The Rising authors Jon Land and Heather Graham.
The character of Alex in The Rising was loosely based on Xavier Russo, who played football both at Brown and SI.
Jeslyn Farrow Russo and Steve Bluford ’84, Xavier Russo’s former football coach at SI.
The novel The Rising begins this way: “Alex Chin watched the referee toss the ceremonial coin into the air, watched it spiral downward upon the St. Ignatius College Prep turf field set on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean in the Sunset section of San Francisco.”
One page later, the story introduces coach “Blu” Bluford.
How SI and Steve Bluford ’84 became setting and character in the novel is a story in its own right. One of the book’s co-authors, Jon Land, gives credit to Xavier Russo ’11, a linebacker at SI and at Brown University, and to his mother, Jeslyn Farrow Russo, for introducing him to SI.
Land, a 1979 graduate of Brown and the author of more than 25 novels, met Jeslyn at a tailgater before a game pitting Brown against the University of Rhode Island.
As vice president of Brown’s football association — a booster group for the Brown Bears team — Land had befriended Xavier and knew of his Bay Area roots.
He and romance writer Heather Graham had just started writing the first book in a trilogy dealing with aliens. Their publisher, Tor, wanted to promote NASA, which it felt had lost prominence with the conclusion of the space race.
“We decided to set our book near NASA Ames given its focus on astrobiology and alien biology,” said Land. “Our two main characters are high school students, so we needed to find a school driving distance to Ames.”
At the tailgater, Land asked Jeslyn for her help with the novel’s settings. “She not only helped me out, she was practically the third co-author of the book,” said Land. “From the first, we talked about having SI serve as the school the main character attended.”
Land also based the character of Alex Chin on Xavier. “Both have X’s in their names — in fact, Xavier’s parents even call him X — and both play football. Their personalities and cadence of speech are similar. Both respond to situations with an even-keeled temperament. However, they also differ, in that Alex is adopted by an Asian couple, serves as the quarterback for his team and is a C student who needs a tutor, while Xavier, who graduated from Brown with honors, is bright enough to be a tutor.”
The authors chose SI as the setting because it was driving distance to NASA Ames where another character, Sam Dixon, spends her time as an intern. Jeslyn suggested that Alex live in Millbrae while Sam make her home in Moss Beach. “One of my son’s good friends lives in Moss Beach, so I knew the commute was doable,” said Jeslyn. “And because Sam’s parents grow pot, I felt Moss Beach would work, as that town has an earthy feel to it.”
Jeslyn also mentioned to Land SI’s game against Granite Bay and the Cat Pack, both of which made it into the novel.
Details like these were important to Land, who describes the art of writing fiction as “acting like a magician. If you’re accurate with enough details when you don’t know what you’re talking about, people will assume everything is accurate. I have a colleague, however, who reads my novels and can tell what places I’ve visited and what places I haven’t. He told me that you can find out what a place looks and sounds like, but unless you travel somewhere, you can’t get the smell of a place right. I’ve never forgotten that, and Jesyln helped me be a good magician with this book. Of all my reviews, no one has mentioned that my Bay Area geography is wrong, including the last scene of the novel, which takes place at the Embarcadero.”
Land does admit to fudging two facts. “I needed a ferry boat to take the protagonists to Alcatraz at night in the fog in November. Ferry boats don’t go there at night, and Novembers are usually fogless. Jes pointed both out to me, but I was locked in by the timing of the football playoffs, which happen in November.”
Bluford made it into the novel as he coached Xavier on SI’s varsity football team and traveled back to Brown to watch him play. On that trip, he met Land, who was impressed that a former coach would fly across country to see his former student play. “I recognized his contribution to Xavier’s success. Steve is such a nice guy and a football coach through and through. I’m a football guy too, so we got along great.”
Jeslyn also sang Bluford’s praises. “During my son’s senior year at SI, he helped X get his film together to show to the colleges where he was applying. He would meet with my son as early as 6 a.m. on school days, and he even hand-delivered the finished film to our home Christmas Eve so that X could submit the footage on time. When X was recruited by Brown, I felt Coach Bluford had been an integral part of the recruitment.”
For the authors, the book does more than tell the story of a local high school coach and player. “Alex is an illegal alien of sorts, as he’s a Caucasian boy adopted by Chinese immigrants and encounters prejudice. The novel also features aliens from other planets who have to go into hiding from oppressive overlords and from an oppressive billionaire who believe aliens are responsible for his father’s death. Little did we know we were crafting a metaphor for the Trump administration.”
The co-authors haven’t included SI in the second novel. “As for the third, we’re not far enough into it to know if we’ll mention SI again,” said Land.
In the meantime, Xavier is living a storied life of his own. While at Brown, he earned a variety of honors, including making it to the All Ivy First Team, The All New England First Team and the National Football Foundation Hampshire Honor Society (an award he also received while a high school student at SI).
He was awarded Brown’s highest football honor as team MVP at the end of his 2015 season. He also was invited to an NFL ProDay tryout and a private tryout day for the 49ers.
Now an analyst for Merrill Lynch in New York, Xavier and teammate Everett Watson ’11 competed in the Wall Street Decathlon, now called The D10, in June 2016 and 2017 to raise funds for pediatric cancer research at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. In 2016, the two were selected for a spotlight interview that was broadcast on the NBC Sports Network. This past June, both men took first place and raised over $40,000 for Sloan Kettering, making Russo and Watson one of the top fund-raising teams in the competition.
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