Timothy Zahn is probably the most famous Star Wars writer after George Lucas. His 1991 novel Heir to the Empire is seen as the first successful entry in what became the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Then in 2014, Disney acquired the Star Wars license and Zahn’s work, along with the work of hundreds of other creators was relegated to “Legends” status, an intentionally nebulous descriptor that removed all EU stories from official Star Wars continuity. Zahn’s work officially returned to the Star Wars canon this year with the publication of his new novel Thrawn. I had a chance to hear from Zahn at C2E2 about the differences of writing Star Wars material then and now.
Zahn is a working author, and Star Wars has been very good business for him. In September 2015, he was contacted by Dave Filoni, the creator of Star Wars: Rebels about a secret meeting. At first, Zahn thought that he might be in trouble somehow, but when they offered to fly him down to the Lucasfilm California offices, he figured it was an opportunity. If they wanted to yell at him, it was cheaper to do it over the phone.
The meeting ended up including Zahn, Filoni, a film crew, and Pablo Hidalgo, the head of the Star Wars story group, the dream job of all sci-fi fans. Filoni asked Zahn, “what do you think about us bringing back Grand Admiral Thrawn on Rebels?” After a beat, Zahn replied, “I think the internet is going to melt.”
They brought up the new Thrawn book at the same meeting, good news for Zahn. The Star Wars team started sending him over scripts for Rebels season 3 pretty immediately, and by the time he was writing the book, most of the season had been written.
When Thrawn originally debuted, he was existing in a world after the Star Wars movies, so he could pretty much branch off and do whatever he had to do. With this book, Zahn had to reverse engineer him, maneuvering the character so that as the book ends, he’s poised to make his first appearance on Rebels. This changed his approach as did the new Star Wars team’s attitude about story continuity.
The original EU was sort of scattershot. Zahn joked about how there were at least three different versions of how Han Solo won the Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian. Now, there’s a whole team of editors trying to make sure that everything works together and nothing contradicts. This brings with it it’s own set of challenges. He analogized it to collaborating on a huge mural. Before, everyone was looking for a blank space to add their own piece of the picture, but now there’s definitely more of a plan of what the picture looks like, and who is working on which parts.
At this point, Zahn is sort of old hat when it comes to Star Wars, maybe even more so than some of the execs at Disney. They wanted him to go full radio silence, not mentioning anything in interviews, but Zahn knew that would be the biggest red flag of all. He maintained a mild air of interest in working on Star Wars, repeating, “if they want me, they know where to find me.” He was confident in how to manage the fans, and by all accounts, his approach seems to have been valid.
That confidence also translates into his interpretation of Star Wars. He spoke assertively about similarities and differences in how the Empire operated before and after the sort-of reboot. The old EU had a much stronger undercurrent of sexism and species-based racism that Thrawn had to overcome. Now, Disney wants to play those elements down. Zahn knew fans would want to see the return of characters like Captain Gilad Pellaeon, but he felt that in this new incarnation of the Empire, the dynamic between Thrawn and Pellaeon would be completely different, and fans would be disappointed. He’s one-hundred percent certain that Pellaeon is still out there in the Empire, doing his own thing.
At the end of his panel, fans came up to ask him questions, many of them concerning continuity, and Zahn answered them like a pro, politely finding the substance in every question. His easygoing, confident attitude was at the core of all of his answers. The “Legends” stories are like campfire stories, told by the denizens of the Star Wars universe while eating “their space s’mores.” Grand Admiral Thrawn and Gilad Pellaeon and Talon Karde and Mara Jade are all out there, but maybe not in the same roles they played in the stories many people are familiar with. He likes the challenge of unpacking their stories. He equated it to a flood in the Imperial Records building on Coruscant. Every so often someone confirms or denies the stories that we all think are true, and we learn a little bit more. His respect seemed to satisfy and comfort even the most hardcore of Star Wars fans, myself included.Continued below
The final question came from a woman in a fantastic Thrawn cosplay. She asked Zahn what kind of art Thrawn would make. This was the first thing that through Zahn for a loop. Zahn mused that he himself is a real music lover, but not really a musician. He thoughtfully described an internet meme he had seen of the character he had created. “Thrawn: what you do with a degree in art history.”