Please welcome Matthew Guinn to the blog as a part of my series on the 2014 Edgar Award nominees! His novel, THE RESURRECTIONIST, was nominated for Best First Novel by an American Author, and he was kind enough to stop by and answer a few questions about it!
It’s only a couple of weeks until the awards are announced, so be sure to check out all of my Edgar nominee interviews.
Congrats on the Edgar Award nomination for The Resurrectionist! Have you always wanted to be a writer? Will you tell us more about yourself and your background?
I was always a reader, but wasn’t absolutely certain that I wanted to be a novelist until I met Andrew Lytle in Monteagle, Tennessee, in the early 1990s. I’d read his novel The Velvet Horn and was amazed to meet a person capable of such an achievement. His example of vision and craft continues to inspire me.
I grew up in Atlanta and graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in English and religion in 1992. I planned to go to graduate school and hopefully teach college English during the years that I knew it would take for me to learn how to write a novel. My goal was to study with writers who were excelling at the kind of fiction I hoped to write. I’d read Larry Brown and knew that he was in Oxford, MS; I’d also read Deliverance and knew that James Dickey was at the University of South Carolina. I ended up at Ole Miss first, which was great because I met my wife Kristen in school there. We went to USC next and I was lucky enough to be Mr. Dickey’s personal assistant. He was larger than life; a real inspiration.
I love the premise of the book, but will you tell us a little more about it and what inspired you to write it?
The premise of The Resurrectionist derives from an actual 1989 discovery of bones buried beneath the Medical College of Georgia. The bones were the remains of bodies disinterred from Augusta’s African American cemetery by MCG’s slave resurrectionist, a man named Grandison Harris. The scholarly book Bones in the Basement details the “salvage archaeology” that took place there. MCG handled the event as decently as they could; for the purposes of fiction, I changed the locale and had my fictional school attempt a cover-up.
It seemed to me that the pilfering of African American cemeteries—for the purpose of educating Caucasian physicians to help their fellow man—was perhaps the most galling historical example of slavery of them all. All the twisted, ironic logic of slavery is present in that, reduced to extremes: white vs. black; human vs. property; fellow man vs. chattel.
Writing the character of Nemo Johnston also taught me a lot. I was inspired by Richard Wright and his black protagonists in all their impossible dilemmas. I progressed from thinking (as a white man in the 21st century) “Why would Nemo do that to his own people?” to thinking, as one of the African American characters in the novel says, “What makes you think he had a choice?”
What kind of research did you do for the book?
Beyond Bones in the Basement, Abraham Flexner’s report on medical schools for the Carnegie Foundation (1910) was a revelation. The scene in The Resurrectionist about dissecting goats for gross anatomy—I didn’t make that up! I also visited an anatomy lab, where I held a human heart in my hand (memento mori, indeed) and benefited greatly from my friendships with several good physicians. For the slavery aspects of the book I relied on my graduate training in southern literature at the University of South Carolina, where we studied a number of slave narratives and pro-slavery arguments by white southerners of the 19th century. It’s a disgraceful part of our history, but one we need to remain mindful of.
What is your writing process like?
I try to hit it as early as I can, before the so-called “real world” bears down with bills, appointments, obligations. This year I’ve been writing in a friend’s barn, where I see whitetail deer every morning. They are fabulous muses.
What is one of the first things you can remember writing?
I’m reminded of Andrew Lytle’s statement that “fire is a great refiner,” which he told to the young Harry Crews. Anything I wrote early is up in smoke, where it belongs. The first story of mine that was any good was “The Old Neighborhood,” published in a little Oxford, MS, magazine called SouthVine back in 1994.
Who are a few of your biggest literary influences?
I have two framed posters on the wall behind my desk: one of James Dickey and one of Larry Brown. Anything I write that doesn’t seem to make either of their likenesses cringe, I keep. I was lucky to know both men and they were very generous to me as a young writer. Among authors I haven’t known personally, James Lee Burke is a huge influence, as are Pat Conroy, Stephen King, and Mo Hayder. My two idols of Southern Gothic are Richard Wright and Flannery O’Connor.
If you could experience one book again for the very first time, which one would it be?
Probably Audubon: A Vision, by Robert Penn Warren. It’s a long, complex poem but one that shakes you awake to the gift of being alive. (That’s what Southern Gothic is really about, if I’ve read O’Connor right: through darkness, toward light.) Audubon contains a wonderful line that every Protestant raised in the Bible Belt should hear every morning: “walk in the world. Yes, love it!” We tend to get hung up on hellfire and damnation down here, but Warren reminds us that (to quote another great one, Bruce Springsteen) “it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.” That, in a phrase, is what The Resurrectionist is all about.
What are you currently reading?
I’m neck deep in Dante’s Inferno yet again, as it inspired the structure of my novel in progress. And also enjoying The Habit of Being, Flannery O’Connor’s selected letters.
When you’re not writing, how do you like to spend your free time?
In the woods or on the water. I’m a non-native son of Mississippi but a real convert to the hunting and fishing culture here. Although Mississippi has no whitewater (that’s my first love of the outdoors) I spend as much time as I can outside, with my children, Braiden and Phoebe.
What’s next for you?
Dark Enough for Stars is forthcoming from W.W. Norton in 2015. It’s a novel based on the (real) 1881 International Cotton Exposition in Atlanta, which celebrated Atlanta’s emergence from Reconstruction and its burgeoning industrial culture. To that I’ve added a disgraced former Atlanta detective looking to recover his good name, and a serial murderer who hopes to derail the I.C.E. There’s a great deal of darkness in it, with the promise of a new day.
Keep up with Matthew: Website
About THE RESURRECTIONIST:
A young doctor wrestles with the legacy of a slave “resurrectionist” owned by his South Carolina medical school.
“Dog days and the fresh bodies are arriving once again.” So begins the fall term at South Carolina Medical College, where Dr. Jacob Thacker is on probation for Xanax abuse. His interim career—working public relations for the dean—takes an unnerving detour into the past when the bones of African American slaves, over a century old, are unearthed on campus. Out of the college’s dark past, these bones threaten to rise and condemn the present.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, Dr. Frederick Augustus Johnston, one of the school’s founders, had purchased a slave for his unusual knife skills. This slave, Nemo (“no man”) would become an unacknowledged member of the surgical faculty by day—and by night, a “resurrectionist,” responsible for procuring bodies for medical study. An unforgettable character, by turns apparently insouciant, tormented, and brilliant, and seen by some as almost supernatural, Nemo will seize his self-respect in ways no reader can anticipate.With exceptional storytelling pacing and skill, Matthew Guinn weaves together past and present to relate a Southern Gothic tale of shocking crimes and exquisite revenge, a riveting and satisfying moral parable of the South.