By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 12, 2009
Robert Scott, principal of Brentsville District High School, is living, quite seriously, in a fantasy world -- a world that involves magic portals, an alternative realm and horror.
Yes, Scott is the responsible and earnest overseer of one of the Prince William's top high schools, which annually posts the highest SAT and Standards of Learning scores. But there is another side to Scott, 40, a longtime educator who in the past decade has nurtured an author's career in genres that are formally labeled fantasy fiction or mystery thriller but that others might call low-brow.
Published by Gollancz, an imprint of the London-based Orion Publishing Group, Scott's books are available in the United States and much of Europe and include a three-part epic about a banker and teacher who stumble into an another world. He is in the process of finishing "15 Miles," about a Richmond detective investigating what appears to be a double homicide.
Scott's three-book series, "The Eldarn Sequence," seems akin to C.S. Lewis's "Narnia" books, with an intriguing plot about a mysterious tapestry found inside a bank deposit box. (Full disclosure: This reporter has not read the nearly 2,000 pages of the sequence, save for the first several.) On the other hand, "15 Miles" sounds like it belongs far from Brentsville's library: Part I, titled "OxyContin, Scotch, Cigarettes, and Sara," features an OxyContin-popping, obscenity-prone detective who rants about not caring about drug offenses and bemoans child pornography investigations because they make him feel "slimy."
His police dialogue can be witty and sarcastic, reminiscent of the HBO series "The Wire," with characters using humor to cope with their burdens.
Here's an excerpt from the unedited manuscript made available by Scott's publisher that shows the detective spouting off at a bar: "Think about it, Doc. First, there's dope. We can't win that. I swear . . . there's drugs in every car, every house, every high school locker in America. And in the end who really gives a [expletive]? If you're a crack head or a smack junkie, what do I really care? Take all you want."
In an interview, Scott said he takes his stewardship of Brentsville very seriously and that it is important to keep a division between one realm, so to speak, and another.
"When I wake up in the morning, I am a schoolteacher," Scott said. "I never think of myself as a writer. I am not prepared to even consider leaving education to write full time. I suppose if the books had done wildly well or if the publisher offered me a huge sum of money, it's something I might have considered. Most days, I feel like a poser, a schoolteacher who's good at telling stories."
He added: "I try to keep my life as a storyteller sort of separate from life as a principal here, although the news is kind of leaking out and people [are starting to] hear those Eldarn books are in the library."
Scott grew up in New Jersey and attended Colby College in Waterville, Maine, where his first artistic passion was classical guitar. After he graduated in 1990 with a music degree, he traveled in Europe, giving concerts. He returned to the United States to teach guitar at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst but soon realized "I knew nothing about education," he said. "I was the planet's worst guitar teacher."
So, as a graduate assistant, Scott took free courses and obtained a master's degree in special education in 1994 from the university. "I always felt like the special education classroom was a good place to get elbow-deep in cognitive development theory and how students think and make sense of information, learn and remember," he said.
After graduate school, Scott headed west to Colorado, working for eight years in a Denver area school district, initially with students with disabilities, then with gifted students.
Then, something both tragic and fortuitous happened: Scott's father-in-law, Jay Gordon, who happened to be an avid fantasy and science fiction reader, was told in early 2001 that he had Lou Gehrig's disease, which debilitates nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. When Scott and his wife, Karen, moved back East to Prince William County to be closer to Gordon, the men forged a bond and decided to churn out an epic novel together.
Without much motor function in his hands, Gordon advised Scott by telephone, and the two collaborated on plotlines and characters. "It was one of the more important things I'll do in my life, but we didn't think about it in this way of 'Oh gosh, this was his dying wish,' " Scott said. "It was something fun and creative. I did all the scribbling, but he dreamt up situations and problems for characters."
The duo spent several years on the first manuscript and titled it "The Hickory Staff," which is about two 20-something bachelors in the Colorado foothills who find an old safe-deposit box in a bank, with a tapestry rolled up inside. It turns out the tapestry is a doorway to an alternative world called Eldarn, and the adventure unfolds from there.
Without a literary agent, the authors shipped the book to one of Gordon's friends in the publishing industry in New York. That friend then shipped the manuscript to Jo Fletcher, associate publisher at Gollancz. Then they waited.
"I was going on holiday, and I took 100 pages with me. And I read 100 pages, and I sat by the pool cursing myself for not having brought the rest," recalled Fletcher, in a phone interview from her London office. "I e-mailed back and said, 'I'd like to make an offer not only for the first book but three books.' I thought these guys were pretty special. They might not be doing anything particularly unusual, but what they are doing is absolutely perfect for the market -- where real life meets fantasy. It's very hard to get characters to behave exactly how you would if you were thrown into a fantasy world."
The two forged ahead with the second Eldarn book, "Lessek's Key." But Gordon continued suffering from his disease. All he wanted to know before he died was: What was going to happen at the end of the second book?
"Two weeks before he died, I read him 'Lessek's Key.' At the time, he had a tube and was communicating with letter boards," Scott recalled. "He was excited. He was pleased to see we had created a level of ambiguity for the reader."
How does the second book end? Like a good teacher, Scott wasn't exactly just going to give out the answer. "It ends," he said, "with a real, unexpected turn of events."