When I started writing the first words of what would become The Poacher’s Son, I had no idea I was beginning a novel, let alone the first in a long series of novels.
At the time I was working as a magazine journalist, always on the look out for good stories, and one had recently caught my eye. A bear was rampaging around the farms of a nearby town killing pigs and only pigs. The local game warden pursued the elusive bear the way a marshal might pursue a wily fugitive. The strange saga ended—as in a film noir—with an inevitable death. The bear’s, in this case.
Game wardens had long been of interest to me. In Maine conservation officers have full arrest powers, equal to that of state troopers, in addition to their responsibilities enforcing hunting and fishing laws. It had occurred to me that someone could write a crackerjack mystery with a warden in the role of detective. But I hadn’t thought the person would be me.
From childhood I had wanted to be a novelist. But for years I had held off attempting anything ambitious because I was convinced I had nothing to say. That was why, when I started a fictional sketch about a young game warden arriving at a farm where a bear had just killed a pig, I was reluctant to admit, even to myself, that I might be taking the first steps in a long journey.
Instead, I allowed myself to have fun. My method was this: I would pose myself a question, then let my subconscious quickly provide an answer. My young warden (not yet named Mike Bowditch) finished his investigation at the farm and returned home. What did he find there? Nothing but empty rooms. Why were they empty? Because his girlfriend had recently moved out. Why did she leave him? Because she was frustrated by his singleminded commitment to his morbid job. What else did he find? A cryptic voicemail on the machine. Who was the voicemail from? His father.
Who was his father?
It was with that question that The Poacher’s Son announced itself to me as something more than the vignette I was pretending it to be. I was writing a novel. And not just any kind of novel but a mystery with an existential question at its heart: How well can we ever know another human being?
I had excused myself from previously attempting a book because I didn’t think I knew anything. In writing the first draft of The Poacher’s Son I discovered that I knew quite a few things.
I knew Maine—its landscapes, history, and people—from having grown up here and from having traveled to its most remote corners as a journalist.
As a lifelong sportsman, I knew about the outdoors, having spent uncounted hours paddling in canoes, wading in salt marshes, and bushwhacking through pathless forests. I knew that I rarely saw the natural world depicted in fiction with care, correctness, and curiosity.
And I knew about other things as well. I knew about distant fathers who held their sons to impossible standards of manhood (although my own loving father wasn’t one of them thankfully). I knew that I rarely saw young men rendered as complex, contradictory beings in novels: with maturity and immaturity co-existing together like two persons sharing one body. I knew too much about self-sabotage and about denial in all its insidious guises. And I knew about betrayal, having been on both sides of it.
I was also beginning to know mysteries again. As a teen, I had devoured the works of Conan Doyle and Christie, but I had lost touch with the genre during my snobbish college days. By the time I began writing The Poacher’s Son, my girlfriend (now wife) had introduced me to contemporary crime fiction, books that were very much works of literature. I was reading Tony Hillerman, P.D. James, James Lee Burke, John LeCarre, Walter Mosley, and many others with feverish intensity.
In time I would learn police procedures and forensics. I would learn that the justice system is an absurd but necessary construct. Most of all, I would learn about the lives of Maine game wardens.
One of the great and unanticipated pleasures of writing this series has been the time I have spent in the company of conservation officers. While I don’t write for their approval, I am always gratified when they tell me I have captured something of their experience that they themselves have trouble articulating.
Writing fiction is an act of empathy. It is an attempt to escape the prison of the self and view the world through the eyes of another. In The Poacher’s Son I have attempted to see Maine through the eyes of a troubled yet heroic young warden named Mike Bowditch. More than that, I have tried to bring him so fully to life that he seems real to my readers, as three-dimensional as a human being. The best characters, after all, are the ones who aren’t content to dwell only on the printed page. I have this fancy that some day, out in the woods or on the waters, I might actually meet Mike Bowditch. If I do, I hope he forgives me for all the trouble I have put him through.
Copyright © 2017 Paul Doiron.
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Paul Doiron is an award-winning journalist and the author of the Mike Bowditch series of crime novels, including The Poacher's Son, which won the the Barry Award and the Strand Critics Award for Best First Novel and was nominated for an Edgar Award, an Anthony Award, a Macavity Award, and a Thriller Award for Best First Novel, and the Maine Literary Award for “Best Fiction of 2010.” PopMatters named it to its Best Fiction of 2010 list.
A native of Maine, Paul attended Yale University, where he graduated with a degree in English, and he holds an MFA in creative writing from Emerson College. He is Editor Emeritus of Down East: The Magazine of Maine, having served as Editor in Chief from 2005 to 2013. He is also a Registered Maine Guide specializing in fly fishing and lives on a trout stream in coastal Maine.