Interview by Tillman Smoot
“Star Wars” had new life breathed into it when Bantam Spectra released the “Heir to the Empire” 22 years ago; the first book in what is now known as “The Thrawn Trilogy.” Author Timothy Zahn’s story was set five years after the events of “Return of the Jedi” and featured the return of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and the rest of the heroes of the rebellion. It became the first book in what is now known as the “Star Wars Expanded Universe.”
His original characters from “Heir to the Empire,” Admiral Thrawn, Mara Jade and Captain Palleon have gone on to become some of the most beloved characters in the “Star Wars” universe. Since “Heir to the Empire” was released, Mr. Zahn has gone on to write numerous other “Star Wars” novels, comics and short stories.
At Dragon Con 2013 in Atlanta, Mr. Zahn took some time to discuss writing and publishing in today’s changing marketplace.
Pointing at the iPad that had been placed on the table to record the interview, Mr. Zahn began talking about the first subject of the interview: technology. “I finally realized why I don’t these things,” he said. “It’s because when I first started with a computer, we were careful not to touch the screen and we were TOLD not to touch the screen. Now, we’re supposed to touch the screen. It’s weird. I’m getting used to the idea, but that’s what my problem is with them. Tablets are fun to play with and occasionally read from, but I am always going to need a laptop to type with … an actual keyboard.”
When asked to explain how his approach to writing as evolved with technology over the past 20 years, he explained that he had gone from using pencils to a laptop. “I had no computer when I started out. I was unable to compose at a typewriter, because there were always changes to do and when there were strikethroughs and additions and such, I couldn’t read for flow because I kept fumbling over these changes. So, I always wrote it all in pencil, longhand in notebooks using every other line so that I could edit in the changes, add stuff in, erase, whatever. Once I got it into proper format, then I would go ahead and type it up to send it out.
“I love the computer because if I want to take out this word, I take it out and it still flows. You won’t see what’s gone and I can still read it for flow. I always work on laptops because I travel enough that I need to work on the airplane, and I work pretty well on planes. So, I can keep up with things that way.”
Technology has managed to fold back on itself, however. “Ironically, the last few books I’ve done, especially when I’m doing collaborations or other such things, we work with the track change feature in Microsoft Word and I’m right back to where I didn’t want to be with the typewriter. Because now, all those strikeouts are still visible and everything else is in different colors, so we’re back to exactly what I didn’t want to do.
“On the other hand, it’s convenient in many ways. ’The Terminator Salvation’ prequel book I did, I was working with Titan Books in London and I think we went through like three versions of the book, changes and such without it ever hitting paper. You know, just emailing it back and forth. I still remember the old days, when even with a computer, I would budget a morning to printing out, tearing the pages apart, packing it into the box, address it and mail it to my agent. So, the ability to say ‘okay, it’s done,’ attach the file and send it out is immensely handy to be able to do.”
Mr. Zhan wasn’t always planning on being a writer. Before he dedicated his time to chronicling the further adventures of Luke Skywalker, he was a physics grad student. While he was writing as a hobby, it wasn’t until his advisor had passed away and he was told that he would need to start a project from scratch that the writing became a full-time job. “I decided I was having more fun writing, so I went from budding physicist to struggling writer in about a day … well, a week or so from when I actually made the decision to when I started full time. I spent that first year just doing short fiction. The second year I started on my first novel … doing about two weeks on the novel, then taking a break and writing a short story, etc. Then, I started doing novels, started mixing novels and short fiction, and eventually doing mostly novels, though I still do two or three short stories every year or two in addition.”
When asked if there was a particular format that provided him a guilty pleasure, he brushed off the mere notion. “I have no guilt about any of these things! It’s all pure pleasure. A novel is a mural, a short story is an 8-by-10 drawing or painting and a comic book is someplace midway between, or halfway to movie or TV. They are slightly different challenges and capabilities.
“In a novel I can do a lot more development, more plot threads, more characters. I can be a little more wordy in descriptions and such. In a short story, I have to write a lot more tightly. Every word has to matter. They’re different. They’re both fun, they’re both challenging; graphic novels, again the same thing … different style, different abilities, different drawbacks. I like all of them. I would like to do more graphic novels; I just haven’t had the opportunity. Short stories, someone will invite me to a collection and volunteer something. Novels are the bread and butter of the writer of course. They pay better and you get royalties down the line.”
In regards to the appeal of the graphic novel format, he explained that he appreciated the ability to let the reader discover on their own. “For example, in the six-part Mara Jade comic that Michael A. Stackpole and I did, ‘Mara Jade: By the Emperor’s Hand,’ Nikki Law one issue ends with Mara Jade having a fight with some bad guys who murdered her boss and such, and she’s decided to take out the gang.
“Well, the opening of issue four has Mara Jade at a cafe type place working on a computer trying to figure out where they might be. On the table is the distinctive knife the bad guys use, and I specifically put it [in the script] to be there as either a warning: ‘I’m part of the group, don’t mess with me,’ or its bait. But, it’s something that in a novel or in a short story you’d have to say ‘Mara put the knife here to entice any possible leads toward her.’ In the comic, I can just have it there, and the sharp-eyed reader can spot it and see she’s doing something with it. So, you can be more subtle and have more Easter egg type of things that are harder to do in the prose aspect.”
As a writer, organization and research are often paramount to success. Since he is primarily a science fiction writer he explained that often times research isn’t as important as documentation. “I usually use 4-by-6 index cards, and write down the characters and any of their distinguishing features gets added to that. If I’m doing something that requires a lot of research, I will probably find websites or pages and copy them into a file on my computer so that I have a quick reference type of thing.
“Ideally, as for the ‘Honor Harrington’ universe collaborations I am doing with David Weber, David already has a researcher who’s worked on the ‘Honor Herrington’ companion and such. I shoot questions to the researcher and he’s the one with the database, so he goes through the effort of digging things out if he doesn’t remember them, or creating the new tech I am going to need. So, I do as little research as I can get away with because it takes time, and I’d rather be writing.”
The publishing market has changed dramatically since Mr. Zahn began his career. Now, self-publishing, e-books and crowd sourced funding are all common practices. When asked if he felt that the traditional practice of shopping a book around to different publishers was still the best way to become successful, he had a good bit of insight to offer. “Well, the editing process [that publishers provide] is definitely good and necessary for pretty much everybody. But on the other hand, there are freelance editors out there. The editor that was on my first ‘Star Wars Thrawn’ trilogy is now freelancing. She also works for the Open Road people, but she does freelance editing. If you want to self publish, you can hire a freelance editor to clean up your stuff before you do that. There are lots of opportunities that didn’t exist 20 years ago, so we’ll see how it all shakes out.”
Freelance editors aside, Mr. Zahn had some other insights into the benefits of traditional publishing. “If you come out under a traditional publisher, the reader knows somebody edited this thing and somebody else thought it was worth paying some of their hard earned money to the author. So, you’ve got a ‘junk filter.’ Theoretically you have less garbage coming out of a major publisher than you do out of the self-publishing which doesn’t cost anything. So, I think still, traditional publishing is a good way to go if you can.”
But, he was quick to point out that the larger point is for the writer to not give up just because the traditional approach might not work right away. “The one piece of advice I can offer is: if you want to write, keep writing. Keep reading so you see what you like and don’t like in other people’s work. Incorporate into your work what you like and avoid what you don’t. Find your own voice. Write the story, finish the story, send out the story or put it on your website or whatever, and go on to the next one. A lot of brilliant writing minds out there will never be heard from because they quit. Their first story didn’t sell the first time, or whatever so they stopped doing it. Persistence is a major part of all of this.
“I don’t know how relevant it is now, but I started out with short fiction because the magazines were always looking for new writers. There are e-magazines out there still and they also serve the purpose of the traditional publisher of filtering out some of the bad stuff. Also, if you can do short fiction, I think those markets are easier to break into than the novels. Self-pub if you like – try the traditional route, or e-magazine, but just keep at it. Keep writing.”
Finally, the interview wouldn’t be over unless he was asked about “Star Wars: Episode VII.” When asked what he would do if JJ Abrams were to call him up tomorrow and ask for his help, he was very succinct. “Let me put it this way: we are a 10 hour drive from Lucasfilm HQ at the Presidio in San Francisco, Calif. I would make it in eight hours.”