NORTH GREENBUSH – Longtime Capital Region reporter and columnist John Gray always planned to write a novel.
He just didn’t expect to get to it quite so soon.
“I think everybody who writes, there’s always that idea in the back of your head, ‘Someday I’ll have to write a novel.’ But I assumed it would be after I retired; when I had the time,” Gray said in a recent interview with The Daily Gazette.
Yet, a vivid dream sparked a story idea that wouldn’t let go and, after more than a year of writing, editing and searching for a publisher, “Manchester Christmas” has made its way into the hands and minds of readers.
It follows the story of a young writer named Chase who leaves her West Coast home and drives to Manchester, Vermont, with her dog, Scooter, looking for inspiration. After meeting the residents, she is drawn into a mystery centered on an old, abandoned church and the death of a girl, who was loved by many in the town.
Part romance, part mystery, it’s Gray’s first novel, though the Emmy Award-winning reporter, who has spent the past 31 years in local TV news, currently at WTEN News10ABC and FOX23, got the itch to write early in life.
“I’ve always loved writing since fourth grade. I know the exact moment where I wrote something and I had to read it to the class and I got an A. I really enjoyed sharing that with people, it’s just a strong memory. I worked on school newspapers, going through high school and college. Then I always wanted to gravitate toward something where I got to write,” Gray said.
Beyond his full-time reporting job, he writes columns for the Troy Record, the Saratogian and Capital Region Living Magazine. He has also written three children’s books in the past few years.
While he’s spent much of his career writing, creating “Manchester Christmas” came with its own challenges.
“The biggest scare is there’s a difference between writing a thousand words and if no one likes it you go ‘Oh well, there goes my Sunday. I spent all afternoon on that.’ This is something that’s going to take weeks and months and if it doesn’t go anywhere it’s a lot of work to have your work sitting there and saying, ‘Well, I guess I wrote it for an audience of one; me.’ It took some courage on my part to finally take the leap,” Gray said.
The story idea stemmed from a dream he had of someone looking at stained glass windows in an old church and noticing the images portrayed in the glass change.
“I thought it was a good concept to jump off from. As the reader, you go ‘What’s going on here?’ That’s where I wanted to take the story,” Gray said.
Then, the setting was easy enough to figure out.
“I’ve been going to Vermont since I was a little kid. I love that area, Manchester, Arlington, Shaftsbury, Bennington, so I knew it pretty well,” Gray said.
There are plenty of recognizable scenes for those who are familiar with the area.
Most of the characters are original, though he decided to name one after a former young colleague. Taylor Farnsworth, who interned at The Daily Gazette and later was a news producer at WTEN, died suddenly in 2019.
“She was a beautiful young woman; she was very much an artist, and I was still on the first chapter when it happened. It just really weighed on my mind and I think it influenced my story,” Gray said.
He reached out to Farnsworth’s parents to ask for their consent to use their daughter’s name in the novel. They agreed and since then he has also set up a scholarship fund at Shenendehowa High School for students looking to pursue writing, theater or the arts. Proceeds from the book will go toward the scholarship.
“I wanted to honor her. . . I didn’t want this to be the end of her story. I wanted her to live on in my story,” Gray said.
Since its release in November by Paraclete Press (based in Brewster, MA), the novel has gotten positive reviews, with many commenting that it’s a welcome break from the stress of everything going on in the world and a cozy holiday read.
“It’s giving people hope during a year when there’s just so much negative out there between the election and this virus, people are just . . . I think their brains are fried and they’re tired of being sad and alone and worried. It’s a refreshing escape for people to read a story of hope and forgiveness,” Gray said.
“Manchester Christmas” also might be coming to a screen near you. The movie and television rights are being optioned by Brian Herzlinger, who is known for directing “Christmas Angel,” “My Date with Drew,” and “Finding Normal” among others.
“Right now he’s in the process of shopping it around to different networks, trying to line up money and a channel that will buy it,” Gray said. “I’m on pins and needles waiting for the phone to ring hoping it will happen. . . I just think it’d be so neat to have something I wrote in my little house here in North Greenbush suddenly have these characters talking on TV. It would be bizarre.”
When asked if there were any actors or actresses he had in mind for portraying his characters he said “When I wrote it, I had Jennifer Garner in my mind as the main character. She just struck me as that age, beautiful, confident, strong. . . But honestly, they could cast anybody and I’d be happy.”
There’s also going to be a sequel, which Gray has been working on recently.
“It’s going to be called ‘Chasing Manhattan’ with her name in the title. . . that’ll be out probably next Christmas with the same character but in a new setting and a whole new adventure and new characters around her,” Gray said.
For those who are just digging into “Manchester Christmas,” Gray said “My goal with the story wasn’t just for you to read it and enjoy it but [to] then, a couple months later, be thinking about the characters and thinking about the story and your own life because . . . there’s hope there. There’s life beyond what we see right now and there’s always a chance for a happy ending.”
The novel is available at most local bookstores, including The Open Door Bookstore & Gift Gallery, Northshire Saratoga, Barnes & Noble, and others, as well as online.