by Leonard Gill
"I was on a message board," Gill (no relation to this reporter) said by phone from the Dallas suburb of Rockwall, Texas, where he teaches middle-school English. "My message began: 'I've never resubmitted a previously published book.' I was looking for advice. Philip Martin of Crickhollow had seen some reviews of my book online and wrote back, 'Send me a copy.' So I did, in June of this year. Mr. Martin told me he'd love to re-release Goliath Catfish."
And Martin has. The novel for middle-school readers was republished a month ago with a fresh cover, but the story still stands: Two boys (one white, Albert; one black, Elijah) go "treasure huntin'" in the streams and sewers of North Memphis in the 1940s. But they find more than they bargained for — thanks to a treasure map and voodoo priest named Zephariah — in the waters beneath the Peabody hotel. The treasure turns out to have once belonged to George Kelly Barnes, aka "Machine Gun" Kelly, but recovering the money will nearly cost Albert his life in drowning. A real whopper of a "fish story"? It is. (Never mind any pun on the author's last name.) But it comes with some real life lessons too and, for Albert, who harbors some mighty guilt feelings over past incidents, a chance at redemption.
"I grew up hearing stories about my grandfather and father panning for change in Frayser, up around the old Harvester plant," Gill (pictured below) said of the book. (By "Harvester," he means International Harvester; the author's father, Dr. Elbert T. Gill Jr., served as a Tennessee state representative for 20 years.)
"That was the setting, but my imagination took off from there. When I started writing prose about 12 years ago, I thought I'd like to do a story about my grandfather and father one day. Then, when I was trying to learn the whole novel-writing business, I had this one idea: two boys exploring the sewers under the city of Memphis.
"And in 2009, I spent three weeks in Memphis researching the places that show up in the book — hours by the Mississippi, especially where the Wolf River empties into it. I hung out in the Peabody, walked Beale Street, and entered a few of the larger sewer pipes to experience the sounds and smells."
Those sounds and smells, the claustrophobia and darkness are vividly re-created in Goliath Catfish. But as for his writing and teaching careers, Gill — who graduated from the University of Memphis and earned a master's in theology from the Dallas Theological Seminary — recalled his job before writing or teaching: youth pastor.
"When I was in seminary, the sections of the Bible I studied most were the narratives … how powerful they could be," Gill said. "And the one area I was good at as a pastor was communications. I could tell stories. People would leave church or youth Bible study, and they wouldn't necessarily have learned a ton, but they were like, 'Man, I loved that illustration you were giving.'"
After 15 years doing pastoral work, though, Gill changed course professionally and with what he does in his spare time. As he said:
"I thought maybe I should try to write stories, see how it goes. I'd always toyed around with writing, enjoyed it. So I just started. I love the way stories are structured."
And he loved the way Cormac McCarthy had handled his novel Suttree. But Gill — he and wife Angie have four children — could also see the toll that counseling was taking on his family:
"Pastoral ministry can be tough on family, and I didn't want to put them through that any more. I'd already been told I'd be really good in the classroom, and I'd worked with teenagers as a pastor."
Gill still works with young teens. In addition to teaching English and writing at J.W. Williams Middle School in Rockwall, he coaches the school's basketball, track, and football teams. The school district has even adopted Goliath Catfish for classroom use.
That book may be Scott Gill's first. He doesn't mean it to be his last. A new one is already taking shape.
"I'm a pretty slow writer, but I'm working on another young-adult adventure," he said. "Right now, I'm calling it Reelfoot."
No need to explain to Mid-Southerners where it's set. •