Bookshelf: Friends Zach Steele and Benji Carr follow parallel paths to publishing

Authors Zachary Steele (left) and Benji Carr are long-time friends and colleagues who are both publishing books this summer with Story Plant.
Caption
Authors Zachary Steele (left) and Benji Carr are long-time friends and colleagues who are both publishing books this summer with Story Plant.

Credit: Story Plant

Credit: Story Plant

Local authors publish “Weight of Ashes” and “Impacted” this summer

Zachary Steele and Benji Carr met as coworkers at Barnes & Noble at the Mall of Georgia more than 20 years ago. Steele was a manager, and Carr worked in the music department. On the surface they seem very different. Steele is serious and reserved; Carr is chatty and funny. But they share an irreverent sense of humor and a love of the written word, and they became fast friends.

In 2007, when Steele opened Wordsmith Books in Decatur, Carr became a frequent presence at the store’s open mic nights. Eight years later, when Steele started the Broadleaf Writers Conference, Carr became board president.

Together they have cultivated a community of writers, helping them hone their skills and connect with agents and publishers. In the process, Steele, 49, and Carr, 45, labored away on separate writing projects, spending long hours in solitude crafting words into stories.

And now, both authors are debuting two very different novels this summer from the same publisher — Story Plant, a small press specializing in fiction by emerging authors.

“He and I have been running parallel together for over 20 years, so it’s nice to reach this point in the relay together,” said Carr.

Steele’s book, “Weight of Ashes,” is a beguiling tale about Mark, a 13-year-old boy struggling to accept the death of his big brother Mitch, who was killed in an automobile accident. Like the movie “Stand By Me” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the book focuses on a group of resourceful youngsters trying to navigate adult situations on their own terms. Mark is convinced the witch on Spook Hill can bring his brother back to life, so he enlists his friends to help him deliver Mitch’s ashes to her in a harrowing journey that comes to an unexpected end.

The book opens with a tragic automobile accident similar to one Steele experienced in his youth. Beyond that, the story is pure fiction, but its themes are drawn from the author’s life.

“We’re always processing grief and loss,” said Steele. “There’s one loss in particular that I carried for a long time that I was trying to process. I actually named the character Gordon after him. He was my best friend growing up in Florida, and he committed suicide when he was 19.”

Gordon isn’t the only friend Steele pays homage to in “Weight of Ashes.” Its dedication reads: “To Benji. For your friendship, dedication, passion, and for talking me down from the ledge far too many times to count.”

Contributed by Story Plant
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Contributed by Story Plant

Steele celebrates his book launch 2 p.m. Aug. 28 at Eagle Eye Book Shop in Decatur. For details go to www.eagleeyebooks.com. He’ll also sign copies 6:30 p.m. Aug. 30 at Fox Tale Book Shoppe in Woodstock. Go to www.foxtalebookshoppe.com to learn more.

Carr’s book “Impacted” is a dark comic thriller also about a teenage boy, but 17-year-old Wade is already experiencing the trappings of a mid-life crisis. He’s living with a girlfriend he doesn’t love, and helping raise their daughter. Meanwhile, he’s having a gay love affair with his dentist. Overcome with guilt for his duplicitous ways, Wade attempts to break off the affair, but things take a shocking turn. And the more Wade tries to dig himself out of the mess he’s made, the worse things get.

“It started as a story, but then the story kept going from cliffhanger to cliffhanger to cliffhanger until it was 50,000 words and I realized it wasn’t a story,” said Carr.

Steele and Carr have the Broadleaf Writers Conference to thank for finding a publisher for their books. Their publishing deals materialized after they connected with Story Plant president Lou Aronica at the 2019 conference.

“It’s a testament to the quality of the Broadleaf Writers Conference that it could produce this level of writing,” said Aronica via email. “I’ve been to dozens and dozens of writers conferences over the years, and it is rare to find even one manuscript worth considering, let alone find two that you’re excited about publishing.”

Steele said he started the conference in 2015 because he wanted to create a community of “writers helping writers.” His goal was to not only facilitate writers getting published, but “to have an organization that was about teaching people how to write well.”

He acknowledges that his and Carr’s experience is a strong testimonial for the conference.

“We’ve had some members who’ve gotten publishing deals or agents through the conferences, and I’m proud of that. But for us as the leadership to both have good quality books coming out at the same time is great for the organization.”

Carr is quick to point out that their leadership roles with Broadleaf aren’t the reason they landed publishing deals. Both their manuscripts were singled out in a critique session based on blind submissions of the first page of their manuscripts.

Courtesy of Story Plant
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Courtesy of Story Plant

“It’s one of the best things about Broadleaf,” said Carr. “That event allows for constructive criticism and positive feedback. And because it’s blind, people can be blunt and direct.”

The session will be offered again this year, along with other panels and workshops, at the 2021 conference. The virtual event will be held Oct. 16-17. For details, go to www.broadleafwriters.com.

When asked to share a piece of advice for writers still waiting on their big break, Steele didn’t hesitate to answer.

“Never quit,” he said. “It can be such a deflating industry. There is far more rejection than there’s ever going to be acceptance. I’ve been at this since I was a kid. I’ve been doing this for 35 years. I feel like, at 49, I’m finally now hitting my groove. That’s because I never quit, and I always kept trying to learn and improve.”

Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributing editor to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. svanatten@ajc.com