DM: The beginning and the ending! My God! How long did you work on those sections? Did you outline? Do you write scenes first? What’s your process?
ZS: In many ways, this book was a gift to me. I’ve never had to work so little on a story or so hard to write one. The opening page was the first thing I wrote and sat in a file for a year while I finished another manuscript. It was so good, so perfect, I knew I had the voice and tone in place. The ending went through a few revisions, but the idea of a found family was there all along. I’m a notorious “edit as I go” writer and want to have the best version I can produce done before I move on. It may slow things down, but it helps me ensure good pacing and plot so subsequent edits aren’t as painful.
DM: Did you find it difficult to write from the perspective of a thirteen-year-old?
ZS: Not at all! I’m a child at heart. I find comfort writing from the vantage of the boy who I was. In the end, though, every writer needs to dig deep into the perspective of their characters, no matter the age. A character isn’t alive until you can feel what they feel.
DM: The structure was brilliantly done, and the pacing was spot on—short chapters designed to keep the reading saying to themselves, “Okay, just one more chapter.” How hard was it to maintain this sort of pacing?
ZS: Given that I wanted this book to appeal to teens—to give them a story of grief to potentially help them understand their own—the chapters needed to be short. Too much meandering in the story or in Mark’s head and memories and younger readers would let it go. But I do enjoy encouraging readers of all ages to read on by keeping the pacing swift!
DM: Talk to me about how important music was to The Weight of Ashes. I know you created a playlist (by the way, I’m stealing this idea from you for my novel). Also, where can readers access it?
ZS: Oh, music is vital to me. It awakens my creative spirit. Every story I write begins with a song. For this one, it was Like a Prayer. Scenes evolve out of the music I select. So, it just seemed like a cool idea to create a soundtrack for readers to see what inspired me. The Weight of Ashes Soundtrack can be found on Spotify, through my profile or listen to Steele’s Spotify Playlist: The Weight of Ashes Soundtrack.
DM: Did you read many YA books before writing The Weight of Ashes? If so, what are some examples? Any specific books, movies, TV shows that inspired this book?
ZS: I read anything and everything I can. One of the unfortunate side effects of founding and running a writing organization is that most of my reading is selected for me. Work of speakers, members, Broadleaf board members, etc. I’d say elements of King’s The Body and Pet Sematary definitely inspired the story. It’s hard to miss those. But everything from Harry Potter to Stranger Things to any friendship adventure I’ve read or seen influences me in my writing.
DM: The Weight of Ashes is a work of fiction, but you mentioned the story was inspired by personal events. Do you think you worked through the trauma by writing this book? Or did you stir it up and maybe make it worse for a time? What would you advise to other authors attempting to write about traumatic events?
ZS: Halfway through this book, my 13-year cat companion Maggie died of cancer. Came out of nowhere and it hit me hard. She and I had been through a lot of life and trials together and it made going back to Mark’s journey that much more difficult. And important. But writing helped me process that grief, as well as the lingering grief I’d carried through my life over so many other losses. The only real advice I can offer to anyone attempting to write about traumatic events is to find a quiet place to let it out. Let it happen. Feel everything you’ve been holding back. We repress so much just to endure pain and come out whole. You have to say it. Make it real. It’s the only way to heal.
DM: I mentioned in my review that there was a speculative fiction element to The Weight of Ashes. I loved that aspect! It teetered to the point I wondered how it would end. Will you talk about genre-bending with this novel?
ZS: One of the more important things a writer must do is filter the reader’s knowledge through the eyes of the characters the story is told by. I wanted to make sure the reader only knew what Mark knew. He believes his brother can be resurrected. He believes the witch will do it. His friends are skeptical. The reader has to decide for themselves and I wanted that to be a difficult choice.
DM: What is Zachary Steele getting into next?
ZS: I’ve been working on a young adult fantasy series for some time. The Fallen Hero is the first book in that series and will have a home soon (I’ll definitely announce it!). It’s about a young boy who discovers the world of his favorite fantasy series is real and in need of a hero to save it from a rising darkness. We all want to be the hero of our favorite books.
DM: I so appreciate your time answering all my questions and I really enjoyed The Weight of Ashes. I wish you much success with your novel. Also, thanks for all the work you do encouraging us writers, helping us network, and giving us recourses to become better at our craft. You have a place in writer heaven.
ZS: Thank you so much! I have always believed that writers have to stick together, to support one another. We write alone, live in our heads, and create worlds as a means to escape our own. We absolutely need a community to help us stay rooted in our lives.
TO PREORDER: The Weight of Ashes by Zachary Steele is available from the following Atlanta-based bookstores: A Cappella Books, Eagle Eye Book Shop, FoxTale Book Shoppe, Little Shop of Stories, Tall Tales, Story on the Square. Support your local bookstore!
To listen to Steele’s Spotify Playlist: The Weight of Ashes Soundtrack.
Want to know more about author, Zachary Steele, including author events and information about Broadleaf Writers Association? Broadleaf Writers Association Founder & Executive Director Zachary Steele is the author of Anointed: The Passion of Timmy Christ, CEO, Flutter: An Epic of Mass Distraction and The Weight of Ashes. He has been featured by NPR, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Publishers Weekly, Baby Got Books, Shelf Awareness, and was nominated for the Sidewise Award for Alternate Fiction. Currently, he is hard at work prepping The Fallen Hero for release in 2022. You can follow his ramblings on writing and life at http://zacharysteele.com/.