His Dark Materials

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The air in Geoffrey Girard’s homeroom smells like burnt toast. This rainy October day, the window blinds are askew and the walls are adorned, as they always are, with fantasy posters, faux shrunken heads, assorted popsicle-stick and papier-mâché sculptures, the obligatory statue of the Virgin Mary, pirate ships, dragons, and trophies. Quite comfortable in the eclectic decor, roughly 20 boys stand quietly, hands over their hearts, just long enough to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and morning prayer; on the word “Amen,” the room erupts into a model of contained chaos. One boy removes an English muffin from a toaster oven in the back of the room and squeezes butter onto it from a paper Dixie cup. Another fishes a crumpled paper out of the garbage can and smooths it out, then hands it in. Still others hover patiently near Girard’s desk at the back, clutching sketchbooks and speeches for his opinions and approval.

As the day goes on, more students will filter in and out of Girard’s room at Archbishop Moeller High School, mostly for English classes. Some will bake quesadillas in the toaster oven; others will give elaborate excuses for not handing in their homework. Only once will Girard run his hands through his hair and utter an exasperated sigh; within a nanosecond he is back on task, directing students to “use your brains” and “look me in the eyes and hand me something you’re proud of” as they turn in papers.

On the surface, Girard sounds like a typical boys’ high school teacher…except that he’s not. A few days prior, he was chatting up fellow authors and autographing novels at Books by the Banks. And a few weeks before that, Girard was killing it at a packed book signing at Joseph-Beth Booksellers (OK, he did offer extra credit to students for attending). There, in under half an hour, Girard not only told his life’s story (nine minutes), he also gave a brief history of cloning (seven minutes), touched on the psychology of war (one minute), answered 10 questions from the audience, and successfully mocked the Twilight books, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, and even himself.

“OK, breathe!” he commanded at one point. “Are we interested? Is this good?” The audience cheered and Girard pressed on.

Six feet tall with an intense, blue-eyed stare, a thick mane of wavy chestnut hair that hovers between his chin and shoulders, and a neatly trimmed beard and mustache, 46-year-old Geoffrey Girard may not look the part but he is, in fact, the literary equivalent of Clark Kent and Superman. The same man who teaches Shakespeare and Arthur Miller to teenage boys by day has also published not one but two debut novels with one of the nation’s largest publishing houses.

Cain’s Blood and its YA companion book Project Cain (YA is publishing slang for “young adult,” targeting readers ages 12 to 18) hit bookshelves this past September. The novels are “simultaneous versions of the same story, aimed at two different markets,” says Girard’s adult-book agent, Peter McGuigan, co-owner of Foundry Literary & Media. In both novels, a pack of teenage human science experiments—all clones of infamous, real-life serial killers (think Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, the Boston Strangler)—have been released from captivity and are roaming the country, committing heinous crimes. The adult novel is told from multiple points of view, focusing mainly on Shawn Castillo, a former black-ops soldier who tracks, and ultimately hopes to stop, the clones; the YA version is told from the point of view of one of Jeffrey Dahmer’s teenage clones, who ends up helping Castillo.

The idea for the books came out of a discussion in one of Girard’s journalism classes at Moeller. “My students got on the subject of serial killers one day—how or why, I don’t remember, but I’m willing to let such conversations go on,” he says. Spurred by his students’ morbid curiosity, Girard went home that day and “dusted off” an old story he’d written about clone serial killers called “Cain XP11”; in 2007, Apex Science Fiction and Horror Digest published the story as a novella in four parts. Praising both Girard’s characterizations and his narrative, Apex owner Jason Sizemore especially liked the story because “the action really moves along. I would almost call it a cinematic style of writing.”

Fueled by the novella’s success, Girard reworked it into a YA novel and submitted it to Foundry in the spring of 2011. Usually such manuscripts sit in a slush pile of unsolicited submissions, which mostly go unread; because he had been published before, though, Girard says, “they got back to me in a day.”

The agents saw promise but asked Girard to rewrite the book as an adult novel and by October he had obliged. Then, in the same breath, they signed him on as a client and asked him to rewrite the story one more time as a YA novel, but from a different point of view. “It tells you a lot about Geoffrey Girard that he didn’t miss a beat,” says McGuigan. “He’s one of the only writers crazy enough to take us up on this idea.”

The next challenge for McGuigan and Stephen Barbara—Girard’s YA agent—was marketing both versions of the book; they wanted to try and sign them at the same time with the same publishing house, something “no one [had] ever done before,” says McGuigan. It didn’t help that reactions to the books were “not neutral,” says Barbara. “My favorite e-mail from an editor was a one-liner saying: ‘Y’all are sickos,’ followed by three exclamation points.” The agents were elated when, in the spring of 2012, Simon & Schuster scooped up both books.

And where was Girard while all of this was going on? “It’s funny,” he says, pointing toward his back, “I was getting a music tattoo when the initial phone call came from Simon & Schuster. Swear to God!” It turns out that this Catholic school-teacher-slash-fantasy-writer also plays guitar and keyboards, and did so for many years in local rock bands. “I gave that up just when I started doing the Cain books,” says Girard, who also notes that he purposely bought his Jeep then, too, because it did not have enough room to store his band gear.

“The point of the tattoo, was [that] the music’s done, I’m gonna focus on being a writer now,” he says. He saw the timing as something more than coincidence: “That was the Universe sort of saying, ‘Yes, yes, yes!’”

Add up the hair, the Jeep, the band, the tattoo, the book deal, and the day job at Moeller, and you begin to understand that Girard is a study in contrasts. He is somehow refined yet coarse, literary yet rugged, dark yet light, and introverted yet outgoing all at once. And then there’s his energy, an almost tangible substance bubbling at all times just beneath the surface. He rearranges desks constantly as he lectures, erases the board with his fist when he’s in a hurry (often leaving himself covered in chalk dust), and fiddles with small objects when he talks. He can be so intense and so passionate about both his writing and his teaching that it sometimes seems as if pure electricity itself is coursing through his veins. Add to that a Dennis Miller-esque quick wit and a very “tempered” south New Jersey accent and you have a real-life character who could fit easily into one of his own books.

The passion that drives Girard to do all that he does is very real, but that edgy, high-strung, quasi-comedian who spoke at Joseph-Beth is “an act,” he says. He admits to being more comfortable in front of large crowds than talking one-on-one. He developed the extroverted persona as a child in New Jersey: “Little reader Geoff when he was in elementary school was—put it this way, I saw some counselors as a young lad,” he says. “I was too quiet. I was perfectly fine with a book.” His parents worried that he didn’t have enough friends; when they asked school psychologists to look out for him, Girard, the self-described “ever-watching future writer,” trained himself to develop a more extroverted public persona. “I can be outgoing just enough to not be weird,” he says, “but at the end of the day, I’m very much the writer type.”

Growing up, Girard’s father was a college professor and his mother a college-educated homemaker; he also has a sister. His self-described “middle class” New Jersey upbringing included Boy Scout campouts and spending much of his free time devouring science fiction and horror books (J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was, at age 10, his first literary love).

After reading The Shining at age 13, “a horror writer was born,” he says.  “I wasn’t allowed to see the movie, so I asked my mom if I could buy the novel and she foolishly said yes.” By the time he hit sixth grade, his fellow classmates were already predicting that he’d end up being a teacher and a writer. His first story, composed on a typewriter, was “about a kid who turns into Santa Claus and fights demons.” By his own account he fared well in creative writing contests in high school but by the time he headed to Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, he had discovered that “there are better things to do in college than write short stories” (insert a coy smile here). He stopped writing for a while, he says, though he still managed to graduate with a degree in English Lit.

Girard came to Cincinnati in 1991, trailing a girlfriend who’d landed a job at P&G, “with, like, $1,000 in my pocket and a car full of crap—the way you’re supposed to at 22.” Though he intended to find a teaching job, he landed a role in customer service at Cincinnati Bell instead (“A college degree English major at $6.50 an hour!”). This very ordinary-sounding job changed his life. Not only did he meet his future wife there (the P&G girlfriend moved back to the East Coast); he also met Barbara Pinzka.

Pinzka, a local PR guru who managed Pete Rose’s publicity “the year after he was kicked out of baseball,” she says, was Cincinnati Bell’s Director of Advertising when Girard met her in 1992; she promoted him from customer service into her department, to write sales and promotion literature. “I applied for that because I was an English major,” he says. “I always tell the students this at school: She was like, ‘I can teach you the business stuff, I can’t teach you how to write.’”

Even with the right foundation, Girard “was quite undisciplined in his writing” at first, Pinzka recalls. “He was like a shooting star. He had a lot of ambition and drive and ideas coming every other second, but it took him a while to focus on one idea and then bring out what was best about that idea.” She taught him the painstaking process of writing airtight copy on demand—a PR writer’s mainstay.

Initially, Girard resisted Pinzka’s attempts to corral his freewheeling style. “I was like: ‘Ooo—I’m a creative writer,’” says Girard, wiggling his fingers like a magician. “But all of a sudden, I had to fit this target audience, this space. My proofreading skills went through the roof, my clarity of language [too]. That’s where I learned to actually give a crap about every single word, every single sentence—to make it count. She was probably, from a writing point of view, the strongest mentor I’ve ever had.”

Armed with Pinzka’s imparted knowledge, Girard left Cincinnati Bell in 1994 and spent the next nine years doing “marketing type things” at places like Great American Insurance and The National Underwriter Company.

Girard was writing so much at work that, for the most part, “I had my excuse not to write” at night and on weekends. The true “spark” that nudged him toward publication was “complete and utter jealousy,” he says. “A Cincinnati writer I knew got into Writers of the Future, which is a pretty big deal—an international contest for sci-fi, fantasy, and speculative fiction. It pissed me off.” In response, Girard sat down and wrote a short story called “Dark Harvest” in one week flat, then submitted it to Writers of the Future. “It was 10 years of artistic angst that I spilled onto the story in a week, and I sent it in, and the damn thing won third place!”

“Nine hundred and ninety-nine out of 1,000 of us could never write a story good enough to win,” says Jason Sizemore, the owner of Apex Publications. “It’s just crazy.”

Girard lapped up every moment of the prize trip to Beverly Hills where he and a handful of other winners engaged in a week of writing exercises, business seminars, and an extravagant black tie banquet. “After that I came home and I’m like: ‘I’m gonna be a writer—this is it!’”  

By now, it was 2003. After his contest experience, Girard had a difficult time
settling back into corporate life. He was in his mid-30s, and facing a massive “early mid-life crisis.” He had “a fancy title, a nice office with a big window, and people worked for me,” he says. “I was friggin miserable. I hated it.” He and his wife agreed that he should look back into teaching; within the year, he was taking classes at Xavier University to renew his teaching license.

While there, Girard met Mike Moroski—“the only other long-haired, bearded guy in the class,” and at that point a teacher at Moeller. Moroski—who eventually went on to teach at Purcell Marian, then ran unsuccessfully for city council last fall—asked for Girard’s résumé and “within three weeks, I had a job at Moeller.” Once again, “the universe was in approval of my plan,” Girard says. He has taught there ever since, and was promoted to Chair of Moeller’s English Department in 2011.

Almost as soon as he began teaching, Girard entered into a prolific phase of writing. Between 2005 and 2010, he published 14 stand-alone short stories (mostly science fiction and horror, including “Cain XP11”) and four books. He pitched and sold the first book, Tales of the Jersey Devil (a collection of stories about the state’s legendary monster—“it’s like a kangaroo with a horse face and wings,” he says), to a small New Jersey publishing house called Middle Atlantic Press; he went on to publish two more compilations with Middle Atlantic, followed by a retelling of The Iliad with Purun Media in 2007. By 2011, he had secured Barbara and McGuigan as agents and was busy working on the Cain books.

Hands down, Girard will tell you that his “favorite part of writing is research.” Sizemore explains: “Some people write because they feel like they have stories to tell. Geoffrey writes because it’s a means of improving his craft and adding knowledge—he’s all about learning stuff.”

And sharing what he knows. Which is where being a teacher helps. Every chance he gets, Girard diverts conversation away from himself and onto interesting topics he has researched: sociopaths, U.S. spending on weapons, man-made black holes—the list goes on. It’s no small coincidence that many of Girard’s interests fall under “conspiracy theory.”

“He is capable of imagining these nightmare scenarios, but it doesn’t extend to where he’s basing his life around it,” says Barbara. “At the end of the day he is an accessible, ordinary guy. He’s not living out in the middle of the desert defying the government.”

“Some conspiracy lovers are really no fun to hang around with, but Geoffrey is a blast,” says McGuigan.

But make no mistake: Girard really thinks about this stuff. A lot. “Geoffrey is an insanely private person,” says Sizemore; he guards details of his personal life zealously (electing not to release the names of his wife or two children), and is “very selective on who his friends are. He has to trust you before he opens up to you.”

There is a place where you can find a less guarded Girard, and that’s standing in front of a classroom full of teenage boys at Moeller. There, in what McGuigan calls a hub of masculine energy and drive, the wired, sharp-tongued author steps back to reveal another side of himself: the passionate bibliophile and mentor. His lectures, given in front of an old-fashioned chalkboard surrounded by black-and-white stills of famous authors, are more like intense literary conversations. He allows, even encourages, tangential discussions (case in point, the serial killer discussion that led to the Cain books) but as soon as he gives the word, “all butts are in their chairs,” says Girard, and the class is back on topic. He appears to find his students amusing. Perhaps, explains Moeller Principal Blane Collison, that’s because “Geoff understands where the adolescent male lives. He’s able to relate.”

On the day that Girard, who “loves school and loves being at school,” introduced the concept of tragedy to a roomful of seniors, he rattled off titles the class would be reading: Death of a Salesman, The Shining, The Great Santini, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He covered the requisite elements of a tragedy, discussed significant themes in several of Shakespeare’s works, and introduced the concept of a “fatal flaw,” asking students to consider whether Oedipus had any choice in his destiny. By class’s end, though, Girard had also somehow managed to inject South Park, The Godfather, and Full Metal Jacket into the discussion. “When in doubt,” he said at one point, “if there are a bunch of dead people at the end of a play, it’s a tragedy.”

Oversimplified? Perhaps, but Girard knows his audience: “You have to be able to talk their language and teach them yours,” he says. It’s a principle he’s adhered to since his student teaching days right out of college, when he witnessed a lost opportunity to connect during a discussion on The Great Gatsby. A student had an a-ha moment “comparing Julia Roberts’s character in Pretty Woman not kissing her johns to Daisy and Gatsby not holding hands,” Girard recalls, and the teacher had never seen the movie. “I mean, come on, you can’t get to a theater to see the top movie of the year?” He’s still upset about it to this day.

Students’ reactions to Girard are “all over the map,” says Collison. Historically, Moeller has been known citywide for its athletic prowess, though Girard, who coaches the chess team, disputes the “jock school” label. “I hate that,” he says. “There are so many other kids at Moeller.” Ask around and you will find that Moeller students generally respect Girard, calling him “very intelligent” and his classes “academically challenging.”

“He gives them some great things to ponder, things to really think deeply about,” says Collison. “He agitates them a little bit. Sometimes he can be a little provocative in terms of getting them to think for themselves.”

Collison sees Girard as a fantastic presence for students who might aspire to the writing life. “Kids who are serious about writing can really learn a lot from him,” he says. “On the surface [being a writer] appears to be really sexy or attractive, and yet it’s hard work. Geoff understands the publishing side so he can talk about, if you were really going to pursue a career in writing, what does that look like?”

The hardest thing to reconcile about Girard is the contrast between his day job—teaching at a Catholic school—and the very dark material he writes. In the Cain books alone, characters are violently abducted and raped, and murders are vividly, if often abstractly, described. When asked if Girard’s subject matter makes him nervous, Collison replies with a conciliatory, “Yeah, it does.” Though he quickly adds, “Geoff does a good job of knowing where that line is, and of always remembering that we are a Catholic school and so, thereby, we’re about hope. We’re about the light, and not the dark.”

Girard, who was raised as a Christian, is emphatic that “Moeller is not an antidote” to his dark leanings. Nonetheless, “I go to a school every day that talks about faith and spirituality. It forces me to think about a lot.” He says he was unaware just how much he thought about faith until the head of his thesis review committee (he earned a Master’s in Creative Writing from Miami University in 2013) pointed out that every story in his thesis project had a religious thread running through it. They were “completely different subjects, topics, and genres,” says Girard. “And all 11 at their core are fundamentally questions and explorations of faith.” It was “not on purpose,” he says, but it was also “very eye-opening.”

The struggle between light and dark is very much a part of who Geoffrey Girard is. He has always appreciated “very clear lines of good and bad” in literature, a fact he attributes to reading the likes of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Tolkien by the fourth grade. “So when I went out into the world where it’s more gray, it’s not so easily drawn, it threw me off a little bit,” he says. “I always come away a little disappointed with the real world, and because of that, things lean dark. [But] I want the good guys to win.”

“Some people see the glass half empty or half full,” he notes, but a student once told him: “Girard, you see the glass shattered and like, the milk spilled all over the table.”

Girard is humble about his recent success. “It was a good year,” he says of the financial rewards of big-time publishing. “And hopefully I’ll have another good year sometime soon. But I also have two kids who are going off to college and I know a lot of writers who are worried about paying their bills—I don’t want to be that guy. Dude, I’m old school. I like having a full-time, steady gig.” Then again, he says, “If I write the next Da Vinci Code, you’ll never hear from me again, nor will I ever write another book. I’ll be gone. I’ll be Salinger.”

In an age of instant communication, the pressure to produce books in quick succession is enormous. A Cain sequel is “a possibility”; Girard already has it planned out. But a few months after the original Cain books were published, after scores of phone, radio, blog, and print interviews, weekend road trips to book signings and other events promoting the Cain novels, Girard admits that he had to ratchet his intensity level down a few notches. “Writer Geoff was taking over,” said a more subdued Girard in mid-November. “I’m still a teacher and a husband and father. The writing is icing.” Girard chose to step back from that frenetic pace and is taking his time to research his next projects—an adult novel about eugenics and a YA book about 9/11. “It may take three years” to write them, he says. “It may take one year.”

Either way, he’s OK with that. He can afford to be. Project Cain has gone into a second printing and Cain’s Blood “is attracting foreign attention with deals notched in Germany and Turkey,” says Barbara, his agent. Girard’s still doing radio interviews for the Jersey Devil book that he published eight years ago, and sometimes he even dreams of going back to school to earn a Master’s of Fine Arts degree. And then there are all of those boys—the students who constantly seem to be lined up beside his classroom desk, looking for the guidance and approval of a teacher whom they admire.

Girard credits “the Universe” with giving him clear signs, so it will be interesting to see where it leads him next. “For even the very wise,” Tolkien wrote in The Fellowship of the Ring, “cannot see all ends.” Whatever his future holds, one thing’s certain: Geoffrey Girard is not finished. He’s only taking a breath.  

Originally published in the February 2014 issue.

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