Story behind St. Nick by Alan Russell

Most writers go to great lengths to try and get the details of their books right. In my crime novels I’ve worked with homicide teams and private investigators so as to write authoritatively about characters and investigative work. I have traveled to unusual and remote locations in order to write convincingly about the feel and essence of those places. As a writer, I always want my books to have that “truth-like” feeling.

When first envisioning my novel ST. NICK, I knew my main character was going to be a reluctant mall Santa Claus, but everything else was still fuzzy. Because I didn’t know much about the world of Santa Claus, I decided the only way to write about that character was to experience the life of a mall Santa.

The first year I applied for a job as Santa I wasn’t hired. Maybe I was lacking in Christmas spirit. Maybe I looked too big to be Santa Claus (I’m 6’ 7” which isn’t exactly jolly old elf height). And so I took it as an omen that I wasn’t yet ready to write that book (I remember my tentative title was SANTA’S HELPER, but that was before my main character Nick Pappas solidified in my mind as a disgruntled and despairing cop suspended from the force, and I decided upon ST. NICK).

A year later I again applied to be Santa Claus, and was hired as the full-time Santa (two other Santas were also hired) at a San Diego area mall. At the time of my hiring I was also working as a hotel manager, but was able to use vacation hours to familiarize myself with the world of a mall Santa.

Many of the things I experienced as Santa I was able to have my main character Nick also experience. One of the “hazards” of being Santa Claus is that there is no place for your body to breathe. You are wearing a large layer of padding, and have a heavy uniform draping your body. On your face is a beard, on your head is a wig, and atop your head is a hat. Your hands are covered in white gloves, and on your feet are black boots. It’s crazy hot, and I perspired copiously, even though people couldn’t even see me sweat because of the beard and wig. The “elves” that I worked with were constantly filling my water bottle. Every day I had to carefully dry my sodden mass of batting (padding). On one occasion I didn’t do a very good job of that, and suffered much like my character in the book did.

Another on the job hazard comes from the overactive bladders of young boys. I missed that bullet, but one Santa I worked with took one for the team. The more experience I had at being Santa, the better I got at the job. Masks give the wearer a certain freedom, and it soon became apparent I was all but unrecognizable in my Santa outfit. People I knew quite well passed me by and never recognized me.

One of the other Santa Clauses at my mall was an actor (because of that, I decided to have “actor Santa” in my novel). The thespian Santa approached the character as he would a role. He loved the theatrics, and “ho ho hoed” with the best of them. Although I was no thespian, I did respect the fact that when the Santa Claus uniform went on, I became the legend. The transformation of my curmudgeon cop character came about because of him belatedly recognizing this. I wanted that redemption factor for him. I wanted him to realize that within each of us there is that ability to be St. Nick.

Working as a Santa Claus proved to be invaluable to writing the book. I learned firsthand about sore backs (inevitable when you lift so many children into your lap), how to divine mumbled youthful toy requests, the brainwashing effect of Christmas Muzak, and the North Pole politics among elves. I can tell you the only thing shriller than an air raid siren is a terrified five-year-old who is letting the world know he wants nothing to do with a bearded stranger in red pajamas. And then after a day of such screaming, and just when you’re thinking Jonathan Swift might have been on to something with his “A Modest Proposal,” you get dewy eyed when another five-year-old wraps her arms around you and says, “I love you, Santa Claus.”

As Santa Claus I learned that many women love getting their picture taken kissing St. Nick. The head elf always kept soda water handy to remove the red lipstick on my beard. I also learned that women enjoy confessing to Santa that they’ve been “a bad girl,” but still ask him for a Mercedes or diamonds.

In some ways ST. NICK is very Dickensian a la A CHRISTMAS CAROL, but in other ways it is not a traditional Christmas book, nor is it a traditional cop book. The setting for the novel is certainly at odds with Christmas songs and Hallmark cards: sunny San Diego is not what people think when envisioning holiday scenes. However, that juxtaposition is important to the book.

Like my character Nick, I was terrified working my first day in the North Pole. Seeing a line of kids waiting to talk to a legend will do that to you. I had stage fright and doubts. Was I the right person to make a child’s visit with Santa special, and could I adequately personify a saint?

My “Christmas/Cop Novel” did not get published for the longest time. The initial delay was that my literary agent wanted to time the release of the book with what we thought was going to be the release of the ST. NICK movie. First one studio, and then a second, raised our hopes. And then finally it seemed as if the movie was a done deal. A star committed to its making. My film agent called me to say the film now had a “green light,” and that he would FedEx me the contract the following day.

I will never forget my wife’s waking me up the next morning, and her asking me, “Alan, is that movie deal dependent on the star?”

There was something in her voice that told me the worst had happened, and I said, “Don’t tell me John Ritter died.”

The tragic death of John Ritter put a pall over the book. I was so disheartened by his death I told my literary agent to just “hold the book” for a time. ST. NICK was optioned for film again, but nothing materialized. And finally I told my agent we had grieved long enough, and it was time to put it on the market again. Because it’s a book near and dear to my heart, I wanted others to read it and I no longer wanted to wait for a movie that might never happen.

Seeing Santa brings back memories for many. Some remember their first visit to Santa Claus. Some remember taking their children to see him. As for me, I’ll always look back fondly at my four weeks of being Santa Claus. My novel ST. NICK shares those times, and is my grown-up letter to Santa.

Alan Russell
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