Longtime reporter and Globe political columnist Scot Lehigh grew up in a series of small towns, ending up in Eastport, Maine, where he has set his debut novel, “Just East of Nowhere.” In this gritty coming-of-age story, the Pulitzer Prize finalist follows Dan, a troubled teen, as he comes to term with his life and his peers in hardscrabble coastal Maine.
Q. You’ve been a journalist for decades. Why the move into fiction?
A. I always wanted to write fiction, and I have a number of manuscripts gathering dust in my basement. Over time I’ve put them down and said, “Ah, this doesn’t work.” Or publishers have said, “This doesn’t work.” This was the one that I finally said, “Scot, if you’re ever going to do this, you’ve really got to finish this and get it out there.” I’ve been working at it for many years. Unsuccessfully, I would say.
I’m basically a political columnist, in the fray every day. But this book is obviously completely apolitical. It’s dealing with an aspect of small-town experience. I’m someone who has lived in a lot of small towns around the country over the years. The good and the bad of small towns, and the search for identity, and the intergenerational trauma of violence and sexual assault and bullying were some of the themes that I wanted to work with and try to present in a story that I hope is a little bit engaging.
Q. This book has such a sense of place. Would you talk to me about Maine as a character?
A. Eastport is 30 miles from a traffic light. It’s a former island now connected by a causeway to the mainland, but a very small town where everyone knows everyone else. I mean, if you came in the way I did at [age] 11, at 20-something, you’re still “from away.” There’s some great things about small towns, but there are also some things that are insidious about small towns that I was trying to get at. They’re very daunting and intimidating. Until I went to college in Waterville at Colby, I had never driven in traffic any busier than Bangor, Maine.
Q. Your characters all face an essential dilemma of whether to stay or leave Eastport.
A. There’s a real comfort to small towns, but…to be a writer, to work for a daily newspaper, you very much have to leave.
There’s not a lot of economic opportunity. Eastport has remade itself as an artist community in a way. It’s beautiful in the summer, but there is that real tension. I can remember a very good friend of mine who got married right out of high school, and things were not going well for him. I was living in Brunswick, Maine, and I remember saying to him, “Why don’t you come down and live with me? You could get a job at Bath Iron Works and make good money, learn good skills there.”
And I remember him saying to me very emphatically, “Oh my God, Brunswick, all those people! All that traffic, I could never do that.” A lot of people settle into the Down East economy and find ways to make it work. But the opportunities are straitened. It’s difficult, but it’s hard to leave.
Q. Has the recent tragedy in Lewiston affected your thoughts about Maine?
A. Guns are too easily available in Maine, in part because the state’s strong hunting culture makes it a difficult issue for politicians to take on. There’s a near gun-violence tragedy in the novel. There is a lot of actual gun-violence tragedy in real life, and not just in Maine but across America. It’s an issue I frequently address as a columnist. As I wrote after the horrifying Lewiston mass shootings, it’s time for tougher gun laws. Actually, long past time.
Q. Why this book now?
A. I’ve had a bunch of people say to me, “Hey, you’re in your sixties. Why are you writing a coming-of-age story about high school kids?” I feel like high school is such a formative experience in our lives. After high school, we all go off. Some people go to college; some people go to work; some people join the military. Our experiences diverge very distinctly, but high school almost everywhere is kind of a similar experience. It’s where you really start to figure out who you are.
What I wanted to show is a story where there’s this conflict that sometimes small towns set up between two people, neither of whom is innately a bad person. This violent conflict has to do with forces beyond their control: things that have happened to them, things that have happened in their family, or things that have been said about them. And there they are. Neither one is awful, and they both struggle toward redemption in some way, toward straightening themselves and their lives out by the end of the story. Figuring themselves out a little bit. Taking a couple of steps forward.
Scot Lehigh will be discussing “Just East of Nowhere” at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 8, at the UMass Club, 1 Beacon St., Boston. To attend, rsvp to membership@UMassclub.com
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Clea Simon is a Somerville-based author whose latest novel is “To Conjure a Killer.”