by James Landis
Several years ago I sat down one morning at my computer and wrote the words, “I meet Jesus on the day I get home from the war.”
Up until that moment, all I knew, in sitting down that morning, was that I wanted to try to write a novel about Jesus in a contemporary setting.
I also knew the title of that novel.
Jesus in the Air.
That title comes from an Emily Dickinson poem. I had quoted from that same poem in my previous novel, Artist of the Beautiful. There, my narrator (a young woman) calls that poem “a prayer to end all prayers.”
Indeed, I trace the inspiration for The Last Day to my near obsession with those words of Emily Dickinson:
At least to pray is left, is left.
O Jesus in the air
I know not which thy chamber is,
I ’m knocking everywhere.
It was not until I began to think seriously about writing my new novel that, in my research, I came to realize that Emily Dickinson must have come upon her image of Jesus in the air from 1 Thessalonians 4: 16-17:
For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first:
Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.
To meet Jesus in the air is to confront him on your way to eternal life. To be taken up and away by him. To be at the beginning of being forever with him.
Jesus in the Air. What a great title for a novel! I loved that title.
So I wrote the novel, starting with the line I put down that morning several years ago: “I meet Jesus on the day I get home from the war.”
About two years later I wrote the final words of that novel: “The couple will honeymoon on the Isles of Shoals.”
It took me almost another two years to find an agent who wanted to handle the novel and for her, bless her, to find a publisher, bless him, who wanted to publish the novel.
The novel now published and known as The Last Day.
Too many people—too many knowledgeable and important people—had said, “You can’t publish novel with Jesus in the title. No one will read it. Or too few people will read it. And no one will want to carry it around.” One person said, “A big audience for your novel will be young men, and young men will think the title means that Jesus is flying around on a skateboard!”
I still loved my title, and I fought and I fought. But finally I had to give in. And after several other (frankly) peculiar titles had been put on the book, one of my own alternative titles (I always have other possibilities among my notes), The Last Day, gave “the shivers” to an enormously influential person in the book business.
And so--reluctantly at first, most gratefully now--I learned to live with The Last Day as a title.
What didn’t change were those first words I wrote those several years before: “I meet Jesus on the day I get home from the war.”
I knew nothing about where this book was going when I wrote those words. I didn’t know who was speaking. I didn’t even know I was going to be writing in the first person. I didn’t know I was going to be writing in the present tense. I didn’t know I was going to be writing about the war, any war.
All I knew was that I was going to be writing about Jesus and that Jesus was not going to be in the air but that he was going to be on earth and that he was going to be dressed not in robes but like you and me.
In this, I was inspired by words written by Father William J. O’Malley in a book called Why Not: Daring to Live the Challenge of Christ:
But the real Jesus, when he came the first time, looked just like any other ordinary man. Today he looks just like you….Jesus did not go beyond the farthest star. He didn’t go any spatial distance. He went into another way of existence—and yet remained here.
“Remained here.” So I had always pictured him. On the earth he loved. In the place where, as Jesus says toward the end of The Last Day, “God walked in the body of his son. And where we walk in the image of God. Male and female, as God created us. And blessed us. And named us Man.” It is not the Second Coming. It is the Remaining.
“I meet Jesus on the day I get home from the war.”
How unusual, for me or any other novelist, to have the first words written of a novel remain the first words of that novel when it is finished and published, however many years later. (I count in my Last Day folder eighteen drafts of this novel. All of them begin with these same words.)
As I said, I knew nothing about where this book was going when I wrote those words. And most important among all the things I didn’t know was that Jesus, in the course of my writing this book, was to emerge not as a fictional character—not as a product of my imagination—but as a reality.
I mean, I had nothing to do with his creation. All the other characters--Warren, the narrator; Bethie, his girlfriend; Dodie, their daughter; Warren’s father; his dead mother; Ryan, his best friend—all of them came out of me.
But Jesus—I don’t know where he came from. He sprang wholly from…well, let us say, from the air. Jesus in the air.
And so he became a reality. For me. I can’t speak for how a reader might consider Jesus. But I would love to know.
James Landis lives in New Hampshire.
Friday, October 30, 2009
Home » » Guest Blog ~ James Landis ~ Novel Inspiration
Friday, October 30, 2009 5 comments