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Star Wars author Timothy Zahn on Thrawn: Alliances and toxic fandom

In Zahn’s latest novel, two of the franchise’s greatest villains — Grand Admiral Thrawn and Darth Vader — meet and join forces

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Photo by Andrew Liptak / The Verge

Earlier this week, Timothy Zahn published his latest Star Wars novel, Thrawn: Alliances. The book is the sequel to his 2016 novel Thrawn, a long-untold origin story for his fan-favorite character, Grand Admiral Thrawn. In the new novel, he brings together two of the franchise’s greatest villains: Thrawn and Darth Vader.

Thrawn, originally introduced in Zahn’s 1991 novel Heir to the Empire, is a master tactician who attempted to resurrect the Empire after Return of the Jedi. While that storyline was wiped out when Disney acquired LucasFilm and reset the franchise’s canon, Thrawn was reintroduced in Star Wars Rebels, and Zahn wrote the definitive origin story for the character in Thrawn — which could serve both the old canon and the new. Thrawn: Alliances picks up the story, but alternates between an encounter between Anakin Skywalker and Thrawn during The Clone Wars, and much later, during the events of Rebels.

At San Diego Comic-Con, I sat down with Zahn to chat about his book, the challenge of working within Star Wars’ larger story, and his thoughts on bringing together two of the franchise’s greatest villains.

Image: Penguin Random House

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How does it feel to be writing about Thrawn again?

Oh, it’s a lot of fun. Thrawn is a great character to write. It was really like I was never away from the last books I did. He’s a fun character to deal with, because he’s more antagonist than villain, which means the readers can understand him better than perhaps someone like General Grievous. Thrawn has always been smarter than the average imperial officer, and he forces the good guys to bring their A-game to the field. It’s always fun to have the characters out-think each other, rather than just “Who’s got the bigger blaster?” or “Can lightsabers and the Force save the day this time?”

It’s always fun to have the characters out-think each other

Thrawn feels like if it had been written before the canonization purge a couple of years ago, or if you squinted a bit, it would serve as a perfect setup for Heir to the Empire.

Oh, I don’t think you need to squint at all. I wrote him in these two books to fit in with everything else I’d done. So if someone at Lucasfilm snapped their fingers, and suddenly all of my other books were canon, and there would be no real retrofitting that would have to go in. It would all fit together.

Thrawn: Alliances feels more at home in the new canon, especially because Thrawn has been fleshed out a bit more in Rebels. Was there any adjustments for that?

Not really. I’m getting to play with more canon characters like Vader and Padmé and Anakin, but the character himself, I still see him as the same person. He’s got goals, and he won’t necessarily share them with you, but he as long as you’re going the same direction, he’s happy to cooperate and assist along the way.

Art: LucasFilm

For the longest time, the prequel era was off-limits. How was going back to add in those details?

I liked it. Padmé did not have that much to do in the prequel movies, but they fleshed out a lot more in the Clone Wars series, and that was the Padmé I wanted to write about. Being able to pick up that character and have her be really competent, in action when she needs to be, diplomatic when she needs to be. She’s a fun character to play with. Of course Anakin and Vader are two sides: you have two hints of what Anakin will become, you can have hints of Vader’s past, and linking them together in the storyline was really fun.

What I really appreciated about The Clone Wars was that when we see Anakin in Attack of the Clones, he’s a younger, angry man, while in Revenge of the Sith, he’s more serious, but right on the verge of going to the dark side. The series really showed off his evolution between films.

What we’ve got is some of the same distrust between Anakin and Thrawn as we have with Vader and Thrawn. But it’s a very different dynamic, because Vader isn’t sure he trusts Thrawn, while on the other hand, the Emperor still has use for him, so he’s limiting himself. Anakin doesn’t have any of that background, and he’s being forced to work with Thrawn because of the circumstances. So there’s a distrust, but it’s a different flavor of distrust, and both of them learn to understand one another better.

What was your approach to bringing together these two great villains?

Both of them have strengths, and the idea whenever you do a match-up like this is to make sure they complement each other. Vader’s got the Force. As Anakin, he was an excellent pilot. He can sense and do various things. Thrawn can see stuff that maybe other people don’t: he can anticipate, while Vader can be the brute force.

By the end they are working more or less together

By the end they are working more or less together. There’s still a little bit of distrust on Vader’s part, but again, he recognizes Thrawn’s abilities and knows how to use them in whatever problem they are facing.

This is also a younger Darth Vader than we’ve usually seen — by the time we hit the films, he’s very much a powerhouse, but here, it feels like he’s a little more reckless and ready to jump into action.

Well, it’s been what... 16, 17, 18 years since he became Vader, so he’s not new to the whole thing. But he’s still developing, somewhat, and of course, he’s got the memories of Anakin — who he refers to as The Jedi — to distance himself from that part of his life. He’s got those memories that are going to also entangle things, and as we see in the prologue, the Emperor, on some level, wants to see what happens when he visits some of those memories.

You have the planet Batuu as a central location, and it’s the basis for the upcoming Star Wars Land, Galaxy’s Edge. How did that figure into this book? What materials were you able to draw on?

They gave me some of the sketches and descriptions of what Galaxy’s Edge will be like. But I’m not writing in the same era that that’s set. Galaxy’s Edge is set in the sequel era, with Rey and the First Order. I’m quite a bit before that, so while I can keep the basics of how the town is structured, because towns often don’t change that much physically, the people there won’t necessarily translate from the book to the park. But it gives a little introduction, and a little flavor of what it’s going to be like.

Image: Del Rey Books

When you started writing Heir to the Empire, you were writing without much of the world being fleshed out. Here, you have a world with a lot more established detail. How has that changed your process when it comes to developing a story and playing within that world?

The constraints can be tricky. I do my first pass through things like Wookieepedia, and just make sure I’m not stepping on something that’s obviously been done. For anything that is not covered, I rely on the Star Wars Story Group to let me know about what’s in the works that I couldn’t possibly know about. They help keep the constraints, but also keep the consistency, which I really appreciate.

Has the Story Group significantly changed how the novels are conceived? Before, authors would generally just pitch ideas to Lucasfilm, but this feels like a more streamlined process.

It does. At the end of the presale era, the last few books I did before that were largely relying on Leland Chee, the keeper of the Holocron, with his phenomenal memory for Star Wars, and of course [senior editor] Jennifer Heddle, the book person. They were largely taking that role. By expanding it into the story group, which also has fingers in all the pies everywhere, it’s more streamlined, it’s more efficient. People would ask about Thrawn, “Was Tarkin a Grand Moff at the time?” I can unequivocally say “Absolutely,” because the Story Group didn’t flag it as wrong. That’s very freeing, because I know I have less of a fear of running into a wall someplace and knowing these guys around the warning track.

Working with LucasFilm’s Story Group is “freeing”

This book takes place shortly after the end of season 5 of The Clone Wars, after Ahsoka leaves the Jedi order. We just learned that the show is coming back, and that she and Anakin reunite, so did you have to set your book between those times?

I didn’t know that at the time, but yes. The saving grace is that each segment here is no more than a couple of weeks, and no matter what Dave Filoni does, I can probably slip it into the gap before the show comes back.

The entertainment industry is no longer just about books or movies — it’s about overarching, coordinated multimedia IP. How important do you think it is to the fan experience to have that coordination, versus “Here’s another adventure in this world”? It feels like these franchises are far more heavily geared toward fans than before.

My feeling is, they don’t have to all interconnect with everything. But if you have a standalone game, it should fit the continuity. You shouldn’t have Captain America in two places at the same time, for example. But you also have to be careful: you cannot have something unexplained in a movie, and then explain it the novelization. It’s not fair to the moviegoer that they’d have to find out the details of this unexplained thing somewhere else. Now, you can deepen what’s going on, but the movie should be its own experience.

What do you think this says for how fan culture has changed since Thrawn was introduced? There’s a lot of passion now for side characters.

Some of that, we created with the Expanded Universe — now Legends. The idea was to have a saga that would fill the gap after Return of the Jedi, where there were no other movies planned. I’m sure building that — I mean, it was different. Star Trek had done something similar with a lot of books in previous years. But the thing with them was that typically, you had to leave the characters at the end of the book basically where you started with them. You couldn’t change anything — you couldn’t have Kirk and Uhura get married, and have that continue on in later books or something. You had to be very episodic, because there was not a timeline where people would read them all in chronological order and follow the developments.

Star Wars led the way by telling a story where the characters continually grew

But [George] Lucas did a lot of that with the movies. We are not going to leave everybody at the end of The Empire Strikes Back the same way — Luke lost a hand. He’s now got a mechanical hand, and is heading in the same direction as his father, and that will pay off in the next movie. People are being changed throughout. A good example of something that has an overarching plot is Babylon 5 from the 1990s, where we have some episodes that are largely episodic, but all have this plot thread. I think George [Lucas] started that, and J. Michael Straczynski continued it, and now we’ve done that with the books, comics, and games.

It’s very commonplace now, with shows like Battlestar Galactica and The Expanse.

Yeah. It didn’t use to be that way. But you’re right, it is commonplace these days. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is following the same pattern: our heroes are where you leave them at the end of this movie, here’s where you pick them up in the next movie. There are conflicts, there are losses, and they’re doing the same sort of thing with their universe.

How do you see fandom as having changed through all that from the EU to now? It feels like we’ve taken a toxic turn.

I think fandom in many ways is following the trend in the world in general of less civility and more toxicity. A lot of that is the anonymity of the internet. People generally will not come up to me and say, “I hate your books,” but on the internet, they can say that because they are essentially anonymous, even if they have their name. You’re never going to face whoever you’re picking on.

But you’re right — it’s gotten very, very toxic. And it’s bleeding over into real life as well. People say and do things in public they never would have done 40 years ago, because the public would... there’s a certain amount of shame and disapproval from the overall society. A lot of that seems to have eroded away. So much of it is misplaced. It’s just bizarre that people pick on an actor or an actress for a movie they don’t like. This actor or actress did not write or direct it! They did what they were told! It’s not their fault.

Especially with The Last Jedi, it seems like there’s a very entitled sense of “this film didn’t turn out the way I expected, therefore it’s the worst thing in the world.”

You can go up to disapprove of something, but going up into hatred is just wrong and wasteful. There are more things in this world that deserve some hatred rather than movies or universes or fan things. There’s still a whole lot of slavery in the world! Let’s save our hate for that. How about that, guys?

What role do you think a movie, or a book like Thrawn, has in leading the fans somewhere a bit more uncomfortable, as opposed to wish-fulfillment?

Well, my job is to write a story that people will enjoy, where they’ll be surprised or will like the characters. And at the end of the reading, they will say, “Yes, this was worth the X dollars and the Y hours I put into it.” If I’m really lucky, it will be worth a second or third read. I’m not out to change the world — I’m out to entertain people. If I provide some good role models, or if the characters help people through a bad time in their lives, I didn’t go into that with that goal, but if that happens, it’s just a bonus. My job is entertainment — if I can help, if I can be there through a deployment, or trouble in your life. If the book is simply something you remember as a good time, and that book anchors that memory, that’s just an extra, added bonus, and it makes the job that much more worthwhile.