Interview with Landria Onkka, author of “The Rooftop Christmas Tree”

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Rooftop Cover FinalAs Millstone readers know, a movie called “The Rooftop Christmas Tree” has recently been shooting in Almonte and the area. We caught up via email with Georgia-based Landria Onkka, author of the prize-winning book that the film is based on.

Can you give us a quick summary of the book’s plot?

No one in the small southern town of Rosedale knows why reclusive Mr. Landis places a lit Christmas tree on the roof of his deteriorating home.  But, he has hauled it up there for as long as anyone can remember, landing him in Judge Conner’s courtroom every year and earning jail time just in time for Christmas.  Having grown up on his street, defense attorney Sarah Wright remembers the troubled household and reaches out to help the man, but he refuses.

When Wright’s former best friend and law school mate, John Rivera reappears in Rosedale after a long and mysterious absence, things get interesting.  Refusing to admit romantic feelings for him or to forgive him for his unexplained departure, the two are at odds until Judge Conner takes matters into his own hands.  With only a few days until Christmas, the Judge imposes the task of rectifying the Landis case for good.  Their deadline is Christmas Day, an impossible feat that pushes them to the limits.

Forced to pull their resources together, the young attorneys must set differences aside and soon discover that not all is as it seems in their world or Mr. Landis’s.

Inspired by a true story, the life changing and shocking ending is a testament to unwavering faith, hope, romance, and miracles . . . just in time for Christmas.

We understand the book has a basis in real events. What can you tell us about that?

I am originally from the Midwest and heard about the story through a close friend of the Judge (also an acquaintance of mine). The Judge was mystified by a man who kept coming into his courtroom for putting a Christmas tree on his roof. There was never an explanation, and he refused to stop placing it up there, despite breaking building codes. I actually got to view a DVD of one of his court appearances.  What could have been a simple solution turned in an annual issue until a local defense attorney eventually came to his rescue, despite his objection. However, that wasn’t the big ending to the story and when I share the true reason for his seemingly insane actions, pretty much everyone I tell cries. I know I did, when I heard it. I wrote the story to show that we shouldn’t be quick to judge one another. No one knows what each of us has experienced or feels. Instead, we should be here to extend our support and love, no matter what.

This is your first published book. Apart from the current movie project it also picked up a couple of awards. Can you tell us more?

I rushed to print to get the book out before Christmas and was surprised to hear that the following month it was a best seller for my publisher, Outskirts Press. Then came the New England Book Fest awards, the Southwest Book Awards where I placed first in Fiction, and the Holiday Book Fest where I took the Grand Prize over all categories. I guess the message is that people like ‘feel good’ stories and this certainly fit the bill! These awards provided encouragement and validation that I was on the right track.

It must be quite unusual for a first book to be acquired for a movie treatment. How did that come about?

You’re right. My agent reminded me of that when I got optioned and then ‘green lit’ shortly thereafter (meaning it actually goes into production). Not only is it unusual for anyone, it’s incredibly rare for a first time author.  I can’t say that 20 years as an investment banker with a focus in entertainment didn’t help. I was on the business side of the industry and knew what investors wanted and what sells in the commercial markets. The producers and the network also kept my original title and cover artwork, which is rare.  When I wrote the book, I purposely went for broad appeal, making sure that it could air on any television network to all audiences, especially families. Then I spent an entire season watching just about every holiday movie written for television and I saw a real need for something authentic and new. I felt that I accomplished that with “Rooftop” and there’s nothing better than real life to draw from.

As you say, before turning to writing  you worked in investment banking for twenty years, specializing in the financing of entertainment projects. That seems an unusual path to a writing career. Was writing books always the long-range goal?

It’s true. I worked on major movies, television series (such as Real Housewives), Broadway plays, live touring events, and was in the trenches of the business side. But, I have also been an award-winning writer since elementary school, then on Capitol Hill, and wrote speeches for political candidates. Although it’s my passion, I never thought of it as a career. Then after 20 years stressed out in investment banking, losing both parents and my beloved dog within a short period, I decided that life was too short and quit. I wrote and published “Rooftop” in three months, forging ahead on blind faith. The best part is that with my experience and success on both sides of the entertainment industry (business and artistic), I can now coach others on what it takes to have a commercial success and encourage anyone interested to reach out to me at http://landriaonkka.com.

The movie features two actors who will be familiar to many Millstone readers: Michelle Morgan, who played Lou Fleming in the popular Canadian series Heartland, and Tim Reid, known for his roles in WKRP in Cincinnati, That 70’s Show and many others. Will you have a chance to meet with them or other cast and crew members?

I could have been up there with all of you during the shooting, but unfortunately a winter storm came through the first week and director David Winning shared a picture of himself coated with ice! As much as I’d like to have been on the set, I’ll probably stay here in Atlanta. I am diligently working on the sequel which will come out next month, and enjoying temperatures in the 70’s! I guarantee you that you will see me if the sequel gets picked up and shot in your lovely town. It’s exactly what I had in mind as a backdrop. As for meeting the actors, I was told that there will be a publicity shoot by the network which is based here, in Atlanta.  I will be sure to attend and thank the cast for bringing my story to life! 

When and where can we expect the completed film to be aired?

I was informed that UP Entertainment will air the movie on December 1st of this year. I hope that you’ll see “The Rooftop Christmas Tree” every year in addition to the sequel and, perhaps others featuring attorneys John and Sarah! 

What other books do you have coming up? Any more movie treatments?

The best part about being passionate in your career is that you don’t mind working. I have been busy writing and have 3, possibly 4 more books coming out this year. The sequel to “Rooftop” called “A Bell For Christmas,” along with another holiday book, “Wooden Mistletoe” will be published in April and considered for television movies.  While I am most comfortable and best at ‘feel good’ stories, “Primal Instinct” is my third book which I just completed.  It is based on a true story about a friend of mine, a doctor, who was arrested for murdering a wealthy socialite in a small town.  “Primal” is up for big screen consideration since it’s a bit racy.  A fourth book, “The Bag Collector,” will be completed before the end of the year and is based on my own story and events that occurred after my parents’ death that include paranormal activity. Rest assured that you’ll see at least two holiday books annually from me that I hope will all convert to television movies. It’s what I love writing, although you never know if another true story gets my attention and takes me in a different direction once in a while.

And finally, any plans to visit Almonte in the future?

Absolutely! I’ll let you know if the current production company picks up the sequel, as Almonte should expect to see another film crew coming to town. I’ll plan on bundling up and having a hot chocolate on the set with you. So, stay tuned for that announcement.

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Almonte doubles as ‘Rosedale’ (Ian MacLean)
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Almonte doubles as ‘Rosedale’ (Ian MacLean)