SPOKANE, Wash. — Many towns and cities have legends — people or places that carry a story of an incident involving something strange, inexplicable or tragic, including murder. Ian Pisarcik, a New Hartford native, recently released his first novel, “Before Familiar Woods” that was inspired by his hometown’s own legend. The book was released in February by Crooked Lane Books.
Pisarcik is an attorney who now lives in Spokane, Wash., with his wife, Sarah Arpian, a psychology professor at a local university, and their 6-month-old daughter, Aoife. He always enjoyed writing, but didn’t really consider it as a second career until 2009, when he was completing his last year of law school, he said.
“In 2009 I was just really into working on writing stories,” Piscarcik said. “I found myself trying to finish up my studies so I could stay up and do my own writing.”
Developing the novel took many years. “The seed for the story of ‘Before Familiar Woods’ involves New Hartford,” he said. “I grew up on Steele Road and Jones Mountain was behind my house. I spent a lot of time at the library; we were a rural town, and we didn’t have a bookstore. The library was so important to me at that time.”
The legend he heard claimed that two boys were found dead in a tent in the woods near the mountain. “That’s all I ever heard, that it happened at Jones Mountain. So I went ahead and wrote this book about these two boys, who were found in a tent with human bite marks on them.”
“I researched this legend, and it was based on the Steven Asherman case,” Pisarcik said. “In 1978, two medical students went camping on Jones Mountain, and one ended up dead and covered with human bite marks. The survivor, Steven Asherman, winds up at someone’s house, all confused, and said he couldn’t find his friend.”
The case was enthusiastically covered by newspapers and television. Asherman was found guilty of his friend’s murder. He was released after serving 14 years , according to stories published in the Register Citizen, the New York Times and the Hartford Courant in 1978, 1979 and 1992.
“So there was some real history behind the story I did,” Pisarcik said. “It’s an interesting story in its own right, because it was one of the first cases to use bite mark technology against Steven Asherman. It was found later that the technique was not (considered) legitimate, and there were a lot of errors in the investigation. He was released on technicalities, and there was some protest about his release at the time.”
Pisarcik’s story is fiction, he said, but the legend of the two boys always stuck in his mind. “When we were kids, people used to say, ‘Don’t go up there, the ghosts of the boys are up there.’”
The book tells a timely story. A review from Publisher’s Weekly said, “Pisarcik’s outstanding debut begins in the aftermath of a tragedy. Three years after teenagers Mathew Fenn and William Downing died in a burst of violence triggered by heroin and fentanyl, Matthew’s mother, Ruth, remains shunned by the townsfolk of North Falls, Vermont. Though everyone in the dying town at least ignores the flood of illegal drugs, Ruth is slowly coming to terms with the fact that she deserves personal blame; she should have done more to protect her son. Meanwhile, she meets Milk Raymond, an alienated Iraq War vet who’s trying to figure out how to be a father to his son, Daniel, who has been traumatized by his mother’s addiction. Then Ruth’s husband vanishes, along with William’s father. And so Ruth is forced into an awkward, tentative, altogether convincing investigation. Familiar landscapes become quietly ominous as the characters set about doing what they have to do. The action builds toward a devastating yet hopeful conclusion. Pisarcik is a writer to watch.”
Pisarcik always enjoyed writing, and was encouraged in school as a young man. He attended Ann Antolini School, Pine Meadow /New Hartford Elementary, then went on to Northwest Region 7.
The main character, Ruth Fenn, is a potter who takes in troubled children and teaches them art for free. “She helps some of poorer families,” he said. “While this character is certanily not based specifically on someone, I had an art teacher at Pine Meadow, Ann Raymond, and her husband was a potter. I used to walk over to her studio and take lessons. Ann was very kind and talented, and she did a lot of artwork for the community.”
He recalled being told to write a story in second grade, and “I got really carried away with it,” he said. “Eventually I wrote so many pages that my teacher took it home, typed it up and gave it to me. I have it up in my office right now. So the interest was always there.
“I also read a lot,” he said. “My mother would drop me off at what was then the New Hartford Library and there was a nice chair; I’d just sit there for hours with a stack of books.”
Pisarcik graduated from Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., then attended law school at the University of Pittsburgh. After law school, he moved to Portland, Ore., and took a job representing children in the foster care system. Eventually he met Sarah, a grad student at Portland State University. “She grew up in Spokane,” he said. “After grad school, she was offered a job at a local university, we decided to move to Spokane to start a family.”
His parents, Jerry and Cathy Pisarcik, recently relocated from New Hartford to Spokane; he also has a sister, Tania Pisarcik. “My father grew up in New Hartford,” he said. “My grandfather, John Pisarcik, was a barber in town.”
After his agent, Robert Steele of New York City, found a publisher, Pisarcik went through the somewhat grueling task of editing, cover design and publicizing the book.
“I was pretty fortunate, really,” Pisarcik said. “I’ve heard horror stories about writers having to do things like eliminate characters, but my edits were relatively minor. The story started out with three points of view, and the editor suggested removing one — that was painful. I pushed back a little, then took a couple days to think about it and decided the editor was probably right.
“Since they’re often right, I realize now that it was a good thing to do,” he said. “Editors have the adequate distance to say, ‘This is taking away from the story,’ and that can make a difference.”
So far the book is doing well. “I’ve gotten some great reviews, which has been really nice,” Pisarcik said. “People have emailed me on my website, and say they’ve really connected with the book.
“The pandemic is affecting the publishing world in general,” he said. “Amazon’s not shipping books until April, so it’s a real mess. But independent bookstores are allowing online orders, that’s been doing well. And while bookstores are closed, people are stuck at home, and they need something to do, so they’re reading.”
Pisarcik is working on another novel. “I’m in the second draft of my second one, but probably a long way away from sending it out,” he said. “I’m hoping to have it in my agent’s hands by next spring.”
And while his debut as an author is going well, he’s not giving up his day job anytime soon.
“I do litigation and write law articles for a local firm, so my day job is writing, and my other job is writing,” he said. “That would certainly be a dream, to write full time.”