I've known Tim Zahn since the 1980s, when I was a young fan first entering fandom and he a young power in the field, with several novels to his credit and a Hugo award for his story "Cascade Point." When I came to work at Baen, I got the chance to work with Tim professionally. The year 1991 saw the publication of his first Star Wars novel, Heir to the Empire, and its appearance at number 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. We're happy to welcome Tim back to Baen with a new Blackcollar novel coming out June 2006. The two earlier Blackcollar novels will also be available, under one cover, in January 2006. And I should also mention his Cobra novels, also together in one volume, are in print again from Baen.
Tim tells me how he got started writing. "I began writing as a hobby back in 1975 while working on my doctorate in physics at the University of Illinois. The project wasn't going very well and my advisor was out of town a lot, which meant I had a fair amount of spare time on my hands. I wrote longhand in notebooks, eventually started typing up some of the stories and sending them in, and in December 1978 I finally sold one ('Ernie,' Analog, September 1979). "I never did get that doctorate, by the way." That's okay, Tim, we'd rather have you writing SF!
He reports some of his early science fictional influences as "[the] Tom Swift Jr. books, which I think at least marginally qualify as SF. The first two genuinely SF books I remember (and I don't remember which I read first) were The Secret of the Martian Moons by Don Wollheim and Assignment in Space With Rip Foster by Blake Savage. There were also a couple of Andre Norton books in that early mix, but I don't remember which ones.
"I was an avid reader from a very early age, so in a sense my influences range from Anderson to Zelazny. If I had to pick and choose, I'd say there were four who particularly stand out: Larry Niven for hard science, Theodore Sturgeon for character creation and development, Keith Laumer for humor and twisty plots, and the thriller writer Alistair MacLean for tension, plot twists, and sardonic character voice."
Tim doesn't get much chance these days to read outside the field. "As mentioned above, Alistair MacLean was one of my big influences. I don't really follow specific authors much any more, as the majority of my reading these days is non-fiction. "On second thought, there are three authors I hold in particularly high esteem: Walt Kelly (Pogo), Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes), and Bill Amend (Foxtrot)."
For Tim, the perks of being a writer are part of the attraction of his profession. "The flex- time is certainly one of them. I can take a day off whenever I need one without consulting a boss. (Though of course there's no paid time off.) On the other hand, if I wake up at 4am and can't sleep, I can just walk down the hall to my office and get an early start on the day's work. (Confuses the cat terribly.)
"I generally get the bulk of my work done in the morning (sometimes in that 4am slot I mentioned earlier, especially as the book's coming into the home stretch). I often shut down in the middle of the day, giving that time over to exercise, lunch, and a nap, then pick up again in mid-afternoon and work until dinnertime. If my wife has some project of her own in the late evening I may work some then, too.
"I also always carry a small notebook with me, and if I have a few idle minutes I'll often jot down a couple of paragraphs that I can transcribe into the computer when I get home." I asked Tim if he had any favorites among his characters. "My Star Wars characters Mara Jade and Grand Admiral Thrawn are probably the highest on my personal list, though in general the characters I like the best are the ones I'm writing at any given moment. "Interestingly enough, as I've revisited the Blackcollar series I've realized that in many ways Comsquare Damon Lathe is a precursor to Grand Admiral Thrawn." And I'll throw my two cents in for Lathe, one of my favorites.
Tim admits envisioning an actor to play Lathe would be difficult. "Hmm - that's a tough one. Mostly I see my characters in terms of attitude and personality, not physical appearance, so it's hard for me to think of appropriate actors.
"Still, I could see Chuck Norris playing Lathe, with some of the current excellent crop of martial artists as the rest of the blackcollar team. (You listening, Hollywood?)" Tim's background in hard science comes out when I ask him about the advance in science or technology he'd most like to see. "I'd really like to have an FTL drive. Unfortunately, I suspect it's probably impossible. Sigh."
I wondered if Tim tried to keep up with technical developments in physics, since hard SF was where he started. "While I don't usually write on the cutting edge of science, my background gives me a basic understanding of the universe I'm working with. At best, it can give me something interesting to work into the book; if not, it at least lets me know where and how I have to magically fudge things to make the story work. "I also understand something of the language of science and tech, as well as how in the real world new technology doesn't exist in a vacuum, but quickly gets borrowed and modified. (Example: the hover technology of the flying car at the end of Back to the Future has been miniaturized for flying skateboards in Back to the Future II.)"
Tim broke into the field when he was relatively young; I asked if becoming a father changed his fiction. "I don't think becoming a father per se did anything to my writing. (Except maybe speed it up - another mouth to feed!) However, as Corwin has grown up and we've been able to bounce ideas back and forth, he's given me some things that I've used in various books and stories.
"The downside, of course, is that he now claims I owe him royalties."