- Associated Press - Monday, October 24, 2016

TEXARKANA, Ark. (AP) - For longtime educator and fiction writer Matt Coleman, life as a teacher provided much of the inspirational nurturing for his just-published novel “Juggling Kittens.”

That image of kitten juggling, indeed, came to Coleman_and, hence, his novel’s protagonist Ellis Mazer_as the correct metaphor for what it’s like to be a first-year teacher, according to the Texarkana Gazette (https://bit.ly/2edJSIp ).

Currently serving as director of school improvement for the Texarkana, Arkansas, School District at Arkansas High School, Coleman just saw this debut novel published by small indie press Panda Moon Publishing, which is based in Austin, Texas.

Mazer narrates “Juggling Kittens,” which funnels elements of memoir into the mystery genre. In his first year as an English teacher in a small town that shows an unmistakable resemblance to the Texarkana area, Mazer discovers one day that a student, Spencer, has gone missing. He himself has a child on the way, and he must join forces with the assistant principal (a part-time private detective) to find Spencer.

The young teacher thus embarks on a quest to find this student, whose parents don’t seem to care where he is. Along the way, the connection to another disappearance, that of a little girl, becomes apparent as Mazer traverses a backwoods milieu full of intrigue and trailer parks.

The book cover describes this world as “hillbilly noir.” And although it may sound like “Juggling Kittens” raises serious issues, Coleman employs what he calls his dark humor in the novel.

The genesis of these stories arrived when Coleman was back in undergraduate college and graduate school, actually, when he penned a few stories based on his own life. He participated in the East Texas Writing Project. “It drives you to do a lot of memoir-type writing,” he said.

His own first year of teaching was prime fodder for that sort of thing. He taught 7th grade English in Redwater, Texas. A couple of these stories were published, and he realized he had the makings of a book. All the same, he had a writer’s crisis where it didn’t feel genuine to him. He describes it as trying to sound important, but it just wasn’t quite working.

But Coleman’s reading provided insight as to how to make this story work.

“I started reading people like Walter Mosley and Reed Farrel Coleman and Denise Mina,” Coleman recalled. They’re mystery writers who write well, but it’s fun. “It’s the kind of stuff I want to read,” he said. And so he thought, why not write the type of thing he wanted to read?

So, Coleman fictionalized his life, mixing the true memoir elements within the mystery genre framework. He marries first-year teacher stories with the quest to find out what happens to this missing student, fluidly moving back and forth in time.

Once he decided to go this route, it took about a year to a year-and-a-half to finish the novel. The biggest challenge was to get the flow right, and here his editors helped. He was nervous about that process, but he enjoyed it.

“It was fun to talk about it with someone who had really studied it and thrown themselves into it and understood it really well,” said Coleman, the father of two daughters, with whom he lives with rescued dogs and cats and a lone fish.

As a youngster, he ventured out into the Arkansas woods to hunt for Bigfoot. He counts writers like Dashiell Hammett and Flannery O’Connor as additional inspirations. His work has appeared in literary publications like apt Literary Magazine and Shotgun Honey, an online genre mag. He also wrote for the comedy podcast “The City Life Supplement.”

Coleman got seriously into writing in 11th grade, kind of late in the game. “Surprise, surprise, I was not like an athlete or anything,” he recalled with a laugh.

What to do? Where would he find his talents? A teacher noticed his writing accomplishments, and from there he sought to develop these writerly skills.

“I wanted to prove it to myself. I wanted her to be right,” Coleman said. “I wanted to be good at it.” Ultimately, he graduated from Texas A&M; University-Texarkana with his M.A. in English. Now, his first book is out.

“I hope it’s a fast read, and I mean that in a good way,” Coleman said. He wants readers to drive straight through it. It totals 208 pages. He wants laughter to penetrate the darkness in the book.

Coleman’s success with a regional indie publisher is a welcome change from one previous experience. He has a book written_young adult fiction_that hasn’t seen the light of day yet but at one time had a traditional agent’s interest. Hopes to get that book published were dashed, however.

“The whole situation left me with a little bit of a bad taste in my mouth with agents, and so I finished this one and just thought I’m going to approach some indie publishers that you don’t have to have an agent for,” Coleman said. He researched indie publishers to do this, and then on Twitter there was a “pitch party” where authors pitch their books with a single Tweet.

He got some interest this way. “You have to sum it up in a Tweet, what it’s about. You throw it out there. And they’ll star it, they’ll like it,” Coleman said. From there, he sent manuscripts to interested parties, including Pandamoon.

Nobody had a contract on the table for him, but talking with the family-owned Pandamoon gave him a good feeling. When he got a contract from them, he liked what he saw and made the leap.

“I kind of like the idea of this being kind of close,” Coleman said about finding a publisher in the wider region.

Coleman will have a book signing at Texas A&M; University-Texarkana on Oct. 27.


Information from: Texarkana Gazette, https://www.texarkanagazette.com

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