Tony Wittwer has a picture of himself you'd swear was from the '70s. He looks every inch the hippie, sporting a full beard, jeans and a chambray shirt, holding his little boy sitting in front of a log cabin. Also in the frame: a stack of grapevine wreaths and a cat lounging on the patio.
But it wasn't taken in the '70s, it was taken in 1990 in Brown County, where Wittwer, his wife, Elissa, and son spent a year living in the woods. After several years working at K & K Insurance in Fort Wayne, he came up with a plan. He wanted to write a book. He would move his family to Brown County where they would rent a cabin. He would support the three of them by going into the woods every day to gather grapevines so he could make and sell wreaths. Afternoons and evenings would be spent working on the book.
Except life didn't exactly go as planned. Wittwer spent most of his days making and selling enough grapevine wreaths to keep his family fed. That left little time to write a book. After a year the family gave up the cabin and the dream.
"That was so wrong it's embarrassing," Wittwer said of the grapevine plan. Still, he and his wife still look back on that year with fondness. "That year was tremendous," he said. "It is just such a wonderful memory."
He went back to working at K & K, and believe it or not, the guy who came up with the unsuccessful plan to support his family making grapevine wreaths eventually worked his way up to CEO and president of K & K. The guy who used to wear jeans to work every day now wore suits.
But the idea of writing a book never died. So in 2004 Wittwer left K & K for the second time and took about two years to finally pen that novel. There was no living in a cabin in the woods this time, but Wittwer drew on his year in Brown County for parts of the book.
The result is "Jonah's Belly," a book hard to boil down to a simple description. Wittwer says he's developed a tagline for it that goes something like this: Come for the tender love story, stay for the darkness and mayhem."
Wittwer will be signing copies of his book Thursday.
Here's a condensed version about the book on Wittwer's website, www.anthonywittwer.com:
"Strange things are happening on the hill called Jonah’s Belly. A tall circle of weathered stone pillars stands on top of the hill. The circle of stones is ancient, crumbling, and holy – a small and hidden Stonehenge, slumbering in the mist-covered woods. An old magic has begun flowing from the stone circle and spilling down Jonah’s Belly. The magic touches those living near the hill, drawing together ordinary people and extraordinary beings as events and dark forces begin to collide.
"At the heart of the developing storm are Blue and Elissa, raw and wounded from the recent accident that claimed their unborn child's life. Blue lies awake at night, thinking about the secrets he’s keeping from Elissa — secrets about the accident that took their son, and secrets about the fragile sound he’s begun hearing in the darkness outside their cabin … the sound of a baby crying. Crying somewhere on Jonah’s Belly."
Wittwer worked with a professional editor on the book, Barbara Ardinger. She gave high praise to "Jonah's Belly" in a blog entry, saying, "I edited books or parts of books for thirty-five authors and one nonprofit organization. ... One book I edited is one of my all-time favorites: 'Jonah’s Belly' by Tony Wittwer. It’s a nifty, Stephen-Kingish epic of modern mythology."
Wittwer took two years off to write the book, finishing it in 2006. Then he went back to work at another insurance company, American Specialty in Roanoke, where he is president. His son is now 26 and his daughter, who was born after the year in the woods, is 21. She designed the cover of "Jonah's Belly."
The book-signing event at Christopher James Menswear will include some giveaways of Royall Lyme cologne, which plays a significant role in the book. As a kid Wittwer was enthralled with Royall Lyme cologne, which his dad wore. He was particularly impressed by the beautiful green glass bottle with a pewter cap. So the cologne made its way into the book. On a whim Wittwer sent a copy of the book to the Royall Lyme company and explained the cologne's significance to the book. The company liked the association with the book so much it is planning a number of different activities to promote the book, including providing products for the event at Christopher James.
Wittwer doesn't see himself quitting work again to write another book. "Writing is something I love to do when I have the time to do it," he said.
As for "Jonah's Belly," which took so many years to come to fruition, Wittwer says, "I'm very happy with the book. One, it's done, which is tremendous. Two, it is the story I wanted to write."