Several years ago, James Earl Jones’ famous deep voice reverberated out of the stereo speakers in Susan Wojciechowski’s home.
“The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski,” Jones said in introducing a work he was about to read.
That’s when Wojciechowski’s fame became real to her children: Darth Vader was reading their mother’s book.
Not that Wojciechowski would allow her children, Joel, Christian and Mary, to focus on her literary notoriety for very long. She said she tries to maintain a low-key philosophy about her writing. When she speaks to school children across the country, for instance, she tells them she’s an average person.
“I try not to preach to them,” Wojciechowski said. “I try to get to know them, and make them feel like someone who is an author is nobody special. I’m just a regular person. I’m just like their mom.”
Despite her lack of self-promotion, Wojciechowski is poised to have a big year. A new edition of The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey with a new cover and a compact disc of Jones’ reading is set to be released in October. The book — which was originally published in 1995 and won several international awards — also has been made into a major motion picture, but Wojciechowski said she has not heard anything definite about the movie’s release.
“I know they have it made, and they have talked about releasing it before Christmastime,” she said.
The film version features a directorial debut from United Kingdom filmmaker Bill Clark. Actors include Tom Berenger, who was nominated for an Oscar in his role as Sgt. Bob Barnes in the movie “Platoon,” and Joely Richardson, who played Jo Wilder in “The Last Mimzy” and had the recurring role of Julia McNamara in the television series “Nip/Tuck.”
Penning a Christmas story that would spawn a major motion picture was not always in Wojciechowski’s plan.
She grew up in Rochester’s St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish and attended the parish school, Rochester’s Nazareth Academy and Pittsford’s Nazareth College, where she studied education. She first worked as a teacher, but she said she found the job too difficult, and later found her niche as a librarian. She worked at the library at St. Louis School in Pittsford from the mid-1980s to 1994 when she moved to York, Pa.
In June, Wojciechowski and her husband, Paul, returned to the Rochester Diocese. They moved to their Keuka Lake cottage after retiring from jobs at York College of Pennsylvania, where he taught mechanical engineering and she worked in the college’s writing center.
Wojciechowski’s writing career began around 1982 when she learned her neighbor had a story published in Upstate magazine.
“I started to get jealous,” she said, noting that she jotted down a short essay on being skinny and submitted it to the magazine, which accepted her piece. Later, she learned that her neighbor had a degree in journalism.
“Had I known that, I probably never would have written it,” Wojciechowski stated.
Even so, she didn’t stop writing. She continued to pen short essays and cover stories for Upstate and other area magazines and also tried writing a novel for teens.
“By the time I finished the novel, it was 60 pages long, and it was supposed to be 150, so I said, ‘I tried and I failed. I guess I’m not cut out to write books,’” Wojciechowski recalled.
Her younger sister gave her suggestions to make the book longer. The story grew and spawned a series on Catholic-school teenager Patty Dillman, a character Wojciechowski said is based on herself.
Despite problems with her first publisher, she found a new one and an agent. Soon the Patty Dillman story, The Other Gold, was published.
“Everything fell into place, which is amazing because it’s hard to get an agent and hard to get published,” she said.
Wojciechowski said she draws on her own life for inspiration. For example, her worrywart character Beany, who has appeared in several books, is based on her daughter, and her story The Best Halloween of All is based on the tale of how she ruined Halloween for her son. She said she has tried to incorporate a moral message into each of her books.
“I tried to give the kids a moral compass,” Wojciechowski said.
She said she was surprised by what hard work writing can be, as each book goes through at least 20 drafts.
“When I’m writing a book and revising it, it’s a very long, drawn-out and difficult process,” Wojciechowski said.
The one exception for her has been The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey. Wojciechowski said she was aiming to write a story that reflected the true spirit of Christmas, but said she doesn’t remember how she decided to make her main character a curmudgeonly woodcarver whose heart is thawed by a small boy. Looking back through her notes, she said she made few revisions.
Her publishers also left the majority of her original text unchanged and allowed her another rarity: She had the chance to choose who would illustrate the book. She chose Dublin, Ireland, illustrator P.J. Lynch, who previously had only illustrated classic fairy tales. The book was published just prior to Christmas 1995 and sold out its first run in three weeks. It has stayed in print ever since then.
“I have written 13 books, and that book has been like a miracle,” Wojciechowski said. “I believe the hand of God was guiding my hand.”
Wojciechowski said the story has always been special to her. One year, her children gave her a wooden nativity scene made by a master woodcarver to match the nativity scene Lynch drew in the book.
“That was the greatest gift I have ever gotten,” she said.
Another special gift she has received has arrived in the mail several times throughout her career: a final copy of her latest book.
“I hold the book in my hands, and for one moment I am so excited and amazed and proud and grinning from ear to ear,” Wojciechowski said. “But then I put the book down and get back to what I’m doing.”