An Interview with Paul Doiron
In your author’s note to The Poacher's Son, you’ve said that the book was inspired by some features you wrote for Down East. What were those stories, and how did they evolve into an idea for your first novel?
When I started at Down East a number of years ago, I wrote a series of short features about offbeat stuff in Maine, and for some reason everything that interested me seemed to involve game wardens. A bear was killing pigs down the road; a warden shot it. A bobcat mistook a hunter for a turkey and jumped on his back; he called the wardens for help. It didn’t take me long to realize that Maine game wardens had really unusual jobs. Then, without really intending to do so, I began writing a novel about one.
You’ve been a successful writer and outdoorsman for some time. What made you want to incorporate those interests into a crime novel?
The crime genre was my first love — I remember devouring all the Sherlock Holmes stories as a kid — so I’m like the man who breaks up with a woman and then realizes, years after the fact, that she was right for him all along. Because when I went to college I began reading what most people categorize as literary fiction and decided that I wanted to write stories like Raymond Carver’s or novels like Tim O’Brien’s. Then my girlfriend (now my wife) gave me P.D. James to read, and I said, “Wait a second, this is a crime novel, but it’s also literature.” When you think about it, so many of the classic literary works are also corking novels of suspense: Crime and Punishment, The Secret Agent, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
You’ve elegantly overcome some of the challenges faced by writers like C.J. Box in explaining that a game warden’s job is far more complex than most people think. What appealed to you about giving Mike Bowditch his chosen profession?
The profession of game warden differs so much across the country, which is something C.J. Box and I have discussed. In Maine wardens essentially function as full-fledged police officers, enforcing all of the laws of the state wherever there isn’t a road (which is pretty much everywhere). They arrest snowmobilers for drunk driving, retrieve drowned swimmers from the bottoms of lakes, rescue Alzheimer patients lost in the woods. And these responsibilities come on top of their traditional duties of upholding the state’s fish and game laws. I’ve been fortunate to meet a lot of wardens over the years when I was writing journalism for Down East and then again when I was researching The Poacher’s Son. They have extremely difficult and misunderstood jobs, for which they are paid shockingly little, and I have nothing but respect for the courage and conviction it takes to do what they do.
What sort of man is Mike Bowditch?
He’s a haunted young man who has always had difficulties connecting with other people because of his fractured upbringing. He can be volatile and impulsive, but he’s deeply intelligent and has a strong moral center. In Advertisements for Myself Norman Mailer talks about the challenge he set himself of trying to create a character who was braver, stronger, and smarter than his own author. I’ve always been intrigued by that concept, and I’d say Mike Bowditch is my attempt to win Mailer’s bet.
As a novelist, what interests you about this fundamental conflict between Mike and his father?
Masculinity as a concept really interests me. My favorite author is Ernest Hemingway, and I’ve always been fascinated by how at odds the “Papa” mystique is with the wounded and vulnerable men in his books — the early books especially. I also went to an all-boys Jesuit high school so I grew up in this hyper-masculine environment where bullying was part of the culture but so was this deeply spiritual ethic of aspiring to be a righteous man. All boys need father figures, and Mike grew up with just this impossible contradiction of a dad. Jack Bowditch is the biggest, bravest guy in every room he enters — the war hero and woodsman, who’s also a hard-drinking lady’s man — but he’s emotionally unavailable and unwilling to be a role model for his own son. So Mike has to navigate his adolescence alone, trying to learn what qualities in his father he should aspire to, and which ones are toxic.
Your journalist’s penchant for research informs the novel. What kind of research went into this book?
I’d say that two types of research went into the book. I’ve always been an outdoorsy kind of guy. Few things make me happier than fly fishing from dawn till dusk. And I’m a Registered Maine Guide, which means I’m certified by the state in first aid, map and compass work, and basic woodcraft to lead trips into the wilderness. So a lot of my research consisted of just spending time in the woods, talking with other guides and learning, for example, how to call coyotes even though I’m not a coyote hunter myself. The other type of research was just shoe-leather journalism. Once I began formulating a plot for The Poacher’s Son, I knew that I needed to start interviewing game wardens, understanding their institutional structure and culture, how crimes are investigated in the state of Maine, that sort of thing. One of the truths I’ve learned as a journalist is that if you run into a roadblock, it usually means you haven’t done enough research. You just need to keep calling people until you can continue writing — and even then you’re bound to get some details wrong.
How does writing about an area you know so very well help inform a novel like this one?
When I started The Poacher’s Son, my goal was simply to write the book I myself wanted to read but couldn’t find anywhere else. I had no commercial aspirations for the novel whatsoever. I was doing lots of writing about Maine for Down East, but the magazine has its own voice and editorial stance, and I needed a place to record my personal experience of growing up here, a place where I could be profane and sexy and a bit of a trickster. Fiction also allows you to get past the distracting details that can bedevil nonfiction. If you read the factual events that inspired The Sun Also Rises, for instance, you realize that Hemingway’s novel was truer to the emotions and tensions and drama of that wine-filled weekend than what actually happened in Pamplona.
What do you hope appeals to readers in The Poacher’s Son?
My hope is that the book works on two levels for readers. I want it to be a great read — the novel you can’t put down and that you want to tell all your friends about. I also hope it gets people thinking of the father-son relationships in their own lives and what it means to grow up to be a man today. Then there’s the important role nature plays in the book. In an age when more and more young people are living entirely indoors and connecting online, Mike Bowditch has made a conscious decision to forge a life for himself outdoors. He’s not a Luddite or a hermit, but he’s suspicious that modernity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I intend Mike’s choice to be a provocation.
Finally, what are your future plans for the series?
My current contract with Minotaur Books is for two more Mike Bowditch novels — bring the total to seven — and I hope to write many more beyond that. To me the most interesting crime series are the ones in which the characters evolve from book to book. Some readers have asked me about my choice to write from the perspective of a twenty-four year old man as opposed to someone closer to my own age — if nothing else, The Poacher’s Son is not another mid-life crisis book — and I’ve told them that my goal is to follow Mike through a series of novels as he matures and becomes the man he was meant to be. There are going to be obstacles along the way, because as a character he needs to suffer in order to grow. But I hope that readers will want to follow Mike Bowditch’s journey.