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Wednesday, October 5,2011

Writing with the Force

MSU alum Timothy Zahn fills in missing chapters in the ‘Star Wars’ saga

by KURT ANTHONY KRUG

New York Times best-selling novelist Timothy Zahn does
not take any credit for reviving the “Star Wars” franchise with his
1991 novel, “Heir to the Empire,” the first in a line of novels based
on auteur George Lucas’ iconic space opera franchise


“I had no idea it would be that successful: No one did,”
said Zahn, 59, a 1973 Michigan State University alumnus who lives in
Oregon. “The storyline was decent; fans did like it. But the books sold
not because of my name, but because it was ‘Star Wars.’ It was a risky
venture. In 1991, no one knew if anyone even cared about ‘Star Wars.’
The interest was still out there, but there was really nothing new.
People say I revived ‘Star Wars.’ Not true. I just stuck a fork in the
pie crust to see if any steam would come out — and it did. I prefer to
say that I tapped into something already there. I take no credit for
restarting it.”


Last month, Random House published a 20th anniversary
edition of “Heir” — the first in what is called “The Thrawn Trilogy.”
Zahn called it a “director’s cut version" of the novel, complete with
more than 200 annotations; an introduction by himself; a foreword by
Howard Roffman, president of Lucas Licensing, a subsidiary of
Lucasfilm; an afterward by Betsy Mitchell,
vice-president/editor-in-chief of Del Rey Books, a division of Random
House that publishes “Star Wars” novels; and Zahn’s novella, “Crisis of
Faith,” which features Grand Admiral Thrawn, the villain Zahn created
that has become one of the most popular non-movie characters in the
franchise.


In addition, Zahn’s latest “Star Wars” novel, “Choices of One,” was recently released. This is his ninth “Star Wars” novel.


“I drifted away from ‘Star Wars’ with a couple of other
projects," Zahn explained. "It seemed that it might be time to do
something ‘Star Wars’ again, so I had my agent contact Shelly Shapiro
(editor of the ‘Star Wars’ books).”


“Unbeknownst to me at this same time, they were thinking
about of looking at the 20th anniversary of ‘Heir to the Empire’ and
thinking maybe it’d be a good idea for me to do a new book for that
same year. We came to a meeting of the minds. I proposed ‘Choices of
One.’ They accepted it, and I went ahead and wrote it.”


“Choices” features Thrawn and Mara Jade, another popular
non-movie character Zahn created. It occurs between 1977’s “Star Wars:
A New Hope” — the first movie in “Star Wars” franchise that introduced
Luke, Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Darth Vader into the pop culture
consciousness — and 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back.” Of the main “Star
Wars” characters, Han Solo (portrayed by Harrison Ford in the original
movies) is the central character in “Choices.”


“(This) area hasn’t been explored nearly as much as some
other eras,” said Zahn. “Trying to do anything past ‘Return of the
Jedi’ (the final film in the original trilogy before the prequels began
with 1999’s “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace”), you’re likely
to run into other authors writing at the same time and with the danger
of stepping on each other’s toes without knowing it.


“Also, this era is a fun one to write in: You’ve got the
Empire at the height of its power; Vader running around, being a
nuisance to the Rebellion; Han still not committing himself; Leia as
strong and stolid as usual; Luke still struggling with the whole
question of what it is to be a Jedi; and Mara Jade running around as
the Emperor’s Hand. There are just a lot of interesting things you can
do here. (‘Empire’) is my favorite of the six movies anyway. Putting
something around that era is a fun thing to do.”


Zahn prefers the original trilogy compared to the prequels.  


“I think the chemistry between actors and characters
works somewhat better. It would’ve been nice to see a developing
relationship between Obi Wan and Qui-Gon Jinn but we didn’t have time
for that. We have three movies for Han, Luke and Leia to grow and to
change and to build relationships. We’ve got only two for Anakin and
Padme because in the first one, there really isn’t much of a
relationship there. For me, the chemistry isn’t there (in the prequels)
in the same amount.”


When asked what gives his “Star Wars” novels such staying power, Zahn humbly said he has no idea.


“I do the best I can and just hope I’ve resonated with
the readers,” Zahn said. “It’s always surprising to me when I get
something right. As a writer, I don’t know if I finished a book if it’s
any good. I don’t know how the reader will relate.


“To have Mara hit such a sympathetic note with so many
readers is awesome to me. You always hope for that but you never really
expect it, so you’re always kind of surprised when it happens — very
pleasantly surprised, but still comes as something of a surprise.”


It’s made for an exciting 20 years, Zahn said.


“No one knew whether there were still ‘Star Wars’ fans
out there back in 1991. ‘Star Wars’ fandom is alive, well, kicking, and
stronger than ever. It’s a great deal of fun and an honor to be part of
that.”

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