Editor’s note: Thanks to novelist J. Todd Scott for agreeing to answer a few questions for Lit South. Scott, an experienced DEA agent, published his first novel, “The Far Empty”, in 2016.
I came across his latest, “High White Sun”, via David Joy’s Twitter feed as I began building this site and establishing my social media streams. Scott is one of a few authors gracious enough to let us review their work as we build Lit South up this spring.
After reading a few interviews and reviews of his work, I tried to lead Scott in a different direction, focusing on his craft work and his thoughts about growing his career. A solid background interview is over at The Real Book Spy.
Read our review of “High White Sun” here. – J.S.
Lit South: Readers new to your work should know that you are a federal DEA agent working in the Southwest. How does the landscape of that region influence your work? Did you grow up there and if not how has adopting the region helped you grow as a writer?
Scott: I’m actually from rural Kentucky, but I’ve had to “adopt” a lot of homes since my career has carried back me back and forth across the country a couple of times (and overseas, as well). I try to find something to love about every place I live, and that sense of geography, of place, that I experienced in the Southwest, absolutely influenced me when I started writing seriously.
So, I don’t think High White Sun or the book before it – The Far Empty – would have been written if I wasn’t living out West at the time. I’ve often said that the Big Bend area is simply another character in the novels, and the rugged beauty and remoteness definitely contributed to the tone, or “feel,” I was going for when I wrote them. That part of the county is vast and panoramic, and I wanted the books to feel that way, too.
LS: I picked up throughout the early parts of High White Sun that wind was a type of motif or recurring theme in the book. Was that by design and if so what role did it serve either in the writing of the book or for the reader?
Scott: Similar to my answer above, I was intrigued with the wild and rugged nature of the Southwest; in particular, the Big Bend region where I set the books. And the motif of ever-present wind is one way of evoking that sense or concept of limitless size and space. A strong wind is something that you feel, literally and figuratively, and it’s like the world itself is reaching out and grabbing you. It buffets you, keeps you off-balance, and I think many of the characters in the book are experiencing that from forces outside their control, as well as their own internal storms.
LS: You’ve been asked a lot about how you developed Chris Cherry and how your career in federal law enforcement influences your writing. I’m curious to hear you speak a bit about the urge to write novels. Was that desire always there growing up, or were you a voracious reader who one day decided you could do it better? How did you develop your craft and what were some early successes for you?
Scott: From middle school on I dreamed about being a writer, and I’ve read voraciously for as long as I can remember. Books were a big part of my life growing up, and that weekly family trip to the library was one of my highlights. My parents were, and still are, serious readers, and they fostered that in me.
Throughout high school and college I wrote a bunch of horrible short stories, poems, and even a novella. I took several Creative Writing seminars during my undergrad program (at the College of William & Mary, in Virginia) and toyed around with the idea of getting a Masters in Fine Arts, but decided instead to get a law degree, before ultimately becoming a federal agent. My “formal” writing training stopped in college, but I never quite gave up the idea of writing seriously again. It just took a while – over twenty years.
I was extremely lucky that one of my first attempts at a “real novel” got published. On the one hand, it was extremely flattering and a realization of that life-long dream. On the other, my readers are now watching me develop my craft, book by book.
LS: I read in a recent interview that you have two more books completed and are at work on a third. Could you talk a bit about your work process and your daily habit. How do you stay disciplined and what drives your desire to be prolific?
Scott: Sometimes I feel that that after twenty-plus years of silence, I’m now really “talking” for the first time, which is why I’m so dedicated to getting my writing done – I’ve got plenty to say, and plenty of pent-up stories to tell. I don’t want to waste any more time not writing. My process is simple but consistent: I write every day. I try to average around 600 words during the week, and about 1200 or so on the weekends, but the reality is it goes up and down, although I always get something done. I have to write early in the morning before I go to work, and I have limited time that I have to make it count. I don’t work with an outline, but once I get into the heart of a book, I generally have an idea of what at least the next few chapters are going to look like, and I always know where I’m going, even if I don’t quite know how I’m going to get there. I think the key part of finding yourself as a writer is finding your process, and what works for me won’t necessarily work for everyone, but it’s important to identify a process and vigilantly protect it. My writing time is important, and I try to schedule everything else around it when I can.
LS: Tell us about your next books and what projects you are working on now. How do you want to grow your career? Any upcoming events of interest to readers?
Scott: I recently was at the Tucson Festival of Books and had a great time there. I love going to literary festivals and meeting with other authors and readers, and hope to hit one or two before the end of the year. I believe I still have a few bookstores to hit as well, touring behind the release of High White Sun.
I just had a short story come out Mystery Tribune, and I have a shorter piece in a charity anthology that’s due out next year. The next Big Bend book, This Side of Night, should hit around this time next year, as well. In 2020, I have a stand-alone book coming out, tentatively titled Thirteen Days. It’s another Texas-set suspense novel, but I give Chris and America a little bit of a break, and move north to the Midland-Odessa area. I’m currently working on two books now, one set in Kentucky, and the other a very contemporary, cinematic crime story – sort of a cross between Heat and Training Day. And speaking of the cinema, The Far Empty was optioned for film/TV last year, and although I can’t say a lot about that yet, it’s been fun to be involved in that process, and it’s opened some interesting doors for me.
Growing my career is important to me, and as long as people are interested in what I’m doing, I’ll keep doing it.