By Keysha Drexel
When Stephen Duncan learned his first book was going to be published by Medallion Press as part of a three-book deal, the 38-year-old said he was euphoric.
But the Crestline Park resident who is also an attorney working with the Southern Research Institute said that feeling pales in comparison to what he considers the truest sign of his success as a new author.
“My 2 1/2-year-old son, Liam, recently walked into Barnes & Noble and found my book,” he said. “Nothing could have beat that moment.”
In August, Medallion Press released Duncan’s first book, “The Revelation of Gabriel Adam,” as part of a three-book deal. The second book in the series will come out in August of next year, and the author who writes as S.L. Duncan said he’s hard at work on the third and final book in the Revelation Saga.
Duncan, who graduated from Mountain Brook High School in 1994, describes “The Revelation of Gabriel Adam” as an apocalyptic adventure that delves deep into biblical lore without being dogmatically religious.
“It’s based on apocalyptic tales I found in non-canonical texts, specifically the Nag Hammadi Library and the Dead Sea Scrolls,” he said. “I’m not a really religious guy, but I’m an armchair historian and just fascinated with this subject.”
Duncan said he began exploring those texts during his late teens and early 20s.
“I was raised Baptist, but I hit a wall and I wanted to read outside of what I had been told and so I began to read these ancient translations,” he said.
Duncan said what he read offered “a window into this time when culture and religion were being shaped by politics and power,” but he also discovered another side to these seemingly weighty and serious texts.
Some of the stories in the ancient texts were “more fantastical than others,” Duncan said, “specifically, the books that were apocalyptic in nature.”
That led Duncan to believe that some of the stories were written for entertainment purposes.
“There are messages buried in them, I’m certain–commentary on political and cultural events of the time,” Duncan said. “But removed from that, they read like fun.”
His research into the ancient texts planted an idea in Duncan’s mind, he said.
“I wondered if the events in those texts were cyclical and destined to repeat themselves, and I wondered how that would play out in the modern world,” Duncan said.
But it would be a few more years before that idea was turned into a book.
After graduating from Mountain Brook High School, Duncan attended the University of Alabama at Birmingham to study film and broadcasting.
“I was leaning toward the film thing because I was attracted to the idea of being a storyteller,” Duncan said. “I attribute a lot of that to my dad (Stephen L. Duncan Sr.), who was a master at telling these jokes that you didn’t even realize were jokes until he hit you with the punchline. His jokes had great characters that were just believable enough.”
But Duncan’s pursuit of a career as a storyteller took a detour when he received a bit of advice from one of his film professors at UAB, Jean Bodon.
“I was doing directorial work and I was okay with that, but when I told him I wanted to be a storyteller by being a producer, he told me that I might as well go and be a lawyer because all producers have law degrees,” Duncan said. “In my naiveté, I took everything the man said to heart, and if he had said that to be a producer I had to go and jump off a building, I probably would have done that.”
Duncan took the Law School Admissions Test, scored well and went about pursuing a career in law.
But while he was a student at Cumberland School of Law, the endless hours of poring over legal texts left him yearning for a creative outlet, Duncan said.
“In studying the law, there’s not much room for interpretation, and everything’s black or white and very sterile,” he said. “I had this creative energy that was being suppressed and fighting for escape.”
So Duncan wrote about 50 pages of a screenplay and shared them with a Scottish friend who was known not to mince words.
“He was painfully honest with me in only the way a man from Scotland can be, so I threw those pages in the trash and went back to studying law,” he said.
It was during his third year of law school that all the pieces came together for Duncan and he knew he had to pursue his dream of being a storyteller, he said.
Duncan traveled to Durham, England, to study law. As he soaked in the sights of the town’s well-known Norman cathedral and 11th-century castle, inspiration struck.
“Everything about being there was inspiring, even the weather, which wasn’t as bad as I was expecting,” he said. “Durham Cathedral was the inspiration for Hogwarts in the Harry Potter books. There’s an energy in Durham that seeps into your pores and drives you to write about it.”
Durham was the setting of Sir Walter Scott’s “Harold the Dauntless” poem, and Durham Cathedral is mentioned in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “English Notebooks,” putting Duncan in good company of authors who have been inspired by the place.
But it wasn’t just the medieval castles and historical sites near the River Wear that made the trip to Durham so pivotal in Duncan’s quest to be a storyteller.
While he was in Durham, Duncan’s thoughts turned back to his research into apocalyptic tales and how they might look in today’s world.
“I think that inspiration–whatever it was–manifested in the settings,” he said. “I hoped if I could manage to make the places and people in the story feel like real places and real people, then what was fantastical about the story might require less of a suspension of disbelief.”
When he returned home from England, Duncan started writing. Within a couple of months, he had a draft of “The Revelation of Gabriel Adam.”
Duncan sent out letters and sample pages to literary agents and signed with an agent in New York.
“Nobody realized how slow things work in the publishing world. I had been sitting on this book for two years before my agent told me that Medallion wanted to publish it,” he said.
Medallion Press offered Duncan a three-book deal. He just turned in the second book and is working on the third in what is being called the Revelation Saga.
“With my first book, I was writing with no expectations on my own timeline, a steady-as-you-go kind of thing,” he said. “Then I sold my book and they want sequels, and you find you’re writing under a lot of pressure. But it’s a good problem to have.”
While some writers are very protective of their work and abhor the editing process, Duncan said he actually looks forward to it.
“When you first sit down to write a book, you are discovering the story. When you sit down to edit, you are discovering the better story. It’s a great time when your characters sharpen into focus, the plot hammers into a straight line,” he said. “I’m fairly myopic with my work, so having my agent or editor or author friends have a look and give me notes is integral to the process.”
But Duncan said he can understand why some writers dread the editing process after spending months, and sometimes years, pouring their hearts out in the pages of a book.
“Look, writing books is hard work. I’m saying this from the perspective of someone who used to grind metal in a steel factory in Irondale,” he said. “That’s a tough notion to sell, I know. But it’s true. It’s long hours sitting hunched over a computer, anxiety over the quality of the work, stress over deadlines. A lot of times I’d consider trading it for a few metal burns on my arms.”
But Duncan is not ready to head back to the metal shop just yet–he doesn’t have time.
“I get up and start writing at 4:30 every morning before work,” he said. “That’s my little oasis of time, my quiet time. It does suck sometimes because, well, it’s 4:30 in the morning, but I really look forward to having that time to write.”
Duncan writes again after he finishes work writing legal contracts at the Southern Research Institute each day.
“I really love what I do at Southern Research Institute because it’s inspiring to be around people who are so passionate about what they do,” he said.
When he’s not working as an attorney or writing, Duncan said he tries to spend as much time as he can with his wife, Kate, and their young son.
He also plays soccer with a team from Urban Standard on Saturdays and said he tries to keep himself out of local bookstores as much as possible, lest he be tempted to buy another copy of “The Revelation of Gabriel Adam.”
“I wanted to be able to walk into a bookstore and buy my own book, which I totally did at Barnes & Noble. The experience was a bit mixed, though,” he said. “On one level, I was thrilled. I felt part of something bigger than me. Like, I was in the stream of commerce now–people could buy something I made. But it’s also kind of a jerk thing to do, right? Walking up to a counter and buying your own book? I would have died from embarrassment had the bookseller made the connection. Absolutely died.”
“The Revelation of Gabriel Adam” is available for purchase at Barnes & Noble at The Summit, at Little Professor Book Center in Homewood and online through Medallion Press or Amazon.