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‘Star Wars’ author Timothy Zahn offers advice for making peace with the new galactic canon

Zahn, one of the franchise's best-known authors, is a font of publishing wisdom.


Eric Geller

Internet Culture

Posted on Jun 7, 2016   Updated on May 26, 2021, 3:58 pm CDT

Timothy Zahn is the godfather of Star Wars literature.

Zahn’s debut Star Wars novel, Heir to the Empire, famously showed Lucasfilm executives that there was still interest in the galaxy far, far away when it debuted in 1991 and quickly reached the New York Times Best Seller List.

The book told the story of a reclusive and brilliant Imperial grand admiral named Thrawn who reemerged five years after the events of Return of the Jedi to lead a broken Empire. Many of its original characters, including Thrawn and the former elite Imperial agent Mara Jade, became fan favorites. (Jade would eventually marry Luke Skywalker.) Fans loved Heir so much that Random House re-released it as a 20th-anniversary edition in 2011 with commentary by Zahn and his editor.

Then, in 2014, in preparation for The Force Awakens and a new era of storytelling, Lucasfilm swept away Thrawn, Jade, and every other piece of what had become known as the Star Wars Expanded Universe, a sprawling and sometimes contradictory mythos of ambiguously canonical books, comics, and video games. It rebranded the EU as “Legends,” officially pronouncing it non-canon. Some of the EU’s diehard fans erupted in anger at the decision and have not settled down since.

Zahn, revered among many Star Wars fans as one of the EU’s best authors, quickly made peace with the decision. As a prolific writer of tie-in fiction, he understood that he was playing in someone else’s sandbox. But despite his books being rendered non-canon, his contributions to Star Wars cast a long shadow; fans of Heir and his other EU work still mob him at conventions to this day. There is speculation that the Disney animated series Star Wars Rebels will introduce Thrawn next season.

The Daily Dot sat down with Zahn at Awesome Con in Washington, D.C., on Friday, picking his brain about that Rebels rumor, how he counsels disappointed EU fans, and what he thinks of the state of Star Wars publishing.

I want to start by asking you about the TV show Star Wars Rebels. There’s been a report about Grand Admiral Thrawn appearing in the third season, and executive producer Dave Filoni recently hinted that an Expanded Universe character will appear in the show. I won’t ask you if you know anything, but what do you think of the possibility of Thrawn making this jump over into canon?

I think that the whole, original idea of calling these [stories] Legends makes it easy for [Lucasfilm] to bring Expanded Universe characters or planets or anything else back into canon. I’ve heard the rumor. I did not see any follow-up from Lucasfilm saying yes or no. I would love to believe it, but I don’t trust anything I hear that’s not officially [from Lucasfilm].

But I know Dave Filoni’s familiar with my work. He put the Marg Sabl maneuver into one of the early Clone Wars episodes. And I’ve chatted with him on occasion. So they’re aware of me. They’re aware of the Expanded Universe.

With people like [continuity experts] Leland Chee and Pablo Hidalgo, who have encyclopedic knowledge of the Expanded Universe, I’m sure they’re going to be picking and choosing little bits from the Expanded Universe for a long time. And there’s a lot of good stuff in there. They just have to be careful it’s not going to run into something that the movie people or the TV people or the game people want to do, which is the whole idea of [the Lucasfilm] Story Group in the first place.

The Legends setup makes it easy for them to bring things in and out, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they do. I know Rebels has been renewed for a third season. The realities of animated shows probably means they’re working on season 4 already. And I’ve enjoyed the series; I’ve liked what they’ve done. So I’m very pleased. We’ll see what happens as to whether Thrawn makes an appearance. That’d be cool! But we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.

If Thrawn does become canon someday, would you like to see Lucasfilm hew closely to the character you created—with elements such as his ability to learn an enemy’s battle tactics by analyzing their art—or would you prefer to see a different kind of Thrawn based on the same basic premise?

Again, they have 100 percent control over this. That being said, I’ve never understood why people, in any area, would take something and then change it. This bothered me with the reboot of Battlestar Galactica. Why are you taking the name and then rewriting the whole thing? Why not just create your own new thing?

So, I’d obviously like to see Thrawn as I created him. If they change him too much … or any of my other characters, I’m not sure I’d see the point of why they call it that character in the first place. But again, it’s all owned by them. They get to do what they want to. So, we’ll see what happens. And again, I haven’t heard anything official from [Lucasfilm] about whether that rumor is even right.

You know, everyone talks about Mara Jade and Thrawn, but if you could pick another one of your original characters to canonize, who would it be and how would you like to see them used?

Another character—the obvious one would be [smuggler] Talon Karrde. Actually, though, what I would like to see—and I thought about doing a trilogy before [the] Legends [changeover] was done—I’ve forgotten her name, but the young woman in Outbound Flight who becomes very close to Thrawn. I had an idea where she would eventually work with the Rebel Alliance using some of Thrawn’s techniques and details and such. That will never come to pass now. But I would like to see—she has some good possibilities. Bringing her back would be interesting.

Timothy Zahn speaks during a June 4 Q&A at Awesome Con in Washington, D.C.

Timothy Zahn speaks during a June 4 Q&A at Awesome Con in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Eric Geller

You’ve spoken before about the necessity of declaring the EU non-canon, but I wonder what you make of the continued resistance to that decision: the renting of a billboard near Lucasfilm, the #GiveUsLegends hashtag. Have you been surprised by the level of commitment to a cause that seems completely futile?

I mean, I’m very flattered that they consider the Expanded Universe so close to their hearts and such, but yeah, I mean, they’re not going to affect what Lucasfilm is doing. I’m sorry to see people spend that much emotional energy on something that—well, it’s books, it’s stories.

And [that’s] not to put them down—I mean, I look at sports fans with the same bemusement of, “You’re getting worked up over a bunch of people who play in your city but come from all over the country or the world and are only there ‘cause they’re being paid the most, or something?”

I can understand the feeling of camaraderie, the feeling of, “This is our people, this is our organization, these are our books.” But at some point, you just have to take a deep breath and [say], “OK, that is over. We accept it. We go on. We’ve got the books.” J.J. Abrams [and Lucasfilm president] Kathleen Kennedy are not going to come to your house and take your books away. And it was a lot of fun while it lasted, and again … they could bring new stuff from Legends into canon tomorrow, if they wanted to, and we would never know until we saw it in a movie or a TV show or a game or something.

So, it’s not gone. It’s kind of in storage. Think of the Expanded Universe [as if] it’s been frozen in carbonite for the moment. But, you know, Leia could come along at any moment and unfreeze something.

I appreciate the fan loyalty, but, as you say, they’re not going to influence what Disney does or [what] Lucasfilm does, and … again, I don’t want to be insulting or anything. … It’s hard to find the words for this one.

I watched you give a version of this answer to a young fan who came over to your booth before we sat down. How do you approach being the foremost representative of the previous era of Star Wars literary storytelling?

I try to do what you just said: point out that it’s not dead, it’s not gone away, they’re actively selling new versions—we spent three weeks in Brazil last year because they had just finished bringing the Thrawn trilogy out in a new Portuguese translation, with really cool covers. And they wanted me to do some conventions and some bookstore signings and such. So, yes, everybody knows that’s Legends, but people are still excited about the books and about the stories, and that goes for a lot of the [broader] Expanded Universe as well.

We still have that. We just don’t have it as official [canon]—except it never really was official, in the sense that it was [set] in stone. It was always something [George] Lucas could override at any time. And in fact, everybody who had written stuff about Boba Fett watched that backstory get demolished in the prequel trilogy. So [a reboot] was something that was always a possibility.

I try to calm people down: ‘It’s not the end. Some of your favorite characters, some of your favorite scenes, could come back at any time. We don’t know. Calm down, relax. I appreciate your loyalty and your passion. But really, relax. It’s OK. It’ll be OK.’

It seems like Lucasfilm is moving away from Expanded Universe authors in favor of people who are newer to the franchise. What do you think of that decision?

I don’t know what their logic is in wanting new writers. I mean, Del Rey did some of the same thing when they took over the [Star Wars publishing license from Bantam in 1999]. A lot of the Bantam writers were out. Now, whether they were just not invited or whether they weren’t interested, I don’t know. But a new crop of writers, to a large extent, popped out.

I was one of the few holdovers. Aaron Allston and I continued [with Del Rey]. But not too many others [did]. And we’re seeing the same thing happen now with the new canon.

I’d be, certainly, interested in writing more if they wanted me to, but that’s their decision. I’m not the type that goes knocking on people’s doors or inundating [them] with Twitter [messages or] emails saying, ‘Hey, let me write Star Wars!’ I prefer to be asked. And that, so far, has worked well for me, in this and other things. I was invited to do a StarCraft novel. I’ve finished that. That comes out in November. But again, I would not dream of going to Blizzard and saying, ‘Can I write a StarCraft book?’ But they said, ‘We’ve got a story we’d like told, [here are] the basics, help us develop it, and then write the book.’ [I said,] ‘Sure, that sounds great.’

If something happens with Lucasfilm, sure. If something like that happens with—pick a franchise. But until then, I’ve got the Manticore Ascendant books, I’ve got a new series coming out from Tor next year, I’ve got the last of the COBRA books in the works. I’ve got two or three or four other series ideas that I’m ready to develop as soon as I have some breathing space, which is probably [around the] end of 2017. So I’ve got plenty of work.

I’d love to hear from Lucasfilm. But if it doesn’t happen … I got 10 novels, 19 short stories, I think. I’ve had a lot of say in the Star Wars universe. If that’s all I ever do, I’m content. It’s been good. It’s been fun.

Is there a type of story—not a specific plot, but maybe a theme or a concept—you’d like to write in the big gap between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens?

I don’t really have anything in mind. One of the things I’ve learned is, if I get excited about a possibility and I work really hard, mentally, to come up with an idea, and then the thing falls apart, I feel like I’ve kind of wasted a bunch of brain energy I could have used elsewhere.

If they asked me to do a book set between [Episodes] Six and Seven, or Seven and Eight, I would then start thinking about, what would I do, what would I jump on? There are several hooks that could be used, but at the moment I’ve got too much other stuff on my mind to want to … it would be pure speculation on my part to think about that. So I don’t have anything in mind for that era. Doesn’t mind I couldn’t come up with something on 48 hours notice.

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*First Published: Jun 7, 2016, 9:30 am CDT