“Coffee with Kenobi” podcast host Dan Zehr has been into Star Wars since a very young age, but it’s only recently that he was invited to officially contribute to the lore of A Galaxy Far, Far Away via Lucasfilm Publishing and DK’s new reference guide The Star Wars Book.
I recently interviewed Mr. Zehr over Zoom to discuss The Star Wars Book, his working friendship with Lucasfilm Story Group member Pablo Hidalgo and fellow co-author Cole Horton, and of course his love of all things Star Wars. You can listen to the full interview in Episode 38 of Laughing Place’s Star Wars podcast “Who’s the Bossk?” or read an abridged version transcribed in the post below. Enjoy!
Mike Celestino, Laughing Place: What was your relationship like with Star Wars growing up and what are your first memories of the franchise?
Dan Zehr: Oh my. Well, that is a loaded question, my friend. I started with Star Wars back with the original. I was five years old and we tried for years to go see Star Wars in the movie theater. It was always sold out and we could just never get in, and then one day– a fateful summer afternoon in 1978– I went to a drive-in movie theater in New Orleans, Louisiana [and] saw Star Wars for the first time literally under the stars and it completely blew me away. It’s fair to say I’ve been enamored with it ever since.
LP: How did you get started doing “Coffee with Kenobi” and how would you describe the podcast and accompanying website to those who may not be familiar with it?
Zehr: I’d always liked podcasts. I always like listening to them. I listened to the ForceCast when it first started, and I was always intrigued by the notion of podcasts and the fact that I could basically have a radio program in my hands at any time about any topic under the sun. So eventually I decided, ‘I’m going to start my own.’ I couldn’t come up with a name, and then my nephew, he’s about ten years younger than me and he’s a big designer, he and I were having coffee of all things, and I said, ‘Hey, I want to start a podcast. I think you’d be a good co-host.’ So we started talking about what we might do and how we might approach it. We always came back to Star Wars, so we eventually came up with the name [and] we designed the logo.
Our first recording session took about 22 hours for a 20-minute show, because his mic kept picking up mine and we kept messing up what we were saying. We were trying to edit it together and it just kept messing up. Of course now, I don’t know how many I do a week, but it’s just funny how things go. You just have to be patient and stick with it. But then it just grew from there. We took to social media, eventually I got on Lucasfilm’s radar and grew that relationship, and things have been really good. I write for StarWars.com and have for about six years, [I’ve] been to premieres and go to openings all over the world. It’s been quite a ride, my friend. I appreciate you asking about it.
I’m a teacher in my day job, so what I was looking for [a way to do] is discussing Star Wars like I do a piece of literature. There was one particular discussion that I had and I thought, ‘Man, Star Wars would be great for this.’ And that became the lens through which I filtered ‘Coffee with Kenobi.’ Hopefully it’s an educational show, meaning that it makes you think. We want to make you think; we want to make you laugh. We review all kinds of things– we try to look at things with a little bit more of a critical lens. We don’t like everything, but we’re also positive and family-friendly. That led toward writing for StarWars.com, and I don’t know if it was necessarily a springboard, but eventually they asked me to write The Star Wars Book. I remember exactly where I was: it was a cold January day in Illinois, and I saw that email. I was absolutely thrilled. I responded right away with ‘yes.’
And they said, ‘You’re going to have two authors that are working on this book with you,’ and I said, ‘Great, who is it?’ And they said, ‘Pablo Hidalgo and Cole Horton.’ I thought, ‘Wow. That is quite a way to start my first book with Star Wars.’ And it was a great process. I loved writing it, I love thinking about Star Wars, and it’s just cool to get your thoughts out on paper like this, and know that you’re contributing to this canon, which is mind-blowing.
LP: Did you know Pablo and Cole already or was this your first time interacting with them?
Zehr: I knew them both pretty well, just through working with Lucasfilm over the years. Pablo and I have hung out at Rancho Obi-Wan and at [Star Wars] Celebrations and things like that, and we’ve conversed over the years on social media and online. And then Cole, kind of the same thing– I met him at Celebration and then we’ve hung out at Rancho. We’ve always had fun joking around. They’re both very funny, but both in very very different ways. To collaborate with them was great, and having that background relationship with them certainly helped, but then when it gets [to be] time to get to business, there’s really not a lot of time for that. You just have to focus on what you’re doing. But they are great guys; I was very fortunate to be able to have this with them, and knowing that they would help steer me in the right direction, too, was always nice.
LP: In my review of The Star Wars Book, I said that I made the mistake of trying to read it from cover to cover, and it occurred to me about halfway through that it works much better as a resource for someone looking for specific information. As you approached this book, how did you guys intend it to be consumed and utilized as reference material?
Zehr: It all came from DK [publishing] and Matt Jones, who was our amazing editor. The way it was presented to me was, ‘Hey, you’re going to write a series of curated essays about Star Wars. It’s going to be a little more analytical; it’s going to be a little more thought-provoking. To me, I looked at it as, ‘I’m going to write about Leia, I’m going to write about Luke, I’m going to write about the Force. I need to pick a specific theme that I think is most important.’ I wrote a lot of words, but you also have a specific word count that you’re supposed to hit for every page. So I knew I had to be succinct, I knew I had to be detailed, and I knew I had to be precise in what I was talking about and how I was explaining it.
Because to me, I wrote it [keeping in mind] people who are brand-new to the franchise or intimidated by the entire 43-year history, and then you’ve got people who are veterans or huge huge fans who do a lot of stuff with the franchise, whether it’s for fun or with their friends or they have a podcast or a blog or whatever. So I picked the middle, in my mind, hitting in that sweet spot, so that you can bring new people in and you can also encourage and help people that have been on it for a long time understand different things in different ways. For example, Leia– what makes Leia so inspiring? Well, it’s her hope. It’s her tireless perseverance through overwhelming odds.
I looked through her history from A New Hope, from different comic books, from some of the Claudia Gray novels, from her appearance in Rebels, and all the way through The Rise of Skywalker. ‘How did I see that personified through her as a character?’ That was where we went with it. You have to be careful, because you can’t just summarize everything. We all know it’s a story. You also have to think of a way to say things that haven’t been said a million times. That was fun and daunting. I’m someone that likes a good challenge. I get bored real easy, so this was a great opportunity for me to dive in and look at Star Wars in ways I already have– on the show or on StarWars.com or on IGN– but [also coming up with] a fresh approach to look at a classic character. ‘What do I think is most important? What is the essence of this character?’
LP: Can you talk a little more about the division of labor that went into this book across its three authors? How was the work divided up and which parts did you specifically contribute?
Zehr: We had different sections and different places. Those were divided for us [by] DK. I think I had six [or] seven weeks to write my portions, so there was no time to dilly-dally, as it were. People have said to me, ‘What was the biggest challenge?’ Well, the biggest challenge was that the rest of my life didn’t stop. I still have three children, I still am a full-time teacher, I still am a husband, I still have a weekly podcast that I wasn’t going to miss, and I do Facebook Live. So I had to find time that really isn’t built into my day to make this work. I got the sections I was assigned to, I focused on a lot of the characters, I did a lot of the stuff with the Force and things like that, and some other stuff here and there.
It was great, because when you write about something, you have to learn about it in a much more profound way and a much more detailed way. That takes a certain kind of concentration and discipline, because it’s very easy to distract yourself with daily life or, ‘I wonder what’s going on on Twitter right now.’ But I couldn’t do that, because I really wanted to hit those deadlines.
LP: As far as the actual sequencing of the sections and topics in the book, is that something DK was in charge of, or did you have any say in something like that?
Zehr: They basically say, ‘Here’s a section that you’re going to write about [and] here’s something to think about when you write it. That’s the approach that we’re going for.’ Then you run with that, and they give you options for, ‘What do you think would be a good picture [to go with it]? Do you have some suggestions for quotes? Do you have suggestions for anything on these layouts?’ And we knew based on the sections that they were going to be one, two, or four pages long. So they certainly took our ideas and suggestions, and then once I got the PDFs, I got to see what they chose and what direction they went in. Lucasfilm ultimately [gets] to decide, so I can make suggestions all I want, but ultimately it’s up to them. I was pleasantly surprised to see how many ideas that they liked and what they did with that.
LP: Did you end up having any favorite entries in the book? Does anything stick out to you that you would recommend people check out first?
Zehr: That’s hard to say. I mean, I love Cole’s intro. I’ve been singing about that for a while, because I think he took the history in front of and behind the camera and laid it out really beautifully. I really love the timelines and the history, because I think we’re fascinated by how this mythology works, and what is happening when, and who knows who, and who’s alive when, so I feel like [those do] a fantastic job of [explaining] that. I also really like the Leia section that I wrote, because I feel like– as much as I’ve always appreciated her– when I wrote about her, that took it to a new level for me. I started thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, look at all the things she’s done,’ and ‘Look at all the adversity she’s faced and look at how she handles it.’ That was inspiring.
From the stuff that I personally wrote, there’s a lot of stuff that I think went really well, but I’m really proud of the section I did on the Force, because I feel like that’s a really really hard topic to tackle. You’ve got the movies, you’ve got Clone Wars and Rebels, and different interviews that George [Lucas] and Dave Filoni [have] done, and I pored through all of that stuff. I thought about how the Force works in my mind and used all the resources that I had available to me. I wanted to explain something that isn’t real, but feels very real to us. I think it’s spiritual, I think it’s physical and physiological, and I think there’s a lot of aspects of it. I think it’s all very beautiful. I’ve always been a fan of midi-chlorians, so I wanted to explain to even the biggest skeptics that midi-chlorians work, and they’ve worked since the beginning, and ‘here’s why.’ Hopefully it comes across like that.
LP: In your opinion, what makes The Star Wars Book worth buying and owning for people interested in the franchise as opposed to just looking up the information contained within on the internet?
Zehr: A great question, and something that I found myself asking myself when I was writing it. I thought, ‘If we’re doing this, let’s offer something that’s very unique. I honestly thought of other source books as ‘the what,’ but I look at this as ‘the how’ and ‘the why.’ It’s much more analytical, it’s much more thought-provoking, it’s much more dense. I mean, it’s certainly much more text-heavy [than other reference books]. And while it has the typical beautiful images that DK is known for, it doesn’t have the same quantity of them. I feel like the text really is the focal point here, and it analyzes and breaks things down much more deeply than has ever happened in an official book. We’ve had other books like of course the visual guides and The Ultimate Star Wars Guide and things like that, and those are all wonderful.
This one, however, has more vocabulary, more words, more place for text, so you’ve got more of a chance to really dive more deeply. In addition to that, this maybe more than any source book, [covers] the entire Star Wars saga– not just the movies, but The Clone Wars, Rebels, the canonical novels, the comic books, The Mandalorian, video games in the Star Wars universe, while also acknowledging parts of the Legends line and saying very very clearly and distinctly in the beginning of the book, ‘Hey, there’s some special stuff there too that is still being incorporated into the Star Wars universe in different ways.’ So it legitimately takes everything that’s in Star Wars that’s happened since Disney took over and [gives] it equal weight and balance and gravitas, and that you won’t find anywhere else.
The Star Wars Book is available now wherever books are sold. The full audio version of this interview was featured in Laughing Place’s Star Wars podcast “Who’s the Bossk?”
Mike serves as Laughing Place’s lead Southern California reporter, Editorial Director for Star Wars content, and host of the weekly “Who’s the Bossk?” Star Wars podcast. He’s been fascinated by Disney theme parks and storytelling in general all his life and resides in Burbank, California with his beloved wife and cats.