“It’s a dream come true,” said Matthew Guinn, 43. “You almost hate to decide to become a writer sometimes because the odds are stacked tremendously against you, but if you hang in there long enough and keep at it, you can.”
Guinn, who now lives in Mississippi, attended Teasley Elementary and Griffin Middle, and graduated from Campbell in 1988. He is the son of Wendell and Jane Guinn, who recently moved away from the Vinings area.
His book, “The Resurrectionist,” is Guinn’s twist on a discovery in 1989, when hundreds of human bones were uncovered in the basement of the Medical College of Georgia’s main building in Augusta.
In researching the event, Guinn learned that in the 1800s, the college owned a slave who was responsible for digging up human remains from cemeteries and bringing them to the medical school so that students could conduct autopsies on real bodies.
“Grandison Harrison was hired to dig up bodies to do gross anatomy,” Guinn said.
Individuals like Harrison who performed such tasks were known as resurrectionists or body snatchers.
“It was common for them to steal bodies because it was illegal in many parts of the country to dissect humans,” Guinn said.
The state of Georgia didn’t allow dissection of bodies for medical purposes until 1902, unless the body belonged to an executed criminal.
Guinn was intrigued by this true story so he began a 10-year venture to write a story similar to Harrison’s, but with changes to the main character and location.
The book is set at a fictional medical school in South Carolina, and the slave’s name is Nemo “No-Man” Johnston.
Guinn chose South Carolina because it is where he earned his doctorate in English. Guinn also has his bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Georgia and his master’s degree in English from the University of Mississippi.
Guinn’s story begins in the 1990s, when the medical college hires a physician named Jacob Thacker to handle the public after the remains were found in the school’s basement.
Each chapter that follows is about Johnston’s life between 1850 to 1860. It tells the story of how he did what he did in digging up the freshly buried bodies, and eventually was able to work his way up at the medical college teaching anatomy classes.
“It’s the story of how he struggled to get respect in the medical school and get a better life for himself somehow after the Civil War,” Guinn said.
Johnston was originally depicted as a boogie man in Guinn’s novel, but as Guinn pieced the story together, his attitude changed about his main character.
“The more I got into the story and the more research I did, (Johnston) had no choice in the matter,” he said. “This is what he was bought to do.”
Getting his break
Guinn began writing his book in 2003 and finished his first draft in 2006.
With the help of a literary agent, he solicited many publishing companies, hoping that someone would want to print it.
“After that 19th rejection letter, my literary agent said she just couldn’t sell it,” he said. “I took time off from trying to get it published because what do you do when your agent drops you?”
A friend at a local bookstore in the Jackson, Miss., area, where Guinn lives with his family now, read the novel, said he loved it and invited Guinn to meet another author.
“He liked it too and gave it to his editor at W.W. Norton (in 2011) and that’s when it got going,” he said.
After working with an editor at the New York-based publishing company for a year, the book was ready to go to press, so distribution began and publications were placed on shelves beginning in June.
It’s now available at www.amazon.com and should be in many local and all big-box bookstores in the next few weeks.
Guinn’s book tour throughout Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi will begin at A Cappella Books in Atlanta today, with a second stop at the Decatur Book Festival on Labor Day weekend. He doesn’t have any other local stops planned as of right now.
This won’t be the last book for Guinn either, as his series will continue with “Malthus,” which is set to hit stands in 2014.
The story takes place at the International Cotton Exposition in the 1890s in Atlanta. A third book, “Red Mountain,” will follow. It is based in Birmingham, Ala., at the turn of the 20th century.