Sometimes things happen in life you just know you’re going to write about — eventually.
Such is the story of how local author and lawyer Rick Pendergast’s first book came to be, 25 years after the fact.
Pendergast, who served as an officer for the Eau Claire Police Department for seven years in the 1990s, still vividly recalls a night in his first year with the department when he saved a man from jumping off the Madison Street bridge.
“The idea for that part of my book was born right there,” Pendergast said. “I thought, ‘what would happen if you did save the life of someone and they really did go on to do some bad things? How would you feel about that?’”
Though that man did not go on to do anything terrible, that idea became a subplot of his first novel, “Stoney Lonesome Road,” which was published in December.
“Stoney Lonesome Road” is a fictional story that takes place on a road of the same name in the 1990s in Brunswick in western Wisconsin. There readers meet Jack Delaney, a cop who has spent the last 35 years trying to solve a murder and clear the name of the man accused.
It’s fictional, but based almost entirely on moments like the Madison Street incident in Pendergast’s life. And he’s lived an exciting one. Before being a cop, Pendergast served in the U.S. Air Force and after his time at the Eau Claire Police Department he attended law school. He now works as an attorney for Pendergast Law Office in Eau Claire.
His time in all of those positions has influenced who he is, but perhaps being a cop is what has stuck most with him, especially in telling stories.
“It’s an honor to have been a cop, and that is part of my DNA,” Pendergast said. “You learn so much because you’re dealing with so many different things, but you learn a lot about yourself.”
The setting of the novel, while made up, is also based on a real road of the same name that runs through Boyd. Pendergast has never been there himself, but he recalled working with Richard “Dick” Hewitt, an Eau Claire sheriff’s deputy at the time, who went on to be sheriff for the county until he retired in 1997.
One evening, Pendergast recalled “shooting the breeze” with Hewitt when the deputy told him he lived on Stoney Lonesome Road.
“I don’t remember how it came up, but that name just stuck to me,” Pendergast said. “Right then and there I said I was going to use it, and I’ve had that name in my head since.”
The Stoney Lonesome Road in his book is a 10-mile stretch anchored by a tavern on one end and a church on the other. Pendergast said almost all of the characters live on the road.
He is no stranger to rural Wisconsin, either. Pendergast grew up on a farm outside of Eau Claire, where he now lives in a house he built for his parents. His daughter and her family live in his childhood house on the same property.
“Metaphorically I’ve lived my whole life in that space, and that’s where my voice comes from,” he said.
Though he’s worked in many places, Pendergast said he has been writing nearly all of his life. He was taught at an early age from his parents to appreciate the love of reading and nearly always has a notebook or a book with him.
He started “Stoney Lonesome Road” maybe 25 years ago, but picked it up and put it down many times since.
“I’ve written all along, all kinds of different things — poems, essays, even some books,” Pendergast said. “But I never finished them, until now. It’s very gratifying.”
In fact, of all the accomplishments in his life — and he has much to be proud of — he said nothing compares to the feeling of completing his first book.
“I loved being an officer, I liked being in the Air Force ... and being a lawyer has been a rewarding career,” he said. “But writing a book is in a class all its own.”
Equally satisfying, he said, is the response he has received. In addition to readings at The Local Store and Grand Avenue Cafe, “Stoney Lonesome Road” has impressed readers on Amazon.com.
Reviewer Gerald Bauer said on April 22 on the website, “I met Rick Pendergast over a cup of coffee when this book was just in its infancy. Just finished it tonight. Wow. Mystery, romance, heartache all wrapped in the ethos of the Chippewa Valley. A must read!”
Bauer is one of seven Amazon.com customers to give “Stoney Lonesome Road” a five-star review. Debra Patrow is another.
“It kept my interest to read it exclusively,” Patrow wrote. “I especially loved that the author drew from his local and personal background which I also identified with. Hope to read more from this author!!”
Patrow might get her wish.
Pendergast is working on another novel about law enforcement set in the same fictional town, this time in 1968.
This one will follow a sheriff who has to solve a grisly murder in the hopes of getting reelected, set against the national backdrop of events such as the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination.
It will take place in Brunswick along the same road, but Pendergast said it is not a sequel or prequel to his first book.
Delaney will make one cameo appearance as a 14-year-old boy interacting with the sheriff.
As an author,“tell a good story,” and he hopes readers think he did. Pendergast said his goal is to
If there’s anything readers can count on in his next book, it’ll be his ability to draw on his past, and make it relatable to his readers.
That, after all, he said, is what telling stories is all about.
Contact reporter: 715-833-9214, firstname.lastname@example.org, @KatherineMacek on Twitter