Face To Face With The Masters
Any citizen of the galaxy may be summoned to answer to the Jedi Council. Here you may read the transcripts of such sessions.
Cellblock 1138 - 1997-1999 - 2000 - 2002 - 2003+
Today, TheForce.Net is very honoured to be talking to someone who needs no introduction--the Grand Master of Star Wars Expanded Universe novels, Timothy Zahn.
If you’re reading this, you surely already know who he is, but by way of recap, he began the revival of Star Wars in 1991 with the New York Times #1 best-selling Heir to the Empire, and since then has written a total of eight Star Wars novels, all of them debuting in hardcover, and selling between them more than four million copies—not to mention numerous short stories, several comic-books, and the occasional piece for role-playing scenarios.
He gave life not just to Grand Admiral Thrawn and Mara Jade and Jorus C’baoth, but also to the Bothans and the Noghri, Ghent and Winter, Nkllon and Myrkr and Wayland—and to the New Republic itself.
He brought back the armoured arrowhead of a Star Destroyer, cruising onto page one of a novel rather than across the movie screen. It may be George Lucas’s sandbox, but for many people, including me, he’s the man who produced the definitive prose description of it.
Mister Zahn, it’s a pleasure to welcome you to TF.N.
Thank you. It’s nice to be here.
Your novels seem to have changed slowly in focus over time. You now seem to be less focused on big space battles and critical interplanetary military campaigns than you once were, in the Thrawn trilogy or (outside of Star Wars) your Conquerors series.
Re-reading Specter of the Past, I noticed that Admiral Pellaeon reflects in that novel that capital-ship wargames are no longer as much fun for him as they once were. Has there been a similar shift in your own interests as a writer?
It’s more a matter that the stories I’ve wanted to tell most recently have been smaller, more focused stories, perhaps a bit more character-driven than my earlier books. Note, though, that even in such a story (in which category I see Allegiance), there’s still plenty of action and conflict.
I also should mention that one of my goals in writing Star Wars books has always been to write something that feels like Star Wars, but without going over the same territory over and over. I’ve done the great galactic conflicts, and now I’m enjoying exploring another aspect of George Lucas’s grand universe.
Picking up on that idea of preserving action and conflict within more focused and personal stories, I’ve noticed that, while there seem to be less Star Destroyers, two of your most recent three Star Wars novels have featured stormtroopers very heavily, as did the e-book Fool’s Bargain.
Your interest in elite commandos pre-dates your involvement in Star Wars, with your ‘Blackcollar’ books—is there a specific reason it seems to have risen to the fore again more recently?
Again, it’s mostly a matter of changing my focus to the smaller, more intimate aspects of Star Wars. Stormtroopers in particular, I think, have been an underexplored area, and I’ve always taken the view that many of them are honorable professionals who end up being evil in the movies mainly because their leadership is corrupt, from Palpatine on down. In Allegiance I wanted to look at galactic events from the point of view of five of these honorable men, and their ultimate response to the injustice they finally realize that they themselves have become a part of.
Speaking of those honourable professionals, the ‘Hand of Justice’ stormtroopers in Allegiance are presented as volunteers rather than clones—or are they just clones who think they’re volunteers?
Yes, they’re volunteers and not clones. Years ago, well before I proposed Allegiance, LFL had established that the stormtroopers of that era are a mixture of clones and non-clone recruits. (Luckily for me – otherwise the story would have had to be very different.)
Speaking of clones and troopers, you introduced a backstory about the Clone Wars in the Thrawn trilogy, long before the world got a first-hand look at those events in Attack of the Clones.
What are your thoughts about the way that the development of the prequel era has affected your earlier novels’and about Star Wars continuity generally?
I was actually very fortunate on that score. The prequels haven’t affected my stuff very much, mainly because my liaisons at LFL were nervous about me stepping on forbidden territory and insisted I remain as vague as possible in any references to the Clone Wars era.
It’s just as well that they did, since my thoughts were very much different from what George eventually came up with. (I assumed the clones would be fighting AGAINST the Republic, for one thing, instead of on its side.)
Not everyone has made it out as relatively unscathed as I have, of course. All those who dabbled in Boba Fett’s back story, for obvious example, have had much of their work essentially shunted off to alternate-universe status. Unfortunate, but of course that’s the risk we all took when we started working in a universe that was still under construction.
You’ve also had the chance to put in some of those missing foundations yourself. With Outbound Flight, and the short story “Hero of Cartao” you moved into the Prequel era yourself to fill in events alluded to in your later novels. What was that like as a writing experience?
It was interesting to work in that era, and of course it’s fun to write the young Obi-Wan and Anakin. Still, I think I prefer the Classic Era characters and scenarios. (Maybe it’s because there’s no equivalent to Han in the prequels…)
There aren’t enough scoundrels in Padme Amidala’s life? Of course, the focus on new eras within the Star Wars universe is paralleled by another natural evolution as the franchise develops in the real world.
You’re the novelist who’s been involved with the story of the ‘Galaxy far, far away’ for the longest, and that makes me wonder how you feel things have has developed over the years.
For example, the changes that your editors suggested in the Thrawn trilogy are relatively well known: the Noghri were originally going to be the Sith species, and the mad Jedi allied with the empire was going to be a clone of Obi-Wan Kenobi.
You’ve also mentioned a scene in the Hand of Thrawn books where you were asked to make a couple of rewrites, and you eventually realised that the problem was with Artoo piloting Luke’s X-wing into a docking bay.
Have there been any similar changes in your more recent novels?
Most of the changes Del Rey and LFL have wanted have been fairly minor, and even the larger changes in the earlier Bantam books (such as the Noghri and Obi-Wan clone proposals mentioned above) have mostly been caught in outline stage. I’ve never had to do any really major rewriting on any of my books or stories.
I guess the most significant changes in Allegiance (and again, they’re fairly minor) were that some of the Mara/Vader interactions were shortened, with some of the dialog edited out. I don’t really know why the folks at Del Rey and LFL decided to do that, but that is of course their prerogative.
And, I suppose, is there anything you’d do differently yourself, in hindsight?
Nothing comes to mind.
This is quite a big question, I guess. How do you come up with the plotlines and characters of your novels, and how do you develop them from initial idea to completed story.
Generally, I start off with some part of the plot; either the premise, the ending, or an interesting scene somewhere in the middle. I then work to develop the rest of the storyline, or at least the basics of where it starts, some of the complications, and the resolution. (That’s very important to me – I almost never start into the actual writing of a book without knowing how it’s going to end.) The characters start out almost as cardboard place-holders as I work out the story – here’s a villain; we’ll call him Thrawn, for example. As the story develops and the plot lines start working themselves out in my mind, the characters also start to flesh out and to become real people.
By the time I actually start writing the book, I pretty much know exactly who it is I’m working with.
As a sci-fi author, you’ve created a number of alien species and fictional civilizations, and in Star Wars, you’ve been involved in the development of well-known aspects of the mythos, like the Wookiees and—perhaps most importantly of all—the New Republic, which you really created from scratch.
Where do you draw your inspirations and ideas from when you’re doing this sort of thing?
That’s a really hard question to answer. Everything I’ve seen, heard, read, or experienced goes into this hopper in the back of my mind, where it gets churned together and comes out at odd moments and often in unexpected combinations. I will often find myself thinking, “I need Protagonist B to have something to do at this point of the book to keep him from being completely unnecessary to the book. What can he do that’s interesting?” I present the request to my subconscious, and usually within a day or two it kicks me out the beginnings of an answer. Or course, that answer will almost certainly change some of the subplots or even the main plot from that point on.
That’s actually how Han came to meet General Bel Iblis in Dark Force Rising. I realized Han had nothing really to do in the trilogy’s middle book, and cast around for something to keep him out of other mischief. Not only did Bel Iblis’s introduction give Han useful work, but he also made, I think, a solid contribution to the third book, as well.
We’re back to the need for Han, again. It seems obvious that a classic Star Wars story has to have a role for the scoundrel. You mentioned earlier that the characters start out ‘almost as cardboard placeholders’, and then come alive as the story is created. I’m curious whether aspects of a character like their role and profession count as part of that ‘placeholder’, or if they emerge along with their personality in response to the plot?
And obviously, that situation’s not quite true with Han, Luke and Leia, which leads me to ask: how does working with those established characters affects your way of writing?
A role for a scoundrel, perhaps, but for me the scoundrelness per se isn’t as crucial as the redeemable scoundrelness. Han is the obvious example: he starts out completely wrapped up in himself, but is forced to reach past that, finally ending up risking everything for a higher cause. Mara fits that same mold, and even Talon Karrde comes around—reluctantly—in the end.
As for writing the various movie characters, I generally don’t have much problem with that. They’re real enough in my mind that I usually know what they would do or say in a given situation.
Having established characters limits what I can do, of course, but so does setting a story in the Star Wars universe in the first place. It’s all part of the challenge.
And that leads neatly on to the next question. How do you find the specific demands of shared-universe fiction like Star Wars, compared with your own original novels?
Greg Keyes has compared the specific rules of writing a Star Wars novel to the discipline of writing a haiku—what are your thoughts?
I hadn’t heard that one before – I like it. My own standard analogy comes from sports. Writing Star Wars is like playing football, with strict rules on how many can be on the field, the specific rules of play, field boundaries, etc. Writing my own stuff, where I have the freedom to set things up any way I want, is more akin to Calvinball (of Calvin and Hobbes fame).
You’ve been writing Star Wars novels using those rules for seventeen years now, but your books are still introducing twists that can surprise long-term readers, forcing us to re-evaluate things we thought we knew well from the start.
In AllegianceOutbound Flight, we discovered that the original Jorus C’baoth was just as mentally unstable as his clone.
At the end of that book, there was also a revelation that one of the first elements you introduced to Star Wars continuity wasn’t entirely what it seemed.
Were plot-points like this in the back of your mind from the start, or do they just represent the way that the story develops as you develop new chapters?
Mostly the latter. After all, the whole Outbound Flight thing was originally mostly a throwaway line, a way to confirm for the reader that the C’baoth Thrawn was facing in Heir to the Empire wasn’t the original. If I’d known I would keep referencing the incident in future books, I probably would have worked out more of the history way back at the beginning.
Of course, sometimes procrastination pays off. By the time I actually started writing Outbound Flight, the first two prequels were out and we all knew the kind of hardware the Trade Alliance had to work with in that timeframe. That made it much easier for me to coordinate the book’s technology with the movies than if I’d worked all of it up years earlier with entirely different spacecraft.
Now, I’m going to take a deep breath, and ask what I suspect is the biggest question of the interview.
In the recent ‘Legacy of the Force’ novel series, two of the most popular Star Wars characters you created have been killed off: Mara Jade Skywalker and now Admiral Pellaeon.
Dare I ask’ what’s your reaction?
First of all, let me remind everyone that none of the writers or artists or gamers owns any of the Star Wars stuff we’ve created. LFL owns it all, and they have every right to maim, kill, or allow to be consumed on the premises anyone they choose. That again was the risk, and the price, we all knew about when we went in.
That said, I disagree in particular with Mara’s death for a couple of philosophic reasons. (And lest anyone think it’s only because she was my character, I have the same problems with Chewbacca’s death in the NJO series.)
Star Wars, to me, is an old-fashioned tale of Good v. Evil, with the heroes stepping up to an overwhelming challenge, working through it with sweat and courage and sacrifice, and ultimately winning the day. Part of that is that the chief good guys are alive at the end in order to see their victory.
I would argue that the movies themselves support this view. If Lucas had been into killing off major characters, either Han or Lando could easily have died in RotJ. (In fact, I understand that Harrison Ford actually requested such a death scene and that Lucas turned him down.)
I realize that there are times when characters need to die for the plot to work. Obi-Wan, in ANH, is one example. (Though I still suspect Lucas planned to do more with him – “I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine” – and somehow that plot development never quite jelled.)
I often hear the argument that having major characters die is more realistic than having them always come through unscathed. Of course it is. But I personally don’t want my fiction to necessarily be “realistic” – I want my fiction to be entertaining. For me, that means watching engaging characters I care about get into and out of dangerous predicaments, working and thinking together in order to defeat the bad guys. While some authors (and readers) like the tension of wondering who will live and who will die, I prefer the tension of seeing how the heroes are going to think or work their ways out of each difficult or impossible situation they find themselves in. If I want realism and the deaths of people I care about, I can turn on the news.
Of course, that’s just me. It could very well be that the audience has changed over the years (the word “matured” is often tossed in at this point), and that they no longer want the sort of books I like to write. If that’s true, so be it. They’ll continue to buy and read the new Star Wars books, and dinosaurs like me will fade gracefully away.
I also believe that given Mara’s background and character, she was too useful a character for the writers to eliminate. But again, that may just be me.
You mentioned writing decisions a couple of times there. Did you have any contact with the ‘Legacy of the Force’ team? I know that, in the past, you have had a good working relationship with Mike Stackpole, and I’ve heard that when Kathy Tyers wrote Balance Point, she asked you to look over the scenes with Mara to make sure that she had the character right.
I had no contact with any of the Legacy group. In fact, I didn’t even know Mara was slated for death until three months before the book came out, when I happened to ask the editor a direct question.
But yes, Mike Stackpole and Kathy Tyers were very good about letting me vet their use of my characters. It is sometimes very difficult to get someone else’s characters right, which is why I’ve avoided using anyone except Mike’s, which he’s also been willing to vet for me, and then generally only in cameos.
Assuming that the audience hasn’t changed (and I don’t think it has)…. Are there any Star Wars stories that you’d still be interested in telling? You said at one point that you’d have liked to do a Skywalker family adventure with Luke, Mara and Ben.
Also, while I understand you found the pre-planned storyline of the New Jedi Order series a little constricting, I think you’ve said in the past that you’d be interested in doing a story detailing the war between the Empire of the Hand and the Yuuzhan Vong?
On a possibly related note, I believe you have a short story on Baron Fel’s Imperial re-enlistment that was written several years ago—any chance that that will see the light of day?
There are quite a few Star Wars stories I’d still like to write, including tales of the Skywalker family, more of Thrawn’s and Mara’s backstories, and further adventures of the Hand of Judgment stormtroopers. There are also a few throwaway lines I put into various books and never got back to, such as how Mara and Lando paved the way for Karrde’s search for Car’das, which was alluded to in Vision of the Future.
As to The Reenlistment of Baron Fel story, Mike Stackpole and I worked up a six-part comic, recast it as a four-part story, and have never been able to sell either one. Both versions are still lurking on our respective hard drives, though, so maybe someday it’ll happen.
I mentioned the ‘Empire of the Hand’ in my last question… you seem to enjoy exploring the interface between military power and morality, and the potential that the antagonists of the original trilogy could be turned into something positive.
Is that the right way to look at the Empire of the Hand? You’ve said, I believe, that you think the morally-motivated stormtrooper squad from Allegiance might end up in the Unknown Regions with Thrawn.
On the other hand, the movie-era Empire of Allegiance offers a complex variety of viewpoints and loyalties, most notably with the young Mara’s attitude. Kinman Doriana in Outbound Flight and “Hero of Cartao” is an enthusiastic revolutionary serving the Sith, whose motives seem to be relatively high-minded.
Have you ever deliberately written strong characters who don’t realise they’re the bad guys, or are you using these characters to challenge our expectations about the extent of ‘wrongness’ among the Sith and the Empire?
Sure – Mara herself is the classic character who doesn’t realize she’s on the wrong side of the moral fence. (Doriana, in contrast, is much more a gamesman and opportunist who knows perfectly well he’s working for the bad guy and is fine with that as long as he can turn a personal profit on the deal.)
In the real world, I think, there are many people who really ARE fighting and working for the wrong side, and in doing so are actually contributing to evil in the world. (And no, I’m NOT going to get into the details of my views here.) I also believe that most of them are sincere in believing they’re on the right side (which should show that sincerity, in and of itself, is really not all that useful).
To be philosophic for a moment, one of the strengths of science fiction in general is the ability to deal with complex issues of the real world without hitting hot buttons that might otherwise cloud the issue. Outbound Flight is a perfect example, where Thrawn and the others wrestle with the morality of pre-emptive strikes, particularly against someone who’s busily preying on the helpless. I tried to lay out reasoned arguments for both sides, allowing the readers to assess the question for themselves and without forcing them in either direction. The point is that by using Thrawn and Star Wars, I could discuss the issue without ever bringing up the word “Iraq” and the whole spectrum of emotions it invokes.
You enjoy throwing ideas at the reader and seeing how they field them, don’t you. Turning away from the guys with the Star Destroyers, I suppose the other side of the coin are the smugglers and pirates, people operating emphatically outside the military/political system.
As you said already, Star Wars comes pre-loaded with Han Solo, but I get the sense that you’ve enjoyed focusing on characters like this, with their own rather different moral questions. Are they just fun to write, or is there more to it than that?
Yes, scum can definitely be fun to write (the Arrrr! factor, you might call it). But as I mentioned earlier, what I find mostly interesting about smugglers, pirates, etc, are the ones who can find something more inside them and turn themselves around. Actually, as I think about it, most of the non-repentant scum types in my books don’t usually live very long. They certainly don’t prosper. (Oops—wrong universe…)
On a quick side-note, your introduction of Baron Fel’s son Chak in Survivor’s Quest caused some confusion amongst fans, because he didn’t seem to fit with what other books had said about the Fel family.
Some fans think he’s the young Jagged Fel, some people think he’s a clone, and some people think he’s the elder brother Jagged Fel mentioned as already dead in Dark Tide: Ruin—a brother who’s called Davin in some other stories.
Can you tell us what your plan was here?
That was one of the glitches that comes of people writing parallel books at more or less the same time, without either knowing what the others are doing. I had no idea that Fel’s family line would be nailed down in the NJO, and so threw in a son that apparently no one else was ever going to mention. I’m not sure how the official continuity handles that; my take is that Chak is probably just another brother who hasn’t been mentioned for some other reason. (Some other GOOD reason, of course. Maybe someday I’ll get to write that story.)
Your characterization of Palpatine seems a lot more cerebral and self-controlled than some other authors’ interpretations.
Is this a reflection of your view of the character, or does it tell us more about the people through whose perceptions these opinions are being mediated—Mara, Kinman Doriana, and (although he’s never directly a point-of-view character) Grand Admiral Thrawn?
It’s more the latter, combined with what I assume would be Palpatine’s natural craftiness in trying to make himself All Things to All People. Mara, Doriana, and certainly Thrawn are themselves cerebral types who value self-control and would be rather disconcerted by someone who appears as either a wild-eyed maniac or a vicious control freak. Ergo, for them Palpatine casts himself as someone they can respect and work with.
Lastly, can you tell us a little about what you’re writing in your other work these days?
The sixth (and final) book in my young-adult Dragonback series, Dragon and Liberator, came out last May from Tor Books. I’m also continuing my Quadrail series – Night Train to Rigel and The Third Lynx – with Odd Girl Out coming out this November and The Domino Pattern due out sometime next year.
I’m also working on three more Cobra novels for Baen Books, and I have a proposed new young-adult series, Black Cat Crossing, which my agent and I are trying to whip into shape for presentation to the publishing community.
And finally, I've been given a terrific opportunity to write in yet another exciting media universe with Terminator: From the Ashes, a prequel novel to the movie Terminator Salvation, due to be released next year. That book is finished and is slated to be published by Titan Books next March.
Very best of luck with all of those endeavours. This has been a fascinating interview, and a real pleasure for me. I’m sure our readers are going to feel the same way, and I know that I’ll be thinking about what you’ve said for quite some time.
Normally, I’d try to insert some sort of smart closing thought here, tying the interview together, but my mind keeps turning on your remark about ‘allowing the readers to assess the question for themselves… without forcing them in either direction’. So, with that in mind, I think I’ll leave it open for the readers to decide what they think themselves, and only point out—taking the lead from your books—that there’s a whole Galaxy of ideas and possibilities out there.
Timothy Zahn, thank you very much indeed for taking the time to talk to us at TheForce.Net.
You’re quite welcome. Thanks for asking me.