Before he wrote The Santa Claus Man (Rowman & Littlefield, Oct.), Alex Palmer usually found his material in very odd corners. His two most recent books, Weird-O-Pedia (Skyhorse, 2012) and Literary Miscellany (Skyhorse, 2010), were collections of strange trivia, touching on such disparate topics as the psychology of dipping fries in ketchup and the literary connection between Homer and Jay-Z. So, when the idea for his next book came from closer to home—from an uncle, on Christmas Eve, to be exact—he was surprised. "Learning the backstory of my own history was sort of the ultimate investigation," he says.

That was the day Palmer first learned about John Duval Gluck Jr., a great-great-uncle who, in the early 20th century, ran the Santa Claus Association, a charity organization that had sole authority to answer all letters sent to Santa Claus in New York City. Heartwarming stuff, right? Palmer thought so, too. But as he dug further, he discovered that "what seemed like a great story about a family member was more complicated."

Gluck, an ace storyteller with a flair for the dramatic, turned out to be less than honest in his business dealings. According to Palmer, he used "prominent people's names to get donations without their permission" and siphoned off significant portions of donations for personal use. Palmer says, "It was kind of sad to find that out," but that it "also made Gluck more compelling."

To learn more about Gluck's story, as well as the larger history of Christmas in New York City, Palmer tracked down relatives he'd never met. "I had these scraps of information about various family members and had to follow them using, phone calls, and Internet archives. That process was really satisfying."

Palmer says the most challenging thing about writing the book was figuring out "how to get both those sides of Gluck across. I really wanted to convey that he was a fun, charming, good-hearted guy who was also dishonest at times and willing to fabricate. It doesn't necessarily mean he's a bad guy."

Palmer, on his first visit to BEA, looks forward to meeting other authors and checking out some of the panels on offer. In between, he is also signing his book today, at 11 a.m., in Rowman & Littlefield's booth (1444).

This article appeared in the May 28, 2015 edition of PW BEA Show Daily.