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Literary Arts

Local author Scott Geisel’s new novel, “Miller Knew,” debuted Nov. 24, 2022. The novel, described as “Appalachian noir and suspense,” follows a pair of siblings in the western part of Virginia as they navigate the disappearance of their parents and their own survival. (Photo by Lauren "Chuck" Shows)

‘Miller Knew’ | Geisel pens ‘Appalachian noir’ novel

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If you’re familiar with the published works of local author Scott Geisel — and even if you’re not — you’re likely to be intimately familiar with the setting of his two mystery novels and a short story, published in 2020 and 2022: They follow the fictional private investigator Jackson Flint through the streets of Yellow Springs itself.

Geisel’s newest book, “Miller Knew,” published at the end of 2022, takes a turn outside of the village, however, heading due east into the hills of Appalachian Virginia. The novel also takes a different route in terms of genre, moving away from hard-boiled mystery and into what Geisel calls “Appalachian noir and suspense.”

In a recent interview with Geisel — held at the Emporium, which Jackson Flint lovers will know is one of that character’s favorite haunts — the Wright State University alum and writing instructor said “noir” felt like the best descriptor for the characters readers will follow through “Miller Knew.”

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“In noir, most people probably think of old detective mysteries,” Geisel said. “But really you’re following these folks around who are acting in redeemable ways in a world that’s pretty dark.”

That’s true for the novel’s protagonist, the teenaged Miller Brenning, and his younger sister, Jeannie. As the novel begins, the siblings — born and bred “hillfolk” used to a certain amount of self-reliance — are gathering firewood in the woods of the Virginia mountains, caring for themselves after the disappearances of both of their parents. An unexpected — and shocking — meeting with two men out in the woods that day sets off a chain of dangerous events that forces the teens into that characteristic noir darkness as they grasp at the edges of hope.

Though it was published after his Jackson Flint mysteries, Geisel said the genesis of “Miller Knew” precedes those works. During a camping and hiking trip with his wife, local artist and designer Pam Geisel, in 2018, he said he awoke early one morning, when the kernel of what would grow into “Miller Knew” was formed.

“It was about four in the morning, and I had a cup of coffee and I was in the woods, and I started thinking, ‘Who’d be out in the woods at this time?’” Geisel said. “And it just got in my head, and I came home and plotted it, and I wrote half a novel — 35,000 words — in three weeks.”

Though he knew where the novel was headed, Geisel said his mounting responsibilities teaching at Wright State and a strike at the university in 2019 made it difficult to continue working on the story. When the pandemic followed in 2020, he pivoted to the Jackson Flint series. However, he said, Pam Geisel — who not only reads her husband’s works-in-progress, but designs and lays the books out under his self-publishing imprint, Fox & Possum Publishing — encouraged him to finish “Miller Knew.”

“She told me, ‘I need to know what happened to these kids, because I’ve been worried about them for four years,’” Geisel said. “And I thought, ‘Okay, that’s pretty compelling!’”

Having grown up in what is now Riverside, Ohio, Geisel spent parts of his youth with an uncle in West Virginia, a time in his life that he said formed the backbone of the world he presents in the novel.

“From grade school through high school, we’d drive down and help my dad’s brother fixing up his different houses and trailers, and it was very rural and different from our experience [in southwest Ohio],” Geisel said. “It was a totally different culture.”

Based on that past experience, Geisel winds the novel along muddy rural roads in the chill of oncoming winter; through a small town where mouths and ears are open to whispers; through watering holes where the drinks are as likely to come from a hidden mountain still as anywhere else; and into hills where a mistrust of authoritarian obtrusion thrives.

Though the novel is not the same flavor of mystery as Geisel’s previous works, that narrative element is still present in “Miller Knew,” as its protagonists hope to discover what happened to their parents. The deeper mystery unfolding across the story, however, delves into the characters’ inevitable futures: Will Miller and Jeannie, whose forebears were bound to lives of poverty and violence, find a path through the generational trauma they’ve inherited?

Geisel said he drew partially on his own past experiences with poverty when considering how to frame the thoughts and actions of the young protagonists, who struggle through food insecurity in the absence of their parents.

“I spent some time where I didn’t know where I was going to sleep every night, and I had to dole out my money one dollar at a time,” he said. “If you’ve had that experience, it sort of never leaves you — you’re always worrying. It gets in your head.”

He added: “I remember what that felt like, and I tried to put that feeling into the characters.”

Geisel said now that “Miller Knew” has been put out into the world, he’s working on the third novel in the Jackson Flint series, which he aims to finish this summer. His writing process, he said, is swiftest and strongest when he isn’t teaching and can focus entirely on his fiction work.

“If I can write every day, then I can write huge volumes,” he said. “As I’m getting ready to go to sleep, I’ll think about what’s next in the book … and I get up in the morning and literally, there’s 1,000 words in my head, ready for immediate download.”

Considering “Miller Knew,” Geisel added that, unlike the Jackson Flint novels, he hadn’t originally planned the novel as part of a series. Nevertheless, he said he realized that its ending has a “clear space carved out” for a potential sequel.

“A couple of folks have already contacted me after reading it to say, ‘What happens next?’” he said. “I don’t know — we’ll see what happens.”

“Miller Knew” is available now at Dark Star Books.

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