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How a storyteller found his calling as a fiction writer

It was the music business and rock star ambitions that brought Thomas Lopinski to California from downstate Illinois, where he grew up and attended college, but those dreams have given way to a different reality.

"I used to write a lot of mediocre songs," Lopinski said in an interview this week. "It only took me 20 years to figure out that wasn't my strong suit."

Lopinski, who now works for the Walt Disney Co., said he's received 10 times stronger feedback from his fiction writing, which he began two decades ago with a group of friends he knew from work at Warner Bros. and Universal.

"It was really just an excuse to get out of the house and drink beer and throw some darts," he said. But he had to bring some writing to share, and soon he was churning out chapters.

Earlier this spring, the longtime Burbank resident's second novel, "The Art of Raising Hell," was published by the small publishing house Dark Alley Press. When Lopinski took it back home to Illinois for a book signing recently, it sold out in two hours.

The coming-of-age story about four boys is set in the 1970s in a Midwestern town like the one Lopinski grew up in, with "one stop light, one high school, one square, one lake, one police car and 100 ways to get into trouble," according to the biography page on his website.

The characters and events are inspired by those of his own childhood, he said, but with some "left turns and right turns" of his own imagining. The story hangs on the first line of the novel, a quote from a notorious local hell-raiser and larger-than-life character. That one line leads the narrator to learn "how to chase after life instead of being chased by it," Lopinski said.

It's a departure from his 2012 debut, a young adult novel called "Document 512," which took a lot more research into South America and the ancient ruins where the story is set. His most recent book sprang from nowhere and took him six weeks to write.

Writing novels takes "tenacity" while working full-time and raising a family Lopinski said — he's a father of four daughters, including triplets, who all attended Burbank schools. But while his wife initially balked at the cost of self-publishing his first novel while they were planning to send the girls to college, she changed her tune after reading it.

"She looked at me and said, 'Keep writing,'" Lopinski recalled. "That's when I knew I was onto something."

The nudge paid off. For his sophomore effort, Lopinski landed a publisher for "The Art of Raising Hell" almost by accident. He had first sought out an editor to help him polish up the book, said N. Apythia Morges, senior managing editor for Dark Alley Press, an imprint of Florida-based Vagabondage Press LLC.

Morges said she does freelance editing work in addition to her duties at the publishing company and was working with Lopinski in that capacity when she realized the story was right for the small, independent press, which she said focuses on edgier books "that basically defy genre."

Lopinski's novel isn't "happy-go-lucky" she said. It has a darker side, but it's also written in an approachable style that she said has the ability to "make us feel like we're one of the gang."

The story strikes some serious notes, Lopinski said, but it also features young love, best friends and "just kind of goofing off," and while it has tragedies, it also has an uplifting end.

However, while securing a publisher was a big step, Lopinski said it's still a lot of work to get attention as a relatively unknown author. While he's busy trying to promote his current project, he has a sequel to "Document 512" in the works. He said he plans to keep writing until he's forced to stop.

"Someday, I'll have to write a book about Burbank," Lopinski said.

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