Sometimes, when all you really want is to start a zombie apocalypse, almost-murder gets in the way.
Just ask Ernestine. She’s a 12-year-old dynamo determined to set that apocalypse into motion, both to unite the living population against the undead and for sheer fun. But her plans are interrupted when she tries to solve the attempted murder of her landlady at MacGillicuddie House for Retired Artists, a wacky art colony full of colorful geriatric suspects.
Ernestine’s escapades can be followed in Merrill Wyatt’s first novel, “Ernestine, Catastrophe Queen,” due to be published in August of 2018 by Jimmy Patterson Books, a subsidiary of Little, Brown and Co. Geared toward middle school-aged children, the book is the culmination of a dream Wyatt has carried inside since high school.
A Wauseon native and Springfield Middle School teacher, Wyatt’s quest to be published wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. The 1992 Wauseon High School graduate, formerly known as Amy Merrill, endured constant rejection while simply trying to secure an agent.
“I got a lot of ‘Thank you for your submission,’” Wyatt said. “They were nicely worded rejections. I got discouraged, and stopped trying. I reached a point where I thought I had pushed it as far as it would go.”
She caught the attention of the agent who finally accepted her, Heather Flaherty of the Bent Agency in New York City, only because her husband Sean kept pursuing agents after Wyatt had given up.
Her spirits lifted, but then Wyatt was subjected to the harsh reality of trying to get published. Even with Flaherty hawking her manuscript the rejection continued, this time from editors who weren’t interested. Wyatt knew it was only business, but each door closed in her face shook her confidence.
“When an editor didn’t like my book, I ate a lot of chocolate,” she said. “Even when your brain understands the reasons, and knows it not personal, emotionally it’s hard not to feel that way. It still hurts to know other editors didn’t want it.”
Wyatt’s book was turned down by over a dozen publishers before her agent was contacted by Jenny Bak, the editorial director for Jimmy Patterson Books. Bak made an offer last August.
“She absolutely loved the main character of Ernestine, that she’s a take-charge kind of girl with a sense of humor,” Wyatt said.
The author’s reaction to the good news was typical. “There was probably some screaming involved, and there was a lot of jumping up and down. And informing complete strangers,” she said wryly.
Her ambition to write began in high school, and resulted in winning the 4-H Ohio State creative writing contest between sophomore and junior year, the WHS Freedom Shrine speech contest junior year, and the statewide “Voice of Democracy” essay contest senior year.
She went on to earn a Business Administration degree from Ohio State University, and took a job with the U.S. Department of Commerce in Washington, D.C. After two years, Wyatt returned to school for a Master’s degree in English from the University of Toledo, followed by a Business Education degree from Bowling Green State University.
While earning her Master’s degree she freelanced for Toledo City Paper and Bend of the River Magazine. Since 2004, she has taught computer courses and Business Foundation in the Springfield Local Schools district.
Through it all, Wyatt’s appetite for writing never waned. She had an article published in the University of Toledo alumni magazine and a short story accepted for the 2009 publication, “Chicken Soup for the Cat Lover’s Soul.”
She switched to writing book-length fiction rather than short stories. “It took time and practice, and I started writing the kinds of stories I wanted to write,” she said.
Wyatt’s inspiration for “Ernestine, Catastrophe Queen,” which she calls “an almost murder mystery and an almost zombie apocalypse story,” came in part from her middle school students.
“If you listen to them talk, they all have a plan for surviving the zombie apocalypse, and some of them aren’t too bad,” she said. “They’re very enthusiastic.”
The story’s physical settings were inspired by the historic mansions located in the Old West End section of Toledo, and by the city’s Woodlawn Cemetery. All have been the subject of public tours.
Wyatt also admits to getting inspiration from her favorite zombie movie, the 1968 black-and-white cult classic, “Night of the Living Dead,” but said her book “takes a new, fun twist” on the current zombie craze.
She said the initial writing process is easy, but plotting the story is her greatest challenge. “You have to focus on the mechanics and getting everything as perfect as possible,” she said.
Wyatt jokingly refers to her literary output in the midst of having a career and family life as “ninja writing – you strike whenever you get the chance.” She hopes to be able to write full-time in a few years.
Bak said Wyatt’s voice in creating Ernestine felt fresh and original.
“I haven’t seen a manuscript like that come across my desk in awhile. I was just drawn to her,” she said.
“Merrill created a character that is just clever, bold, and intelligent. I just like that Ernestine is a great role model for girls this age. I felt like we needed more characters these days that girls can emulate, that can inspire girls and show them they shouldn’t be afraid to go for what they want.”
Citing the popularity of the current Wonder Woman movie, Bak added, “Ernestine is kind of a superhero in her own right, in the way girls can achieve for themselves.”
As for being a published author, “I always thought that if I worked hard enough at it, it would happen,” Wyatt said. “I definitely believe it’s a lot about persevering despite a lot of rejection and disappointment. and then learning from it.”
A second Ernestine book has been written but has yet to receive offers. Meanwhile, Wyatt is working with her agent to produce a different type of novel.
She said aspiring writers must not get discouraged.
“Constantly write, and constantly try to be a better writer. But whatever you do, don’t give up,” she said.
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.