The time was summer,
1991. The Gulf War had just ended, Arsenio Hall ruled late nights, Silence of the Lambs
racked up Oscar gold, Nirvana was about to unleash grunge on the world, and Star
Dead and forgotten, that is, until its life essence was suddenly rekindled and blasted into the stratosphere of popular culture once again with the release of a single book.
It appeared on store shelves innocently enough in that
fateful summer with little fanfare to speak of, but once word got out about its
breathtaking pacing, well-written characters, intense drama, and blazing action, Timothy
Zahns Heir To the Empire quickly became an enormous wake-up call to the Star
Wars-starved masses to rise from their 6 year slumber and usher in a new era for George
Lucas beloved space saga. Heir to the Empire debuted in the top ten on the
New York Times bestseller list and remained cemented there for over 29 straight weeks.
With Heir and its follow-ups, Dark Force Rising and The Last
Command, Hugo-award winning author Timothy Zahn opened the floodgates and blazed the
trail for the countless numbers of Star Wars novels, role playing games, sourcebooks,
comics, video games, CD-ROMs, action figures, t-shirts and mountains of other merchandise
that line retail shelves. Two of Zahns characters, the brilliant Imperial tactician
Grand Admiral Thrawn, and the beautiful, fiery-tempered, Force-user Mara Jade have
entrenched themselves firmly in the Star Wars universe, just as easily recognized as Han
Solo or Darth Vader. Heir to The Empire is a true milestone in the dizzying
evolution of the Star Wars phenomenon, an important first step that led to George Lucas
announcing that he indeed would be continuing the Star Wars saga with a new trilogy of
films that would tell the tale of Anakin Skywalkers fall to the dark side of the
TZ: Though I appreciate your praise, I hardly consider myself to be the "savior" of Star Wars in any respect. I didnt revive Star Wars so much as I simply tapped into the interest that was already simmering below the surface. The fact that the first 60,000 copy printing vanished within a week shows that it wasnt the quality of writing that people were first buying, but the name "Star Wars" on the cover. Id like to think that the quality helped the sales later on, but the fact remains that the audience was hungry for anything that dealt with Star Wars. Of course, once that hunger was demonstrated, Lucasfilm could feel confident in branching out into the other aspects of the recent Star Wars renaissance.
ES: Back when you were writing the first novel, did you ever question what you were doing? Did you ever stop and say to yourself "Why am I doing this? No one likes Star Wars anymore, who is going to read this book?
TZ: You bet I wondered about the project at times. No one had any idea how well this was going to do out in the marketplace; certainly the initial book stores reaction and orders indicated it would be only a mild success. More worrisome to me than sales, though, was the question of whether I could capture the characters and the atmosphere of the Star Wars movies well enough to properly create a new chapter of the saga. If I couldnt do that, the whole project would end up being a waste of everyones time.
ES: Going back to the virtual endless supply of Star Wars novels and merchandise, do you feel Star Wars has become over-exposed or cheapened in any way? Has the "magic" of Star Wars been tainted by this mass-market strategy?
TZ: I cant really judge whether all the Star Wars merchandise has "cheapened" the magic of the universe. I do feel that the book market may have been a bit over-saturated by the number novels that have come out. But of course Im arguing from hindsight, which is always easier than making the proper decision up front.
ES: Tim, take us through the process you use when you begin a new novel. Do you do anything unusual to prepare? Do you have any superstitions or any special music you might listen to?
TZ: My novel preparation is usually pretty prosaic. I start with an idea, which I work at in my mind for awhile until I have enough of it to start an outline. I work up a fairly complete outline, including all the major plot points and twists, as well as any minor points that I come up with that dont want to forget once I start writing. Along the way, I make up a list of major characters and start defining their personalities in my mind. Sometimes Ill pick a sort of "theme" music to listen to while I outline to get myself in the right mood; more often, I just listen to whatever strikes my fancy at the moment. When the outline is finished, I submit it to my publisher (or my agent, if were between publishers), and start on the novel itself.
ES: Youve written a couple of comic book miniseries recently (1996s Starlord for Marvel and Mara Jade: By the Emperors Hand for Dark Horse) what was that experience like? Will you consider doing more comic work?
TZ: I would certainly like to do more comic book work. Comics are an interesting hybrid form, where I get to define an image that will be physically seen, as opposed to painting a mental picture that the reader has to then recreate in his/her own mind. As a matter of fact, Mike Stackpole and I are planning to pitch another 6-parter to Dark Horse early next year, a story about Baron Fel and Grand Admiral Thrawn in the Unknown Regions. Ive also got another 3-part Starlord script at Marvel thats been accepted (and paid for) but is currently on the shelf there. Ive got my fingers crossed on both projects.
ES: What is your opinion of the Thrawn-trilogy comic adaptations done by Dark Horse? Was it a surreal experience seeing what you wrote so long ago realized visually on the comic page?
TZ: I generally liked the Dark Horse adaptations of the Thrawn Trilogy. The text, in particular, seemed quite faithful to the books, though I did have some problems with the artwork. (Side note: this is why many art directors forbid the cover artist to even TALK to the novelist. Art almost never precisely hits the authors visualizations, and we authors can be such nuisances to work with.
ES: Two of your creations, Mara Jade and Grand Admiral Thrawn, have become so popular and entrenched in the Star Wars mythos, that youd think they had been around since the inception. They appear alongside Luke, Han, and Leia in CD-ROMs, video games, and even action figures. Characters from subsequent novels have not been as enduring. What do you attribute their success to?
TZ: Its always difficult to ascertain why one character is popular with readers and another isnt, and even harder for their creator to make such an evaluation. (Were a little too close to see things objectively.) A good basic assumption, though, is that any popular character has managed to hit some kind of emotional resonance with the readers. In the case of Mara, shes a strong female character (which were few and far between in the Star Wars movies), but shes also flawed and searching anddare we say it?human. At the same time, shes highly competent at her job. One simplistic answer might be that women can identify with her, while men would like to have her at their side in trouble. AS to Thrawn, hes a highly competent villain whose chief danger to the good guy is his competence and the fact that he can inspire loyalty and trust in his people. In addition, even though hes on the enemys side, he has a sense of honor and the recognition of a commanders duty toward his men.
ES: Most fans of yours know that originally, you intended to make Joruus Cbaoth an insane clone of Obi-Wan Kenobi, and that you wanted Darth Vaders mask to be a representation of a Noghri face, but Lucasfilm put the kibosh on the ideas. Can you share any other radical plans that Lucasfilm wouldnt allow you to carry out in the novels?
TZ: Actually, there were very few things that I wanted to do in the books that LFL vetoed, and virtually all of them were quite minor. I like to think that such freedom of movement was at least partially due to my vision of Star Wars being very close to theirs.