By Jillian Risberg
Now the secrets out as Antonucci launched his debut novel, Deep Within a Blueberry Sky, back in December to a standing room only crowd at Watchung Booksellers in Montclair.
Up until that point, the author’s only writing consisted of personal pieces and poems for family and friends.
“When my father passed away suddenly in 1995, he was the picture of health,” the author says. “I wrote and read his eulogy at his funeral.”
When he worked as a senior facilities manager, Antonucci sent out email blasts that were light and fun while also pertinent to the hundred of employees at his company.
“I knew that I could get away with it not being a magnificent piece of writing and these people knew that I’m not a writer,” he says.
According to Antonucci, it was a hobby if you had to call it that.
He worked in construction all his life, following in the footsteps of his father, grandfather and uncle who were all master tradesmen, and as he was about to lose his job that’s when the idea for this story came to the author like a virtual slideshow.
“I just went on faith. I never thought I could,” the author says of writing a book. “But I have to tell you, I’m starting to get a little concerned (about the future).”
Antonucci was 59 and all he knew was construction. “You’re looking to get a job — they require you to know how to work these certain programs,” he says.
The author and his four brothers lost their mother in June 2018 at the age of 98. Toward the end, Antonucci says her dementia increased and she didn’t know his name.
“It was a rude awakening for me to realize this is what happened to me, now I know what my brothers would feel. “So I wrote a little piece about that,” he says.
“I sent it to my brother Lou who let his wife Donna read it. Anytime Donna has read something I’ve written, she always says, ‘Gee Jeff, so beautiful, so honest — you should write a book.”
Antonucci says his sister-in-law has told him this on numerous occasions over the years and every time he has responded with a laugh; this was no different. Other people who read it said the same thing.
He says it was not only seeing the idea but also feeling it. In that split second when it flashed before his eyes, Antonucci had a feel for what the story had to convey.
But the author says he thought it was going to be a children’s picture book and that doesn’t require a lot of words.
“I think I can do that,” he says.
According to Antonucci, he was on Rte. 80 in Mount Olive when a truck came up alongside him and a decal on its back window read: ‘When you’re down to nothing, G-d is up to something.’
“It was fortunate that I met this woman, Donna Thompson (of Woodpecker Press) who is a publisher,” Antonucci says. “I’m gonna talk to Donna to see if she could help me see what I can do with the manuscript.”
Thompson was happy to make it happen.
She told me, “Basically, you’ll be self-publishing. I’ll walk you through the steps and this will be a nice thing for you to have for your family.”
Only 28 pages are necessary for a children’s book.
“My thinking was I don’t have to worry about (the length) ‘cause most of what I’m doing is a picture book. Maybe pages won’t even have any words,” Antonucci says.
The author wrapped up his work as a facilities manager and wanted to start writing this book.
“To show you where I’m coming from, I didn’t even have a computer in my home and I can’t even type,” Antonucci says. “I just wanted to get it over with.”
The author set himself up with a home office so as he put it, ‘he could get back to getting a job.’
“I sit down to write — I’m up to 10,000 words before you know it,” Antonucci says. “And I’m literally living in this world of the story.”
That’s well beyond the 2,800 words for a children’s book so he called his publisher and said, ‘Let me just keep writing and see where it goes.’
Right around that time, Antonucci drove by Preakness Valley United Reformed Church on Valley Road, where the welcome sign bears bible verses and scripture.
It read: ‘He Who Began a Good Work In You Will Be Faithful To Complete It In You,’” he says.
According to Antonucci, he views the way the message, idea and feeling of the story came to him as a gift from God.
He took the truck sign and the church sign as literal signs that he was meant to write this book and it helped him move forward.
“Every time I’m continuing to write, I’m thinking I’m getting close to the end of the story,” Antonucci says. “So I thought I gotta be done by September for sure.”
September would come and go and he was still not done.
November would come and go.
It was the better part of a year before Antonucci finally put his pen down on April 16, 2017.
Easter Sunday night to be exact he wrote the words, THE END — to the manuscript for “Deep Within a Blueberry Sky.” It ended up being more than 100,000 words.
“I’m not even letting people know I’m doing this (mostly other than) my wife and kids,” the author says.
That week Antonucci drove by the same church sign and at the time it read: ‘Love’s Redeeming Work is Done.’
According to the author, at it’s core — this is really a story about love.
The coming of age tale takes us on seven-year-old Sarah’s journey as her grandparents teach her crucial life lessons that span decades, ending when she is 40.
“Deep Within a Blueberry Sky is the magical realism (fiction genre incorporating magical elements to create an unexpected alteration of reality) novel that I’m so thrilled that it is but I didn’t plan it to be,” Antonucci says.
We first see the family make their way to the country for a typical summer getaway.
“The grandfather has this surprise in store for her,” the author says. “He’s going to teach her how to fly fish for brook trout.
“The grandmother has passed when the story starts. (She) and the grandfather got this plan together to do this for (Sarah) and it’s all about giving her the tools she needs to live a rich, full life,” Antonucci says. “One that will allow her to overcome challenges and obstacles she’s destined to encounter and realize for herself there are truly no limits to what she can do.”
According to the author, it’s an evolution — you get to a certain point and there’s something else that comes as part of this experience.
“I wrote a letter that I put into the book,” Antonucci says. “Basically I’m thanking the reader for not just purchasing the book but taking their valuable time to read this story.”
The author says it’s going to transport you to a very nice, calm, happy, loving place.
Neil Van Ess can relate.
The book’s main character, Sarah, had a wonderful relationship with her grandfather which reminded Van Ess of his own relationship with his 10-year-old granddaughter, Mia.
“So much so that after I read Deep Within a Blueberry Sky I was going to read it to Mia because there are a lot of lessons in this book for her — of the value of time, the value of where you come from, who you come from and giving back to something greater than yourself,” the retired Totowa Police Captain says. “She’s been actually reading it to me and my wife.”
According to the Vietnam Veteran, his granddaughter is into the book and they’re covering about 10 pages every night.
The Purple Heart recipient says he can’t wait to finish the book because “you don’t necessarily have to succeed to get an end result ‘cause it’s always about the process.”
“I love it. It’s just a wonderful story of love, life, family,” Van Ess says, adding that the book captures unforeseen consequences and how love really conquers all.
Valerie Brannan echoed that sentiment, calling it a story about love and how God is love.
“With scriptures that he (Antonucci) talked about, including ‘Nothing is impossible, all things are possible with God,’” Brannan says. “That’s really the core of the story; it was very inspirational.”
It’s a journey, about faith, trust and honesty.
According to Brannan, she really enjoyed the child’s calm surrender to the grandfather and lessons learned.
“A very different writing style,” she says. “There was a lot of dialogue back and forth and you got to know the characters like you could just reach out and touch them.”
The Cedar Grove woman says that the underlying theme of the book is very, very spiritual.
For Pompton Lakes resident, Jack Murphy, the best part of Deep Within a Blueberry Sky was how the book identified many of life’s lessons that could apply across generations.
“Jeff touched on a subject, handicapped people, that most families and/or friends know someone afflicted,” Murphy says. “When finishing one chapter, you are encouraged to start the next.”
And like Van Ess, Murphy says that the book brought back memories of his granddaughter.
“Spending many wonderful days in my workshop building bird houses and other projects,” he says.
As a veteran, for Murphy the book also evoked feelings of one of the main character’s selfless sacrifices she made for her country.
He says it’s a wonderful book for a parent or grandparent to read with a young person.
“We have more than enough turmoil and anxiety, stress going on in life and in our world. Let this be an escape, that’s what I’m hoping,” Antonucci says.