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Novel ‘Poison Flood’ Uses Water Crisis As Backdrop

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Courtesy photo

Poison Flood, a new novel by Jordan Farmer, is set against the backdrop of an environmental disaster in southern West Virginia. It includes murder, theft and riots. The book is described as a crime and noir-style mystery by the publisher. 

The disaster Farmer writes about is based loosely on the 2016 West Virginia Water Crisis that poisoned the water of 300,000 central West Virginia residents for more than a week. His version is more devastating than the original, however. 

When Farmer spoke with Eric Douglas, he said he wanted to tell an entertaining story, but he also wanted to have a main character that was outside the norm.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Douglas: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

Farmer: First of all, I want them to be entertained. I think that any art that doesn't entertain you or connect with you on some kind of emotional level, if it's just all just moral, then I think it fails the test of what art should do. So at first, I want them to be entertained and engaged and to have some kind of emotional reaction to the characters. I want them to love them or hate them or feel sympathetic towards them, and have some kind of empathetic response. 

Douglas: Your character Hollis is a tremendously talented musician. But he also had a pretty significant disability. Why did you decide to throw that into the mix?

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Credit Courtesy photo by David Hager

Farmer: I wanted to write a story with somebody, a narrator or a protagonist, that had what I would refer to as an unconventional body. I kind of have one myself. I have a bone disorder that's stunted my overall growth so I'm about five feet tall. When I was younger, and was really interested in literature and books, I never found characters who had these kinds of different physical bodies or were physically different in some way. 

If I did find a story about them, it was always a story that was entirely concerned with the struggle of being physically different. It was never about them succeeding in business or love or making art or something else. It was always just focused on the body itself. 

Douglas: Hollis deals with the stress of his life by composing music in his head, and then has to get a guitar and compose music to help himself calm down. What's the root behind that? Are you a musician? 

Farmer: No, I'm not a musician myself. I play a little bit of a bad punk rock and sort of cowboy-chord country guitar. I wouldn't call myself a musician, but being a creative guy growing up in a small town without a writer group, or people who were interested in the same kind of art forms I was, a lot of my friends were musicians. And I think I was deeply influenced by the kind of music I grew up around. My grandfather gave me Johnny Cash records and stuff to listen to when I was younger. So I wanted to write about the creative process. But I wasn't necessarily interested in the idea of writing about writing. Those kinds of books don't always interest me. I like music and I like the performative aspect of music.

Douglas: Is your next book also set in West Virginia? Is that something you plan to continue? Or are you moving elsewhere with the next one?

Farmer: Poison Flood, and the next manuscript I'm working on, take place in a sort of a fictional town in West Virginia, much like Faulkner wrote about a fictional area of Mississippi. It's called Coopersville County, which is my way of being able to have a town similar to the communities that I grew up in, but also to not have complete and total realism.

Douglas: Are you at all concerned about people saying, ‘well, that's just some West Virginia story’ and not being interested in your work because it is such a small, remote place.

Farmer: I had this idea when I was younger that there just wasn't a place for stories about West Virginia. Or a desire for stories from small towns or rural America or places where I'm from. Now, I'm not so sure that's true. Now, I think that as long as you're telling an interesting story and the themes are something that anyone anywhere can understand, I think people will engage with it regardless of the area. I think that your first concern is simply to tell an engaging story.

Jordan Farmer was born and raised in a small West Virginia town, population approximately two thousand. He earned his master’s degree from Marshall University and his Ph.D. at The University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Poison Flood was released in May by Putnam Publishing. Listen to other interviews with authors from, or writing about, Appalachia.

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