I try to keep my office decor eclectic and inviting, with a personal touch and nostalgic aura that would disarm even the most surely of guests*. Aside from being known as the guy who stands at his desk, I’ve also cultivated a reputation around our publishing company as being the guy with the cereal box collection and the guy who tapes random articles and stories to his door.
The stories come and go. One week it was the now infamous “Death Star Petition.” Last week it was my review of McDonald’s Grilled Onion Cheddar burger for The Impulsive Buy. But for the different comings and going on my door, I always make sure to keep one piece of paper taped up.
It’s a letter I received in seventh grade. I remember the day I received it like it was yesterday. I was in class — ok, so I can’t remember which class — when the nefarious intercom buzzed into our classroom from the school office. The secretary on the other line called my name with the five words no 12-year old worth his prepubescent awkwardness wishes to hear. Report to the Principal’s office.
Even before the prerequisite “ummmhhhh” arose from my classmates, my mind had already begun to replay the previous hours and days of school. Rewinding through every conversation and interaction, I couldn’t for the life of me venture a guess as to what my transgression was, leading me to the only assumption applicable for a twelve-year-old in said situation: I was dead. Dead freaking meat.
Except I wasn’t. What initially sparked my concern for being the second most horrible thing in my day** ended up being the kind of experience a person never forgets.
The reason for my summon was a letter from science fiction writer Timothy Zahn. The author who essentially launched the renaissance of Star Wars fiction known as the Expanded Universe with his 1991 novel Heir to the Empire, Zahn also happened to be my writing idol. As it was back in those days of “grade level” or “challenge” reading classes, I had, at some point, been identified as exceptional when it came to words and my ability to write them, read them, and manipulate them in order to make myself appear far more intelligent than I really was***, and had thus been granted an independent project for my reading requirement. I decided I wanted that project to be writing science fiction novella. Aside from actually writing the thing, the person managing this little form of a get-out-of-class-free card made sure I researched the steps of publishing. Psh. Like I was actually about to put myself through that. Instead, I used the assignment as an excuse to write my favorite author. Aside from gushing over his work, I put the question straight and to the point: how does one become a great writer?
His answer came on that fateful day when I was called to the principal’s office to receive his return letter. In it, he wished me the best, filled me in on his future projects, and he left me with the most unfailing writing advice I have ever received.
To be a great writer, you have to write.
It’s been over a decade since Zahn left me with those words, yet when it comes to constantly perfecting his own discipline, you can’t say the man doesn’t practice what he preaches. Scoundrels, his latest Star Wars novel, was released on the first of the month, but I haven’t been able to finish it before now. Let me start by saying I wasn’t so much expecting to like Scoundrels as I just wanted to read it for the sake of crossing another Expanded Universe title off my list. Sure, Zahn has been my favorite author since that faithful day twelve years ago when his kindness made me the coolest kid in school, but Scoundrels just didn’t sound like my kind of Star Wars book from all the promotional material I had read up on. For starters, there’s no Thrawn. There’s no Mara Jade kicking down doors, and there’s no smooth talking Talon Karrde smuggling Force-knows-what in and out of the Kathol Rift for those weirdo Aing-Tii monks. The Hand of Judgement — so prominent and just plan badass in Zahn’s last two novels, ain’t there either, and the always Imperial yet likable Gilad Pellaeon doesn’t even get a cameo. Alas, the book’s lack of turbolasers-blazing, high space opera action puts it in league with some of my least favorite Expanded Universe novels (I’m looking at you, Traitor.)
Yet for all the new characters and decidedly non Galaxy Far, Far Away imagery and references (seriously, did Han really eat an apple in the book?), Scoundrels stands right up their with New York Times Best Seller Heir to the Empire in creating a character driven story which leaves the reader coming back for more. And in the Ocean’s 11 style plot of heist and thievery, I’m reminded that my zest for reading great Star Wars novels isn’t just a zest for escaping into another galaxy, but a vitality of imagination driven from the words of a truly great writer. This is a book not only for the most illiterate of Star Wars Expanded Universe fans (who’ll appreciate the storytelling, deep character profiles, and descriptive scenes Zahn creates) but also those who’ve grown tired of the apocalyptic yet predictable nature that the post New Jedi Order has left us with. While set amidst the Original Trilogy, Zahn manages to create something fun and exciting but also invariably new. Opening up this new world of Star Wars that doesn’t preclude but doesn’t ground itself only in Jedi versus Sith, Rebel verses Empire, Zahn gives us what we all crave in our own politically charged, pointing-fingers world; an escape from the formulaic.
Obviously I’m endorsing this book, but one warning is in order. A few weeks ago I was listening to a Podcast which warned not to turn to the last page of the novel, and even though there were times during the scheming, plot twists, and character general mess that takes places with a cast pulled from every wretched hive of scum and villany across the stars, I took special caution not to reconnoiter into the book’s concluding pages. Boy am I’m glad I didn’t. If you’re a hardcore Star Wars fan – or even if you’re just familiar with the movies — the final ‘reveal’ will be something you will never see coming.
And if you’re anything like me, once you read that last line you might just stand up and give this book a long, decidedly worth-it, slow clap.
*Like the idea of nuclear deterrence through proliferation, I used to think this essential, as the sight of my office space would dissuade even the most surely of bosses from unloading on me after I screwed up. However, after experiencing bosses who are far from surely, I mostly just keep all my junk in my office for show and tell purposes.
**Let’s just say I sucked at math. A lot.
***At the time, I did not think this to be the case. I, actually, was quite certain my work with the gifted and talented program made me intellectually superior to my classmates. For the record, I ended up taking Algebra a combined three times in my life and never got out of it with higher than a B-. Go figure.