Thriller Began as Short Story
"I can't say what it is that captures my attention," says Nat Sobel, one of the most respected literary agents in publishing. "I just know it. I know on the first page, the first paragraph, if I'm in the hands of somebody really capable."
When Sobel, who represents James Ellroy, Richard Russo, Joseph Wambaugh, and Tim Dorsey, read Aaron Gwyn's short story, "Dog on a Cross," in the anthology, "New Stories from the South," he immediately knew the young author was a "rising star," and asked to represent him.
In less than two years, Gwyn's first collection of linked short-stories, "Dog on a Cross," a "dazzlingly inventive collection" (Boston Globe) with its "perceptive, quietly beautiful prose reminiscent of Flannery O'Connor" (Kirkus Reviews), was nominated for the prestigious NY Public Library's Young Lions Award, the only major book prize that recognizes fiction by writers under 35. Another story, "Mate," was selected by Stephen King as a Distinguished Story included in "Best American Stories 2007."
Now, Gwyn's debut novel, "The World Beneath," which the author will present Thursday, June 4, at 4 p.m. at The Country Bookshop in downtown Southern Pines, is being hailed as "a chilling literary thriller in the vein of Cormac McCarthy and Denis Johnson. Gwyn is an "obviously gifted writer from whom we're going to hear much more. You should definitely check it out to witness the arrival of a new voice to the literary landscape."
"The World Beneath" is set in the dying town of Perser, Okla., where a lonely 15-year-old half-Latino/half-Chickasaw boy goes missing. The local sheriff, Gerald Martin, who feels responsible for the death of his kid brother in a childhood accident, becomes obsessed with finding the boy. Their story is juxtaposed with that of Hickson Crider, a Gulf War veteran with post traumatic stress disorder, who becomes equally obsessed with a mysterious bottomless hole that suddenly appears in his backyard. Gwyn offers compelling suggestions as to what caused the hole, including the work of a Chickasaw devil, Shampe, who lives underground but emerges to steal children.
"The World Beneath" originally began as the short story, "Dog on the Cross," which Gwyn wrote as his dissertation for his doctorate at the University of Denver. It is part of what he calls his "world building" literary plan, which continues a tradition by William Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson to create serial-like mythologies around fictional towns.
All eight stories in "Dog on the Cross" are set in Perser, a fundamental Christian/Pentecostal church community. Other characters in the collection, like Sheriff Martin, appear in the novel.
Aaron Gwyn was born in Tulsa and grew up on a farm with his grandparents near a Pentecostal community outside Seminole.
"It's what I know," he says. "I know those people and that environment."
At one point he thought about becoming a Pentecostal minister, but he got out of the community when he was 15 after deciding it wasn't an experience he wanted to participate in anymore. But, he says, "it did allow a lot of interesting experiences for fiction writing."
After graduating from East Central University, Gwyn went to Oklahoma State for a master's degree.
"I wanted to be a Joyce scholar and work with Irish Modernism, but that all changed when I started writing fiction in my second year," he says. "I realized that as a scholar of literature, I felt as if I was the fan of something, as opposed to being a player in the game, and I realized that was not going to be a satisfying to me," he says. "If I was going to continue what I was doing, then I was going to have to at least try to play, even if I was bad at it. I started writing an hour a day or more, and I became very diligent about learning it like a skill, like you would learn to play the guitar, piano or practice a sport."
Gwyn knew, however, that he would need to go somewhere else for the opportunity to hone his craft.
"Oklahoma has got to be the worst place in the world for anyone who doesn't want to farm, ranch, weld, or be manipulated by a corporation," he says.
He moved to Colorado to get his doctorate in English at the University of Denver before joining the faculty at UNC-Charlotte in 2003 as an associate professor teaching fiction writing.
"North Carolina has been the only state in my limited experience I've ever visited where the people expressed an actual 'enthusiasm' for writers and writing," he says. "When I came out to UNC-C to interview for the fiction writer position, people were genuinely excited about literature. I couldn't be luckier in terms of location. I really love it here."
For information call The Country Bookshop at (910) 692-3211.
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