Interview with Mike Thomas, author of 'The Mysterious Treasure of Jerry Lee Thorton'

Mike Thomas is a southern writer. He grew up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina where he learned a lot about family, traditions, and the genteel lifestyle most southerners enjoy. The richly eccentric folks of his youth have become his characters in today's books and stories.

Mike began as a newswriter, editor, columnist, reporter, and speechwriter before switching to the role of Critical Care Registered Nurse. He traveled nearly every corner of the world as a vagabond contract nurse before resettling in North Carolina a few years ago.
He lives with Bobby, his desktop computer, and Rachel his laptop, in Halifax County, NC.

"That's all I need," He says, "Just my computers and a bit of focus. Then we can make up worlds we could only have dreamed of last week."

You can visit him at 

Can you please tell us a little about The Mysterious Treasure of Jerry Lee Thorton?

The Mysterious Treasure of Jerry Lee Thorton is about three twelve-year-old friends that bond together in the summer of 1966 to attempt to find a rogue Civil War soldier’s missing one million dollar treasure. Undaunted by thousands of scholars and fortune seekers having looked unsuccessfully for the treasure for a hundred years, the trio search diligently for themselves. What they find is an adventure that leads them on a spiraling path of discovery.

They discover newness in themselves, their families, and the closeness of a small southern community in the process.

It’s a young adult novel written for nine to fifteen year olds, but is getting great reviews and praise from adults as well.

This is an adventure story, but it is also a story about making good decisions whether you want to or not. It is also a story of relationships. Family and community are underscored, but there is an underlying theme of male/female relationships. It’s really okay for boys and girls to be buddies without always having to be boyfriends and girlfriends. It is also a story about innocence. NOT innocence lost, but innocence maintained.

What was the hardest part of writing your book?

No question there… Vernacular, colloquialisms, and idioms. The south is rich with these things, and three twelve-year-olds use them all – a lot.

I wanted to write a story taking place in a Deep South state, BUT I wanted it to have an appeal all across the country. I didn’t want to write something that three quarters of the country wouldn’t understand.

The first draft of the manuscript was dripping with idiomatic dialogue and odd vernacular, but it was the way folks talked in that area of the country.

My original editor was from New York and blue penciled just about every line of dialogue because she didn’t understand the local stuff. She sent me an email asking if “techous” was really a word, and if it was correctly spelled. (It means tender as in painful to the touch. As in “The bump on his head was a right smart techous.”).

How was I to know how it was spelled? That was how it was pronounced.

I eventually got a southern editor who was aware, and sensitive to what I was trying to say. We eventually got it cleaned up to where somebody from Seattle, New Mexico, or South Dakota could understand it from the text.

Do you have a favorite excerpt from the book? If so, could you please share it with us?

<Luke and RaeNell go back to the enormous county library looking for evidence of Jerry Lee Thorton’s gravesite... Luke is the narrative voice…>

I didn’t know what was on her mind, but didn’t have the gumption to argue with her about it. She didn’t let on what it was all about until we were up on the third floor of one of the library’s more modern annexes. This was where the county stored old voting records, land purchases, graveyard records, and the like.

“What do you figure on finding here?” I asked.

“You reckon they buried Jerry Lee here?” she replied.

“I doubt it very seriously. He would of stunk up the whole library I suspect. Besides, this part of the building wasn’t built yet when he died.”

“Ha ha, Mr. Smarty Britches. Ain’t you cute? You know what I meant. Reckon he was buried in New Caledonia County or was shipped upriver back home to Surry County?”

“I don’t rightly know. I suspect that they buried him where he lay. They didn’t spend a bunch of time shipping folks around near the end of the war, and the folks that killed him probably didn’t care enough to bury him at all. I suspect they just let him lay.”

She shuddered, “That’s creepy to kill somebody, but to leave him lay and walk away is pure sick.”

“Those were different times and different people back then. I suspect they did a lot of things you and I wouldn’t like.”

“You’re probably right, but somebody probably buried him eventually. There were a bunch of folks living around here then, and most would of given him a decent Christian burial if they had found him.”

“We don’t know if he was a Christian or not. He might have been an Episcopalian.”…

What do you hope readers will take away after reading the book?

Cultivate your friendships! Thank you Harry Potter for waking the Young Adult readers, and showing them that reading can be fun again. But ever since Harry Potter almost all you see these days are wizards and warlocks, vampires and succubae, dragons and magic. I thought it might be time to write about real people, living in real worlds with real friends, having a real good time. Also, it’s important to know that friends can have friends and still keep their clothes on...

What was your writing process while writing this book?

I was having difficulty with a detective novel I was writing. I keep a writer’s block notebook in my computer’s tray to jot notes, or anything else that comes up while working on a project. During the process I wrote a line in the block notebook that said: “My whole life changed the summer that RaeNell Stephens started growing up.” It was just a line that really didn’t mean much at the time.

As the days went by, the detective novel became more difficult. I would pull up the block notebook and add a line or two to that original line about growing up.

There were a number of empty paragraphs in the block notebook just sitting there minding their own business, when suddenly one afternoon RaeNell woke up, and a storyline blossomed. In a rush of inspiration, I wrote The Mysterious Treasure of Jerry Lee Thorton, bending over the keyboard, and finishing banging out the forty-thousand words in a bit over forty-eight hours.

To this day I couldn’t accurately tell you where the storyline came from. It wasn’t written, as much as it just coalesced.

I knew I wanted to tell the story, but I also wanted to say that it’s okay for boys and girls to be buddies without having to be boyfriends and girlfriends. I wanted it to be a simple story of kids having fun. It needed to be a story of innocence. Not innocence lost, but innocence maintained. It had to be a story of having to do the right thing, whether you wanted to or not.  I also wanted it to be a book that adults would enjoy too.

After nearly fifteen years of editors, rejection slips, rebuffs, and simply being ignored, The Mysterious Treasure of Jerry Lee Thorton was accepted for publication.

Who or what was the inspiration for the book?

In retrospect, I guess I took inspiration from my past. I was asked by another interviewer if my past was as idyllic as The Mysterious Treasure of Jerry Lee Thorton. After thinking about that for a full few minutes, I was forced to answer “Yes”.

But, when you’re doing the growing up you didn’t think of it as idyllic. It just was. Yadkinville, NC, where I spent most of my youth, is almost cliché southern. It has a courthouse square with clusters of businesses all around it, and half a mile away, in every direction from the square, it’s all farmland. It was tobacco everywhere in those days.

The main thing is that the people there are the salt of the earth sorts, and you get a real strong sense of family. It’s a “You cut one of us and all of us bleed” type mentality.

Have you had a mentor? If so, can you talk about them a little?

Back in the summer of 1965 I read two books back-to-back that would eventually change my life. The first was Diamonds Are Forever, and the second was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

One, a hard-hitting, woman-loving story in the James Bond Series. The other, a whimsical story about a car that flies, floats and even thinks. Both were written by the late Ian Fleming. I determined right then that if someone could tell such disparate tales, in essentially the same voice, then that’s what I wanted to do too. I was in the fifth grade.

That is probably more inspiration that mentorship, but it was how I got started. Other than the occasional professor, I have pretty much found guidance and leadership where I could. I write 5,000 words every day to keep in practice. By definition, one can’t self-mentor, but I have pretty much gone it alone over the years.

I have heard it said in order to be a good writer, you have to be a reader as well? Do you find this to be true? And if you are a reader, do you have a favorite genre and/or author?

Reading is vital to writing, but you might be surprised at the number of wannabe writers that don’t like to read much. This could be why they are ‘wannabes’.

The very successful novelist Stephen King says, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

 Even he is trying to communicate is that writers must read. They actually need to read even more than they write. There is no way we can find that ‘inner-voice’ that tells the story without reading other stories.

One or two books won’t do the trick either. I usually average reading 75 - 150 books a year, and that doesn't even include all the magazines, newspapers, brochures, cereal boxes and other odds and ends that I stumble onto daily. It also doesn't include the massive amounts of research that has to be done for the smallest of projects.

It doesn’t matter what you read. Just read.

William Faulkner pretty well summarized the idea by saying, “Read, read, read. Read everything - trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write. If it's good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out of the window.”

I find the carpenter’s apprentice analogy particularly compelling. No one inherently knows how to write. True that some are born to write, but they still have to learn the craft somewhere. Studying and enjoying the writings of others is how we learn, grow and become successful.

As far as favorites are concerned, I have always enjoyed southern writing, but more especially, I have enjoyed southern humor. Usually the odder the humor, the more I liked it.

I love the easy storytelling voice of Mark Twain, the sincerity of Eudora Welty, the joyful irreverence of Flannery O’Conner, and the narrative voice and syntax of William Faulkner. I also have been touched by the writings of such non-southern folks as James Thurber.

I certainly don’t pretend to be in this group’s august circle, but they inspire me.