The Birth of Eco-Noir


Stark House to Publish Darren R. Leo Novel

Stark House Press is known for its hard-boiled crime fiction, but a gripping manuscript by Darren R. Leo will add a new and literary side to its catalogue.

MANCHESTER, N.H., March 14, 2014 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- Novelist Darren R. Leo hiked the length of the Appalachian Trail before he knew he was a novelist. "It was a transformative experience," said Leo, who earned an MFA last year from Southern New Hampshire University's low-residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction program—and who just signed a contract with Stark House Press for his novel "The Trees Beneath Us."

"While it's completed often, hiking the trail is still an epic undertaking for those who attempt it," added Leo. And it was precisely that tension between the heroic and the commonplace that beguiled him. "I thought there were gems to be mined from regular individuals undertaking an epic journey."

Leo's own journey began in Salt Lake City, where he grew up, and with a dream long deferred. He went to the University of Utah as an English major, and came away in 1992 with a love for the poetry of Wordsworth, the bristling natural history of Edward Abbey, and the archetypal hero narratives of Homer. "But then," he said, "I had to grow up and get a real job."

Those jobs—except for a stint as an Army paratrooper—were in the hotel industry, either as an executive or a consultant, and they took him to nine different states. He was still working in that industry when he began looking for the sort of MFA program that would allow him to keep working while he studied—i.e., a low-residency program.

"I had just read 'The Animal Dialogues' by Craig Childs," Leo said, referring to a 1997 title by one of Edward Abbey's more notable heirs in the literature of the American outdoors. "Then I saw that he was a visiting professor in this Southern New Hampshire program, and that's where I wanted to go."

Childs is now a permanent member of the Southern New Hampshire faculty, but it was another faculty member, Merle Drown—author of the novels "The Suburbs of Heaven" and "Ploughing Up a Snake"—who first helped Leo mold his experience on America's most iconic wilderness trail into the fictional narrative that would become his MFA thesis, and now this forthcoming novel.

With a nod to Homer, "The Trees Beneath Us" is a quest narrative, a sort of odyssey, whose protagonist Finn hikes the Appalachian Trail while haunted by the death of a child, burdened by the weight of a degenerative disease, and contemplating the sort of trail's end that is suicide.

Leo graduated from SNHU in January last year. He immediately began publishing short stories in literary journals and sending his novel manuscript around to agents. After 24 rejections, a classmate at SNHU—Charlie Stella—recommended his own publisher, Stark House Press.

Stella came to SNHU as an already successful novelist, the author of eight in fact. Stark House has largely specialized in darkly noirish crime fiction, and such mean-street Stella stories as "Eddie's World," "Johnny Porno," and "Rough Riders" fit smoothly and successfully into that catalogue. Stella knew, however, that Stark House was looking to branch out into literary fiction as well, and that D.R. Leo was shopping a good specimen of that.

In fact, Stark House publisher Greg Shepard found in Leo's protagonist an anti-hero in some ways similar to the protagonists of Stella's novels, and the manuscript prompted Shepard to propose a new genre—"eco-noir"—for "The Trees Beneath Us."

But mostly Shepard loved the sparkle of Leo's characterization and storytelling. "Finn is on a mission which he himself chooses not to label," he said. "Sometimes it's a battle. Sometimes there are moments of gentle purity. There is also grim humor here. It took me on a trip I had never been on before."

Eco-journalist Richard Adams Carey, the assistant director of Southern New Hampshire's MFA program is not surprised that Leo has so quickly landed a book contract. "First you have to have a story with depth, and told with skill," he said. "Second, you have to have the long-haul toughness and persistence to make someone pay attention, and we all saw that Darren had both the story and the drive."

"The Trees Beneath Us" will appear in trade paperback sometime next year. In the meantime, writing has become Leo's real job. Besides vetting two or three different ideas for his next novel, he teaches writing workshops out of his Rhode Island home and participates in a writer's group of other Southern New Hampshire MFA alumni.

"I get feedback from trained readers, and I get to read some great new stuff," Leo said about that group. "But best of all, it forces me to keep producing quality fiction."

A photo accompanying this release is available at:

CONTACT: Richard Adams Carey 603.284.7064 603.716.4278 (c)Source:Southern New Hampshire UniversityMFA and Creative Writing