Nov. 11 2009 12:00 AM

Okemos author scares up book deal with ghost story

Some water cooler chitchat is more productive than others. For Okemos High School teacher Amy Huntley, some friendly banter in the teachers’ lounge became the inspiration for her debut young adult novel, “The Everafter.”

Three years ago, Huntley was with a group of teachers, when one started talking about how frustrating it is to lose little things. Huntley clearly remembers another teacher adding, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if the stuff showed up after you are dead — in the afterlife?”

Huntley’s fertile mind ran with it as a premise for a book revolving around the death of a young girl, objects she lost while living, quantum physics and some Shakespearean and other British paranormal literary influences.

But that would be too simple. In her first published book, Huntley plays death like a violin and sometimes like an accordion. Her deft skills allow her to use death as a metaphor for change, especially the dramatic change middle school and high school students face daily. But the metaphor also frees her to use her writing like a Zydeco squeezebox, creating a fun, pulsating ride.

The book tells the story of Madison, a teenage girl who finds herself in a limbo-like existence she calls “is” — she’s dead, and she doesn’t know why or how. Madison is surrounded by a variety of luminescent objects she lost while alive. These objects give her a path back to the living, where they help her discover secrets of her own life and death and, ultimately, move on.

If there is a message for the reader, Huntley said it is about moving on. “This is especially important for teenagers,” she said. “There are a ton of life changes between 12 and 19. We tell middle school students, ‘When you get to high school … .’ And we tell high school students, ‘When you get to college ... .”

Huntley said she wasn’t sure if she believed in ghosts, “at least not in the traditional sense.” But in the book, she describes an Oujia game and slumber party that was right out of her own youth. “It was strange enough that it came to mind when I was writing,” she said.

Huntley knows a few of her students have read the book, and she suspects many more have read it and won’t say anything.

This isn’t the first book Huntley has written and shopped around; Her first went nowhere, and she was so discouraged she said, “I quit.”

This time was different, and she attributes part of that difference to a writers’ group, which also includes published Lansing-area writers Ruth McNally- Barshaw and Deborah Diesen.

When Huntley started “The Everafter,” she looked for a professional organization to give her support. “I needed someone who would give me honest feedback,” she said.

An online search brought her to the Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators, which led to her writers’ group. “They adopted me,” she said.

The support seems to have helped. In less than two years from that germ of an idea, Huntley finished her book, landed an agent and found a major publisher.

After the book was accepted as part of a two-book deal by Harper Collins imprint Balzer & Bray in August 2008, Huntley found herself once again trying to figure out what to do next. “There was a lot of pressure after the book was accepted,” she said. “I didn’t know my way around writing.”

Since the publisher was launching a new imprint, Huntley’s book was on the fast track right when she was returning to teach. It was a whole new world for her. “I could handle an irate parent in my work, but I didn’t know how to even close an e-mail to the publisher or editor,” she said.

Some of her teaching experiences have carried over to her writing career. After a recent Grand Rapids
book reading, Huntley said school open houses and parent-teacher conferences helped her prepare for signing events, which have so little structure.

Huntley’s publisher is already hungry for her second book, which also has a paranormal component, but that is all she will offer about the plot.

Readers often compare Huntley’s book to Alice Sebold’s “The Lovely Bones,” which will soon be a major moive. Huntley, of course, knows the difference between the character in Bones, who knows why she died, and her Madison who has no idea, but is looking for answers.

Amy Huntley

of “The Everafter” 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 17 Schuler Books &
Music, Meridian Mall, Okemos (517) 349-8840