It’s been 30 years since the original Star Wars trilogy wrapped up with the release of Return of the Jedi in 1983- that’s before I was even born. But recently I was able to speak with the man whose universe so enthralled me that I eventually became a huge fan of the franchise and I don’t mean George Lucas. Other Star Wars fans probably know who I’m talking about: Timothy Zahn.
In 1991 the first of a trilogy of Star Wars novels was published- set five years after the Return of the Jedi film, the Thrawn Trilogy: Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command became New York Times bestsellers and, combined, have sold over 15 million copies.
This was before the internet or the popularization of conventions like Pensacon and, Timothy Zahn shares, they didn’t even know if the novels would be successful.
“Nobody knew whether these books were even gonna sell. I remember sitting around one day trying to figure out how many libraries there are in the U.S.- and if they all buy two copies how many can we sell? Can we earn out this book? And as we now know Star Wars fans were simmering there below the surface and just boiled up as soon as there was something to grab onto. And they’ve been going strong ever since.”
Zahn took a universe circumscribed by three films and made it feel truly vast with a cast of new characters and places- new villains and some unlikely new heroes. If you’re not already you might be confused even by the idea of the Star Wars expanded universe- that is, the universe beyond the films made of comic books, video and role playing games, and yes novels: several hundred novels. And although Zahn has written just ten of those novels it is safe to say that many fans revere him second only to George Lucas. Probably because he took an exciting universe and then, as he says, intentionally went in a different direction.
“When I was first asked to write these books, or offered the original Thrawn Trilogy, part of my goal was to make a story that was not was George Lucas had already done but what felt like Star Wars. Part of that was coming up with a new type of villain. And I thought a villain who can inspire loyalty is far more dangerous because even when he’s not in the room his people will fight and die for him.”
For Zahn it was important that the villains be more nuanced, the heroes more subtle and the interplay between the two complex. His original characters bring out dimensions of the universe that just aren’t covered in the film “canon” of Star Wars. Probably the best representative of this idea is my favorite character: Mara Jade.
He explains, “Not only is her character somewhat morally ambiguous what she believes has been designed to be morally ambiguous. It makes for a complex and interesting character. If you start from the premise that the Empire is good and it just needs this stuff rooted out- what she’s been carefully trained to believe- then she is on the side of right and justice. She has never through that time believed she was part of an evil Empire.”
Timothy Zahn is a convention veteran. As we gear up for a weekend when downtown Pensacola will be transformed into a playground for zombies, wizards, Jedi, and superheroes I had to round it out by hearing what it’s like to see people dressed as his characters and celebrating his work.
“I’m just impressed at how good, how excited, how clearly interested and excited the cosplayers are and it’s an immense kick for me to see one of my characters walking around. Whenever I see one, somebody in that, in one of the costumes I will always go up and get my picture taken."
And what should we expect from Pensacon?
“Expect a lot of fun, a lot of guests, there should be interesting panels, a lot of actors, writers, comic book people. IT’s a great palce to meet some of your favorite genre types, have a chance to chat, buy a picture, you get a book autographed, as questions at panels. Just basically a lot of fun hanging out with people who like the same sort of stuff that you do. It’s surrealistic on some level.”
On how he would "end" the Star Wars saga:
“My take is you don’t have to kill them [Luke, Leia, Han] off you can go the Sherlock Holmes route. He just retired and went off beekeeping. So you can take them offstage without having them die on camera, as it were. That’s how I would do it….in fact that’s how I hope the movies do it... I would go on to the next generation with our heroes still alive and kicking, maybe semi-retired.”
Advice for films 7, 8, 9:
“Look at the classic trilogy. See what qualities made those survive and be watched over and over again 30 years later. Don’t copy those but look for the elements. The heroism, the love, the friendship, the sacrifice, the camaraderie, the humor- you have to have humor to really relate to a character. Take those elements, make some characters we can all relate to, throw in a bunch of cool space battles, and lightsabers, and go for it!”
On giving up a PhD in Physics to become a full-time writer:
“I discovered that I couldn’t work on a project and write at the same time… I like to think the fields of both physics and writing have both benefitted from that decision.”
On whose autograph he'll be seeking at Pensacon:
“Mike Baron is the writer who back in the early 90s, Dark Horse comics did an adaptation of the Thrawn Trilogy and Mike Baron is the guy who kind of boiled down a novel into a six part comic. I’m looking forward to saying hi to him and getting some autographs on MY copies of the comics.”