A Novel Idea: Amber Edwards, Justin Scott Collaborate On Multi-Layered Thriller
Readers are introduced to Clementine Price, the protagonist of Forty Days and Forty Nights: A Novel of the Mississippi River, when the young Army Corps of Engineers member returns home from a 12-month tour in Afghanistan. Less than a month after arriving back on her family’s historic farm in Arkansas, she helps corral two generations of Prices off that farm to safety. After weeks of continued rain and thunderstorms, the Mississippi River was flooding at historic levels.
Price not only gets her family moving, but then hops into an uncle’s spray plane, saving one piece of farm equipment while simultaneously watching from the air as her family’s vehicles outrun the ever-rising river. It is a terrifying, exciting read.
With readers already holding their breath while waiting to see if Price, her family, and their animals all survive the storm, the novel then adds another punch. It begins juxtaposing with that of a 20-something Arkansas Corrections Department inmate suddenly sent to work in a completely unfamiliar area where he and others fill and place sandbags in an effort to control the same river Price’s family is running from.
Enter the novel’s protagonist, Nathan Flowers.
Forty Days and Forty Nights was published last week, and reviews are already very positive for the riveting read by Newtown residents Amber Edwards and Justin Scott.
Lee Child, author of the bestselling Jack Reacher novels, called the novel “wonderful” and said the mighty Mississippi itself, “ominous, atmospheric, somehow inevitable — is so much more than just a part of the story … it is the story, in all its might and majesty. Very impressive, highly recommended.”
Best-selling author Susan Isaacs called the characters “fantastically drawn.”
Sharing a wicker loveseat at their home, Edwards and Scott talked excitedly about the novel, which was released October 5 by The University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press.
While she has already written, directed, and produced 19 national PBS documentaries, one theatrical feature, and won more than a dozen Emmy Awards, Edwards stepped into the novel writing queue for the first time with Forty Days and Forty Nights.
Scott is the author of 37 novels, including three that debuted at the top of The New York Times Bestseller List. He has co-written novels with Clive Cussler, but again, not with his wife, until now.
Scott pointed out that while the book is their first written collaboration, the couple has decades of shared experiences.
“We built this house 25 years ago,” he said, “and we continue to collaborate on its gardens. We’re comfortable working with each other.”
A Shared Idea
The novel grew out of shared ideas, some dating back 20 years, the couple told The Newtown Bee. Scott had been toying with the general idea for the book for decades, often dusting it off while Edwards was working on her latest documentary. Edwards occasionally offered suggestions, but the full story did not form easily.
About three years ago, Edwards was finished with her film projects. She was not looking forward, she said, to the next go-round of finding funding for another documentary.
“I just couldn’t face doing that again,” she said. “I still wanted to share stories though.”
Instead of suggesting she write her own book, Edwards said, Scott invited her to work with him. That was the beginning of Forty Days and Forty Nights.
Scott credits his wife with suggesting the twist that he says “elevated the book from a mystery to a real thriller.
“She said ‘Instead of writing from the point of view of an outsider who parachutes in to save the day, why not write it as an insider?’” Scott shared. “Now it’s a thriller, with a strong female lead.”
Scott calls the book’s heroine “an extraordinary person, ambitious.”
Once Edwards made those suggestions, he said, “then we had fun.”
An admitted novice writer, Edwards laughed recalling her approach to writing.
“We did an outline, and then took turns writing sections,” she said. “I would throw the kitchen sink, everything, in. Why not use one adjective when you could use seven?” she continued, laughing.
Looking toward her husband, she continued: “Justin would take his pen, gently cross out six of my adjectives, and circle the one best.”
With her filmmaking background, Edwards understood the importance of not being offended at any of it.
“There is a lot of collaborating when you’re making a film. It’s part of the process,” she said.
Scott, meanwhile, was used to working alone. He adjusted quickly, however, and the two often found themselves fully consumed in their project.
“We would often begin dinner and have our pads of paper with us, still tossing out ideas,” Edwards said.
One of the novel’s underlying themes — and one that did not become obvious until well into the writing, they said — is that each main character in the book is a public servant.
“They’re all out there trying to do their jobs,” Scott said.
“Those are the kinds of heroes we need to elevate these days,” Edwards added, nodding.
Drawing From The Familiar
Much of the dialogue was drawn directly from family memories. Having filmed in the region in the past, Edwards also drew from raw footage.
“She would come home from a project and transcribe,” Scott said.
“The expressions — the ‘bless your heart,’ and other things you hear people say — there were right there,” said Edwards, who also naturally absorbed a lot of the language on family visits. Her mother’s hometown is in Arkansas.
Scott’s previous use of watercraft in his writing also came into play for Forty Days and Forty Nights.
“When in doubt, I bring in a boat,” he said, laughing.
“Justin has written so many sea stories,” Edwards said. “For this, we’ve got boats of all sizes.
“I think I was able to bring a few things to it, but Lord knows I could not write a scene about a six-boat pileup that takes out a bridge,” she added.
Planes also play a crucial role in the novel.
“When you’re down there, you see them all the time,” Edwards said. “To convey the topography of the region, you have to see it from above.”
It makes sense for readers, therefore, to follow Clementine Price as she climbs into that family plane in the opening scenes, and later in her story.
“It was a very helpful writing device for her to be able to hop around like that,” Scott said. “It also helped her career.”
The couple kept their heroine very real, however.
“One of the things I like about Clementine is she’s vulnerable. She has her own problems,” Edwards said. “She has PTSD that she’s never addressed.”
“It took us a while,” Scott added, “to realize that what you see in the opening scene is the kind of thing that’s going to affect people years later.”
Public Events Planned
Edwards and Scott have their first two Forty Days and Forty Nights author events planned. They will be the guests on Saturday, October 16, at Byrd’s Books in Bethel.
The book store is at 178 Greenwood Avenue, and the event begins at 11 am. Copies of the book will be available for purchase at the store. For those who cannot get to the store that morning, Edwards and Scott will sign copies of prepurchased books, which can be picked up at the buyer’s convenience.
Weather permitting, this will be an outdoor event. If rain, the signing moves indoors and masks will be required, according to the book store’s website.
Contact Byrd’s Books at 203-730-2973 or visit byrdsbooks.com to place an order or for additional program information.
The two will also be participating in The 2021 Six Bridges Book Festival later this month. The festival will run October 21-31, based in Little Rock, Ark., and most events are being livestreamed, free of charge. Edwards and Scott will be participating, with Rhona Weaver, in an author program on Saturday, October 23, at 10 am. Register at cals.org/six-bridges-book-festival.
Copies of the 366-page paperback can also be purchased directly from the publisher, at ulpress.org, for $20. It is also available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other retailers.