Moments in Life

“If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it”Toni Morrison

I remember the moment nearly thirty years ago that led me on the journey to write this novel. I was eighteen years old, a freshman at Virginia Tech. Having entered the Corps of Cadets a few months earlier, I was still adjusting to life as a new cadet “rat” (though the term had recently been eradicated from official corps doctrine).

It was late winter, and I’d been tapped to join a military society. At the risk of revealing secret rituals, one pledge task involved a run up a mountain in the dead of night, lugging a backpack of bricks and an old infantry rifle, its barrel plugged. The evening of our run was frigid, with the temperature hovering just above freezing.

And it was pouring rain.

Forecasts in the preceding days had indicated the rain would turn to snow during the night, but it never did. And though we had at first braved the elements together, my pledge buds and I began to drift, each finding a pace suited to our individual capabilities. A couple of faster young men pulled ahead, while I settled into a rhythm somewhere near the front of the pack.

After a time I found myself alone on the mountain. I was drenched, chilled to the bone and aching. Yet I found the adventure intoxicating, even mystical. At that age when everything seems possible, with extra energy available on demand, I reveled in the sensations of a wet winter’s eve. Following in the footsteps of cadets who’d faced the mountain over the years, I felt a connection. I contemplated what it would have been like for them, their experiences and lives. It was a matter I weighed often in those days, as the new cadet indoctrination – which I mean in the best possible way – was in large part about instilling the values and wisdom of prior generations, those who’d sacrificed so much.

To me The Fallen Snow has always been about key moments in a person’s life”John J. Kelley

Some months later, back home in the Florida panhandle, that idea of connecting with an earlier era returned to me in the most unlikely of ways – a summer job, the largely forgettable type one finds himself in when young and needing to make some money. I had two such jobs that summer. The first, selling betting tickets at a dog-racing track, had come to an end; but the second continued through August. I was a summer hire with the local water and sewer authority, and my job was to “fix sprinklers” in a series of massive spray fields near the county fairgrounds. Basically that meant I drove a beat-up truck around, scanning for malfunctions – those stuck in place, spewing insufficient water, etc. Whenever I spotted one, I would tote the toolbox from the passenger seat out into the field, dismantle the sprinkler head and then put it back together again.

Nine times out of ten that would do the trick. No training necessary. On occasion I’d be given other tasks. I have some vague recollection of picking okra from along the edge of a field, a harvest I imagine ended up in some workman’s kitchen. But for the most part fixing sprinklers was my sole duty and, given the absence of a walkman or today’s ever-connected devices, one that separated me from the outside world.

During those long, scorching summer days I reflected upon my first year at Tech, which meant thinking of the Corps, given its dominance in my existence at the time. While I no doubt recounted many freshman experiences, at some point I stumbled upon the seeds sewn during my late night mountain run. Soon they began to grow, taking shape as a tale.

It wasn’t fully formed, just broad themes dotted with isolated images and snippets of dialog. But I knew it involved a young man and his family . . . and a war. The First World War, to be precise, though I’m not sure why. Maybe it was the rifle I’d lugged up that cold, damp mountain. At any rate, this young man and his companions from a prior era came to me and kept me company. Snow was a part of the story too. I always pictured snow, probably because it was humid and pushing a hundred out in the spray fields. That and one thing this Florida boy loved about attending university in Virginia was the magical winter snow that crept into the ridges, sometimes as predicted yet often appearing seemingly out of nowhere.

Over the next decades those imagined moments stuck with me, at times near the surface, sometimes buried for months or even years. But in quiet times, when I was listening, I’d hear the characters that had bounced about my head over the course of a distant summer.

A summer that had ended with my return to an expected path.

I went on to graduate, receiving a commission with the Air Force. A late bloomer, I eventually came out to myself and then to family and friends. Every few years I’d toy with the idea of writing a novel, or writing something. It was nothing I had trained for. The Air Force had deemed me a technical sort, with my tuition money predicated on receiving an engineering degree. So that’s what I did.

After the service I veered into other jobs, often entertaining though not worthy of mention here. Then in 2008 my partner Jim and I moved from Washington, DC, to Vancouver, BC. Upon arrival, he began his new job and I . . . well, I looked about. I made a start on training for a real estate license. I took a beginner’s sommelier course. Then I stumbled back into writing, short stories at first, followed by segments of a promising novel that emerged from one of them.

That all ended the day I rediscovered the characters of The Fallen Snow, or perhaps they found me. Within a few weeks I’d completely ditched the other efforts and began pulling together old drafts and notes and character sketches from previous years. There weren’t all that many, as my earlier attempts had been rather spotty, and fleeting. But there were a handful, enough to awaken the long-dormant seeds.

Down the road a good piece farther now, I’m still learning this writing thing. Along the way I’ve gathered advice from a few conferences, and words of wisdom from published authors and talented writers still finding their path. But most of the work has been in my head, seeking not only sparks of inspiration but also faith in my own instincts.

All of which has led to my debut novel, The Fallen Snow. Sitting down to write this essay, I thought I would be talking more about the manuscript, its themes and characters, explaining how I saw them or how they touched me. But maybe that was never what this was supposed to be. If you want to explore those things (and I hope that you do), please read the novel. I enjoy having others read it and then share what the story means to them. In the end perhaps that’s the real reason that writers write.

I will offer this. To me The Fallen Snow has always been about key moments in a person’s life. A moment when you see who you are. Moments when you realize you’re in love. Or scared. Or flawed. Even mortal. There was a time I thought the novel was about finding home, and it is . . . partly. Shortly after I finished the initial draft, a wise friend told me she thought it was about all the ways people can love. The description flattered me. But the more I consider her comments, the more I tend to agree. I suppose it’s also about a young man coming out, though that modern term would never have crossed his mind. However, I never saw that as being the whole of the tale. In my view the story has always been larger than that.

So I think I’ll stick with saying that, to me, The Fallen Snow is about moments . . . moments in life.

If you’ve read the tale, I would welcome hearing your thoughts. If you haven’t read it, I hope that you will and that you enjoy it. And if you do enjoy it, I hope you’ll recommend it to others.

Sincerely,

John