Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Out of a Book; Into my Life

by Judy Merrill Larsen

In the summer of 1973 I fell in love. Hard. This was no schoolgirl crush, no scribbling his initials and mine on my fabric covered three-ring notebook. In a way that I didn’t fully understand, this was it, was real, was grown up.
I was 13.

That summer I read TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD for the very first time, and along with all the other emotions the book elicited in me, on some level, I also realized that Atticus Finch was my dream man. And this was before I’d seen Gregory Peck playing him on screen (that pretty much sealed it for me, though, when I did).

Atticus was a good man. He strove to do right even when everyone around him told him it was wrong. He loved his children. He was smart and funny and believed that most people were good. He wanted to make the world better.

Now, my passion for Atticus didn’t keep me holed up in my room all through high school, pining for a man I could never have. No, I fell for crooked grins and dimples, sweet smiles and piercing blue eyes . . . most of it unrequited. And, I always had my worn, hard cover copy of MOCKINGBIRD at the ready to dive into anytime I needed the comfort of what had come to feel like home.

Ten years later I got married (what was I thinking? I was only 23!), had babies and began playing adult. Dreams of writing and of Atticus collected dust while I nursed my boys, did the laundry, cooked the meals and created a home for my family. On rare (very rare when you have two active little boys!) occasions I’d get a few moments to myself and I’d grab a book to read, sometimes reaching for the comforts of Maycomb and Atticus Finch.

Twenty years after first reading TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, I was suddenly a single mom to those same two sweet little boys, feeling a bit stunned and shell-shocked to be an ex-wife. Eventually, I would try dating again, hopeful that I might find Mr. Right, but doubting he really existed, at least for me. My mantra became “hope for the best but expect the worst.” Once, after another bad first date, I was bemoaning my situation to my best friend who looked at me and said, “You’re looking for Atticus Finch, aren’t you?”

I was, of course, but had never admitted it to anyone, even to myself. And it occurred to me that perhaps I’d set the bar a tad too high.

I had a full life and I knew I was lucky. But, as I wrote about my main character in ALL THE NUMBERS, “Fortunately for Ellen, her life was full of family and friends and work. But sometimes her bed seemed too big for just one person. And sometimes she wished for a welcome home hug and kiss from an adult.” This was true for me, too.

I found time to chase the dream of becoming a novelist, and I poured many of my hopes and dreams and frustrations into Ellen. And, through the magic of fiction, I created her (and my) dream man in the character of Bob Hansen, a lawyer who helps her after the death of her son. He’s patient and kind and good-looking. He’s smart and funny. He’s Ellen’s Atticus.
And I wanted him, too. But, like Atticus, he existed only between the covers of a book, and in my case, a book that hadn’t yet been published.

Flash forward to 2001. Almost thirty years after I’d met Atticus; less than two years after I’d created the character of Bob Hansen, my own Atticus Finch/Bob Hansen walked into my life, my REAL life, a life that existed not in the pages of a book I loved or a manuscript I hoped would someday be published.

A funny, smart, kind man who adored his children and mine, was respected as a lawyer, and wore glasses just like Atticus and Bob. A man who made me laugh, kept me on my toes, and had those great crinkles around his eyes when he smiled.

When my book was published five years later, our friends (by then, John and I'd been married for a year) teased us that he was Bob Hansen. The character in my book. They didn’t believe me when I explained I’d written him, described him in the pages a full year before we met. The dark hair, the eye crinkles, the intelligence and kindness. All of it was John . . . but I hadn’t met him yet. In my toast to him at our wedding, I said he was my Atticus, and my best friend, my matron of honor, the one who all those years ago had said that’s what I was looking for, smiled through her tears as did I and as did John.

Who knew I could write the man of my dreams in my book and almost two years later he’d be standing on my doorstep, taking me out for dinner?

So, when I say that writing my book and having it published was the fulfillment of a dream, it’s true on so many levels.

What dreams have come true for you . . . perhaps in ways you never expected?

(This post was originally published over at the fabulous The Diving Wand,but it seemed perfectly appropriate for this Valentine's Day week.)

I live in St. Louis, MO with my husband, am the mom/stepmom to five kids (ages 17-25), and taught high school English for 15 years. I'm over on Facebook and Twitter .


  1. I love this story. I'd been a single mom for many years when I met own version of Atticus. Fate kept throwing us together but we never seemed to hook up. Then I checked out a book from the library that had a piece of paper left in it with his name on it. I read the book called The Crimson Petal and the White and loved it. When I ran into him again, I mentioned the book and he had loved it as well. We connected over the book and have now been together eight years.

  2. Oh, Karin, what a great story! I love how you got together because of a note left in a book . . . . it sounds as if it should be a book!

  3. What a lovely story. (And from one English teacher to another--is there anything better than teaching Mockingbird? I'm starting it next week, in fact!)

  4. What sweet stories. And I love that your Atticus turned out to be a lawyer, too--how poetic!

  5. Judy, what a wonderful love story! How does that saying go, something like "the best things in life are worth waiting for"? Only sometimes we don't know that we're waiting, we're just living our lives. :-)

  6. Judy, your post brought tears to my eyes. What a beautiful love story. I'm so glad you found your Atticus ;). And, let me tell you, I've had a huge crush on Gregory Peck ever since I saw him in Roman Holiday...and he was, of course, amazing in Mockingbird. Hope you and John had a wonderful Valentine's Day!

  7. Oh, Rosemary, you're right . . . teaching MOCKINGBIRD still gives me chills. And I always get teary when Scout looks up and says, "Hey, Boo."

    Yup, Sara, almost too perfect!

    Thanks, Melissa!

    That's it exactly, Susan . . . you just never know.

    We did, Marilyn--we're down in sunny Florida and it was a great day!

  8. Karin,that is one of the best "meet cutes" I have ever heard. And Judy, great post. Now if someone could write a wonderful scene about world peace. . .

    By the way, if you're in to Mockingbird, Kerry Madden has a great bio of Harper Lee.

  9. Hi Judy, This is such a moving, readable post! Love the way life worked out, very poetic! It is doubly interesting b/c i'm currently rereading TKAM with my son's 8th grade class. It is one of the best!

  10. Judy,such a wonderful story. I was transferred to a very small city/town 22 years ago, and I hated life here, I was a suburban type person, just outside of large to mid size cities, so a more rural life was not my first choice, but you know how you go where the job is...so I came. I was working in retail management, and I was sure I'd never meet a man here, I joked about being near the Kennedy Space Center and the only choices being engineers with pocket protectors....ugh 29 and slim pickings! I then met my husband, younger, finishing his education, and so cute. The clincher was asking him where the Catholic Church was, attending, and realizing he was the cantor that Mass, and his voice brought tears to my eyes. We were engaged 6 months later....and guess what? He's not an engineer...ha ha.

  11. I forgot to add, To Kill a Mockingbird is my favorite book of all time, I read it again when my girls were assigned it in HS English, and I was thrilled to share it with them. Scout has been my heroine from a very young age.

  12. What a great story! I've heard a few writers tell how life imitated art. Makes me wonder if there's not something to writing ourselves into the lives we want.

  13. Thanks for sharing such a beautiful story with us, Judy. Life is full of surprises.

  14. What a wonderful story.... it's almost like you conjured up your dream man! So happy you have a happy ending!

  15. Gregory Peck- swoon!! And To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my all time favorite books.

    Great post, Judy!!