In his masterpiece, On Writing, Stephen King advised that, when revising his novels, he would ask himself, “What’s it all about, Stevie?” Having a theme that resonates through a story is important, and King said he would look for places in his manuscript where his theme could be enhanced.
When I began writing The Last Trial, I knew I wanted to pit Tom and Rick against their friend, Powell Conrad. I also knew I wanted to bring Wilma Newton, the trucker’s widow from The Professor, back. The story would revolve around the trial of Wilma Newton in a friend v. friend courtroom showdown. I also had the idea for a mobster character from Jasper who would figure into the plot. The beginning was clear in my mind. We’d start in Boone’s Hill with Wilma. The prologue would be almost word for word Wilma’s last scene in The Professor when she faces the mirror and points a pistol at her head. She pulls the trigger and the chapter ends. That’s where we would start and eventually the characters would assume their roles. I had the plot in my mind but it was loose and the ending was vague. I knew how I wanted to solve the mystery, but I didn’t have all the pieces. But the big thing that was missing was theme.
In other words, what’s it all about, Bobby?
The theme of The Professor is redemption. The theme of Between Black and White is revenge. What was this book going to be about?
Then, in April 2016, a couple of weeks after Between Black and White came out and while writing the first draft of book 3, my dad was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. The disease had spread to the bone, and his prognosis was grim. Six months was what the doctor told my mom and dad during their initial consult after the scans came back. Eight months later, in late November, 2016, Dad had lost almost fifty pounds, but he was still alive.
On November 30, 2016, my wife, Dixie, went to lunch with her sister and started experiencing blurry vision. I took her to the emergency room and the doctors ruled out a stroke or any brain problem. I don’t even know why they did a chest x-ray, but it was part of the protocol.
They found an eight centimeter mass in her lung. She was diagnosed with lung cancer on December 7, 2016, a little less than three weeks from Christmas. Hers was Stage III; it had spread to the lymph nodes but surgery was still an option. From December to the end of February, Dad and Dixie both went through lung cancer treatment together at Clearview Cancer Institute in Huntsville.
Dad’s condition began to deteriorate in January. He died on March 3, 2017, nearly doubling the doctor’s prognosis of six months. He fought hard and passed away surrounded by the ones he loved. At his funeral, his friend, John Hays, eulogized him with a number of stories about how Dad would encourage those around him during trying times, saying over and over, “We can do this.”
Dixie’s surgery was scheduled for April 3, 2017. In January, February and March, she underwent a brutal chemotherapy and radiation regime that caused her to lose thirty pounds and all of her hair. By the end of March, she hovered at 90 pounds. On March 30, 2017, she had to undergo one last round of scans to be cleared for the operation. Because her tumor had not shrunk much on the CT, there was some concern that her PET scan might show that the disease had metastasized, eliminating the chance of surgery. I have never been as scared as I was on March 30, 2017 while we waited for the results. In the room while I waited, I imagined my dad standing over in the corner, arms folded, whistling. Dad was always best in a crisis.
“We can do this.”
Then Dr. Waples came in the room and said that the PET scan showed a lot less activity than her original scan a few months earlier. There were no other hot spots. She was cleared for surgery.
“We can do this.”
On Monday, April 3, 2017, Dixie underwent surgery to remove most of her right lung at Huntsville Hospital. She was in the hospital for about ten days, but the operation was a success. They got the tumor out and she was declared in remission. In the year since her surgery, her scans have been clean and she has fought her way back to good health. She still has pain from the surgery, but she pushes through it with a resolve that inspires me and our kids every day. We are so thankful for her.
As set out in the Author’s Note at the end of the book, I found the story for The Last Trial in Dixie’s hospital room. In the months after her discharge, I was so grateful to have this story and these characters to pour my emotions into. The result of that process is the book that we launch tonight.
The theme of The Last Trial is resilience.
The story is about facing adversity and having the fortitude to stay the course and not waver. To accept the challenges and roadblocks placed in your way, look them in the eye, and say,…
“…we can do this.”