Atlanta author and journalist Josh Green discusses his new novel, Secrets of Ash

Set in Atlanta and North Georgia, the suspenseful novel follows two brothers struggling with their own demons

Josh Green Secrets of Ash
Author and journalist Josh Green

Photograph by Lola Green

Many Atlantans are familiar with Josh Green, the journalist. The former editor of Curbed Atlanta and a reporter at newspapers both here in metro Atlanta and in his native Indiana, Green now edits the popular development news website Urbanize Atlanta and writes for outlets around Atlanta, including Atlanta magazine. But there’s also Josh Green, the author, whose 2013 book of short stories, Dirtyville Rhapsodies, landed on Atlanta’sTop 10 Books of 2013” list. Now Green has a new book, Secret of Ashhis first novel.

The thriller, published by the Sager Group, centers two brothers: Traumatized Afghanistan war veteran Chase Lumpkin, who’s haunted by the violence he endured and his own sinister misdeeds, and his older brother Jack, a celebrity sports radio personality gone slightly to seed. When Chase disappears into the North Georgia mountains to wrestle with his demons, Jack becomes determined to find him and bring him home. It’s a propulsive suspense novel, with enough twists and turns to keep you reading until dawn.

We caught up with Green recently to discuss Secrets of Ash and how he approaches fiction writing versus journalism.

Josh Green Secrets of AshYou’re a journalist and the editor of an urban development outlet. What inspired you to write a novel?

I’ve actually been trying to be an author longer than I’ve been writing journalism. Since I was a little kid, I’ve been making stuff up in the form of fiction. I majored in journalism and minored in creative writing in college, and I’ve always had a passion for both. Being able to go experience the world through journalism and you know, paint your own picture for people, it’s a huge honor and a challenge.

But I always had this itch to use things that I would come across in the real world, whether in my journalism or just in everyday life, and use that as an artistic putty of sorts, to say something about this particular era, this world that we’ve inherited right now. While I was working at daily newspapers, I was always writing short fiction stories at night. Of course I got piles of rejections at first, but I finally started to get some stories published in literary journals. And eventually I realized I had enough short stories for a book. I found an indie publisher who really believed in me and we put out Dirtyville Rhapsodies in 2013. It got good reactions, but everybody said, “These stories all end too soon—you need a full-length novel.” Which was a terrifying proposition. But ten years later, here we are!

Secrets of Ash dives into the heavy world of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in veterans and the trauma of war—why did you decide to focus on those stories?

Some of my first serious journalism stories back in Indiana were on veterans that had started coming home from the War on Terror. They were traumatized, but PTSD wasn’t really a household word at that time. People just called it “shell-shocked.” I just remember some of these guys telling me that they felt different, they felt like they couldn’t weave themselves back into society.

And not just younger veterans, but World War II veterans; I always found myself drawn to their stories, understanding that sacrifice that I couldn’t even comprehend in my cushy life here. So for the novel, I wanted to really pay homage to all these stories that I’ve heard, all these men and women I’ve met through the years.

You published Secrets of Ash with the Sager Group, the imprint created by legendary journalist Mike Sager. How’d that happen?

This story is kind of crazy. Back in 2012, when the book was still just an idea, I was reading Esquire magazine at my condo complex pool, and I came across this article called “Vetville.” It was about these wounded veterans who had taken it on themselves to kind of heal each other in this little cabin they set up in the Tennessee mountains. Just a noble enterprise among veterans. But one of them was talking about the lowest point that he ever had, when he decided he was just going to ride off into the mountains as far as he could and [end his own life]. And it was so tragic, because he thought it was a noble act, that he would alleviate the burden of himself to his family and just disappear. And it was like a lightning bolt hit me in the pool right there—like, that’s the story. The younger brother goes off to disappear, and the older brother, who’s grappling with his own life issues, sets out to save him at all costs.

So fast forward to 2023, I’ve had ten years of frustration trying to get this book published, two literary agents who left the business, lot of low points. And then my old writer friend Charles McNair, who used to live in Atlanta, he said, “Look, I’ve got an old friend, Mike Sager. He runs this press.” And I was like, Oh, my God: That’s my old hero. And I look up some of his old writing, and realized Mike Sager wrote “Vetville” in Esquire magazine. So when I reached out I told him, “You wrote the story that set this whole plot in motion.” And he said, “That’s unbelievable, man, send it over!” So ten years later, it’s this full-circle kismet. 

Ash County is a fictionalized place, but the real North Georgia mountains loom large in your book. What drew you to that region as a site of storytelling?  

I fell in love with those mountains immediately—I come from the flatland Midwest, and after moving to Atlanta, I just started taking drives up to the mountains and hiking as often as I could. From Midtown to Blue Ridge, without traffic, takes ninety minutes, and you’re in a totally different world. I found it really magical.

I did a lot of research to get those details right, taking notes on family trips here and there. But I felt like I needed to know what it felt like to be on the verge of being lost out there, and then that happened accidentally in 2014 with my three-year-old daughter. I took her up there for a daddy-daughter weekend during peak foliage, and we’re trying to get to the top of Rabun Bald Mountain. I’m carrying her the whole way, she’s having the time of her life, and I look over and realize the sun is starting to go down and the fall leaves are obscuring the paths, so I’m not sure where I’m going. In my haste to get the top of the mountain, I almost lost the path with a three-year-old and no food! (Laughs) But that was really valuable. 

How do you approach novel writing differently than reporting or other long-form writing? Is it a different hat for you?

Oh, different hats for sure. They really feel like two completely different enterprises, two completely different exercises of the mind. I mean, when it comes to the fact-checking, that feels similar: they fact-check the whole book right before it comes out, so that felt like the end of a long magazine story or something like that.

But I’ve always liked falling back on the fiction stuff at night because it just feels like more of a wide-open kind of canvas. There are no restrictions, you’re not bound by fact obviously; there are just no borders to where this damn thing could go. That’s always felt liberating to me.

Is Atlanta a supportive place to be a writer and a creative?

I mean, Exhibit A was Manuel’s Tavern on the Friday night when I had my book launch. People were coming out of the woodwork, who had heard through other people that the real estate writer guy can actually write fiction! (Laughs) And several people there became ambassadors among strangers in Manual’s Tavern, getting them to come back and grab a copy of the book. That felt awesome.

I’m just getting back into the whole world of promotion again for this one, but with my last book, the city really supported me. I got a full-page review in the AJC, and then Atlanta magazine naming it a top book of the year, and then other doors opened because of all that. So yeah, I absolutely feel like Atlanta is a supportive place for creatives. There’s just a creative vibe here, you know? You see it just the way that people act, you see it on the BeltLine, people expressing themselves in really cool ways. And I think as a writer, it can be a challenge to cut through the immensity of how much is out there. But I’m hopeful that this book can break through, and just connect with people as a genuine Atlanta story from someone who’s living here and clearly loves it and wants to shine a unique light on the city and the state.

Finally, and most importantly: Which Atlanta coffee shop most got you through writing this book?

Oof, all of them? (Laughs) If I have to pick one, let’s go with Kavarna in Oakhurst. They were great. They actually hosted a few readings for my first book, and after one of those readings someone grabbed me and said, “Now you’ve got to start writing a novel!” And that was a really important nudge towards getting this book started. So thank you, Kavarna!