A suburban school maintenance worker’s novel has been turned into a Hallmark Christmas movie Christmas Under the Stars
Rikk Dunlap calls it “uplift-erature.”
The term, referring to stories that leave a person feeling good, has become his mantra, his guide and his ticket onto the Hallmark Channel.
It may seem odd that a man who’s seen the dark side of life, having endured alcoholism and recovery and the loss of his job at age 56, would strive to produce work that lets in the light. But it works for him. And, now he knows for sure, it’s working for others.
Dunlap’s yet-to-be published novel, “The Christmas Tree Lot,” was recently made into a movie, renamed “Christmas Under the Stars,” by the Hallmark Channel. It premieres at 7 p.m. Nov. 16 as part of the Hallmark Channel’s 10th Anniversary Countdown to Christmas series.
“They’re moving and interacting with each other and calling each other by the names I gave them,” he said.
Dunlap, who’s lived in Park Forest since he was in fifth grade, says the underlying premise for his story was a simple one — that each of us has something to learn as well as something to give.
It was a south suburban holiday tradition, the annual Christmas tree popup shop on Sauk Trail in Richton Park, that inspired Dunlap to pen a holiday tale.
Today the lot sets up between Joann’s Food and Liquors and Irie Jerk Hut, but for a long time it was situated across the street.
“I love the holidays and seeing that just always got me into the Christmas spirit. I kept saying I have to write a story. I don’t know what, but I have to write a story,” he said.
“Then one year I just got into it. I started writing and writing and I created all the wrong characters and then the right character came along. And as soon as he came along the story took on a life of its own,” he said.
“My story starts with an investment broker, Nick (Jesse Metcalfe), who squanders some money and loses his job because of it. He happens to meet Clem (Clarke Peters), this old man who runs the Christmas tree lot,” he said.
The two characters are polar opposites; Clem is a humble, wise old man and Nick a cocky, know-it-all kind of guy.
Working with Clem, Nick learns as much about people — their dreams, their struggles, their imperfections — as he does himself.
And, of course, there is romance. Nick ends up meeting Julie (Autumn Reeser) through her 10-year-old son.
“They tell you to write what you know. But I write also what I want to know. I want somebody like Clem in my life. I want this wise older man who can teach me even at my age. I think it’s important for older men and women to pass things down to boys and girls. Some of us have never had that.
“So I wrote Clem as somebody I would like to spend time with and learn from. It sounds odd because I wrote him and yet I learned from him,’ he said.
Dunlap, a graduate of Rich East High School, admits he has a soft heart despite the hard life he’s lived.
Even today, he said, beneath the exterior of tools and tattoos lives a softie with a penchant for romance.
“At the time I wrote this, I had lost my job after 37 years with an engineering firm. They called me in on a Wednesday afternoon and said, ‘We got to let you get, a reduction in force.’ So here I was at 56, wondering what am I going to do with my life,” he said. He took a year off to write.
Twenty-eight years ago, while in recovery, he found writing.
“I started using writing as a way to deal with issues coming up. A lot of times what I would do is sit down and write in third person, so I could still stay connected to the emotions and feelings but also disconnect and really get into it that much deeper,” he said.
“Sometimes I’d write a couple of paragraphs. Sometimes an entire story. It grew from there into short stories, poetry and novels,” he said.