Building a Galaxy: Heir to the Trilogy

While the Star Wars franchise is best known for its films, it's also well-known for its sprawling novel series, the Star Wars Expanded Universe. While it's no longer canon, it kept Star Wars going for decades, and still retains a loyal following.

Building a Galaxy: Heir to the Trilogy

Between 1977 and 1983, George Lucas’s Star Wars franchise electrified a generation, changed cinema forever, and created a passionate fan base. But with no new films in sight by the end of the 1980s, Lucasfilm began to move on from its science fiction properties. The grand space epic might have ended with the handful of short stories and reference materials had it not been for Lou Aronica.

Read Part One: Origin Stories

In 1986, Lucasfilm eased up on its licensing campaign: Return of the Jedi had been out of theaters for three years, and at the time, Lucas felt he was done with directing and done with the franchise that had made him famous. With the movies receding into the past, there didn’t seem to be a market for the action figures, comics, video games, and other tie-ins that accompanied the trilogy. It was time to look to new creations.

In the 1987, Lucy Wilson, the finance director in Lucasfilm’s licensing department, was promoted to director of publishing, overseeing literary offerings involving the company’s intellectual property. By this point, she had worked on a trilogy of tie-in novels for Lucasfilm’s latest offering, Willow, which would come out years later as Shadow Moon, Shadow Dawn, and Shadow Star. The last Star Wars novel, Lando Calrissian and the Starcave of ThonBoka, had been published years earlier, and “no one at Lucasfilm was thinking of doing new Star Wars novels in 1989,” she explained.

That year, Wilson attending a book fair in New York, working on unrelated projects, when she met with publisher Byron Preiss. He wasn’t interested in her ongoing projects, but mentioned that they should start looking at Star Wars novels instead — those would likely sell.

“That seemed like a really good idea to me. Having been at Lucasfilm, since before the release of the first Star Wars movie,” Wilson recounted, “I knew the impact it had and felt there were a lot of people out there who were dying for something new in the universe.”

She returned home and proposed that the company license a couple of novels. With the blessing of George Lucas, she began to explore her options. Out of contractual obligations, she approached Ballantine Books first — it has published the original Han Solo and Lando Calrissian novels, but it passed: with no new films on the horizon, it didn't feel that the novels would be successful. Wilson then went through her company’s correspondence from publishers to look for proposals, and came across a letter written a year earlier by Lou Aronica, the publisher at Bantam Spectra. She remembered that she had been impressed by the company’s presence and offerings at the book fair, and gave him a call.

Aronica joined Bantam Books in 1979 after college, and eventually took over its science fiction line. During that time, he shepherded number of books and authors that established Bantam as a major publisher of genre fiction: David Brin, Gregory Benford, and William Gibson, as well as well-established authors such as Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. In 1985, he launched a dedicated genre imprint called Bantam Spectra.

As a publisher, he hadn’t been all that interested in working with licensed properties — he'd largely been disappointed with the Star Trek novel series. But Star Wars had resonated with him ever since he saw the first movie in 1977.

Thinking about Star Wars, he realized that he could use some different tactics to tell some new stories in the universe: “It dawned on me that we could do things differently with Star Wars if Lucasfilm was willing to grant the license," He explained. "The universe was so well developed and had such a great mythology, I believed ambitious novels could be created that honored the universe.”

In the fall of 1988, he wrote up a proposal and sent it to Lucasfilm blindly: he had no idea if the company was even interested in publishing additional stories.

“I talked about wanting to publish these books as events, launching in hardcover, which was fairly unusual for licensed properties at that time.” Aronica recalled. “The core of my message was that we wanted to make the books as powerful to readers as the films had been to viewers.”

He envisioned a line of tie-in novels that were more ambitious than other tie-in publishing initiative. He wanted to tell stories that were greater in scale, and that actively advanced the story laid down by the films, rather than simply staging what he called “costume dramas”; stories utilizing all the trappings of their source material, “but offering very little more than what fans already had from the original source.”

His books would be an event in and of itself: the new “novels [would be] great reading experiences, not just merchandise,” and would come out in hardcover, rather as mass market paperbacks. Most of all, they understood the books would have to continue a major legacy: “The core of my message was that we wanted to make the books as powerful to readers as the films had been to viewers. I made it very clear that we not only loved Star Wars, but that we wanted to treat it, in the book world, like a great literary property.”

Aronica's pitch won Wilson over, and she granted a license to Bantam Spectra to produce a trilogy of novels. There was a big stipulation: they couldn't just slap something together: the books had to be well-written.

“I was trying to bring quality literature to a licensed fictional universe,” Wilson recalled. She also wanted to do something different from the typical tie-in novel. With the Star Trek novels as their main competition, Wilson knew she needed to differentiate her books. “[Star Trek was] constantly rebooting their program with new storylines. I didn’t want our plan to be like theirs, and one big difference was to make ours have one over-arching internal consistency.”

Additional requirements were that the stories had to take place after Return of the Jedi, none of the characters who were featured in the films could be killed off, and characters already dead could not be resurrected. No Darth Vader coming back to life.

With the rights in hand, Aronica turned to his publishing team, who, after their initial excitement, began to take the next step: selecting an author to start off the program. “We looked at our existing authors first, then started throwing out other names who might be wooed to Bantam on the strength on the Star Wars project.” said Betsy Mitchell, Bantam Spectra’s senior editor. Bantam Spectra had a strong stable of authors: Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, David Brin, Dan Simmons, William Gibson, and others.

It was Mitchell who recommended Timothy Zahn: she had begun to work for Bantam Spectra a few years earlier, and had signed the science fiction author to a three-book deal for the publisher.

In 1977, Zahn was a graduate student studying physics when he first saw Star Wars. He was hooked. He had also begun writing science fiction on the side while studying: “I was working on a mathematical project that really wasn’t going anywhere. My advisor was too stubborn to give up. And he was out of town a lot, so it gave me a fair amount of time while I was stuck waiting for him to get back into town with not much to do, so I started writing as kind of a hobby,” Zahn told in 2000. When his advisor died of a heart attack, Zahn decided that he was more interested in pursuing writing than a doctorate, and left school.

Related: Timothy Zahn has returned to Thrawn

Over the next couple of years, he published a number of stories in magazines such as Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Amazing Stories, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, before he published his first novel, The Blackcollar, in 1983. The same year, he published Cascade Point in Analog, which earned him a prestigious Hugo Award for Best Short Story (the same year Return of the Jedi earned the Best Dramatic Presentation award.)

Mitchell had worked with Zahn at Analog, where she was the managing editor, and again at a newer science fiction publisher, Baen Books, where Zahn published a number of novels.

Mitchell and her team sent Zahn’s name, along with several other names, to Wilson. “I picked Timothy Zahn from her selection,” Wilson said, “as Tim’s original novels read the closest to Star Wars to me.” At the same time, Mitchell brought over Sue Rostini as an assistant and publishing editor: together, they would help to manage the larger Star Wars universe from Bantam Spectra’s end.

Lucasfilm approved of the choice as well, and in November 1989, Zahn received the call: he would be writing in the universe he really loved, a prospect he found daunting.

“It went from very cool to aaah!” Zahn explained. “The cool part was a chance to do a Star Wars book. I never would have dreamed such things were possible, let alone that I would be offered it. The panic was, ‘I now have to capture the characters, the tone and feel of Star Wars.’”

He had two guidelines: the novel had to take place after Return of the Jedi, and he couldn’t resurrect dead characters. Other than that, he had free rein. He needed to pick up where Lucas had left off, but there were challenges: the films’ most iconic villain, Darth Vader, had been killed, and the Rebellion appeared victorious. Zahn decided to extrapolate: the heroes needed to face a formidable enemy who was rallying the Empire.

To that end, he created Grand Admiral Thrawn, a master tactician who had risen in the Imperial ranks, along with a proposed dark Jedi: an insane clone of Obi Wan Kenobi. Along the way, he introduced Talon Karrde and Mara Jade, a smuggler and former imperial agent, respectively, to join in on the adventures.

Zahn had already begun to create his own background material when supplemental materials arrived from West End Games.

“I was just a couple of weeks into Heir when I received a big box containing some of the sourcebooks that West End Games had created over the years for the Star Wars role-playing game.” Zahn recounted in the annotations of the 20th Anniversary edition of Heir to the Empire. “Along with the books came instructions from Lucasfilm that I was to coordinate Heir with the WEG Material. I groused a little about that, but once I actually started digging into the books, I realized the WEG folks had put together a boatload of really awesome stuff, including lists of aliens, equipment, ground vehicles, and ship types.”

The building blocks that West End Games had already created allowed Zahn to focus less on developing the world and more on the story. Given that Star Wars was lauded for taking place in a “used universe,” the ability for authors to reuse common elements only added to the feeling that these stories fit within the world that George Lucas had established.

When Lucasfilm and Bantam Spectra finally signed off on their deal, Zahn was ready, and wrote his book in six months. His original title, Wildcard, was nixed by Aronica, who suggested Heir to the Empire instead. During the editorial stages, some of what Zahn had come up with had to be changed: an insane clone of Obi-Wan Kenobi was replaced by Joruus C’baoth, a cloned Jedi Knight who had been tasked with guarding the Emperor’s repository. Lucasfilm was also protective of the Clone Wars and some other minor elements that Zahn had included, but after some edits, the company signed off on the book.

On May 1, 1991, Zahn’s Heir to the Empire arrived in bookstores, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Aronica remembers “Lucasfilm’s offices were flooded with media queries asking if Heir was going to be the fourth movie.” Booksellers reported selling the book directly out of boxes, before they could even be shelved.

Heir to the Empire landed on The New York Times bestseller list at number 11, and over the next couple of weeks, rose to the top, aided by its artificially low price of $15. The book demonstrated there was an incredible appetite for more stories from in the Star Wars universe.

Zahn didn’t have much time to rest on his laurels: he was already hard at work on the next installment of the trilogy, Dark Force Rising, due out the following year. A third installment, The Last Command, was set to arrive in 1993.

Lucasfilm was also interested in expanding their publishing program beyond adult novels. In 1992, they launched a young readers series under Bantam’s children’s imprint called the Jedi Prince series. Written by Paul and Hollace Davids, the series included The Glove of Darth Vader, The Lost City of the Jedi, Zorba the Hutt’s Revenge, Mission from Mount Yoda, Queen of the Empire and Prophets of the Dark Side, all of which arrived in bookstores between 1992 and 1993, capturing the imaginations of readers too young to have seen the films in theaters. While the books sold well over the years, they didn’t quite fit into the continuity of the adult books, and often had their events “retconed” to fit within the larger timeline.

Bantam Spectra found that they were sitting on top of a gold mine, and quickly contracted an additional twelve novels in the franchise. As the program expanded, Bantam Spectra had to contend with Lucasfilm’s stringent eye for quality. “There were a few, very rare times when we had to disapprove completed novels for failing on one or [level or another],” Wilson recalled, “but generally by having the right editorial team and great writers, this was not an issue.”

Bantam Spectra began lining up other authors. One early writer was Kenneth C. Flint, who was approached to write a book that took place immediately after Return of the Jedi. He completed and submitted it in 1992, but received little word about its status from his editors. “Finally, growing concerned, I contacted an agent, who contacted Spectra. He discovered only then that Spectra had determined my book couldn’t be published because it ‘no longer fit into the sequence for the new series.’”

Flint's book was never published, and it wasn't until 2015 that fans learned of its existence, when fansite Star Wars Timeline published the entire text of a lost Star Wars novel authored by Kenneth C. Flint.

Around the same time, another novel, Margaret Weisman was hard at work on another novel, Legacy of Doom, which would have taken place after Flint's Heart of the Jedi. When Flint's book was axed, so too was Weisman's. Even if books reached the proposal stage, passed their outlines, and were written, there was always a possibility they still wouldn’t work with the larger storyline that Lucasfilm was constructing.

According to Wilson, Lucasfilm had two main criteria. “My overriding concern was to publish great books. [They] also needed to feel like they fit into the Star Wars universe George Lucas had created in the movies.” The episode with Flint’s novel reveals the lengths Lucasfilm would go to assure the books satisfied its expectations.

To fill the gap left by the cancellations, Bantam Spectra brought in another author: Kathy Tyers. Tyers had written a handful of science fiction novels for the publisher, and jumped at the chance, recalling that when she received a call from her then-editor Janna Silverstein, asking if she'd like to be a Star Wars author. “As I recall,” Tyers said, “there was about a two-second pause before I said ‘Yes!’”

Silverstein assigned Tyers that post-Return of the Jedi slot, and she went to work. Like Zahn, she was armed with a box of reference materials from West End Games, a VHS player, and the final film, she set about taking notes. She was to make sure that she didn’t contradict anything in Zahn’s trilogy, but was to advance the characters forward somehow. “At this point in the project, we were just starting to realize how valuable it would be to Star Wars fans if we created a storyline that moved the characters forward in time,” Wilson said. “We contrasted that plan with other SF spin-off series that were episodic in nature, each book leaving the characters exactly as they were when the book began.”

Tyers came up with several concepts which she pitched to her editors at Bantam Spectra, who selected the idea that would eventually become The Truce At Bakura, which hit bookstores in January of 1994.

Tyers appreciated working within an established universe: “In a way, having the characters, situations, and environments already established made it like ‘real life.’ I had limited freedom to move the characters on the stage—but it was a really big stage.”

After her book, she kept up with the story, appreciating what the world was evolving into: “Many of [the novels] resonated beautifully with my sense of Star Wars, and what it was all about. Other authors had slightly different ideas. The richness of the universe created space enough (pun intended) for everyone to play.”

While Zahn and Tyers plugged away at their own books, Bantam Spectra looked for additional authors. They turned to Kevin J. Anderson, a newer writer who had been publishing short fiction since 1982. His first novel, Resurrection, Inc., appeared in 1988, along with several others. “I got a phone call out of the blue asking if I would like to write three sequels to one of my favorite movies of all time,” he recalled. “How could I turn down such a cool project like that?”

He set to work. He too worked to reference the West End Game’s reference books, as well as a copy of Heir to the Empire, the only book out at that time. “I got a pre-release review copy of Dark Force Rising, and Tim sent me the manuscript of The Last Command as soon as it was finished.” The two authors spoke to make sure that they were avoiding one another’s stories. “We talked on the phone about where his story was going, and I set up my own.”

From the outset, Anderson knew that he was writing part of a larger story. He decided his trilogy would have two overarching narratives: one about Luke Skywalker rebuilding the Jedi Order, and the other about a secret Imperial installation called The Maw, where the Empire carried out the research that had eventually produced the Death Star.

Unlike Zahn’s trilogy, whose titles were released over three years, Anderson’s Jedi Academy trilogy, Jedi Search, Dark Apprentice, and Champions of the Force, would all hit stores in 1994. He arrived at a point in time when the franchise was at a bit of a turning point: Mitchell was leaving Bantam Spectra and handed the project to a successor, editor Tom Dupree.

“By the time Betsy left Bantam and I inherited her list,” Dupree said on his blog, “she and Lou had mapped out the first wave of the new Star Wars cycle. I came aboard for the second book of our first paperback-original trilogy, Dark Apprentice by Kevin J. Anderson, and I worked on the Star Wars property for about five years thereafter.”

Anderson built on Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy in several ways: Han and Leia Solo continued to raise their twin children, Jacen and Jaina, while running the New Republic, and Luke Skywalker began to seek out new potential Jedi, gathering them at a training facility at the Yavin IV base from the first film. These plans are threatened as a new group takes control of the remains of the Empire and one of Skywalker’s novice apprentices falls to the Dark Side of the force.

Other books joined the growing storyline. The Courtship of Princess Leia, written by David Wolverton, told the story of how Han Solo and Leia Organa married. Vonda McIntyre’s The Crystal Star followed, with a plot on the part of a cultist to rebuild the Empire.

Wolverton came onboard in 1994 and completed his book in the spring. His approach was a little different: Zahn had established that Han and Leia were married, and his initial thought was “Oh, it couldn’t be that easy, not with their fiery personalities.” He wanted to see how they came together: “I have to admit that I wondered about Han’s character. Before he met Leia, he was a drug smuggler, and that suggested to me that he had a darker side. [Han] was essentially an anti-hero, someone who had given up on life, on society.” He felt that when put under pressure, people revert back to older habits, which would complicate relationships.

In the novel, Han essentially kidnaps Leia and takes her to a planet that he’s won in a card game—a planet in Imperial territory. The plotline has come under criticism lately: “I have to admit, my wife and I had watched the old romance Seven Brides for Seven Brothers at about that time, with its wacky idea of having the male protagonists kidnap the brides, and I suspect that in the back of my mind, I was wondering, ‘Could you make a similar plot work in science fiction?’”

He reflected on the issue: “Personally, I’m not a fan of the idea of drugging and kidnapping women. Or men. Or children, or dogs. But it did lead me to wonder about things like, ‘Could Leia ever forgive him for that? Could Han forgive himself?’ ‘What could bring them back together?’ Ultimately, I was interested in the idea that love is based upon two people’s past history, that it is something that builds and grows.”

Regardless of controversy, the novel was an immediate success: at one point, friends mentioned to Wolverton that they’d seen his book in a nearby bookstore; when he went to check it out minutes later, he found that they had completely sold out.

The book shot to the top of The New York Times bestseller list, outselling the second-place book by a 2-1 margin. “In fact, it was so popular that Bantam’s huge romance author called my editor to complain.” Wolverton said. “She yelled at my editor ‘Who in the hell is this Princess Leia!?’ Apparently she thought that I was taking her spot as Bantam’s lead author.”

The Star Wars Expanded Universe was off to a strong start, with each novel selling exceptionally well. Even as Bantam Spectra was operating without a roadmap, their approach seemed like the right one: engage established science fiction authors, partner with Lucasfilm, and build the story of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Leia Organa. With only a handful of books in the works, it was easy for authors to coordinate and maintain continuity.

As the universe grew, however, new challenges would begin to emerge…

This feature was originally published on Barnes & Noble's Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog. I've reprinted it here with some edits and minor corrections.