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Timothy Zahn on Grand Admiral Thrawn: ‘He’s like an old friend who I understand completely’

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Returning to the Star Wars universe and making a good villain

Image: Lucasfilm

Earlier this month, a new novel from author Timothy Zahn arrived in bookstores that Star Wars fans have been waiting a long time for: the definitive origin story for Grand Admiral Thrawn. The character, first introduced in 1991’s Heir to the Empire, has remained a favorite villain in the franchise and was recently brought back into the official continuity through the animated series Star Wars Rebels.

Thrawn serves as an origin story for the character we meet in Rebels, as well as that of the Expanded Universe novels that Zahn wrote decades ago. It follows Thrawn as he rises through the ranks of the Imperial Navy, meeting a number of characters from Rebels along the way as he tracks down smugglers and the earliest Rebel movements against the Empire.

We recently had a chance to chat with Zahn about the legacy of the Grand Admiral, and how it felt to return to the Star Wars universe.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Your first Star Wars novel, Heir to the Empire, came out in 1991, and introduced readers to Grand Admiral Thrawn. He’s since become one of the most popular characters in Star Wars lore: what do you think is the reason behind his enduring popularity?

I think it’s because he was so different from any other villain we’d seen in Star Wars to that time. Most Imperials seemed to follow the “hit it with a rock” school of thought regarding opposition. Thrawn, in contrast, used strategy and careful planning and usually managed to be two or three steps ahead of the New Republic.

Readers like their villains to be a challenge to the heroes because that forces the heroes to bring their best game to the field. The more clever the opponent, and the more difficult the fight, the more satisfying the victory.

One of the things that I came across recently is a Lego set with a Thrawn minifigure. It blows my mind that a favorite character from a book has reached that level of cultural penetration.

Yes, that is unbelievably cool. We bought two of the kits, kept one in the package and assembled the other. It currently sits on my model display shelf, along with my Star Destroyers and other assorted SF models.

Image: Del Rey Books

When did you learn that Dave Filoni was intending to bring Thrawn to Rebels, and did you have any input into how the character would be handled?

I was invited to LFL in mid-November 2015 with the vague reason that they wanted to “chat about Star Wars.” There were hints that this was going to be something important, but I had no idea what was going on until everyone was assembled in the conference room and Dave dropped the news on me. Needless to say, I was floored. They then showed me the clip of Thrawn’s first appearance and I got a tour of the Rebels bullpen and a chance to meet all the terrific people who work on the show.

I didn’t have any real input into how Thrawn was going to be handled, mainly because the lead time of an animated series is so long that much of season 3 had already been finished. But I trusted Dave and the team to do the character right. After all, why bring him into Rebels if you were going to drastically change him? Having seen the entire season now, I think we can agree that my trust was completely justified.

When Filoni announced that Thrawn was returning, we also learned that you would be writing a book about him. How did you work with the Rebels crew to come up with the novel?

After my tour of the Rebels work area, I was taken back upstairs and a handful of us sat down and discussed the new book they wanted me to write. Since the novel would be a prequel to Thrawn’s appearance in the show, there wouldn’t be any overlap to worry about. All I really had to do was gather whatever information they could give me about Thrawn’s season 3 story arc and look for places I could foreshadow events of the series in Thrawn’s earlier experiences.

One of the things that I really appreciated about the novel is the story of Thrawn’s rise to power, along with some familiar faces from The Clone Wars and Rebels. What research did you have to do in order to get those details right?

There really wasn’t much I had to do. I’d noticed from reading the season 3 scripts I’d been shown that Thrawn’s interactions with various officials didn’t feel like it was their first meeting. If they’d met before, the novel was the perfect place to show those meetings and the growth of the various relationships. After that, it was a matter of checking a few backstories and putting the other characters into the proper places in the timeline.

Image: Del Rey Books

How do you navigate bringing back a character who already has an extensive backstory and audience expectations, with telling a new story that fits in the new continuity?

Actually, I didn’t find that to be a problem. I’d never written Thrawn in this part of the Star Wars timeline, so it was simply a matter of bringing him into the Empire and chronicling his rise through the ranks. It’s still the same character as in the 1990s books, just a decade or two younger and in a very different military and political environment.

You talk a little about Thrawn’s motivations in this novel (they’re complicated), but can you speak to whether or not you see Thrawn as a good guy making the best out of a terrible situation, or do you see him as part of the evil of the Empire?

I don’t see him as evil, per se, but he’s certainly allied himself with some nasty people. But as you say, there are reasons for what he does, and while people might disagree with his methods, I think we can all understand his goals.

That’s a key part of creating a good villain. The readers need to understand his or her motivations and reasoning, even if they disagree with that point of view.

Had Thrawn’s origins ever been pitched before as a novel? How closely were you able to match it up with your original vision for the character?

This had never been on my Star Wars book wish list, mainly because most of my other novels had featured the movie characters and there would really be no place for them in a story set in this part of the Star Wars timeline.

But again, I didn’t have a problem matching things up. In the end, Thrawn is who he is, and the fun is watching him face new and different challenges.

Heir to the Empire came out in 1991, and almost three decades later, you’ve told his origins. How has the process for a Star Wars novel changed for you, and how do you think you’ve changed as a writer in that time?

I really haven’t changed that much as a writer. I’ve gotten faster, and — hopefully — some of my rougher narrative edges have been worn off. I still plot the same way, construct a novel the same way, and do my best to tell a story the readers will enjoy.

As for writing Star Wars specifically, the presence of the Story Group overseeing the whole saga is immensely helpful. They help me keep track of what else is happening in the [Star Wars universe], offer suggestions where something I’ve written doesn’t work (for various reasons), and in general help make the book the best it can possibly be. Add my Del Rey editor, Elizabeth Schaefer, into the mix, and we have a terrific team.

Photo by Andrew Liptak / The Verge

How did it feel to come back to Thrawn, so many years after you created him?

Really, it’s like I never left. I’ve written about him so much over the years that he’s like an old friend who I understand completely.

What’s next for Thrawn? Does he survive the Rebellion?

No idea. But I’m sure someone is working on that.

What’s next for you and the Star Wars universe, and what’s next for you outside of the franchise? I seem to remember you saying that you had been thinking about an Icarus Hunt sequel?

I’ve just finished the ninth book of my Cobra saga, which should be out early next year. A new series, Sibyl’s War, begins in May from Tor; the first book is Pawn. I’m also currently working on the third book of the Manticore Ascendant series with David Weber. And I have sequels to The Icarus Hunt and the Conquerors Trilogy floating around the back of my mind.

As for Star Wars, I have hopes of doing more, but nothing has been decided yet. Hopefully, we’ll be rejoining Thrawn for new adventures somewhere down the road.