Shortlisted: Banff Mountain Book Awards

The Cardinal Divide: A Cole Blackwater Mystery has been shortlisted for The Canadian Rockies Award in the 2009 Banff Mountain Book Festival. The award is presented annually to the best book about the Canadian Rockies entered in the Mountain Book Festival. The Mountain Book Festival is held at the Banff Centre for Mountain Culture November 5th and 6th.

To be nominated for this award, at the Banff Mountain Book Festival means a lot to me.

The real Cardinal Divide

The real Cardinal Divide

I went to the very first Mountain Book Festival, when it was still the poor cousin of the Banff Mountain Film Festival. That was 16 years ago: I was living in Lake Louise at the time, penning columns on mountain life and the mountain environment for the local newspapers, and dreaming that someday I might have a book to display at the nominations table.

I met Chic Scott at that Book Festival that first year, and we began what was a short-lived tradition of a cup of tea or coffee together to talk about climbing, skiing and writing. It’s been ten years since I sat down with Chic to talk shop; he’s nominated for the same award this year – as are friends John Marriott and Graeme Pole – so I hope maybe we can all meet to share stories about writing, photography and the mountains we love.

The landscape is the protagonist in The Cardinal Divide. The craggy ridge of the Divide itself is always there, as the soon to be deceased mine manager notes in the prologue of the book: “He craned his neck and looked south into the darkness, beyond the existing mine, toward the Cardinal Divide’s jagged back. In his minds’ eye he saw the reef of stone rising abruptly from the rolling foothills that broke against the implacable wall of the Rocky Mountains. Though the Divide was beyond his life of sight, Mike Barnes knew it was there. Could not forget it was there. So much angst over a hill.”

While the book is a murder mystery, it’s about very real issues and a very real place; issues that for more than a decade as an activist in Alberta I struggled with, and that for 30 years have been vexing many people across North America: How do we protect a place that we love from the overwhelming forces of single-minded progress? How do we bridge such a cardinal divide within our communities, when one group of people look back to short term exploitation to prosper while others look forward to sustainable solutions, back lack the means to implement them?

The Cardinal Divide doesn’t answer these questions, but set among the murder mystery is the story of a community’s connection to a powerful place. In asking the question we’re one step closer to an answer.

It’s a great honor to be nominated for this award.

Bending Light

In the spring of 1996 I pushed off from the public boat ramp in the town of Green River, Utah, with two friends, three weeks of food, my two Nikon FM2 camera’s and 60 rolls of film. For the next 21 days we explored the length of Stillwater and Labyrinth Canyon’s; 120 river miles, and another hundred or more on foot up the Green River’s dendritic side canyons. I shot all my film, dropped one roll into the waterlogged bottom of our raft but managed to save it, and came out of the canyon country with a few dozen good shots and a hunger to shoot more.

Sun set at Green River Overlook, Canyonlands National Park

Sun set at Green River Overlook, Canyonlands National Park

It wasn’t my first trip to the Four Corners region. During the winter of 1993-94 I spent five months in the Southwest, first volunteering at Grand Canyon National Park as a Ranger Naturalist, and then down through southern Arizona and New Mexico, and back up through the high country around Santa Fe. But I was stupid, and was traveling light, so didn’t bring my real camera with me, just a tiny Olympus point-and-shoot.

Since my first trip down the Green River I’ve been back to Utah five times, including three other trips on that wonderful river, and a five-week-long exploration of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Zion National Park in western Utah. At the end of September Jenn and I spent two weeks in southern Utah and Northern Arizona; it was a powerfully creative time.

Photography is the art of bending light. The eye beholds the scene, and the heart longs to capture the beauty before you. The mind calculates how. The camera is the tool through which light passes and is recorded, for the longest time with silver on the film plane, and now through ones and zeros on the memory card. The light must bend through eye and heart, through head and lens, through bits and bytes to emerge transformed by the creative process on the screen, on the wall, on the print before our eyes once again.

The American southwest is one of my hearts true homes. It’s a joy to share it with you. Click here (new Window)  to visit a Picasa Web Album of some images from our September 2009 trip to the American Southwest.

Sunset, Cape Royal, North Rim of the Grand Canyon

Sunset, Cape Royal, North Rim of the Grand Canyon

Harnessing the Third Coincidence

For the last couple of months I’ve been nattering on about discovering my dharma and the coincidences surrounding my departure from Royal Roads University. Somehow my acceptance that writing is what I truly want to do with my life, and the space created for writing by my untimely exodus from my post as a fundraiser for the Bateman Centre, seemed incomplete. There had to be a third coincidence.

My hope was that a meeting with a prominent Canadian literary agent in Toronto in August would round out the trio, land me a fat writing contract, and set me on a course for literary stardom, or at least literary self-sufficiency.

It was not to be. All the positive visualization, wishful thinking, creative manifestation, meditation and voodoo doll arranging in the world is no competition for a supportive, yet skeptical, battle hardened agent.

God answers all prayers, say some: sometimes he just says no. Or, as the Buddha and Lao Tzu said: all anticipation leads to disappointment. Instead I had to remain open to other signs. Of course, one presented itself.

One of the first things Jenn and I decided to do when I lost my job was to take a vacation. Liberated from the tyranny of three weeks of holidays each year, we were free to travel, so we headed for the American Southwest. We have both ventured there on numerous occasions, through never together. We planned to spend time riding our bikes and hiking near Moab, venture down the Colorado River and day trip into the Maze in Canyonlands National Park, camp on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and take a quick tour through the Escalante.

The protagonist in my books The Cardinal Divide, and the forthcoming Darkening Archipelago was inspired by the canyon’s of Utah. In the mid and late nineteen nineties I spent a lot of time kicking around Canyonlands National Park, doing two and three week long trips down the Green River, through the San Rafael Desert, and into Labyrinth and Stillwater Canyons. I employed a local outfitter from Moab called Tex’s Riverways, and became friends with the three brothers who ran the show, Tex having long since retired. Dirk, Devon and Darren were the kind of iconoclastic, offbeat characters that make a bone chilling jet boat trip up the Colorado River a great experience, and I’ve stayed in touch with them all these years.

I think it was on my second Green River adventure that one of the boys started referring to me as Glint Longshadow. As I noted in the back-of-the-book material for The Cardinal Divide, I think they had this image of me striding across the agoraphobic Utah desert, fighting evil developers with a iridescent glint in my eye. It’s hard not to become attached to such an image of oneself, and so when I was hunting around for a name for my first environmental murder mysteries’ leading man, Glint Longshadow came to mind. But that’s a ridiculous name (maybe they were making fun of me…) so I let my mind wander, and Cole Blackwater (some cadence, same number of syllables) emerged.

About a week before Jenn and I left for Utah I was stirring from my morning meditation when an idea surfaced from my cerebral morass: why aren’t I writing an environmental murder mystery series set in the Southwest?

Shortly the second book in the Cole Blackwater series will go to press. This series is set mostly in Canada. Canada is a very small country. It doesn’t publish many books. And it doesn’t really celebrate genre fiction. In fact, it most often looks down its nose at the field. Canadian Literature recently referred to my first novel as pulp fiction, through (bless their souls) they did recommend it.

But the United States, on the other hand…big country, lots of books and book publishers, lots of readers of crime and other genres. I love the Southwest, and have always wanted to write about it. Tony Hillerman, whose Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn Navaho Tribal Police series first inspired my interest in the genre, passed away in 2008 at the age of 83, leaving a tremendous, if not unfillable, gap in the Southwest’s literary landscape.

So I set my intent to have a fully formulated idea for a mystery series set in Utah and Arizona by the time Jenn and I returned from our trip.

Intent is an incredible thing. I recall once staying at a century old hotel built over a hot springs near Helena, Montana and being fascinated with the place. It was in some disrepair; part of the hotel served as a retreat centre for Alcoholics Anonymous (I learned this when I cracked open a beer in the lounge). I went to bed that night with the intent of waking with a fictional story in my head about this hotel and its guests, and woke with a complete story-outline in my mind.

That was more than a decade ago. I’ve had a lot of practice over the last ten or more years at creating something from nothing. I have come to believe that like everything else, stories are merely a product of the energy and information swirling around the universe, born of an exploding star some ten billion years ago. We human’s, with our thick craniums and hyper-developed gift of imagination, are wired to be walking, talking receptors for these stories, and we quickly fashion them into tales about our own miraculous journey through life.

I love the creative process. I love taking an idea from inspiration through to cultivation. At first there is next to nothing. A single idea: in this case, a terrible, marvelous, beautiful landscape. What do I want to say about such a place? My own niche in the mystery genre is to tell stories that focus on environmental issues. It’s what I know the best. There’s no shortage of environmental calamities in the Southwest. How to choose? And how do I create characters and a plot that allows the reader to enjoy a good (maybe great) story without pummeling them over the head with an environmental message (that niche is already filled to overflowing). Who’s the protagonist? What makes him or her interesting? Why would a reader want to follow this person through a series of books?

All of these questions sloshed around in my head as I was preparing for and departing towards our Utah adventure. Jenn and I talked a lot about the ideas as they began to emerge – like startled, blinking voles from dark fissures in the earth – over the first week of the trip. At first, I didn’t want to talk about the ideas too much; I feared that if I let them out on their own, they would just slip away. But soon we were yakking for hours — on our hikes in The Maze, over cold beer on the beach at Spanish Bottom, over grilled cheese sandwiches at a riverside café in Mexican Hat — about the narrative arc of the trilogy.

Two and a half weeks into the creative process, I was ready to write it all down. We camped on the North Rim of Grand Canyon for three nights, and choose to forgo long hikes or mountain bike rides for more sedate explorations so I could have the afternoons to sit and scribble. At Point Imperial, with the wind howling and leaves blowing and sun setting, and again on the trail to Widforss Point, in a grove of golden trembling aspens, I sat and wrote and thought and wrote some more, all the while bouncing ideas off Jenn for perspective.

When we returned home a week ago I had two dozen pages of notes, including a stretch of how the three novels will work together, and biographical outlines of all the major characters. I’ve spent a few hours each day over the last week writing as succinct an outline as I am able for the trilogy, and hope to be able to start pitching it to publishers by the end of October.

I have no way of knowing now if the ideas I blurted out in the searing heat of the Maze, or jotted onto paper in the crisp autumn afternoons on the North Rim will emerge into the literary canon of the American Southwest. If they do, I have no way to say if anybody will read the books and enjoy them, discuss them with friends, seek out the awe inspiring landscapes I hope to populate with my characters, and maybe one day stand in a place where the protagonist stood in my imagination and have fiction and fact blur, if only for a moment. I have no way of knowing.

What I can say with absolute certainty is this: in just a few short weeks I was able to recognize and harness the power of events emerging and converging to produce ideas I find exciting and inspiring. If this isn’t what I’m supposed to be doing as part of a right-livelihood on this amazing planet, I don’t know what is.

Sunburst, Aspens, North Rim of the Grand Canyon

Sunburst, Aspens, North Rim of the Grand Canyon