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Timothy Zahn Interview

On November 4, 1997, THE BOOK REPORT welcomed science fiction writer Timothy Zahn to discuss his new STAR WARS novel, SPECTER OF THE PAST. Taking up the mantle of the most popular sci-fi universe of all-time might be a difficult task for some writers, but Zahn has found it to be incredibly fun. Come meet the master --- in his element. Our fascinated interviewer was Sean Doorly (BookpgSD). Our esteemed host was BookpgXena.

Bookpg SD: How much is Lucas involved in the novels?

Timothy Zahn: As far as I know, George Lucas himself is not involved. He has a liaison group that deals with the book people, the game people, etc. They do the day-to-day work. Occasionally, he will be asked a question and will give an answer. Mostly he is very busy with movies right now.

Bookpg SD: From Rbnthom: Describe your sense of responsibility toward the torch you carry. Are you burdened by your authority to shape a story that you didn't begin and won't end?

Timothy Zahn: I try not to think of this in terms of anything that long-term. Mostly what I'm doing is having a great deal of fun playing in the universe of George Lucas. What happens to the books in the future is up to posterity, I guess.

Bookpg SD: What did you think of the special edition STAR WARS movies?

Timothy Zahn: Generally, I liked them very much. There were a couple of scenes I didn't care for. But generally, the changes enhanced the movies. It was great fun to see them on the big screen again.

Question: How much research is involved in writing your novels in correlation with other STAR WARS novels?

Timothy Zahn: I try to keep up with the West End Game source material. Other than that, I try to keep abreast of what the major characters have been doing in the other novels. I'm not dealing with any other author's characters except Mike Stackpole's, so I don't need to study other people's characters quite that closely. I have friends who do any necessary research for me in books I haven't had a chance to read.

Bookpg SD: Do you do any of your research online?

Timothy Zahn: I keep an eye on some of the message boards. But most of the research I need to do is in print form at this point.

Question: Is the STAR WARS trilogy a practical manual for the New Age movement? If not, how much was it influenced by the movement?

Timothy Zahn: Having no particular experience with the New Age movement, I'm not really qualified to answer that question.

Bookpg SD: There is a rumor that this is the last original novel with Luke, Han, and Leia. Is this true?

Timothy Zahn: What I was told is that this would be the last of the Bantam STAR WARS series before the movies. Now that the license has gone to Ballantine/Del Rey, what they will be doing is between them and LucasFilm.

Question: Who is your favorite writer besides yourself?

Timothy Zahn: The four writers I specifically tried to emulate when I began writing were Larry Niven for hard science, Theodore Sturgeon for characterization, Keith Laumer for plot twists and humor, and the adventure writer Alistair MacLean for really twisty plots and suspense. I really don't have much time for reading anymore. Science fiction reading becomes more work than relaxation. I haven't kept up too much with the field lately, unfortunately.

Bookpg SD: You wrote a comic book of Star Lord for Marvel Comics recently. Any more comic books in the future?

Timothy Zahn: I'm talking with DC about a three-part comic book. I would eventually like to make it to a nine-parter if it sells well. It's about an alien who, when his people are under attack, must join forces with the humans to find out who is attacking his people and protect them. That's a very rough overview. These aliens have a quirk which requires them to be somewhat symbiotic. Details to follow when it comes out. It's just preliminary with DC, but it has been accepted. Comic books are a much different medium from novels and short stories. It's a great deal of fun to try something new and more visual. That's one reason I pushed this comic book with DC. I'd like to keep my hand in and write other comic books.

Question: Out of all the diverse characters of the STAR WARS universe that you have written about, which do you feel was the most challenging and the most interesting to write about?

Timothy Zahn: Not sure about most challenging. The challenge on the established characters is to make them fit their movie image, but age them a few years to make them believable characters. As far as who I like the best, my editor said I gave Han all the best lines. So, I guess that means I like Han the best. Actually, I like all the characters, which is why it's so much fun to write them!

Bookpg SD: Harrison Ford wanted Han to die in RETURN OF THE JEDI. Do you think he should have?

Timothy Zahn: I don't think so. I personally enjoy movies and books with happy endings. Part of that means that major characters live unless there's a real need plotwise to have a major character die. But that doesn't mean I wouldn't kill someone off.

Question: What do you think of the fact that a character you developed in THE HEIR TO THE EMPIRE trilogy -- Mara Jade -- has become almost a permanent character in other writers' books?

Timothy Zahn: I obviously like the lady, since I invented her. I find it flattering that other writers find her such an integral part of the universe that they put her in their books.

Bookpg SD: What do you say to the critics who say STAR WARS and STAR TREK novels are not real science fiction?

Timothy Zahn: There's no particular reason why they shouldn't be science fiction. Part of that has to do with how the writer deals with the universe. There's plenty of room for science fiction in both universes. Just because it is STAR WARS or STAR TREK doesn't automatically discredit it.

Question: You're a winner of the Hugo Award. Do you get any backlash from science fiction fans or peers for delving into "space opera"?

Timothy Zahn: The strongest backlash I've gotten from fans is those who say that my original work is better than STAR WARS. But no one has told me they're upset or angry with me for doing STAR WARS. I will be doing my original work for longer than STAR WARS.

Bookpg SD: Has it helped your career? Have people discovered your non-STAR WARS books?

Timothy Zahn: I think there's been some crossover between readers of the STAR WARS books and my original books. It's hard to say how much, but it has helped with my name recognition.

Question: Do you like the political intrigue storylines of STAR WARS or the metaphysical "Force" aspects?

Timothy Zahn: I like both. I also like the action aspect. That's one of the fun things about STAR WARS. All the elements can fit in the universe. There's a lot of room to develop all of those plot threads and themes.

Bookpg SD: Thrawn is quite the tactician. Who was the inspiration for him? Were you in the military?

Timothy Zahn: I was never in the military, but I did a fair amount of military reading and I like playing chess. I have a certain feel for tactics and creating both sides of battles. I make them up as I go!

Question: Did you choose this career or did you happen to fall into it by chance? Was this the career you had planned on?

Timothy Zahn: Kind of both. I started writing as a hobby in 1975 with an eye toward maybe doing it professionally someday. I was working on a doctorate in physics. In 1979, my adviser died suddenly of a heart attack, leaving me with a thesis project that was going nowhere. After working with another professor for a couple of months, I decided to take the plunge and try writing for a year. I did twice as well professionally that year as the goal I'd set, so I thought I should stay with it. That was 1980 and so far it seems to be working.

Question: Are you writing anymore on the CONQUEROR series?

Timothy Zahn: I have no plans to at the moment, though the universe is open-ended, of course. If I come up with another storyline that I think would be interesting in that universe, I would do it.

Question: I really like your character of Mara Jade. Will you ever write a backstory for her where she finds out more about her past or where we learn about her time with the Emperor?

Timothy Zahn: I did a couple of backstories for her, one in THE ADVENTURE JOURNAL and one in the TALES OF JABBA'S PALACE. Whether I will actually do her childhood or youth, I'm not sure. But there is room for more backstory for her.

Bookpg SD: Did you write backstories on Thrawn?

Timothy Zahn: There are a couple stories about Admiral Thrawn, too.

Question: What about the rumor that you are going to write the script for one of the new STAR WARS movies?

Timothy Zahn: Totally unfounded, I'm afraid. Mind you, if they ask me, I'll be there. But no one is asked and it's not likely to happen! I did meet Lucas once for a few minutes.

Question: Could you tell us a little about what we can expect in SPECTER OF THE PAST and VISION OF THE FUTURE?

Timothy Zahn: Originally, these were supposed to be one book called THE HAND OF THRAWN to come out in 1997, before the new prequels in May 1998. A year ago, Lucas postponed the movies until 1999. Since these are the last books Bantam will do, they didn't want to wait until 1998. I realized there was enough material for two books, so the overall title is THE HAND OF THRAWN, but the books are SPECTER OF THE PAST and VISION OF THE FUTURE. SPECTER is about a third of the story. VISION will be out next November.

Question: Is the character of Lando useful or a distraction? Do you have to include ALL the main characters in writing a STAR WARS novel?

Timothy Zahn: There's no requirement that you write all the characters. Chewbacca has no big role. I have no problem with Lando. I like him in the movies and find him useful. I don't have any room for characters who just take up space.

Bookpg SD: Do you keep up with the rumors about the new movie?

Timothy Zahn: My sense is there is a hermetical lid over Northern California. I try not to spend a lot of time worrying about rumors from elsewhere. I'll wait for the movie. The first is scheduled currently for May 1999.

Question: Do you like the drawings of your characters in the DARK HORSE adaptions, in particular the Noghri?

Timothy Zahn: I like the artwork in DARK HORSE RISING better than HEIR TO THE EMPIRE. I grew up on comic artists like Jack Kirby, so for me a good picture is one where the person looks like the person. The styles in comics have apparently passed me by.

Question: Of all of the characters, vehicles, creatures, settings, etc. that you have created for the STAR WARS universe, what are you the most proud of?

Timothy Zahn: Oh, it's a toss-up between Mara Jade, Talon Karred, and Admiral Thrawn.

Question: With all the novels connected, is there a timeline already written? How far is the overall story of the characters mapped out in advance? Example: Is Luke's death planned?

Timothy Zahn: If there is a grand scheme, I've never seen it. This last set that Bantam did were somewhat patched together. I don't think there's a grand plan anywhere. Maybe Ballantine/Del Rey will create more of a plan. But sometimes it's fun just to let history unwind the way it does. There isn't always too much of a plan there either.

Bookpg SD: How were you picked to write your first trilogy for Bantam? Did you pitch them? Or did they come to you?

Timothy Zahn: What happened as near as I've been able to learn is that in 1988, Lou Aronica, head of Bantam Spectra, contacted LucasFilm and suggested a three-book saga to continue the series. A year later, Lucas said that sounded interesting and asked for writers. Bantam made up a short list, along with samples of our work, and sent it to Lucas. They liked my work and apparently thought it fit with the STAR WARS style. I got an interesting phone call from my agent saying there was an offer. That was November 6, 1989.

Bookpg SD: A lot of people have credited you with sparking new life into STAR WARS. True?

Timothy Zahn: It was Lou Aronica's idea that LucasFilms went along with. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I just tapped into the wealth that was already there.

Question: What is your favorite STAR WARS book that you've written?

Timothy Zahn: I like both stories from the first trilogy and the duology. I can't pick and choose. I did the best job I could on all of them. I do the best job for the skill level I'm at at the time for all my STAR WARS work and other original work, too.

Question: What does it take for you to get your imagination at its best while writing?

Timothy Zahn: Ideas are really everywhere. A writer has to train him or herself to look at everything they see or hear with an eye toward "how can I use this, how does this fit with other ideas I've had." There are no lack of ideas. It's not a particular skill to come up with these ideas. The ideas are the easy part. It's taking the ideas and developing them into English that is the work aspect. The writing is the hard part.

Bookpg SD: What is your writing day like? Do you keep a journal?

Timothy Zahn: Generally, I start writing around 9 after taking my teenager to school. Break for lunch at noon. Break at 3:30 to pick him up from school. Then work til 5 or so. My goal is not hours, more copy --- I try to write 1000-1500 words a day to keep on schedule. Some days that is easier than other days.

Question: Do you have any reaction to the recent news that two of your creations, Grand Admiral Thrawn and Mara Jade, will soon be released as action figures by Kenner?

Timothy Zahn: I'll buy them! I've heard that rumor. I don't know if it's true or not. I hope it's true. If they come out, I will certainly buy a set. If they don't, I will survive somehow.

Question: I heard that George Lucas doesn't read the STAR WARS novels, or only reads a few. Has he read the Thrawn trilogy, and what did he think of it?

Timothy Zahn: As far as I know, he has not read any of the novels. From what I've heard, Lucas is a visual man. He likes comic books for the visual aspect. Frankly, I don't think he has time to read, so I'm not offended.

Question: What is your favorite STAR WARS movie, and why?

Timothy Zahn: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is my favorite because it has a darker tone than the other two and sets up the Empire as a real threat, as a much stronger enemy to overcome. The heroics of your hero are measured by the strengths of your villain.

Question: Who plays the major villain in SCEPTER OF THE PAST, a known character or a new one?

Timothy Zahn: The major villain is a triumvirate of three villains.

Bookpg SD: We're out of time now. Thank you for being here tonight, Mr. Zahn.

Timothy Zahn: Thank you all for coming. I hope you keep enjoying STAR WARS.

Copyright 1997, THE BOOK REPORT, INC.