Imagine getting to hang out with some of the coolest people you know. Imagine being able to do that every day. That’s what John Poniske feels when he creates his Civil War themed novels that began with Prelude to War, the self-published debut of his Snakebit series.
His second and latest novel from the series, called Fire-Eaters, presents the beginning of the American Civil War through the eyes of the families and friends in the border state of Maryland. It follows the fictional Garrett family as they witness Lincoln’s election and the falling of Fort Sumter.
Those are the friends Poniske gets to visit each morning.
“I look forward to it every day,” he said. “Sitting down at the keyboard each day is like returning to see old friends. I’m surprised how attached I have become to the characters. How I cheer them, chide them and mourn them when they die.”
While Poniske and his wife, Linda Jensen, whom he calls Jenny, live in Waynesboro now, his story actually began in Springfield, IL. He spent his formative years there — until he was 15.
Springfield also happens to be Abraham Lincoln’s hometown — something that created quite a love of history in a young Poniske
“During that time, I saw Lincoln plays, attended Lincoln festivals, and watched an endless string of Lincoln commercials on local television shows,” he remembered. “I saw Lincoln sites; his home, his burial memorial and New Salem many times — every time relatives visited. You might say I was marinating in Civil War culture.”
When he graduated from high school in Springfield, he joined the Marines.
“My father was a Marine,” Poniske said. “He was wounded on Guadalcanal. I never wanted to follow in his footsteps, but fate has a way of changing your mind. I spent a year overseas. The Vietnam War had officially ended, but I participated in the evacuations of Saigon and Phnom Penh. So I was literally one of the last US servicemen to leave South Vietnam. I wouldn’t trade being a Marine for any other experience. The Marines instill pride and drive!”
He met his would-be wife when she was a young Air Force recruit in Myrtle Beach, SC, on her first official duty assignment.
“Since then, she has become my best friend,” Poniske said. “We have had two children. John Davis lives in Baltimore. He is also a Marine veteran and computer guru. Erika Joy works as a private contractor managing stage crews, sound and lightning for politicians and celebrities.”
Erika has been responsible for stage-work for mega musicians, several presidents and even the Pope.
In the beginning, the couple followed Jenny’s career from South Carolina to Florida to California. When the Air Force eliminated her job, they moved to New York and eventually to Pennsylvania — York, Pittsburgh and then Waynesboro, following where her new jobs led.
As the family traversed the country, Ponsike worked a variety of jobs, including a bartender, restaurant manager, newspaper reporter, landscape business owner and a teacher.
Working as a features reporter for the Daily News in Fort Walton Beach, FL, he talked to a lot of interesting people including writers, combat veterans, fisherman, boat captains, backwoods survivalists and even clowns.
“I loved that job,” he recalled.
Jumping to Suffolk County in Long Island, NY, Poniske ran WaterWorks Landscaping for almost 10 years.
“It was primarily an underground sprinkler company, but I also did landscape design and installation. I didn’t cut lawns. Always disliked cutting lawns,” he chuckled.
His teaching career included English and a variety of history courses in an alternative school setting.
“I retired from Maryland’s Washington County School System in 2019,” Poniske said. “It was my position with Antietam Academy in Hagerstown that brought us here to Waynesboro.”
Teaching at the Academy was both challenging and rewarding.
“Most students who attend such schools grow up in less than ideal and sometimes abysmal settings,” Poniske explained. “They are unable to make it in standard schools and can only make it in alternative schools if their instructors are understanding and patient. It’s uplifting when the barriers break down and they see the light.”
To help reach his students, Poniske used historical movies and games. He also ran a popular chess club at Antietam Academy.
Since his retirement from teaching, he began to focus on something he has loved for a long time — writing.
“As far back as I can remember, I have wanted to write fiction,” Poniske said. “Because of my fascination with the Civil War, the subject was a no-brainer. I used to write short stories. Years ago, I challenged myself to write an entire fictional novel. I did it and went on to write three more (all unpublished).”
The Snakebit series came about from a hike on the Appalachian Trail with his wife.
“Jenny and I stumbled on a sign that warned beware of timber rattlesnakes,” Poniske remembered. “The sign stimulated a conversation on Civil War plot ideas and I was off.”
The Garrett family, the fictional folks in the novels, are somewhat of a composite of all the characters Poniske has known in his varied travels.
“Curiously though, after I began this mega-project, I met and became good friends with a gentleman with the uncommon name of Garret” he said. “The very name of the key characters in the series. Kismet?”
It could have been a sign from the universe that he was on the right track — and Poniske maintains that with a pretty rigid writing schedule.
“I sit down at the computer as soon as I get up and that is typically between 3 and 4:30 a.m. when everything is picture perfect quiet,” he explained. “When I am not at the computer I keep myself busy researching or creating something else; cooking, baking, cleaning, building, painting, gardening, anything to keep my mind off some literary impasse.”
He has found sometimes he will write for 15 to 20 minutes, while other days it’s just one sentence. Then there are the days he writes from 4 in the morning to noon. Sometimes he will return to write again if he stops, but most days he does not.
“I don’t beat myself up over slow days,” Poniske said. “My muse is simply living my life and perusing my large historical library. Some days, surrounded by books, thumbing through books, I’ll get an urge to add a character type or repeat an odd occurrence I read about. Some days I’ll be sitting in our hot tub, watching nature, or walking the dogs and watching people and entire scenes unfold in my mind.”
Since beginning his writing journey, he realized the ideas will come when they are meant to come.
“It’s not writer’s block, it’s just that some ideas need to germinate longer than others,” Poniske explained. “I will say this, for each hour I spend writing, I spend three researching and for each page written, I can honestly say I have rewritten it at least three times and then edited it three or four times more.”
There are 18 novels planned for the Snakebit series. Poniske has completed nine so far and is halfway through the tenth.
He said, “I follow historical events and try to interweave them with the lives of my characters. Do I have a detailed plan for the novel I am currently writing? No. I never have. I let my characters lead me while historical events constrict me.”
His writing is one of many real joys in Poniske’s life.
“Writing has always been easy for me” he admitted. “I absolutely love stringing words together. More often than not I string them together badly, but that’s okay. Every time I rewrite a page it comes to life that much more. What keeps me going is knowing I have an objective, an almost impossible one, but one that I will manage, because I want to see where my characters lead me. I am living their lives vicariously. All creative people inspire me; painters, bakers, film producers, horticulturists, inventors, teachers, and of course the novelists.”
He also includes dramatic readings of his books on his website, which really bring the stories to life.
“I’ve always enjoyed dramatic reading,” Poniske said. “In grade school, my mother belonged to a Great Books Club and I got to tag along. There, I was introduced to Edgar Allen Poe. I was entranced.”
In fact, he was so captivated by one of the true masters that young Poniske memorized The Raven and performed it on stage.
“I joined a speech club and excelled in public speaking,” he remembered. “Later, my wife and I ran murder mystery plays and parties. But as far as the book readings go, I have to credit my daughter, Erika. She pushed me into it.”
Since COVID began, Poniske has been reading a chapter or two online every week to those who tune in to the Skype link he provides.
He said, “I very much look forward to it each week. I only recently added audio segments to my website.”
Poniske also has live readings and book signings coming up in January. One will be from 1 to 3 p.m. on Tuesday, January 24, at Alexander Hamilton Memorial Free Library in Waynesboro; and another will be from 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday, January 29, at the Historic Hoover House in Waynesboro. Mark your calendars to experience the Snakebit series live!
For anyone hoping to break into the business, Poniske has some advice.
“Two things come to mind,” he said. “First don’t ever, ever think your words will come out golden the first time they appear on the screen or the page. Words require coaxing and massaging, at times they must be torn apart and put back together as if they were parts of a jigsaw puzzle, but as long as you have faith in your objective, you will eventually put the proper pieces in the proper places. Second, grow a thick skin, develop enduring patience and maintain a busy schedule. A writer should stay busy when he or she feels their muse is failing them. It’s never the muse…more often than not it’s the writer’s impatience.”
Fire-Eaters was published by Fireship Press (a historical fiction publishing house in Arizona). The same group is currently completing the third book in Poniske’s Snakebit series, Graybacks and Greenbacks.
Fire-Eaters and Prelude to War can be purchased at the Wee Scot Bookstore on the square in Waynesboro and also at Destination Arts on Main Street West, Waynesboro. Both can also be found on Amazon. Book III Graybacks and Greenbacks will be available sometime later in 2023.
For more information about Poniske and his various projects, check out his website here: johnponiske.com
In terms of life lessons from all that he has experienced, Poniske looks to the well-known guru Yoda and keeps it simple.
“Success is built on failure,” he said. “Pride only arrives after much embarrassment. Giving is getting. Love is all.”