Forty Days and Forty Nights: A Conversation with Justin Scott and Amber Edwards
What was the process of writing as a husband-and-wife team like?
A: Joyous indeed, but to be more specific, once we had our outline, we divided up the scenes as to who would tackle the first draft. Once we had gotten something down—even something clunky—we would take out red pencils, mark it up, revise, mark it up again, revise again, and then either pronounce it acceptable or jettison the entire scene and try to figure out where we went wrong. Or, as happened often, hand one’s first draft to the other and ask, “Maybe you should write this one?”
What made you decide to work together on this project?
J: Back-to-back bête noirs. Thirty years of documentary filmmaking made Amber weary of having to raise the money for every new project before she could go to work. Twenty years of writing and re-writing one particular novel that refused to work (in between a bunch that did) made Justin decide that bringing Amber in could not possibly make its prospects any worse.
A: It’s possible also that Justin got tired of my endless suggestions: “How about making the hero a female?” “How about if the villain’s blind spot is his love for his wife?” Many experienced novelists would have said, “How about you write your own damn book?” Fortunately, he said, “Would you like to write this with me?”
How did you create a uniform voice throughout?
J: Ideally, every novel has its own voice. It’s the writer’s job to find it. When we found it for Forty Days and Forty Nights, uniformity came naturally.
A: Also, after living together for more than 25 years, we have become one of those couples who finish each other’s sentences. And we both had older parents who grew up on farms, so “country” expressions are part of our everyday conversation.
Amber, how did your work on your documentary about your Arkansas cousin and your personal connection to the Delta shape this story?
A: My documentary had nothing to do with the plot of Forty Days and Forty Nights, but it inspired the setting and many of our characters. Whenever I was down in Arkansas, I would be struck by the fact that the Mississippi River is so central to the economy, to agriculture, to transportation, to the entire identity of the region—but most people who live there never actually see the river. It’s walled off by levees, as if it’s a wild animal in a cage. Understandably, because it can be terrifying.
J: Occasionally accompanying Amber on Arkansas shoots as volunteer grip, driver, and sandwich assembler, I saw a region I had never seen before. Yet there was something familiar about it. The land was as flat and featureless and endless as the ocean where I had spent time researching my sea stories. And when I finally did get a look at the Mississippi River, I was home. Water is water—whether salt or fresh, whether driven by tides or currents—and it enjoys destruction. Boats are boats, whether propelled by wind or diesel, whether towed or pushed. And mariners are mariners, whether far from land or too close, who depend upon hard-earned skills, hard-won experience, and fine-tuned powers of observation to survive.
Amber, your background is in writing, directing, and producing television. What made you want to write a book? What was that transition like?
A: Storytelling is storytelling, and even in a non-fiction film you need conflict, tension, a vivid setting, and compelling characters who want something. But here’s the big difference: to create a scene in a film, you have to scout the location, hire a crew, get releases and clearances, shoot it all, and then edit it—often to discover it doesn’t work. To create a scene in a novel, I could simply type “aboard a large boat” or “in the middle of a driving rainstorm” and then make up all the action and characters’ dialogue. (You can’t make up dialogue in documentaries—at least I don’t.) If the scene on the page doesn’t work, all I’ve invested is my time—and Justin’s patience in reading it.
J: Even at my most patient I am still nowhere near as expensive as a film crew.
Who was your favorite character to write?
J: Clementine Price. Largely because of Amber’s strong suggestion we finally had a hero who was inside the story and directly affected. Instead of the standard thriller I had tried to write where the hero parachutes into town to save it, we have in Clementine a hero whose own home “town” is threatened. Having been flooded off her family’s farm and having dedicated her Army Corp of Engineers career to managing and protecting the Mississippi River makes her the ideal central pillar of our story.
A: I love Clementine obviously, but I also love Mary Kay, who developed from a two-dimensional plot device/saint/victim into a layered, principled woman of agency who literally practices what she preaches. And I have a great fondness for Captain Billy Scruggs, who came entirely from Justin’s imagination.
This story revolves around the Mississippi River and water. It’s a powerful, plot-driving force in the story. What inspired you to give it this role in your book?
J: The Mississippi River is Nature personified: bountiful, mysterious, capricious, and capable of massive destruction. I can think of no other force like it in Nature, none with such an enormous scope, none whose rampages have such lasting effects. But we learned from writing Clementine that the river can be an ally if humans truly understand it. That is ultimately how Clementine defeats Nathan.
Justin, you’ve written thirty-seven other novels. How do you feel like this one fits in with the rest of your work?
J: Those thirty-seven novels got me ready to collaborate with Amber on Forty Days and Forty Nights.
A: Thank you, darling, but may I add that Forty Days and Forty Nights is a showcase for all of Justin’s accumulated skills and innate talents: it’s a fast-paced thriller with lots of action—much of it on the water—requiring exceptional descriptive writing that never gets in the way of the plot or characters. And it’s a big sprawling story inside what we hope is a tight package.
What was your research process like for this novel? Complex subjects, like hydraulic engineering, drive much of the novel’s plot.
J: Fortunately, most of my thrillers are “research novels,” which sent me far afield reading, traveling, and talking to experts (unlike my mysteries which are set in my familiar haunts of New York City and small-town Connecticut and researched by looking out the window or visiting a friendly bar). I’ve done a bunch of historical novels set during the world wars in Europe and Russia and China. And the Isaac Bell novels I wrote with Clive Cussler take place during the early 1900s. All of which honed the research skills I learned in graduate school as a history major.
A: This was a big stretch for me, with no background in science. I read a ton of dense, dry treatises and then tried to translate it into simple prose with images and concepts that were arresting. I figured if I could picture it clearly myself, so would the reader.
Did this novel surprise you in any way? Were there any unexpected elements that crept their way into this story?
A: For me, every day of writing brought surprises. I’d always heard novelists say that their characters talk to them and darn if it isn’t true. It was like taking dictation sometimes: sermons, rap songs, pillow talk just poured onto the page. And not only did the characters speak to me, they made it very clear what they would and wouldn’t do. I fell in love with each of them—well, not Nathan, but he was very compelling to imagine.
J: I was surprised when I learned to like flashbacks (in moderation). And equally surprised to write a flashback scene between the villain and his dead grandmother. But, as Amber just pointed out, characters will say, and think, the darndest things.
The plot centers on a white supremacist plan to start an all-white nation. Why did you choose this to be the major threat of the novel?
J: The oldest trick to engage the reader is start with a character who wants something. It applies to villains as well as heroes. Nathan wants power; and he understands that hatred is what he can harness to achieve it, just as he harnesses the power of the river.
A: When we started writing this book in 2018, white supremacy was not so much in the headlines, but we knew it was simmering. We had no idea that by 2021 it would have boiled over to the extent it has.
Why did you decide to make Clementine—a woman with a military engineering career—your protagonist?
J: Clementine is uniquely qualified to battle the flood and the villain who weaponizes it. She joined the U. S. Army because the Army Corp of Engineers’ mandate is to “keep Mississippi River water in the shipping channels and off the farmers’ fields.” And she got herself to West Point Military Academy—the only way a poor farm girl could afford a first-class engineering education. But this woman is also “inside the story” emotionally. Clementine Price is more than a soldier and more than an engineer: She is a natural caretaker with a heartfelt vision to ally herself with the river to protect it and the people it threatens.
A: Clementine is also vulnerable—a rare trait in the (usually male) hero of a thriller. Her secret battle with PTSD, her internal conflict over the man she loves and the career she dreams of, and the deep losses she has sustained make her deeply human, even if she can sometimes call on super-human strength and smarts.