When Christopher Barzak, a local author who holds an MFA in creative writing from Pittsburgh's Chatham University and teaches fiction writing at Youngstown State University, wrote his first novel, One for Sorrow, he was trying to capture the anxieties of growing up in the Mahoning Valley.
"One of the things I wanted to do was set a novel in the Mahoning Valley, in and around Youngstown," he says. "Growing up, I read to investigate other places that I couldn't get to. I realized that I never came across a book that was set here. I was also interested in investigating what adolescents are facing in a region where there has been a lot of economic loss and not much opportunity. When you're going through a time that is difficult no matter where you are, you can have these added pressures of figuring out a life for yourself when there aren't a lot of options."
That anxiety is also reflected in Jamie Marks is Dead, the new indie flick based on his book. The film opens on Friday at the Capitol Theatre and Barzak will host a Q&A session after the showings at 7:10 p.m. on Friday and 4:10 p.m. on Sunday.
The story centers on Gracie (Morgan Saylor), a high school student who discovers the body of his classmate Jamie Marks (Noah Silver), and Adam (Cameron Monaghan), another classmate who witnessed Jamie being bullied. Soon, the ghost of the dead teen begins appearing to the two teens. Director Carter Smith shot the movie in upstate New York, but it would be hard to tell that it's not Northeast Ohio.
"I did a set visit and it was reminiscent of this area so it has the look and feel of the book," says Barzak. "The only people who will look at it and say it's not Youngstown are people from Youngstown."
Barzak says Smith took a few liberties with his story, but the deviations aren't anything extraordinary.
"The novel is 320 pages long and the script is 120," he says. "They can't import absolutely everything. There are also minor characters who were cut. I didn't consult with [Carter] when he was writing the initial script. He showed me a draft at one point and wondered what I thought. Later, he emailed me some questions that producers had about various aspects of the script and asked what I thought. He was looking for my insight into characters' motivations."
Barzak says he's particularly pleased with the performance by Monaghan, who also stars in the Showtime series Shameless.
"When I first found out that's who was cast, there was some cognitive dissonance," he says. "I had never imagined Adam as a redhead. I started watching the show Shameless and Carter sent me videos of his audition. I thought he was perfect. He captures a character who is both rough around the edges and vulnerable. That's a hard mix to play."