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Allen Boyer: Interview with James A. McLaughlin, Author of “Bearskin”


Author James A. McLaughlin.

“Bearskin,” by James A. McLaughlin, takes place on a forest preserve in southwestern Virginia. It is a holding of mythic dimensions, seven thousand of mountain wilderness, its sanctum sanctorum a thousand-acre hollow of towering old-growth timber.

“Bearskin” is a thriller, and a first novel, but it handles the myth and the majesty of the Southern mountains with the skill of an accomplished novelist.

This is terrain that McLaughlin knows well. He grew up in western Virginia, just north of Lexington. As well as a novelist, McLaughlin is a talented photographer, and his landscape photos often feature Jump Mountain, which rises more than half a mile high above the Shenandoah Valley.

McLaughlin’s family still owns land in the Shenandoah. Part of the farm is woodland: “It’s old growth forest, but not dramatic old growth,” he comments, “stubbly old growth timber that was never forested – logged off – because it was never that interesting.”

Remembering that family woodland, and other pockets of deep wilderness that survive in the Blue Ridge Mountains, McLaughlin created the fictional Turk Mountain Preserve. In “Bearskin,” he comments, “the forest is kind of an old power. Literally or figuratively, it’s haunted.”

Rice Moore, the caretaker of Turk Mountain, comes from the desert Southwest. Holed up in Virginia to hide from his past (he has run afoul of a drug cartel), Rice learns to appreciate the eastern mountains.

“A shrill, clattering call burst from the forest nearby. He stopped to watch, thinking pileated woodpecker, but the bird didn’t appear. He knew most of the bird species now. His first log entries from back in March and April said things like big-ass black woodpecker w/ red crest. While he watched, a fresh breeze brushed against the big tulip trees, red oaks, sugar maples. Heavy branches rose and fell in slow motion, and a million leaves twisted on their stems, showing silver underneath. The forest was eerily animate, a gigantic green beast dreaming, its skin twitching and rippling. Not quite threatening, but powerful. Watchful.”

The setting of the novel overshadows the characters. “The forest is a bigger context, a more powerful context, much more than the scene in which the human characters are playing out their drama.”

Fittingly, “Bearskin” may feature more animal characters than humans: bears, bobcats, hawks, hounds, and chickadees. Snakes invade the backwoods lodge where Rice has found a sanctuary, and a cow’s skull casts the shadow of a minotaur. A scrawny black cat, ironically, plays the part that black cats traditionally play.

At least one character may be both human and animal – or perhaps neither. He is a wizened mountaineer, with a thick Virginia accent, a mushroom picker’s canvas bag, and a stump of a left arm. The mushroom picker opens the novel by leading Rice to bear carcasses left by poachers.

Where the mushroom picker comes and goes in the mountain thickets, bears appear and disappear, too close for human comfort – including one bear with a missing left forepaw. That missing forepaw, McLaughlin comments, “leaves it up in the air whether the one-armed man is a figment of Rice’s overactive imagination, or too much solitude in the forest.”

McLaughlin reads writers of the American West: Rick Bass, Barry H. Lopez, and Thomas McGuane. Books that he re-reads include Jim Harrison’s “Legends of the Fall” and Edward Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire,” and a more recent novel, “The North Water” by Ian McGuire, set in the isolation of an Arctic whaling ship. He also returns to “Suttree” and “Blood Meridian,” by Cormac McCarthy, and two novels by James Dickey, “Deliverance” and “To the White Sea.”

McLaughlin studied at the University of Virginia. The creative writing program, where he began writing fiction, is known for novelists like Edward Jones (“The Known World”) and Thomas Pierce (“The Hall of Small Mammals” and “The Afterlives”). The law school, where McLaughlin studied tax law, has produced notable writers of crime fiction: David Baldacci and Linda Fairstein.

When not writing, McLaughlin works as a lawyer. Tax law and environmental intersect in his specialty, the negotiation of conservation easements, agreements in which landowners permanently limit the development of the land they hold. Typically, by selling or donating development rights to governments or land trusts, conservation easements keep existing landscapes and wildlife habitats intact.

One of McLaughlin’s earliest literary recognitions was for an article on conservation easements and property appraisal. He readily admits to “knowing a great deal about a very small slice of the Internal Revenue Code.”

Works currently in progress:

McLaughlin worked on “Bearskin,” off and on, for more than twenty years. The first version was his graduate thesis. He set the manuscript aside for a decade, then “stripped it back to a long short story that they called a novella.” Published in the Missouri Review, the story won a prize, and McLaughlin was approached about turning it into a novel. He reworked the story, changing characters’ names and fleshing out their stories, finally finding an agent and then a publisher.

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