For some, writing a novel feels more like slogging through a tangled and twisted jungle than a walk in the park.
But for Niskayuna author Garrett Gnatek, writing has always been a joy — and a form of escapism.
Gnatek’s first book, “Keeper of the Hourglass: The Life and Death of Peter Nichols,” was recently published by Black Rose Writing and takes readers on a journey to an imaginative afterlife. It revolves around 10-year-old Peter, who died after running away from a bully. In the novel’s opening scene, he wakes up in a sort of purgatory, where he must work in an ornate library called the Conservatory, turning the pages of people’s “LifeBooks” until he becomes enlightened and can move on. While working in the Conservatory, Peter meets creatures called the Nabi, who are tasked with writing the LifeBooks, and he is swept up in an evil plot to steal an hourglass that controls time.
The book is geared toward middle-schoolers to young adults, and deals with topics such as death, religion, suicide and child abuse.
Gnatek, a Utica native, has been working on the book for years. He recently retired from a career working in the counterterrorism department of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and has turned more of his attention to his writing career.
A few weeks after the official release of the book, The Gazette caught up with the author to talk about the writing process.
Q: How long have you been writing fiction?
A: My whole life. I’ve always been creative and always sought out an outlet for that creativity in one medium or another. But being an author has always been an [aspiration] of mine even when I was a child. I know I’m dating myself, but I remember asking for a typewriter for Christmas when I was about 5 years old, so writing is just something that’s always been in me.
Q: In your bio, you mentioned that you had taken a hiatus from writing. Was that because of your work?
A: No, that was a tongue-in-cheek remark. When I attended General Herkimer Elementary School in Utica, my second-grade teacher had a short story of mine printed in the local paper from there life [that] detoured me. Since then I’ve always written haphazardly. I began seriously writing again some time ago just as a way to relieve stress or get away from the mundane. Fortunately, I’ve always had some sort of story circulating in my head.
Q: What was the inspiration behind “Keeper of the Hourglass”?
A: I’ve had the idea for quite a while, but I think it was around eight years ago when I actually sat down and started to piece it together. I’ve always been intrigued by the belief of fate or destiny or whatever a person might want to call it. My expectation is that life is predetermined, although you can ultimately change it based on what decision or actions you take in your life. From that, I envisioned the LifeBooks to be a sort of road map for each person.
Q: When you were thinking up the Conservatory, did you use any libraries in particular for inspiration?
A: I’ve always had a fascination with libraries, especially the ornate, ancient ones. You get a picture in your head, and to me what better place to have a LifeBook maintained [than] in a library, and that kind of created the Conservatory. The Conservatory also acts as a sort of model for humanity because in the Conservatory all the LifeBooks are lined and each soul per se is contained, living side by side harmoniously. Additionally, the people that are working in the Conservatory are interacting with the LifeBooks and they’re fulfilling one of their life’s requirements that they touch the lives of others before moving on in the afterlife. It’s kind of a kumbaya approach to life and beyond. So that was my take on it.
Q: Right at the start of the book, there’s a very sudden death that involves a bully. How did you decide to open with that?
A: Well, in a preedited version of the book, I had it where it goes through Peter’s torment from this individual named Bobby. I think all of us have experienced some form or another of bullying, so I wanted to tie in a death that wasn’t vicious or angry. I wanted [it to happen] almost [by] accident. Later in the book, you find out that maybe Bobby wasn’t a bad kid. Maybe he wasn’t looking to hurt Peter in any particular way. To me, it’s always tragic reading about all these kids that die, whether it be from cyberbullying or whatever the case may be, and I didn’t want to take it that dark.
Q: What was the most challenging part of writing the book?
A: That part was easy; getting published was by far the hardest part. The writing to me has been very enjoyable. It’s a way to immerse yourself away from reality and all the negative aspects that come with it. So it was nice to be able to find something to get away from that, but it’s so hard to find a publisher that will take a chance on a new author. You really have to have a thick skin and put self-doubt aside, because rejection happens all the time. You send out query letters, three sample chapters and a synopsis, and basically send them over and over and over, whether it be to an agent or a publishing house. Fortunately, I was able to find somebody who was very willing to work with me. Otherwise, you get a lot of people who do the self-publishing route, which has become pretty prevalent on the market.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?
A: For me, I wanted to write a book that was thought-provoking, something that was sort of an imaginative interpretation of the afterlife and obviously, I hope that readers find entertainment value in the book. But beyond that, I hope that it initiates conversations that perhaps someone doesn’t want to start or is afraid to start, like a child confronting being bullied; a friend maybe reaching out because they’re contemplating suicide; somebody curious about religion or what their beliefs are, [etc.]
Q: When do you do most of your writing?
A: Fortunately, I’ve been able to do it at whim when I’m not, according to my son, his personal Uber driver. I’m a morning person, so I get up [at] 5, 6 o’clock in the morning before anybody’s up and I just enjoy writing at that time of day.
Q: Since you only recently retired, did it take a little while to adjust?
A: Funny enough, no, because the job . . . it kinda takes part of your soul. You see the worst in everybody. They always say you know when it’s time to go, and for me it was time to go because I didn’t want to become complacent or potentially get myself or somebody else hurt because of my complacency. I didn’t want to go beyond my time. So it was the perfect time to go, and I’ve got so many hobbies, obviously writing, but we have maple trees on our property so I make maple syrup, we press cider. I’m teaching myself how to repair antique clocks. I have a lot of activities in mind.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have a spinoff for this book, and I’ve started scribbling some stuff down that involves Peter’s mother and how she becomes a Nabi . . . but I have a notebook full of half a dozen ideas or so of books that I’m interested in writing, so I have plenty to keep me busy.
“Keeper of the Hourglass: The Life and Death of Peter Nichols” is available at blackrosewriting.com and on Amazon. The digital version of the book will be available to download for free from Amazon from Dec. 28-31.