Scot Lehigh ’80 writes for a living, immersing himself in the fast-paced, often fractious world of political reporting for the Boston Globe, where he is a long-time reporter and columnist.
When it came to his debut novel, though, the 1989 Pulitzer Prize finalist found inspiration in a different kind of place: Eastport, Maine, where he lived as a teenager. Lehigh’s book, Just East of Nowhere, is a fast-paced coming-of-age story set in a gritty coastal community, one whose natural beauty is matched by the pitfalls facing the teenagers who live there.
“It’s fun just to get lost in a story all of your own devising,” said Lehigh, who will return to Colby to discuss his book during a Maine Voices Live interview at 7 p.m. Dec. 6 at Chace Community Forum in the Bill & Joan Alfond Main Street Commons. “In my real job, you’re often watching someone and trying to figure out their real motivations. Politicians have something in mind beyond just the merits of the issue, and you’re trying to figure that out. In this book, I obviously know my characters, and I’m trying to unspool a story without giving it completely away.”
In that, he has succeeded, crafting a page-turner that keeps the reader guessing until the very end. The novel centers on Danny Winters, a teen whose late mother, a devout, unmarried woman, kept some important secrets from her son. Winters’s quest to learn the truth about his past lands him in trouble that includes a stint in the youth detention facility and a high-stakes reunion with his ex-Navy-man father.
The book is rich in other well-written characters, Eastport among them. Lehigh writes with precision, conviction, and heart about the restlessness of small-town teens struggling to find their place in the world.
Coming of age in a small town
“People say, why would someone in his 60s write a book about high school? But I believe that high school really is the common experience we all have in our lives,” said Lehigh, who now lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. “You’re starting to think about who you are. It’s a time you remember, and one way or another you’re trying to figure out what your life is going to be about. I think that’s why there are so many high school movies—it is this common denominator in American life.”
Most first novels do well to make ripples, but Lehigh’s, published this summer by Maine’s Islandport Press, has made waves. It’s received positive attention from outlets like the Boston Globe, Kirkus Reviews, and the Bangor Daily News, and has been well reviewed by such singular personalities as former Massachusetts Governor William Weld and Carolyn Chute, author of The Beans of Egypt, Maine.
“Every page of Just East of Nowhere is a big surprise,” Chute wrote. “There’s no predicting what anyone will do because there are no black or white hats. Everyone is a wriggling, writhing critter of complexity, and life is a full-blown storm at sea.”
In August, the book topped the Portland Press Herald’s bestseller list and has been selling especially well in the tiny city of Eastport, population 1,280, a detail that has delighted Lehigh.
“People have been really kind about the book. I think because there’s maybe a genuine feeling that there’s a reason for it to be set in Eastport. It carries with it a sense of place,” he said. “I was a little worried about what the reaction would be in Eastport. It’s not a sentimental look at a small town. It’s an unvarnished look at a small town.”
It’s one he happens to know very well. Lehigh, whose father was a schoolteacher with a restless spirit, was born in far upstate New York. The family moved across the country more than once before landing in Eastport when he was 11 years old. They had come from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, a bustling city with lots to do for kids. In contrast, Eastport—located on an island just across the bay from New Brunswick, Canada—was quiet, isolated, and very, very small.
He did make good friends there, and especially after his father got rid of the family television—“You kids are going to read,” he said—Lehigh became very interested in books, words, and writing. He even wrote a column for the local newspaper, his first foray into journalism.
“It’s a nice little community,” Lehigh said of the city.
A path to Colby and the world beyond
Still, he has no trouble evoking in the novel’s pages the tension between those who wanted, or had, to stay in Eastport and those who wanted to leave. Lehigh was among the latter and planned to go to college at the University of Maine until a friend’s dad encouraged him to apply to Colby.
“Colby’s a very good school, and I bet they’d accept you,” the man told him.
He was right. Once settled on Mayflower Hill, Lehigh majored in government and was active in the Student Government Association and joined the Phi Delta Theta fraternity.
“We weren’t really notable for anything other than playing a lot of cribbage and for having low cumulative grades,” he joked.
Still, when he took a survey course on American literature with Charlie Bassett, the late Lee Family Professor of American Studies and English, Lehigh’s brain caught fire.
“I just became transfixed by it and started taking a lot of English courses my last couple of years,” he said. “I ended up really wanting to write a novel.”
During his final Jan Plan, that’s exactly what he did. He spent 15 hours a day “writing, writing, writing, working like I’ve never worked since,” and at the end of the month he had an adventure story set in Maine about some college kids who discover a liquor smuggling ring.
“I submitted it to the professor, and he was kind about it, let’s say, but I’m sure it was awful,” Lehigh said.
Still, he sent it to a publishing house just before he joined some college friends on a post-graduation cross-country road trip in a Ford Econoline van. Three months later, after the van broke down and they ran out of money, he came home and got in touch with the publishing company.
“They said they were considering it. I should have been elated. But young knucklehead that I was at the time, I said, if you can’t make a decision, just send it back. And they did,” Lehigh said.
A writing life
After that, he shifted his attention to journalism. Lehigh, who had spent college summers doing freelance writing about Maine for regional newspapers, was hired as a reporter at the Brunswick Times Record and then the Boston Phoenix, where he was a 1989 Pulitzer Prize finalist for his insightful coverage of the unsuccessful presidential campaign of then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.
At the Boston Globe, he began as a state political reporter before he started writing political commentary, which he continues to do. Lehigh’s not afraid to take a stand, and he has a nice way of connecting with readers through his humanity and his way with words. He often uses his particular knowledge of Maine and New England to explore national stories and trends, and he also follows presidential candidates as they pound the New Hampshire campaign trail.
For Lehigh, Just East of Nowhere, which he began writing more than a decade ago, has been a welcome change of pace. The story went through several iterations and lots of rewriting, then lay dormant for some time before he found a publisher.
He had been writing professionally for decades, but Lehigh met a steep learning curve as he worked on the novel. One example is his approach to writing dialogue, which changed significantly over time. At first, Lehigh, who grew up reading a lot of Victorian literature and counts the 1946 political novel All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren as one of his favorite books, rejected the modern approach to literary technique and dialogue writing.
“I thought people in books talk like John Wayne. Very terse: ‘Want coffee?’ ‘Yeah,’” he said.
He didn’t love that, opting instead for wordier dialogue that emulated the way people actually talk. But when he sent the book to an editor at a small publishing house, he learned that this approach made for clunky reading.
“‘He read it and told me, ‘Scot, the dialogue doesn’t work,’” Lehigh said.
So it was back to the drawing board. Lehigh studied the technique of writing dialogue and turned to a friend, novelist Richard North Patterson, for advice.
“He said that dialogue was meant to represent speech, not to replicate it,” Lehigh said.
After rewriting the whole book with a more John Wayne approach to the dialogue, he got offers from the next two publishing houses he tried.
Since publication, he’s been working to promote the book while juggling his work at the Globe and his next project, this one a novel about a radio reporter covering politics in a polarizing time.
The book promotion has been a whirlwind, Lehigh said, adding that he would encourage anyone who feels they have a book inside them to do their best to get it out and into the world.
“Try it,” he said. “It can be frustrating, but it’s a lot of fun.”