Proof of Angels

Most of my books have come to me rather than I to them. That was certainly the case with Proof of Angels, which fell into my lap in early March of 2015 via a phone call from a New York book agent who asked me if I had seen or read
anything about an accident that had occurred a day or so earlier at a bridge just outside Spanish Fork, Utah.

As it happened, I had heard the story, and only just an hour or so beforehand. Some police officers had heard something strange while trying to right an upturned car that had swerved off the bridge in question and landed upside-down the cold, fast-moving waters of the Spanish Fork River. What they heard was a voice – an unmistakably human one – from within the car. It was indistinct, but all the officers in question agreed that it conveyed something along the lines of: Hurry, there isn’t much time. Spurred on by what they heard, the officers redoubled their efforts and managed the fairly herculean feat of righting the car. But when they did, what they found inside did not line up with what had happened up to that point. The only people in the car were the driver (a young woman very clearly at least several hours dead), and a baby. A baby too young to have spoken the words they had heard.

The agent said that Tyler Beddoes, one of the four police officers involved in the event, was willing to work with me on creating a book out of the event. Proof of Heaven was, at the time, still fresh in peoples’ memories. The agent knew that I had been responsible for shaping the narrative of that book. What would I say to producing a book centered around the event at the bridge, making use of Beddoes’ firsthand account of, and calling it (what else?) Proof of Angels?

I said the usual thing I said when asked to write something by someone prepared to pay me for it. Yes.

All the same, the whole thing did not, truth be told, make sense. Sure, Tyler had been one of the four police officers who had heard the mysterious voice, and there was even video of the event, courtesy of the cameras that police officers had only recently started wearing when on duty. But the event in itself, intriguing as it was, was not really thick enough to stretch into an entire book. It made for an exciting news spot, or a thousand-word news story. But books needed to be around 50,000 words. A quick bit of math left the sum of about 49,000 words that would need to be banged out. What, I wondered, were those words to be?

All the same, decent book contracts are hard things to secure, and if this agent said that this odd mix – Tyler’s story, the catchy (read: derivative) title, and my “background” as a bona-fide angel “expert” (thanks to my years of writing for Angels On Earth Magazine) – comprised enough ingredients to bake a cake, who was I to say they weren’t?

I spoke to Tyler and liked him immediately. He is, to be frank, a strange guy. Not strange as in weird, but strange in his ability to court publicity without appearing cheap or opportunistic. He loved the media, the media loved him right back, and he definitely seemed to be enjoying the burst of worldwide attention he was receiving because of the story. And it was not just woo-woo news outfits who were interested in the story either. My first look at Tyler himself was on a clip of him being interviewed by Anderson Cooper. Tyler was a good-looking, likable, extremely telegenic guy. Yet he also had a clear sort of humility to him. He told the story of what had happened at Spanish Fork Bridge with clarity and sincerity and no trace of spotlight fever. I decided immediately that he would be an interesting guy to work with.

So I got a contract, and set to work hammering out a manuscript.

As far as my memory serves, I didn’t start to have reservations about the whole business until I was several weeks into it. But the reservations did come, and come hard, and for what, in retrospect, are obvious reasons. I was, realized, writing a book centered around the tragic death of a young woman I had never known, whose family members I had never even spoken with. While sufficiently jaded by my experiences in the book and magazine worlds to understand that one had to bow to market forces or perish, I was not sufficiently jaded, I realized, to become a full-fledged journalistic parasite. That is, someone willing to involve myself in someone else’s tragedy without even alerting them to the fact that I was doing so.

Day by day, my anxieties about the whole business grew worse. But I was in it now. I’d signed a contract, and I knew from my father’s experiences that writers who didn’t fulfill book contracts could soon expect their prospects for further contracts to dry up. I had no choice but to somehow just… keep going.

Once again I’m not sure exactly when in the course of the writing this happened, but at a certain point a solution began to present itself. The more I talked to Tyler the more I liked him, and the more interested I became in aspects of his story not directly related to the event at Spanish Fork Bridge. Specifically, I found myself asking Tyler more and more questions about his experiences as a police officer. I was especially intrigued by his psychological situation at the time when the Spanish Fork bridge tragedy occurred. Tyler, it developed, had wanted to be a police officer all his life. He had entered the academy the minute he was old enough to do so, and for his first several years on the job, police work was everything he had dreamed it would be. Tyler was a classic Good Cop. He enjoyed the work because he enjoyed helping people.

But in recent years, Tyler was beginning to have doubts about being a police officer. Doubts that he’d never imagined having when he had first signed up. More and more, he told me, the public – in his case, the people in the town where he worked – were starting to look at the police differently. People would give him the finger just for the hell of it – something that had not happened in his first years on the job – and he began to get a general feeling of hostility from the populace at large. The public perception of police officers was changing, and it was doing so in ways that Tyler neither anticipated nor liked.

I could go on, but I seem to be rewriting the book, so I’ll just say that day by day I found myself writing a very different book from the one I had started out thinking I was going to write. It was still a book that would check all the boxes – a book close enough, in short, to the one I’d promised the publisher.

But truth be told, the end product was not just about a book about angels (are they real? Etc. & so forth) but about what it means to be a police officer in today’s world, and the responsibilities involved in telling other peoples’ stories, and the ethical problems those responsibilities can create.

It was my huge good fortune, when I was months deep in the book, to connect with the sister of the young woman killed in the accident. I won’t go into the whole business here (it’s in the book if you’re really interested), but that connection with her, at a point when I was months deep into a book centering around her sister’s death, probably constituted the single most unnerving experience I’ve had as a writer. To my enormous good fortune, this individual was extraordinarily gracious about my situation, and thanks to that graciousness and generosity I was able to find my way out of the labyrinth I had wandered into and produce a book that I felt was… well, was what, exactly? Ethically excusable, I guess. In the end, the book was (big surprise) as much about me as it was about anything else. And while it is most definitely not the “definitive” book on angels that its subtitle claims it to be, it is perhaps the book I’m most proud to have written. It’s also, far and away, the non-Eben book of mine that has done best commercially.

It also has some stuff on angels in it.