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Christopher Scotton Tackles Big Issues, Complex Relationships With Debut Novel

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Lee Kriel
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Christopher Scotton’s debut novel, The Secret Wisdom of the Earth, tells the story of a young man living with his mother and grandfather deep in the heart of Appalachia. The book’s young protagonist, Kevin, and his mother are trying to cope with the death of Kevin’s young brother. Set against the backdrop of mountaintop removal and a murder, the novel has already been proclaimed a classic by some critics.

Scotton says that he took great inspiration from writers of the past as he sat down to write his own book, many of them steeped in the southern gothic tradition.

“I’m a huge Flannery O’ Connor fan and Cormac McCarthy," he says. "Larry McMurtry with Lonesome Dove was kind of a seminal book. The voice of Pops, one of my characters, is not dissimilar to Gus McCrae in Lonesome Dove. To Kill A Mockingbird was a huge, huge influence on me. I read it when I was 14. That really opened my mind to the transformative power of a great story.”

In keeping with those novels and others, such as Catcher in the Rye, The Secret Wisdom of the Earth is a novel written for adults but one which young adults will also find appealing. With dark, dystopian novels seemingly everywhere he wanted to do something different.

“I wanted to write something for both adults and young readers that certainly had its dark moments but ultimately was hopeful and redemptive,” Scotton says. 

Although he was raised outside Washington, DC, Scotton came to love Appalachia, its people and its history.

“It was such a welcome change and welcome respite from the boring suburbs," he says. "It’s paradoxical in that, especially in Eastern Kentucky, you’ve got a beautiful, beautiful region that’s scarred by mountaintop removal.”

The very thing that the locals turn to to make their livings is in reality the very thing that’s destroying the region. Mountaintop removal is a process which forever changes the landscape.

“They take off the top 800 feet of the mountain and they push it into the adjoining hollow and level the land," Scotton says. "They extract the coal from the seams that are then exposed. These are mountains that were there long before us and yet they’re being taken away. Something like 500 mountains in Appalachia have been destroyed by mountaintop removal in the last 10 years. Those mountains aren’t coming back and that, to me, is a tragedy.”

And yet Secret Wisdom is not a political novel.

“I felt a real moral obligation to the people of that region—both those opposed and those working in the mines to present it in an honest and authentic way,” he says. 

Christopher Scotton reads from The Secret Wisdom of the Earth on Friday evening at Watermark Books.