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When Jesse Barlow escaped to Hollywood at age eighteen, he hungered for freedom, fame and fortune. Eleven years later, his track record of failure results in a drug-induced suicide attempt. Revived at death’s doorstep, Jesse returns to his Ohio hometown to make amends with his preacher father, a former love, and Jesse’s own secret son. But Jesse’s renewed commitment becomes a baptism by fire when his son’s advanced illness calls for a sacrifice—one that could cost Jesse the very life he regained.
A story of mercy, hope, and second chances, From The Dead captures the human spirit with tragedy and joy.
2010 - Finalist
Many ideas for a story come from what-if questions. One evening years ago, while driving home from work, I listened to the oldies station on the radio. When the Dusty Springfield song “Son of a Preacher Man” started, something in the song’s momentum caught my attention and, for the first time, I listened to the lyrics closely. As you may know, the song is about a stereotypical, straight-laced preacher’s son who falls in love with a girl from the wrong side of the tracks. After the song ended, a thought hit me: “What if the opposite were true? What if the preacher’s son had made a series of mistakes and had undergone a downward spiral?” When I arrived home, the ideas came to me in a fury and I started sketching out my initial thoughts for the book. Obviously, the story is not based on the song and is completely unrelated to the song, but it’s a great example of how a what-if question can spark ideas.
I had two reasons, and the Hollywood scene seemed a perfect match on both counts.
First, Jesse pursued a dream. More often than not, when you hear of someone leaving town for that purpose, the destination is either Los Angeles or New York. Putting Jesse into films rather than theater provides an access point for his acquaintances in Part Two. This sets up a contrast: Jesse’s west-coast lifestyle as it appears to others, versus the lifestyle Jesse knows. And as a result, we get another secret Jesse hides within.
Second, Jesse escaped his hometown to figure out who he truly is. Until age eighteen, he lived in his father’s shadow and suffered constant comparisons between his father and him. By stepping into different character roles—even as an extra—Jesse tries on a variety of masks in an attempt to discover the best fit. These masks also represent Jesse’s status quo in Part One: He hides behind a false self-image and he guards secrets from his past.
Several factors come into play. As I wrote the book, however, I kept coming back to the notion of contrast—who Jesse was, who Jesse is, and who Jesse becomes over the course of the novel. Contrasting events instigate change within Jesse; contrasting events and characteristics also illuminate his progress—or, in some cases, how far he has fallen. These tools provide a method for comparison and/or counterbalance so readers can draw their own conclusions as well.
As I crafted the novel, major examples of contrast stood out for me. These include Jesse’s “masked” self in California versus his true self in Ohio; Jesse’s relationships with Jada versus Caitlyn, and how those women perceive their respective relationship; Jesse’s sexual encounters in Chapter 9 and Chapter 47, and even Chapter 16; the concept of confidence versus fear. Ultimately, for Jesse, the biggest contrast is spiritual despair versus spiritual salvation.
Oh, without a doubt. In fact, Part One proved a challenge in its entirety—both to plan and to write! Many of Jesse’s experiences were so dark, and it took about as long to write Part One as it took to write the rest of the book.
In particular, Chapters 16 and 19 proved quite uncomfortable because they were foreign to me. I believe the chapters that feel the most uncomfortable to write end up being the most emotionally compelling for the reader. If a writer is willing to endure a sense of vulnerability as he or she writes, I’m convinced readers can detect it. It can launch a novel from mere words on a page to something three-dimensional.
In general, three elements tug me toward a writing project, including a novel like From The Dead:
The third element is fascinating because, when you think about it, the same collection of words can trigger a vastly different response in each reader. It can serve as entertainment for one person. It might inspire another to reach for his or her dreams. And that same novel could provide encouragement to a person enduring pain or contemplating suicide. Impact potential is a privilege, and it’s like fuel during the writing process.
I believe the written word forges a bond between readers and the author. When readers choose to buy a book, they’ve chosen to invest their valuable time in the story. If they decide to continue reading past the first chapter, a bond forms. At this point, the author determines the depth of the bond: In other words, the more I invest myself emotionally in the novel—the more vulnerable I allow myself to become as an author—the deeper the reader will connect with what they read. If readers feel you’ve been honest with them and they’re satisfied with what they read, a degree of trust results. And hopefully, by the end of the book, readers trust the author enough to invest part of their lives reading the author’s next novel.
As people read From The Dead, sometimes I’m asked, “Was this particular detail based on personal experience?” or “Why did you choose to design an event this way?” Here are some odd trivia nuggets.
Why a preacher’s son? When people think of the most white-picket-fence family atmosphere, for many a preacher’s family would come to mind. I wanted to select a character that would seem the least likely candidate for this circumstance so that anyone could relate, regardless of how dire or light their own situations.
Jesse’s neighborhood is patterned after a neighborhood I drove through in the Sherman Oaks area. The apartments have screened-in sunporches like Jada sits in.
On one visit to Los Angeles, I drove in to the LAX airport on Sunday morning to catch my flight home. The scene fascinated me: during the week, it can take forever to get where you’re going; yet on that Sunday morning, we zipped up the highway without a glitch. Los Angeles is the second-largest city in the U.S. regardless of the day, so where did all the people go? I wanted to reflect that oddity in the book.
On a recent visit to Santa Monica Pier, the Ferris wheel indeed contained a burned-out bulb.
I never found clowns funny either. I always wondered why people laugh at someone who hides behind a mask.
My first draft of this chapter was woefully inadequate. My editor gave me solid advice on how to make it more realistic. (Thanks, Elsa!)
On my first visit to Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, someone had indeed stuck a decal to Elton John’s star.
This chapter was an eye-opener for me. Very uncomfortable to write. Thankful to reach the end of it!
Painting the clock tower black—a recurring verbal joke among Hudson teenagers. To my knowledge, no one has ever attempted it. However, at nearby Case Western Reserve Academy in town, in the lawn sits a boulder covered with a layer of paint is rumored to be an inch thick.
Regarding black-and-white TV: Years ago, I babysat for some kids and told them I’d brought a hilarious movie called Ferris Beuller’s Day Off. Who doesn’t know and love that film? As it turns out, I was mistaken: One kid asked if it was in black and white.
I didn’t exaggerate about the pork steaks. Highly recommended.
I happened to live in Ohio when the Billy Graham Crusade occurred. I attended the Thursday night event mentioned in the chapter. The tone and visuals are based on firsthand experience. That was also the inaugural year of Cleveland’s new stadium, called Jacobs Field at the time, later named Progressive Field.
When I wrote this chapter, it had been years since I’d lived in Ohio. I needed to capture the ambience of Progressive Field—the visuals, the sounds. Lo and behold, during my planning phase for From The Dead, Cleveland advanced to the playoffs and I recorded some footage from the games from my home in St. Louis. Indeed, God works in mysterious ways.
The restaurant merges the tone of two actual restaurants in Hudson: Yours Truly and Ted and Mary’s.
At the time I wrote the novel, the last time I’d visited Lake Erie was in 1994 with my family. I looked over my shoulder and noticed some metal framework. From the looks of it, construction must have begun a few days before. I asked what was being built in downtown Cleveland. The answer: the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Caitlyn’s car scene: This is one of the first scenes that popped into my head as I started to plan the novel. The Michelle Branch song accompanied the visual.
In all the books I’ve read and films I’ve watched, I’ve never seen the church environment portrayed as it is in Chapter 50. Tons of nondenominational churches like this exist. But church culture is often presented as bland, something many people can’t relate to. I wanted to present the opposite end of the spectrum here.
I underwent a minor surgery years ago. Like Jesse, many of the preliminary tests were waived due to my age and good health. I understood why they waived it and didn’t take issue with it, but it certainly shocked me. That’s when I figured, “Well, no one comes to a hospital to die, so I doubt anyone would lie about it.”
Oftentimes when authors write a book, they create character sketches to help them understand the backgrounds and psyches of the characters. These sketches help determine characters’ motivations and how they might interact with other characters. Some of these details are mentioned in the book; other details are known only to the author; still other details were completely changed as I got to know the characters and their decisions better.
Here are some sketches I developed prior to writing From The Dead. I referred to these frequently.
Jada Ferrari lit the collection of miniature candles along the coffee table. Darkness evaporated from the living room.
As Jada leaned forward, Jesse Barlow admired the curvature of her figure, the way her brunette hair fell in curls past her shoulder blades.
“I just bought these today,” said Jada, who brushed her hand above the flames and sent the aroma of jasmine wafting through the air. Ever the center of attention, she sat on the edge of the sofa beside Cameron and Gavin, friends from an apartment downstairs, as Gavin lit the round of joints.
The screech of an alarm clock pierced the 3:30 a.m. silence. Jada, groggy from the night before, groaned as she felt around the pre-dawn darkness for the button to make the ringing stop. Not one to snooze, she sat up in a heap as Jesse rolled over and mumbled.
“Is Barry scheduling sunrise meetings now?” Jesse asked.
Barry Richert. The Barry Richert, as Jada reminded everyone who would listen. Barry Richert, whose unexpected success arrived two years ago with a low-budget film that became a sleeper hit. These days, the man received hundreds of screenplays a week.
Jesse arrived home around six that night. No purse or keys on the breakfast-bar ledge above the kitchen counter, which meant Jada hadn’t yet come home. He tried to recall her schedule today: Dinner plans with Barry Richert and a studio executive? Ink a deal to direct an adaptation of that recent book lauded by critics? He couldn’t keep track of her life. By virtue of her job, Jada subjected herself to Barry’s continual beck and call. Then again, Jesse was thankful to have the apartment to himself for the moment; nowadays her presence alone could trigger tension.
His eyes sensitive from the fluorescent lights at the shop, Jesse slid onto the black leather sofa in the living room and went limp for a few minutes. He ran his hand through his hair. Was he getting tired quicker? Though subtle, he had noticed a difference.