About Christopher Scotton

 

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I grew up about 30 miles outside of Washington, D.C. in what was then undeveloped country. It was a place of cornfields and tree houses, dammed-up creeks and secret swimming holes. In the summers, my brothers and I would dash out around 8:00 am for wherever and return just in time for dinner in the evening. It was a magical place to be a kid and I wanted to recapture that wonder of discovery as fourteen year-old Kevin explores his new surroundings in my debut novel The Secret Wisdom of the Earth.

When I was about Kevin’s age, developers bought up most of the land and the idyllic bounds of my childhood became one big construction site—creeks were backfilled and swimming holes ran to mud. All of us neighborhood hellions felt a great sense of loss at the destruction of our woods—one we couldn’t quite understand or articulate, but it hung over us that summer like a fogged-in field.

The developers kept on developing and by the time I went off to college, the countryside of my youth was solidly suburban. It was in college that I first fell in love with Appalachia. Initially for her music—the spinning lilt of a fiddle reel; the compact fury of a mandolin run; the plaintive harmonies—then, for her beauty, as I came to know the region in my twenties with little but a backpack and a camp stove.

About that time, I met a good friend’s mother for the first time—she was an incredibly beautiful woman who seemed to carry with her a deep-set sadness that only showed itself in her most unguarded moments. I asked my friend about it and he told me the story of how his three-year-old brother died in the most horrific accident at home you could possible imagine. I was horrified, of course—it’s an experience well past any parent’s worst nightmare—and it was obvious that even after 30 years, she had never quite healed.

I carried the story of her son’s death with me for many years and knew that I had to write a novel about its effect on a family. I also knew that Appalachia, a region I loved so well, would be a perfect setting for this nascent coming-of-age novel.

But as the years unspooled—I graduated from college, began a career in technology marketing, moved to London, got married, started a company, had kids—I discovered innumerable reasons not to write. In fact, I perfected the art of excuse-making. On and on, month after month, year-to-year.

And as I stared down forty, I realized that this great bright dream of being a novelist was in danger of becoming my single biggest regret. I began writing The Secret Wisdom of the Earth the very next day, with the awful death of my friend’s young brother as the tragedy that sets the story in motion.

It was slow-going, to be sure—I’d rise at 5:00 a.m. each morning, write in the quiet hours before work, then revise and edit in the evenings after putting my boys to bed. But it was in this routine of early rising and evening editing that the main characters, Kevin, Buzzy, Pops, Tilroy and Paul, began to take shape.

I completed about half of the novel in London—fleshing out those characters, their relationships and the loss each of them suffers—but something was clearly missing from the story. The various plot paths I needed to tie everything together turned out to be nub ends.

I moved back to the States and immediately went down to eastern Kentucky in hopes of breaking this narrative logjam. It was on this trip that I saw my first Mountaintop Removal operation.

The horrific gray scar of that mine brought back the sense of sickening loss I’d had at fourteen when the pristine woods I’d grown up in were cut down, hauled away and replaced with tract housing. I knew then, looking out over this massive, denuded landscape in Kentucky, that the eradication of these proud ancient mountains was a fitting allegory for a loss that all of the main characters suffer. Once I connected these themes, the rest of the story began to bubble forth.

My trips to Kentucky, talking with folks and listening to their stories, showed me that the apologue of Mountaintop Removal is a complicated one—one that can’t be reduced to simply good vs. evil or rich vs. poor. The geography of this beautiful region makes for an economic hairball and the many decent people who inhabit it are forced to choose from a short list of bad options. I tried to portray this hard-bought paradox and lay it alongside Kevin’s story in a compelling way.

I’m working on my second novel now, still rising early to write then editing in the evening. And I’ve got more time to work on it since my boys are teenagers now–off damming up creeks and discovering their own secret swimming holes.

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