Debut Author Snapshot: James A. McLaughlin

Posted by Goodreads on May 30, 2018
In the debut novel Bearskin, readers are introduced to Rice Moore, a biological science tech and former smuggler along the Arizona-Mexico border. Hoping to forget his criminal past, he fled the Southwest, covering his tracks as best he could, and now he works as the caretaker of a remote forest preserve in Virginia.

After six months alone in the mountains, he's just beginning to believe his troubles are behind him when a mysterious one-armed man walks out of the forest and shows him a mutilated bear carcass, the paws cut off and gallbladder removed. The preserve has been a de facto bear sanctuary for more than 100 years, so for Rice, the bear poaching is a serious violation. More bears are killed, and he suspects a clan of local meth dealers is responsible. Despite his desire to stay hidden, Rice's obsession with catching the bear poachers escalates, leading to…well, let's just say it gets complicated for him.

Writer James A. McLaughlin explained to Goodreads that his story was inspired by a hitchhiker's tale of what he'd witnessed in the backwoods of West Virginia, and he described his debut thriller's long road to publication.

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Goodreads: Tell us a bit about yourself and how you became a writer.

James A. McLaughlin: For the past 15 years or so, I've worked as a lawyer for a land conservation business I founded with a good friend in Virginia. But my passion has always been writing. My earliest memories of literature are from my family's summer camp in the mountains—I'm eight years old, and a counselor is reading Flannery O'Connor or Mark Twain or J.R.R. Tolkien out loud as it's getting dark, with bullfrogs and crickets and whip-poor-wills as sonic backdrop. That kind of thing alters your DNA. I was deeply affected by story, maybe more so than other kids, and it seemed natural to want to make stories myself. So at a pretty early age, I decided I would be a writer, the kind who spends a lot of time outdoors, has amazing adventures, and writes books. My notion of what it is to be a writer has been evolving ever since!

GR: What sparked the idea for Bearskin?

JAM: My cousin told me about a hitchhiker he'd picked up on a back road in the mountains of western Virginia. Apparently the guy made his living gathering things like ginseng and whatever mushrooms were in season and selling them, so he spent a lot of time walking around in the backcountry, and he told my cousin he'd been finding bear carcasses left out in the woods. The carcasses had been mutilated, their paws cut off and the gallbladders removed.

I looked into it and found out black marketeers were paying poachers a few hundred bucks for each set of paws and gallbladder. They would export the parts to Asia for use in traditional medicine. I started wondering what you would do if you found bear carcasses on your property, what might happen if you encountered these profit-motivated poachers—or, more interesting, what someone who's a little bit dangerous might do—and that turned into the opening scene of what became Bearskin.

GR: Tell us about your research and writing process for the book.

JAM: The process played out over an unusually long time. I finished Bearskin 1.0 in the late '90s, but no one was interested, so I put it in a drawer. When a friend suggested years later that I work on it again, I threw out all the main characters but kept the setting and premise. After a few chapters, I felt like I'd finished, so I sent it out as a novella. The Missouri Review published it, and I heard from a few agents asking where was the rest. There was no rest. I was working on something else by then. But eventually I decided to extend the novella into a novel…how hard could it be? That was 2010. Five years later, I had a draft.

Also, all this time was passing, and I had to keep updating the research. The first phase involved fun stuff like sneaking into a seedy hotel in the middle of the night to interview an undercover game warden who had infiltrated a bear poaching ring. Then the backstory in southern Arizona gave me an excuse to repeatedly visit a cousin in Tucson and explore the border country. I read a lot of books about bears, bear hunting, old-growth forests, Mexican cartels, snipers, gunfighting. I pestered scientists and federal law enforcement agents with questions.

GR: You're also a wildlife and landscape photographer. How does this visual skill inform your writing?

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JAM: I started these things with great seriousness when I was in high school, but decades later I'm still solidly amateur as a photographer. The photography has helped me hone powers of observation that I hope show up in my writing: stuff like caring about the nuances of light and learning animal behavior. I've found through wildlife photography, you can become a hunter of everything, from insects to bears. You develop this intense, patient, wide-ranging attention that enhances your engagement with the world.

GR: What writers are you influenced by, and how do those influences show themselves in Bearskin?

JAM: I'm drawn to writers who work from big perspectives, who challenge me to understand that all drama necessarily is situated within older, larger contexts—the long, broad sweep of human experience within the more-than-human world. Cormac McCarthy, of course. Flannery O'Connor, as I already mentioned. James Dickey, Annie Dillard, and Jim Harrison were huge influences. Writers who take the old "man vs. nature" theme and just blow it up: They pushed me to portray the physical setting not as aesthetic backdrop but as a complex character. The forest in Bearskin is alive and active, a myriad collection of large and small forces interacting with the human characters, not romanticized but respected. And finally, I've learned so much from Tana French—I was mesmerized by In the Woods, and her original and beautifully written mysteries continue to inspire me.

GR: What do you hope readers take away from reading your debut?

JAM: My cousin—the one who gave me the origin anecdote with the mushroom picker—read an advance copy of the book, and he told me, among other things, that it made him want to pay more attention when he's "out there." The protagonist, Rice Moore, is closed down in a lot of ways; there are important aspects of his own character and his past that he denies himself access to. But he is almost pathologically driven to pay attention. He's porous to the overwhelming presence and complexity of the central Appalachian mixed hardwood forest he finds himself immersed in. He talks to the wildlife; he believes the forest is watching him. I'm not saying anyone would want to have the same consciousness-expanding experience Rice has, but I'd love it if readers feel opened up, like my cousin said, to the larger world in a way they hadn't before.

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GR: What are you currently reading, and what books are you recommending to your friends?

JAM: I've been happily consuming C.J. Box's wonderful Joe Pickett series, and I just started Sam J. Miller's Blackfish City— a woman shows up at a floating city with an orca and a polar bear, of course I'm hooked. Richard Powers' The Overstory and Thomas McGuane's new collection, Cloudbursts, are on deck. I find poetry helps with my problems as a fiction writer, and I've been dipping into Dabney Stuart's Time's Body and John Haines' The Owl in the Mask of the Dreamer. Besides the books I've already mentioned, I'm quick to recommend Emily St. John Mandel's Station ElevenMichael Knight's EveninglandHelen Macdonald's H Is for Hawk. And Ian McGuire's The North Water, my God, that's the best book I've read in ten years; it was like a branding iron, the whole thing is seared into my mind.

GR: What's next for you? Any preview you can give readers?

JAM: I've been inspired by something I read in Barry Lopez's Of Wolves and Men, about a guy who trained eagles to hunt wolves by dressing up his servants' children in wolf skins and having them crawl around on the ground to entice the eagles to attack. That bizarre scene has stuck with me over the years…I wondered how those kids might've turned out, and eventually these two siblings—a brother and sister—started showing up in my dreams. They might show up in a different part of Rice Moore's life, since he's someone I certainly want to keep writing about.

Comments Showing 1-12 of 12 (12 new)

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message 1: by Brett (new)

Brett Starr Excellent stuff!

message 2: by Gail (new)

Gail Hedrick In my opinion, a must read! And, it also puts the woods of my former home state in a whole different light.... Congrats!

message 3: by Lynne (new)

Lynne amazing book, and a great interview - nice to know how the story evolved over time, and to learn more about the author.

message 4: by Amy (new)

Amy Brooks Definitely want to read this book now!

message 5: by Nancy (new)

Nancy Cannot wait to read this book!

message 6: by Helen (new)

Helen I'll take Bearskin with me to the Smokies this fall. Of course, it may spook me too much to hike into the NP.

message 7: by Rosa (new)

Rosa Heinsohn I’m intrigued and want to read!

message 8: by Virginia (new)

Virginia Lee Can't wait to read this!!

message 9: by Pamela (new)

Pamela Beason I'm so glad a friend sent me a link to this post, James. It sounds like we write in the same categories, with a lot of the same interests and concerns. I can't wait to read Bearskin--going to find it right now!

Pamela Beason

message 10: by Tonya (new)

Tonya Plank Thank you so much for this insightful interview! Best, most reflective, thought-provoking thriller I've read. I definitely think a movie needs to be made!

message 11: by Mary (new)

Mary "Bearskin" was the best book I read in 2018. And I read a lot of books.

message 12: by Becca (new)

Becca Really enjoyed it -- glad to hear it will continue as a series.

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