Hometown Undertaking

Here is a very fine profile from my hometown paper.  It’s only recently that I’ve come to realize how directly I actually followed my father’s footsteps.  Morticians and writers are both storytellers.  They prepare the past for those who care enough to show up.  In fact, people come for the story, not the body, and it is only our story that we leave behind.  Tonight at 6:30, a man I much respect, Reverend Gerritt Kenyon, will be talking about the book:  WSNJ-AM, 1240 on your dial.  I hope his review is not a eulogy… 

Reptile trade author with no ax to grind

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

MILLVILLE – Bryan Christy could have been the director of his family’s funeral home.

The Millville native and published author’s life took a different path – a direction that found him doing research for a book on the underground reptile trade one day at a reptile show in Hamburg, Pa., a sort-of flea market for reptiles.

Christy stared curiously at a man who was nonchalantly holding an 8-foot-long snake.

It certainly looked like a cobra.

“Is that a cobra?” Christy asked the man.

“Yeah,” the man replied. “It’s a vemonoid.”

A vemonoid is a snake with its poison glands removed.

“When did you buy it?” Christy asked, pressing further.

“I bought it this morning,” the man replied.

“You must really trust the guy you bought it from,” Christy remarked.

At that moment, the cobra lunged at the man holding it, sinking its teeth into the man’s arm.

“The guy looks at me,” Christy said. “He looks at the snake and then he says, I guess I really do trust the guy.”

Situations like this and over two years of extensive interviews with people connected to the black market reptile trade went into Christy’s first book, “The Lizard King,” which was released earlier this month and is receiving glowing reviews, including one this week by Janet Maslin of The New York Times

Like a rattlesnake coiled motionless before striking out at its prey at just the right moment, Christy’s literary career has moved in a similar fashion.

Success may be coming fast now, but it took years for Christy to get to the point where he was ready to strike.

Christy never considered writing a career choice as a teenager in Millville.

Although he won writing awards while a student at Millville High School and in college, he considered writing to be a hobby, “like playing checkers.

“I had no idea what I wanted to do for a living,” Christy said. “There’s no money in writing is what I said … something I’m embarrassed about to this day.”

He contemplated becoming an accountant.

Then he thought about joining his family’s business, Christy Funeral Home, a funeral home in Millville started by his great-grandmother in 1898.

His father, Paul Christy, who operated the funeral home with his uncle Matt and aunt Jane, discouraged him from taking that path.

“I told him, Dad, I want to join you in the business.

“He said, No.

“I remember everything about that moment. I started to cry. It was hard for him because it was a family business. He certainly wanted me to follow him. But he knew that I had other things that I cared about,” Christy said.

Christy still wasn’t ready to be a writer.

Instead, he went to law school and, after receiving his law degree, began practicing law in Washington, D.C.

“I was at some of the best firms in D.C.,” he said. “Politics seemed the next step. I had planned to run for Congress, but ended up seeing too many people that I didn’t want to be like.”

So Christy quit the law profession to become a writer at the age of 32.

He was going to follow his passion, taking the advice of his father, who died in 1995.

Christy’s plan was simple.

“I thought I’d write this thriller. It would take me two years to write and would make me a boatload of money … Grisham-wise,” he said.

His first big break took two years to complete, a story for Playboy on the world’s most valuable coin.

The story did not make him rich but convinced the magazine to let him write a follow-up story on wildlife smuggling, which became a story about reptile smuggling after a mix-up with one of his editors.

“Another one of the editors had a pet turtle and the facts got confused,” Christy said.

The mix-up turned out to a be a blessing.

Christy had a passion for reptiles stemming back to when he was a boy catching snakes and other creatures at his parent’s house, in Millville.

“We used to catch frogs and turtles on Hogbin Road and Perkin Drive. There was a whole group of us that traded frogs and turtles like baseball cards,” he said.

A love of reptiles gave the author a way to break into the secretive reptile smuggling world and interview some of its players.

What began as a magazine story grew into “The Lizard King.

When acclaimed publisher Twelve received the manuscript and decided to come on board to handle publicity and distribution of the book, numerous requests for radio and print interviews followed.

Christy is being praised for his book’s pace and entertaining approach to a subject that many people are unfamilar with.

He said discussions have taken place about turning the book into a feature film, with comparisons being made to the films “Catch Me If You Can” and “Blood Diamond.”

According to Christy’s Web site, “The Lizard King” focuses on two people: Mike Van Nostrand, who with his father operates a vast criminal empire dealing in the illegal trade of rare and unusual reptiles, and Special Agent Chip Bepler, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a man looking to bring down the operation.

Christy conducted extensive interviews with Van Nostrand, although he described his first visit to the Florida man’s store as a mess.

Posing as a customer, Christy was handed a coral snake to hold, one of the most venomous snakes in the world.

“My hand just started to shake violently,” he said.

After Christy ditched the undercover approach, Van Nostrand was surprisingly willing to talk after bonding with him over reptiles.

“They figured I was one of them, more or less,” he laughed.

Christy’s book doesn’t take sides or attempt to villainize the criminals he writes about.

He said it presents his subjects as they are, which has surprised many people.

“There’s been a number of people who have said I shouldn’t have spent so much time with Van Nostrand. They think I should have crucified him more because he’s an animal dealer,” Christy said.

But Christy wants readers to decide for themselves.

“The problem with wildlife trafficking is that no one writes about it without advocacy,” he said. “I want to do that. I want readers to be able to see this world for the first time without prejudice.”

Christy said most of the feedback has been positive.

“The tops at the World Wildlife Fund and other groups have written me personally and thanked me for the freshness with which I’ve approached the subject,” he said. “I’m really happy that the conservation world gets it.”

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