Schenectady County

Virtanen book is all about the ending for class

If you want to know how Michael Virtanen’s book, “Within a Forest Dark,” ends, just ask a Schenectad

If you want to know how Michael Virtanen’s book, “Within a Forest Dark,” ends, just ask a Schenectady County Community College student.

The Glenville author left his first book with an open ending, and second-level developmental education students at the college have been finishing it for him since 2009.

“Some of them are better than mine,” Virtanen said of the students’ conclusions to “Within a Forest Dark,” which was published in 2007 by Lost Pond Press.

Virtanen made an appearance at SCCC in early May to sign copies of his newly released second novel, “The River’s Tale,” a prequel to his first book.

Students lined up for an opportunity to talk with the author and have him sign a copy of his latest work.

Sophomore Pauline Rivera was there.

“I was so looking forward to it because the first one was so intriguing. It just really, really drew you in,” she said, noting that she liked how many local places were mentioned in “Within a Forest Dark.”

She was eager to get her hands on the second book.

“I had to hurry up and come up here and get a book before all of them were gone,” she said.

Virtanen described his first novel as a detective book, with an “insurance guy” standing in for a real detective.

In the novel, main character Jack Kirkland travels to the Adirondack Mountains to investigate the death of a wealthy engineer and winds up falling in love with the dead man’s girlfriend, who is the only murder suspect.

Kirkland also appears in “The River’s Tale,” during which he investigates another suspicious death.

A sequel to “Within a Forest Dark” is planned.

A veteran journalist, Virtanen works at the state Capitol as a reporter for The Associated Press and has held past positions with the Times Union, the Amsterdam Recorder and the Utica Observer-Dispatch.

A 1998 writing assignment provided the spark for “Within a Forest Dark,” he said.

For the assignment, he traveled the length of the Hudson River from Mount Marcy to New York Harbor with Times Union columnist Fred LeBrun. Virtanen wrote about his adventures along the way.

“It was the best journalism assignment; it sort of changed my world,” he said.

Virtanen began writing “Within a Forest Dark” in a fiction writing workshop. The first draft took three years to complete, and it took 10 years to get the book published.

Phil Brown, founder of Lost Pond Press, called Virtanen’s books “page turners with a lot of suspense, and strong characters.”

“I think he’s got kind of a unique writing style,” Brown said. “His sentences are clear, his diction is clear, but sometimes he’s indirect in what he’s saying and I think that is part of the appeal to me of his writing.”

Students at SCCC compare Virtanen’s writing style as a novelist to the way he writes for The Associated Press. Sometimes they’re surprised that one person can write in such completely different styles, said Pam Walsh, a professor of developmental education at the college.

As part of SCCC’s developmental education class, students have the opportunity to read “Within a Forest Dark,” meet the author and finally, write an ending for his book.

“Mike leaves us off on Chapter 29. We don’t know where the protagonist and the antagonist are in their journey, and they write a Chapter 30. Some of the best writing I’ve ever seen has come out of this book,” Walsh said.

It’s not yet known if Virtanen’s second book will be incorporated into the curriculum, she noted.

Virtanen said he hopes the students who read his books will be inspired to do more writing of their own.

“There have been a number of students that said [“Within a Forest Dark”] was the first book they ever read all the way through, which is cool,” he commented.

He said he’s taking the students’ conclusion suggestions into account as he ponders the plot of the sequel to “Within a Forest Dark.” “They’re all over the place — ideas about what will or should happen,” he said. “The only thing I’m sure of is [the protagonist] won’t get out of the third book alive. He’s too much of a risk-taker and he won’t make it,” he revealed.

One more thing is definite — there will be a whole lot of SCCC students waiting to see how Virtanen decides to wrap up the trilogy.

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