A Talk with The Weight of Ashes Author, Zachary Steele

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 BooksEagle Eye Book ShopFoxTale Book Shoppe, Little Shop of StoriesTall TalesStory on the Square. Support your local bookstore!

Cover Art by Katie Lynn Photography

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 BooksShelf 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/.

The Weight of Ashes by Zachary Steele, a Review

The sun rises without your blessing. But you can’t face the day until you wake. Sleeping through the light doesn’t mean the day didn’t happen.

Zachary Steele The Weight of Ashes

I haven’t met Zachary Steele in person…yet. He’s the founder and executive director of Broadleaf Writers Association, a nonprofit educational organization made up of writers and designed to help writers from all genres, backgrounds, and levels learn about the industry and improve their craft. I’ve followed the activities of the organization for a while, but recently joined during the pandemic, so I’ve only seen Steele on Zoom. But the writing world in the South is a small circle and once you enter it you inevitably circle back to the same people. That is, you run into those people who put themselves out there helping other writers navigate the mysteries of the industry. Steele is out there hitting the proverbial pavement doing his share, loading up on author karma by hosting authors events via Zoom or overseeing writer’s conferences. And somehow, on top of all his endeavors, he managed to author a book—a very good book—called The Weight of Ashes.

The Weight of Ashes, set in Hogan, Georgia during the 1980s, is a literary fiction novel that would appeal to both a young adult and adult audience. Protagonist, thirteen-year-old, Mark Murphy, is on the cusp of life when he’s hit with the tragic death of his big brother, Mitch Murphy. Mark loses more than a sibling with Mitch’s death. Their father left the family at a young age and Mitch stepped in as Mark’s father figure, protector, and mentor. His mother, reeling from the loss of her son, starts to drink heavily. To make matters worse, Mark’s cousin, Gordon, the villain of the story, caused the car accident in which Mitch was killed. Mark not only wants his brother back; he also wants revenge. And he believes the answer to both of his desires may be found with the witch who lives on Spook Hill. There’s a cost to bringing Mitch back, though. And there’s no way he can make it past his mother and her boyfriend, Officer John, and his police force, or bully/psychopath, Gordon, or the perilous wilderness to get to Spook Hill, without the help of his friends, Mo, Reggie, and Dunk.

Though The Weight of Ashes tackles death, loss, and grief, Steele created a plot that feels more like an adventure story focusing on the power of friendship. Because of the tight friendships between these characters, the novel reminded me somewhat of the 1985 blockbuster movie, The Goonies, or for a more modern reference, the hit show, Stanger Things. The language, tone, and plot suggest an element of speculative fiction. It hovers on the border making the reader wonder if there’s something supernatural at hand.

The story is told in first person point-of-view from the perspective of Mark, but the other characters are well-rounded and have personalities that complement each other and the plot. The chapters are short and tend to end with cliffhangers (though not in an ostentatious way), which is probably why it reminded me of the movie and TV show I mentioned. Steele’s style is episodic; he builds one wonderful scene upon another. Yet, the story isn’t completely linear. The reader isn’t simply led down a straight path wrought with conflict. Steele’s pacing is excellent. He does a nice balancing act with flashbacks, featuring Mark’s memories of his deceased brother and their mutual love for baseball and the Atlanta Braves, which enriches Mark and Mitch’s relationship for the reader and develops very relatable and sympathetic characters.

The Weight of Ashes is a Bildungsroman, or coming of age, novel with fairytale elements where the protagonist Mark enters the woods and comes out wiser, perhaps not quite a man but with a self-awareness he didn’t have before entering the woods. Mark must confront actual obstacles—avoiding the police, Gordon, flooded creeks, dangerous animals—to accept his brother’s death. As I mentioned, he cannot do it alone, which is one of the main issues Mark comes to understand. Here’s a moment where Steele alludes to the classic novel, The Wizard of Oz: “We moved along the drive like Dorothy, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow walking through the forest. About halfway, between a trio of dangling vultures, I came to a stop.” This is the scene where the teens have finally made it through the obstacles presented by the forest and arrive at the witch’s house. It echoes the journey Dorothy and friends made down the yellow brick road to meet the wizard complete with flying monkeys or in Steele’s novel, “dangling vultures.” Steele also references The Hobbit, which was huge (still is) back in the 1980s for this age group. Authors don’t randomly do shout-outs. Bilbo was an adult when he goes on his adventure, but it’s still a classic Bildungsroman novel and a fairytale as well–like The Wizard of Oz, like Steele’s, The Weight of Ashes. The fairytale structure is a classic way of telling a story; I think it works well for any age group but is particularly effective for this story and for YA readers who may be more comfortable and open to reading a tough topic in a structure they’re accustomed to reading.

Even with an adventurous plot and characters geared for a younger audience, the subject matter—grief—is quite serious and transcends all ages. Mark goes through all the stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The message is the same whatever the age of the reader. You should lean on your friends and your family to help you get through the tough times, and I commend Steele for borrowing from his own experiences to help teens, young adults, and adults realize they’re not alone.

There’s a real sense of nostalgia winding throughout the novel. Remember when you were thirteen? Remember how important your crew was? Well, that’s the peer group Steele created here. If you’re an adult reader, it’ll take you back to that magical age when everything seemed like it was all about to happen. Steele simultaneously captures the character’s childishness and insecurities around entering adulthood, mentally and physically. I think the character Dunk says it best here: “We aren’t kids anymore. We’re hormonal superheroes, fighting the villainy of a sex-crazed world.” These characters are at that age where anything seems possible, and their excitability comes out in a humorous and highly entertaining way.

Readers may become wistful remembering their teenaged years reading this book; The Weight of Ashes is full of pop cultural references from the 1980s that sets the tone. Forty and fifty-something-year-old readers will recognize shows like Family Ties and Star Trek’s: The Next Generation, or Jason Vorhees from the movie Friday the 13th. You can practically hear a soundtrack playing while reading this story with all the musical references to Madonna, The Bangles, Ozzy Osbourne, and Whitesnake, just to mention a few. Music was everything in the 1980s. What you listened to dictated what group you hung out with—the jocks, the skaters, the punks, the metalheads—and this book was reminiscent of my childhood. If you genuinely want to go down memory lane, Steele created a playlist on Spotify that accompanies The Weight of Ashes. Get a copy and tune in here to listen: The Weight of Ashes Soundtrack.

Steele’s, The Weight of Ashes, comes out with a bang, more fireworks, then more fireworks, and ends with another bang. The first chapter took my breath away. And I don’t think I’ve read a more perfect ending to a novel in years. When the beginning of a book doesn’t grab you, you put it down, you never read it. You may say something like, “I just couldn’t get into it.” If the ending sucks, you never forgive the writer, and you may not ever read that author again. I won’t go down the road of Game of Thrones. Just saying…I guarantee you have the best of both worlds with The Weight of Ashes, including a middle full of surprises—tragic, scary, fun, lighthearted—that make you appreciate your friendships and even feel compassion for the bad guy at the end. Steele took a challenging topic and made it accessible for every age. Applaud, applaud.

TO PREORDER: The Weight of Ashes by Zachary Steele is available from the following Atlanta-based bookstores: A Cappella BooksEagle Eye Book ShopFoxTale Book Shoppe, Little Shop of StoriesTall TalesStory 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 BooksShelf 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/.