John Pipkin, a Southwestern English professor, is having a decent year. Or at least it would seem so. His first novel, Woods Burner, was published and received surprisingly good reviews considering it’s historical fiction. Ok, it was Amazon’s Book of the Month for May, let’s just say it’s doing well. Now to add even more fire to the first novel flames, The Center for Fiction has shortlisted Woods Burner for its First Novel Prize. The ceremony for which will be held November 9.
But enough of this stuffy treatment of Pipkin as simply a historical novelist, which seems like a rather fitting job for someone with a Ph.D. in British literature. His novel isn’t even about a British historical figure. It’s about Henry David Thoreau, and not the Thoreau you and I are familiar with. It’s about Thoreau before he was that Thoreau. Back when he was just a ne’er-do-well who burned down the forest surrounding Concord, Massachusetts.
But “Why?” you ask. John Pipkin will tell you why. He reworks the mythical figure we know and removes the retrospective veil of hero worship by injecting personal uncertainty and psychic angst into his fictional narrative. In doing so, he moves past the boundaries of academic work and draws connections between Thoreau’s quest for identity and the young nation’s pursuit of a stable mien. And perhaps, (journalistic leap here) displays his own development as a writer/individual during the almost decade long production of this novel. For the environmentally-conscious among us, his fictional text describes the actual budding of conservationist thought that so deeply influenced Thoreau’s worldview post-woods burning.
The novelist/academic told me that he always wanted to be a writer. Which sounds like every artsy-type kid you knew in high school. But rather than follow the usual (and normally doomed) route of dropping out, doing drugs and traveling around the country a la Jack Kerouac, Pipkin decided to stay school and learn about writing from those whom we refer to as literary masters. Instead of ending up working in a fast food chain like 99.9% of those who follow in the Kerouacian tradition; our novelist in residence instead set up a career as a scholar, you know, just in case publishing success was not to be his. Luckily for Dr. Pipkin, Thoreau has his back and just might propel this writer into the canon of historical fiction.