Shaunís Quadrant—March 2006
Shaun Farrell Interviews Timothy Zahn

Ed. Note: Shaun offers us two entirely separate interviews this month, one with Timothy Zahn and the other with Martha Wells.

Timothy Zahn's Star Wars novel Outbound FlightTimothy Zahn is a Hugo Award winner and the author of more than twenty books, including the Thrawn trilogy that started the Star Wars book craze in the early 90ís. Some of Timís other books include Mantaís Gift, Night Train to Rigel, and the Conquerors books. Timís trademark style combines smart dialogue and complicated plots, generating books that are intelligent and difficult to put down. In the following phone interview, Tim discusses his new Star Wars novel, Outbound Flight, as well as revealing a few other tidbits concerning upcoming projects.


Shaun Farrell: Tim, letís start out by talking about Outbound Flight, your new Star Wars book. Now all of your Star Wars books are somehow tied in with Thrawn or the Chiss Assendancy.

Tim Zahn: Well, all the stories are part of a subset of history within the Star Wars universe, where you have some of the same characters and plot threads weaving in and out. Thrawn is certainly a major part, but so is Mara Jade. Jorj Carídas had become more of a major character than I realized he was going to be at first. Plus interacting, of course, with the movie characters as well.

SF: Was Jorj Carídas part of your original trilogy?

TZ: No. He showed up in the Hand of Thrawn duology: Specter of the Past and Vision of the Future.

SF: Okay, I knew I recognized his name, but I was flipping through the first three books and I couldnít find him in there.

TZ: He was Talon Karradeís old boss. You may remember in Specter and Vision that Karrade went out looking for him hoping he would have a copy of the Caamas document they could use to defuse the possible civil war brewing over the Bothan betrayal of Caamas.

SF: So, really, each one of your books is a volume in one story, and Iím wondering, how much of this story did you know back when you first started writing Heir to the Empire?

TZ: I knew the story of the first three books and that was really it. Everything after that was filling in the map that I started creating with those three books.

SF: So it all developed naturally from that point on?

TZ: It developed naturally, and there were some unanswered questions that occurred to me. For example, how did Talon Karrade get such a good size organization? Specter and Vision hinted at that, and Outbound Flight gives a little more of that answer. So, things that were not major dangling plot points but are still something that would be nice to explain a little bit get woven into later books mostly as I think about them.

SF: It seems that youíre sort of in a unique position as a Star Wars author in having your own little niche like this. Iím wondering if you can explain to us the negotiation process you go through with the editors as you are developing your stories.

TZ: Basically itís like having a two-headed editor. I have my editor at Del Rey, before that Bantam, and the person at Lucasfilm whoís in charge of overseeing the books and comics and everything else. So I have to come up with an outline that will please both of them—Lucasfilm having final say and final veto on anything they donít like. In general, for me at least, itís been more of a negotiating thing than a confrontation. If there is something they donít like that I feel needs to be in the story, I will write up a list of reasons of why I think it needs to be there, rather than just pounding my fist. I explain it logically in the context of the overall story. Then, when they see more of what Iím planning to do, either they ask for some more changes, or they accept it as is, or else weíll work out some other compromise. But itís been mostly negotiation/compromise rather than flat out, ďYou canít do this.Ē Thatís one of the reasons Iíve written so many books for them, because they are very easy to work with.

SF: I want to ask you a couple of questions about Thrawn, because heís my favorite villain in the Star Wars universe—if you can call him a villain. But weíll get to that.

TZ: One of the reviewers on Amazon, I noted, thought him more as a tragic hero. Heís a villain in the sense he was going up against the good guys, but I donít see him a villain as much as an antagonist.

SF: Especially in Outbound Flight. You really get behind his mentality and how he became the person we see in Heir to the Empire and Dark Force Rising. Were you concerned that you might make him a little too sympathetic to the readers?

TZ: I donít think so. Heís fighting in the Thrawn trilogy to re-establish the Empire for his own reasons, which we see a little bit more of in Outbound Flight. But the fact is that our heroes are committed to the New Republic, not a resurgence of the Empire. So, they are going to fight him regardless. Yeah, I donít think it hurts for the reader to understand him. I think any villain is a better drawn character if the reader has some idea of why he or she is doing what he or she is doing. I mean, Hitler never woke up in the morning and said, ďI think Iíll be evil today.Ē He had all of his reasons, twisted as they were, to do everything he did. And I donít think Thrawnís reasons are that twisted, but heís got them.

SF: One of the things that fascinates me about Thrawn is his love for art and how he uses art to dissect a culture, so to speak.

TZ: Yeah, I donít really know where that idea came from. As I was fleshing out the character, somehow that occurred to me. Itís sort of a semi-mystical thing not unlike Jedi abilities that nobody else really understands, but it clearly works for him. Itís added a little oddness to the character. And oddness is always good too.

SF: You connect Outbound Flight to a lot of events in Star Wars, from the fall of Anakin Skywalker to the Vong invasion. It really sets the stage for so much of what happens in the Star Wars universe.

TZ: Yeah, Iím very pleased that Lucasfilm allowed me to do that. I think it gives a little more motivation to the Emperor, besides the fact that he wants to destroy the Jedi. Youíre left with the question of, was that what the Death Star was really intended for? The Vong invasion? A lot of things that certainly werenít in Georgeís mind originally and would probably be denied if we ever actually asked, but there are some hints that Palpatine had maybe a little more depth than the movies show.

SF: That was a really fun tidbit for me as a person whoís read a lot of Star Wars books—to see that premonition of the Vong invasion and adding that to Palpatineís motivation.

TZ: Fortunately, it wasnít just my book that mentioned that. One of the prequel books, Iím not sure which one, talked about the disappearance of Vergere (being) tied to the Vong. So I had precedent. We have hints of something massing out there at the edge. It helped tie those premonitions, the other hints, everything together. It also gives Thrawn a good motivation in becoming an Imperial. It gives him the chance to come to the Empire, work with Palpatine, gain as much military hardware as he can so he can take it back out to start building a defense for his people.

SF: When did you decide to include Anakin and Obi-wan Kenobi in Outbound Flight?

TZ: That was there from the beginning. That wasnít something (Lucasfilm) insisted on, or anything like that. There are a couple of different reasons. One, I wanted to put familiar characters in there for people who might be starting Star Wars books for the first time so they wouldnít be completely lost. Secondly, having them there help to anchor it in the proper era. Anakinís fourteen; that puts it four years in front of the Clone Wars. And I also wanted to show Anakin one more strong figure who becomes (a dictator) in Cíbaoth. When (Anakinís) talking to Padme in Attack of the Clones he (says) that someone ought to tell the people what to do and make them do it. Clearly heís thinking about Palpatine, but I didnít think it would hurt to have one more role model to point to in Cíbaoth. See, Palpatine and Cíbaoth both can get things done. Why canít we do this better? I think I also have Obi-wan mentioning that it would be nice to have a tracker on Anakin, which may or may not be the tracker he used to locate him on Tatooine.

SF: Weíre used to seeing Anakin and Obi-wan in the spotlight, but theyíre used more as supporting characters in Outbound Flight.

TZ: Thatís one of the other reasons I forgot to mention that I put them in there. I wanted to see a little bit of Cíbaoth from the Jedi point of view, namely Obi-wan and Mace Windu. Having conversations between them shows a bit of the vacillation the whole Jedi leadership has gone into thatís bringing them down. The calcification, the uncertainty—theyíve lost their way, and this was a way to help show that.

SF: It seems to me that one of the greatest tragedies about Outbound Flight is the fact that Obi-wan must leave the ship at the last second. If there was one character who seemed on the verge of stopping Cíbaoth before he fell into the dark side, it was Obi-wan.

TZ: Well, obviously, (Anakin and Obi-wan) canít stay aboard because theyíll die. Weíre starting to get some of the other Jedi to stand up against Cíbaoth right there at the end. Lorana was thinking about it. She needed someone else to support her. And frankly, I think Cíbaoth has some good arguments. If you look at it from a purely logical standpoint, why shouldnít the Jedi, with their ability and wisdom, take over? The problem is itís a trap, because this isnít why they have the power. But it looks good on paper which is why itís hard to argue against. You saw Obi-wan trying to argue against it and having to fall back on, ďWell, itís wrong,Ē and Cíbaoth refusing to accept that. So I donít think itís unreasonable that the other Jedi didnít stand against him. Besides, he had the reputation and they didnít. But, youíre right; if Obi-wan had been there as a focal point to rally around, itís very possible they could have up ceded (Cíbaoth) from his position and turned back around.

Thatís one of those things when I started writing it, the way I hinted at it, Thrawn just cold-bloodedly destroyed the ship. Whereas now that you see it he gave them every opportunity and it was only when he couldnít keep them from stirring up the Vong too soon that he fought back.

SF: Itís really Cíbaoth who destroys Outbound Flight, not Thrawn.

TZ: Very much so. One of the things I remember discussing with Lucasfilm was the irony of the people aboard Outbound Flight mostly wanting him gone. Or a large percentage of them want Cíbaoth gone, but he is the one who takes them into their own destruction.

SF: When you were writing Heir to the Empire did you have any idea that it would spawn such a massive novel franchise?

TZ: Nobody did at the beginning because nobody knew if anyone even cared about Star Wars anymore. Remember, this was 1991. The last movie was in 1983. There was no way of knowing because there was nothing out there for the Star Wars fans to grab onto. There were the Han Solo and Lando Calrissian books, there were the novelizations, there were a few assorted toys, but you couldnít see anything. It was like a pie crust covering all the steam, and what Heir to the Empire did was stick a fork in it and show how much steam there really was underneath. Once everyone knew that, yes, Star Wars fandom still does exist and theyíre eager and hungry for more Star Wars, then it was inevitable that Bantam, and later Del Rey, would work out deals for more Star Wars books. But at the time nobody knew except Lou Aronica who had started the whole project. He was convinced it was a license for Bantam to print money, but he was pretty much alone. Everyone else was like, ďOkay weíll try it because Lou is backing it.Ē But, nobody really knew.

SF: Are there more Thrawn stories you want to tell?

TZ: There are one or two I would be willing to be talked into writing. Itís getting harder and harder to find anything new to do in Star Wars because there are so many writers working the field. But there are a couple of ideas I have if and when Lucasfilm asks me to do another one. Itís an invitation only sort of universe, and, you know, Iíll be polite and Iíll wait to be asked. If they donít, my eight books will stand okay. (SQ note: Timís eighth Star Wars novel, Allegiance, is forthcoming in 2007)

SF: You dedicate Outbound Flight to Michael A. Stackpole. Is it possible that weíll ever see collaboration between the two of you?

TZ: Well, we did at least two.

SF: Well, you did the short stories.

TZ: Kind of tag-teamed short stories. We have one more in mind. Weíve kind of offered it to Star Wars: Insider and they havenít gotten back to us. It was originally designed as a six-part comic book, but Dark Horse wasnít interested. As far as a true collaboration, probably not. I think Mike and I are probably both enough control freaks with our stuff to want to keep control over it. But if somebody like Insider was interested in another four-parter Iím sure weíd be happy to whip something up. Those are always fun to do.

SF: I want to talk about some of the other things you have coming up this year because it looks like a very busy year for you.

TZ: You know Iím getting three new books this year plus a couple of reprints coming out.

SF: Yes, Blackcollar was just republished in an omnibus that combines Blackcollar and Blackcollar: The Backlash Mission.

TZ: Those were done in Ď83 and Ď86, and I always planned to do a third, but I got side-tracked by other projects. As time goes by itís harder and harder to resell out-of-print books plus a new one to somebody else. I thought periodically about trying to find a publisher who would be interested, but I always thought it would be too much of an uphill climb. Then a couple of years ago, after Baen books bought the rights to the Cobra books and reprinted that, they asked for the Blackcollar rights. I told my agent we canít sell them just the two books that arenít finished. Would they be interested in the two reprints plus a new one? And they were, so they went ahead and bought it. I wrote it, and it comes out in June. Itís called The Judas Solution.

SF: Now, the Blackcollar books have remained fan favorites of yours if I remember correctly.

TZ: I donít know how favorite theyíve been, but every convention of the last few years Iíve gotten at least one or two questions about the third Blackcollar. Certainly the interest hasnít died away. It will be interesting to see what kind of reception the third book gets.

SF: Can you give us any hints about The Judas Solution?

TZ: Uh, it finishes the series—(long pause)

SF: (Laughing)

TZ:—in a way I think people will be interested in. I had the basics in mind when I stopped writing the series. As I said, I just never got around to writing it.

SF: Dragon and Herdsman is also being published in May.

TZ: Thatís the fourth book of my young adult series: The Dragonback Series—which will end with book six, by the way. It is not a never-ending series. Itís already planned. The whole thing was plotted out from the beginning. After that Iím pitching another YA series to TOR, and they seem interested, but they havenít made an offer yet.

SF: What got you interested in writing books for young readers?

TZ: Well, my sister is a librarian in California. We were visiting her at Christmas several years and she suggested that since Harry Potter had proved to the publishers what the librarians and teachers already knew, that there was a young adult market for science fiction and fantasy, I should do a young adult series. At the time the Dragonback idea had been bouncing around. We tried to sell it to DC Comics. They were interested but they wanted all the rights, and I had just actually worked out a single book outline for the whole story. At this time, Jack was a 35 year old conman on the run, and when my sister made the suggestion a light bulb went off: you know, if I drop Jack down to fourteen and do a few little tweakings, this will be perfect as a YA. And it worked out very well. Iím glad she made that suggestion, because I think it works a lot better as a YA than what I was envisioning before.

SF: What kind of feedback have you been getting from young readers?

TZ: Itís been pretty popular. I think the interest is growing. TOR is sending me to a couple of places this year to promote it. The first book made the list as a best book for young adults, American Library Association, which doesnít hurt. One of the reasons TOR is interested in other YA series is because Dragonback has been doing as well, or better, than anybody expected. It could still use a little more popularity. I wouldnít mind if it got somewhere within spitting distance of the Harry Potter books—spitting distance being half of one percent of their sales. The good thing about this, as with Harry Potter, is that adults can enjoy it, too. It pitched at multiple age levels.

SF: I think the young readers are much more intelligent than some people give them credit for. They can handle mature text.

TZ: Thatís absolutely true. I shortened the books a little bit and watched my vocabulary so Iím not getting too esoteric, but thatís about all I had to do to change from adult to YA. I was writing PG books anyway. There was no problem with cleaning up language or graphicness anywhere. I think part of the reason the adults like it is you essentially have your boy, Jack, at 14, and your adult, Draycos. So there is a person both adults and kids can identify with in the partnership.

SF: Tim, what authors have inspired you the most?

TZ: I used to read science fiction all the time, from the first time I was ever able to read. I read everything from Poul Anderson to Roger Zelazny and everything in between. I can say that when I started writing I picked four writers that I wanted to be as good as. One was Larry Niven, for hard science; second was Theodore Sturgeon, for character development; third was Keith Laumer, for twist plots and dialogue; and the fourth was the thriller writer Alistair MacLean, who did Where Eagles Dare and Guns of Navarone and a lot of other thrillers, again for twisty parts, tension building, suspense building, sardonic, hardboiled character voices. That sort of thing. But as I say, everybody else Iíve read has worked their way into my conscious and subconscious and probably comes out somewhere in my style.

SF: Once you complete your book tour, what will you be working on next?

TZ: Well, I have a short story Iím almost done with which was commissioned for an anthology called Pandoraís Closet. The premise is the various mythical and magical items throughout story and myth that are wearable. For example, what if the magicianís hat you can pull anything out of really exists? After that Iím starting Dragon and Judge, the fifth book (in the Dragonback series), and after that my editor liked Night Train to Rigel enough that weíre going to make a series out of it. So, Iíll be starting the next quadrail book.

SF: Any plans on how far that could go?

TZ: Iíve got outlines for two more books and probably at least two or three more envisions depending on how far we want to take this thing. Thereís a lot of stuff I can do in that universe. I only looked at a quarter of it and there are some twists Iíve come up with. My son read it and really enjoyed it, so weíve been batting some ideas back and forth as well. Heís suddenly taken a liking to my writing, which is kind of cool.

SF: If you could collaborate on a novel with anyone, who would it be?

TZ: Actually, I donít think I would do well with a collaborator. Letís see, who would be good to collaborate with? Well, anyone like Oprah or Donald Trump who could supply the money and not do any of the work. No, Iím happy writing by myself.

SF: Do you want to write any books outside the field of speculative fiction, and if so, what kind?

TZ: Not really. Well, I would like to write a thriller, but I canít quite get a handle on anything my agent thinks will work. I did write one once. I apparently broke some of the rules of the genre. Iíve thought on occasion of trying to revamp that, but that would take three to four months that I donít have at the moment.

SF: Tim, is there anything else you would our readers at Far Sector SFFH to know?

TZ: No, I think weíve covered pretty much everything.

SF: Well, thanks for taking the time to chat with us.

TZ: No problem. Thanks for having me.


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Copyright © 2006 by Shaun Farrell. All Rights Reserved.