Author guides Walt Whitman through the land of the dead

Plume will publish J. Aaron Sanders' "Speakers of the Dead" in March and has contracted the author for two further mystery novels featuring American poet Walt Whitman.
Plume will publish J. Aaron Sanders' "Speakers of the Dead" in March and has contracted the author for two further mystery novels featuring American poet Walt Whitman. rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.com

To exonerate a friend who was hanged for a murder that she did not commit, a 19th century poet must dig deep into the macabre world of body snatchers.

But it is not just any poet: it is Walt Whitman.

Such is the premise of "Speakers of the Dead," a new novel set to be published in March by Plume, a division of Penguin Random House.

The author is J. Aaron Sanders, an associate professor of English at Columbus State University.

A book launch is scheduled for 6 p.m. on March 8 at the CSU bookstore downtown followed by a 7:30 p.m. reception at the Carson McCullers Center.

The work made such an impression on the editors at the publishing firm that Sanders was given a contract to write two more Walt Whitman mysteries, one of which he has almost completed.

"There is some good buzz about the book," said Sanders, sitting in his office, decorated with photos of Ernest Hemingway, Woody Allen, Bob Dylan and, of course, Whitman, A nearby bookshelf features works by Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe and Stephen King.

In a release from the publishers, Nicola Upson, author of "The Death of Lucy Kyte," calls the new book a vivid and engaging adventure, written with a modern freshness Whitman himself might have approved. Rae Meadows, author of "Mercy Train," calls it riveting and haunting.

Sanders, a 43-year-old father of two boys, has taught

fiction writing at CSU since 2008. A graduate of the University of Utah, he received his Ph.D. at the University of Connecticut.

Placing Whitman in the role of detective might seem strange to many, but Sanders said it was natural for him to do so.

The story takes place in 1843 before Whitman was known for his poetry but rather for his work as a newspaper reporter in New York City. Sanders described Whitman then as young and ambitious.

"I am obsessed with Walt Whitman," Sanders said. "I have been a passionate reader and teacher of Whitman for years. I wanted to write a novel that somehow documents the transformation of the young Walt Whitman into the Walt Whitman the American poet. I wanted to capture his ambition, his physicality, his capacity for love and to imagine a set of fictional events that might begin to explain his poetic ability to capture all of America in "Leaves of Grass."

He said Whitman is regarded as the American poet who abandoned the strictures of classical form and meter for long lines of free verse and created a literature distinctly America.

The author, who said CSU has been supportive of his efforts, said a person does not have to be familiar with Whitman to enjoy the book.

Sanders is a fan of other writers of that era such as Emily Dickinson and Herman Melville, as well, as of modern day mystery writers such as Patricia Highsmith, Henning Mankell and Arnaldur Indrioason.

Sanders said he studied those crime writers for structure, but that a writer has to have their own style.

"People underestimate how sophisticated this genre is," he said. "Structure is very important in a mystery."

Sanders said he hopes his book had the same "grittiness" as the work of those authors.

"People who have read it tell me it is gritty," he said.

Sanders did much research on both Whitman and body snatching to make the book realistic.

Much of his story takes place at a medical school for women with Elizabeth Blackwell, America's first female doctor, playing a role. The author said body snatching was a big issue at the time the novel takes place. Medical schools needed cadavers for dissection and it was illegal to get them so body snatchers, called "resurrection men," robbed graves to meet the demand.

"They made quite a bit of money," Sanders said.

He said it became such a problem that wealthy people had guards or special vaults to protect their loved ones.

"Poor people were most often victims," Sanders said.

This is not his first attempt at a novel. There have been four or five others.

"It takes that long to get it right," he said.

He did more than 30 drafts of his new mystery.

Sanders approached it as though he was writing a dissertation.

"Nearly every sentence in a historical novel has to be bolstered by research and so I surrounded myself with stacks of books and journal articles," he said. "I pasted and photocopied images of 19th century New York on my walls. I combed through Whitman biographies over and over and I read from Leaves of Grass every day."

The work, though not easy, was a labor of love.

"Anybody can write 300 pages and say they are a novelist," Sanders said. "To write something people will want to read, you can't shortcut it."