Tea Tonic and Toxin: Mystery and Thriller Podcast and Book Club

Bearskin Novel by James A. Laughlin

Bearskin by James A. McLaughlin
Bearskin by James A. McLaughlin
Tea, Tonic, and Toxin
Bearskin Novel by James A. Laughlin
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Bearskin by Author James A. McLaughlin (Bearskin Novel)

Literary thriller (eco-thriller) novelist James A. McLaughlin joins Sarah and Carolyn to discuss his book Bearskin (Bearskin novel).

Learn More: Read more about James A. McLaughlin.

Get Excited: Check out the 2024 book list.

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TRANSCRIPT: Bearskin (Bearskin Novel)

Sarah Harrison
Welcome to Tea Tonic & Toxin, a book club and podcast for anyone who wants to explore the best mysteries and thrillers ever written. I’m your host, Sarah Harrison.

Carolyn Daughters
And I’m your host Carolyn Daughters. Pour yourself a cup of tea, a gin and tonic, …

Sarah Harrison
… but not a toxin …

Carolyn Daughters
And join us on a journey through 19th and 20th century mysteries and thrillers, every one of them a game changer. We have a great episode today.

Carolyn Daughters 1:01
I’d love to introduce today’s sponsor. Our sponsor is Grace Sigma, a boutique process engineering consultancy run by our own Sarah Harrison. Grace Sigma works nationally in such industries as finance, telecom and government. Grace Sigma uses lean methods to assist in data dashboarding storytelling training, process visualization and project management. Whether you’re a small business looking to scale, or a large company whose processes have become tangled Grace Sigma can help you can learn more at gracesigma.com.

Sarah Harrison  01:37

We have a super exciting guest.

Carolyn Daughters  01:40
We do. We’ve had a lot of great guests, and I am very excited about today’s guest.

Sarah Harrison  01:47
We have with us James A. McLaughlin. Did I get that right?

James McLaughlin  01:54
That’s perfect.

Sarah Harrison  01:57
He’s the author of Panther Gap published by Flat Iron/Macmillan and 2023.

James McLaughlin  02:09
Echo published Bearskin novel. I moved to Flat Iron for the second book.

Sarah Harrison  02:17
Okay. Yes. Panther Gap was Flat Iron.

Carolyn Daughters  02:26
We start by mentioning your most recent which is Panther Gap and then right after that we’re going to introduce Bearskin novel.

Sarah Harrison  02:34
Panther Gap was chosen as an Apple Books Best Book of the Month and Amazon Editor’s Pick. James McLaughlin is also the author of Bearskin, which we’ll be discussing today. Published by Echo HarperCollins in 2018 and winner of the 2019 Edgar Award for Best First Novel, Bearskin has been featured mentioned and reviewed, In The New York Times (Four Writers to Watch, Bears and Poets, New Books We Recommend, and Best Crime Fiction), The Washington Post, USA Today, Entertainment Weekly, and Goodreads. He won the 15 Bytes Book Award for Fiction, Artists of Utah, and was a finalist for the 2019 Library of Virginia Literary Award in Fiction, the 2019 Anthony Award for Best First Novel, and then 2019 Berry Award for Best First Novel. Bearskin was included in Amazon’s best mysteries and thrillers of 2018. Garden and Guns, Southern Books of 2018 and Southern Living’s Best Southern Books of 2018. It was a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection and a Publishers Weekly Summer Reads Staff Pick. The list goes on. But I had never heard of Gardens and Guns. I want to check it out.

James McLaughlin  03:55
It’s a fancy glossy, Southern-oriented magazine that I didn’t know much about either. But my brother gets it, and they’re pretty excited to see me in there.

Carolyn Daughters  04:07
In this bio, we just we cut it off, because we could have just kept going. Nominated for this, honorable mention here, won this award, won that award. So we just we cut it off. But quite a lot of acclaim. The book is called Bearskin (Bearskin novel), and I’m gonna read the blurb from the back of the book. Rice Moore is just beginning to think his troubles are behind him. He has taken a job as a caretaker for remote forest preserve in Virginia, hoping that the solitude is a perfect hide away from the Mexican drug cartels he betrayed back in Arizona. But when Rice finds the carcass of a bear killed on the grounds, he becomes obsessed with catching the poachers before more bears are harmed. Descending deep into the Appalachian wilderness, he finds the undertaking far more dangerous than he anticipated. He has hostile altercations with the locals, his employers, and even the law. His past is catching up to him in terrifying ways, and he’s running out of ideas for how to escape it. Now, this book, as Sarah mentioned, has received quite a bit of press. New York Times Book Review said, “Gruesomely gorgeous. McLaughlin writes about the natural world with a casual lyricism and unselfconscious joy. Remarkable, the kind of writing that makes me shiver.” The Washington Post says, “Exciting. MacLaughlin skillfully breaks down the actions of hunter and hunted into their constituent parts. Some of the best action writing in recent fiction.” I have to say, from my perspective, I didn’t know what to expect coming into it. And I’ve not read much about drug cartels. I don’t know what I came in expecting, but it has this really interesting juxtaposition between this Arizona/Mexico drug cartel plotline and this present-day plotline in Appalachia. And I was riveted chapter to chapter to chapter and, Sarah, I’ll let you add your initial thoughts here.

Sarah Harrison  06:27
The book was wild. I loved it. It was I would say on every page, I was like, what, what? What does that word mean? I was Googling all the time. It was a great book. We’re so excited to have you.

Carolyn Daughters  06:46
Welcome to our podcast.

James McLaughlin  06:48
Thank you. I’m glad to be here.

Sarah Harrison  06:49
Very lyrical. It was very beautiful. So we’re excited to have you read a little bit of it.

Carolyn Daughters  06:56
There were all these places where we could have chosen to have you read because (Bearskin novel) is a beautifully written book. We picked chapter 28, which is the chapter where I wrote at the top of it, “wow.” It blew me away. I read, and then normally I just keep reading a book, I go to chapter 28, chapter 29, like a regular person. But I didn’t. I read chapter 28. And then I went back to the start and read chapter 28 again. It stopped me in my tracks and made me want to revisit immediately, not at a later date or not in retrospect, but right then in there. So Jim, will you read some of that chapter for us.

James McLaughlin  07:36
Surely. When this happens, my main character in Bearskin (Bearskin novel), Rice, has been trying to find a poacher or poachers who’ve been killing black bears on the nature’s of nature preserve where he’s the caretaker. And he’s grown frustrated, and he has, incidentally, spent a whole lot of time out in the woods without sleeping without eating much except the things he can find out there in the woods because. So he’s on the edge here. What he decides is going to work is he going to make a ghillie suit, which is a form of camouflage that is amazingly effective. It breaks up your outline. It involves weaving fresh foliage into the suit that you have a bunch of twine on to hold it into. It makes you look like a bush, basically. So anyway, he spent all night making this ghillie suit and now it’s morning and he’s going to walk around in the woods to try to find this poacher.

“By the time he’d walked down to the base station, wearing the poncho and carrying his pack in his hand, it was nearly first light and his shirt was soaked with sweat. He’d known this would be a problem. The poncho [the base for the ghillie suit] was waterproof, and he was going to get sweaty if he walked around in it. He sat in the leaves with his back against a tree trunk and waited. The canopy opened to starlight in the west, a gap where a giant tulip tree had fallen years ago. He’d noticed it before but now he wondered if that’s why the poachers had picked the spot whether they wanted the light for their night vision gear.” “He sat there in his Ghillie poncho and concentrated on being invisible. Two-barred owls moved through the forest, calling to each other and other worldly voices. A large bear ignored the old bait and snuffled it, what was left of the two bear carcasses for so long. Rice decided it was either morning or feeding on the carrion. Later, two does passed by and a raccoon climbed around on the bait structure at dawn. The sky and the opening overhead turned to hot cold. He shaded his eyes and could make out a pair of ravens circling hundreds of feet up, corking to each other, glinting like chips of obsidian in the sunlight.”

[Chapter 28 in Bearskin novel continues …] “As he waited, time ebbed and flowed. A black spider wasp took several minutes to fly past his face. The sun cleared the spine of the mountain in seconds. But now he was used to this kind of distortion, if that’s what it was, and he didn’t fight it. The scientist in him resisted the notion, but he knew he was being drawn closer to some new understanding. The sun rose higher, and morning light filtered through the foliage. The cow’s head hung motionless, not enjoying the daylight. It had grown ragged and hollow cheeked, suffering from the depredations of crows and maggots, six inches of rebar protruding from each eye socket caked with chalky bird droppings. He’d watched crows perched on the rebar, one on each side, reaching around to dig with their bills and the cows open mouth [all this gory stuff is about part of the bait that the poachers had set up for the bears].”

[Chapter 28 in Bearskin novel continues …] “A guild of small woodland birds appeared in the understory noisy chickadees titmice juncos, downy woodpeckers, red breasted and white breasted nuthatches with their tiny nasal bugles. A brown creeper scurried up and down tree trunks like a feathered mouse, quiet except for an occasional high pitched peep, trying to hush the more boisterous species. The birds were hungry and feeding, but they didn’t seem desperate. Instead, they projected a relaxed work a day industriousness. A pair of chickadees landed on Rice’s chest and began pulling out threads of burlap. His stifled laugh rustled the fabric, perplexing them, but they didn’t leave. One seemed to realize Rice was a sentient creature and hopped up on the hood to peer into his eye. Sarah had pointed out the chickadees possess certain cuteness factors that tend to make humans adore and anthropomorphize them. The protuberant rounded forehead, the short bill, their tiny, feathered bodies, the big eyes. Rice looked into this birds face just inches away, one shining black eye regarding him. Not so cute up close, he thought. It looked wild, other, merciless. He felt a thrill of recognition.”

“He blinked into chickadee flew away. Soon the little flock had disappeared downslope, headed into the inner gorge carrying their birdie perspectives with them. A connection of some kind remained. Without moving, without meaning to, Rice followed. He found himself acknowledging at a cellular level, as if for the first time, that these creatures would not vanish into non-existence as soon as they lacked a human audience. The birds were in the cliffs now, feeding desultorily as they hopped and fluttered through the laurel rooted among the rocks. They were clear in his mind as he moved among them. Was he imagining this? Maybe it had to do with the ghillie suit, the perfect camouflage, or too many sleepless nights watching in the forest. Or maybe it was something else entirely. He reached out to the birds moving closer in his imagination. It felt like he was asking permission to join them.”

[Chapter 28 in Bearskin novel continues …] “The chickadee was sharp eyed quick, a pounce and a small black beetle was in its beak, legs flailing, the exoskeleton crunching, and the oily taste, a sip of dew from a drop suspended under a blade of grass. When the birds flew from the cliff, Rice flew with them, swimming impossibly through the vast invisible air, a moment of vertigo as the creek flashed by far below the treetops, clouds and the endless sky, then a gathering pause, a single patient, a skipped heartbeat, an intake of breath, and some great cosmic valve opened, a vision of the gorge exploding in his mind all of it at once in every color, infrared through ultraviolet, everything was alive, speaking in a billion voices a phantasmagoria of undreamed presences, the planet’s magnetic field itself vivid and pulsing around him.”

[Chapter 28 in Bearskin novel continues …] “He screamed and jerked awake. He was still in his spot near the bait station. The forest was quiet again, warming and land and sunlight. The air still. Had he really screamed. His head began to throb, not unpleasantly, like a tiny hand a bird claw had reached into the healing cut where the old man had hit him with the firewood and was gently squeezing his frontal lobe in a 123 rhythm. He’d crossed over some frontier and come back, but traces of the other place clung like mud. He breathed and settled into the ground, feeling Earth’s motion in his bones, the slow spin of the planet, ponderous on its axis, traveling in its accustomed arc around the sun, continental plates ground and shattered, faraway the sun lifted water from the oceans and rained it back onto the land, life squirmed and sprouted, inhaling, exhaling, it spoke and wept, hatched and died. He waited another hour. When he stood, his Ghillie camouflage rustled softly. He felt steady and strong.”

I gotta tell you that that chapter. My editor might see this, but he asked me when he read that, “What the hell is all this running around in a scat-encrusted ghillie suit? You need to cut that.”

Sarah Harrison  15:32
You were talking earlier before we started recording that this chapter gets really mixed reactions.

James McLaughlin  15:40
Some folks come to the book expecting a conventional thriller-mystery. And they get to stuff like this and they’re like, What the hell is this? And they don’t know what to make of it. But other people write me out of the blue, send me an email saying this is their favorite part of the book. Some folks love it. I love it. But, of course, it’s mine.

Carolyn Daughters  16:08
It feels to me almost like this chapter encapsulates the ideas in all the rest of the book. Like he is really immersing himself in nature and in part becoming one with nature. And I love when he looks at the chickadee. “It looked wild, other merciless. He felt a thrill of recognition.” It’s like a mirror is held up there. There’s this side of himself that is really interesting. And for me unexpected. He is such a gentle, kind human person. And in his humanity, he’s extremely complex. We see him at times have quite violent tendencies or actually become quite violent. It’s just a rich chapter and a lot of the themes in this chapter are large throughout the book, I would say.

James McLaughlin  17:06
I’m so glad you picked it. Because for me, it’s the heart of Bearskin (Bearskin novel). But not everybody agrees. But I’m glad you guys like it.

Sarah Harrison  17:14
I was wondering a little bit as I was reading it. I’m just always wondering, what is going on here? I was concerned about Rice, because he seemed to live primarily on coffee and beer and must be in an extreme dehydrated state. He’s not sleeping. He’s got all of this past that’s threatening to catch up with him and the present that he’s investigating. What is your take on what’s going on? I was trying to figure out like, does he just need to drink more water?

Carolyn Daughters  17:52
It’s a book about hydration.

Sarah Harrison  17:57
Also, I’ll just add on to that, is this something that you yourself have experienced? From what place are you writing from when you wrote this chapter?

James McLaughlin  18:08
I’ll answer the last part first, I guess. When I write, and maybe when everybody writes you, you take your own experiences, or maybe experiences that you’ve heard of from others, and if they strike you, and if it fits into the book, I dial it up to 11. So I’ve had experiences like this in the woods. I grew up in spending all my time up on the mountain in the woods. I had experiences like this, but not quite to the point. So you would take something in that’s real and crank it up all the way to 11 to push the envelope on this kind of experience. Now is Rice well hydrated? I think his hydration is okay. He’s not eating a lot. And he’s definitely not sleeping. And he has been out there. He becomes completely obsessed with catching these poachers, so he spends all his time out in the woods. There’s a question that I don’t think I really answer in the book, and I don’t mean to answer it. Is he having mild psychosis, or is he having real mystical experiences? That’s something that really interests me. And that’s a factor even more so in my second book, Panther Gap. I have a character who’s explicitly having hallucinations. Is this mystical, or is this just psychosis? I’m not really sure. But Rice is definitely physically pushed to extremes in this chapter, in this part of Bearskin (Bearskin novel). And he tends to have these what he calls fugues anyway. He will lose himself, at times, usually when he’s out in the forest. He’ll wake up later and not really know what happened. This is the inside of one of his most intense fugues that is brought on by physical exhaustion. And he’s not eating, like I said, no sleep. And maybe something in the woods is actually getting inside his head.

Carolyn Daughters  20:42
We see right off the bat, I think in chapter one, he meets a mushroom picker. And the mushroom picker introduces him to the idea that there’s bear poaching happening even on the grounds of this privately owned nature preserve. And I questioned throughout the book, does this mushroom picker exist? And here’s why I asked these questions. The mushroom picker is missing part of his arm. It aligned for me with the idea that some of these bears’ paws are being cut off. And there’s a later scene near chapter 28, I think maybe closer to middle of the book, where a bear is approaching Rice from the forest and it anthropomorphizes into the mushroom picker. And we’re not always sure what’s happening. Is this real? And strangely, at some point, when I was asking these questions, I asked myself, does it matter if it’s real? Maybe I was really getting into the book at that point because I thought, it’s real to him, and it’s pushing him to do the next thing that he feels he needs to do. Can you talk a little bit about this supernatural element of the book? And in your mind, is there a mushroom picker?

James McLaughlin  22:09
You’re a very good reader, because you’re having exactly the reaction that I was hoping for and that I have myself to it. I don’t know. If you would believe in the supernatural aspects, then maybe he and the three-legged bear that he morphs into and out of, might be a manifestation of the spirit of this ancient forest. There’s something special about this forest, it’s its primary force, it’s never been cut. So there’s something going on here in Bearskin (Bearskin novel) that’s special, even from a biological perspective. And maybe that can manifest in certain human consciousnesses as something with the personality. So for Rice, it becomes this one-armed mushroom picker and a three-legged bear. Maybe it’s real, or maybe it’s all inside Rice’s head, and maybe it’s all psychosis and hallucination. I think it’s really important and it doesn’t matter which one it is. So I’d say both. I mean, that’s a very, very astute reading of that part of it. I get people going, is the mushroom picker real. I do get that question. And I say maybe.

Carolyn Daughters  23:37
And if it matters to you, then I guess the next question is, why does it matter if he’s real or not?

Sarah Harrison  23:44
I like the way you articulated that, I hadn’t been able to articulate it, in my mind so concisely, but the question of whether is this a little bit of psychosis, or is this a real spiritual experience.

James McLaughlin  23:56
I had a little follow up on the one-armed mushroom picker, just because it’s interesting. Way back when I first started this book, which was a lifetime ago, I was casting about for an idea for a novel. My cousin at the time was working in real estate in western Virginia and driving all around these back roads up in the mountains. He said that he had picked up a hitchhiker, who was a one-armed guy who made his living picking ginseng and mushrooms and such and then walked into town and sold them. He was this really interesting guy from way up in West Virginia. And he told my cousin that he’d been finding bear carcasses in the woods that had been left out there. And the best line in the whole book I just stole from my cousin who took it from this hitchhiker, which is talking about the bear carcasses. “He don’t take nothing but the hands and the galls.” Which is so perfect, because that’s what these people would take from the bears because that’s what they can sell, the paws  and the gallbladders. But instead of paws he uses “hands,” which is so cool, because there’s thousands and thousands of years of history of humans and bears, of humanity feeling a kinship with bears for a lot of different reasons, and the fact that he used the word “hands,” I think, is so cool. That’s the genesis of the mushroom pickers. A real guy. That’s actually incredible.

Carolyn Daughters  25:47
Now, there were a lot of times in the book where Rice felt bear-like to me, so they shifted back and forth on the page. That was interesting that like, going from being a human being to something else. I think it’s the local name, Other Mountain.

James McLaughlin  26:42
A very good friend of mine is a poet. The title of the book, Bearskin (Bearskin novel), was there from the first chapter. It’s been there all along, for a lot of different reasons. But this friend of mine said, I think one of the meanings is “bears’ kin,” and he sees Rice as morphing back and forth, becoming bear-like himself. He feels like he’s bears’ kin, though I wasn’t smart enough to figure that out.

Carolyn Daughters  27:21
I love that. In the book, there’s this huge disconnect between people who’ve lived in this area of Appalachia forever, generations upon generations. And then there’s this very large, maybe 7,000 acre privately owned nature preserve, where, for the most part, the trees are untouched, the ecosystem is untouched. And they are the outsiders. It’s this huge swath of land filled with bears that are ready to be poached by these people who want to poach them for a variety of reasons. I went to college in Harrisonburg, and then four years in grad school in Charlottesville, so I have a general idea of Shenandoah Valley. But this took me one level, maybe 10 levels deeper than what even my understanding of the area was. But even in college, you could see a disconnect between the people who march in and establish themselves in the community versus people who have lived in that community for a really long time. And there’s an argument to be made. And it’s actually made in the book that some of these locals should be able to do whatever the heck they want to do, the way they’ve always done it, and they shouldn’t be stopped. And then there’s the opposite argument as well. Can you talk a little bit about this insider/outsider theme? There’s the interloper kind of idea, and how that plays out in the book.

James McLaughlin  29:05
Yeah, sure. That’s an important theme. My main character is a real outsider. He comes from Arizona, and he doesn’t know much about the east when he gets to the nature reserve. He’s coming into this kind of cultural dichotomy that you’re talking about where you have the locals had been there for generations, and they always tend to have a somewhat libertarian bent They feel like they should be able to do what they want. And they resent the fact that there’s this big piece of property that they are excluded from, for what they feel are silly reasons to preserve the ecosystem there for its own sake and for research and such. That just makes zero sense. to them. I like to explore that kind of conflict. And, of course, in good fiction, you don’t set either side up to fail. You just try to have each side make the best arguments they can and see what happens. Yeah, that’s an important theme in Bearskin (Bearskin novel).

Sarah Harrison  30:24
The forest really took on its character in the book and the fact that that was what it was primeval forest was an untouched, uncut forest. Do you have experience with that type of forest? Or was it another example of dialing things up to 11?

James McLaughlin  30:45
I have. It’s both actually. I have spent time in some primary forests. They’re so rare anymore in the Appalachians, but you can find them. And it’s an amazing experience to walk around in a place like that. Also, the place where I grew up in Rockbridge County, we have a farm that has a bunch of woodland. And it’s not primary forests, but it is pretty old. And so I did spend enormous amounts of time out there in in mature forest. There’s something special about the about the primary forests, where you have the lichens and the mosses. And I mean, the salamander species. You have these incredible ecosystem, and people don’t really know it exists anymore, because it’s so rare. Unless you can find small patches here and there. It was a combination of spending enormous amounts of time in old forest that was our place. And then, and then visiting these primary forests from time to time and really just being blown away by them.

Sarah Harrison  32:04
There’s this part in the book where Sarah and Rice in the old part of the forest, and it was just an adventure of, hey, this species is almost extinct? Hey, here’s an endangered species, hey, this species doesn’t even belong in this level, it’s totally out of place. Is it really like that? Like, every time you turn your head, you’re finding some rare species? I’ve never been in a forest this old.

James McLaughlin  32:27
Sure. That’s how I imagine it. But that’s probably a bit of an exaggeration. And it’s so funny, because in my second book, Panther Gap, without even realizing I’ve done this, I did the same thing. Panther Gap is the name of a place in Colorado that is very fanciful and has wildlife species that shouldn’t be there. Some of them might be imagined by the main character, but it’s also a special place. Maybe this is all my own wish fulfillment in Bearskin (Bearskin novel) and Panther Gap. Writing these places with all these amazing species and ecosystems.

Sarah Harrison  33:08
Do you know everything about salamanders already? Like how did you research the name of everything. It’s not just a wasp flew by, but it’s a black spider wasp. The specificity of each individual item was one of the things of reading the book. I’m reading the plotline, but also a part of my mind was just blown away. Did you have to research all this? Are you yourself a naturalist? Where did you get all of this knowledge?

James McLaughlin  33:38
I was a big nature nerd. As a kid, I was a bird watcher for a while. I love snakes, I would catch snakes and have them in terrariums in the house and they’d get out. My mom was pretty cool about all that. “Snakes out again, Jim.” So I had a lot of background in that. But the specificity that I wanted to attribute to Rice required research, because he’s trained as a wildlife, a biological science technician, and he’s super smart. So he learns a lot of the stuff. He was not familiar with the Eastern ecosystems, but once he gets to the preserve, he learns them as best he can. When this wasp is flying by, I think he would note what species or generally what species. That required research for sure.

Sarah Harrison  34:38
It’s fascinating.

Carolyn Daughters  34:42
We see a prologue. And then in chapter one, Rice is in Virginia. From the very start, I kept asking myself, “what is his plan?” Because he’s escaping these Mexican drug cartels. He’s hidden away on this preserve. But is he going to do this for a year? Is this his 10-year plan? Is he going to one day die here? In your mind, did he have a plan? Or was he just in the moment, right now, this is what I have to be doing to stay alive to avoid these cartels?

James McLaughlin  35:16
That’s interesting. And I’ll answer that in two ways. One, I had written a draft of this book a long time ago and then set it aside for years. A lot of times, in a person’s first novel, the main character is way too similar to the author, and thus, horribly boring. And that’s what I had. The main character was Billy Traver, and he was basically me, or somebody I wanted to be. And it wasn’t any good. But I had a friend who had read the book, and he said, “You need to revisit Bearskin (Bearskin novel). I think there’s something really special there and just try again.” So I did. I threw Billy Traver out the window. So okay, who’s this new guy. The name Rice popped in my head for various reasons. And in the first scene that I wrote with him, it’s that scene in the beginning where he’s been driven out of the cabin where he was working on demolition by the bees, and he’s standing out in the meadow, and a vulture flies over. But what he sees is the shadow approaching him on the ground really fast. This is something that happens to me all the time. You’re out there, and it’s a sunny day, and a vulture comes over fairly low, and its shadow is just going 40 miles an hour right at you, and you react. But he overreacts.

He’s spooked. He’s really scared. And I know he’s a tough guy. He’s not really Traver. He’s this new guy. And I think, Okay, what the hell would spook a guy that’s this tough? Why is he spooked. That’s when I started to imagine this backstory, where he was associated with the Mexican cartel and smuggling in Arizona. And that’s how that all cooked up. So his plan, when he first gets to the preserve, he has spent a lot of time and energy on his way from Arizona, hiding his tracks. He went to Albuquerque and opened post office boxes and things like that to make it look like he was settling down in Albuquerque. And he’s using cash. And he’s flying under the radar. He’s trying to disappear. And he gets to the preserve, and he’s like, oh, man, okay, this is great. It’s remote. But I don’t know if the assassins that I know are going to eventually come after me are going to actually find me. So he doesn’t know if he’s going to last five days, five weeks, five months. He’s just surviving. And part of the book, and actually part of the book I’m working on now, which is a direct sequel to Bearskin (Bearskin novel), is okay, he has survived. And he’s been there in the new book for a year. What is his plan? What is going on here? And how much of his allegiance to this property has to do with the presence of that forest entity in his imagination, in his mind? And he’s struggling with that. So that’s an important thing. He’s just surviving when he first gets there, day to day, week to week, month to month. And because we know eventually something does catch up with him.

Carolyn Daughters  38:38
He’s living by himself with very little interaction with anyone. Periodically he goes to a grocery store to get some food. But really, for the most part, he’s not interacting. And then the things that change are that he very early in the book is stung by a whole lot of bees and has a bee problem or a wasp problem. He also meets the man who is the mushroom picker. We see a couple things that are shifting him into gear. This day is not like every other day, something different is happening right now. And throughout the book, we see him start to engage with a variety of people, in large part out of necessity. To me, it was interesting to see him as the solitary guy hiding out. And in chapter one, I think he says something like, “I knew that no one else knew where I was.” Instantly — because this I think is a thriller — I thought, I’m not sure no one knows. I feel like someone might know it. What genre is this book? Is it a thriller, a nature thriller, and ecothriller, another phrase that I haven’t learned yet? What is this genre?

James McLaughlin  40:05
I have no idea. I wrote it. I have books that I’ve read and loved in the past, things like Jim Harrison’s Dalva, Dickie’s Deliverance, No Country for Old Men, things like that. I don’t pretend that my book is as good as those, but it’s an aspirational sort of thing, but a book like that. When I first was talking to my agent, finally an agent pick me up, wonderful guy, Kirby Kim. He had a bunch of different phrases to try and apply to it. The worst of which was grit lit.

Carolyn Daughters  40:53
I don’t like that.

James McLaughlin  40:57
I didn’t sign on to grit lit. Bearskin (Bearskin novel) is a mystery thriller, a literary mystery thriller, an environmental thriller. None of those really work. And that’s probably why it was never a bestseller, because your bestsellers ideally fit into a slot somewhere. And people can know what they’re getting when they pick it up and read it.

Carolyn Daughters  41:20
I would include the word “literary” in it. So if I had to pick two words, I would say probably “literary thriller.”

James McLaughlin  41:28
I’ll take that.

Carolyn Daughters  41:29
The word “literary” really would cue a reader up to understand that there is beauty on the page. And for me, a literary text is worth coming back to, and when you do come back to it, you get something different than the first time you read it. Which I think describes your book.

James McLaughlin  41:50
Thank you. That’s been the nicest compliment. And I’ve gotten it, I don’t know how many times, where people said, I read it twice or three times. My cousin who gave me the anecdote about the one-armed man, he read it four times. And people said they listened to the audiobook. It’s apparently really good. We have a really good reader. And people said, I listened to the audiobook, and then I bought the book and read. So that’s a really nice compliment.

Carolyn Daughters  42:16
I know a lot of writers. It is a huge win to have a family member read your book. So kudos.

Sarah Harrison  42:25
I wish you could find the mushroom hunter.

Carolyn Daughters  42:27
Everyone will buy it because they’re supportive, but it’s usually like the spine is uncracked, and it’s like on a shelf. So your cousin read it four times. Amazing.

Sarah Harrison  42:46
Carolyn is a writer. I’m not a writer. And I’m always fascinated by the logistics, the logistical decisions that writers make. When the author writes a main character too similar to themselves, the character can suffer. I didn’t realize that, but that’s very interesting. And then naming. I’m glad you brought that up. Every time I read Rice Moore in Bearskin (Bearskin novel), my brain would reverse it and say “More Rice.” Why does naming help change who the character was? Why did you change the name from Billy Traver to Rice Moore? Where did Rice Moore come from rather than version two of Billy Traver? What was the decision and the thinking there?

James McLaughlin  43:38
Well, Billy had to go.

Sarah Harrison  43:40
Why?

James McLaughlin  43:41
He was just not very interesting. He was a passive victim of circumstances. He didn’t have a real edge to him. He was funny. But he didn’t have an edge. So he had to go. His name had to go. The whole thing had to go. And God, Rice Moore just bubbled up. When I was a kid, I knew a guy whose first name is Rice. He’s nothing like this character, really, I don’t even know. But it struck me as an interesting name. I’m a huge fan of the deceased bluegrass guitarist Tony Rice. That probably was part of it. Names are funny. For me, I don’t do the Dickensian or J.K. Rowling thing where you come up with these wonderful names that tell you a lot about who the character is. These odd names that describe the character in some way. For me, they just percolate up. And that can backfire. I’m working on this third book, and I think every single one of my female characters, including the dog, has a name starting with “S.” There’s Sarah, Sadie, Suzy. I mean, it’s annoying, and I can’t change it now.

Carolyn Daughters  45:12
But not Apryl. Apryl is the outlier.

James McLaughlin  45:14
Apryl’s the outlier, but she’s dead in the current timeline. So she’s the one outlier. So anyway, it Starr, the boss, another “s.” I don’t know how I didn’t realize that until I was 50,000 words into this book. I’m going, “you idiot …”

Carolyn Daughters  45:37
Search and replace. She’s now Josephine.

James McLaughlin  45:42
Come up with some way that that she’s changed her name now. I don’t think that would work.

Carolyn Daughters  45:46
Starr is Starr and Apryl is Apryl, Sarah is Sarah. After you’ve written and you’ve revised and revised, would it be hard to change the name? Because you’re like, “No, that’s actually Starr, that’s actually Apryl.” How attached do you become to the character through the act of naming and through building out the character?

James McLaughlin  46:14
Usually I stick with it. I have in the past completely changed somebody’s name. Usually not a main character. I’ve never done that with the main character. But with significant secondary characters, I’ve realized that it’s not going to work, so I have to change it for some reason. And it’s somewhat disruptive sometimes. But sometimes it works out, and it’s a much better thing. But you’re right, when you live with these characters, and they’re the main characters, and they’re the ones that you’re really inside their heads, their name becomes part of them. And it’s hard to let go of it. Which is why Billy Traver had to go in Bearskin (Bearskin novel).

Sarah Harrison  46:56
Interesting. His whole self. I’m glad you brought up the women. We, of course, as ladies always are interested in the way women are written and who these women are and what their voices are. As I was reading through the book, we have Apryl and Sarah. As I was reading them, I felt like they had a lot of similarities. They’re both scientists, they both had horrible, traumatic experiences. They’re both headstrong. I wouldn’t say disagreeable in a psychological term type of temperament, where they, they’re not afraid to be like, “You’re an idiot, and I’m going to do what I want.” Were the similarities between them intentional? What made you come up with these two characters in the way that you wrote them?

James McLaughlin  47:51
It’s interesting, you point that out. They’re similar in Bearskin (Bearskin novel) in part because their circumstances are similar. As you point out, they both have scientific training. They both spent a lot of time outdoors, they’re very self-sufficient. Those are just things that had to be part of these characters in the way I was imagining them. People always say this, you really need to write strong female characters. My life has been filled with strong female characters. My mom was extremely strong. And my wife is extremely strong and is not in the slightest bit hesitant to say things like what you just said, to call me out for idiocy. That’s just my experience. I hope they’re not too similar. In Bearskin novel, I think Apryl has a lot more of a hard edge than Sarah. I don’t know if I call her that in this book of the new one — a force of nature. Sarah is a little more circumspect. She’s more southern, for lack of a better term. She grew up in the south and in Maryland, and I just love both of them. And when I hear from female readers that they liked them, and especially Sarah, that makes me feel really good. Because obviously I’m a male writing about females, and that’s always fraught.

Carolyn Daughters  49:43
I liked Sarah a lot. She’s idealistic in a way that I didn’t feel Apryl was, so I do feel they are very different. They have some qualities that maybe are similar. I kept wondering, okay, Rice and Apryl get into big ol’ bind. And we don’t want to spoil it for anyone. We want everyone to read this book, everybody should read this book. But they get in a big ol’ bind together. And then Sarah and Rice also influence each other in interesting ways. There’s a scene in Bearskin (Bearskin novel) where she does this crazy thing where she is on a cliff, in the heart of this pristine nature preserve, and jumps off into the pool of water below. And instantly Rice more thinks, “Okay. She’s crazy. She’s dead or injured. If she’s injured, I’m going to have to make a splint, we’re going to create a splint, we’re going to camp out overnight, we’re going to fend off the elements, in the morning, I’ll find a way to get her back.” And then in a split second, he shifts and jumps after her. He blew my mind. To what degree are these relationships healthy or potentially dangerous for him?

James McLaughlin  51:01
That’s right. Right there is where we start to see that he and Sarah might not necessarily be as good for each other as it seemed like they would be. Maybe they are, maybe they’re not. But there’s definitely something there where she is capable of tapping into his definite tendency to do maybe extreme, obsessive things. Even though he knows better. He is a qualified outdoorsman who has survived a lot of things and knows his way around out there. And he knows that you don’t jump, whatever it was, 20 feet into a pool of water where you don’t know what’s under the surface. You don’t know how deep it is.

Carolyn Daughters  51:52
It’s two feet deep for all you know.

James McLaughlin  51:54
Exactly. And he’s like, “screw it. I’m gonna jump.” And that was influenced by Sarah. And so we see it’s a complicated relationship there.

Carolyn Daughters  52:09
I would have probably waited to see what was going on down there. I would have been like, “that looks fine. Okay, I’m gonna jump.” I wouldn’t in that split second have jumped. For me, that was a thrilling rush. And at the same time, I thought, maybe they’re both a little bit not perfect for each other. Because they push each other in really interesting ways. They’re very protective of each other, as we’ll find out in Bearskin (Bearskin novel). Over time, in particular, they grow more and more protective of each other. But the influence that these women have on him or that he might have on Sarah — the decision making at times seems arguably impaired, that the judgment is left on a shelf. And it’s like, “I’m just going to do whatever the hell they want to do” kind of thing.

James McLaughlin  53:07
That’s exactly right. I mean, in that scene, I think he is joining her, essentially. Maybe not the smartest thing to do. And like I said, he knows better. He should wait, like you said, and see what the damage was. But at the same time, he would be waiting to see if it was safe for himself to jump. And he’s not going to do that. I’m gonna I’m gonna jump with her. And go ahead and jump. Joining her in this leap. I’m not sure there’s any faith involved. It’s just a leap.

Sarah Harrison  53:43
That’s interesting. Well, Jim, we are almost at time, but I don’t think we can go without asking you about the drug cartel storyline. The level of detail on the Mexican drug cartel storyline. It’s the same level of detail that we were seeing in the Appalachian primary forest. You’re not just a wasp, you’re a black spider wasp. You have every sort of name and nuance about how this Mexican cartel is operating. How do you learn all that?

James McLaughlin  54:59
That was a lot of research for Bearskin (Bearskin novel). I realized Rice was an extremely tough, competent, brave guy who was terrified and realized what could do that. Okay, there’s this background in the Mexican cartel. That was before there had been so much written about the Mexican cartels. Maybe Don Winslow’s first book, The Power of the Dog, about the cartel. But I hadn’t seen it much. And so I did a lot of research. I have a cousin and one of my best friends lives in Tucson, and I’ve spent a lot of time down there. He hikes out the desert a lot. And so we’d spent a lot of time on the border hiking around down in the Sonoran Desert. And so I knew that country somewhat, and there’s a lot of fantastic resources on the internet. There’s journalists who are really risking their lives to report on what’s going on along the border. A lot of this has to do with feminicidio, the killing of women along the border that was just rampant. There was a lot of stuff you could get on the internet. And that’s where I got a lot of that information. I had a lot of on the ground experience in the place. But I didn’t join a cartel or anything like that.

Carolyn Daughters  56:45
Can you tell us anything about the sequel? Can you tease that at all? I’m on board. So the moment it’s published on I’m getting it.

James McLaughlin  56:56
Great. I love that. It’s a direct sequel. It picks up a year later, on the first anniversary of Rice’s arrival at the preserve, March 2, his birthday. Some things have happened. There’s a conflict occurring between him and Sarah over management of the preserve. There’s a character we haven’t talked about yet in Bearskin, who is the guy who turns out to be the mysterious poacher, his name is Alan Mirra. And he is a local guy who also had gone off and joined the Marines and had significant combat experience and had come home the war hero and joined an outlaw motorcycle gang. He was the main poacher on the property, he’s this incredibly formidable dude. I really liked him in Bearskin (Bearskin novel). So he is a significant character in the sequel.

Carolyn Daughters  57:59
And we see, without giving anything away, there’s a connection there at the end, where I could see that plot evolving in a second. Immediately, I was thinking to myself, I wonder where this goes. So I’m very excited to hear that there will be a sequel when you wrote this book, or even after you publish it when you’re thinking, “I’m going to make a series out of this. I’ve got more than one book in me with these characters,” or has the idea of writing a sequel taken you by surprise?

James McLaughlin  58:35
Yeah, I was a little bit surprised. As I was finishing, I was thinking I’m not done with these folks. I really liked them. Especially Rice, but also some of these secondary characters. And I thought, yeah, I could do more books about them. And it’s never like a plan. I know that some folks will come up with characters that they think will work in a series, and that’s a great way to go about it. But that’s not what I did. It just was happenstance at the end. I said, Hmm, I can do more with these folks. That’s how that came about.

Carolyn Daughters  59:14
Those four characters Sarah, Rice Moore, Alan Mirra, and then Dempsey Boger. I’d love to hear more about all of them.

James McLaughlin  59:22
Dempsey is definitely a big part of the sequel, too.

Carolyn Daughters  59:26
So I am very much looking forward to that. Where are you in that process? How far along are you?

James McLaughlin  59:36
Not as far along as I should be. I’ve been working on it for a while, and it went very slowly for a while. But this spring has gone a lot more quickly. I’ve written most of a first draft and I’m trying to finish that up now. And then the revision processes, is where everything happens. So there’ll be a revision process, but I need to finish by this fall. That’s my deadline. So hopefully the sequel to Bearskin (Bearskin novel) will come out a year after that.

Carolyn Daughters  1:00:13
Great. Do you find the first draft is figuring out what your book is. And then you go back, and then you’re like, Okay, now I got it. Now I got to make it sing. I’ve got to make it do what I want it to do.

James McLaughlin  1:00:27
I mean, I’ve been writing all my life and never really figured out how to do it.

Carolyn Daughters  1:00:33
I was hoping you could tell me.

James McLaughlin  1:00:38
I’ve never figured out anything any easy way. And I change the way I do it all the time. The first draft is so hard. And then you’ve got something and then you can come back in. I used to make every paragraph as perfect as I could as I go through, and that’s just insane. Because you’re going to throw out a lot of that, and there’s no sense perfecting it. You need to know what you’re doing. So trying to get the first draft out, and then we go back and wrestle with it for a long time.

Sarah Harrison  1:01:11
Jim, it’s been completely delightful talking to you. Where can folks find you?

James McLaughlin  1:01:22
I’m so bad at social media. I would say I dislike it, but I know that’s where a lot of book marketing happens. I do have a Facebook page. And I do have an Instagram account, neither of which is active at all. Every now and then I’ll put something up, like a picture of the new cover for the paperback of Panther Gap is pretty cool. So I took a picture of that and posted that on both. I also have a website that’s just jamesamclaughlin.com. There’s a way to email me through there. And that’s the way a lot of readers reach out to me is through the website.

Carolyn Daughters  1:01:59

We will include all the information on our website. We strongly recommend Bearskin, the 2019 Edgar Award for Best First Novel. Well deserved. Bearskin (Bearskin novel) a great book. We both enjoyed it.

James McLaughlin  1:02:22

Thank you guys so much. I really enjoyed this. I really appreciate your asking me to talk about Bearskin. Wonderful.

Sarah Harrison  1:02:29

Thank you, Jim.

Carolyn Daughters
You can learn more about all our 2024 book selections at teatonicandtoxin.com. You can also comment, weigh in, and follow along with what we’re reading and discussing @teatonicandtoxin on Instagram and Facebook. And you can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Sarah Harrison
And until next time, listeners, be sure to stay mysterious.

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