Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Interview with YA author Gene Scott

Author Gene Scott joins me today and we’re talking about his YA literary fiction book Jellybeaners.

Gene Scott, a retired English and reading teacher, was born and raised on the prairie of Western Illinois, and has lived in Johnson City, Tennessee for thirty years with his much better half, Lana.

Welcome, Gene. Please tell us about your current release.
Here’s the blurb that describes the topic:

“The scourge of opiate addiction is deeply woven throughout world history, and the U.S. Civil War alone created roughly 200,000 addicts who spent their remaining years navigating shattered limbs and unstable minds.

…Fast-forward a century-and-a-half.

A 2014 report in in the American Society of Addiction Medicine revealed that 1.9 million Americans were addicted to prescription opioids, and that 18,893 lost their lives to opium-based pill prescription that single calendar year. Fifty-one American lives are lost each day.

Jellybeaners is a contemporary novel set in the heart of Appalachia, revealing the money ties, political corruption, wasted lives, and overall cash-churning nature of the prescription pill culture from perspectives spanning both sides of the law.”

The audience? Young adult readers with a literary bent and a thirst for knowledge about the intricacies of the pill mill trade.

What inspired you to write this book?
First, I’m an avid motorcyclist attempted to ride the TAT – the Trans America Trail – running from Tellico Plains, Tennessee to Portland, Oregon. The one trail supposedly composed of dirt roads cutting clear across America.

Two buddies and I took off on this adventure in the spring of 2013 thinking we’d cover Tennessee and Mississippi first and then would decide if we wanted to continue.

But the East Tennessee section is mostly crumbling asphalt country roads.

I rode a 650cc Honda dirt bike with knobby tires – thinking we’d be on dirt -- and while dropping down a steep asphalt stretch near Estill Springs, Tennessee I touched the rear brake (the road was slick after a light rain on the oily tarmac) and went down, shattering my left knee replacement. The accident occurred on the same day as the Boston Marathon Bombing, so I felt little sympathy for myself as I watched people with missing limbs successfully rebuild their lives as I rehabbed. Inspiration!

This was my first serious motorcycle accident in forty-five years of riding, but it taught me a valuable lesson.

Anyway, I fell in love with the Cherohala Parkway and Tellico Plains, which became the setting for Jellybeaners (“Kituwah Falls”) due to its natural beauty and proximity to Knoxville, the pill mill epicenter of East Tennessee.

Secondly, during the evolution of this novel, our family lost two friends to opioid addiction, both in their early twenties, both brilliant, handsome, career-minded men who would have contributed much to society. One was an artist, the other a just-graduated aeronautical engineer.

That sealed the deal.

If I could research this issue, put out the facts, and help people cope with the situation through the experience of these characters, it would be worth the effort.

Then a bizarre thing happened.

Two imaginary antagonists – Odessa Blankenship, the Knoxville pill mill queen, and her minion, the Falstaffian Lucinda Hornback – literally uncloaked and fell headlong out onto the front page of the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Real-life Sylvia Hofstetter was arrested and indicted in March of 2015 – exactly two years after I began researching opioids – for running a $12 million dollar prescription pill operation, which ended up taking at least nine lives.



But since I’d started the book in 2013 and Sylvia’s evil empire emerged two years later – and was significantly different in several ways – I went ahead and published. Most of my research came from Georgia and Chattanooga newspapers reporting on a Dalton, Georgia bust before the pill mills actually migrated north into database-free pill-hungry East Tennessee.

Hofstetter sits in jail awaiting trial; Odessa, smarter and savvier, escaped to Cuba with her drug patrĂ³ns, husband, and miniature Chihuahua Buladeen. There are many differences between the real and the imagined in this novel, but it makes my hackles rise whenever I think about how writers often conjure what’s really happening out there through interviewing people, digging through libraries, and reading regional newspapers.

For example, the government investigated Tom Clancy – a bored insurance salesman who cranked a blank piece of paper into his office typewriter for kicks and started writing The Hunt for Red October – because it appeared he held access to unauthorized information. But they dropped all charges when he proved to them that he’d pulled it all together at the library.

Which is possible due to the openness of American society and the Freedom of Information Act. May the current assault on our free access to information die a natural death; these are scary times, indeed. Fake news! Once Hitler controlled the media, it was over for Europe. We must remain vigilant.

Unfortunately, Jellybeaners will remain topical for years because opioid addiction is now being treated with: opioids. Which is quite controversial in Johnson City, where I live, as methadone and suboxone clinics are popping up like spring mushrooms.

Excerpt from Jellybeaners:
The bent, rundown shack, patched and cobbled with gray pieces of crating and splintering brown pallet board, windows covered with ripped opaque plastic, squats in a heap off Stout Street, coal smoke twisting out its chimney like vapor from an ebony nostril.

Three children wail hysterically, run in circles, pull their hair, and scream at their father, resting on his knees beside the dilapidated rust-brown ’92 Plymouth Horizon, the driver’s door flung open.

A school bus squeaks to a halt and four children bounce off, stop in their tracks, and stare open-mouthed at the scene.

Vane Sarge Walker pulls up in his beat-brown 2001 Chevrolet pickup. A trained emergency medical technician, volunteer firefighter, long-retired military serviceman, and recently retired Forest Service ranger, he lives nearby on a fourth-generation family farm.

The Mount Vernon Volunteer Fire Department’s red-light-flashing, chartreuse EMS vehicle approaches, the wail of its siren whining faintly, building in slow crescendo as it roars down the twisting mountain valley cut by the ancient Tellico River, which falls down the mountain grade toward the village of Kituwah Falls.

The dirt driveway, strewn with clinkers— cindery particulate chunks of burnt coal dragged out of the leaky furnace and tossed into the potholed driveway— steal Sarge's attention.

A homemade doll mother Sizer crafted and gifted her three-year-old Ashley the previous Christmas sits with its broken neck propped against the largest clinker, the head mashed flat.

Jumping out of his pickup, Sarge purposefully fixates on the doll, briefly ignoring the cacophony, takes a few seconds to collect his wits, and then slowly turns to face the inevitable.

The toy’s face, black-button eyes fixed on eternity, glistens wet-red in the short March dusk, staring directly into a gunmetal sky. A dirty-black tire track ends at its chin.

Sarge can neither swallow the sob nor fight back the wave of salt water cascading down the stubble on his cheeks before he turns to face the disemboweled heap lying in the driveway beside the driver, wrapping, then unwrapping his arms across his chest, choking between screams.

Poor Ashley. One more notch on the pill mill tree of shame, thought Sarge.

This couldn’t go on. Someone had to put a stop to this…

We’re going to pull those sonsabitches out by the roots, come Memorial Day.

Studying a raven circling high over the ridgeline to the east, he swore to himself:

Or die trying.


What exciting story are you working on next?
A novel based on a true story titled, Packages.

An East Tennessee high school kid (who just happens to love motorcycles) grows up in a wonderful small town where life is good and expectations are high. He enjoys excellent parents and a spiritually sensitive sister.

However, packages start arriving addressed to his friends in the neighborhood, packages mailed from Thailand holding return addresses from the older boys in the neighborhood – brothers, cousins, and friends -- now stationed in Vietnam.

Suddenly, the landscape changes and readers are taken for a ride through the late Sixties that will make their hair stand on end.

Think “Born of the Fourth of July” meets “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?
When I tore the meniscus in my left knee back in high school, I couldn’t play sports my senior year, so I covered local events for the local hometown paper.
My basketball coach – magnanimously -- encouraged me to write.

Do you write full-time? If so, what's your workday like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
I’m a retired English teacher. Wanted to be a journalist, but the school I attended – a regional university – sported a weekly newspaper and a journalism faculty riddled with dementia, poor geezers with cigarettes twitching in their lips and ancient coffee stains on their shirts.

The English faculty was at least twenty years younger and hot-to-teach, so I gravitated into their arms. One professor, from Estonia, knew six languages. One time I was in his office, and while he looked at my work, his children would wander in one-at-a-time and he’d address them – each in a different language, while he explained the Greek derivation of words I was using. We take our public education for granted, I think.

So I ended up teaching English and reading for nearly three decades, and now spend about a third of my free time putting words on paper. Volunteer work, motorcycling, photography, and travel eat up the remainder.

I write with a pen in the morning to slow my brain down, and then expand upon those ideas with the keyboard in the afternoon.

The first draft then undergoes massive editing. Jellybeaners was originally 90k words, but I cut it to 65k before sending it to Vince Dickinson, my editor, who cut it to 60k. By the time the second editor, Zee Mondee was finished, we published at 52,000 words.

Personally, I believe a lot of Indie novels dilute the market because they are not professionally edited.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I’m not sure how to answer that, so I’ll speak to what I believe is a common rookie mistake for beginning novelists like myself. Once you get into the groove as a writer, and the words flow with ease, you realize you’re a little mini-god -- small g-- and immediately your pages become overcrowded with characters and backstory. It’s a temptation that most novelists have to tame.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A policeman. Motorcycles! Guns! Chases!

But when the reality of the profession struck home -- especially after I read The Onion Field by Joseph Wambaugh -- I decided that reading and writing about motorcycles, guns, and car crashes might be more pragmatic.

Not that I don’t admire people who put themselves in the line of fire for our safety. God bless the great majority of these peacekeepers, who are highly professional and responsible. Like always, it only takes one turd to mess up the whole punch bowl.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
I’m sixty-years old and still dreaming, still looking for the next adventure. The only limit to what you can do lies between your ears.

Website | Twitter | Facebook

Thank you for being here today, Gene!


Unknown said...

Great interview. I have read this book and it has a very powerful(real) story that I wasn't fully aware was happening. Can't wait for Gene Scott's next book!

Gene Scott said...

Thanks, Tom. Coming from a professional who reads non-fiction 99% of the time, that means much.