NHS teacher breaks through as thriller novelist

‘Seneca Wood' stocked with bizarre, mature scenarios

Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2009

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Staff photo by DARWIN WEIGEL
Gary Clites, a journalism teacher at Northern High School, recently published his first novel "Seneca Wood." The thriller is set in Baltimore and his native West Virginia.

When Gary Clites arrived at the Comeback Bar and Grill in Owings on June 13 for the official launch party of his literary debut, "Seneca Wood," he did so carrying a stack of altered pictures which comprised one of his latest and favorite class assignments.

Clites, a journalist and longtime teacher at Northern High School, began teaching his students how to use Adobe Photoshop, a computer program that can be used to improve a photo's quality but can also completely alter images. Just for fun, his newspaper students began cutting Clites's face out of pictures and pasting it into others. But rather than cut the shenanigans short, Clites encouraged them — anything to get the students to learn the material.

It didn't take long before Clites, who lives in Chesapeake Beach, had hundreds of doctored photographs. Among his favorites — him as Richard Nixon waving goodbye after being impeached, as George Washington crossing the Delaware and, with his face tinted-green, as the Statue of Liberty.

"They were brilliant, I loved them," Clites said. So much so, he brought them along to the launch party and hung them from the walls, a reminder of his eclectic life, one that for nine months of the year revolves around school and his students. The rest of the time he spends as he sees fit.

An avid music fan and darts player, Clites recently began his latest career with the publication of "Seneca Wood," an action caper set in the backwoods of West Virginia and complete with the Baltimore mob, West Virginia chicken farms, dead bodies, corrupt cops, forest nudists and lots of furry (and hungry) wildlife.

The idea for the novel came from his memories of the West Virginia University SCUBA team recovering a body from the bottom of nearby Cheat Lake in Monongalia County, W.Va., during his undergraduate years at West Virginia University in the early 1980s. Soon thereafter, the lake was dredged and stolen cars and slot machines were found. Nearly 30 years later, the lake would become a central locale in Clites's "Seneca Wood."

They teach you in journalism school to never make yourself a part of the story, but Clites ignored that rule when drafting "Seneca Wood." Undoubtedly, there's a little bit of Clites in the story's protagonist, Wood Garrett, who quickly finds himself in the middle of a plot steeped in cash, blood and chicken feathers. Both are journalists, but that's about where the similarities end. Wood is a bit of a risk-taker who has already been imprisoned prior to the book's beginning and routinely shows a general disregard for the law. Conversely, the most daring thing Clites has ever done is earn his master's degree from the University of Maryland after receiving his bachelor's in Morgantown, W.Va.

Garrett also has the problem/pleasure of being jumped by a woman who enjoys running around the forest nude, a situation Clites would neither confirm nor deny ever personally encountering. To be sure, there are plenty of weird scenarios in "Seneca Wood," each one more bizarre than the previous.

"Actually a lot of my ideas in the book are things that I remembered that happened and just kind of put together in pieces," Clites said. "I'm a big fan of unusual news and when I read something unusual I tend to clip it and stick it into a file. They tend to come back and get used later."

While sitting in the author's tent at the front of the North Beach Boardwalk during last month's Bayfest, Clites couldn't recall exactly when he began writing "Seneca Wood," but he knew the whole process had taken years.

He tried to do most of his "hardcore" writing during the summer months when school was out. When he finished the first draft, Clites, who doesn't have an agent, submitted it to several big literary agencies, and received considerable interest. They liked the book — it had an interesting plot and colorful characters. But there was just one problem.

"They said people like thrillers to be set in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami," Clites said. "There's a very set list of places, but I was actually trying to make the book different from the standard."

So Clites decided to pitch his book to smaller presses. The first press he sent his draft to was Casperian Books, a small California publisher that signed Clites right away.

Then he spent about a year and a half rewriting the book front-to-back "about six or seven times." He created a personalized Web site, started a blog, opened Facebook and Twitter accounts and has been hosting frequent book signings across Maryland as part of the publisher's marketing campaign. The Web site was up and running by December 2008, which meant his students could see it and read about his new book. This gave Clites a new lesson to teach.

"I told the kids about the book and tried to be very clear — it's an adult book and in my opinion is R-rated." If the Motion Pictures Association of America were to give "Seneca Wood" a rating, it would probably include comments like sexual content, nudity, violence/gore and pervasive language.

Even if it's as Clites hopes and his students aren't among his growing number of fans, plenty have been buying up the book since its release in June.

"It's a small publisher, they don't expect me to sell millions, but they're very happy with the sales," Clites said. "My editor, not an ebullient person, she's been very happy with me since the book came out."

The book's success recently caused one of Clites's friends to comment that he had reached the level of "micro-celebrity."

"I think that's exactly right," Clites said, who added he doesn't mind speaking about the book with strangers, but would prefer not receiving autograph requests at his front doorstep. "I'm not a very egotistical person. It's hard to put yourself out there and say ‘hey, look at me.' I've done radio interviews on NPR, done interviews with a lot of newspapers and stuff like that and it's just a strange role. I've interviewed people my whole life, I've never been interviewed."

Clites said he's already got several new fiction plots bouncing around in his head, and while there are several genres he'd like to explore, including an idea for a non-fiction book, he figures he should stick with writing thrillers for the time being.

While it's impossible for Clites to ignore how "Seneca Wood" has changed his life, he'd rather view it as simply an extension of what was already a pretty good deal for him.

"I really like having a life that has a lot of different elements to it… There's never been a time in my life that I wasn't writing. Most of it's been journalism over the years and now, I've always wanted to write fiction, and it was just a matter of buckling down and getting the time to do it," Clites said. "I'm a happy person. I like my life. It's just something new I get to do and it's a pleasure to do it."

The book can be purchased online at www.barnesandnoble.com, www.amazon.com, www.target.com or through the publisher at www.casperianbooks.com.