SALT LAKE CITY — Utah author James McLaughlin’s new, critically acclaimed debut novel almost never got published.
McLaughlin, a Virginia native who lives in Utah full time, spent 20 years crafting his book, "Bearskin," which tells the story of a man named Rice living on a nature reserve in Virginia's backwoods. There he tries to protect the area from bear poachers — especially a group of locals who want nothing more than to hunt bears on the reserve. Rice's desire to catch the poachers becomes an obsessive passion, one that forces him to confront his dark past dealing with a Mexican drug cartel.
The New York Times named McLaughlin one of the summer's four writers to watch, and he's already working on a prequel and a sequel to his new novel.
But according to McLaughlin, the book’s publication came down to one specific quality — luck.
“What I've come to understand is that it requires a whole lot of luck and falling into the right people who know the right people,” he told the Deseret News in a phone interview. “It’s an incredibly contingent process.”
McLaughlin started "Bearskin" as an MFA student at the University of Virginia, where he had previously received his law degree. After he graduated, he practiced law full time in Virginia, working for a medium-large law firm where he felt more like a paper-pusher than anything else.
“It wasn’t a good fit,” he said
Seeking a change, he moved to Utah in 2000. A friend back home in Virginia started a land conservation consulting business and McLaughlin works as the company's attorney.
But although his law career moved forward, McLaughlin couldn’t escape “Bearskin.” With a friend's encouragement, he finally finished it, publishing excerpts here, a short story containing a few of the book's scenes there. It flirted with the mainstream in 2008 when he published it as a novella in The Missouri Review. But he never delivered the novel in full to the public.
During those writing years, McLaughlin balanced both working full time and writing his book, which, he said, took “a lot of grinding work and fighting self-doubt over the many, many years.”
In fact, he worked hard to never step away from his fictional world.
“What has worked best is having several days a week full-on with the day job, but even on those days,” he said. “… never lose touch with the fictional dream of your story.”
It helped that “Bearskin's” fictional setting is largely based on a world McLaughlin knows well. McLaughlin grew up in Virginia and spent many of his young summers at a day camp run by his parents, which he called an “idyllic situation.”
But most of “Bearskin's” rewriting happened in Utah, where McLaughlin had to dig deep into his archive of memories to adequately describe his home state.
“The distance between here and the setting for most of the book forced me to go into my childhood and young adult memories,” he said. “… The stuff you get when you go back to your early memories is more mystical than super-specific factual.”
In addition to digging into McLaughlin's past, "Bearskin" is also a reflection of his time now as a land conservation attorney with an interest in animal rights.
“I’ve always cared deeply about what people would call the environment or nature,” he said, adding that he didn’t push those themes too hard in his book. “I never want to try to be didactic in any fiction because I feel like that can be very deadly to your fictional world and dream and the effectiveness of the fiction you’re writing.”
Still, McLaughlin said he understands the sides of both the hunters and the protectors, which is why the book’s main character, Rice, is sympathetic to those who want to hunt on the nature reserve, even though it’s his job to protect it. He ultimately decides to protect the integrity of the place to save the ecosystem instead of letting poachers disrupt it.
“That kind of message is in the background but it can’t really drive your plot or your character’s action. It really ends up killing your fiction, in my opinion,” he said.
Moving forward, McLaughlin is working on a prequel, which will include Rice and his girlfriend Apryl, who also appears in “Bearskin," and has plans for a sequel.
This trilogy will allow McLaughlin to grow "Bearskin's" universe that he seemingly created out of nothing but hard work and luck.
“It’s fun for me,” he said.
Content advisory: "Bearskin" contains strong language, scenes of graphic violence and references to rape.
If you go …
What: James McLaughlin book signing
When: Wednesday, July 25, 7 p.m.
Where: The Provo City Library at Academy Square, 550 N. University Avenue, Provo
Note: Places in the signing line are reserved for those who purchase a copy of "Bearskin" from The King's English.