By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special To AllOTSEGO.com
COOPERSTOWN – Ink, said George Hovis, has a way of getting under your skin.
In the ’90s, the SUNY Oneonta English professor worked as a process chemist in an ink factory in Charlotte, N.C. “Ink got into my subconscious,” he said. “And it came out as the ink on the skin of these characters.”
His debut novel, “The Skin Artist,” just released from SFK Press, follows Bill Becker as his upwardly mobile life begins to spiral out of control.
He is joined by a tattooed dancer, Lucy, as the two of them leave the city of Charlotte to confront the pasts that lie in wait in the Carolina countryside.
Growing up in the foothills of Appalachia, Hovis, who moved to Cooperstown in 2006, was acutely aware of the lure of the urban South. “Charlotte is this sort of Babylon, but we want to get back to that Genesis story, when we think life was simple and pure, we want to reclaim what we believe was lost.”
The novel bills itself as a modern Adam and Eve in much the same way. “In the ’90s, Charlotte billed itself as this ‘World Class City’,” he said. “The Nation’s Bank Tower was completed in 1992, and Bill, the protagonist, is drawn to it, but it also terrifies him.”
He also recognized that, though the novel is set in the South, there aren’t as many differences as one might think.
“Otsego County is the northernmost county in Appalachia,” he said. “It’s very rural, there’s a lot of poverty, but there’s also this deep connection to the past. People come here to connect with the past – agri-tourism, The Farmers’ Museum – that pastoral longing for rural roots. There’s something attractive about going back to the country.”
But the story didn’t come easily to Hovis. “It’s been simmering for years,” he said. “This book has been rewritten more than anything I’ve ever written.”
He had another manuscript out on submission when he got a call from SFK Press editor April Ford, a former SUNY Oneonta professor. “She had read the other manuscript and was interested in it,” he said. “That one was with an agent and I wanted to see where it was going, but I had ‘The Skin Artist’ in the bottom drawer. I was scared to look at it.”
Looking at it again, he found more there than he initially thought. “It was in bits and pieces, but I realized I really liked these characters,” he said. “I rewrote it beginning to end at a manic pace. I spent over a year throwing a lot away, probably hundreds of pages.”
At SFK, he got to work with short story author Pinckney Benedict. “I’ve admired him for years,” he said. “He was my development editor and he really challenged me. But I was reading his work as I was working with him, and it really helped build trust.”
Hovis had his first reading from “The Skin Artist” this week, and a second at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 13, at Bright Hill Center in Treadwell.
He will also be reading at the annual Book Expo in New York City, as well as touring throughout the south in August.
And though he doesn’t have any tattoos, that might change soon. “I’ve always wanted to get one,” he said.