Up Close: Chad Zunker

Conspiracy, Murder, and Homelessness

By K. L. Romo

David Adams grew up poor and worked his entire adult life toward success and wealth. Now, after graduating from Stanford Law in the top of his class, his new position at the high-powered law firm Hunter & Kellerman in Austin, Texas, will guarantee his future.

David thinks he’s achieved his dreams. But after surviving a brutal mugging attempt, his life takes a drastic turn. He learns that not everyone is as they seem.

In AN EQUAL JUSTICE, author Chad Zunker crafts a riveting legal thriller, reminiscent of John Grisham’s The Street Lawyer, wrapped around the social crisis of homelessness.

David works night and day at his new firm, already logging more billable hours than any associate in history. Of course, he has to take some speed to keep up, but it’s worth it. Just like he’d always dreamed, he’s proving to everyone that he will be a success, and he has the new Range Rover and luxury apartment to prove it.

But soon after, an associate at the firm commits suicide, and David realizes there is something nefarious at play. He also meets Benny, a homeless man, who introduces him to people living on the dangerous streets, and to those living deep in the woods at a very organized homeless camp. Curly, Doc, Larue, Elvis, and Shifty all lived in the Camp—a “village of dry bones.” According to Benny, “Most homeless are just dry bones, desperately wanting to come back to life.”

Zunker (left) and his editor, Liz Pearsons, at Bouchercon

David finds himself immersed in the plight of the homeless on the Austin streets. And when the conspiracy at Hunter & Kellerman intersects with Benny and the homeless community, David must untangle the web of deceit, blackmail, and murder to protect those most vulnerable.

AN EQUAL JUSTICE not only plunges readers into murder and conspiracy involving wealthy power players, but also immerses us in the crisis of homelessness in our country. Along with David, we get a new perspective on the plight of the homeless population trying to survive each day. Like David, Zunker forces us to ask ourselves—what would we do if we had no shelter, food, job, or family?

Zunker explains how his work with the homeless inspired the novel.

“Right after I got married 13 years ago, my talented wife, Katie, took a new job as the CFO of a small Austin-based nonprofit that served the chronically homeless called Mobile Loaves & Fishes. Mobile Loaves had several food-catering trucks where volunteers went into the most despairing parts of our city and offered our homeless friends much-needed food and clothing. So, for the first time, Katie and I began interacting with the homeless population. I’ll admit I had a lot of preconceived notions (and prejudices) about those living out on the streets. But my heart began to soften as I got to know the real people behind the tough circumstances and rags of clothes.

“Mobile Loaves’ dynamic leader, Alan Graham, asked me to take a ride with him one night—and it was life changing. After visiting homeless friends in various alleys and under bridges, Alan parked his truck at the edge of an East Austin neighborhood and told me to follow him through the dark woods. I had no idea where we were going. But I followed Alan, and we eventually came upon a secret homeless camp with about a dozen tents where a group of men huddled around the campfire. They all knew Alan. When he introduced me as his friend, they jumped up and greeted me like a long-lost family member. I couldn’t believe the level of warmth they had for a stranger. As we sat around the campfire and sang songs—one of them was a great guitar player—I was overwhelmed by the way the guys were caring for each other. I discovered that unlike other homeless camps—which could be drug infested—this camp had a strict set of rules to follow and a group of elders that kept things healthy and positive. A lot of the men had found hope and healing in this hidden community.

Zunker at the entrance of Community First! Village.

“On the drive home that night, Alan began to share a dream he had to buy land and develop a master-planned community where we could lift these brothers, and many others, off the streets and offer them the support system they need to heal, be restored, and find dignified ways to earn an income. Alan believed housing would never solve homelessness but that community would. After that night, I agreed, which is why my wife and I committed our lives over the next 10 years to help bring this dream into reality. Three years ago, we celebrated the opening of Community First! Village, a 51-acre master planned community that has already lifted over 200 people off the streets, with plans in place to lift more than 300 more in the next couple of years.

“That night in the woods also got my creative juices flowing. I walked away from that eye-opening experience sensing there was something there that could one day become a dynamic story. It took me a long time, but this seed would eventually become AN EQUAL JUSTICE.”

After becoming involved with alleviating the homeless crisis in Austin, Zunker has changed his understanding of what success really means.

“Before that night in the woods, I think I was trotting down a traditional path toward what I thought would make me happy. I wanted to get published, become a famous writer, and sell a lot of books! But as I began to roll up my sleeves and walk alongside so many of my struggling street brothers (while also bringing my friends and family with me), I found such a deep level of meaning and satisfaction that my idea of success started to change. I began to realize it had so much more to do with real-life relationships and the impact I could have on others—especially with those who are vulnerable.

Zunker (left) with Brad Parks at Book People in Austin.

“So, while my dream of becoming a published novelist never faded, my hopes for the impact I could have with my writing began to evolve. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have an editor and a publisher who share my view and have thrown their full support behind the release of the book and this new series.”

Zunker explains what he hopes AN EQUAL JUSTICE will accomplish.

“Foremost, I hope the book will highly entertain readers. After all, the book is still a fast-paced thriller with a crime conspiracy that must be solved. But I also hope the story might spark something in readers (if it’s not already there). So, the next time they encounter a man or woman in dirty clothes holding a cardboard sign on a street corner, or sitting on a sidewalk with a paper cup, they might consider pausing and engaging on some level.

“You can’t even imagine how much our street friends ache to be seen and acknowledged. You never know what might happen if you’re willing to take a next step. My life has been flipped upside down in a wonderful way by finding the courage to ask one simple question to those who cross my path out on the streets: What’s your story?

Interestingly, Zunker’s journey to publication has been challenging, and he almost gave up. Almost.

“Yes, it has been a crazy and difficult journey to reach this point. I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone—over 20 years of writing while collecting more than 1,000 rejections before getting my first publishing deal. But I also wouldn’t change my story. The long and painful wait has made this moment so much sweeter for me. And I’ve been able to offer hope to many other struggling writers who are in the same place I was.

Zunker (left) with his friend Will who lives at Community First! Village.

“I’ve also learned that there are so many genuine people in publishing. They really do love books and are always searching for the next breakout hit. They want it to be you—so keep writing and don’t ever quit!”

And although he’s always dreamed of being a novelist, that goal was not always first on Zunker’s list.

“Writing was actually my second dream. My first was to play professional football. I was a good high school football player and chased this dream all the way to securing a roster spot as a wide receiver at the University of Texas. (Hook ’em!)

“But my belief in achieving this dream took a big hit my first practice as a freshman. I got lined up in a one-on-one drill with Lance Gunn, our senior All-American safety. Lance was 6’4, 240 pounds, who ran like Superman and hit like an 18-wheeler. Our coach said ‘hut’ and before I even took a step off the line of scrimmage, Lance had both hands on my shoulder pads, lifted me up off the ground, and proceeded to drop me on my head. I saw stars! At that point, I began thinking about finding another dream.”

If you love legal thrillers wrapped around an important social message, this is the perfect novel for you. And just like David Adams, maybe this story will turn your outlook on its head.

 

K. L. Romo

K. L. Romo writes about life on the fringe: teetering dangerously on the edge is more interesting than standing safely in the middle. She is passionate about women’s issues, loves noisy clocks and fuzzy blankets, but HATES the word normal. Visit her website or @klromo.
K. L. Romo

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