An Indies Introduce Debut Author Q&A With Tom Bouman

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Photo credit: Lesli Van Zandbergen.

Tom Bouman is the author of Dry Bones in the Valley (W.W. Norton), which was chosen by booksellers for both the Summer/Fall 2014 Indies Introduce promotion and the July 2014 Indie Next List. A former book editor and musician, Bouman lives with his wife and daughter in northeastern Pennsylvania.

The lone policeman in Wild Thyme, Pennsylvania, Henry Farrell has watched as the steady encroachment of gas drilling brings new wealth, a burgeoning drug trade, and an erosion of neighborly trust. When a stranger turns up dead, Henry’s search for the killer opens old wounds and exacts a deadly price.

“What I love best about this book is the lead character, Henry Farrell,” said Liberty Hardy of RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. “He’s a regular guy. He’s not a superhero — he gets his gun taken away from him by the bad guys more often than not — but he’s still driven to do what he thinks is right.”

Dry Bones in the Valley sounds like it is biblically influenced. Can you tell us why you chose this line as the title and how it represents not just the community in your debut, but the story as a whole?

Tom Bouman: The title is biblical, indirectly. It’s a line from the hymn “Dry Bones” as recorded by Bascom Lamar Lunsford in 1928, which became a kind of folk standard. It’s a strange song, full of supernatural imagery. The specific line is “Dry bones in that valley got up and took a little walk.” What a wonderful understatement. The book is much concerned with the past intruding on present, death intruding on life, and the possibility — or not — of resurrection. It also connects with Henry Farrell’s love of old-time music, which I think of as a form of resurrection as well, and of maintaining weird traditions that you might find when you’re a long way out.

What is rural noir and how does it speak to an increasingly urban population?

TB: American rural crime fiction is almost 200 years old, but lately rural noir does seem to have been distilled into its own subcategory a bit more. I’m tempted to answer that it’s the same as noir, only with dirt roads instead of mean streets. But of course rural crime fiction has concerns specific to place and socio-economic status. The neglected underbelly of the countryside is where rural noir lives. Desperate characters live and die outside the law. Since my novel’s main character is a policeman, Dry Bones is more of a rural noir/procedural, if we really want to get specific.

I think the second part of the question almost answers itself: the American populace is increasingly clustered around metropolitan areas. Much of the mainstream entertainment people absorb is urban or suburban in nature, and it’s possible that true rural life has become kind of exotic. Rural noir is a highly concentrated, often-distorted portrait of the American countryside. I’d hate to think that someone who’d never spent any time in the country would think rural noir fiction represents the way it is all the time, everywhere.

Fracking is a controversial topic in the U.S. at the moment. Is this an issue you are passionate about? What inspired you to use it as the background for your debut?

TB: Hydrofracking and the Marcellus Shale boom is a mixed negative for me. It has done some good for people out here. Generally, I can’t support pursuing yet more fossil fuel, especially when the environmental and economic benefits of natural gas seem to have been overstated; we need to be investing in actual solutions, cultural as well as industrial. And I hate that gas operators won’t admit what chemicals they’re using in their slickwater, and I worry about surface spills, air pollution, and a whole range of things that could go wrong and in some cases have already. To not know what’s going on all around you, in the air, earth, and water, and to have no control over it — that’s a bad scene. The lack of effective regulation is terrifying, and we’ve seen over and over again in various places and events that big business won’t police itself.

As the Marcellus play was beginning to take shape, I had to confront the real possibility that my home-place was in danger of being irrevocably changed for the worse. I channeled a lot of that fear into the novel. When my wife and daughter and I moved back to family land on a quiet dirt road, the first night we were there, they were fracking a well a couple miles away. Trucks roaring up and down the road every two minutes, all night and day. Even so, it’s been quieter than I expected. Knocking on wood.

How did Larry Brown’s Joe change your perception of what fiction could be?

TB: In my early 20s I visited Oxford, Mississippi, and Lisa Howorth wouldn’t let me leave Square Books without a first edition of Joe. Though I’m from rural Pennsylvania, I recognized something in the derelict landscape of the novel, which takes place in Mississippi hill country. Brown’s prose has tremendous impact. So, I suppose encountering that forceful narrative and style paired with contemporary rural subjects, at the right time, reoriented me to what my own material could and should be.

At BookExpo America, you said that every town should have a bicycle shop, a Thai restaurant, and an indie bookstore — so we have to ask: Does your town have all three?

TB: You know it. The nearest town is Binghamton, New York, which is home to RiverRead Books, my store of choice these days. And we have Chenango Point Cycles and several Thai joints.

As a former editor and now published author, what advice would you give others interested in writing?

TB: All I know is what has worked for me so far. Read widely. Don’t be in a rush to publish. Go to bed early, and don’t let your work-in-progress lie fallow too long. Meet people and get involved in things. Know more about your characters than what appears on the page. Find a way to love your characters, even — especially — the reprobates and villains. Allow yourself to write the work you want to, but for Pete’s sake consider the reader, always.

Do you plan on creating a series for Officer Henry Farrell?

TB: I have four books in mind, total, for Henry. They’ll span years, but be roughly divided by season. Dry Bones was a springtime book, and summer is next.

If you were a bookseller for a day, what book would you want to put in every customer’s hand?

TB: Lonesome Dove. It’s the only book that I could hand with confidence to almost anyone who reads fiction. For those who only read nonfiction, George Packer’s The Unwinding.

What was your favorite book as a child? As a young adult? Today?

TB: The House With the Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey; the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian.

Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman (W.W. Norton & Company, Hardcover, 9780393243024). Publication Date: July 7, 2014.

Learn more about Tom Bouman at

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