"I've been writing for pretty much all of my life," said Chrysler Szarlan, a bookseller at Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Mass., and author of The Hawley Book of the Dead, a fantasy novel that will be published by Ballantine in September. She's quick to point out that although The Hawley Book of the Dead is the first book of hers to be published, it's not the first book Szarlan has written, saying, "It's been about 12 years that I've actually been working on novels and trying to sell them."
The Hawley Book of the Dead is the first in a planned, "finite" series that Szarlan has named the Revelation Chronicles, after the book's heroine. It's a story about a family of women with special powers. Revelation is a stage magician, who lives in Las Vegas with her family and performs a regular stage show with her husband. After a terrible accident, she's forced to flee with her daughters to a small town called Hawley, where Revelation's ancestors came from. The book blends stage magic with "real" magic, reality with fantasy.
"You could call it contemporary fantasy," Szarlan said. "But I'm not good at pigeonholing books. I just love a good story."
Szarlan is likewise hesitant to use terms like "target audience," but said that the book's ideal readership would likely be "women in their 40s and 50s who are looking for a heroine, and trying to be heroines themselves in their own families. That is what Revelation is: in addition to all her magical powers and skills, she's a mom."
Szarlan has worked part time at Odyssey Bookshop for close to five years. Long before becoming a bookseller, she went to law school and then practiced as a disability lawyer in Connecticut. She loved the job, until she fell "tremendously sick"; she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a disorder of the central nervous system characterized by chronic pain and fatigue, among other symptoms, and subsequently stopped practicing.
"I couldn't do the 12-hour days anymore," Szarlan reflected. Leaving her legal career, however, gave her more time to focus on writing. "I have to say that getting sick was probably the best thing that ever happened to me, but it didn't feel like that at the time."
Although she'd been a lifelong book lover and frequenter of bookstores, Szarlan had never worked as a bookseller before coming to Odyssey Bookshop. Handselling, she recalled, was at first a challenge.
"It's just a different job," Szarlan said. "You think you can talk about books all day long, but when it comes down to it, to putting a book in a customer's hand, it's an art you have to learn."
Although working at a bookstore hasn't exposed Szarlan to more authors ("I was a tremendous reader to begin with," she explained), it has been invaluable to her progression as a writer. From her co-workers at Odyssey Bookshop as well as the frequent visiting authors, she's learned a great deal about the publishing industry. And her follow booksellers as well as her employers have been enormously supportive of her writing.
"Odyssey has a tremendous number of author events every year," explained Szarlan. "I've learned from the masters how to present myself and my book. And of course everybody here is very supportive. People have read it on staff, given me comments. I consider the readers here to be some of the best and most discerning readers in America."
Szarlan will launch The Hawley Book of the Dead on September 23 with a party at Odyssey Bookshop. So far, that launch party is the only event that she has lined up, but Szarlan has told her publicist, "I'll go anywhere anybody wants me." --Alex Mutter