennessee, and I remember diving under the seats at the first explosion (In my defense, it was my first movie!) But after that, I saw it again, and again, and again. I then had the lunchboxes, the bedsheets, the curtains, the comic books and everything. And I’ve been a fan ever since!
MS: What were some unique joys and challenges you faced writing about both Finn and T’Challa?
JJH: Everyone loves these characters. The main challenge is to make sure your character is written in such a way that it matches up with the character everyone knows from their speech patterns to their thoughts to how they act. The one thing you never want your readers to say is that “T’Challa would never do that,” or “Finn would never do that.” You want people to enjoy going along on these adventures with these characters and keeping them faithful to what people know is a way to do that.
Working on T’Challa was a special joy because it gave me an excuse to dig back into my comic book collection and call it work. It also gave me a great excuse to research on the tribes and customs of Africa and plan a trip there for later on this year. (My excuse is that I’ll need some firsthand knowledge in case I ever need to write Black Panther again!)
Finn started out as a blank slate, so painting in some of those gaps appealed to me. There’s a lot of college-aged me in the Finn I wrote, so going back to those days was fun and figuring out how to apply my misspent youth at the University of Mississippi to learning how to be a stormtrooper was a fun exercise.
MS: What did you most want to highlight when bringing Black Panther to the prose medium?
JJH: It was actually the world of Wakanda that interested me the most when it came to the Black Panther. A lot of what T’Challa does is possible because of the nation-state behind him. So being able to explore the world of Wakanda an all of the other characters around T’Challa makes it such a joy to write him. I love being able to explore the world of Shuri and of Okoye and how they backup one of the most powerful men on the planet and ensured that his plans coming to fruition. I sometimes think the supporting characters of the Black Panther are more interesting than the Black Panther himself. So everything I write with T’Challa will always include the cast of characters around him because they make him what he is.
MS: Writing for an all-ages demographic can be daunting – how do you focus on themes you want to bring to the forefront?
JJH: Ha! When I write I don’t think about who the audience is for the story that I’m writing . I just try to write the best story I can and in the first or second edit I go back and consider who the audience is and try to make the story appropriate for them. For example, with Finn’s Story, the completed story in the book is much much shorter then the one I wrote. Given that it was supposed to be a junior novel, some of the situations I wrote for that story were not appropriate and the story was much longer and complex. So in the edit, we made the story appropriate for the audience but I still have the original completed story on my computer and I occasionally go back and read it and compare it to what everyone else has. I think it still stands up.
MS: How was working with Disney and Marvel?
JJH: I absolutely loved working with Disney and Marvel. Their characters are known around the world and I grew up watching and reading them. There’s something about working with characters that you know in love that transends almost everything. Just like any other company, you have to understand what the rules are for Disney and Marvel and you have to follow them. But I absolutely loved working in the worlds of Disney and Marvel and look forward to my next chance at crafting some of their great characters.
MS: “Who is Black Panther?” features Klaw. Would you like to tackle other popular Black Panther villains? Maybe Killmonger?
JJH: I would absolutely love the chance to write Killmonger especially the Killmonger we know now because of the movie. The character became a lot more complex after Michael B Jordan’s performance and I love villains who are the actual heroes of their own stories. There are so many other characters in the Black Panther universe that make great villains like Doctor Doom, Namor, the White Wolf, the Supremacists, Achebe, Moses Magnum and others. Outside of Killmonger however, I would love to be able to come up with a new villain that would actually match up with the Black Panther in the way Killmonger does where you’re never actually sure whether the Panther is going to win or not.
MS: The Invisibles is a remarkable work of non-fiction. Did your historical research inform any of your fictional work?
JJH: I really enjoy writing nonfiction and in fact that’s what I studied in college. I like to think I bring a lot of the research I’ve done in nonfiction into my fiction writing but it’s always what’s appropriate when it’s appropriate, right? My instincts as a nonfiction writer always require me to research situations before I write so hopefully some of that bleeds into making my fictional worlds real. For any story to be readable , it must be first believable and doing research and making your fictional worlds as real as possible for me is always the greatest challenge . So some of the discipline that I learned as a nonfiction writer definitely bleeds over into my fiction writing and hopefully some of the research that goes along with the stories I rate makes the world these characters live in weather there in outer space or in a fictional country in Africa real to the readers.
MS: Your books come out like rapid fire – what is your writing schedule like?
JJH: In the past I would have told you that I write at night and continue writing when I get started until whatever I’m writing is done. But now as I write more I find myself coming up with new writing patterns. In the past when I was a full time reporter, I would work during the day and right at night, but now I spend as much time writing as I can around my teaching parenting and other duties. Sometimes I feel like I’m filling in as much time as I can during the day writing but as long as I continue to love what I’m doing I have no problem with it.
MS: Are we going to see you make the leap to screenwriting?
JJH: I would love to make the leap to screenwriting. I actually took classes on how to write movie and television scripts back when I was younger and still one of the things that I love doing most it’s reading movie scripts and television scripts especially season premiere scripts for television shows. I have several movie and story ideas based on my work and some original ideas that I hope to sit down and get done and produced as soon as possible. I’m one of those people who knows what they were put on earth to do and I was put on earth to write. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a book a comic book a television show or movie if it’s writing I love it.
MS: Lastly, what advice do you have for new and aspiring writers?
JJH: My advice for new and aspiring writers is very simple: read, read, and read some more. And then write, write, and write some more! Many people assume that fiction and nonfiction writing is a talent that you are born with (and for the lucky few, it’s true!)