A lawyer in Hawthorne, Nevada, believes a serial murderer has recently moved into the town and attempts to track the man down and prevent any further murders. A wounded veteran of the Afghanistan war becomes an archeology grad student and must protect the mummified corpse of a Roman soldier.
These are the premises of the latest novels from Sundance Music and Books’ publishing arm Baobab: “Echoes” by Roger Arthur Smith and “The Last Centurion” by Bernard Schopen, respectively. Baobab will release the books on Tuesday, Feb. 27.
Smith received his undergraduate degree at the University of Nevada, Reno, while Schopen received his doctoral degree at UNR in 1975 and came back as a professor years later. Schopen, now retired, taught core humanities and relished assigning “Beowulf.”
“It was a very, very different place … The resources you have here, the facilities, it’s just amazing,” Schopen said. “Back in ‘71 there was so many fewer students. It’s like a totally different world. I haven’t been on campus for four or five years and already I’m having trouble making my way around. All the new buildings are blocking my old paths … This is a good place to teach. I envied the students. It’s a good place to go to school.”
Smith came to UNR after bouncing around Nevada for some years and joining the Marine Corps, eventually living in Hawthorne from 1958-1961. “Echoes” takes place in 1960. Hawthorne is a small town two hours southeast of Reno with a population of about 3,000.
“It is one of the weirdest places I have ever seen in my life, it still is,” Smith said. “I set it there because it is so remote. It has such odd beauty in the area around it. It has a remnant of ancient Lake Lahontan nearby. It is probably one of the most bizarre settings I’ve ever seen. It also has a supernatural component to it.”
His family had moved from Montana to settle in the high desert. His father taught at the high school. He and his father loved it, but his mother did not, so they didn’t stay long. They lived one house away from the desert. That’s not the case anymore, as another road has been added: the only change he has seen in his nearly 60 years of revisits.
“Echoes” is Smith’s first novel. He worked a variety of jobs throughout the years, including positions at Nevada Magazine and the Reno-Gazette Journal.
“What I mostly did was dumbed-down science stuff for a high school and undergraduate audience,” Smith said.
He wrote about astronomy, physics, medicine, science history, science philosophy, ethics, annotated bibliographies and a series of memoirs. When the market crashed in 2008, governments and universities lost funding for publishers.
“I wasn’t making enough money,” Smith said. “I wasn’t making anything for awhile so I thought I’d give it a try.”
“Echoes” is the first in a horror trilogy.
“It provided me a way to write about Nevada I very seldom have,” Smith said. “I’m happy to have that opportunity. Writing fiction comes very slowly to me, or I should say ideas do. That can sometimes be a little frustrating.”
Schopen and Smith differ in their approach to writing. Schopen starts every day with a cup of coffee, sits down and writes for three hours.
“I don’t get writer’s block, it’s writer’s spin,” Schopen said “It’s like you’re spinning your wheel: you’re in a rut and you can’t get out of it. It’s the same old thing and you know it’s not going to work. You try to go in a different direction but you keep coming back. I’ve never really had writer’s block as such. I can always get something going, but what I’m doing I’m not very happy with. But you gotta do it. You gotta sit three hours and write this crap and get it out. Eventually something will come.”
Since the majority of Smith’s work is in nonfiction, he likes to start in a place of autobiography.
“I like to write about Nevada,” Smith said. “I also like to write about libraries and bookstores, I always have. I had written some essays, and I thought I would write about the first bookstore I ever went to. A strong memory. It was in Hawthorne. So I wrote about going to the Mineral County Library right there on the edge of town, checking out my first book all by myself, getting my little beige-colored library card. I wrote about it, and when I went through it, it was boring. I figured it was boring because it was about me, so I wrote it from the perspective of me but not first person. Still pretty tedious. So I had a kid come in through the door who’s not me and there’s something weird about him. And he scares the librarian. Then he becomes of interest to a local lawyer because theylawyer’s the librarian’s sort of foster father. So it sort of develops from there…”
When asked what he hopes people get out of his writing, Schopen said, “Pleasure. I’m trying to instruct and delight. I hope people recognize things in there and see things and they get that pleasure of recognition. I certainly don’t think of myself as having something to say. At best, I suppose I rephrase some things people already know so they see them again in a slightly different light.”
When asked what he hopes people get out of his writing, Smith said, “Entertainment. Maybe an appreciation of small-town Nevada. The book is about a kind of evil. So maybe it will give them something to think about.”
“The Last Centurion” and “Echoes” are available at Sundance Books and Music. Roger Arthur Smith is giving a reading at Sundance on Wednesday, Feb. 28 at 6:30 p.m.
Joey Thyne can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @joey_thyne