Robin Troy was supposed to go find Jesus. Instead, she found Santa on a barstool—and the beginnings of a novel.
Recalling the story nearly eight years later, Troy can't help but laugh at the absurdity and dumb luck that came from a fluffy Christmas season assignment. She was working as a staff writer for the Independent and her editor thought it would make great copy if someone would interview a Jesus from one of the local holiday pageants. Troy and the rest of the staff spent weeks looking for a willing JC, but came up empty. With the season slipping away and the paper's storyboard still empty, Troy suggested a fallback plan: she could track down a Santa Claus she'd met a year earlier at the VFW Club. This wasn't the standard mall Santa, Troy explained, but someone who flew by helicopter to surrounding towns outside of Missoula—with an elf, no less—and handed out chocolates and ChapStick to elementary school students. He'd been doing it 29 years, meaning Troy, if she found him again, could interview him on the eve of his 30th anniversary.
Her editor gave her 15 minutes to find the flying Santa.
"I went down to the VFW and he was on the same stool I left him at a year earlier, drinking a beer," says Troy. "He even remembered me."
Troy and Norm Laughlin, who was a half-century older than the reporter, hit it off. The first interview led to a second, and Laughlin suggested Troy meet him at his weekly senior bowling game to ask any last questions.
"I walked into that bowling alley and it was a blast of the most unexpected, undeniable, positive energy. It just stopped you in your tracks," says Troy, describing hundreds of bowlers in their 70s, 80s and 90s. "What those people represented was this absolute insistence on having a good time. That energy was completely infectious. Aside from having to ask Norm questions, I wanted to be in that room. I wanted to learn more."
Troy was quickly introduced to a segment of the Missoula community that most 20-somethings never bother to consider. Long after her holiday story hit newsstands (title: "One helicopter, 30 years, 48,000 sticks of lip balm and 37,500 chocolates: Behind the scenes with Missoula's only flying Santa"), she, Laughlin and a core crew that Troy affectionately refers to as "the old-timers" continued to regularly meet for drinks, parties and, of course, bowling. The embedded reporter slowly became another member of the group.
"I found that they drink and date and dance more than I do, and they stay up later than I do," says Troy, now 37. "Talking to them was like talking to someone else my age at the time. They bucked any stereotype about what aging is."
Troy's experiences with the old-timers directly inspired her new novel, Liberty Lanes. It's the story of a group of friends, mostly in their 70s, who meet three times a week to bowl a few frames and, afterward, and perhaps more importantly, chitchat over drinks. A young female reporter, Hailey, meets the group's ringleader, Nelson, while working on a story and uncovers a wonderful web of love triangles, catfights, kept secrets and rivalries drenched in enough alcohol to make a college student jealous. Think "Gossip Girl" based on the "Golden Girls" demographic, all set against the sobering reality of growing old.
"I wanted to capture their spirit in a totally fictionalized account," says Troy, who earned her masters from the University of Montana's creative writing program and had her first novel, Floating, published in 1998. "At the same time, everyone in life is dealing with something. I think through their friendships they really did save and shape and brighten each other's lives."
Troy first started to write Liberty Lanes in 2005, two years after she wrote the original story about Laughlin. In 2006, she accepted a teaching position at Southern Connecticut State University, and returned to Missoula the following summer to finish her first draft of the novel. The writing went relatively quickly, but pitching the idea to publishers took time.
"I had a lot of people tell me they couldn't sell old people," says Troy, who still teaches at SCSU. "They liked the writing, but not the subject matter."
That knee-jerk ageism makes Troy's book all the more important. While Liberty Lanes doesn't sugarcoat serious aging issues like dementia, it does reinforce Troy's realization that the only real difference between her peers and the rambunctious old-timers is perspective. That theme plays out throughout the book, most notably in how Hailey's love life sputters in comparison to Nelson's unexpected rekindling of a long lost affair. The sweet old bastard even uses the word "lover" to describe his new 72-year-old squeeze.
"Hailey is a character whose trouble is she isn't sure she has the capacity to love, or even the understanding of what real love looks like," says Troy. "In part it's because she's young, but also because she doesn't have an example to follow from her own family...She's able to follow Nelson. It's something where she's able to relate to him and talk with him on the same level."
Troy continues to stay in touch with many of the old-timers. She dedicated the book to Evaun Church, who hosted a party—"what they like to call a big ol' wing dingy"—for Troy before she moved to Connecticut, and with whom she's in the closest contact. It's also dedicated to Laughlin, who died a few years ago.
She's hoping to see Church and the other surviving members during her visit at this week's Festival of the Book. It's the first time Troy's been back in Missoula in two years, and there's a lot of catching up to do. But no matter how much has changed, one thing hasn't: Troy plans to meet the group during its weekly bowling game.
Robin Troy reads from Liberty Lanes for the Montana Festival of the Book at the Holiday Inn Yellowstone Glacier Room Friday, Oct. 7, at 2:30 PM. Free.