from criminal justice to paranormal fiction
by Barbara Van Reed
Connecticut author Chuck Miceli published his first novel last year and is on the road to do his most favorite thing: greeting and talking with his readers. The book is Amanda's Room and he will be at Dudley's Pearle L. Crawford Library for a reading and signing event next Monday.
Amanda's Room, a paranormal thriller, has had good reviews from readers. One called it “a real page turner.” It takes place in the Catskills in upstate New York. Miceli describes it this way: “When death came for Amanda Reynolds, it could not pry her from the room. Katie Jarvis knows that Amanda is trying to communicate in the only way she knows how: by altering the weather. But Katie cannot decipher what Amanda is saying or why, and time is running out. Something is stalking Katie and her team. As the violence of the weather takes on monstrous proportions, they must unravel the meaning in the storms, or no one will be safe from the power of Amanda’s room.”
Miceli told us the story of how the book came to be, and how he became a novelist, a story equally intriguing.
An electronics engineer by trade, Miceli took a job instructing inmates in electronic maintenance and repair at a Connecticut reformatory for boys. He became a work supervisor for electronics at the facility, and that led to a career as a training officer in jails and maximum security prisons. He was a Resource Center Coordinator for the National Institute of Corrections and Chief of Curriculum for the Connecticut Justice Academy. He also worked as a consultant to the American Correctional Association, the National Juvenile Court Services Association and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.
“In the 1970s there was a rash of fires in jails and prisons. Inmates would set fire to their mattresses and other flammable materials. I was asked to investigate the root causes.” He researched reports of fires everywhere, talking with corrections and fire personnel all over the country. He submitted a 130-page report on his findings that was so well accepted that “they they asked me to turn it into a book.”
Published in 1979 and co-authored with Alton P. Golden, Fire Behind Bars, was the first book ever written on the subject of deadly fires in secure institutions. For the next two years Miceli traveled the country speaking and consulting with law enforcement groups and book clubs.
The experience was an epiphany of sorts. Miceli decided that he loved writing and he loved interacting with his readers. In 2003 he planned an early retirement from his long career in the criminal justice system to become a full-time writer.
While the dream was clear, the path to writing success wasn't. “I played around with several different projects,” he said. “I started writing an historical novel about coal mining, as homage to my father, who was a coalminer in Pittston, Pennsylvania. It will be my ‘Great American Novel,’ some day, but I wasn’t emotionally and intellectually ready for it.” He did various other kinds of jobs.
He wrote articles and poetry. He worked on a romantic novel, but it wasn’t gelling. He also wrote a short story titled “The Room.” That was the project that he came back to first. It became the genesis for Amanda’s Room. In 2008 he woke up one day and said “I’m a writer” and began work on it in earnest. “At first I would put in four or five hours a day, then six hours, then eight. Finally, I’d go back to work after dinner.”
The original story began with a spiritual quest. What would you do in a perfect environment, a place where no one could lie? And what caused the room’s perfect environment? The history is complex. Miceli explains. “In the 1970s, some prisons started to paint some cell blocks pink. A particular hue, called Baker-Miller Pink after its researchers, showed that pink could reduce prisoners’ aggression and violent tendencies.” The idea of how a room is painted introduces the paranormal aspect in Amanda’s Room.
Inspiration for “The Room” and Amanda’s Room also came from Catskill Mountain stories, harking back to characters like Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane. Miceli spent a lot of time in the Catskills before and after he married his wife, who grew up there. The area seemed right for the story’s setting, he explained. The folklore included weather as a character, the thunder in the mountains; researching weather patterns for the book served to increase his interest in the subject. Each chapter of Amanda’s Room starts with a weather story. The fact that the book culminates with a giant storm that speeds up the coast of the Northeast, not unlike Superstorm Sandy, is coincidental. “When Sandy happened I was floored….that’s so similar to what I’ve written.” It adds a realistic aspect to the book, he concedes.
The writing was not without its setbacks. “I never knew about writer’s block,” he said. “Now I understand it intimately.” For Miceli the block continued for several months. Finally he worked through it by taking a long drive in the role of one of his characters, and was able to finish the book early last year.
With the critical acclaim and success of his first novel, Miceli is considering his next project. He’s had a lot of requests for a sequel, and plans to make Katie Jarvis a character in his next book, even if it’s not a real sequel. The plans for the next Great American novel are still in the plans too, when he’s ready.
Writing is now Miceli’s life. “I’ve fallen in love with words. You get a sense of euphoria when you find exactly the right word to express a meaning.”
Still, he reflects back on his early years in the reformatory. “That was the greatest job I ever had. The inmates there had a profound effect on my life. I was able to see how good some people can be even in a prison.”
He will exercise his other passion, meeting and interacting with his readers at the library on Jan. 14 at 6:15 p.m.