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Springfield teacher sets 'Jackaby' series in 19th century

COURTESY PHOTO - William RitterThere are strange goings-on, and William Ritter’s irresistible sleuths are back together again to crack the case.

Ritter, who lives Springfield, weaves smart and magical books for young adults inspired by mythology, elements of “Dr. Who” and the novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Adventure-seeking rookie sleuth Abigail Rook returns in “Ghostly Echoes” ($17.95, Algonquin Young Readers), the third novel in Ritter’s “Jackaby” series. This time around Rook and her eccentric mentor, R.F. Jackaby, have teamed up to solve a case that’s eerily close to his home.

COURTESY IMAGE - 'Ghostly Echoes'Set in the late 1800s in the fictional town of New Fiddleham, Abigail’s boss is Jackaby, an investigator whose work/live space on cobblestoned 926 Auger Lane is haunted by his ethereal landlady, Jenny Canvanaugh. The duo set out to uncover just who killed Jenny, but it will take sifting through old case files by candlelight and crossing over to the supernatural side to find answers to their questions. It helps that Jackaby is a “seer” with an affinity for tortured souls and dreaded creatures, and that Abigail notices things that others don’t.

An early scene in Ritter’s first book, for example, finds them following the cries of an ancient Irish banshee who foretells the death of a neighbor.

Ritter, 32, was living in Japan with his wife and young son when “Jackaby” was picked up by a New York literary agent.

“I’m more like Abigail Rook, and she’s like Jackaby,” Ritter said by phone from Springfield.

“I followed my wife to Japan, and we all lived near the Army base in Okinawa. Every evening the loudspeakers near us chimed with a little bell. The voice on the loudspeaker told the kids that they should leave the park and go home so the little spirits could come out and play. All of this mythology surrounded us.”

Fables like these fed Ritter’s imagination, and he wrote a story not originally intended as a novel.

“It was just a story. I was writing for fun while we were there but my wife encouraged me to put it out there,” he says. “I researched and studied publishing and got over my fear and decided to query a different editor every month. Two weeks in I got my first request for a full book from an agent named Lucy Carson.”

Carson was very enthusiastic and gave Ritter a few suggestions, and then placed the book into the hands of some editors and took it to auction. As a debut author Ritter had many people chiming in with suggestions, he says. “Elise Howard from Algonquin was my favorite and she brought ‘Jackaby’ a whole lot further along.”

Springfield might seem like an unlikely place to nurture a taste for fantastic supernatural fiction set in the late 1800s. His blog credits his parents, who read aloud to him as a child. “They always did the voices,” Ritter says.

When he isn’t writing books, Ritter works as a high school teacher in creative writing, general sophomore literature, and mythology.

“This summer I’m taking over a creative writing course. When I have various book events it eats up my days off,” he says.

But the school supports his growing career and makes him a better teacher, he says. “I get to go off to book events and bring that world back to my students.”

Ritter is also the father of two boys, ages 10 and 6. Is there more “Jackaby” to come?

“I have a fourth one I’m working on that is intended as the final,” he says. “I’ve always got things I’m kicking around. There are a few different stories from before I sold ‘Jackaby.’ And I’m contributing to an anthology (‘Welcome Home’) about adoption by Eric Smith.

“The target audience for my books is young adults, so that’s late middle or high school students. A lot of my readers are YA and I’ve got that lucky combination that I struck on. The supernatural/Sherlock combo. When I was writing ‘Jackaby,’ the BBC series ‘Sherlock’ (starring Benedict Cumberbatch) was coming out and I thought ‘Oh no, it’s going to look like I stole that thing with the hat!’”

Jackaby’s sidekick Abigail Rook is at least as interesting as Jackaby. I asked Ritter if she ever gets the little notebook she wishes for in the first book.

“You’ll have to finish the book,” he says. “She’s my hero, she’s the one starting out from humble beginnings. In earlier drafts she was a young man named John, kind of written like the invisible narrator in Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood,’ and it turned out that was really, really boring in this case. So it was suggested that maybe it’d be more interesting to change the gender and make him Abigail. At first I thought it was too much, but when I did it the relationship dynamics changed.”

Ritter did a thorough rewrite, bringing out even more specific elements of 19th-century culture.

“When you’re a female character overcoming monsters and social stigma and expectations ... well, that’s evolved!”

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