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Local Author (and Mr. Z's Best Friend) Discusses His Novel with Student Readers

Tutt Stapp-McKiernan

The opening of the 2022-23 school year at Wakefield marked the second year for a new English Department initiative called CORE. Standing for “Community of Readers Enterprise,” the program encourages faculty and staff from all areas of the school to join in generating a list of books “about which [they] are ardent.” Each student then chooses a book from this list to read as part of required Summer Reading. The fall discussions on CORE books are facilitated by the adults who chose each book.

While many Wakefield faculty and staff members from all departments choose to participate in CORE, producing a fascinatingly varied list of reads for students to choose from, no other faculty have had the unique pleasure that English Department Chair Matthew Zontine had this year—he was able to put forward a book written by his best friend of 40+ years.

The book was All Good Quests by Joe Graber—who then came to Wakefield to join in the CORE discussion with Mr. Zontine and the students who had chosen to read his book.

Mr. Graber’s debut novel has met with critical appreciation. According to a starred review in Blueink Review, “In Joe Graber’s intriguing novel, All Good Quests, a freelance adventure writer, Quint, goes in search of a prominent businessman who suddenly disappeared. The winding journey causes him to consider his own solitary life, reminisce about his past, and contemplate his future…With details of cold, isolation, precarious climbs, and the realities of the predator-prey world, readers will wonder, like Quint himself, if there’s a way out…All Good Quests proves itself a well-crafted, immersive story…adventure and mystery, all wrapped in a thought-provoking journey of self-discovery.”

Mr. Zontine says that he felt students in his group enjoyed All Good Quests, as well as the unique experience of getting to speak directly with a book’s author. Senior Katherine Myer’s observations bear that out. "I enjoyed the book 100%," she says. "I really enjoyed the whole process."

Katherine had chosen All Good Quests because its premise reminded her of the non-fiction book Into the Wild, which she had studied in 10th grade with Mr. Martin. "Even though it said 'novel' on the front, I was still reading it and thinking it was non-fiction at first," she says with a laugh, citing the book's realism and detail as extremely convincing. Eventually, of course, she realized the book was not a true story. "But then when we met the author and he was talking about how he had worked at including all that detail to give the book a really journalistic feel, I was amazed!" she says. "It was like, Wow, he fooled me!"

Mr. Zontine has been best friends with Mr. Graber since they were in first grade, and they were college roommates—but Mr. Z didn’t know that Mr. G, a psychology major, was interested in writing until their senior year of college. 

According to Mr. Graber’s website, he was captured by words and by the idea of “being a writer” in high school. But from his college days in the early 90s and on through grad school in English, through a wide variety of odd jobs, some real jobs, significant outdoor adventures, marriage, fatherhood, and all that comes with all of those endeavors, not much actual writing materialized. He did complete a draft of a novel in 2002, but, he says, “I quickly realized I had little stomach for the hustle required to go the traditional publishing route…I was okay with having spent thousands of hours alone, late at night, grinding the work out, but I just couldn’t bring myself to spend years querying agents, chasing publishers, and…having to edit my work into what a boardroom of suits might deem the most saleable version."

But his desire to write, and the percolating ideas for writing, did not leave him. “That’s the thing with being a storyteller,” he says. “You can’t turn it off. For the first time in my life, I realized I needed to write because I needed to write, not because I needed to be ‘a writer.’ And so, I began another book—this time with no thought of ever publishing—really no thought of anyone ever even reading it. The novel I began working on then was, indeed, All Good Quests—the novel I just released.”

Mr. Z says that the content of Mr. Graber’s book was right on point with his understanding of his longtime friend.

“Joe is the kind of guy who loves to push his limits,” says Mr. Z. “He runs ultra-marathons. He has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro [the highest peak in Africa], and came within 100 yards of summiting Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America. That he wrote a book featuring someone trying to survive in the wilderness came as no surprise.”

Mr. Z also says, though, that part of what he enjoys in All Good Quests is that the book’s setting in the Alaskan wilderness involves not just adventure, but a lot of what he calls “navel-gazing”: “If you put a first-person narrator down in the middle of nowhere alone,” he says, “you’re going to get a lot of reflection, a lot of thinking.”

A book involving mystery, adventure, and philosophical reflection, written by someone who took decades to muster the resolve to publish a novel and who did it around the edges of an already-full life, with no goal other than to complete the task (“The work is the work,” says Mr. Graber)—all this seems like a wonderful—and valuable—fit for high school readers. Mr. Zontine agrees.

“He is not a career writer, but simply someone who loves to write, and he completed a novel despite the many other jobs, family commitments, etc. he has undertaken,” says Mr. Z. “He did not write the novel to make money, but simply to share a story he created…to me his journey seems like a good illustration (whether he is my best friend or not) of how all of us have a story to tell, but few of us have the perseverance to follow through and tell it.”