In the town of Empire Ridge lives a guy, Hank Fitzpatrick, coming to terms with being a dad and husband after years of acting out. That town looks a lot like Columbus, Ind., and that guy sounds a lot like Brian Sweany, director of acquisitions at audiobook outfit Recorded Books — and author of two autobiographical novels published by The Writer's Coffee Shop, the original publisher of a little book called Fifty Shades of Grey.
The second, Making Out With Blowfish, on sale March 6, opens with an epic game of beer pong pitting the hero, Hank, against a couple delectable co-eds in a scene that could take place on any college campus. It's when we learn the co-eds are caterers working a party at Hank's suburban home, that Hank is about two decades their elder and that his wife is waiting upstairs — well, you can see the problems facing the reluctantly maturing hero.
Sweany has no qualms admitting that the characters in his first two books are based on his real life family and friends. His first book, Exotic Music of the Belly Dancer, based on his school years in Columbus and later in college from 1986-1993, "was as true to life as possible, just with different names," he says.
After the first book was released, his best friend didn't talk to him for a while, and other friends and family "struggled with seeing the book's versions of themselves."
He used those real stories to "capture the feeling of a first love, the smell of a girl, the pain of heart break. ... I wanted it to be like Breakfast Club meets Fight Club."
Sweany's father, like the character Hank's, died when he was only in his early 20s. And Hank was molested by a family friend who was like an uncle to him, just as Sweany was sexually abused by his godfather — his father's best friend.
"After my dad died, I gave myself permission to deal with this," he says. "I was able to compartmentalize my godfather and the monster. Writing about these emotional issues grounded me and gave me an emotionally detached perspective. Writing fiction made the non-fiction version more real. Especially with my godfather, even though I glossed over that in the book and made it easier on Hank."
Not that Hank gets a free pass.
"I wanted the narrator to be able to say whatever came to his mind," he says. "Whether it's something about private parts or his obsession with women's calves. It's not always pretty and perfect. ... I wanted to make the reader feel uncomfortable with Hank from the beginning of the book by opening in 2008 when Hank is now a 38-year-old and doesn't seem to have learned a thing."
But Sweany does leave a few things out. He says his wife is less emotional than her fictional counterpart and gives her credit for making him a better, more grounded and empathetic person, something he says the book doesn't convey about Hank's wife.
Sweany first got in touch with the The Writer's Coffee Shop, which was founded in Australia and has offices in the U.S., as part of his day job. That connection made, the conversation turned to Sweany's own work and The Writer's Coffee Shop ultimately gave him a book deal.
And his next book? Something totally different. He'll only say it's Joss Whedon-inspired and something he will occasionally share with his teenage daughter for her input.