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'Star Wars' Author Timothy Zahn On His Han Solo/'Ocean's 11' Hybird, 'Scoundrels'

By Christian Blauvelt, Hollywood.com Staff

In the world of Star Wars publishing, there's one name that towers above the rest: Timothy Zahn. Though a number of Star Wars novels had been published prior to Zahn's involvement in George Lucas' space opera, it was the runaway popularity of his Heir to the Empire in 1991, the first of three #1 New York Times bestselling books commonly referred to as the Thrawn Trilogy, that set off a flurry of novels set in that galaxy far, far away.

What made Heir to the Empire so unique was that it was the first story that had ever been told set after Return of the Jedi — five years after the events of that movie, if you want to be specific. But though the prospect of a new adventure with Luke, Han, and Leia was the initial hook, Zahn entranced readers with the vivid new charaters of his own creation like the master strategist Grand Admiral Thrawn and the Imperial assassin turned Mrs. Luke Skywalker known as Mara Jade. He's written plenty of books since, novels which usually pivot around ideas first presented in the ""Thrawn Trilogy"" like the prequel-set Outbound Flight and the Original Trilogy-set Rebels vs. Imperials yarns Allegiance and Choices of One. His latest is Scoundrels, a heist novel starring Han Solo, Lando Calrissian and Chewbacca, due Jan. 1.

We talked to Zahn about his creative process, why we keep coming back to Luke, Han, and Leia, and what he hopes to see from the new Star Wars trilogy. Plus, throughout the interview we have exclusive concept art of Scoundrels' characters, along with a select quote from each of them that's found in the book.

Hollywood.com: How did you come up with the concept for Scoundrels?

Timothy Zahn: Well, you've got a bunch of scoundrels in the Star Wars universe. I've always enjoyed Ocean's 11 and The Sting. That kind of heist or con game where you don't have to worry about the participants stabbing each other in the back afterward. A nice frothy entertainment. And it just seemed like a natural for Han and Chewie and Lando and their crowd of like-minded people.

HW: It's a departure for you as well, because it feels more like a one-off, standalone adventure. It doesn't feature some of the characters that recur in your work like Thrawn or Mara Jade.

TZ: Actually, that was part of the goal with this. Shelly Shapiro, the Del Rey editor, and Sue Rostoni, who was handling these things for Lucas Licensing at the time, were looking for a story that could appeal to Star Wars fans who weren't necessarily Star Wars readers. There are 150+ Star Wars novels out there and for someone who isn't already familiar with them the whole thing can look a little intimidating. So my goal was to do a story that could draw in fans who don't know anything about the Expanded Universe. What kind of story could do that? That story is Scoundrels. If you've seen the Original Trilogy, you're good to go.

HW: I've read dozens of Star Wars novels, but even I feel a bit daunted at times by the sheer amount of material out there. Do you think the literal expansiveness of the Expanded Universe can be a barrier to new readers?

TZ: Whenever you have anything that's too huge, it's like "Where do I start? Where do I jump in to this?" I have friends who say, "These books are wonderful, but how do we start? Chronologically, with the Old Republic? Or in the order they were written, with Splinter of the Mind's Eye and the old Han Solo/Lando Calrissian books? Do I start with the Thrawn Trilogy, with Legacy of the Force? What do I need to know to get into this and not completely lose my way? There is an intimidation factor now. It's just too huge. And that's a shame because there are a lot of really good books out there in the Expanded Universe, but if you look at it like climbing Mt. Everest it's hard to get into them.

HW: You haven't written a Star Wars novel set any further than 15 years after Return of the Jedi. Have you decided that you always want to stay relatively close to the events of the Original Trilogy?

TZ: It's partly that, but it was also that starting with The New Jedi Order they started doing long, long series—New Jedi Order alone is a 19 book series—and they had to have a whole bunch of authors to coordinate and work together on these things. I am not all that interested in that kind of collaboration, partly because I always come up with new ideas midway while writing a book, and if I'm book three of nine, I can't incorporate those new ideas without screwing up everything down the line. So I think it would be frustrating for me to think that I had a great idea but have to stay within the confines of the outline. I've played around instead in my own little corner of the Star Wars universe, which, aside from Outbound Flight is A New Hope plus 19 years or so.

HW: You basically invented the juggernaut that is Star Wars publishing with the Thrawn Trilogy. Now that we're 20 years after the publication of Heir to the Empire, how has your experience of writing in the Star Wars universe changed?

TZ: The first thing that comes to mind is that it's a lot more complicated. There are so many more books and writers working. When I wrote Heir to the Empire, set five years after Return of the Jedi, I had essentially a blank canvas to work with. Obviously I had Lucasfilm making sure I didn't do anything completely off the wall, but there was never a worry about running into some other author's storyline or finding out that you've accidentally placed a major character in two different places in the Galaxy at the same time. It's much harder to keep track of what you're doing, except that thankfully we have Wookieepedia and the Lucasfilm Holocron. But you will probably step into something that somebody else created unless you're very, very careful.

NEXT: The process of pitching a Star Wars novel to Lucasfilm's involvement in Zahn's writing [PAGEBREAK]

HW: What's the process for writing one of these books? So you come up with the idea, then pitch it to Lucas Licensing. What kind of approval process takes place?

TZ: We discuss the basic overall idea. In this case, I wanted to do Solo's 11, so we found what part of the timeline could fit, then discussed which of the major characters could come into it, in this case Han, Chewie, and Lando, and insert my own. Then I give a plot summary and they say whether they like it or not. My original idea for this had to undergo some serious modifications. I had some things I was thinking about and they said, "No, let's go with something more traditional. Let's have them make a hit on a safe." I think it was a kidnapping, or the rescue of a kidnapped person that I was going to do originally, but they felt that I should just keep it to a typical money thing instead. So I tweaked it, and we probably went back and forth for four weeks or so, tweaking the various pieces. And finally when I was given approval, I began writing the book, after which of course we do another review process that spotlights things which aren't clear, that I thought were clear that I hadn't really fixed. Or it's a matter of the editors realizing that things they've suggested don't really add anything and they want them taken out. It's a big process, but it's like that whenever you work in somebody else's universe.

HW: Have you ever worked directly with George Lucas?

TZ: No. I met him once many years ago, and from what I've heard he's always been very hands-off on the novels. I think he got a bit more involved with the comic books, certainly in the early days before he was working on the prequels, because comic books are a visual medium, and he's a visual guy, much more than he is a novel guy. So I've never worked directly with him, it's always just been the Lucas Licensing people. They've always been very easy to work with. That's the joy of working in Star Wars. I've never had anybody at Lucasfilm take a stand and say, "This can't be done!" or "This must be done!" with being open to discussion. I've had several points in my Star Wars books where they have said "You can't do this," and when I explain why it needs to be done for the story I want to tell and why it does fit the Star Wars universe, they've been amenable. "Okay, now that we understand the reasoning, we'll let you do it." They don't rule by fiat. At the very least there's usually always a compromise to be found.

HW: Can you share an example of a plot point to which Lucas Licensing initially objected?

TZ: In Outbound Flight, I wanted the mission to have families, including children, since it was a long-term flight with a plan to travel to another galaxy. And Sue Rostoni said that they had thought of it as more of a military expedition with just military people. And I pointed out that the thrust of this is that I want [mad Jedi] Jorus C'Baoth to take control and show exactly why the Jedi should not be ruling over anybody. And with children there he could say, "Okay this child has Jedi capability, I will take him from his parents and train him to be a Jedi against his or her parents' will." So they said, "Okay, this is an interesting question, go ahead and explore it."

HW: Have you found any elements in your books to be retroactively kicked out of the canon?

TZ: Well, it's like we're all playing in George Lucas' driveway, so if he decides actually to back his truck out into the driveway, then we have no space in which to play in. So the prequels did run over quite a few books. Everybody who had done a Boba Fett backstory for example suddenly found their stuff chucked into alternate universe territory. There were a couple things with me, but most of my toys survived pretty well in tact, or at least I could hand-wave explanations that were not unreasonable. Now, what's going to survive Episodes VII, VIII, and IX? Nobody knows.

NEXT: Zahn Shares What He'd Like to See From the New Star Wars Trilogy. [PAGEBREAK]

HW: Basically Lucasfilm owns the rights to all of the characters you've invented, so if they wanted to bring back Thrawn from the dead, they could without even asking you?

TZ: Oh, yes, that's absolutely correct. They can do whatever they want, and I might not know until I sit down and watch the movie.

HW: What do you, as a Star Wars fan par excellence, want to see from the new trilogy?

TZ: You got a couple of hours here? First of all, I think they need to skip a generation and have either Luke, Han, and Leia's kids, or even grandkids, and have the Original Trilogy characters be the older, wiser mentor types. But one of the things I'd really like to see, and this would fit very nicely with Disney, as far as I can remember we've never seen a really good family relationship in Star Wars. We've had neurotic relationships and even outright antagonism with Luke and Vader. But I'd like to see Luke and his son or grandson have a true bond, a functional family relationship. And of course I want a really good storyline and space battles. I'd like to see something different than a Skywalker turning to the Dark Side. The Star Wars universe is so rich with storytelling possibilities that you don't need to repeat the "turning to the Dark Side" concept of the previous films. I don't want to see the same stuff over and over.

HW: It seems like every fan thinks Luke, Han, and Leia are going to be in the new movies. Or at least they hope they will be. You yourself have decided to focus squarely on them in Scoundrels. Why do we keep going back to those three characters?

TZ: Part of it is just that they were the first characters we saw. They were our heroes. But also in those movies Lucas did what every writer and director wants to achieve…he found a chemistry. He found a chemistry between those characters that has resonated every since. It grabbed us. We saw the growth arc in Luke, a naïve farmboy who comes to understand his duty to others, we recognized the feistiness in Leia, the scoundrel in Han, and everything just fell into place. Who wouldn't be delighted to see them interacting with the next generation—and with each other once again? Imagine, it could be like Indiana Jones and his dad in Last Crusade, but as Star Wars!

HW: One of the things that people have been suggesting over and over are ways that Han Solo should die in Episode VII. Do you yourself have a preference for his demise?

TZ: Maybe I'm not the best person to ask because I don't like watching major characters die. I like seeing characters fight against impossible odds and win the day. I'm not much for death scenes. I would point to Sherlock Holmes as an example—he retired to beekeeping! However, if they decide to kill off Han it has to be in a truly dramatic, heroic way. But I would prefer to see the main characters retire off camera and yield the state as it were to the new generation of Star Wars heroes.

HW: Well, even the books have gotten a lot darker in the past ten years or so, starting with New Jedi Order.

TZ: It's too dark for me, but there are a lot of fans out there who like that. The great thing about having 150+ books is that there are a whole swath of books that one person may not care for, but another swath they will love. You can have a very traditional Original Trilogy-style, Rebels vs. Empire story like what I've done in Allegiance and Choices of One, all the way over to essentially zombie stormtroopers for the horror fans, and everything else you can imagine in the middle. So there's something out for almost any conceivable fan's sensibilities.

Follow Christian Blauvelt on Twitter @Ctblauvelt

[Photo Credit: Random House]

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