Thursday, August 25, 2011

Timothy Zahn & Michael Stackpole Interview

Jade Crusades’ very own Mazzic was fortunate enough to interview Star Wars authors Timothy Zahn and Michael Stackpole while at San Diego Comic-Con 2001. Zahn and Stackpole may well be the most formidable team of Star Wars writers, having scripted the entire Mara Jade: By the Emperor’s Hand comic series for Dark Horse, as well as writing the short story Encounter at Darkknell. Zahn has been credited with originally continuing the Star Wars saga with his first "Thrawn Trilogy" books, as well as the "Hand of Thrawn Duology." Stackpole has written many of the "X-Wing" books, I, Jedi, and the "Dark Tide Duology" in the New Jedi Order Series. Both have written numerous short comic and fiction stories set within the Star Wars universe.

So, how are you enjoying San Diego Comic-Con, 2001?

TZ It’s been fun so far. I've heard the big crunch comes on Saturday.

MS That's right. No blood, no pain yet. So yeah, we're doing fine.

As you know, Jade Crusades is a fan created website, dedicated to Mara Jade. The following questions will involve her, in some way, shape, or form. So, Mr. Zahn, how did you come up with a character as Mara Jade in the first place?

TZ When I start a book, I work on the plot; organizing the story line, figuring out where all the plot threads are going to start and end up. And at that time, all the characters show up as sort of cardboard placeholders. I have a villain here; let's call him Grand Admiral Thrawn. I have somebody here; lets call him Garm Bel Iblis. And we have this character here who we'll call The Emperor's Hand, Mara Jade. Originally her role was, or where she showed up in the outline, was as a link between the first part of Return of the Jedi and the rest of the Star Wars saga. The rescue of Han always seemed sort of disconnected. So I decided there was an agent of the Emperor there, waiting to kill Luke. And that seemed to link it back to the main story line of the movies. Well, as the plot developed, so did the characters. So her original role was as a link, and then she grew as I worked her into the character she became.

Who did you model Mara's personality after?

TZ No one in particular. Every author has this grab bag of people, ideas, thoughts, phraseology and such that has gone in the back of our minds, and everything we have experienced. So we just reach in there and grab out pieces, mix and match. I wanted someone who could be a strong woman who could stand up to Luke. I've always liked the somewhat sarcastic voiced characters, especially when there is a reason for the sarcasm. They're not just a nasty person. But with Mara, it's a calculated technique. Basically just as a foil for Luke. Perhaps, in some ways, the same way Han had been a foil for Leia. But not in the same exact way.

What ideas from Lucasfilm did you receive when creating her character?

TZ None at all. Lucasfilm basically kept hands off of my project. They would tell me when there were things I couldn't do, and showed me the boundaries of the field, but there were no "you should do this, you should do that plot lines we'd like started in this book". Nothing like that. I had pretty much free rein within the boundaries they set. Great experience working for them, because of that. I felt a lot of freedom.

Are you amazed that a character you've created has become so popular with Star Wars fans?

TZ I'm always amazed that people like the books. You know, as a writer, I’m never sure, when I finish a book, whether anybody is going to like it.

MS *laughing*

TZ I don't know if there are any surprises, and it-

MS *laughing*

TZ Stop laughing, Mike.

MS *continues to laugh*

TZ I don't know if there are any surprises for the reader, because I know where everything is going. So it's impossible for me to anticipate what the reaction is going to be. So, starting with that, then the popularity of Mara Jade has been completely flabbergasting.

Obviously. How do you feel about the New Jedi Order, and how her character has developed?

TZ I haven't really been following New Jedi Order. Um...what I know about it, I know I trust Mike to handle Mara. I read Kathy Tyer's handling of her because Kathy asked me to. Aside from those two, I don't know where exactly it’s been going, or how they've been dealing with her.

How do you both feel about the new addition to the Skywalker family, as written in the latest books Balance Point, Conquest, and the upcoming Rebirth?

MS You know, I knew there was going to be an addition, and it'll be interesting to see how it develops. I mean, a baby...a baby is a baby.

TZ *laughing*

MS I suppose this one can elevate bottles to itself, and other annoying things. But what happens with that, it's a nice turn, it's a nice twist, and I think it's a good maturation point for Mara and for Luke. I think it will provide areas for growth for both of them as characters, but I also think, that given the story arc and the events that are going on, there is not going to be as much growth there as we might like to see.

TZ And always assuming that the writers know how to handle it. Writing for young children is very hard to do, and I think a lot of writers who are good at writing for adults or teenagers, may not be able to capture a two year old, or a five year old quite as well. We'll have to see what happens.

Do you have any hopes for the young Skywalker?

TZ I think it will be an interesting...very potentially interesting character, considering - is it a him or a her?

It's a him.

TZ Him. Considering his parentage. You've got a lot of interesting family dynamics you can play with there. The question will be what happens in future books, how the authors who deal with the growing up, or the raising of the child, see the relationship, see the dynamic and go on with it.

MS Writing is not like a math problem. You look at "what do you think is going to happen with the Skywalker child," or "what are your hopes for?" Well, this is not a math problem. For every writer that could possibly deal with it, there would be a different answer. I think that for us, as long as there is an exciting story that is told that keeps the characters within character – And yet, if you look at the saga, you know the way Tim and I view Mara is not necessarily the same way that other people view Mara. So it will be interesting to see the interpretations, and watch how things develop. And then we'll do it right.

*laughter around table*

TZ Of course.

Speaking of youth, what age was Mara taken from her parents?

TZ I have no idea. I'm not sure Mara does. I've been asked various times. There are two schools of thought on Mara's history. One school is, "Tell us everything about her." The other school says, "No, keep her mysterious." And I've dropped a few hints in the books, some of which may of may not be true. Because, as you know, with children you can implant memories just by telling them something that supposedly happened. So even Mara's recollections may not be accurate. Up to this point, I've deliberately avoided giving any real details. I haven't decided if I ever will.

So there is no back-story, because some of her memories may have been implanted by the Emperor?

TZ Until it’s actually written, hopefully or preferably by me, it doesn't exist.

MS It's one of those things, especially about developing characters and stuff, you can have general feels and you can guide things, but then when you're asked to do a story, or when that story occurs to you, and you're able to back fill things, you do that in accord to what you've already written. Trying to fill in too much means you kind of limit and trap yourself, whereas being able to do it later makes it far more dynamic and a lot more fun.

TZ It's very similar to doing a map of the story you're doing, and I never fill in areas I'm not going to be dealing with in a book, because I may want to go on with another book or story. I don't want something up here limiting me, even in my thought process, as to what is out in this area. And same with character development. If you put it down, even on paper just for yourself, as Mike said, you'll limit your own mental thought processes in going back.

What age was Mara given the title "The Emperor’s Hand?"

TZ Probably soon after her training, I'm guessing 12 or 13. But I don't know that for sure either.

MS I defer to Tim. I mean, everything I've done, I just pick up on the stuff that Tim has laid out there with a sense of the character. Now she's what, two years older than Luke? Something like that?

TZ I set her about the same age...I don't know what has been established. Neither younger or older.

MS Yeah, I think it's two years older, actually.

TZ Older? Okay, that'd make more sense otherwise she'd be 16 when the Death Star blew up. And that wouldn't work very well.

MS The important thing is, you've got this very dynamic, very strong character. And a character who's strength shields her, and yet is capable of great feeling, great loyalty, inside. It's a fascinating character to write.

TZ In many ways, she has a marshmallow center she doesn't want to have. She doesn't want to need people, doesn't want to rely on people. And at the same time, if she decides you are her friend, she will defend you to the death. In some ways, she wants to be able to give loyalty more than she is willing to except it. Plus it's very interesting, in a complex character.

MS That made her so much fun to use in I, Jedi. The first time that she and Corran meet, they are not getting along at all. It's sort of like, "Look, can we hit the reset button here?" Once there's sort of that de-escalation, they actually become friends. And Mara comes back and faces the ghost of a Dark Lord of the Sith to help him out. *laughter* I mean that's a lot of loyalty!

TZ She's really the kind of person you'd want on you side in a fight.

As the Emperor's Hand, how do you figure Mara would have viewed Darth Vader? Was she jealous?

TZ He was another associate of the Emperor. The Emperor says, "He is my apprentice, he is one of my tools, leave him be." And that would be it for Mara. The Emperor was basically the "be all" and "end all" of her life at that point.

And how do you figure Vader would have viewed Mara?

TZ I don't think he would have trusted her at all. I don't think that he would have particularly liked her. Simply because he was steeped in the Dark Side, and the Dark Side is ultimately one of selfishness. "Me first." Mara, for all of her service to the Emperor, was not in the Dark Side. And I think that would have bothered Vader. He would not have seen Palpatine as having the same hold over Mara as he did over Vader himself, and Vader would not have liked that.

MS I think ultimately, Vader would have seen the fact that she was never of the Dark Side as her naivety, and a weakness. Just as he did with Luke, and that would have been something he would have exploited if ever necessary.

Could you elaborate on some of the missions Mara would have gone through as the Emperor's Hand?

TZ I have a limit. I've done three or four of them in the Mara Jade comic books, and another short story comic in Star Wars Tales. I can't elaborate on anything that hasn't been written yet because I might want to write it some day! She would have been his "wild card." She would have been outside the Chain of Command. Anything he wanted done, without leaving any kind of – you can't say paper trail, there is no paper trail – electronic trail that might lead or point back to him, that's what she would be doing. She'd be investigating; she'd be doing assassinations; she'd be doing justice as the Emperor saw it, on traitors and people trying to feather out their own nest at the Empire's expense. Her loyalty would be to Palpatine and the Empire, and she would do whatever he told her to do, consistently close.

So how much training in the Force did she receive?

TZ A fair amount. But she had a lot of linkage to the Emperor that limited – that got her abilities fading after his death. It lasted for a while, but then it kind of faded away. So she wasn't as independent in the Force as Luke and Vader were. And possibly that was by design in case Palpatine would have had any questions about her and her loyalty, and what might happen in the future with her, and therefore built in a limiting factor to her. The guy was a conniver you've got to face that.

How much training in the field of dance did she receive?

TZ She probably picked it up on her own as part of the various disguises and covers she would use.

Did she actually enjoy dancing then, or did she just use it as a cover up?

TZ Just a tool. I'm not sure what she really enjoyed in that time of her life, except doing what Palpatine told her to do. Successfully completing a job in the professional way she wanted to do it, and hearing the Emperor's thanks when she came home.

MS There is a section in the Mara Jade comic where she literally comes back from that mission, is told to enjoy herself, and goes and does all the things people would do to enjoy themselves. But it's almost as if she's trying to try on the role of "who would I be if I were free to enjoy myself?" When, given her training, her enjoyment was hearing the Emperor say "good job." She didn't really have those distractions. Could she find pleasure in dancing? I have no doubt that if she and Luke danced, that she'd find it was absolutely wonderful. But –

TZ But dancing in front of Jabba is not the same thing at all.

Given the chance to write another Mara Jade story, what era would you chose? As the Emperor's Hand, top smuggler, or Jedi Master?

TZ Actually, I've probably got ideas in all three eras. I've got a story proposed that will take place after the comic, after the Emperor's death and she's on her own. And Mike and I have been kicking around a four-part story that picks up between Visions of the Future and the New Jedi Order. Luke, Mara, Corran, and Mirax go off on a little vacation together.

MS (laughing) Actually, Mara and Mirax go off on a vacation together and Luke and Corran have to pick up the pieces. (laughing) "They did what to a planet?!"
(laughter from table)

TZ We have some plotting ideas, and if we get to do this thing, it's going to be a lot of fun.

MS (uncontrollable laughter subsiding) Yeah.

TZ You may remember at one point, is it Corran? No, Luke...

MS No, it's Corran. Corran says to Luke, "We can never let them meet."

TZ "We can never let them meet."

What other Star Wars projects are you working on?

MS Well, we've done some outlines for possible projects for Dark Horse and are waiting to hear back on those, and we'll talk to other people. And of course, Tim and I appearing as Talon Karrde and Corran Horn in cards, it is one of those projects that is...

ANNA ZAHN (TZ's wife) Kicking off your acting careers?

MS Yeah, kicking off our acting careers!

TZ Our modeling careers.

MS We're "talent" now. We're models.


Can you expand on some of the other stories you've proposed to Dark Horse?

MS Actually, we can't. Lucasfilm does not like you to talk about possible future projects, as these things can be green lit at any point, so we really can't. It's one of those places that they're kind of...hazy.

TZ I'm also talking to Del Rey about a Prequel Era novel, that they've told me they want done. They've told me they want me to do it, but for certain technical reasons, it can't be published right yet. It is to wait until the release of Episode III. There is a lot of stuff in between now and then so Del Rey is not in any hurry to actually work out a contract. But it sounds like I'll probably be doing it. I've got the outline worked on.

You've reviewed the Star Wars Gamer, what do you think about the "Many Hands of Palpatine" article?

TZ I actually haven't read the article yet, but it is my opinion he had only one Hand, and anybody that says otherwise is lying, or conniving.

And why is that?

TZ She had a unique relationship with Palpatine. She was able to hear his voice anywhere in the Empire. When I did the story "Sleight of Hand," because Lucasfilm gawked at that communication, we had to establish that was absolutely unique. It was Mara and the Emperor who had that telepathic communication. He didn't have it with anybody else, and she didn't have it with anybody else. That is a unique position, and Palpatine obviously had other agents, but he only had one Hand.

Was there anything in Mara Jade: By the Emperor's Hand, the comic you both created, that was cut from your original vision? Were you allowed to do with Mara as you wished?

TZ I don't remember anything being touched.

MS No, we had to add stuff! (laughter) That's the great thing about working with Lucasfilm. They are remarkably open to creators adding their own material, and they trust people. And they especially trust Tim and I to get things right with characters that we've created or worked a lot with. It's a wonderful vote of confidence to be able to go in, and they say, "knock yourselves out."

Whatever happened to the comic you had apparently scripted that was supposed to go between the "Hand of Thrawn" duology?

MS I didn't script it. I'd done an outline. What had happened, was Tim's "Hand of Thrawn" novels were very, very broad in scope. Nobody had told Tim that there was going to be a comic that was going to deal with stuff in between those two novels. And Tim, being a very efficient writer, had not left loose ends or free times for any characters to be involved.

TZ There are 6 hours between those two books. Not enough for even Mike to work with.

MS That's right, yeah. What I had done, I had turned around and plotted an adventure that would take place on a world that would go into great depth over the background controversy that Tim was dealing with. In Tim's book, you get to see the interracial hatred and the speciesism tearing the thing apart. I was going to get to go in with far greater depth with that, as well a few other things, but in Lucasfilm's opinion it wasn't going to do the job, and got canned. As it worked out, because I'd already been contracted and they'd already contracted an artist, they had the space in there to turn around and do Mara Jade: By the Emperor's Hand.

TZ Part of the problem with Mike's interlude was because I'd written it so tightly, none of the major characters were available. They all had places to go, places to be, and things to do.

MS There was one intercept scene we were going to be able to do, and that was pretty much it.

TZ But mostly, it was going to be minor, walk-on type characters. For that reason, in addition, they decided it wasn't going to be strong enough. If someone would have told me, I could have left him left him space, but nobody mentioned it!

Whose idea was it for the showdown between Mara and Ysanne Isard in Mara Jade: by the Emperor's Hand?

MS I mean, it was a natural. It had to be a natural. The Emperor was dead, and somebody was exerting control. Mara was a "wild card," and Isard would have to gain control over her because she was powerful.

TZ And in fact, if and when I am allowed to continue more stories in that era, Isard is going to be either moving in or behind the scenes, full way. She's going to be the pursuit that keeps Mara moving. And we should probably run them into each other at some point...

MS Oh yeah, definitely.

Why didn't Isard ever mention Mara in any of the X-wing books or comics?

MS You have to remember that Mara and her escape would have been a failure, as far as Isard was concerned. And you bury your failures very deep. Nobody knows where they are, so that’s why.

TZ Besides, she's not really sure who Mara is. Mara has no identity. Remember, she was linked only to Palpatine. She has no identity. That alone makes Isard nervous and suspicious. But, because of that, you don't want to put out an all pointable agenda because we don't know who she is. We don't know who her friends are. It's both the failure that she's trying to find, and also, she doesn't want word of this getting out. There may be allies that don't know Mara is on the loose that might rally to her. A lot of good reasons for her to just ignore her, until she can just come up with her herself.

How much interaction do you figure Isard, Mara Jade, a well as State Pestage had in the Imperial Court?

MS Well, Mara certainly knew who Pestage was and probably, while not having direct contact with him in any real sense, may have watched him. May have supplied information that the Emperor used for, with, or against him. But the Emperor probably kept her away from Pestage, and visa-versa. Because Pestage was his creature as well. He could break him as necessary. And again, Isard had vague knowledge that there were agents like that out there, but the Emperor would have tried to keep them separated. You definitely see that in the Mara Jade comic, where Isard is going, "Okay. The insulation has been removed here, now I've got to deal with this." And attempts to break her, and fails utterly.

TZ Mara obviously knew who Pestage was. She would have known everybody in the top echelon. But as Mike said, she would have been kept isolated and insulated from everybody else. And she would have been known only as part of his entourage. Some of his eye candy.

Would you have ever have considered Corran Horn and Mara as an item?

MS There is that passage in I, Jedi. There certainly could have been sparks struck. I suspect, had they ever had gotten together, it would have been a 'brief, very hot, but very brief and very nasty breakup,' kind of relationship. I think they probably would have just torn at each other. They are enough alike that is it very easy for them to be allies, and there certainly would be an attraction there. But again, it is something that both of them were smart enough to look at, as Corran did right then, and say, "No. This is just not a good idea."

TZ I see both of them as being smart enough and understanding enough with human nature to realize it is not going to work. "Let's not even go down that path. We'll settle for a friendship, and both enjoy that."

In I, Jedi it is joked that Mara and Mirax never meet, but they are obviously friends by Union and the "Dark Tide" series. What exactly were you implying by "they should never meet"?

MS At the time when that comment is made, Mirax has just shown up and is full of vigor and wanting to take things on. Obviously Mara is like that, and the idea that the two of them would get together...(laughs) And in Union, we were actually allowed to do that; Having them all meet, and having all the women of Star Wars get together in that spa and kick the snot out of a bunch of fighter pilots. (laughter from table) Just imagine them all going off to some planet and creating havoc. When you look at Mirax, being a smuggler, and Mara, having that background, just the absolute havoc they would create in any situation is pretty close.

TZ It was not a matter that they will not get along. The problem is that they will get along far to well. Watch out anyone who gets in their way!

MS And for poor Luke and poor Corran, who’s going to bear the brunt of it? It's going to be like, "Oh my God."

Do you have any tips for young, aspiring writers?

TZ The way you learn how to write, is you write. That's basically it. The more writing you do, the better you get at it. Like playing tennis or anything else, you just have to write. And keep writing, get better at it, learn how your voice works, how to put words together, and then just start sending the stories out.

MS I agree with everything that Tim has said. I have some things on my website which are pretty much the same thing. Another thing I recommend a lot, is for people who want to write, read critically. Find good writers, find bad writers. Read the novel the way you normally would, but at the end of each chapter just jot down some notes. If there were characters introduced, if they provoked any particular feeling; at the end of the chapter you felt that you had to run on, just quickly jot down what your impression is and go back to reading the book. Afterward, with your notes, go back and figure out how the writer did everything that you liked, and figure out you can do it. Figure out what you hated, and figure out why you hated it, and how not to do it. A lot of what we do, we learn to write based on what we read and finding the techniques that other authors use. I'll give you an excellent example. In Wedge's Gamble, the three overlapping plotlines (the way one would come up to this point, and the next one picks up from there) is exactly how Edgar Burroughs used to plot many of the Tarzan novels. Which I loved, and I loved his plotting method because it makes the book just race. I used that plotting method very deliberately in Wedge’s Gamble. And it worked very, very effectively. But a lot of readers don't read critically. They don't think about that sort of stuff. And if you think about it, you'll learn a whole bunch. And it makes it a lot easier.

TZ Actually, I would go so far as to say, if you start writing and trying to put words together, you'll automatically go into this mode. That's what happened to me. I started writing, and then I started noticing how other people were doing it. They're both partial, but almost actually bootstrap each other.

Any other comments you would like to make about Mara Jade?

MS I just want to say that Tim has been incredibly generous to me, intrusting me to be able to use Mara and stuff like that. A great character to use, and I've had an absolute blast. When I was doing I, Jedi, we were shooting stuff back and forth. The chapter where she comes in and helps Corran deal with Exar Kun, was one I never got a chance to shoot to Tim to vet, before the book came out. And we'd gotten copies, and I handed him a copy and he flipped through it, and I said, "Oh yeah, this chapter you didn't get to read." He flipped it over, read it through and said, "Okay." (laughter) I mean, that was like, "Okay, whew!"

TZ But though I hadn't read it, we had discussed it. We had discussed the point that she is going in and she is being sarcastic. She is goading him, for the express purpose of trying to get him to make a mistake. She's stalling him, waiting for Corran to recover. She's trying to get him mad enough to be stupid. We had discussed the whole thing, Mike already had most of that. We bounced that back and forth, even though I didn't see the final version, we were both on the same page as to what she is doing, and why. At that point, you can just turn Mike loose on the character and he just does great with her.

Well thank you very much for letting me conduct this interview.

MS You're welcome.

TZ You're quite welcome.

Thank you.

TZ & MS Thank you.

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