By Jeff Hampton
After a lifetime of struggles, Jack Dodger wants nothing more than to spend his retirement playing cards with old friends at the barbershop in East Dallas. But everything changes on New Year’s Eve when a burglar bursts through the door and takes Jack into the night at gunpoint. Jack returns safely home the next morning but with a secret and a story that will propel him into the spotlight and onto the biggest stage in America: the race for President of the United States.
Will Grandpa Jack win the election? And will he survive the process? What will he learn about himself and his country along the way? Join Grandpa Jack on a journey that takes him from coast to coast and from the depth of disillusionment to the pinnacle of pride.
Grandpa Jack is available online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, Tower, Powell’s Books and Schuler Books. The book is available in both paperback and eBook.
If you missed one of our book signings and still would like a signed copy of Grandpa Jack for yourself or as a gift, you can always get it from me right here: Grandpa Jack
Ever wonder where fiction writers get their ideas? Like a movie DVD with a “The Filming of . . .” extra feature, following are some behind-the-scenes notes about Grandpa Jack.
Grandpa Jack started as an experiment in storytelling and story “publishing” in the internet age. It also was a test of my endurance.
In late 1999 with the 2000 presidential campaign already under way, I wondered what might happen if I created a fictional third-party candidate and let him wander around the nation in real time while the real candidates – George W. Bush and Al Gore – were doing the same. And I wondered – could I serialize a story about this candidate with installments produced and distributed by email on a regular basis. And finally, could I keep a group of friends and family interested in the story for eleven months?
Regarding the latter question: I have no way of knowing if I kept all the readers engaged. I received some kind comments of “interest” early on, and a few people made note of the story as it progressed. One person told me that he printed out each installment and put it in a three-ring binder. Nobody asked me to take them off the list, but I wouldn’t be surprised or troubled to find out that some people ignored and deleted the emails.
In the end, it was mostly a writing exercise that, once started, I was determined to see through to the end, and I did. I got a good head start by sending the prologue and first two chapters out on New Year’s Eve to coincide with the first real action in the story. After that, each chapter was pretty much finished just in time to be emailed every two weeks.
I started with a broad outline, but as time went by the story and characters took on a life of their own and I was as surprised as anyone to discover where the story was going every two weeks. The only certainty was that the story would end on election night. Of course, we all know now that the real election didn’t end until weeks later when all the “hanging chads” had been counted, but my story ended at 10 p.m. on November 7, 2000.
I went to bed that night having written more than 74,000 words over 11 months about a man who I had grown to love and admire as if he were real. In that regard, I consider my “writing experiment” a roaring success. All the more so now that the story is on the brink of being published as a real book.
Jack Dodger – Jack probably embodies the best parts of every 70ish man that I have admired in my life, especially my grandfathers and great-uncle. He is proud, intelligent, firm yet gentle, slow to anger unless provoked, extremely loyal to family and friends.
This story was not written to promote a political ideal or agenda; it was written to explore how an average citizen would react and survive when dropped into the political machine. Given that scenario, the character needed to have a belief system, and so his perspective is similar to mine – leaning from the center to the right but not stridently so. I do share Jack’s longing for common sense, respect, and people just doing the right thing.
Jack’s name was pulled out of the air – to me it sounded old-fashioned, earthy, manly – and thinking ahead I liked the way “Dodger” rhymed with “codger.” However, one of the first comments I got when I emailed the first chapters was that the name sounded much like that of a friend – Jack Dodgen. That totally escaped me, and after assuring him that there were no similarities, I stuck with “Dodger.”
Billy Briar – In many ways Billy represents me at the start of my career as a police reporter in Waco, Texas. I did all the things that Billy does: go to the police department, leaf through the incident reports, have conversations with the desk sergeants, and then go out and interview the principal characters in stories that I felt were newsworthy or interesting. I can identify with Billy’s eagerness to do a good job and get the story, but like him, I was never a hardcore “cop shop” reporter – one who reveled in the gory details of crime. Billy has a soft touch, and like me, in the end was better suited for other types of work. Unlike Billy, I’ve never had any desire to work in politics.
Blackie – Every good tale needs a dog, and Jack’s black Labrador was inspired by Blackie, our real black Lab who lay quietly at my feet on many late nights as I wrote.
Dallas – I grew up in a Dallas suburb but I’ve lived in the city – near downtown and on the old east side – since 1981, so it made sense to anchor this story in Dallas.
Live Oak Street – This long street stretching from downtown Dallas eastward into Lakewood is a mixture of old and new, fancy and seedy. I lived near it for a dozen years and traveled it often to jobs downtown, to the grocery, etc. My grandfather lived in the vicinity in the early 1920s, and I tried to picture what life might have been like in that area in the early ‘30s when Jack Dodger was born.
The Barber Shop – The inspiration for Jack’s shop is Chamber’s Barber Shop located in a small, old strip center on Live Oak Street. My father got his hair cut there for years and I have been there a few times. Living near it and passing it often, I noticed there are often cars parked out front late at night. I’ve been told that the shop is the scene of late-night fiddling and guitar-picking sessions. For this story I turned that into late-night card games.
East Texas – I’ve never lived in the East Texas Piney Woods, but as a child we traveled the length of the region to visit grandparents and other relatives. Much of the region is still rural and isolated – much like it would have been during Jack’s childhood years.
On the Road – At the time I was writing the story I was traveling a lot for an engineering firm with offices around the country. Some of the cities I visited found their way into Jack’s itinerary: Washington, D.C., Seattle, San Francisco, Colorado Springs, Sacramento. Some areas I’ve just passed through, such as the rolling plains of Wyoming and the Carolinas. I’ve never been to Kansas City, home of the fictional Golden Eagles, but while writing this a friend was living and working there and his wife was a curator at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Thus, Jack and Franky spent a sunny afternoon at the museum.
SIGNS OF THE TIMES
Civilization did not fall apart as some predicted might happen at midnight on January 1, 2000, while Jack and his buddies were playing cards at the barber shop. However, many of the details of our daily lives have changed since 2000. This story was written before 9/11 at a time when folks could still walk their loved ones to the gate at the airport. Cell phones were not as prevalent and as useful as they are today. People still relied on the daily newspapers and network news for details of the latest political scandals. And college students still sat in front of desk-top computers to visit on-line “chat rooms” rather than streaming live events from any location with their iPhones and Blackberries.
**Spoiler Alert – Don’t read further if you don’t want to know how the story ends!
Election Night – From the beginning I knew that there was no way Jack was going to win the election. I wanted at least that part of the story to be realistic. However, he came out much better than I originally thought – part of the mystery of fictional characters taking on a life of their own. In real life, on election night none of us knew who the real president was going to be, so I left that detail vague. Jack gets a phone call from the “president-elect,” but we never know if he is the former governor or former senator.
Claire Dodger and Opal Jenkins – When I wrote this story in 2000, I could never in a million years have imagined that I would find myself in Jack’s shoes so soon – losing a wife, missing her greatly, and yet beginning to look ahead. Reading the story now, I can vouch for Jack’s feelings. I don’t know if the writing of this was just a coincidence or God preparing my heart for what was to come. The great thing about fiction is you can honor loved ones in subtle ways, so it’s no coincidence that “Claire” was my wife Debra’s middle name. And, I’m pleased to say, my real journey has led me to find my own Opal.