BROOKSVILLE — Steph Post has apologized to her chickens for Miraculum.
Post's fourth novel, which was published Jan. 22, is set in 1922 and follows the members of a traveling circus called Pontilliar's Spectacular Star Light Miraculum. One of its main characters, the elegantly sinister Daniel Revont, joins the sideshow as a "glomming geek." The highlight of his act is biting the heads off live chickens. He is not, however, what he seems.
Post, 36, sits talking about the new book on her front porch, in view of a spacious coop occupied by 24 lively chickens, black and white and golden and blue and speckled.
"When I was writing Miraculum I didn't have chickens," she notes. Now, she says, her flock is "literally the light of my life," their portraits appearing on social media with hashtags like #yourmorningchicken.
She didn't move a year ago from St. Petersburg to Brooksville just so she could have chickens. Down an unpaved road that meanders under oaks and slash pines is the house where she lives with her husband, Ryan Holt, three dogs (Hatchet, Juno and 17-year-old Vito) and the yardbirds. Upstairs is a writer's haven, a big, sunny office.
"I just go up in my room and lock the door."
With a new book that is getting lots of national buzz, though, Post is out and about. She launched Miraculum with two readings at New York City bookstores this week, and on Jan. 27 she will appear at Inkwood Books in Tampa with fellow writers Arin Greenwood and Jeff Hess.
She has amped up her social media presence, which includes a busy book blog featuring interviews with other authors and reviews. Post, whose arms are sleeved with tattoos, jokes that she tells fans she got the ink as research for Miraculum — its main character, Ruby Chole, performs as a snake charmer called Esmeralda the Enchantress, but she is secretly a failed tattooed lady.
"Her markings were crude, the designs nonsensical," Post writes of Ruby. "There was no way she could compete with women who had the Last Supper emblazoned across their chests in full color."
Post has made a series of intriguing paintings that reflect themes and characters in the novel, posting them online. She wants marketing the book "to tie in a lot of things in Miraculum that are outside the story. I want to take the reader behind the scenes. I love it when writers and artists and musicians show us what's going on in their heads when they're creating."
She enjoys interacting with fans, online and in person.
"I've learned more from my readers than from any teachers. If you don't care what your readers think, why write it down?"
Miraculum is her first foray into the fantasy genre, with a Southern gothic accent; her last two novels were considered crime fiction.
"I'm an accidental crime writer," she says. "My first book, A Tree Born Crooked, wasn't necessarily a crime book. When I was shopping Lightwood, it ended up with a publisher who did a lot of crime fiction."
That book and Walk in the Fire form two-thirds of a trilogy about Judah Cannon, an ex-con trying to escape his criminal past. The third book, Holding Smoke, is written but not yet set to be published, Post says.
She appreciates being part of the crime-writing community.
"Crime writers are the most amazing people I've ever met. People like Michael Connelly have supported me at this. Miraculum is not a crime novel, but the crime community has really supported it."
Post's first three books were set in Florida, her home turf.
"I'm Florida born and bred. My mom, my mom's mom, we go back generations in North Florida." Until she was 10 her family lived in St. Augustine, "right across the street from the alligator farm. The gators used to escape."
Then they moved to "25 acres of swampland in the middle of nowhere," in St. John's County. She left to attend Davidson College and the University of North Carolina Wilmington. "I became a great bartender with my expensive English degree," she says. Eventually, she pursued teaching and spent seven years as a writing coach at Blake High School in Tampa. "I loved it," she says. "I miss it."
She had always been a storyteller, the kid who got shushed during road trips for spinning tales from the back seat. She wrote "a book-ish" while she was a bartender, but what made her think she could publish a book someday was Stephen King's book On Writing.
"What he did was show me that it's a job. I always thought writers were these rich people who went to Europe, like Henry James, and that writing was a thing that fell upon you like a golden light, and you'd be having magical feelings springing from your forehead like Athena."
Five years ago, Post was grading student papers at home one evening and grousing about it.
"Ryan was sitting on the couch, and he said, 'Why don't you just write a damn book already?' " She calls it her "Oprah aha moment": "I just had to sit down and write."
Nine months later she had finished A Tree Born Crooked. She wrote two novels while teaching full time, then switched to part time. She left Blake two years ago but hopes to return as a tutor.
"Ryan takes the credit, but he should," she says. "If he hadn't said that, I'd just be another angry 10th-grade teacher."
Post is already planning her next novel, her first to be set outside the South. One inspiration for the world of Miraculum, where reality and myth intersect, was the work of Joseph Campbell, the professor of comparative mythology and religion whose most famous book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, greatly influenced George Lucas' Star Wars films. "Reading him was just one of those eye-opening things, where everything starts to make sense," she says. A whiteboard in her office is crowded with notes for the new book, phrases like "Persephone myth" and "blue not green."
That interest in myth plays out, too, in the names of the chickens. Post and Holt, a St. Pete Beach firefighter, split naming rights. Hers are graced with sobriquets like Persephone and Athena, while his have names from The Golden Girls and Laverne and Shirley. (There's an accidental rooster dubbed Squiggy.)
One of the chickens is set to star in another of Post's projects, a children's book illustrated by her brother, Phillip Sokolay. Mischa is a striking Russian Orloff chicken, spangled black and white and mahogany. The story, Post says, will be about a chicken learning to navigate cliques and "be true to herself. It's Mean Girls over there. They wear pink on Wednesdays."
For now she's trying to keep her head in the world of Miraculum — a challenge since she wrote it three years ago, between the two Judah Cannon books. The novel evokes the world of circus and sideshow, with its contrast between glittery showmanship and dark desires, fantasy and cruelty, so successfully that it's a bit of a shock when Post admits, "I've never even been to a circus."
The seed for the book, she says, came from the HBO series Carnivale.
"It was the first cable TV series I'd ever seen."
Post grew up without a television in the house. The first time she watched one: "Ryan brought a TV over for our first date, so we could watch Casablanca."
She soon got hooked on Carnivale.
"We got the Netflix DVDs, and I watched it at least 50 times. It clicked with me."
Told that a guy who brings his TV over to show you Casablanca on a first date sounds like a keeper, Post says, "I kept the TV, too. That was my plan."
Contact Colette Bancroft at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.
By Steph Post
Polis Books, 320 pages, $25
Meet the author
Steph Post (Miraculum) will launch her new novel with a discussion and signing with Arin Greenwood (Your Robot Dog Will Die) and Jeff Hess (Tushhog) at 4 p.m. Jan. 27 at Inkwood Books, 1809 N Tampa St., Tampa.