Eight years ago, I was living in Austin, Texas, when there was a house fire in my neighborhood. I didn't know the family in the fire, but I heard the story... that a father and son had died, and that the mother had died two years earlier in a car accident. There were two brothers who survived all this tragedy, and they came to live with relatives down the street from me.
Everyday, I drove past the burned out house. I took in the yellow caution tape, the boarded-up windows, the smoke stains along the walls. I couldn't help but cry. I cried for the mother, father, and young boy who died. But mostly, I cried for the two surviving brothers. How would they ever get through this? Who would they go to for comfort and strength? What would their lives be like from here on out? I wondered what these boys thought about God. What kind of God would let this happen, anyway?
I wanted to do something for these boys, but I didn't know what. I didn't even know their names. I baked a batch of chocolate chip cookies and brought it to the home of the relatives. I don't remember what I said when the woman, apparently their aunt, answered the door. But I left feeling like I had done something ridiculously small and inconsequential. Cookies? Their parents and home were gone! What in the world could cookies do for them?
I kept thinking about these boys. I wished for them resiliency. I wished for them faith. And eventually, I wrote JULIA'S KITCHEN, a story about a young girl dealing with grief after her mother and sister die in a fire. My main character finds all the resiliency and faith that I wished for these boys. That was the best I could do.
When the book got published, I tried to find the names of the boys, but I had no luck. I no longer lived in Texas, and I was probably not the best researcher. It was a lost cause. Or so I thought.
Turns out, when you publish a book, magical things can happen.
Imagine a young girl in Austin, reading JULIA'S KITCHEN for school. She tells her mom about the book, and her mom looks it up online. Now her mom comes across an interview Cynthia Leitich Smith conducted with me. About halfway down, the mom reads about my inspiration for the book, and the story of the fire is very familiar to her. In fact, she's almost certain I'm talking about her friend's nephew. She sends her friend the link to the interview, and the friend sends it to her nephew.
And her nephew contacts me.
This young man in now a freshman at Boston University. He wants to someday be a writer or perhaps a psychologist. He is charming and sweet and clearly a man who possesses the resiliency I wrote about in JULIA'S KITCHEN.
He's looking forward to reading the book that he unknowingly inspired. And I'm looking forward to getting to know him.