published Friday, January 22nd, 2010

Q&A with Timothy Zahn

Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Hugo Award-winning science fiction novelist Timothy Zahn about what role actual science plays in science fiction, the origins of Mara Jade and the fictional character he wishes he created.

CP: You studied and received your bachelor's and master's degrees in physics. How influential has that background in real-world science been in your writing?

TZ: I think the biggest thing the science background has done is to help me understand how things work and the language of science and technology. One of my big problems with Hollywood is that they don't realize that technology doesn't exist in a vacuum. Someone can build something or create something, and someone else will find 100 other uses for it. Just knowing that helps me work through the consequences of any invention or technology I create for a story and think about how else a society might use it, what the plusses and minuses are. That has been invaluable in helping me make my writing as believable as possible.

CP: Can you point to one moment during the creation of one of your novels when you were particularly thankful for that background?

TZ: Oh, it interweaves itself into the stories. Nothing particularly stands out. If you want a well-known example of how this is done, the “Back to the Future” movies are it. At the end of movie one, you've got a flying car, and in the second movie, you have floating skateboards. That's a perfect example of how you take the technology for the car, and someone else will miniaturize it and make a skateboard out of it. That's something Hollywood tends to miss, so I enjoy pointing out when they get it right.

CP: Do you think it's possible to write an effective or believable piece of science fiction without at least a passing familiarity with real-world physics, biology, chemistry, etc.?

TZ: Oh sure. Since your story will tend to focus on one person or a small group of people, it's easy enough to ignore what else society would have done with (the technology). No matter what I'm doing or if it never gets into the story itself, just knowing about it will help me to visualize the world and hopefully make that visualization something the reader can pick up on as well. It's not vital, though. I know a lot of writers without scientific backgrounds who do excellent stories. It just helps me to make the story more believable.

CP: What is your process for preparing or creating a new universe to work in?

TZ: Typically, I come up with an idea, either a character or an idea like in “Quadrail” for a train that goes between the stars, and work out from there. OK, we've got this train, how does it work, how does the science work, what is the impact going to be on society, what are the plusses and minuses, how will those come into the plot? Sometimes, I have a solution very quickly in the resolution to the storyline, other times, the technology or the character starts first and I work towards an ending. Before I start writing, I know basically where the story is going to go.

CP: Do you have notebooks full of background or explanatory material about the interworkings of your universes that never make it into your novels?

TZ: Not usually. I used to write down ideas, but nowadays, it's more that if an idea occurs to me, I'll work at it a bit in my mind, and if it's worth keeping, it will stay there, and if not, it gets discarded. I still write down ideas sometimes, but most of the time, once I've done the outline, it's just in my head. Things may come along the way that might get put into the book, but I don't fill the notebooks anymore. I do carry a notebook with me everywhere in my coat pocket, so if I have a few minutes free, I can work on something. A writer is never really off duty.

CP: You ended your study of physics in the middle of working on your doctorate when your advisor suddenly passed away. Is completing your doctoral work something you've given thought to?

TZ: That ship has sailed. I wanted to be a physicist, but I don't think I really had the aptitude for it. I wasn't as good as I should have been to make that a career. The last few years were a struggle. I was working on the doctorate, the project wasn't working well, we were trying various fixes, and I was having a lot more fun with my hobby of writing. I still cannot think of anything I would rather do than write for a living.

CP: I imagine that, even if you did return to working a physicist, the constraints of physical law would seem neutering after years of wielding the power to bend time and space to your whim.

TZ: (Laughs.) You know, it's heck when you actually have to actually obey the laws of physics. No, really, I try to keep physics and chemistry and biology and, most of all, psychology in mind as I'm writing since people have to behave as they really would in a given situation. But yes, it would be tricky not to be able to make up my own stuff as I went along.

CP: Is there a science fiction or fantasy character that you wish you had created?

TZ: Hmm … I suppose creatively and financially, Honor Harrington, David Weber's heroine. His universe is an example of one of those universes where he's really thought out all the implications. He basically starts out with the control of gravity to make the drive, and everything flows from that. He's done a marvelous job of making a varied, believable, complex and detailed universe, which is why it has supported umpteen different books.

I've done some books in that universe, and it always amazes me how carefully he has everything down. That makes it believable. Then, throw in a bunch of memorable characters the reader cares about, and that has carried that series almost forever at this point, and I don't think it shows any signs of slowing down. Some of his stuff, I would have liked to create. A lot of the stuff I've read, I've thought, “Gee, I wish I'd thought of that first.” (Laughs.) We do what we can.

CP: You've worked in a number of established series, including “Star Wars,” obviously, but also “Terminator.” What's the best thing about creating new stories in an existing universe?

TZ: The best thing is that you have existing rules. The universe is already there so you don't have to make it up out of whole cloth, and you don't have to explain it all to people. Go to “Star Wars,” and people know who Luke Skywalker is, they know what a hyperdrive and a lightsaber are. I don't have to work in exposition on those things. It's familiar territory. People are coming back to a familiar world - everyone likes doing that now and again. It's easier in some ways because of that.

It's also harder in some ways, because I have to capture the essence of Luke, Han, Leia, etc. If I don't capture that, I will hear about it. People will say, “That's not how Han would act.”

So there are plusses and minuses, but for me, the plusses outweigh the minuses. I've got a pretty good feel for how the “Star Wars” universe function, and it's no strain at all to slip into the “Star Wars” way of thinking and start writing.

CP: Is there character you've created that you're proud of or for whom you have a particular fondness?

TZ: In “Star Wars,” it would be Mara Jade and Grand Admiral Thrawn, of course. In other things? I like all my lead characters. They've all been people I like, and I like to write about them. Frank Compton in the “Quardrail” series is your fun hard-boiled detective. Johnny Moreau and his family from the “Cobra” series started out as an idealist and worked towards becoming a statesman. I've liked spending the time it takes to write each of those characters. It would be hard to pick a favorite. I guess my favorite would be whoever I'm working on at the moment.

CP: The “Thrawn” series of books is credited by some with having reinvigorated interest in “Star Wars” outside of the original film trilogy and launching what has become this enormous universe of expanded content. What's your perspective on the state of the expanded universe now, almost 20 years after “Heir to the Empire” published?

TZ: One of the fun things and great things about writing in the “Star Wars” universe is that it's immensely huge and immensely rich with a huge amount of texture. You can do almost anything there as long as you stick to the flavor and tone of “Star Wars.” There are so many things to write about that it's a universe you can mine for gold and ore pretty much all over the place, which is why you've been able to have all the spin offs novels and games and comic books, etc. There's always something new you can find to do with “Star Wars.” It shows no signs of slowing down, either, I don't think.

CP: The “Thrawn” novels focus on a pretty select group of characters. Since, as you said, the “Star Wars” universe is so varied and expansive, how did you approach selecting who to focus on?

TZ: You start, of course, with the movie characters - Han, Luke, Leia - or if I'm doing a prequel - Obi-Wan and Anakin. I tend to stick with the characters I've invented, partly because I know them well and they've got a lot more stories left to tell in them, and partly because I'm nervous about taking anybody else's character. I'm not sure I can get it right, and I don't want to mess with somebody else's invention. The only exception that has been a couple of Mike Stackpole's characters. That's only because we know each other and will do cameos of each other's characters and allow the other to vet what we've done. I stick with my core people because I like to see where their stories are going, add in new ones and stick otherwise with the established characters. I will sometimes bring in minor, second and third tier, characters from the movies and give them a little play.

CP: Which of those secondary/tertiary characters are you happiest to have given some time in the spotlight?

TZ: I enjoyed, in the original “Thrawn” trilogy, bringing in Wedge Antilles. He was a fun character. One of the nicest bits of the expanded movies is the scene in “A New Hope” during the attack on the Death Star when Wedge basically drives straight into a Tie Fighter, blows it apart and flies through the debris. It shows him as a hotshot. This is why he survived three movies. I always liked him. I guess you can call him a minor character in the movies I was able to do something with.

The fun stuff is that after I brought him into the “Thrawn” trilogy and invented Rogue Squadron, Bantam turned around and a did a whole series of Rogue Squadron books with Mike Stackpole and Aaron Allston. I invent this thing, and they expand that as I had expanded Wedge's role from this almost throwaway thing that I'd never really done much with and they suddenly got 10 books out of it.

CP: And several video games.

TZ: And several games, yes. It's fun to see “Star Wars” evolving that way.

CP: You've discussed your own reluctance to try to capture the essence of another author's characters. How does it feel when one of your characters, like Mara Jade, makes an appearance in another author's book, comic, etc.?

TZ: Some people do a good job of capturing a character's essence and some don't do quite as well. It's always a kick to see your character picked up for something else because it means that character has hit a chord so that readers and players want to see more of them. That's an indication that you, as an author, have done your job right.

CP: Speaking of Mara Jade, she was the only character from the “Star Wars” expanded universe to break into the top 20 in “Star Wars Insider's” reader poll of favorite characters in 1998. That must be a very reaffirming moment, as an author.

TZ: Oh yeah, it's very cool when that happens. As an author, I can finish a book and know it's the best thing I can do with this storyline and these characters, but I have no idea at the time if anyone else is going to think that. There's no way to judge whether readers will like the story or like the characters or any of that.

I never finish a book thinking, “Oh yeah, they're going to love this one.” I hope they will, but there's no way to know until the readers actually get to it. Mara was a good character, and I liked her, liked writing her, but I had no idea she would be as popular as she has turned out to be. It's very gratifying, but it's kind of humbling because I'm just a writer here, and yet, somehow, I'm striking a chord.

CP: After you've finished with a series of novels, what kind of relationship do you maintain with its characters? Do they fade from your memory, or do their personalities have a degree of permanence?

TZ: I can always pick them up again. I understand Mara Jade, so I can come back three or four years after her last book and pick her right up again. I understand how she's thinking and how she's going to act at any given point on the timeline and the sort of person she is. It's not difficult for me to pick her up again and start writing. I spent years of writing time with Mara and Luke and Han and Thrawn. I know these people pretty well. If I put them in a situation, I know how they'll react, what they're going to do.

CP: Has another author's approach to the established movie characters ever made you do a double take like, “That's not how Han would have reacted in my book”?

TZ: I've had issue with various things that have been done, but once you sign a “Star Wars” contract, everything you do is Lucasfilm's, you have no say over what they do with your characters or their own characters. I don't agree with everything that's been done in the “Star Wars” expanded universe, but it's not my place to approve or disapprove. It's their property, and they get to do what they want, and their vision is not always the same as my vision. That's fine; it's their property, so they get to define what that vision is.

CP: What projects are you working on now? You're working on a new “Cobra War” trilogy, right?

TZ: “Cobra War” picks up 30 or so years after “Cobra Bargain,” which was the last one back in the '80s. The heroine of that book, Jen Moreau, is married and has three children of her own, two of whom are Cobras. We have a situation where some group of Trofts has decided the Cobra worlds need to be eliminated and has invaded. There are five Cobra world and a break away colony of Oasama, which has been a thorn in the Cobras worlds' side for the last two books. We, humanity, is going to have to join together and figure out what's going on, who's invading us and how to defeat them. It's back to a straight military, political sort of thing with the bio-enhanced Cobras. That's been fun. The second book is done, and the first book is out now.

I'm going to be finishing up the “Quadrail” series in one more book. The fourth book “Domino Pattern” just came out, and the last book is tentatively called “Judgment at Protius.”

I'm just finishing up my second “Terminator” book. And once I finish up “Quadrail,” I'll be working on one more “Star Wars” book.

CP: One more as in the last you'll ever do or as in the next in the series?

TZ: It's number nine of my series. You never know if it's going to be the final or not. These things tend to go one at a time with Lucasfilm, which is fine. I wouldn't want a whole career of “Star Wars” books. Then, I would get burned out and wouldn't do a good job with them. Then, I've got the final “Cobra” and two or three series to pitch, and we'll see what happens.

E-mail Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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