Southern skeletons: Author Thompson intensifies his history

John Milliken Thompson admits with a laugh that he writes “mainly coffee-table books,” including several titles for National Geographic. But now the Charlottesville author has just come out with a new novel, a far cry from his America’s Historic Trails and Wildlands of the Upper South.

A historical-fiction novel set in post-Civil War Richmond, The Reservoir has already won praise as "solidly entertaining" by Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus Reviews calls it "an engaging mystery novel rendered as Southern literature.”

What's it all about? "A woman,” says Thompson. “And a dead one at that.”

Like its 53-year-old author, The Reservoir can’t be contained to a specific genre. Thompson describes his debut novel as “a romance wrapped inside a mystery wrapped inside a historical crime novel.”

Set against the backdrop of war-torn Richmond, The Reservoir is based on the actual murder case of Lillie Cluverius, whose body was found floating in the Old Marshall Reservoir in March of 1885. Initially ruled a suicide, Lillie’s death begins to unravel a dark family history, including a tumultuous affair with her cousin Tommie.

“It was completely engrossing,” says Thompson. “There were skeletons in the closet and a paper trail gone cold.”

Thompson fictionalized the psyches and personalities of his characters, but he worked from real court documents and contemporaneous news account to develop the story's background. He says there was a lot of material to work from, as media in the former Confederate capital covered the case extensively.

“This was theater to them,” he explains. “This was drama.”

A man of his word, Thompson even acted out various scenes during the writing process to more fully envision certain details. With his wife, Margo playing Lillie— “both living and dead,” he chuckles— Thompson tested specifics such as how Lillie may have been strangled, or how one might pull a body out of a reservoir. This meticulousness allows Thompson to write, with authority: “[Mr. Lucas] has to lie on his belly, Mr. Meade holding his legs, and take hold of whatever he can, which happens to be the woman’s right arm.”

“He possesses the writer’s greatest asset, which is perseverance,” says neighbor and fellow author Henry Wiencek. “There are long stretches of your writing life when your talents fail and you’re tempted to throw the whole thing aside, but he always maintained a strong sense of calm and determination.”

After multiple publisher rejections, Thompson immediately began reworking his story with the help of his wife, this time playing the role of editor. The two reworked it for about a year before the Other Press snapped it up.

“It took a certain maturity in my life and my writing,” Thompson reflects. “It was the right material at the right time.”

The Reservoir is available June 21, and Thompson will hold book readings and signings at Over the Bookstore and New Dominion Bookshop on June 29 and 30, respectively.