I miss Jake.
Though I’ve never met him, seen his face, talked to him, or emailed, Skyped or exchanged Tweets with him, I have spent a good portion of every day with him for the past two years.
I have helped him clear major obstacles in his life, confront his demons (internal and otherwise), and watched him develop into a pretty cool dude. I have sat with him in coffee shops, hotels and homes where we house sat around the world, usually starting the day with him as the sun rose over a dozen or so countries.
Jake Ketcher is the protagonist in my soon-to-be-released novel, Rilertown. He is the wisdom, fragility, uncertainty – and, importantly – the force of goodness struggling to find his way through each of the 85,000 words I put him through.
Writing a novel means developing a relationship with the characters, events and places that, together, weave the fabric of the tale. In the course of writing Rilertown I awoke every day – as I did this morning, once again – with Jake on my mind.
What would Jake endure this day?
How would he resolve the conflict I imposed on him yesterday?
What obstacles could I place before him to test him, obstruct his life, and force him to find his way through the tangle of fictional woes I made him endure?
And, what did it all mean? To me, to you, as potential reader?
Jake embodies a lot of me (as a young reporter in the 1980s) and my father (whose name was Frank, like me, but who also like me preferred to use his nickname, Jake).
He has promise, yet is imperfect. He is strong and weak. Sensitive and cold, distanced yet approachable.
He is as human as I could make him.
We became intimate friends as we traveled together over the paragraphs; words carrying us along in torrents that, as would a river, at times deposited us in calming eddies and then launched us into surging whitewaters. I spoke to him; he listened and acted, a puppet on the string of my laptop keyboard, often abruptly changing course because I had a dream, or a thought, or an idea that I etched into my mind as morning’s light arrived. Over countless cups of coffee we rode the river of words constructed by my mind and hands and played out in the actions of a young man I will never meet.
I made Jake answer questions that took me years to frame, let alone resolve. I put him through a course of life-changing events – some horrible, others funny – to get at the core of what made Jake tick. I revealed him as a trusted confidant reveals a friend to a neutral, voyeuristic audience. Jake silently accepted whatever I threw at him, a chess figure I moved at will.
I used him.
Through Jake, I reconnected with people and experiences I had mostly forgotten.
The cranky news editor whose scowling presence intimidated the hell out of me yet taught me a ton about newspaper reporting, editing and ethics.
Former colleagues, interview subjects, corrupt politicians and helpful sources and friends all came to life, coated in linguistic veneer that gave some of my life’s murkiest influences glowing finishes. I left others to broil over the coals of my words, exposed and raw to the reader’s eye.
I brought Jake into his turbulent relationship with his girlfriend Sabrina, a wounded soul who mostly tormented Jake while feeding his ego and satisfying his libido. There once was a woman in my life much like Sabrina. I helped Jake survive his girlfriend in more ways than one; you’ll need to read to book to find out how.
I took absurd liberties with Jake’s career development, personal life and psyche, pushing him past limits I never faced myself.
I exposed him to violence, loss, corruption, hatred, and profound sadness. I gave him carefully dispensed doses of advice, kindness and opportunity. I made him earn every lick of success, every step of advancement, as he showed up every morning, ready to get to work on the business of whatever I told him he must do.
Did I bully Jake?
I also gave him voice, the ability to reason, and to learn. I helped him become a thoughtful, credible young man in the course of 28 chapters of prose constructed to tell a story, to capture a time of my life that meant a lot to me and helped make me what I am today.
I wrote Rilertown partly to freeze in time an era in newspaper journalism that seems forever lost, a wild and wacky period when anarchy and press freedom aligned with corporate profitability to allow words and ideas help mold the lives of people who read newspapers to create informed opinions. I also wrote Rilertown to remember, admittedly in a tone that is somewhat embellished, a time when newspapers routinely kicked the shins of people who did wrong and changed the way things were.
Little did I know that writing a book would create a new friend. And I didn’t foresee the sense of loss as I finished Rilertown and prepared to give Jake to the reading public.
As my parents entered their 80s, I spoke often with them about the sadness of their constricting world as friends died and their social circle shrank. They would shake their heads, go to the funeral, and then go home to make telephone calls to what friends remained to hold them close.
I developed a better understanding of that feeling when I finished my final draft of Rilertown and sent it along to my editor for his review and comments, and to help me bring it to print. Literature sometimes confronts us with aspects of life we somehow avoid in the act of living itself.
Now, as I begin each day a bit more detached from Jake, I feel a deep sense of loss. His absence weighs on me, an eerie void left by someone who never existed, but whose presence has brought me closer to my own history, experiences, and self.
And oh, how I miss him.
So there’s only one thing to do.
Write a sequel. Or two. Maybe three, even.
A guy’s gotta do what a guy must do to keep the best of friends close.