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Brad Abruzzi on NJ’s Famous Turnpike Witch

I’ve now finished Brad Abruzzi’s New Jersey’s Famous Turnpike Witch. It ends well, although not in the sense of tying up all the loose ends. But, then, it wouldn’t. Here’s my review. Here’s where you can download it. It’s awesome.

I sent Brad some questions. He responded:

Q: How long have you been writing fiction? What have you written before?

This is my second novel. I started the first in the summer after my college graduation. It was an effort to channel my postgraduate “what now?” angst into something constructive and interesting. I’d describe it as an anti-coming of age novel, framed as a typewritten manuscript sent to select media outlets by the notorious (and, as he explains, accidental) Rust Belt revolutionary fugitive title character, John “Cactus” Kelly. Cactus Kelly hopes to explain how he didn’t mean to start the Steeltown riots, that he has not endorsed the radicalized youth movement that has taken up his name, and that he was only trying to parry his father’s attempts, via armed “contractors,” to see him kicked out of the family home and flushed against his will into a productive life. And of course there’s a Gila monster that introduces all sorts of plot complications.

I burned through three literary agents with In Defense of Cactus Kelly, and though I got some very polite and encouraging rejections from editors, I never managed to place it. It probably didn’t help that “Cactus Kelly” was also the name of a prominent “foxy boxer” in Colorado. I had no idea there was such a thing as foxy boxing, or that anyone could be prominent in that trade.

Q: Do you have a particularly strong connection to the NJ Turnpike?

I do now. I actually grew up in Ohio. But I went to school in New Jersey, and I travel that road a heck of lot to visit in-laws in Virginia. As I look back, I’m not sure where all this came from, except that I’ve always thought it was awesome that New Jersey names its Turnpike Service Areas after its prominent native sons and daughters (no foxy boxers, as yet). I’m sure Walt Whitman and Alexander Hamilton would be thrilled to know that their names have been conscripted into service for the peddling of pizza-flavored Combos and Arizona Iced Tea. And for hosting those “drop the hook and win a prize” games that we know we can’t win, but for whatever reason we can’t resist taking a shot at them, when we’re on the road.

Q: Why didn’t you publish with a traditional publishing house?

Um, you’d have to ask them. Or you’d have to ask the agents, because I didn’t even clear that first barrier to publishing. I went the traditional publishing route with IDCK, and though I was ultimately unsuccessful with it, I had lots of interest, including the aforementioned three literary agents — so much so that when I started writing NJFTPW, I was (naively, presumptuously, wrongly, stupidly) thinking of it as a “second book,” such that I’d have more license to run wild with characters and plot. Turns out that was not the case, and it’s been a struggle even to get agents to read the manuscript. My third and last agent for IDCK left the business to study anthropology. He was my best (read, only) advocate with ties to the business, and I was pretty adrift when he told me he was quitting. He was looking at NJFTPW at the time, but he’d just had enough of the business. You’d have to ask him why he left, but it may have had something to do with the uphill battle he was having selling writers he liked.

I’ve been advised by professionals that the problems I’ve had selling NJFTPW is that it doesn’t fit easily into any particular fiction bucket. I don’t know if that means it’s just too whacked out, that it’s not susceptible to the genre labels (satire? humor? literary? po-mo?), or that it’s just not about vampires, Templar Knights, and/or the young woman trying to find love in the Big City. But in retrospect, I think I understand why. The truth is, I’d started this book in my first year of law school, and as best I can figure it, I was grappling with the meaning and consequences of having made the first practical decision — concession? — of my life. So I reserved a pocket of my life to be decidedly impractical, and at the same time I was studying Torts and Contracts, I sat down and wrote Chapter 1, about my disillusioned diva performance artist in traffic. And so now I’m paying for that impractical decision. And that’s fine, because I’m happy with this book.

Q: How has the reaction been?

Well, you know. There’s not exactly a marketing machine behind the book right now. And The Witch isn’t positioned at eye level on any bookstore’s New Fiction shelf. As someone who had a go at blogging and was able to use Google Analytics to track and identify the entirety of his readership in real time (“Hey: that’s my high school friend in Texas.” “Wait: who’s reading this in Florida? Oh, right, Mike’s on vacation.”), I didn’t carry into this the highest expectations of “going viral.” And writing and sending “buy my book” spam isn’t something I do well — I can write a query letter or blurb, fer shurr, but it’s not my strong suit. So I’ve tried to have fun with it. The Witch has a Facebook account, a Twitter account, and now and again she’ll surface to say a word or two about national affairs or pick a fight with her Creator. We have a lively back-and-forth, she and I, and it does absolutely nothing to improve my sales figures.

But I’ve got a couple strong reviews on Amazon, and I have your very flattering and thoughtful words, so onward and upward, little by little, I guess.

I do have this from my wife, who recently broke her pledge not to introduce complications in her marriage by reading my books: “You should go back to writing poetry.” I’m finding ways to take that as a compliment.

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