Here are my TOP TEN REASONS for writing The Mountains Bow Down.
#4: Real People in My Life
Novelists get plenty of cathartic miles out of recycling annoying people into fictional characters—especially villainous characters.
But I’ve found even greater joy by doing the exact opposite: Honoring people I love within the pages of my books.
For instance, in Mountains I used the names of two adored friends: Bob Barner and Robert Stoller.
Readers get to meet Bob Barner in Skagway, when he races after a fugitive. In real life, I met Bob Barner in Virginia, when I was a reporter.
Bob was thirty-four years old, handsome, with a gorgeous wife, and four perfect children.
And he was dying.
He had a terminal brain tumor; hospice was called in.
With reportorial chutzpah (or, more accurately, rudeness) I asked Bob Barner if I could write about his hospice care. Long-term. Like move in with the family until, you know, whatever happened.
I know. But that’s how God built me. Deal with it. Because I also asked to bring along uber-photographer Dean Hoffmeyer.
After thinking about it for several days, Bob Barner agreed to my request. With one condition: “Make God famous.” I really wasn’t sure what he meant, but Dean and I did indeed spend months watching Bob die. It was one of the worst experiences of my life. And among the greatest blessings. The story did indeed make God famous: The Barners were Christians who walked the walk and the resulting story was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize after Bob died. Not because of me. It was because of this family, and Dean Hoffmeyer’s tender yet unwavering way with a camera. Those photos still make me cry.
On a lighter note, the second real name in Mountains belongs to Robert Stoller. A brilliant attorney in Alaska, Robert Stoller was the first person to teach me chess. I was about six years old and he was the second smartest person I’d ever met (my dad gets first place).
Many years later, at my dad’s memorial service, Stoller delivered a laughter-through-tears eulogy that landed on my heart like a healing balm. Later still. Stoller sent me some autobiographical sketches of his early years in the law. One story was about an attorney he met. The sketch was titled: “The Lawyer Who Pissed in the Sink.” (Not Stoller, by the way).
In Mountains, Raleigh Harmon interviews the Alaska Medical Examiner about a suspicious death. (Another cool thing about writing fiction? I can hand out medical degrees—to lawyers!). Since I knew this fictional ME was super smart, didn’t suffer fools, and was funny, I chose to name him Robert Stoller.
Here’s an excerpt when Raleigh’s speaks to Dr. Robert Stoller from the cruise ship:
“You continue to assume,” [he said.] “Haven’t you heard the saying?”
“I’m from the South, sir. I’ve heard quite a few sayings.”
“Indeed,” said Dr. Stoller. “But perhaps you need to hear this one. Though it sounds vulgar initially, it provides an unforgettable mnemonic device. Would you care to hear it?”
“You can remember how to spell ‘assume’ because it puts an ‘ass’ in front of ‘u’ and ‘me.’ ”
I almost laughed.
“Thus, assuming nothing, we cannot say how she was suffocated. Only that I’m fairly certain she was suffocated.”