Daniel Wallace wasn't just another guest speaker at St. Petersburg College. The fact that he was flanked by a Jedi knight and a rasping Darth Vader was the first clue.
Friday was Star Wars morning at the school's music center, where Wallace, an author and self-proclaimed lifelong geek, transported a multigenerational audience to galaxies far, far away: the universe of superheroes, humanoids — and books on actual paper.
Wallace took the stage to discuss his latest bestseller, The Jedi Path: A Manual for Students of the Force. The interactive book combines past and future in the best Star Wars fashion, with a mechanized case — a "vault" that opens up with blinking lights and sound effects with the touch of a button. Inside, the story goes, lies a 100-year-old journal, written 1,000 years before that from masters to apprentices, owned by Luke Skywalker himself. The $70 "relic" also includes coins, badges, a severed Padawan braid, a map of the Jedi temple, and other artifacts.
"There is a lot to fictional characters, and books are written to expand on them," explained Wallace. "But with the advent of e-books, we are constantly having to come up with paper books that are worthwhile, something readers actually want to hold in their hands."
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Chad Mairn, a librarian at SPC, says he masterminded the event after buying the book for the school.
"I tweeted Wallace that The Jedi Path was the coolest book in our library and invited him for a talk. Star Wars just keeps getting better over the years."
Wallace behaved like a fan throughout the event, talking excitedly of how, like many other contemporary creative artists, illustrators, and animators, his career was shaped by his infatuation with the iconic series. Things happened at lightning speed, he said, when in 1998 he wrote a fan guide about planets and posted it to the Star Wars message boards on AOL. His fan work led to a call from Lucasfilm, and he soon landed on the Skywalker Ranch to write The Essential Guide to Planets and Moons, followed by The Essential Guide to Droids.
Since then, he has written more than two dozen books based on fictional characters — in addition to raising four kids and working as a full-time planner and buyer for an advertising company in Minneapolis. Wallace said he gets paid from $7,000 to $15,000 per book.
Dressed in black intergalactic garb, James Kannaley from Fort Myers said his lifelong Star Wars infatuation was what put him on a technical career track.
"I remember seeing the movie on the big screen at 9 and deciding I was going to go to NASA, become a space astronaut, deal with machines, weapons."
Now at 43, the retired Navy fire-control technician continues to march on a Star Wars path as a volunteer with the 501st Legion, an organization that brings together fans of the space-fantasy films and raises money for the community through costumed charity and volunteer work.
He said he enjoys watching the movies at least once a month with his children, ages 10, 8, 6, and 5.
"It is definitely a family-friendly film series,'' he said. "Violence is mild, it only happens with a clear purpose."
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Yvette Strickland Johnson, a freelance illustrator and comic book artist from Clearwater, said she started indoctrinating her own two kids at a very early age — first with toys, then with Star Wars Halloween costumes, until they were old enough to understand the good-versus-evil theme in the films.
"There's an underlying moral compass to Star Wars," said the 38-year-old, who got Wallace's autograph on her Star Wars Year by Year book. "I use the movies to talk to my children about consequences, values and life lessons."
Perpetual themes are what make Star Wars so resonant, said Wallace, noting the blend of brilliant mythology and sci-fi with Eastern philosophy, World War II battle techniques, and the concept of a Samurai allows for many adaptations: the Star Wars expanded universe of books, comics, cartoons, toys, a TV series, video games, and the new coming-at-you 3-D film format to be released in 2012.
Wallace said alterations made to the new versions are relevant, but he said he's disappointed at old material being completely discarded. Like many fans, he likes to watch his favorite movie as he first did in 1977.
Wallace encouraged young writers in the audience to stick with it.
"Don't ever get discouraged by thinking you are not doing enough because you are not on a bestseller list," he said. "You are a writer if you write, and all it takes is to touch one person with your story.
"My father always asks me when I'm going to put aside the encyclopedia and guidebooks and start writing mysteries, but this is what I'm good at and I'm sticking to it. I found my niche."