Author Timothy Zahn on StarCraft, Rogue One, and why George Lucas doesn’t read novels

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Nov 13, 2016, 6:22 PM EST (Updated)

It’s hard to imagine now, but by the end of the 1980s, Star Wars was a vanishing part of the pop culture landscape. Then in 1991, Hugo Award-winning author Timothy Zahn published the first Star Wars “Expanded Universe” novel, Heir to the Empire. The novel picked up the story of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Leia and all the rest of the movie characters five years after the destruction of the second Death Star, and gave Star Wars a new iconic villain with the Empire’s Grand Admiral Thrawn. Two more books followed to complete the Thrawn Trilogy, and the galaxy of Star Wars novels quickly exploded into more than 250 titles, plus new comic book series, new video games and other stories covering a period spanning from 5,000 years before A New Hope through the lives of Han and Luke’s great-grandchildren.

In 2014, Lucasfilm (which had just been acquired by Disney) announced that these works would be shuffled over into “Legends” so that The Force Awakens and other new Star Wars films could cover some of the same ground without worrying about continuity conflicts. In the past few months, however, Thrawn has re-emerged in the Disney XD cartoon Star Wars Rebels, and Zahn is penning a new Thrawn novel due out in 2017. We spoke with Zahn recently at New York Comic Con about his other new novel StarCraft: Evolution (available now), based on the video game mega-hit, his role in creating the Expanded Universe, and what Rogue One means for the future of Star Wars.

When you wrote Heir to the Empire, did you feel like you had the run of the Star Wars universe?

Timothy Zahn: It was largely a blank canvas because I was the first person who’d been allowed to write past Return of the Jedi. Dark Horse was doing a comic book series at the time, Dark Empire, but I was the first novelist. It was a completely open canvas within the bounds of what had been done before, the characters, the universe, technology. Lucasfilm has always been good about asking me what story I want to write, rather than saying, “Okay, we want you to do a book, here are the five plot points, here are the three characters that you have to use.” 

The closest they ever came was they had a grand scheme for a particular character to be in the games, the novels, and the comic book. They asked me if I would put this character into  [Zahn’s 2004 novel] Survivor’s Quest. They gave me a description, they said he could be a secondary or a third tier character. Not a problem putting him in. I don’t know if that plan ever went anywhere beyond that book, if he actually made the grand tour of all the Legends material. 

Sounds like an early version of how they manage Star Wars now across multiple properties. 

Well, back then we didn’t have the story group. Now they brought in a whole group of good people who knew what Star Wars was going to be, and knew which part of Legends they might want to pull in to canon. “Okay we’re starting from scratch, let’s make everything consistent and dovetail together.” I know a lot of people were not happy with it. It was the best of all decisions they could have made given that they wanted to make a new series of movies.

Thrawn has become a fan favorite. What do you feel like is the appeal of that character?

I think the initial attraction was that he was so different than anybody that the fans had seen in Star Wars before. He wasn’t a conniving person like the Emperor. He wasn’t a dangerous menacing person who would choke admirals if they failed him too many times, like Vader. He wasn’t arrogant like some of the others, like Captain Needa who said, “Yes, our first catch of the day,” and fell on his face. He was someone who led by loyalty instead of fear. He was someone who could outthink our heroes, and he was just something very, very different. It was good to see an Imperial who was actually competent, because how do you make an Empire in the first place if you don't have competent people? He was the epitome of that. 

The heroism of your heroes is measured by the villainy of your villains. In other words, if you have a wimpy villain, the heroes don’t have to try very hard to beat him. If you have an extremely powerful or clever or conniving villain, the heroes have to work that much harder to outthink, outmaneuver, outfight. And that’s what we’re looking for in a story. We’re looking for heroes who have to fight uphill all the way against a villain. And for that, the villain has to be very powerful in whatever realm, whatever his power is coming from. With Thrawn it’s logic, it’s his strategic abilities, his way of turning knowledge and art into battle tactics. It’s something the heroes had never run into either, which means they all had to scramble to figure out how to fight this. And that is what makes for good fiction, good drama. 


Timothy Zahn - Credit: Kent Akselsen


Your novels and The Force Awakens both cover the post-Return of the Jedi years, but not exactly the same time span. What’s your take on how what is on screen now compares to what you created in Heir to the Empire?

I thought The Force Awakens harkened back too much to the original trilogy, especially to A New Hope. It tried to touch a lot of the original points, but it didn’t seem to me to cohere as well as the original movies had. J.J. Abrams is very good on visuals, but his sense of internal logic is not, I think, as good as some directors. I would have liked to see them take a new approach and not just, “Here’s another superweapon, here’s another charismatic or whatever villain.” And I mean, they had all of Legends to choose from, they have all the brilliance of people that they can hire themselves in Hollywood. I just thought it was a little too derivative. 

I am looking forward to seeing what happens when they continue on with Episodes 8 and 9, and seeing how Rogue One does. It seems to me that if Rogue One proves you can make gobs of money without dealing with the Skywalker family, the door is open to anything, including bringing more Legends back into canon. I personally would love to see a Thursday night X-wing TV series. 

I think every now and then they talk about a live action Star Wars series along the lines of Star Trek.

You’ve got the basics you can pull from Mike Stackpole and Aaron Allston’s books, or you can just take those as a jumping off spot. But I think Rogue One is going to be a crucial part of that. I’m hoping it’s a really good story.

Thrawn is now in the Rebels cartoon. You wrote him as a post-Jedi figure, but now he’s a pre-New Hope figure. So in the new continuity is he still alive after Return of the Jedi? What’s his lifespan?

He’s an alien, we don’t have to worry about that. Between Rebels and Heir to the Empire, it’s only about 15 years. It’s not that long. If Thrawn is a grand admiral at 40 or even 50, we’re talking 60s, and that’s not very old, even for human, let alone an unknown lifespan alien.

Especially if he’s the only one in the Empire with any brains, you want to keep him in play.

Well I hope they keep him around. Because I’d like to see it hook into and not overwrite the Thrawn Trilogy. My feeling in killing off characters is, you never kill off a character unless it’s absolutely vital for the storyline, and never when there’s a lot you could still do with the character. Thrawn is, I think, too useful a character to kill off. But that’s not my decision to make. I just hope they’ll leave him alive whenever his story arc in Rebels ends.

What other characters that you created would you like to see back in the Star Wars properties?

Obviously, Mara Jade is the other top fan favorite of my characters. It really doesn’t make a lot of sense to bring her into Rebels. She’s really too young in this era to be a commanding presence. I don’t know what they’re planning whenever they close down Rebels, I don’t know when that will be, but eventually they’ll bring it to a close. What they do next, what era, I don’t know. It might be something they could bring Mara into, maybe the second animated series down the road, or the third. I’m hoping we’ll have the ABC special event someday, the Thrawn Trilogy miniseries. 

So would she still be the Emperor’s Hand, or Luke Skywalker’s wife, or both?

Well, she is both. Again, Mara is a very useful character, which is why I hung onto her so long. You could do one with her as the Emperor's Hand. You could do one of her in between the movies and Thrawn Trilogy, where she’s on her own, she’s a rogue element trying to find her place in society. You could do something with her as Luke’s wife, if for some reason they have a falling out before Force Awakens. If Thrawn is well-received with the Star Wars Rebels audience, and if the book does well, I think that will be an indication that some of the Legends characters and storylines will be useful to us. At that point I think they’ll start taking a look at what’s there, what are the lumps of gold that we can mine? I’m hoping they do that, because there’s a lot of good stuff in the Legends. 

How do you feel about other authors taking your characters and doing other things with them?

We know when we go in that none of what we create is our property, it’s all owned by Lucasfilm, as it should be. It’s their property. You just get to the point where, okay, I have to give my character off to somebody else, I hope they do a good job with it. I still get people messaging on Facebook, “Will you put Mara Jade into Star Wars again?” I have no control over that. Or, “Why are you letting Disney deal with Thrawn?” I have no control over that! Most people understand how it works, but there’s still a perception out there that I have legal control, or moral, or ethical control. I’m honored when they offer to let me write some more backstory for Thrawn, but this is out of the goodness of their hearts, it’s nothing they ever have to do. 

Let’s talk about StarCraft: Evolution. What was your elevator pitch for this new novel? 

It’s coming after their last game, Legacy of the Void. The Protoss, the Zerg, and the Terrans are more or less at peace, and we’ve got a new situation cropping up, a planet that is odd. The Zerg are asking the Terrans to come intervene on their behalf with the Protoss. Which automatically sets up a, “What is going on here?” There are a few characters who make the transition from the game into the book, but most of the action and most of the development is characters I’ve invented. So the various leaders are the same coming out of the game, but I have a new set of heroes and heroines, the protagonists who will be carrying the bulk of the story. 



Did you ever play the StarCraft game?

My son did back in the nineties, when it first came out. I do not usually play computer games because I suck at them. If I find a game I’m good at, I know I will not get enough work done so I will try and avoid getting involved in that too much. So I had a little idea of what was going on. 

It’s interesting, somebody asked Mike Stackpole once, “Who would do a better story, a fan or a writer? Who would you hire?” And Mike said, “A writer.” Because you can teach the writer about the world, you can’t necessarily teach the fan how to write. In this case, that’s how it worked out. They came to me, I didn’t know that much about StarCraft but they were able to bring me into it. We fine tuned it enough where I have a much better feel for it now, so if they asked me to do a sequel, hint-hint, I would be up to speed with that. 

Star Wars is a universe with themes that come up again and again. Are there any themes parallel to that idea in StarCraft?

The themes are, to a large extent, about trust. Here’s a situation: We have fought each other, we’ve fought at each other’s side. The situation may be changing. Can we trust that we can make a solid peace together, or is this thing going to roll back somehow into war? Is the risk of war worth trying to get a peace set up? Can we understand each other? Can we make allowances for each other? In many ways it’s a very real-world scenario.

Are there any historical situations that you were thinking of?

Nothing specific. Just knowing how people are behaving, how politics works, how militaries work. I remember back at the end of the Gulf War when people are saying Iraq will never be our friend. And my point was, we don’t need Iraq to be our friend. We need them to be not our enemy. And that’s a lot of politics in the world. We don’t need everybody to like us, and vice versa. We just need to have an understanding where we won’t fight each other. Some of that is from the leaders’ point of view, particularly Emperor Valerian from the Terrans, of what am I risking? Am I risking total war, do I take a risk in trying something out because we’re still in bad shape from the last war? Here is the situation, what is my job as a leader? And the team, okay, this is my assignment. Are we missing something, is there something going on that we don’t understand? Are we screwing up? Are we getting what information our leaders need, trying to figure it out at the ground level. So you see it from the top level, and you see it from the grunt level.

That kind of compares to the game. As a player, you’re the top level, your characters are the ground level. Was that a conscious idea?

It’s just that the characters are mostly seeing what’s right in front of them. Soldiers see what’s affecting them, but when you pull back you’ve got a moment of respite, you can start seeing the bigger picture. Well, if we screw up, is there going to be a war? And we don’t want war anymore, ok, so we better not screw up. On the other hand, we don’t want to die either. And can I trust my companions here? We’ve been thrown together as a team. None of us really know each other. So all of the small team, thrown together, doesn’t really know what’s going on, doesn’t know the big picture, nobody trusts the other one. This is the kind of thing that makes a compelling drama, a compelling adventure. 

Are you writing more StarCraft novels?

I’ve not yet been asked to do any more, but if this book does well, they may come to me again. I’d be delighted now that I’ve got a better handle on the universe. There are some things I would pitch to them if they asked for another idea. 

How about the upcoming Thrawn novel, how far along is that?

The first draft is finished. I just finished talking to the editor about her comments and Del Rey’s comments. It has not gone past the story group or Lucasfilm yet. They’ve been backlogged with Rogue One stuff, understandably. 

Lucasfilm has always been good about being open to discussion. They’ve never, for me, drawn a line in the sand and said, “Don’t cross this, not for any reason other than we are Lucasfilm and you’re not.” It’s always been, “We don’t think you should do this.” But if I can show them why it needs to be done for the book and why it doesn’t conflict with anything they’ve done, they’ve often said, “OK, we understand, now go ahead.” Or, “We’re okay with this, can we tweak this part a bit?” This is the reason I’m on my eleventh Star Wars book and not finished with three. Because if they’d been a bear to work with I wouldn’t have come back. Not worth the hassle. I think I’ve got a reputation in the field about being reasonable. I don’t draw lines in the sand either.

Did you ever speak directly with George Lucas?

I talked to him very briefly once many years ago for about 15 or 20 minutes. 

Had he read your books?

I don’t think he ever read the novels. But my trilogy was adapted into comics, and I’d heard he does read comics. It’s a visual medium. He’s a visual medium guy, movies and such. I can only assume that’s where he picked up the catching the force lightning on a lightsaber blade [in Revenge of the Sith]. Because I’d written that into Dark Force Rising. And I’m sure he pulled it from that, but probably from the Dark Horse adaptation. So I thought it was a cool idea and it would make a cool visual, and by golly it does. I don’t know what he thought about the books in general. They let me publish the novels, and they’re still printing them, and they’re still selling.