Twentymile by C. Matthew Smith is a literary thriller set in and around the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. A wildlife biologist has been found dead inside the park and it is apparent fairly quickly that what was staged to look like a suicide, definitely was not. Tsula Walker, Special Agent for the National Park Service’s Investigative Services Branch and of Cherokee descent, is brought in to lead the investigation. In retracing the deadman’s last days, Tsula encounters a party of survivalists. Mother Nature becomes the great equalizer as Tsula and her foe face each other on a land each has been raised to understand they have claims to (but with alarmingly different expectations of what that means).
Welcome to a bit of a different type of post for Lit&Leisure.
For those who visit regularly, you know that thrillers aren’t my go-to genre. But when a few of my colleagues at work started telling me about this great book a co-worker had published, I was intrigued. I purchased and read it in the course of a weekend – completely engaged and thoroughly entertained. But because I don’t normally review thrillers, I felt less up to that task. So instead, I asked Matt if he’d be willing to participate in a Q&A with me, and he agreed.
How long have you wanted to be a writer?
Growing up, the one thing that was never off-limits in my house was a book. I read widely, and to me there was something so magical about a good story. When I entered college, I thought I was going to get my English degree, go on to grad school, and start writing. For various reasons, I got redirected to law school. It took me nearly twenty years of practice, marriage, and parenthood before an idea for a story planted itself in my head and just wouldn’t let me go. It was the right time to finally give it a shot.
The overarching conflict is one about land ownership – land originally inhibited by Native Americans (namely Cherokee), then taken by European settlers and finally attained by the US Government as a National Forest. What was interesting to you about this conflict?
The answer to this question has a few layers to it. First, I’ve always been interested in land. On a practical level, it means a home and security. A space in which to build a home, grow food, and tend to basic needs. But it also has a more symbolic meaning–a “homeland,” a birthright or legacy maybe, something to pass down to future generations. Something, also, that you can exclude others from.
There’s a thought experiment I engage in sometimes that goes like this: Take the place where you’re currently standing–any patch of dirt below your feet–and ask yourself who owns it. Now go back a century. Who owned it then? What about two centuries? What happened to the prior inhabitants? In the U.S., almost every place you could choose has a difficult legacy.
When it comes to Great Smoky Mountains National Park–a place near and dear to my heart–there are at least two discreet eras in which that land was taken from someone. First it was taken from the Cherokee, along with the rest of their homeland, in the 1830s despite treaties to the contrary. A century later, the settlers and timber companies that moved in were forcibly bought out by the states of North Carolina and Tennessee using eminent domain. At least they were paid fair market value; the Cherokee were marched to Oklahoma at gunpoint, and many of them died along the way. Still, that’s a whole of cause for resentment that lingers to this day. What might that resentment do to a person primed to internalize it? What might it prompt them to do? As a fiction writer, that’s great fodder for a story.
Where did the idea for this story come from?
About four years ago, I had the idea for a novel that involved a Good Guy running from Bad Guys in a difficult outdoor environment. The who, what, where, or why was yet to be determined. But I’ve spent a lot of time outdoors camping backcountry, hiking, fishing, paddling, and climbing. I both love the woods and respect the dangers they can pose. Eventually, I decided the setting would be Great Smoky Mountains National Park, since it’s an area I adore and with which I’m familiar. It seemed natural, then, that the conflict in the story would involve the history discussed above. The Bad Guy would be motivated by the loss of family land to the formation of the park, and he would engage in a plan to take it back. The final question was who my Good Guy would be. That answer came when my research uncovered the National Park Service’s Investigative Services Branch. It’s a small law enforcement agency that investigates the most serious crimes committed on National Park land. ISB Special Agents cover massive swathes of territory, investigate crimes in remote areas, and often work solo or with very small teams. What kind of person would be drawn to such a job? I knew that could make for a fascinating protagonist.
Twentymile has a strong female protagonist. Why did you choose a women to be the main character for this story?
To be honest, once I’d decided my protagonist would work for ISB, the image in my mind was always of a female special agent. It wasn’t so much a choice as a character that presented herself and wouldn’t leave my head. That said, I challenged myself to avoid the usual traps male writers fall into when writing female main characters. I didn’t want her to be characterized by her attractiveness or unattractiveness, her relationships to the men around her, or who in the story might be her love interest. Instead, I wanted her to be measured solely by her skills and her dedication to her job. Her badassery. I’ve known a number of tough and capable women in my day–I’m married to one, in fact–and I channeled them into the character of Tsula Walker. The result is a character I love, and I can’t tell you the number of readers who have told me how much they love her too.
I can imagine how busy Piedmont keeps you. When do you find time to write?
It’s not easy. It has involved a lot of late nights and weekend mornings holed away, always with coffee in hand. And I’ve had to make peace with the fact that it will take me much longer to write a novel than I’d like. But if it’s what you want to do, you make the time and you stay at it.
What are you working on next?
I’m at work on another novel that I’ve been at for about ten months. I figure it’ll take me another year or two until it’s ready. In the meantime, I have a short story that will appear in the crime fiction anthology Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir Vol.3 toward the end of this year. I’m pretty proud of that story, so I’ll look forward to it getting out into the world.
Congratulation, Matt, on an amazing accomplishment – finishing and publishing a really good book! Thanks for joining me here, and best of luck with future endeavors. You’re welcome back here any time.
Find links to purchase Twentymile and learn more about Matt from his website cmattsmithwrites.com.
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