This is Chris Jones
By Jennifer Ersalesi
Growing up in Rutherford and attending Rutherford public schools provided a strong foundation for author Chris Jones. He recalls his childhood in Rutherford fondly and was excited to tell This is Rutherford more about his life experiences, his career, and his recently published book, Headcase.
TIR: So at age 19, you promised yourself you would become a writer? What inspired you to make that promise?
Chris Jones: While attending Rutherford High School, I took a Creative Writing class with Mr. Paul Buhtanic, to who I dedicated my novel, as he inspired me and gave me the encouragement I needed to believe in myself that someday I could be a writer. He also recommended me for a Gifted and Talented Symposium for the Arts, in which I met kids from all over New Jersey and we were assigned into teams to put on a short rendition of George Orwell’s 1984. I wrote most of the ”script” and it was the first time outside of sports where I felt that same rush of being in a flow state. Doing something with my creativity that other people acknowledged me for felt good. And anytime you get acknowledgment from your peers, especially at a young age, it makes an impact.
However, in addition to my creative side, I also have a logical side, and I love numbers, statistics, and analysis. I was taking accounting and business classes with Mr. Annunziata, and I enjoyed those as well. So, when I was accepted into the highly competitive School of Accounting at Trenton State College (now The College of New Jersey) I decided I would pursue a career in accounting and try to do as much writing as possible on the side. My sophomore year in college I took a Creative Writing Class and did very well in it, when my professor said, “Chris, you are really talented you should switch or major and pursue your writing.” I answered, “I grew up poor, and I don’t want to be a poor starving artist. First, I’ll make some money, and then I will write.” It took me a long time to get back to writing. But my dream was always to be a writer. I was a successful entrepreneur, and I walked away at the height of my success. I never lost sight that I wanted a life where I could invite readers to engage in a journey of self-discovery using compelling, entertaining storytelling infused with wisdom, knowledge, and experience so it will inspire them to heal themselves.
TIR: Which career path did you take before pursuing a writing career?
CJ: As mentioned before, I always had a love for business, numbers, accounting, and analysis. I started my first company at 23, Progressive Solutions Consulting, Inc., and I provided accounting and bookkeeping services to Princeton small businesses. About 5 years later I moved to Park Slope, Brooklyn where I got more involved with the tech boom in Silicon Alley. I provided accounting services for start-ups there and for one company down in Princeton I raised $2,000,000 in venture capital and helped negotiate the sale of their text-to-speech technology to Microsoft. I took all my gains from that venture and put them in a mobile gaming start-up in early 2001. On August 31, 2001, I raised money to just get us through September as we had several contracts ready to go with the mobile phone companies in the US, Europe, and Japan. But 11 days later The City and the country would be rocked by the terrorist attacks on 9/11. All the contracts went away as every new project was scrapped. I stretched the money until the end of the year, but we didn’t see a way out. We closed the company on New Year’s Day 2002, and I lost everything I had. I was deep in debt, jobless, and with an expensive lifestyle in Brooklyn. I was very depressed and felt like a failure.
There is nothing worse than being poor, making money, then losing it all. It beat up my confidence, my psyche, and I felt I was cursed. But a call from a friend set me straight, he said, “Don’t worry about it Chris, you’re a survivor.” He said it in such a calm and matter-of-fact manner that it didn’t register, I asked him to repeat what he said, he did, and then it clicked. I am a survivor, and I can get through this. Then I proceeded to plan to restart my consulting firm, I called and emailed everyone in my contacts and tried to drum up business. I gave myself the goal that in 90 days I would have a new client. 89 days later, I landed the 92nd Street Y as a client and I worked with them for 10 years. They helped me recuperate financially and grow my consulting firm to where I won a 40 under 40 Award in Westchester, and I was doing well. However, in 2007 I was very busy doing turn arounds, and helping small businesses survive “The Great Recession” I had a very poor experience with a client who grew to resent the money he was paying me after I got them out of deep financial trouble. That bothered me at a core level, to be resented for saving jobs, a company, because the CEO felt embarrassed that they were caught in “fear mode” and could not see the forest from the trees. So, I sold my consulting firm a few months later and just kept a few clients I enjoyed working with and sought out my next opportunity.
In the summer of 2009, I created the business plan and co-founded with my two partners, who were cousins, a construction equipment rental company called Durante Rentals, LLC. I assumed the role of CFO and we opened our doors in the Bronx in a trailer on the side of the Hutchinson River Parkway in September 2009. I knew nothing about the business, and it was trial by fire, like everything else in my life. We worked long hours, again I had built up a nice lifestyle from my consulting firm, and had bought my first house in Tarrytown, and took nice vacations, had a Lexus, etc. Like in any start-up, the founders made lots of sacrifices, including almost no pay. I had to work at the 92nd Street Y on Fridays just to make ends meet. Even then, I still went into debt, cut back my lifestyle to the bone, no vacations. After several years of struggle, we were growing at 30% - 40% per year, and we had a lot of success. We made the covers of several trade magazines, and we were named to the Inc5000 fastest-growing private companies 7 years in a row, making us an Inc. Magazine Hall of Fame company. As we approached 2018, I felt a recession was coming and felt that it was time to sell the company. It wasn’t until January 2019 that we were able to find a suitor. For the next six months, which were the hardest and most stressful of my career, I worked 7 days a week and most nights until 2 am to put the deal together, while managing my team and the finances and we were having our best year yet.
On June 28, 2019, we sold the company to a Clairvest Group, a private equity firm out of Toronto. I knew the time where I could focus on my writing full-time was near. On January 31st, 2020, I had my final day as CFO at Durante Rentals, I moved to the Board of Directors and now I could “retire” from working as a CFO and focus on my writing. Little did I know that just 45 days later, as the pandemic hit, (and the recession that I predicted) I would have all the time I could ever want to focus on my writing as we were all trapped in our houses by mid-March 2020. And each day I got up, meditated, exercised, showered, and got dressed for “work.” My work was now at the desk of my third floor which overlooks the scenic Hudson River and the Palisades and I was doing my research and writing scenes.
TIR: Headcase was partially inspired by your childhood and growing up in Rutherford, as well as your interactions with many different athletes. What was the process of synthesizing real and fictional experiences into one fictional novel like for you?
CJ: Mixing real and imaginary experiences together to create the World of Headcase, the characters, and various scenes were one of my favorite parts of writing Headcase. Throughout the book, there are instances, anecdotes, and quotes that are from my life. The characters, however, are not various amalgamations of me, they are their own unique people. Some of the characters and I share some similar traits, but I could say that with any group of people I meet. There are some obvious Rutherford-based experiences, like me calling MetLife Stadium the Meadowlands Stadium. And naming the team that plays football there in my fictionalized Professional Football League, the New Jersey Bulldogs, after the Rutherford High School mascot. There was also a flashback to where a 12-year-old Andrew is playing baseball with two other boys Charlie and John-John. Those were my real-life childhood friends John and Charles Spitaletta who lived a few houses away from me on Wood Street. It was those days on Wood Street that built the foundation for my ability to create worlds and characters and for my very active imagination. I talk more about that in the preface of the novel. You can also read more about that on my website where I talk about my experiences with athletes at a young age too. So, it was a lot of fun to be able to mix these experiences of my life within the stories and back stories of the characters.
As far as my experience with pro athletes, none of their stories are in the book, I felt that it was important to protect their stories. I have a good imagination, and we have all experienced generational trauma, so finding my character's origin stories to their trauma was not difficult, although sometimes I did feel the emotional impact. There are some stories that even though I wrote them, still evoke an emotion in me. And I hope they move my readers as well. Trauma is something we have all experienced and can relate to. During my research, I read stories of some of the horrific childhoods some pro athletes endured, I hope my book serves as a bridge between seeing these men and women doing God-like feats of athleticism to them also being remembered as human beings, with feelings, and a past like us all.
TIR: What were some of the most exciting parts of writing and publishing this book?
CJ: I think for any author when you hold your copy of your book in your hands, that is an experience that never gets old. There is something about having a physical book printed up that makes it “real.” Opening the box and pulling out that first copy, felt like I really accomplished something I always wanted to do. That feeling of pride, but also an appreciation to all the people that helped me, my editors, my designers, my friends, and my family who read early versions of Headcase. Writing is a team sport, much like Wrestling or Judo, you work as a team together, but in the end, you have to step on the mat and face your opponent all alone. When I turn on the computer to start writing, it is the same feeling as stepping on the mat. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose, but every day I learn more about myself and how to create compelling characters and tell a suspenseful story that keeps readers guessing and turning the pages. The journey to get there was not easy. It was both a figurative one and a literal one.
While I was cleaning out my house during the pandemic, as we all did, I found a goal notebook from 2007, and on the cover, I had placed a picture of a living room overlooking the Caribbean Sea. Thirteen years later, I took advantage of the Barbados Welcome Stamp program which was a special visa for remote workers. I hired a property manager to watch over my home in Tarrytown in September 2020 and spent the next year and a half in living and writing in Barbados. Writing Headcase from my beach house in Barbados was a dream come true. It was how I always imagined it would be, and coming from humble beginnings, to be able to focus all my time on writing and to do it while overlooking turquoise-blue waters, was the opportunity of a lifetime. But that also motivated me to make sure that every day I wrote the best possible book I could, that I had an obligation to every writer out there, and that given my fortunate circumstances I had to produce something that was good. Winning two awards, one from Literary Titans in May and one in September from Readers Favorite Reviewers have been a big thrill and felt great that my work was appreciated by reviewers, and that I met my obligation to my fellow writers, that my writing in paradise did not go in vain.
TIR: What were some of the challenges you faced while writing and publishing this book?
CJ: Oh, so many challenges. My first draft was horrible. Being new to this experience I broke rule number 1, “Don’t share your first draft, also known as the vomit draft with anyone.” Because I seem to enjoy throwing myself into firepits, I sent my 1st draft to an editor, who ripped it apart and was not particularly diplomatic nor concerned about my feelings. Good thing after years of studying with Japanese Judo Senseis that never spared your feelings, their criticism was harsh and to the point. So the young editor's comments didn’t devastate me, instead, they made me angry so I got back to writing, making it better. There were days I was cranking out pages, and other days I spent two hours on a single paragraph. What I learned unlike most areas in my life, my work, and competitive sports, my ability to push myself through pain and exhaustion was not applicable here. That was how I identified myself, I was the grinder, the guy who got the job done, who gritted out victories on the mat not by skill but by will. Well, writing is a different ballgame, it’s not about forcing it, I cannot muscle writing. I had to sit there, wait, and stare at a blank computer screen until the words came. Luckily for me, when these tough moments happened, and I was stuck, I went for a swim, walked on the beach or read a David Baldacci novel. Then when I stopped focusing on it, the words would come, I’d race to my computer and bang out the next chapter with a smile. The Muse, must be invited, and she comes on her own schedule. Like Earnest Hemingway said, “Writing is rewriting.”
As a rookie writer, I needed a lot of rewriting. I worked with two editors, Ben Obler, a seasoned editor and writing instructor who lived in the Catskills, and Jill Tomlin, an English Teacher, and former magazine editor down in Barbados. They were incredibly patient with me, and I learned so much from them. It took lots of rewrites to finish Headcase. The final version that was printed was 8.6, which meant it took 8 full rewrites to the point where the story was different enough to call it a new version and the .6 were significant changes in the text, grammar, and some scenes to give it a new number. Going through the production cycle, to get it from a manuscript to a printed book and ebook was time-consuming and way more difficult than I expected. Ben, also worked for publishing companies and was a huge help in the production process too. He helped me create the cover, get my ISBNs registered, and created the interior of the book, and since I was down in Barbados, he reviewed the proof copies of the book. It took a few months to get it right. I released the book on March 15, 2022. Then six months later I redesigned the cover, working with the well-known cover designer Howard Grossman, and he did a great job I’m really excited about it. There is so much that goes into getting a book out to the public after it is written, I’m thankful I had a good team advising me and guiding me along the process.
TIR: What do you hope readers take away from reading this book?
CJ: I always want my readers to first be entertained, and secondly, I hope to raise awareness towards the mental health of athletes and that there is a dark side of sports that most people don’t ever see. Most of my readers have not been sports fans, but they sent me notes about how they were on the edge of their seats and couldn’t put it down. That is the greatest compliment, that I made their day just a little bit easier, and they were able to lose themselves in my make-believe world and the characters go on a journey with my characters. It would be great if some professional athletes read the book, I would love to hear their thoughts.
TIR: Can you tell us what you enjoyed about growing up in Rutherford?
CJ: Growing up in Rutherford was like living in this protective bubble, although we were so close to New York City that I could see the Empire State Building from my room, it still seemed a world away. Everyone knew each other in the neighborhood, and we were always outside playing sports. Which stadium were we going to play at today? Wood Street served as the ball fields for street football, baseball, and soccer. We had a basketball hoop in the driveway too. John and Charles had the best football stadium as they had a big side yard and we played football there, you had to go back and forth 5 times to score.
Wood Street had considerably fewer cars in the 80s, especially in the summer when Fairleigh Dickinson let out, so we played our own version of stickball. We had to make it to second base since we usually only had 4 or 6 of us at most. My front steps served as the strike zone for wiffle ball. When my older brother’s friends took over the wiffle ball stadium we retreated to the back yard where my intricate rules for automatics made the game fair. We would also play wiffle ball at the Spitaletta’s too. Again, I was the one making up the rules. Middle child syndrome, always trying to find fairness, so I made up the rules to make them realistic, fun, and fair. We also rode our bikes all over the place, and we came home when we were hungry. The summer days were the best. All day playing, sometimes we never knew where the time went until we got called home for dinner. But then sometimes because of daylight savings time we could go play again until we could barely see the ball. It was safe, it was friendly, and we could never get in trouble because all the moms knew who we were and they would have no problem calling our moms if we got into mischief. And then if mom got called, that would mean that Dad was going to find out and no one wanted our fathers knowing we got in trouble, so we behaved. We laughed, we argued, we played. My childhood in Rutherford was one filled with imagination, non-stop activity, and friendships that have lasted a lifetime.
To purchase Chris Jones' book, Headcase, click here.