For many teachers, summer is a time for rest and relaxation and a chance to spend more time with their families.
Mountlake Terrace High School English teacher Stephen Merlino hopes to do all of that this summer, but he also is hard at work.
Last winter, Merlino published his first fantasy book, The Jack of Souls, and he currently is working on the sequel, The Knave of Souls, which he is planning to release later this fall. The two books are part of a trilogy that Merlino bills as A Rogue & Knight Epic Fantasy Series.
This Independence Day weekend, starting July 3, Merlino is putting the Kindle version of The Jack of Souls on sale for 99 cents. The book normally retails for $6.99 and also is available in hardcover and paperback.
The goal of the sale is simply to get the book into more people’s hands and to generate some feedback and conversation from readers.
“The more people that read it, that’s better for me,” Merlino said. “More people get in touch with me and start a conversation.”
Merlino admitted that writing can sometimes be a solitary experience. Writers generally don’t get to talk with anybody about what they do. What Merlino likes is when he generates a reaction from the reader.
“That’s the most exciting part about writing, actually having a conversation about it,” Merlino said.
All three books – The Jack of Souls, The Knave of Souls and the untitled third book in the series – actually started out as one very lengthy book. But after talking to an agent, Merlino was told that publishers aren’t interested in a huge novel, especially by a new writer. Merlino decided to break the one book into three books.
“That takes a lot more work than you think,” he said. “I had to make book one stand by itself.”
“I’m in the middle of writing a beginning for book two (The Knave of Souls), so it feels like it starts its own story. I want to make it stand on its own.”
Merlino has long been a fan of the fantasy genre and remembers reading the Lord of the Rings in the seventh grade. He read it five times again, every year through high school. He also was into fantasy role playing games. Merlino considers himself extremely well-versed in the genre, which in turn helped him when he decided to write his own fantasy novel.
“It’s actually, in my opinion, important to know the genre,” Merlino said. “It’s important not to write another version of Lord of the Rings because it’s been done. No one wants to read that again.”
His goal was to create something original that had not been seen in the fantasy genre.
“I tried to create characters that I hadn’t met before in books,” Merlino said.
Some of those characters include an autistic female knight, a pain-killing herbs addict and an older, fat knight. Merlino describes the main character as a man, who plays fast and loose with the rules, and who has many shades of grey.
“I don’t remember fat knights in fantasy,” Merlino said. “Let’s see what I can do with that and maybe jar people’s expectations.”
Teaching at Mountlake Terrace for the last 15 years also has helped foster Merlino’s creativity. Students know what the latest trends are.
“They expose me to things I wouldn’t otherwise encounter,” Merlino said. “It’s a wonderful part about being a high school teacher. It keeps me fresh.”
Merlino has been gratified by the response to The Jack of Souls. Readers have told Merlino that the story feels original and fresh. The book took first place in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association award for fantasy and was a first place Winner of the Southwest Writers award for fantasy in 2014. The Jack of Souls earned 4.4 out of 5.0 stars by 71 reviewers on Amazon. The book hit No. 1 on Amazon’s Fantasy Coming of Age eBook Best Seller list in February.
It took Merlino 10 years to write all three books. During that time, Merlino went to graduate school, got married and was raising two children.
“It’s been rewritten more than it’s been written,” he said of the books.
Juggling a family and teaching career with his writing hasn’t been easy. His wife’s and children’s support meant a lot to Merlino.
“It takes planning and communication and understanding and a supportive spouse,” Merlino said. “There is as much of them in the story as me. It couldn’t have happened without them being supportive.”
– By David Pan