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Annapolis CEO publishes debut novel set in Appalachian coal-mining town

Christopher Scotton, author of "The Secret Wisdom of the Earth."
Christopher Scotton, author of "The Secret Wisdom of the Earth." (Lee Kriel Photography, Handout / Baltimore Sun)

When Christopher Scotton was 38, the tale he'd been telling himself all his life about who he was finally came true.

Scotton, a McDaniel College graduate and Annapolis resident, was a successful CEO who had run technology and venture capital firms. But ever since reading "Lord of the Flies" as a high school freshman, Scotton had thought that his true calling was an author.

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"I'd always had a dream of writing a novel," the author, now 53, says over the phone.

"But I kept delaying and delaying and coming up with every excuse in the book," Scotton says. "I told myself I was far too busy making money and running these companies to write a novel. But the truth was that I was afraid of failing.

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"Then one day, when we were on vacation in Tuscany, I had an epiphany and realized that not becoming a writer was about to become the single biggest regret of my life. We left Italy the next day, and the day after that I started writing 'The Secret Wisdom of the Earth.'"

The novel, which is being released Tuesday, is generating early buzz, thanks to its coming-of-age story set in the Appalachians.

After experiencing a devastating family tragedy, 14-year-old Kevin comes to eastern Kentucky in 1985 to spend the summer with his grandfather. He forms a close friendship with a mountain boy named Buzzy Fink, and the teens soon become embroiled in the complicated politics of the small coal town.

Mountaintop removal has come to the Appalachians, and the town is split between mining families who depend on the income from coal to survive and those who decry the devastation to the environment. The town is further polarized when the leader of the protesters identifies himself as a gay man.

Scotton recently spoke about his inspiration for the novel, which has been selected as the No. 1 "Indie Next Pick" for January by the American Booksellers Association. The interview that follows has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You didn't grow up in eastern Kentucky and you've never lived there. What inspired you to set your novel in the Appalachians?

In my teens and 20s, I did a lot of backpacking in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia and West Virginia. I fell in love with the beauty of the region and with the solitude. And the people are really interesting: funny, quirky and clannish. I felt it would be a good backdrop for Kevin's story.

What inspired the heartbreaking event that serves as the novel's catalyst?

The idea for the novel actually came to me when I was in my 20s, but I ruminated on it for a number of years.

I had met the mother of a close friend for the first time — a beautiful woman who had a deep-set sadness about her. When I asked about her, my friend told me about a tragedy that had happened in his family before he was born. His mother had been working in her yard when her firstborn child had a terrible accident, and she watched helplessly as he died. It was very clear that, 30 years later, she had not fully healed.

Was the other tragedy in the book — a hate crime involving a gay man — also rooted in your personal experience?

In my 20s, I worked as a carny at an amusement park in Rehoboth Beach in Delaware. Rehoboth Beach has a large gay population, and I witnessed someone I was working with nearly beat a gay man to death. That was very shocking to me.

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My co-workers and I were out at midnight ordering pizza. I heard a commotion behind me, and turned around. One of my co-workers had jumped on this gay man and was punching and kicking him senseless. My friends and I pulled him off and police came out and arrested him.

It was very violent and very quick. I couldn't believe that in literally four or five seconds, he could have done so much damage to this other man, who was lying in a pool of blood. That scene stuck with me.

In the book, it seems pretty clear that you abhor mountaintop removal because of the damage it does to the landscape and environment. But you're careful not to condemn the miners who actually blow up these mountains. Where do you come down on this issue?

I'm flat-out against mountaintop removal, but I did not want to write a polemic against coal. I met with families whose livelihood is the mines. They're making $50,000 or $60,000 a year driving a haul truck, and there's nowhere else in eastern Kentucky where they could make that kind of money.

Unfortunately, there are not a lot of economic alternatives. I love the region and I love the people, and I think they deserve better options.

You've just written your debut novel and you have no contacts whatsoever in the publishing industry. Yet you landed a book deal with an A-list Manhattan publisher. How did you pull that off?

I applied the exact same methodology to finding an agent that I apply to finding venture capital. Sending out queries to 500 agents is a waste of time. Instead, I did the research to find the right agent for me.

I figured that I needed to find an agent who, No. 1, was taking on new clients. I needed to find an agent who likes debut novels and coming-of-age novels and has [represented] them. I wanted to find someone who likes Southern fiction and literary fiction.

I took the whole database of agents and boiled it down to maybe 20 names. I wrote a really good query letter and enclosed the first three chapters of the novel. I heard back from a few, and got a very nice note back from the woman I ended up hiring.

We worked on the book together for the next six months. She sent it out to five or six publishers, and Grand Central bought it two days later.

About the book

"The Secret Wisdom of the Earth" will be published Tuesday by Grand Central Publishing. $26, 466 pages.

If you go

Author Christopher Scotton will read from his new novel at 7 p.m. Jan. 29 at The Curious Iguana bookstore, 12 N. Market St., Frederick. Free. Call 301-695-2500 or go to curiousiguana.com.

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