010313_Culture watchBy day, he’s the mild-mannered facility permits supervisor for Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, helping SMMUSD bring in much-needed outside revenue (about a million dollars a year) by coordinating rentals of available school property for concerts, film and TV shoots, outdoor movies and such community purposes as AA meetings, Cub Scouts, summer camps and more.

But before he heads to the office each day, local author Jan Strnad pulls off the supernatural act of rising two hours early to write fictional tales about the afterlife.

His latest novel, “The Summer We Lost Alice,” is available as an e-book through Amazon and Barnes and Noble at www.janstrnad.com. It’s the story of young boy, later a man, whose first love will come to define his life.

Young Ethan Opochensky comes to visit his extended family in a small rural town the summer that three children disappear, including his cousin Alice, whom he has fallen in love with. Ethan is only 9 years old and he thinks he knows who the killer is, but his theory is dismissed as sheer childish fantasy.

But a quarter century later, with Ethan now a well-established TV psychic, children once again begin disappearing in that same small town. Ethan is brought back by his family to help solve the mystery, uncovering and confronting the otherworldly force that is the culprit in both tragedies.

There’s an undertow of romance, the love that never dies, to round out the plot. A person who isn’t nuts about the genre, I found this book to be a real page-turner, moving briskly with very natural dialogue and great unexpected twists that kept me glued to the story.

The paranormal is all the rage these days: witness the popularity of the vampire “Twilight” movies and “True Blood” on cable TV; thanks to “The Walking Dead” on AMC and the general tenor of politics these days, “the zombie apocalypse” has become a cultural meme.

Strnad has dipped his toes in supernatural waters before; his first book, “Risen,” also on Amazon, has nearly 150 reviews and a 4.5 star rating. And his prior experience with traditional publishing makes him sing the praises of e-books.

His background includes writing comic book stories for major companies, like DC (publishers of Superman, Batman) and Marvel (creators of Spider-Man, The Hulk) as well as small independent companies.

Strnad says, “Much of my comic book work is still in print: the ‘Sword of the Atom’ series from DC, ‘Batman Black and White’ from DC, and independent work such as ‘Ragemoor,’ a gothic series from Dark Horse Comics, and Grimwood’s ‘Daughter,’ an elfin fantasy from Idea & Design Works out of San Diego.”

Moving from Kansas to L.A. in 1985, he wrote TV cartoons on staff with Disney and freelanced for animation studios at Universal, Fox, MGM, Sony/Columbia and others.

Before most of the studio animation work began migrating to Canada (thanks to very generous cash and tax incentives), Strnad was still working as editor/writer for a CBS cartoon show. He decided to turn a screenplay he’d written into a novel.

“I began getting up two hours early every day to work on ‘Risen’ before I started my ‘day job’ at CBS,” Strnad told me. “It took me nine months to write ‘Risen,’ fifteen months to find an agent, and a year to place it with a publisher; Pinnacle Books published as a mass-market paperback.

“It was on bookshelves for six months and then went out of print for the next six years. It’s heartbreaking for a writer to work so long on a novel and then have it become unavailable! During that time, ‘Risen’ was optioned for films five times without a film being made. Very discouraging.”

Once the rights reverted to him, Strnad issued “Risen” as an e-book for Kindle where it “found new life” (pun intended!). “In the next two years, I earned more from ‘Risen’ as an e-book than I’d made from the paperback and the film options combined. You can bet that got my attention, and I began work on ‘The Summer We Lost Alice,’ which I finished in September 2012. I decided to bypass traditional publishing completely and go straight to self-publishing ‘Alice’ as an e-book.”

The factors favoring e-book publishing include retaining control of the work, he says, “And I can make it available for a third to half of what traditional publishers charge. Each of my books sells for $3.99, about the cost of a cup of coffee at Starbucks.”

Now he’s at work on a third novel. “I get up, as before, two hours early every morning to work on my writing before reporting for work with SMMUSD. I hope to have three or four e-books available to help see me through my eventual retirement.”

Why is Jan Strnad possessed by the paranormal? He replies, “My books tend to center in some way on the afterlife, what it is, if it is, the good and the bad of it, and the role death plays in our lives, how it gives life meaning. Sounds morbid but I also write with a lot of humor, which is the mechanism that lets us cope with life’s tragedies.

“With ‘The Summer We Lost Alice,’ I wanted to begin with a downer premise — the disappearance of a young girl — and write a novel that, ultimately, would be uplifting and edifying. Although I deal with dark subjects, at heart I’m a cockeyed optimist and romantic who believes that all works out for the best in the end, in fiction, if not in life.”

 

Sarah A. Spitz is a former freelance arts producer for NPR and former staff producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica. She has also reviewed theatre for LAOpeningNights.com.

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