Meet This Author: Michael Scott Curnes

Q: When did you decide to become a writer? Why write an eco-thriller? 

A: My mother was a high school English teacher, the result of which meant that growing up (in rural northern Idaho) my grammar was practically flawless. She had this glass pickle jar which she labeled the grammar jar, and even my friends had to contribute a quarter if they mis-conjugated anything or used slang within my mother’s earshot. My younger siblings and I even had to give book reports to her during summer vacations which meant we became readers. I learned very early on that I could write myself into any situation I could imagine. This proved useful and provided me outlets and escapes galore, in a place where I mostly felt trapped and out of place. 

My father, for his part in my upbringing, worked for the US Forest Service and so we practically lived weekends and summer vacations outdoors in the woods. It seemed we were always heading up one dusty, potholed forest service road or another. This introduced me to nature and environmentalism and ecology at a very young age. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I could see, everywhere around me, that humans were altering the natural course of things (rivers, forests, species, air, water). 
The marriage of writing and environmentalism came as naturally as growing taller. My latest novel, 

To Pay Paul, is the second eco-thriller I have written, and could be categorized as a sequel to my first, 

For the Love of Mother which won the 2011 Green Book Awards Fiction Prize. 

Q: What inspired you to create your novel, To Pay Paul

A: Several years ago, I was introduced to a fisheries biologist who worked at one of the hydroelectric dams on the Snake River in Central Idaho. He had read my second novel, For the Love of Mother, (2011) and reached out with his praise for my handling of the salmon crisis in the Columbia River Basin. As an aside, he also told me, that if I had a penchant to write another eco-thriller, that the crippled Priest Rapids Dam upriver from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Central Washington State, was a ticking environmental catastrophe poised to unleash mayhem via the Columbia River that could render the Pacific Ocean a deadzone for centuries to come. Well, that sure got my attention, but I had already committed to other projects at the time. I wrote two more novels, Coping with Ash (2016) and Wicked Ninnish (2020) before returning to the eco-thriller genre to address this premise of a dam-triggered-nuclear disaster with To Pay Paul (2022).

Q: Is this part of a series or a stand-alone novel?

 A: I felt all along and treated my approach To Pay Paul as though I was writing a sequel to For the Love of Mother. Both stories take place in the Pacific Northwest and the Columbia River figures prominently as a main, non-human character in both novels. I did drop in an Easter egg so that readers of both novels, would make a stronger connection between the two.

Q: How would describe your writing style?

A: I tend to write cinematically. I am a visual artist when it comes to my writing, and of course like many writers, I imagine every one of my novels being made into a movie someday. I expanded my normal approach to writing during To Pay Paul when I discovered a remarkable dead poet in my research. William Witherup (1935-2009) worked at Hanford, as did his father and other relatives in the 70s and 80s. After reading three published collections of his poetry, I made the decision to collaborate with Bill posthumously. I located and reached out to his surviving sister in Seattle and gained her trust and permission to reprint 13 of his poems from his published collection Men at Work.

William Witherup considered himself a “downwinder” having worked at and lived downwind from the nuclear plants at Hanford. His poetry revealed and mused upon the risks and consequences of working at or even living nearby the Hanford Nuclear facility. My use of his poems in this novel, I felt, would serve as a Greek Chorus to the story I wanted to tell in To Pay Paul. You will find Bill’s poems as chapter breaks and there were moments in my process where this felt like a true collaboration between us.

Q: What were your favorite moments as a writer when working on your novel? 

A: I am an American Canadian novelist who has lived in British Columbia since 1995. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and in the region I used as the setting for this novel, and I relied on my memory (and Google) to patch the descriptions of place together. During the 2nd pass edit with my amazing editor, Andrew Durkin, I took a head-clearing road trip from my home in Victoria, B.C. to visit my mother in Eastern Washington State and I detoured through the area I had described in the novel. I was tickled to find it “greener” than I remembered, and fell in love with the geological landscape all over again.

Q: What was the journey like for you as you were writing, editing, and publishing your works?

A: To Pay Paul marks my fifth novel to be published and coincides with my 60th birthday in 2022. I mention this for two reasons. By the time I started writing my fifth novel, I felt I had a command of the writing and publishing process. I have been so fortunate to be able to work with the same editor for my last three novels and the same book designer for my last four novels. Like William Witherup (mentioned above), I, too, consider myself a downwinder, having grown up about one hundred miles directly east of Hanford just across the state line that divides Washington and Idaho. Laying in a Spokane hospital bed on my twentieth birthday, hooked up to an IV that was pumping toxic chemotherapy chemicals into my body, I was told by my attending oncologist, that I “probably shouldn’t anticipate celebrating a 21st birthday.” I was one of two in my rural high school class of 90 students, to be diagnosed with cancers within three years of graduating. I vowed I wasn’t going to die, as long as I still had stories to tell, so I changed oncologists and have been cancer-free for 38 years.

Q: When will this new novel be released and where can readers buy it? 

A: To Pay Paul was published July 1, 2022 (Canada Day and what would have been my parent’s 62nd wedding anniversary, had my own father not passed in August of last year). I dedicated this novel to my dad and to all the downwinders. My father and William Witherup, the poet I featured in this novel, were both born in the same year, 1935.

To Pay Paul is available in eBook, paperback and hardcover on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powells Books, and can be ordered by any local booksellers.

Q: What can you tell readers about your main character, Seamus Quinlan, in To Pay Paul? A: Seamus is a career geophysicist and adjunct professor in his mid-fifties who early on inherits the family farm, located just east of the Hanford Nuclear Site where the plutonium was developed in the 1940s for the bomb that would obliterate Nagasaki, Japan toward the end of WWII. Seamus, who makes no bones about not being a farmer, finds himself increasingly disenchanted with his employer, the US Department of Energy, the agency overseeing a massive multi-billion-dollar superfund clean-up of Hanford’s toxic legacy. At the same time, Seamus begins to witness unusual seismic activity and other anomalies that suggest, to him, that something’s building.

Q: What other projects are you currently working on?

A: That’s apparently a trade secret I am waiting for the universe to reveal, like it always does if you are open to it.

Q: What advice would you give to aspiring writers in your genre?

A: I like to give myself a bit of credit for helping invent the eco-thriller fiction genre with my novel, For the Love of Mother. The devastating consequences of man-accelerated climate change are already unveiling catastrophes all around the globe. I predict that just like science fiction writers who predicted the technological course our future would take, that we are about to be entertained and horrified by a platoon of eco-thriller fiction writers and filmmakers who will dramatize what the planet is already beginning to experience as a result of our rapidly warming planet. As it becomes harder and harder to come up with fiction plot-lines that aren’t already playing out in real time on the news every night, I look forward to reading works from these writers who can seamlessly monopolize on this runaway state of our non-fiction world that has begun to shorten the leash on the once-but-no-longer dystopian future I believe humanity is staring in the face. My advice to these writers is to be the bold and unapologetic chroniclers and whistleblowers for our times.

Q: Would you ever write books in any other genre? 

A: I have, and I probably will again, for as long as this beautiful post-cancer journey will permit. My novels have so far explored grief, the occult, reincarnation and the mass extinction of species. I tend to write what I know or can easily Google, so we’ll see what comes up next!

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