The Truest, Realest Gifts

Something terrible happened in a community near to my little town twenty-two years ago. A twelve year old was murdered in a horrible, senseless way. He was biking to a Boy Scout meeting through a shortcut in the woods, was taken by two men who had been watching him, and was tortured to death. I was ten years old when it happened. The news of such a thing happening in a small town in Ohio shook all of the neighboring towns as well, and for a long time parents didn’t let their children out of their sight, not even after the men were captured and imprisoned.

At the time I had not really had any encounter with death, let alone murder, let alone the murder of a child. What happened to twelve year old Raymond Fife was confusing and frightening and changed how I understood the world. It was a much scarier place suddenly. I didn’t understand why anyone would murder another person, let alone a young boy who was just going to a Boy Scout meeting. I remember feeling like I was floating in outer space, and the rest of the world felt really distant below me. My mom could see that I was bothered by what had happened and talked about it with me. I had a thousand questions, most of which she couldn’t answer, even though she tried. I remember being worried about the boy, even though I knew he was dead now. My mom asked me one night if I’d like to pray for Raymond, and talk to God about him, and we did that together. I was worried that he was out there still, but lost maybe, and that someone just needed to bring him home or help him find his way. It doesn’t make any sense why I thought that, but I was ten and it’s how I felt. I was sad about it for a long time, and I don’t think I ever was able to make any sense of it and finally put it away, even though I still hadn’t made any sort of peace with those feelings.

And then when I was in my mid twenties, I lost a friend suddenly. No one took her life, but she died young and suddenly from a reaction to something the doctors were never able to pin down. And suddenly life felt pretty scary again. That realization that death took people suddenly and without any comprehensible reason was stirred up in me again, but I was twenty-four and dealt with that realization in a different way than I was able to when I was ten. Raymond, the boy who was murdered, came back to me soon after my friend Jenna died, and I began to write a story. Not about him, or Jenna, but about what the sudden loss of a person does to the community and people who loved them. How it can make you feel crazy and want to escape something inescapable in this world. Our own mortality.

That story was the seed for my novel One for Sorrow, and I don’t talk about the story behind the story so much. I’ve mentioned in interviews or for introductions to that short story, “Dead Boy Found”, some general details about why I wrote both that story and the novel. But I’ve not named names before, for a couple of reasons. Because the story and novel I wrote weren’t so much about those people, but about how their absence, and the way they were taken from the world, affected me. I wasn’t writing a thinly disguised biographical account of anything, that is. And also because I want my stories and novels to be read on their own merit rather than for any other reason from my personal life that could be attached to them.

But then a local reporter who interviewed me to write an article about the publication of One for Sorrow called me and asked me if I had taken inspiration from anything specific. I was general at first as usual, mentioning that a young boy had been killed in a terrible way when I was young and that a lot of the emotions and thoughts that his death stirred up in me were in this book. And then he asked if it was Raymond Fife, and I said that it was, and he said he had been one of the reporters on that case in the eighties, and had recognized small details in One for Sorrow that reminded him of the case, and that’s why he asked. In his article about the book’s publication, he also mentioned this. I hadn’t thought much of it until today, when I was doing a signing at a local bookstore, and a woman came to my table with a book and said, “I’m Raymond’s mother.” At first I wasn’t sure what to say, and she said, “The little boy who–” and stopped.

I still wasn’t able to come up with any words. Chills ran up and down my spine, and I got up and came around the table and we hugged for a while and said nothing and when we pulled away from each other, it felt like some sort of circle had finally closed for me. She’d brought her family with her, said she’d seen it in the newspaper, and had marked my signing date on her calendar so that she would be sure to come and see me.

I was–I don’t even know the word for how it made me feel. Whatever that feeling is, it feels right and true and makes me feel like I’m doing something meaningful in a world that sometimes feels meaningless. So many things have happened since I’ve published this book, in a short amount of time, and I hadn’t expected any of it. Reunions with old friends from high school, long lost family members resurfacing, favorite teachers from my past coming back into my life. And when I met Raymond’s mother and family today, I realized just how much books really can bring people together. I’m not sure if it works this way for every writer, but that’s been my experience of having written and published a book. Everything I expected has happened, but it’s these things that I hadn’t anticipated that have been the truest, realest gifts writing has ever given me. It’s on days like this that I know whatever path it is that I’m walking, it’s taking me to a totally different place than I expected, but it’s the place I need to go.



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9 responses to “The Truest, Realest Gifts”

  1. Jason Erik Lundberg Avatar

    Wow. That’s really beautiful, man.

  2. Joyce Avatar

    Oh Chris, you made me cry. You are one special son. Love you, Mom

  3. Karin Avatar

    These truly are the moments that I’ve experienced too where you feel that you aren’t just plodding along in frustration with your work to no avail. I’ve had so many people tell me in specific ways how reading my books have influenced them, how they’ve known kids like that, how they have started seeing the world in a different way and even become more active in speaking out or at least donating money or time to help children in war… and it is easily the best thing about being published, for me. To know that you’re doing something for someone, a stranger no less, by writing stories that you feel passionate about. It’s an unexpected blessing. I am so happy for you, not only that you’re receiving recognition for your work (which I love and believe deserves recognition), but that you are having these wonderful experiences and connections.

  4. Christopher Barzak Avatar

    That is so cool how people have become active in helping kids in wars after reading your books, Karin. And I can totally see why. You bring the reality those kids face right up under our noses. It’s hard to look away and wear blinders after that.

  5. anonymom Avatar

    The chills you felt when Raymond’s mother approached you–I got chills reading about it. I was coming here tonight specifically to ask you what inspired both the short story and the novel (which, by the way, I am enjoying immensely), and here it was. You must feel a great satisfaction knowing that your work has touched his family.

  6. fusakota Avatar

    Truth is stranger than fiction?

    Me too,


    when I read it.

  7. Christopher Barzak Avatar

    Well, I hope my work touches his family. They bought books there. 🙂 But they definitely came out because they had heard about the book and the connection it had with Raymond. I hope it’s a book they can like.

    Definitely stranger than fiction sometimes. In really good ways.

  8. Beth Adele Long Avatar


    Just… Wow.

  9. brooke Avatar

    wow. i’m glad i read this because i don’t think just a conversation could do this description of such an important meeting justice.

    you’re pretty incredible. it’s nice when we realize the tangible ways our intangible talents impact the world around us.

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