Christopher Scotton's ambitious debut novel The Secret Wisdom of the Earth generated such a torrent of in-house support from the publisher that the novel's first printing was bumped up to 100,000 copies. Scotton, CEO of a software company, took 15 years to write this story of a 14-year-old boy who spends a fateful summer with his grandfather in Kentucky coal country. Widely appealing and whispering of second chances, the coming-of-age tale mines the burden of loss for those living in a poor rural landscape that will never look the same. Recently, Scotton answered questions for Between the Covers.
Between the Covers: You capture so eloquently your characters' voices. What was the process for making them come alive for your readers? Was there anyone from your background who was the inspiration for your protagonist, Kevin?
Christopher Scotton: I create a deep written study for each main character, detailing everything about them and getting to know who they are — their hopes, fears, histories and dreams. Then I just let them combust in the plot. The old English 101 chestnut, show don’t tell, is probably the best single piece of advice about creating great characters. If one describes a character through their actions it’s just a more fulfilling experience for the reader — it allows the reader to better build out the wireframe of the characters in their mind. Kevin is very similar to the kind of kid I was at 14 — insecure, unsure, a bit nerdy. Fortunately, I had none of the grief and guilt that life has layered on him.
BTC: You have multiple stories and themes coursing through the small town of Medgar. How did you prepare yourself for telling the story of this unique local culture since you are not from Appalachia?
CS: I visited the region often in my teens and 20s and again when I was writing the novel. I let the feel of the place seep into my marrow so that, when back in London, I could transport myself there. On my trips I would just listen to the stories folks would tell, listen to the rhythm of their dialect. What I found was that small town Kentucky is not that different from small town Maryland where I grew up.
BTC: The setting for your novel is 1985 Kentucky coal country, where the earth seems to languish as much as your characters. Were you looking to make a statement about the devastation of mountaintop removal?
CS: I was not trying to make a statement so much as present the truth of mountaintop removal — the argument is not as simple as big bad coal vs. the people. The issues are much more nuanced than that. There really are few economic options for the hard working folks in the region so they are left with some very hard choices to make about their future. I’m personally against mountaintop removal, but I hope the novel presents a more balanced approach to the problem.
BTC: Your readers may be encountering a “madstone” for the first time. Why was introducing this folklore important to the story and your characters?
CS: A madstone is an old folk remedy to cure snake bites and fevers. It’s a calcified hairball-like thing from the intestine of a cud-chewing animal. You’re probably thinking, “Cool, where can I get one!” If someone is bitten by a copperhead or a rabid dog, the madstone would be applied to the bite, and the poisons would be drawn out of the bite. Madstones vary in strength and effectiveness — a madstone from a cow is only mildly effective, a madstone from a deer is considered quite powerful. However, the madstone from a white deer is the most powerful of all and unicorn-like in their scarcity. Interestingly, madstones can’t be bought or sold or they’ll lose their power; they must be found or given.
In the novel, the earth becomes a madstone for several of the characters, drawing out the pain and poison from the losses they suffer. The healing properties of the earth — both to heal us, her caretakers, and to heal herself — are a major theme in the novel, and the madstone is an example of that theme.
BTC: You grew up outside of D.C. in an area not too different from your protagonist, Kevin. Can you talk about how your experiences impacted the writing of the novel?
CS: I was born in Washington, D.C., but moved out to the country 30 miles north when I was 9 or 10 — back then it was undeveloped land and a truly magical place to be a kid. Those summers of secret swimming holes, tree forts, mud pits and dammed-up creeks provided a rich influence for Kevin and Buzzy’s back-country adventures. In my early teens, developers bought up much of the land and the endless woods of my youth became tract housing. I tried to bring that same “loss of place” experience to the novel. Being an outsider, as is Kevin, allowed me a bit more freedom to write as an outsider — but ultimately the narrative needed to be authentic, and I hope it is.
BTC: These are exciting times for you. Hachette ordered a 100,000 first printing. Reviews have been favorable. Some have compared your book to To Kill a Mockingbird. Taking a breath now, how has this whole process of publishing felt to you as a new author?
CS: It’s been fascinating, fun and more than just a little surreal. I feel so incredibly fortunate to be in this place. Hachette is taking a huge gamble on me as a complete unknown, with zero writing credentials and no platform. It really does demonstrate their commitment to bringing new voices to the market. The support I’ve gotten within the company, especially from the sales team, has been overwhelming…I’ll start breathing again come summer.
BTC: What’s next for you?
CS: I’m working on my second novel. It’s a completely different time period and a different setting from Secret Wisdom. It takes place in 1875; two 14-year-old Irish twin sisters emigrate to New York to live with their aunt and work as domestics. After a few weeks in America, they disappear without a trace. Their 19-year-old sister comes over to try and find them and she follows their trail from New York, across the country and ultimately out west in an attempt to rescue them and bring them home. It’s a great story and based on an actual series of events that happened in my family in the 1800s.
It’s hard to root against a 7-year-old named Millie Bird, the charming, precociously wise protagonist in Lost & Found, the heart-tugging debut by Australian author Brooke Davis. Millie just wants to find her mum, who has absconded from the large ladies’ underwear section of a local department store. Fortunately, Millie crosses paths with two peculiar octogenarians who become the unlikely minders for the abandoned Millie. It falls to them to reunite the little girl with her wayward mom.
Millie desperately needs a “Dot Four” since her father has died and now her grief-stricken mother has disappeared. Connecting the three dots from mom to dad to herself meant Millie felt safe. But now the red-gumboot-wearing, curly headed youngster is obsessed with dead things and carries a “just in case” glass jar around. She finds herself on a bumpy road trip through Western Australia suburbia with two elderly companions, who are also thinking about death but for different reasons. Karl the Touch Typist nervously types letters in the air as he speaks. He misses his dead wife. Millie’s neighbor, the sad and grumpy Agatha, has not left her house since her husband died seven years ago. “How do you get old without letting sadness become everything?” wonders Agatha. Indeed, it’s but one of many questions asked in Davis’ irresistible story that fuses the psychological reservoirs of grief with humor and the hopefulness of youthful perspective.
A suggested book club selection, Lost & Found may appear as a lighter read from its colorful, whimsical cover, but don’t be fooled. Inspired by events in the author’s own life, the novel was born out of a doctoral thesis on grief. Davis, whose own mother died suddenly in 2006, was “relearning the world” too, like her three distinctly voiced characters. With steady pacing and brief sectioned chapters, Lost & Found will strike a chord with anyone who has ever considered the many forms of missing someone and the different shapes of acceptance. Fans of The Rosie Project by fellow Australian author Graeme Simsion may also want to give this strong first effort a try.
Debut author Rebecca Scherm has embedded her new psychological suspense thriller Unbecoming with the ambiguous moral cracks of a femme fatale-like character, complicated and difficult to package. Grace keeps her life simple for a reason. The part-time antiques restorer can't return to her Garland, Tennessee, home because too many people know her story. Or do they? There is an art heist gone wrong, but this story is also about the interior journey of a 23-year-old woman whose past and conscience shape her into what she needs to be.
Grace is no longer Grace. Now she's Julie from California, working in the gritty outskirts of Paris. At Zunuso et Filles, she fixes broken old things and is not above switching out gems given to her by an unscrupulous boss. Her only friend is Hanna, a 34-year-old Polish woman, who sits across from her. She, too, has escaped her past. It's been three years since Grace's hometown artist husband Riley and his friend (and Grace's one-time lover) Alls broke into and looted the historic Wynne House Estate at Grace's suggestion. Now both men have been released from prison. Julie can't help but look over her shoulder. Will they come looking for her? What about the missing Dutch painting?
Things are never as they seem and so it is with this story. Scherm, who grew up in the South, was inspired by the Hitchcock movies she watched in her youth. She decidedly mines her protagonist's psyche to see where it falls in a plot that unfolds steadily and mainly in flashback. Rather than focus exclusively on the suspense of the crime, Scherm chooses the continuum of Grace's choices. With plenty of lying and double-crossing and lively, detailed descriptions of objets d'art, readers will find an entertaining read in the distant shades of Gillian Flynn and Patricia Highsmith.
Rolling up your sleeve for your flu shot this season, you probably did not think about the zoonoses you are keeping at bay. A zoonosis describes an infection that is transmitted from animal to human. The flu falls into this nasty category, as do other scary things like West Nile Virus, Lyme disease, rabies and, yes, Ebola. Science writer and explorer David Quammen is not trying to scare us in his slender but potent new book, Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus. Rather, he provides much needed perspective on the 2014 epidemic in West Africa that dominated the news here and abroad.
Where did Ebola come from? That's the question everyone wants answered about a disease whose first recognized emergence dates to 1976. Quammen takes us back to that point and the consequences of interconnected ecosystems. He writes in layman's terms about early efforts to sequester various species for testing only to be disappointed each time. "It was Zorro, it was the Swamp Fox, it was Jack the Ripper — dangerous, invisible, gone," Quammen says. This is the problem with a disease that moves, or spills over, from animals to humans. Identifying the reservoir host animal is key to understanding how the virus wreaks havoc, then disappears again, for perhaps decades. The need for containment is great for fear that it will eventually adapt. For scientists, the hunt is on.
Quammen, who extracted and updated material from his 2012 book, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, spent time in the jungles of Gabon, where he first encountered the "peculiar, disconcerting disease." Through interviews with laboratory sleuths and Ebola victims' families he fills in as many blanks as possible, writing in a highly readable journalistic style. Readers of Richard Preston's The Hot Zone, whom Quammen gently takes to task in his book, will find a fast-paced science mystery that urgently begs solving.
One of Shane Burcaw's biggest goals was getting people to see past his disability. It's fair to say he accomplishes that and more in his candid new memoir, Laughing at My Nightmare. Even the title suggests some of the self-deprecating humor that helps shape the amusing but bittersweet tone of Burcaw’s story. Saddled with spinal muscular atrophy at age 2, the 21-year-old has been in a wheelchair his whole life, but that's not what this young man’s story is about. It’s about figuring out how to live a life as close to normal and sharing his daily successes and failures along the way.
There is no cure for Burcaw’s condition. His body does not produce the enzyme necessary for producing and maintaining muscle tissue. His body is failing him, but he refuses to fail his body. Disease aside, the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, native is just a normal guy. He hangs out with his buddies, admits to liking girls and goofs off playing video games. The difference is he depends on others to do everything for him, from dressing to toileting. He has a hard time when it comes to fitting in with others with disabilities. The fact that he doesn’t want sympathy comes through loud and clear.
Burcaw shares his experiences through his blog, (also called "Laughing at My Nightmare"), where humor is an integral component. He figured there were people out there who would want to know what life for a severely disabled person is like. So he starts writing about sex, fear of dying, questions about God. Before he knew it, he had several thousand followers and was soon embarking on a national tour to raise money and awareness for his disease. Burcaw’s story is not without its somber moments. With short chapters, black and white photos and text bubbles, he manages to strike just the right chord for what he is trying to accomplish. “What if we traveled to schools and talked about humor and positivity?” he says, “We could help kids see that life is what they made it.” Teens and adults will find much to like in Burcaw’s heartfelt journey.
Ethics and morality get trumped by passion and ambition in Saskia Goldschmidt's disturbing yet engaging debut novel, The Hormone Factory, translated from Dutch by Hester Velmans. Mordechai de Paauw is the Dutch cofounder and CEO of a slaughterhouse-turned-pharmaceutical enterprise. His new company, Farmacom, becomes a global success for its pioneering of hormonal treatments, including the contraceptive pill. However, it is deeply overshadowed by the flawed humanity of its owner.
Now on his deathbed, Mordechai reflects on his turbulent life, its towering achievements and its darkest failures. He revisits the early days of the family butcher business he and his twin brother Aaron inherited from their father. It is Mordechai who sees the pharmaceutical possibilities of extracting hormones from animal waste, but it is Aaron who pays a dear price. Mordechai seeks and forms an uneasy partnership with an equally ambitious German scientist, Rafael Levine. The two mount one breakthrough after another while Hitler charges toward Holland’s doorstep. World War II threatens Mordechai's interests, as do gross errors in judgment, personal and professional.
Goldschmidt, whose father survived the concentration camp at Bergen Belsen, found material for this story while conducting research for another book. "I came across the file of Professor Laqueur, a famous pharmacologist and clinician, one of the founders of the pharmaceutical company Organon and the man who discovered testosterone. More important, he also happened to be my father's first father-in-law." Professor Laqueur’s collaboration with the Van Zwanenberg slaughterhouse owned by two brothers from the town of Oss, Holland, eventually resulted in one of the country's first multinational pharmaceutical companies. To be sure, Goldschmidt's imagined story of the real players sheds an unflattering light on a young industry on the cusp of discovering miracle drugs. An intriguing book club read, this story will resonate with anyone who has ever swallowed an aspirin.
Life has always been in the details for Addie Baum, the 85-year-old protagonist in Anita Diamant's new historical novel, The Boston Girl. When her youngest granddaughter asks her to tell her life story, Addie starts at the beginning. Born at the turn of the century, this daughter of Jewish Russian immigrants endures disappointments and obstacles along the way to living a full life defined by plucky resolve and passion. In Diamant's capable hands, Addie's first person narrative is a gentle and lovely rewinding back to the soul of another time and place.
Coming of age as a Jewish woman in the 20th century, Addie endures the endless harping of her suspicious mother who sees America as the wrecker of young women. Home is in a tenement in the north end of Boston, where there is just enough money for food and rent. Staying in school becomes Addie's dream despite her mother's low expectations. It's her love of reading that opens doors to the world she will eventually inhabit. When she lands an invite to join the Saturday Club girls at their camp at Rockport Lodge, she forms friendships along with opinions and new experiences. For Addie, it is time of Parker House rolls and keeping boys from getting "fresh." When she tries on long pants for the first time she can't believe how liberating it feels.
Diamant, whose previous works include the highly regarded The Red Tent, wades through a significant period in American history, including sweat shops, the flu epidemic, World War I, the Depression and feminism, just as Addie matures and exploits her own personal potential. While this latest novel may be a lighter read than Diamant's previous works, readers will enjoy the plot-moving short chapters that capture the intrinsic nature of the early 20th century immigrant experience in America. The Boston Girl should make an excellent book club selection for those examining the breadth of connections that sustain us.