Wednesday, December 7 CHICAGO
The reporter from USA Today walked into the Dunkin’ Donuts looking harried and frazzled, which is to say, she looked pretty much like everyone else in downtown Chicago. My publicist had arranged the interview for two o’clock at the donut shop near Millennium Park. It was ten minutes past the hour.
She looked around the room until she spotted me, then hurried over. “Sorry I’m late, Mr. Churcher,” she huffed, dropping her bag on the empty chair between us. She unpeeled the wool scarf that was wrapped around her neck and chin. Her cheeks and nose were red from the biting cold. “I should have taken the L. Finding parking in downtown Chicago is almost as hard as finding an honest politician in Chicago.”
“No worries,” I said. I looked her over. She lookedtwenty-two or -three, twenty-five tops. They seemed younger every year. Or maybe I was just getting older. I sipped my coffee as she stripped off her outer winter shell.
“It’s cold out there. I can see why they call it the Windy City.”
“The name Windy City has nothing to do with the weather,” I said. “The New York City editor of the Sun called it that because he thought the Chicagoans were braggarts.”
“I didn’t know that,” she said.
“Would you like coffee?” I asked.
“No, thank you. I’ve wasted enough of your time already.”
After grinding my way through more than five hundred press interviews I had learned to handle reporters with the same cautious approach one should take with stray dogs. They’re probably safe but, for your own protection, assume that they’ll bite. I also learned that saying “off the record” is tantamount to saying “Make sure your recorder’s got batteries, baby, because this is the dirt you’re looking for.”
“How are you?” she said, looking more settled.
“Fine,” I replied.
She pulled a hand recorder from her bag and set it on the table. “You don’t mind if I record us, do you?”
They always asked this. I was always tempted to say no.
“No, you’re good.”
“Okay, then we’ll get started.” She pushed a button onher recorder and a red light began to flash. “I’m interviewing bestselling author J. Churcher. This is for the Holiday Roundup edition.” She looked at me. “Mr. Churcher. May I call you Jake?”
“Whatever you like.”
“Jake, you have a new book out. It’s still too new to have hit any lists, but I’m sure it will.”
“I never take that for granted,” I said. “But it’s Wednesday. I’ll find out about the list this afternoon.”
“I’m sure you’ll hit number one.”
“Not likely, but we can hope.”
“So what is this time of the year like for you?”
I took another drink of coffee, set down my cup, then gestured to the room. “It’s just like this. A lot of travel. A lot of interviews. A lot of coffee. Sign a few books.”
“You had a book signing last night in . . .”
“Right. How did that go?”
“It went well.”
“How many of your readers were there?”
“Five, six hundred. Kind of an average signing.”
“How many cities was your tour?”
“I think twelve. New York, Boston, Cincinnati, Birmingham, Dallas . . . I don’t remember the rest.”
“You must be exhausted. When do you finish your tour?”
“This is my last stop. I fly home in four hours.”
“Then you’re headed back to Idaho?”
“Coeur d’Alene,” I said, as if the city were a state unto itself. “I fly into Spokane.”
“Home for the holidays. So what is Christmas like at the Churcher home?”
I hesitated. “You really want to know?”
“That’s the focus of my story.”
She laughed. “You spend it with family, friends . . .”
“No. I’m pretty much alone. I open presents from my agent and publisher, drink a couple spiked glasses of eggnog, then watch the football games I missed while I was on my book tour.”
The reporter looked a little vexed. “Do you have any Christmas traditions?”
“Yeah. I just told you.”
She looked a lot vexed. “What was Christmas like growing up? Any special memories that stand out?”
I exhaled slowly. “Define special.”
“Is there a Christmas you’ll never forget?”
I grinned darkly. “Oh, yeah.”
“Can you tell me about it?”
“Trust me, you don’t want to hear it.”
“All right. Christmas afternoon. I was seven years old; my mother came into my bedroom to find me sitting on the floor playing with all my Christmas toys. She was apoplectic, screaming at me for making such a big mess. She made me go to the kitchen and bring back a heavy wooden mixing spoon. Then she pulled down my pants and beat me with it. It was like a demon had control of her. She didn’t stop until the spoon broke.
“Then she filled a suitcase with my clothes, dragged me outside to the street, and told me to go find someplace else to live. I stood there for nearly three hours, shivering in the cold. I wasn’t sure what was supposed to happen or how it was supposed to work. I figured that mothers must do this all the time to children they didn’t want anymore. I wondered if maybe someone would just come along and take me.
“Finally, after three hours, more than an hour after the sun had set, freezing and hungry, I walked back to the house and knocked on the door. It took her about five minutes to answer. She opened the door and just stood there, staring at me. Then she asked, ‘What do you want?’
“I said, ‘If I’m good, can I come back and live here?’
“Without a word she turned and walked back into the house. But she didn’t tell me to leave or slam the door in my face, which I took as permission to come back inside. I went to my room and crawled beneath my bed and fell asleep.”
I looked at her. “How’s that for a Christmas memory?”
She looked back at me with horror. “Okay. I think I’ve got what I need.” She hurriedly shoved her things back into her bag and put on her coat. “Thank you. This will come out a week or so before Christmas.” She walked back out into the cold.
My publicist is going to hate me, I thought.
If you’ve read any of my books, you know me better by my nom de plume, J. Churcher. My full name is Jacob Christian Churcher. It was only as a teenager that I realized how weird my name was and wondered if, to my parents, it was some kind of joke, like the twisted people who name their children Ima Hogg or Robin Graves.
Christian Churcher. JC Churcher. The name seems even more ironic since my parents never took me to a church.
You would think that a writer of love stories would be good at romance. Not so. At least not in my case. Maybe it’s a classic example of those who can’t do, teach (or at least write about it), but at the age of thirty-four, all I had to my name was an unbroken string of failed relationships. Still I kept trying.
They say that only a fool keeps doing the same thing and expects a different result, and maybe I am that fool, but I think it’s more complex than that. I feel more like there’s something hardwired inside me to sabotage my relationships.
Or maybe it’s just like the song says, I’m looking for love in all the wrong places. When I was just beginning my writing career, a veteran author gave me this sage advice: “Never date a reader.” I ignored this advice over and over, meeting women at book signings and starting relationships that lasted about as long as the flavor in chewing gum.
The problem is, women read my books and fall in love with the supermen I create. If they can’t find that kind ofman in real life (good luck with that), they sometimes supplant him with me. These are the women I had been dating. And eventually they discover that I’m just as broken and flawed as every other man. Or in my case, maybe even more so.
There’s a reason for that. The breaking of my world began while I was still young. Two things happened. My older brother died and my parents divorced. I was four years old—almost too young to remember. August 4, 1986. That’s the day Charles died. Everything changed after that. My mother changed after that.
My mother, Ruth, struggled with mental illness. Of course, I didn’t know that when I was young. For years I just thought that life was supposed to be a daily nightmare of beatings and neglect. When you’re raised in an asylum, crazy is normal. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that the scales fell from my eyes and I began to see the experiences of my life for what they really were—messed up beyond belief.
My mother wasn’t always cruel. There were times that she was sweet and sensitive. They were rare, but those were the times I held on to. As I got older, those moments became rarer. Most of the time she was just absent.
She often had migraines and spent a lot of time in bed, in a dark room, with the phone off the hook, hiding from light and the world. I became abnormally independentfor my age. I got my own meals, got myself off to school, washed my clothes in the bathtub if they had something on them.
When my mother took to bed I would go into her dark room to see how she was. She would often ask me to scratch her back. She had a pencil that she had taped two toothpicks to and I would run it up and down her back or neck or arms. Sometimes for hours. It was the only thing I did that made me feel that she loved or needed me. Sometimes she would say sweet things as I scratched her, something I craved like oxygen.
The isolation I lived in wasn’t just at home. I mostly kept to myself at school as well. I was a loner—still am. Maybe it was because I always felt different than other kids my age. I was sullen and serious. People said I thought too much. Also, I didn’t have time to make friends because I had to keep my mother alive. She was suicidal and more than once she involved me in her plans to die. Once she handed me a carving knife and an electric knife sharpener and asked me to sharpen the blade so she could slit her wrists.
Another time, when I was a little older, I came home from school to find a garden hose coming out of the car’s exhaust pipe and clamped into the back window of the car, the rest of the car’s windows rolled up completely. My mother was unconscious. I dragged her out and laid her on the concrete floor of the garage. She had a terrible headache but suffered nothing else. I suffered for years.
By the time I was thirteen I was already bigger than mymother and she stopped beating me. I figured that it was either because I no longer cried when she did it or because I could have beaten her up. Not that I would have. In spite of all the violence I’d experienced, I wasn’t a violent person. I detested violence. I still do.
Memories of my father are hazy at best. Most of what I knew about him came from what my mother told me, that he didn’t care about me. As much as I had learned to discount what my mother said, there was no denying that my father was missing in action and, from what I could tell, had made no effort to be a part of my life. In a way I was even angrier with him than with my mother. Why hadn’t he been there? What was his excuse? If he cared, how could he have left me in such a place?
My last day at home was remarkably anticlimactic. I was sixteen. One night I came home from my job at Taco Time and everything I owned was on the front lawn. Even my pillow. The house door was locked. I never even talked to my mother to find out what I’d done wrong this time. It didn’t matter. Something inside me clicked. I knew the time had come for me to leave.
I picked up a few of my things from the lawn, then walked back to Taco Time. There was a girl I worked with there named Carly who was always nice to me. She was a little older than me and had a car, a two-tone black-and-tan Chevy Citation. I told her that my mother had kicked me out, and she said I could stay at her place until I found something else.
Carly had also been kicked out of her über-religioushouse when her parents caught her drinking alcohol, and now she lived with her sister and brother-in-law, Candace and Tyson. I helped her clean up at work, then went home with her wondering if they’d really let me stay. Her brother-in-law was a massive, tattooed Samoan man. Tyson terrified me. He was the biggest man I had ever seen.
But I had nothing to fear. Tyson was as kind as he appeared intimidating. He had an infectious smile and a laugh that rumbled like thunder when he was especially amused. He was also a devout Christian who, along with Candace, attended a nondenominational Christian church. He also went to a weekly early-morning Bible study with a group of men. When he found out that my mother had thrown me out, he was indignant. He told me that I could stay with them for as long as I needed to get back on my feet. Considering my age and situation, it was a remarkably generous offer.
Their home was small, less than seven hundred square feet on the main floor, with an unfinished basement and a dated Pepto-Bismol pink–walled bathroom. They didn’t have another bed, but they had an extra queen-size mattress that they set on the floor in the basement. Just like that I had a new home.
Candace worked during the day as a legal secretary. Tyson worked in sales at an international phone equipment company, which granted him the luxury of being home by five thirty. Almost every night after dinner he’d sit down with me and ask what was up.
It was nice having male company. I wasn’t used to it, but it was nice. I think he liked it too since Candace had little interest in most of the things he liked: rugby, hellfire-hot chicken wings, and Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
Even though I had left home, I continued to go to school. Actually, Tyson and Candace insisted on it, but I would have anyway. It wasn’t the same school I’d been going to. Not even the same school district. I liked my new school, especially English and creative writing. Much of the reason was my teacher—a pretty, fresh-from-college woman named Janene Diamond. You hear about students having crushes on their teachers: that was me. I don’t know if Ms. Diamond had any idea of what was happening in my home life, but I think that she sensed it. Or maybe she had a crush on me too (something I fantasized about). Whatever the reason for it, she took a special interest in me and encouraged me. She told me that I was writing at a college level and had what it took to be a professional writer. It was foreign to me to have someone so positive about something I did. I would often stay after school and help her grade papers.
Writing always came naturally to me. It was like speaking, but easier. Actually, a lot easier. I felt awkward standing in front of a crowd of people; it made words and ideas just bounce uselessly around in my head like microwave popcorn.
I believe that, for the most part, we don’t succeed in spite of our hardships but precisely because of them. I think it was the drama of my life that gave me my storiesand empathy. I had always created a lot of fantasy in my head as a survival technique. I spent a lot of time in different mental worlds to escape the real one and all its pain.
Without telling me, Ms. Diamond entered one of my papers into a district creative writing competition. I won first place. Tyson, Candace, and Carly all came to see me get the award. They called me up onstage and I was given a plaque, a leather notebook, and a Cross pen and pencil set. They were the nicest things I had ever owned. They were also, aside from a cupcake I’d won in a second-grade spelling bee, the only things I had ever won.
A year and three weeks after I’d moved in with them, Tyson announced that his employer was transferring him to Spokane, Washington, and we’d be moving in two months, just after I graduated from school. We would be moving. There was never any question over whether I would go with them or not, as they had assumed it. By that point, we were family.
Ironically, it was Carly who remained behind. She had finished her freshman year at the University of Utah and decided to stay in Salt Lake with her friends. The four of us boxed up the house, then Tyson, Candace, and I filled up a U-Haul trailer and the back of his truck with everything they owned, said a tearful good-bye to Carly, and drove the seven hundred miles from Salt Lake to Spokane—Tyson and Candace in their truck, me in the used Toyota Corolla I had bought six months earlier.
It might seem a little odd that I never told my mother that I was moving out of state, but I had no reason tobelieve that she cared to know. She had made no effort to find me since she’d kicked me out. I guessed there was just no point to it. It would be like telling a homeless guy on the street what channel your favorite TV show was on. Pointless.
Just a week after we had settled in Spokane, I got a job as a pizza delivery guy at Caruso’s Sandwich & Pizza Co. I made good money in tips and they were pretty easy about feeding us, so that was a big benefit. I’d usually bring home whatever unclaimed pizzas were left at the end of my shift, which Tyson would happily demolish by himself for a midnight snack.
As summer came to an end, I enrolled at Gonzaga University in their creative writing program. I got a grant and good grades. I liked the college life. It wasn’t the college life you see on TV, with wild, beer-chugging fraternity parties and such. Mine was a pretty solitary deal, but it worked for me. I spent a lot of time in the library and I wrote a dozen or so short stories, several of which were published in The Reflection, the school’s journal of art and literature. I also picked up a little side money writing for the school newspaper, The Bulletin.
For the first time in my life I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be a writer. My ultimate dream was to write books and be a published author. One of my professors was a published author. He wasn’t exactly famous,but he had a following. I couldn’t imagine that life could be any better than that.
I graduated with a BA in literature at the age of twenty-three. During my final year of school, I got an internship with a Spokane company—Deaconess Healthcare—writing their weekly newsletter and online articles. I was hired full-time upon my graduation.
Financially, things were going the best they ever had in my life. That’s when I finally moved out of Tyson and Candace’s place. They never asked me to leave—in fact, they seemed a little upset that I was leaving—but after all they had done for me, I just didn’t ever want to put them in a situation where they had to ask. Also, after years of trying, Candace was finally pregnant, and I figured that it was time they had their own life.
I moved into a small basement apartment just a half mile from where they lived. We still had dinner together at least once a week. And every now and then I’d bring Tyson a midnight pizza.
I dated a few girls, but nothing took. There was one benefit to my loneliness. Without a significant other in my life, I had most of my nights free. A year after my graduation I started writing my first book, a twisted tale about a broken family. I never showed it to anyone. I started my second book at the age of twenty-six. It was better than my first, but still nothing to brag about. I began wondering if I really had what it took to be a novelist.
Fortunately, my passion was stronger than my doubt. A year later I wrote my first real novel. I call it my first “real”novel because it was my first book that I felt was decent enough to let someone else read. It was called The Long Way Home. It was a story about a young man trying to find his mother. It wouldn’t take Freud to connect the dots about where I drew my inspiration from.
After finishing the book, I made a few copies and began sharing it with people at work. One of my colleagues, Beth, had a cousin, Laurie, who was the co-owner of a literary agency in New York. After reading my book, and without my knowing it, Beth sent the manuscript I’d given her to Laurie. It was like the time Ms. Diamond had entered my writing into the district competition without telling me.
I’ll never forget the day Laurie called me. Our conversation went like this:
Laurie: Mr. Churcher, this is Laurie Lord of Sterling Lord Literistic. How are you?
Me: Who is this?
Laurie: My name is Laurie Lord. I’m with the Sterling Lord literary agency in New York. You wrote The Long Way Home?
Laurie: It’s a really beautiful book, Jacob. May I call you Jacob?
Me: Yes. How did you get my book?
Laurie: My cousin Beth sent it to me. Apparently you work with her.
Me: Beth Chamberlain?
Laurie: Yes. She didn’t tell you that she was sending me your book?
Me: No . . .
Laurie: Well, she did. And it’s terrific. I’d like to take it to publishers. I currently represent thirty-two authors, seven of whom are international bestselling authors. I’d like to make you number eight. If you’re interested, I’d love to fly out to Spokane to meet you.
Me: Uh . . . sure.
Three days later I met Laurie Lord, the woman to whom I would soon be professionally married. I signed a contract with her firm and she went to work, distributing the manuscript to big-name publishers. Six publishers wanted the book and it went to auction, selling for a quarter-million-dollar advance, which, needless to say, is a ridiculously high amount for the first book from an unknown author.
Within a month, the film rights were picked up by amajor production studio. It was an exciting time. It was also a major paradigm shift for me. My life suddenly seemed charmed.
Literary lightning struck. My book was both a commercial and literary success. The reviewer from the New York Times gave my book a stellar review. It also received a starred review in Publishers Weekly, and even the notoriously snarky reviewer at Kirkus gave it a nod.
My publisher contracted me for another three novels and I quit my job at Deaconess to write full time. My writing career was now what a million would-be writers dreamt of. Every now and then I’d wonder if my mother had read my book.
My next contract was for more than four million dollars. My life changed after that. A year earlier, Candace had given birth to an eleven-pound three-ounce baby boy. (Yikes.) That Christmas, to show my gratitude for all Tyson and Candace had done, I paid off their home and bought Tyson the Harley-Davidson Fat Boy he coveted. It was great to be giving to them for a change. Candace kissed me, while Tyson tried—unsuccessfully—to hide his tears.
“It’s too much, man,” he said.
I hugged him. “No, it’s not. You saved my life.”
I bought a home in Coeur d’Alene, a peaceful resort town a half hour east of Spokane. The home was on the lake and beautiful but, as in all wealthy neighborhoods, isolated. More and more I felt the loneliness.
Before she overdosed, Janis Joplin said, “Onstage I makelove to twenty-five thousand people; and then go home alone.” More times than not, I felt that way. Not that I hadn’t had offers. I remember the first city I flew into, I was met by a beautiful media escort. When she checked me into the hotel, the clerk behind the counter asked, “How many keys do you need?”
“Just one,” she said. “He’s alone.” Then she turned to me. “Unless you’d like me to spend the night.”
I pretended that I hadn’t heard her. “One key is good,” I said.
That was my life. A million fans. One key. And all the while, somewhere in my heart, was this woman who still haunted my dreams. A woman as elusive as an angel. I once tried to catch her in my writing but she eluded me even there. The story wouldn’t come. I felt like I was fictionalizing a nonfiction story.
My life fell into a routine as predictable as a Tokyo subway car. I wrote a book a year and traveled around the country with a first-class ticket for one, meeting readers, signing books, and talking to reporters.
Then one day, almost three weeks before Christmas, I got a phone call that changed everything.