The Rev. Scott Arnold, T’87, has spent 18 years serving as rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, a small parish in Prattville, Alabama—but his writing career started several decades earlier. “I think I got the writing bug when I was in second grade,” he says. “Our teacher, Mrs. McAfee, had us all write a poem, and she chose mine to read to the class. Of course, for a 7 or 8 year old, that was a high honor.”
From childhood poems, Arnold branched out to stories and plays in high school, and he earned his undergraduate degree in journalism from Middle Tennessee State University. Following two years as a reporter and editor for newspapers across Tennessee, he matriculated at the School of Theology. “I came to Sewanee very young, with a lot of growing up to do,” he notes, “...and I’m still working on that!”
If Arnold still has flights of youthful imagination, they work in his favor. His Father Flenn Adventures series, a collection of four novels dating to 2019, packs in a smorgasbord of criminal dealings, from shady political manipulations to cold-blooded murder. The action centers on Father Scott Flenn, a former CIA agent trying to lead an unassuming life as an Episcopal priest in Birmingham, Alabama. Despite Flenn’s efforts at tranquility, loyalty to his friend and old CIA associate Zack Matteson pulls him back into danger’s path.
“They say that you should always write what you know,” Arnold says. “I don’t know anything about the spy business, but I’ve always loved espionage novels and spy movies—and I guess I do know a few things about preaching . . . I always thought that if I ever wrote a book, it would be about a priest who had a background in espionage in some way.”
Arnold notes that, as an “unagented” author, he had a difficult time getting his first Flenn novel published, but the challenge didn’t faze him. In addition to the Flenn series, he has published a two-book series focused on Flenn’s CIA buddy, Zack Matteson. “Matteson is very different from Flenn in a lot of ways,” he explains. “He’s a crusty, worldly agnostic who loves his country and loves his friend, Flenn. He doesn’t have many friends. Really, he loves himself most of all.”
For his part, Father Flenn is hardly angelic, despite his clerical collar. “He genuinely loves his scotch,” Arnold notes. “He has a potty mouth at times. He’s somebody, I’ve been told, that readers can identify with—somebody whose blood is red, just like theirs.”
Arnold laughs at the idea that he and Flenn have much in common beyond their vocation, although, he says, “With the Flenn series . . . I write about places that I’ve been.” He notes that his first Flenn novel, Uncommon Prayer, is set in Birmingham, about 80 miles north of Prattville, and the second and third books take place in countries where he has spent significant time—Honduras and England, respectively. Arnold says he traveled to Honduras as part of medical missions, and he spent his sabbatical in “my two favorite places on Earth: York, England and Durham, England.” While in England, he explains, “I was taking notes everywhere I went, because I knew a novel was going to be set there. I wrote down everything from the color of the inside of the train station to [the names of] local hillsides.”
Finding time to write, Arnold acknowledges, is often harder than the writing process itself. “When I have the time, the writing just seems to flow . . . I tell people I think through my fingers when I’m typing,” he says. Before he starts drafting a novel, he always creates an outline. Then, he notes, “I write the last chapter first . . . I want to make sure I end up where I want to be.”
On rare occasions, Arnold’s plans for his characters change midcourse. In his second Flenn novel, Rites of Revenge, he says, “I kill off a character I had no idea I was going to kill until I did it. That was a surprise to me. This character had to die, but I didn’t want it to happen.” Arnold adds that many of his readers—including his parishioners at St. Mark’s—didn’t hide their displeasure at the unexpected death. He says he understands their frustration. “I do grow fond of my characters. None of my good guys are pristine—they all have character flaws. And none of the bad guys are 100% bad. They’ve all got something redeemable about them.”
Though his characters are deeply human, Arnold says, “There’s not a whole lot of spirituality to the Flenn series . . . However, Flenn is true to who he is as a priest. He’s the real deal.” Arnold cites the Rt. Rev. Dr. N.T. Wright as one of his favorite authors, but, he shares, his fiction is more influenced by his love of thriller novelists Clive Cussler and David Wellington.
Arnold’s schedule at St. Mark’s has been full lately, and he is also currently serving as secretary for the Diocese of Alabama, leaving him little time for Flenn and Matteson. He has managed to start plotting a new series, though, which he describes as “totally different” from the Father Flenn Adventures. He’s also considering a fifth Father Flenn novel. “If there is a fifth book in the Father Flenn series, I’ll go ahead and say that Sewanee will figure into it—in a positive way,” he shares. “We’re going to have a little chase scene, I think, around the University. That’s on down the road.”