Even though Antoinette Zam has written a book, she doesn’t think of herself as a writer.
“I’m not a writer, but I like to tell stories,” Zam said. “I was raised in an Italian family and there were always lots of stories around the table.”
And after decades of hearing people tell her she should write a few of these ideas down, Zam listened. It started, like writing often does, with a few notes that turn into pages that turn into chapters. And after 11 years, she had a book.
That’s actually one of the first things Zam will tell you about Scarred by Death, her debut novel that was recently published by Page Press—that it really did take her 11 years from inspiration to having her book out in the world.
Zam, 71, will also tell you how good it was to hear that one of her favorite writers, John Grisham, once said it took him 10 years to finish one of his novels.
“I felt vindicated when I heard that,” she said.
Although Zam’s decade-long odyssey through the written word was not one set upon by endless hardships, it did involve the death of her mother coupled with the loss of a job—she worked for 32 years in the banking industry.
“My mother was my biggest inspiration,” she said. She had, however, become sick, and Zam helped take care of her. Just before she died, “mom put her hand on mine and said, ‘Honey, I think you should write a book,’” she said.
And just after her mother died, Zam was downsized during the recession. She was given a buyout and took the year-and-a-half salary and figured “now’s the time” to listen to mom, and to everybody else who said she needed to get her ideas on paper.
So she sat down and wrote and, with the help of her oldest granddaughter, who acted has her ongoing editor, she chipped away at her first book.
“There was a lot of back-and-forth, back-and-forth,” she said.
But again, Zam wasn’t being the starving artist sort. She belongs to several volunteer groups; golfs with her husband; spends time with their four children and seven grandchildren; and generally stays really, really busy. She wrote when it worked into her schedule.
“Friends would say to me, ‘When do you write?’” she said. “When it’s a rainy day or I have nothing to do.”
But that didn’t mean she always believed it would all work out.
“There were times I gave up,” she said. “But then I thought, ‘I just can’t.’ I’d hear a voice that said ‘keep going.’ I felt it was my mother.”
She also got a lot of early feedback from Arnold, who owns Conveyance Mortgage, which is located on Route 1 in Overlook Center in West Windsor.
He often works out of their house in Princeton Junction and would often suggest she change things as he, piecemeal, read through the book.
Eventually, he stopped doing that, though he later, on vacation, took the loose pages she’d written and gave it a read. And from then on, he made sure she kept going.
He became her de facto agent of sorts.
“I thought it would just be stupid if [the book] was written and thrown in a closet or something,” he said.
He said he told her that once it was finished, he’d start looking for a publisher, “and if it went nowhere, it went nowhere,” but he had to try.
Zam contacted a few publishers, some big, some not so big, to hear them out.
New York-based Page Publishing had the best approach for the book, he said. The company would help promote the book as long as Zam did her share of trying to get the word out too.
So far, they both said, the company has lived up to its end of the deal, and the feedback is coming in pretty strong.
The story itself is one Zam says requires a bit of age and experience in life to really appreciate.
As a title like Scarred by Death might suggest, it’s not necessarily a lark of a story. Death stalks the characters, she says, in how it follows family members around and, in some cases, guts members of a family.
And it would be easy to think that this story was inspired by Zam’s mother’s death. It actually was inspired by her daughter, Denise, when Zam and Arnold decided they would be married and living together.
This was about 34 years ago, when they moved from Bayside, New York, to West Windsor Township. Both were freshly divorced, with children, Her daughter was about 14 at the time, and Zam spoke with her ex-husband—the two remain amicable—who asked if Denise was okay with the idea of having a whole new adult guy in the house.
“She was okay,” Zam said. “But she was scared. I created the story from that one statement.”
For the record, Denise and Arnold got along fine then and get along fine now. But those jitters about the unknown propelled a story about fear that Zam wrote in her head while she drove, while she showered, and while she was drifting off to sleep.
One of the things she likes best about having the book finished is the character of Allison—who’s proven to be surprisingly disliked.
“I thought people would see why she was the way she was,” Zam said. “But they don’t like her.”
Allison, Zam admits, is not exactly a warm blanket. But as one of the main characters in the book, she proved to be the one people kept reading for. Readers disliked her so much, Zam said, that they kept turning the page to see when she would get hers.
“A guy I’ve known for years told me, ‘Boy, I really don’t like the Allison character,’” she said.
Zam actually set out to elicit empathy. Allison’s mother gave her no love, Zam said, so Allison in turn had no idea how to give it herself. Arnold didn’t like Allison either, but he did come to feel sorry for her.
And this, Zam said, is great. People reacted to a fictional character with actual disgust, as if Allison were a real person.
It’s one of the parts of the writing process that surprised Zam—how what you set out to do and what actually happens are not always the same thing.
“It’s so funny how they see it so different than I saw it,” she said. “But if that’s what they take away from that, it’s not bothering me.”
It actually did bother her a little, at first. She thought she might have done something wrong, or just didn’t write a good character. Fortunately for her future writing endeavors, Zam realized that there’s a difference between a character people don’t like and a badly written character.
She also learned not to be so wordy, the way she was in her first draft. But as with all writers who get through that first novel—with all its wordiness and self-doubt and characters that mean nothing, and the bloat in the details— Zam is finding her second outing to be much more straightforward.
She is working on a second novel that began while she was still working through Scarred by Death.
The new one, which has taken her about two years, is called The Palm Reader, and is a completely different story in most ways. It’s about four college friends’ lives after college is over. This novel, she said, is probably going to be more accessible to younger readers than a book on the tragedy of death has been.
Zam doesn’t have a publisher lined up for The Palm Reader yet, but they’re working on it. She’s also starting in on a third book that she said will be nothing like the first two. She won’t say much about that one—only that she needs to speak to a detective to see how the story should play out.
And yes, after all this writing, Zam still doesn’t see herself as a writer. The thing about that, though, is that for her, that’s great. “I’m not a writer, I just went with my gut,” she said. “My thing is the storytelling.”