An extended interview with Jeff Guinn, author of The Christmas Chronichles.
At 735 pages, The Christmas Chronicles might inspire a deeply felt ho-ho-hum from the Santa-averse. But don’t shun these three newly compiled “as told to” Yule novels from the Fort Worth author (The Autobiography of Santa Claus, How Mrs. Claus Saved Christmas, and The Great Santa Search). With their historical accuracy and chapter titles like “Travels With Attila,” they are not treacly holiday fare.
What inspired you to undertake an autobiography of Santa Claus?
Right around Christmas in 1994, I was writing for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and wanted to do a column with a holiday theme. I realized I had no idea about the origins of Santa-related traditions. It seemed that the right person to explain them was Santa himself, making certain to include the correct history. After the first line—“You’re right to believe in me”—it was easy, and a lot of fun from there.
How did it feel to be messing with Santa’s reputation?
It felt less like messing than it did revealing. The original Nicholas earned a well-deserved reputation for giving gifts to the very poorest people. The more I learned about him, the more I admired him. Autobiography doesn’t diminish Santa’s stature in any way. If anything, readers are going to love him even more. Of course, some have found it painful to learn that Santa doesn’t have a North Pole workforce. I have gotten a lot of flak from elf-lovers.
We make the assumption that Santa is a universal icon. Do you know of any place he’s unknown?
Maybe the most isolated regions of Lower Slobbovia. Although in the course of history there have been cultures or governments that have suppressed celebration of Christmas—England during the rule of Cromwell and the Puritans comes to mind—Santa in some form and by some name is familiar to virtually everyone. Even at the height of the Cold War, Grandfather Frost made his gift-giving rounds in Russia, for instance.
What details have you added to the Santa Claus story that you most hope become a permanent part of the lore?
Besides providing a better understanding of real holiday history, and the differences in how Santa goes about his gift-giving business in parts of the world, I wouldn’t mind if my explanation of how reindeer fly works its way into Christmas mythology. That one was especially tough to figure out.
Do the Guinn family kids try to leverage your close personal connection with Santa?
The Guinn kids are grown now, but every year from September through Christmas Eve, I get e-mails and letters from children who want me to put in a good word for them with my co-author. I always respond the same way, telling them that Santa and their parents have to decide whether they get the pony or, more likely, the Wii, but that the next time I see Santa, I’ll mention what nice letters they sent. I seem especially popular with fourth graders. The books collected in The Christmas Chronicles are popular subjects for fourth-grade book reports.
How do you feel about the holiday seasons?
I enjoy them much more now because I really understand all the history involved. After three novels and a dozen years of research, I’m not tired of Christmas or Santa Claus. The more about the holidays we know, the more we can appreciate them. They’re about much more than overpriced toys and last-minute shopping.
What non-Christmasy projects do you have in the pipeline?
Like Rachel and Ross on TV’s Friends, Santa and I will be taking a break. I have a nonfiction book coming out in the spring about Bonnie and Clyde, two of the first celebrities created by the modern media. After that I think I’ll be doing some more nonfiction. I don’t know when there will be another Christmas novel on my schedule. It all depends on when Santa next calls me up with a history-based holiday story he wants to tell.
Any Parker and Barrow myths you want to dispel right off the bat?
They were perhaps the most inept bandits ever. They robbed backcountry mom-and-pop stores much more often than banks, and they were sometimes reduced to stealing change from gum machines for meal money. Their two-year crime spree was marked by error as much as terror; Bonnie was crippled for the last year of it, and she hopped rather than walked. In a sense, they were among the first celebrities created by modern electronic media—newsreels at movie theaters, photos transmitted to newspapers all over the country by early primitive wire services. They were absolutely the antithesis of their glamorous reputations—just poor Depression-era kids willing to trade their lives for a little excitement.
You’ve been a newspaperman for years. Is it more challenging to be a journalist or an author?
Journalists provide readers with glimpses of larger stories. Books give you the chance to more fully explore subjects. Every type of writing is some form of storytelling, and it’s certainly tougher to write well about something at greater length. Researching and writing a story for a newspaper might take two or three days. To write a thoroughly researched book of nonfiction, you may have to dedicate two or three years of your life. But the end result of a book is more satisfying, at least to me. And, thanks to Santa and The Christmas Chronicles, I’m now able to write books full-time.
Is it an advantage or a disadvantage to be a Texas-based author far from the book-industry power brokers on the East Coast?
I think it’s harder for authors from Texas to get the attention of the East Coast publishers, particularly if you haven’t had a recent article in The New Yorker or starred in a sitcom. Kinky [Friedman] is the exception, though it’s no accident that he made his writing—not singing—bones while living in Greenwich Village. But the ultimate bottom line is the same for writers from all fifty states. If you sell enough books to make them money, publishers are going to love you.
There’s been much to-do in some circles about the secularization of Christmas. Have you and your books taken any flack in that regard?
I’ve tried in all three novels collected in The Christmas Chronicles to stress that the original Nicholas was a priest and then a bishop in the early Christian church. Beyond that, The Great Santa Search—novel number three in the series—begins in 1841, when the first department-store Santa was hired in America, and it is entirely concerned with how Santa reacts to the commercialization of Christmas. When people have griped to me that my Santa books ignore the religious basis of the holiday, it’s almost always because they’ve never actually read them.
Would you embrace these Santa books?
I would be pleased if these books, which emphasize generosity of spirit and accurate holiday history, have meant enough to readers to be remembered and read beyond my own life and career.