Local author Matthew Guinn pens medical thriller

Published 11:10 pm Saturday, July 28, 2012

History, race and injustice all figure in the plot of “The Resurrectionist,” a soon-to-be-published novel by Vicksburg business owner Matthew Guinn.

Guinn, the owner of Big Sky Apartments at Cherry and Harris streets, landed a two-book contract with W.W. Norton & Company, the prestigious publisher of about 400 fiction and non-fiction titles annually.

“The Resurrectionist” is Guinn’s reshaping of a real-life medical thriller, the 1989 discovery of hundreds of human bones in the basement of a building on the campus of a Georgia medical school. The century-old bones are later found to be from African-American bodies that had been removed from graves and dissected for research into human anatomy.

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“It’s got a morbid setting but it’s a story of race and racial healing,” Guinn said in a recent interview. “This is a story of injustice that I stumbled upon as an ordinary citizen who just happens to be paying attention to history. Sometimes we can make things right in fiction in a way that we can’t in real life.”

Guinn was initially drawn to the tale as a horror story but became more intrigued by the development of his main character, Nemo Johnson, the slave acquired by the school to be the body snatcher or “sack-’em-up-man.”

Johnson delivers the cadavers to the school and becomes, through his involvement in their dissection and study, an accomplished medical technician.

“I went from wondering, would he do that to his own people, to, what choice did he have?” Guinn said. “And he ended up having a much better life than he would have had if he hadn’t done it.”

Guinn, a resident of Madison and literature professor at Tulane University’s satellite campus there, has taken some liberties in turning history into thriller fiction. He moved the story to a South Carolina college and had his school officials attempt a cover-up.

“In a novel we need as much tension as we can get,” he said.

His experience of getting the book published was fraught with reversals, from landing an agent who got him 27 rejection letters but couldn’t sell the book and later dropped him, to the chance meeting with author Andre Dubus III, who got Guinn a referral to a top editor at Norton, the contract and a “modest advance.”

“The part I am most excited about is the two-book contract,” Guinn said. “You have to put so much into it that, to actually get a book published, I think of it as a moonshot.”

“The Resurrectionist,” expected to sell for $24.95, is slated for publication in April. Guinn is at work on final revisions and continuing to write “Malthus,” another thriller projected to be published in 2014.