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Inside the re-birth of Star Wars and the creation of Thrawn with Timothy Zahn

Author Timothy Zahn on the creation of Grand Admiral Thrawn, giving Luke Skywalker a wife, and more Star Wars memories.

Heir to the Empire
Image credit: Lucasfilm

The Star Wars universe is thriving. There is no shortage of new Star Wars content, thanks to multiple Disney+ television productions, novels, comics, video games and more. If someone were to consume every Star Wars project released in the past 12 months, they might be surprised to learn just how long that would take. It’s hard to imagine a time when Star Wars wasn’t ruling pop culture, but in 1991 things were different.

After the release of Return of the Jedi in 1983, the Star Wars universe quietly died down. By the end of the decade the ongoing Marvel Comic had been cancelled, and animated shows like Droids and Ewoks had ended production. Although George Lucas spoke about returning to the franchise to produce a prequel trilogy, there were no firm plans. With no movie to promote, the Star Wars universe was dormant.

In 1991 Bantam Spectra published a novel called Heir to the Empire. The book was set five years after Return of the Jedi, and continued the adventures of Luke Skywalker and his allies. In addition to bringing back familiar faces, the novel introduced new threats, like the calculating villain Grand Admiral Thrawn. The book was written by Hugo Award winning author Timothy Zahn, and it quickly shot to the top of the New York Times Best Sellers list.

Heir to the Empire was followed by Dark Force Rising and the Last Command. Together, these three books are commonly referred to as the Thrawn Trilogy. The success of the Thrawn Trilogy led to more Star Wars novels being commissioned. This led to a Star Wars renaissance in the '90s, with comic books, video games, and a new line of toys soon following. Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy is credited with kickstarting the reemergence of Star Wars as a pop culture force.

Now, Thrawn is making another comeback, this time in the live action Ahsoka series (Thrawn will be played by Lars Mikkelsen). As we begin to see a resurgence of Thrawn in the Star Wars universe, it's the perfect time to take a look a this 2022 interview with Thrawn's creator, Zahn about the role that he had in launching the Star Wars Expanded Universe and a new type of Star Wars villain who still resonates today.

The re-birth of Star Wars

Heir to the Empire book cover
Image credit: Lucasfilm

“Lou Aronica had set this in motion from Bantam Spectra,” Zahn recalls. “He suggested Lucasfilm do a continuation of the saga since George [Lucas] didn't seem to be doing anything more with it. It took a year of conversations, discussions, and whatever at Lucasfilm for them to decide to go ahead with that.”

Zahn speaks about how he was selected to write the book that would become Heir to the Empire. “The Bantam editors got together, and made up a short list of authors they thought could handle Star Wars,” Zahn says. “The people at Lucasfilm liked my style best and I got the out of the blue phone call from my agent saying, 'We have a very interesting offer here.' Lucasfilm and Bantam took about five months to get their contract organized and I couldn't really go very far until that was all done. Lucasfilm wouldn't look at my outline until they had a contract with Bantam.”

According to Zahn, Lucasfilm took a very hands-on approach with the novel’s outline.

“At first there was a certain amount of micromanaging that was coming out of Lucasfilm,” Zahn recalls. “My agent said they're probably not used to novels at this point, they're thinking screenplay, where you micromanage all the time. And you tell the writer tweak this, and they tweak it. It's not quite the same with the novel where if you change something in chapter three, it percolates through the whole thing, and in this case a trilogy.”

Although Lucasfilm was heavily involved, George Lucas was mostly absent from the process. “They would send him (Lucas) queries periodically, but I think they had to be phrased so it was a yes or no answer. Because he was busy working on Indiana Jones and overseeing special effects for Jurassic Park and probably a bunch of other things at ILM. I met him just once. He talked mostly about movies.”

Building the Thrawn trilogy

“Lucasfilm had two conditions when I first started writing. They said it had to be three to five years after Return of the Jedi, we went ahead and picked five, and I could use anybody who had not been killed in the movies, and that was it. So I get the full cast! And as you saw I put in everybody! Wedge was there, Mon Mothma, and Admiral Ackbar!”

The original outline for Heir to the Empire had some key differences from the version that was published. At the time the novel was being written, nobody knew what a Sith was. Although Darth Vader had been called a Dark Lord of the Sith in promotional tie-in material, the mythology of the Sith would not be expanded upon until Lucas returned to produce the prequel trilogy in 1999. As a result, Zahn initially pitched his own idea for the Sith.

According to Zahn, the Noghri warriors who served the Empire were initially going to be called the Sith.

“That was one of the arguments I lost,” Zahn recalls. “I'm very glad I did, given what Lucas then did with the Sith. That was keying off of A New Hope's novelization where Vader is called the Dark Lord of the Sith.Since the Noghri were under his command, okay, we'll call them Sith. Lucasfilm said we don't know if George is going to do anything more with this, so let's cancel that.”

Another one of Lucasfilm’s vetoes involved the original idea for the mad Jedi clone Joruus C’baoth. “The other big thing from the outline was the clone Joruus C'baoth was going to be an insane clone of Obi-Wan Kenobi. That would have been interesting, just the emotional connection made when Luke is dealing with him. Is this the Obi-Wan I knew, or is it somebody else? They didn't want to do that,” Zahn says.

With the benefit of hindsight, Zahn believes Lucasfilm made the right call.

“They would send me a couple pages of tweaks, suggestions, and questions. Pretty much all of them were good questions, and good tweaks. The big thing about Lucasfilm is they've always been easy to work with in the sense that they say, we don't like this, and if I can give a good logical reason why I need to do it, they're willing to compromise,” Zahn shares.

“I don't think I've ever had them really stick their heels in and say no, you can't do it because we say so,” he continues. “I won several of these discussions. I've lost a few, the ones I've lost I'm glad I lost in retrospect. This is why I have 16 Star Wars novels not three, because if they had been terrible to work with, I would have quit after that first trilogy.”

Heir to the Empire introduced Mara Jade, a former agent of the Emperor. The character became a fan favorite, eventually marrying Luke.

“You want to bring in new characters that are not duplicates of somebody that's already in the movies and such,” Zahn muses. “Mara Jade is a strong woman, they (Disney) brought in Jyn and Rey. But Mara was an Imperial agent, that makes her a very different type of character. Yes, she's a good guy now, but she's got that history, and there will be people who will never trust her because of that history. And that adds a dynamic that none of the other female characters have.”

Zahn went on to explain how he took a similar approach when he created Talon Karrde, another character introduced in Heir to the Empire.

“Karrde is a smuggler, but he's also an information broker. So he's not just a duplicate of Han. He has some of Han's qualities, but a whole other area you can explore and you can deal with. So I don't think any of my characters quite duplicate anybody else, which is why they all fit into the Star Wars universe.”

Grand Admiral Thrawn

The Last Command book cover
Image credit: Lucasfilm

Grand Admiral Thrawn was another character Zahn created while writing the novel. Thrawn has gone on to become one of the most popular villains in Star Wars fandom. He’s even made his way to animation in the series Star Wars Rebels. Thrawn was also mentioned in the Disney+ series The Mandalorian, sparking speculation that the villain might make his live-action debut in a future Star Wars project.

“Thrawn is a compilation of all the tactical military geniuses, mostly without their blind spots because everybody's got them,” Zahn shares.

Over the years Zahn has been asked what historical figures Thrawn is based off of, but the author doesn’t think it’s that simple.

“There's nobody in particular, it's just a matter of this is a great tactician, now I have to come up with a way to show that. Remember show not tell in books. I've got to show him being a tactical and strategic genius. So I have to build the battles, both sides have to be smart, because a stupid villain is kind of pointless. And then just figure out how Thrawn would see this.”

This led to Zahn musing on the differences between Thrawn and other villains from the Star Wars franchise.

“I've had little thoughts about for example, if he was in charge of the Death Star, what would he have done,” Zahn asks.

WHen we replied that Thrawn would have plugged up the thermal exhaust port, Zahn took it further.

“The first thing is you listen to the guy who says there's a problem. Tarkin is too arrogant to do that. Thrawn would have listened. And then a very simple solution, park a TIE fighter on that exhaust port. Just send one of the TIE fighters and have it sit there. That's how you plug it quickly. We got them all out there, have it sit there. And then there's no movies two and three because everybody's dead.”

Zahn also compares Thrawn to Kylo Ren, the antagonist of the sequel trilogy.

“So many of the other characters in Star Wars have such obvious blind spots. The first time I saw Kylo Ren having a temper tantrum I thought Thrawn would have this guy for breakfast,” Zahn recalls. “He's got buttons that are so easy to push. With Tarkin his arrogance would be an easy button to push, if Thrawn had to go head to head with him. Palpatine has a certain amount of strategic capability that may be similar to Thrawn, but his ground level tactics aren't quite as good. They have an understanding and they both need each other at the moment, so there would not be a head to head type of thing there.”

In the days before social media, most of Zahn’s fan feedback came from letters.

“I got a fair amount of grief when I introduced hot chocolate into the Star Wars universe,” Zahn recalls with amusement. “Some people said that's an Earth thing. Well, lightsaber and Millennium Falcon were all Earth terms. It was really just a little throwaway joke, but some people took it way too seriously. I also got a letter early on after the first book had been published from probably a teenager who was berating me for calling this ship class a Corvette, because Corvette is a car. And I had to explain, no Corvette is an old sailing ship. But for the most part, people have been very supportive.”

Marrying Luke Skywalker and Mara Jade

Vision of the Future book cover
Image credit: Lucasfilm

Zahn also received lots of letters from fans who wanted Luke and Mara to get together. “By the end of The Last Command, she had gotten through her induced trauma. She and Luke were starting to become friends. I did get letters from mostly preteen girls who wanted them to get together. And my thought was it's too soon. That would be an artificial sort of thing. Let's be friends for a while.”

However, Zahn was given a chance to revisit the idea in a later book. When Bantam Spectra was nearing the end of their publishing agreement with Lucasfilm, they asked Zahn to come back to write another book. The story became too big for one novel, so it became a two book duology. Specter of the Past was published in 1997, and Vision of the Future followed in 1998. Together they would be known as the Hand of Thrawn duology.

“Bantam came to me and said we'd like you to do the end of this 12 books. And I said, 'Okay, this sounds fun. Two conditions, I want to end the war with the Empire. It's been going on long enough, let's come to a peace treaty and some kind of arrangement with them. And secondly, I want to get Luke and Mara together.' And they came back and said okay on the Empire but we want to keep Luke and Mara's relationship - I don't remember the term ambiguous or unresolved. Something like that, apparently they didn't want to do that,” Zahn recalls.

Zahn politely thanked Lucasfilm, and passed on the project. However, that wasn’t the end of the story. “About two weeks later, I got a call back from the editor with basically 'Okay, if you want you can do that.' Not necessarily that tone, but that's how I remember it. So Lucasfilm eventually went ahead and caved.”

While writing Specter of the Past, Zahn had to catch up on all the developments that had happened to Luke and his allies since he had been away. Numerous books had been published about the characters, and getting up to speed wouldn’t be an easy task. Zahn wound up turning to an early internet fansite, which he found to be an invaluable resource.

“There was a group called the Club Jade Star Ladies, they used a forum online shortly after the Thrawn Trilogy was published,” Zahn says. “I don't have time to read all these books. Hand of Thrawn became a duology, it was supposed to be one book, but it got long. It comes after Black Fleet Crisis. Okay, I need a two page summary of what Lando was doing in Black Fleet Crisis so I can pick him up there. And they would send out the word to their members and the people who had read those books. They would write up stuff and I would get emails of okay, this is what Lando was doing. I had people doing all of this research for me.”

The decision to marry Luke and Mara had an interesting ripple effect in the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Other writers were still telling stories in other points of the timeline, and the wedding changed their plans.

“The fun thing about this is from that point on all the other authors knew Luke and Mara were going to get together at the end of this. And all of them who were bringing in a love interest for Luke had to write her back out again. The fact that everybody knew and nobody leaked it, that is a really high level professionalism. And I applaud all the authors that were involved at that point,” Zahn notes.

Writing for the new canon

Thrawn book cover
Image credit: Lucasfilm

After Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012, the Star Wars publishing line was rebranded. Every novel published before 2014 was classified as Legends, and would not be part of canon going forward. The Lucasfilm Story Group was established, and they became responsible for overseeing all Star Wars media to ensure it fit into the new canon. This meant that Zahn’s popular Thrawn Trilogy was no longer part of official canon.

Despite this, the book has never been out of print. Although the novels are no longer in continuity, characters and concepts from them have made their way into canon stories. Grand Admiral Thrawn was even brought into the animated series Star Wars: Rebels.

“They told me about his upcoming appearances in Rebels season three and four about eight months before it was announced. That was mostly because they needed me to get to work on the prequel book Thrawn that would lead into that,” Zahn says.

Zahn wrote a book called Thrawn, which served as a tie-in to the villain’s appearance in Rebels. Zahn found the addition of the Story Group to be an invaluable resource.

“Kudos to Lucasfilm, Since the Disney sale and the codification of the Story Group, it's gone even smoother, because we've got this group of people watching all the details and making sure everything is synced up together. And that takes a big burden off of me because they're saying things I would never think of even asking, let alone know how to research.”

The future for Thrawn

Zahn then addressed the rumors about Thrawn appearing in live-action.

“The question you're not asking but you probably want to is, no I don't know anything about the live-action. I get crickets every time I ask for information.”

While Zahn had been given a heads up about Thrawn’s appearance on Star Wars: Rebels, the author notes that this is different.

“I think that was mostly because I needed the lead time to write the book and not because they felt any obligation to let me know what's going on. Lucasfilm is very paranoid about stuff leaking out and I hear Disney is worse. The fact that I've got a 30-year track record of keeping secrets doesn't seem to matter. I will see it when everybody else does.”

Whatever the future holds, it’s clear that Zahn isn’t done with Star Wars, and Star Wars isn’t done with Zahn. Heir to the Empire helped kickstart the Star Wars Expanded Universe, and its influence can still be felt today. Although the stories have been classified as non-canonical Legends, they are just as relevant and beloved now as they were in the '90s. Timothy Zahn may not have created the Star Wars universe, but he is one of its most influential architects.

Need an explainer to catch up on Grand Admiral Thrawn and his backstory? Popverse has got you covered.

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