A Q&A With Christopher Scotton, Author of January’s #1 Indie Next List Pick

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Booksellers have selected The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by debut author Christopher Scotton (Grand Central Publishing) as the top Indie Next List pick for January.

The story centers on 14-year-old Kevin Gillooly, who is spending the summer of 1985 in the Appalachian town of Medgar, Kentucky, while coping with the horrific death of his younger brother. The small, rural town experiences an equally tragic event, while its inhabitants are reeling from the closure of the coal mines and the new mountaintop removal program that is destroying the landscape around them. Kevin spends his summer adventuring through the mountains with his new pal, Buzzy Fink, and his grandfather, Pops, learning the law of the land, exploring the striking landscape, and coming to terms with his grief.

“While Kevin’s grandfather is just the person and the wild hollows surrounding their little town just the place to help him mend, Kevin finds that Medgar and its citizens are in need of healing as well, said Catherine Weller of Weller Book Works in Salt Lake City, Utah. “Scotton’s finely wrought characters, perfectly paced plot, and keen sense of place make The Secret Wisdom of the Earth resonate with the reader long after the book has been finished.”

Here, Scotton discusses what inspired him to write a novel after years in the technology business, his own life experiences that influenced Kevin’s story, and how he learned about the Appalachian Mountain region and the small towns and people who inhabit it.

Bookselling This Week: The images and scenes in The Secret Wisdom of the Earth are incredibly vivid and real. Did you draw on any of your own life experiences or childhood memories to create Kevin’s story?

Photo by Lee Kriel Photography

Christopher Scotton: A number of events from my childhood and early adulthood, as well as those of friends, helped shape Kevin’s story. I was born in Washington, D.C., but moved out to the country 30 miles north when I was nine 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 damned-up creeks provided a rich influence for Kevin and Buzzy’s backcountry 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.

The horrific death of Kevin’s younger brother actually happened to a good friend’s brother. When he told me the story 20-some years ago, I was so shaken by it that the scene stayed with me and became the idea seed for Secret Wisdom. Some readers have said that the manner of young Josh’s death just isn’t believable — that no child could suffer such an awful, bizarre accident — but it’s actually one of the few true-to-life plot points in the novel.

BTW: Why did you choose to shape the story around the landscape of the Appalachian Mountains, and how did you achieve such detailed knowledge of the region?

CS: In my teens and 20s I was an avid backpacker and backwoods camper and took many trips into the mountains of Appalachia, primarily in Virginia and West Virginia. Those trips infused in me an intense love of the mountains and the people of the region — I’ve come to love it like a local. I chose eastern Kentucky because it seems to be a place of great paradox — stunning natural beauty but saddled with an economy that is destroying the very essence of the place. Mountaintop removal [mining] has hit the counties in eastern Kentucky disproportionately hard and I saw the loss of those proud, ancient hills as a fitting allegory for the loss all of the main characters in the novel experience. Once I chose eastern Kentucky as a setting, I visited the area as often as I could to let the feel of the region seep into my marrow. And once I bonded with the place, it was easy to transport myself there while writing about it.

BTW: For Kevin, the beauty and nature of Medgar offer escape from his grief, but for the townspeople, the land is more than just that — it’s their livelihood, their heritage, and who they are. How did you learn about the workings of small towns like Medgar and the people who live in them?

CS: On my visits to the towns in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, I just observed and listened to the rich stories along with the flowing cadences of their speech. What I realized was that small-town Appalachia isn’t very different from small-town Maryland, where I grew up. In Laytonsville, my hometown, we had a general store not unlike Hivey’s Farm Supply, where many of the retired locals would gather at the back and jowl the day away. It was a great little town … still is.

BTW: The Secret Wisdom of the Earth takes place in the 1980s, and there is a notable absence of the types of technology that are ingrained in our lives today. Did you find that setting the story in that time period presented restrictions on your narrative, or more freedom?

CS: I think narrative restrictions are nearly always self-imposed — a good writer can write their way around them.  But I think physical interactions and feelings are the heart of great stories and I just can’t imagine crafting a compelling tale that unfolds on Twitter or WhatsApp. They just seem a poor substitute — a literary gadget, if you will — for meaningful personal interactions in a narrative (and in life). In many ways, Secret Wisdom is happily, purposefully anachronistic — it’s a yellowed postcard, pin-stuck to a bulletin board, from a simpler, gentler time in the not-too-distant past. I hope readers look upon the card often, and with affection and wistfulness.

BTW: You have spent your career in the technology world and are now president and CEO of a software firm. Why did you decide to write a novel? What was the process like for you?

CS: Ever since my early teens, when I discovered Lord of the Flies, Call of the Wild, Huck Finn, and To Kill a Mockingbird, I’ve always dreamed of writing a novel. Those books first taught me the transformative power of great stories and kindled a burning inside me to write a similar story. But life sometimes gets in the way of our dreams and I took a different path. Regardless, I always kept that dream of being a novelist close to heart. When I was nearing 40 and staring hard at a mid-life crisis, I realized that this great dream of being a writer was about to become my single greatest regret. I started writing Secret Wisdom the very next day.

But the process was slow, wrenching at times, because I was running a company in London, raising two young boys, coaching soccer, and living my life. The only time I had to write was in the morning before my kids woke. So I’d rise at 5:00 a.m., write for an hour or two, then help with the kids, go off to work, come home, help with the kids some more, edit what I wrote that morning, go to bed. That’s why the damn thing took so long!