Local But Not Native
In May of this year, I finished the first complete draft of a novel that reflects ten years of personal experience living as a local–but not a native–in Southwest Virginia. This distinction matters. I’ve been a local long enough to write authentically about the people, the customs, and the issues. But I wasn’t born here, which means I’m able to openly discuss the things I observe. Natives find this extremely difficult, because the closed culture of Central Appalachia teaches from an early age that candor invites trouble, and pressures exerted from the community itself keep many from speaking up when they otherwise might have much to say.
When I first put HIGH KILL in front of non-local readers, some people were shocked at my characterization of a young adult Southwest Virginia male. They thought perhaps his point of view sounds “too educated,” and “too articulate.” Maybe they expected more dialect, or less intelligence overall. Having lived and worked in a 24630 zip code for more than ten years, I’ve talked to people with a twang so thick they need subtitles, and people born here who sound like they hail from New England. So to examine stereotypes, I started looking at literature, tv, and other forms of media about or originating from this area. There isn’t much. Most native authors write folksy tales about a world that doesn’t exist anymore, and non-natives write cliches ad nauseam. Neither is acceptable if the goal is for us writers to affect real, palpable change with our words.
Several years ago, Diane Sawyer filmed a documentary called “Hidden America: Children of the Mountains.” She reported about a Kentucky community less than a hundred miles from me, within the same demographic of Central Appalachia. When she stands in front of a map early in the documentary, the Virginia County where I live is within the highlighted area just beside her right shoulder.
Themes of Cruelty
If HIGH KILL has one consistent theme, that theme is cruelty. The link between animal cruelty and violence against humans is undeniable. Statistics don’t lie. All the major animal welfare groups preach this. The FBI tracks it. These days, no one in a civilized world dares to dismiss the correlation. What should we make of it when a jurisdiction in Central Appalachia embarks on a large-scale effort to cover up crimes and protect two Animal Control officers who, by their own admission, are guilty of felony animal abuse? As an activist, rescuer, member of Virginians for Change to Animal Legislation, and the Director of a 501c3 animal welfare agency, I have personally been at the forefront of the controversy surrounding these very real current events. The “Donovan Report” you’ll read about in HIGH KILL is an adapted-with-permission document based on the the “McAfee Report,” available for inspection at this link. I must warn you that the “McAfee Report” is a detailed, brutal account of years of abuse in a taxpayer funded animal shelter, much of it told from the perspective of an eyewitness. It can be difficult for some people to take. The Virginia State Shelter Inspection Report backing up the McAfee Report is available for inspection at this link.
You Won’t See Yourself In High Kill
Southwest Virginia locals, take an easy breath. You won’t find yourselves on the pages of this novel. While it is true that I have used actual, real-world events in the plot and have transcribed some conversations almost verbatim, not a single character in HIGH KILL is based on a real person. I recognized early the risk of doing this even subconsciously, and formulated a system to give me physical description and personality traits of each character. That system is simple–I based them on celebrities, or more accurately, roles those celebrities have played. I’ve never done that before with anything I’ve written, but the stakes are a bit greater with HIGH KILL. So rest assured–if someone believes I’ve embarrassed them with this book, I can show them my collection of photos and videos that I used to craft each character. It is the events I want to draw the world’s attention to, the dysfunctions and corruption that make our community toxic, not the individuals who live here. I’ve intentionally obfuscated many facts, composited multiple counties and jurisdictions into one, and woven some straight-up fiction into the fabric of all the truth. At the end of the day, I just wanted to tell a good story.
Readers can keep an eye on this website or follow me on Facebook to track the progress of this novel’s release. At this time, I’m taking a more traditional path to publication with HIGH KILL than I did with the TTL Series. I feel strongly that a story of this scope, with this much immediate relevance, should be handled by an experienced agent and publisher.