Forestry and fiction fans will find common ground at 5 p.m. on Aug. 20 at Off Square Books as award-winning writer James McLaughlin discusses his debut novel.
“Bearskin,” an expansion of his novella of the same name, tells the story of protagonist Rice Moore, an Arizonan smuggler-turned-caretaker who discovers the mutilated carcasses of bears at a nature preserve deep in rural Appalachian Virginia.
McLaughlin, a Virginia native, drew much of the culture and setting for the novel from his childhood.
“When I was young, I was lucky to have both country to roam in and a family who encouraged and allowed
that sort of thing – hunting, fishing, wandering around the fields and forest,” McLaughlin said. “Growing up in that idyllic mountain setting and having those rich experiences every summer at camp – it all combined to mold me as a writer.”
Moore’s bout with poachers is directly drawn from McLaughlin’s own experiences. After finding that a criminal enterprise had been targeting black-market bear parts, McLaughlin felt troubled by the exploitation and began writing the first version of “Bearskin” in the 1990s.
“My first try at ‘Bearskin’ grew from wondering what I would do if I started finding carcasses on our property. I never did,” McLaughlin said. “The novel published this summer is a long, long way from that initial inspiration, but the germ is still there after all these years.”
Including the time it took to research, 20 years of work went into “Bearskin.” After meeting with law enforcement that investigated bear poaching, interviewing experts and exploring southern Arizona, McLaughlin had the bones to build his first novel.
As an outdoorsman, McLaughlin often thinks about how his use of nature in the book affected his psyche.
“I was able to drop into an imaginary state of extreme paranoia, where a place that’s remote and harsh, albeit beautiful, becomes the place where you’re safe and comfortable,” he said. “Maybe I should worry about how easy that was for me.”
Since the novel’s publication in June, McLaughlin said he has found many rewarding experiences as a result of “Bearskin.”
“People I haven’t run into for decades have read my book and reached out to me,” McLaughlin said. “Then there are the kind folks who have no connection to me whatsoever other than reading the book, and they go out of their way to let me know they enjoyed it and why. That’s just amazing.”
In addition to participating in the Off Square Books event, McLaughlin said he is hoping to immerse himself in Mississippi culture while in town. This is something McLaughlin hasn’t done since 2001, when he was a guest at a weekend gathering of writers in Oxford.
“I’m looking forward to reconnecting with some of [those writers] and meeting new folks in Jackson and Oxford,” McLaughlin said. “Mississippi’s literary culture is so rich, and I’m looking forward to just being there, soaking it up.”
Kallye Smith, an English major from Magee, is an avid reader and plans on attending the event.
“I attended the Brian Castner event last semester and enjoyed it,” Smith said. “‘Disappointment River’ [by Castner] and ‘Bearskin’ have similar themes, so I’m excited to see how the two books compare.”