Timothy Zahn’s novella “Cascade Point” won the 1984 Hugo Award. He is the author of nine Star Wars Expanded Universe novels, with a tenth on the way and is generally considered to be the man who revived the Expanded Universe tie-in novels with his original Thrawn trilogy in the 1990s. Beginning with Heir To The Empire, the trilogy marked a revival for the series, bringing it widespread attention and sending his novels and every one that’s followed to the top of the New York Times best-seller lists. He has also written a series of young adult science fiction novels, The Dragonback books, two military science fiction Cobra trilogies, five Quadrail novels, and numerous other novels, many for TOR and Baen. His latest novel, Judgement At Proteus, is the concluding novel in the Quadrail series of old fashioned space opera novels with a detective noir feel. He can be found online via his Facebook Author page at www.facebook.com/TimothyZahn.
Where’d your interest in science fiction and fantasy come from?
Timothy Zahn: I read voraciously as I was growing up – dinosaurs, mythology, SF, fantasy – pretty much everything I could get hold of. As I exhausted the local library’s collection of everything else, I eventually gravitated to the SF and fantasy shelves.
Who are some of your favorite author and book influences?
TZ: I’ve read everything from Poul Anderson to Roger Zelazny, and everything’s had an influence on me to one degree or another. When I started writing, though, there were four authors in particular whom I set up as my models: Larry Niven, for hard science; Theodore Sturgeon, for characterization and dialog; Keith Laumer, for humor and plot twists; and Alistair MacLean, for tension, plot twists, and the hard-boiled-detective first-person voice.
When did you develop an interest in writing and how did you pursue that? Classes? Workshops? Learn on your own?
TZ: I’m pretty much self-taught. Writing, fortunately, is one of those things that you can learn on your own.
How long did you write before making your first sale?
TZ: I wrote my first story in November, 1975, and made my first sale in December, 1978 (“Ernie,” Analog, September 1979). As a side note, I started writing full time in 1980, and started making a living in 1984. Moral: if you can keep a day job, you should probably do so.
Let’s get the big monkey off our backs first. How’d you get started writing Star Wars tie-ins? You’re known for revitalizing the line, and that’s because reading the Thrawn trilogy was like watching movies all over again. You really did an amazing job.
TZ: Thank you. Back in 1988, Lou Aronica, who was head of Bantam Spectra, wrote to LFL proposing a three-book continuation of the Star Wars saga, a trilogy that would pick up after Return of the Jedi. The letter apparently got set aside, and by the time it resurfaced LFL had started thinking on their own about possibly restarting their adult novel line. Bantam and LFL held some discussions back and forth, and eventually agreed to do the project. Bantam sent LFL a list of possible authors, LFL picked my style as fitting Star Wars best, and I got an early November 1989 call from my agent offering the project.
Were you a fan of Star Wars before that?
TZ: Absolutely! I went to see the first movie the second night it showed in Champaign, Illinois (on opening night, sadly, I was busy battling a computer problem on my thesis work). By the time that Star Destroyer finished rumbling past overhead I knew this was going to be good.
Where’d the idea for Frank Compton, the Modhri, and the Quadrail come from?
TZ: The basic idea was to create a different kind of interstellar transport system, one where you were strictly limited as to where you could get into and out of the system. I was a big fan of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, and so I started mulling as to whether there was a way I could put trains in space. Once I had the science and tech of the Tube planned out, I worked Frank, Bayta, the Spiders, and the Modhri into the mix. Night Train to Rigel was the result.
Originally it was intended to be a standalone book, but my editor liked it enough that he asked for more. Since there was clearly plenty of story left to tell, I agreed.
Did you plan to do five books all along in the Quadrail series?
TZ: Once we extended the original book into a series, my plan was to do six books. Unfortunately, after I finished Judgment at Proteus my editor informed me that Tor was cancelling the series and wouldn’t contract for a sixth book. I didn’t want to leave the readers hanging, so I arranged with Tor to take back Judgment and add a truncated version of the sixth book to the end of it.
The pacing is unfortunately a little off because of that, and there’s a fair amount of material I had to leave out. But at least I was able to finish the story.
How long does it typically take you to write a novel?
TZ: I usually schedule four months per book, but I’m getting so that I can often turn out a book faster than that. (Star Wars: Scoundrels, for example, was finished in three months.)
I notice you do very little short fiction these days. I’m assuming it’s a time factor but are novels your preferred form?
TZ: You’re right, it’s mostly a time factor. Most of the short fiction I do these days is commissioned, usually by a magazine or an anthology editor.
Still, I’ve published 18 short stories, novelettes, and novellas in the past ten years (including one two-parter and one three-parter), so I haven’t entirely left the field.
What role does your background as a scientist play in your writing?
TZ: Knowing some science is certainly helpful, but more importantly I think it’s given me insight on how to create science and tech and make it sound reasonable. In other words, I can fake my science better than I probably could without that background.
What future projects are you working on that we can look forward to, besides the highly anticipated Star Wars: Scoundrels?
TZ: I have a short story coming out in the Star Wars Insider sometime before Scoundrels (it’s a heist featuring the twins Bink and Tavia from the novel). I’m also working with Honor Harrington creator David Weber on a novella for an upcoming Honorverse anthology. The first book of the new Cobra Rebellion trilogy, Cobra Slave, will be published early next year, as will Pawn, the first book of the new Sibyl’s War trilogy.
There are also several other project possibilities that have suddenly cropped up over the past few weeks. I can’t talk about any of them yet, but I’ll post information on my Facebook page (www.facebook.com/TimothyZahn) as the details get firmed up.
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, and The Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and several short stories featured in anthologies and magazines. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. As a freelance editor, he’s edited a novels and nonfiction. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter under the hashtag #sffwrtcht. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping For The Wind and SFSignal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.