The first mystery novel I ever read was Skinwalkers by Tony Hillerman (1986, Harper and Row). It was given to me as a going away present by my fellow staffers at Grand Canyon National Park and I read it on the long bus trip back to Las Vegas, and then on the plane back to Canada, in March of 1994.
I loved the book, and the genre, and read everything penned by Hillerman in the following years. Skinwalkers was the seventh book in the Navajo Tribal Police series that was Hillerman’s trademark.
Recently I had the opportunity to go back and re-read Skinwalkers. Tony Hillerman knows how to craft an engaging story without making the mystery too complex. The actual who-dunnit part of the story had just enough ambiguity to keep me guessing, without being impenetrably complex like a PD James novel. Interestingly enough, I had no memory whatsoever of who the killer was; eighteen years had passed since I last read the book and I simply couldn’t recall anything but the most rudimentary elements of the novel.
More importantly, Hillerman knows how to draw interesting characters. Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn are Hillerman’s protagonists, and Skinwalkers brought them together to solve a crime for the second time. These are not complex men, but they are interesting. They have habits that as readers attract us, such as Lt. Leaphorn’s habit of sticking push-pins in giant Indian Country map on his wall to look for patterns in crimes, and Jim Chee’s earnest pursuit of his training as a Navajo shaman.
His characters also have believable and relatable challenges: the death of Leaphorn’s beloved wife and Chee’s chronic misadventures in love. The chemistry between the two police officers – one nearing retirement and one just starting to make his mark on the Navajo Reservation – is compelling.
Between 1970 and 2006, Hillerman wrote eighteen mysteries set on the Navajo reservation, and another dozen books of fiction and non-fiction about the American southwest. Skinwalkers is one of his best, but to be honest, I don’t really recall the plot line to any of them. The last of the eighteen that I read was likely on a plane around the year 2000; that’s what Hillerman’s books were for me: a way to get from Calgary to Toronto or Ottawa while being entertained. Slow reader that I am, it still usually took me less than four hours to read them cover-to-cover.
But individual plots don’t matter much when it comes to Tony Hillerman’s body of work. What matters is the vast impression that the whole collection makes on the reader. The books are as wide as the desert they are set in and tower like the buttes in Monument Valley above everything else in the genre set in the American Southwest. They leave an impression of deep reverence for both the land and its ancient people, and stand as a great introduction to the mystery novel for anybody wanting to enjoy a tightly plotted read.
While Edward Abbey inspired me with his prose and passion for the American Southwest, Tony Hillerman showed me that there was more than one genre that could communicate a love of the deserts, canyon’s and the people who inhabit them. That lead me to write The Slickrock Paradox, the first book in the Red Rock Canyon Mystery series. I have Mr. Hillerman to thank for that.
Tony Hillerman died in October of 2008 at the age of 83. I am grateful for the body of work that he left us.
Read more blog posts talking about the creation of the Red Rock Canyon series here.
Follow me on Twitter @stephenlegault.
My time at Grand Canyon National Park was full of adventure. After a few weeks on the job my supervisor sent me on a week-long trip down the Colorado River. The voyage by oar-powered raft was part of the Glen Canyon Environmental Studies program, measuring the impacts of the Glen Canyon Dam on the downstream environment. The trip was in November and it snowed one day while we were on the water, but despite the frigid conditions it was a tremendous way to experience the Canyon.
I spent much of my free time hiking the Canyon’s many trails, or walking along the rim, searching for a new vantage point from which to watch sunrise or sunset. Beyond a doubt one of the most exciting things I did was to hike into the canyon under a full moon.
I did this three times; the first two sojourns were down the Bright Angel Trail – the canyon’s main thoroughfare on the South Rim – to the Tonto Plateau and then on to Indian Garden and Plateau Point. From there I was able to watch the sun rise over the defile of the Colorado River where it cuts through ancient Vishnu Schist to create the Marble Gorge. That’s a pretty good way to start the day.
For my third moonlight stroll I woke at 2 AM and made my way through the sleeping village to the trail-head and silently dropped below the rim. There is no easy way in or out of the Grand Canyon. Even the popular trails like Bright Angel and the South Kaibab are steep, with precipitous drops. When I was working at Grand Canyon there was little water to be found along the trails, so you carried your own, or you went without. In the summer months that could, and sometimes did, mean you died hiking the canyon. I felt a knot in the pit of my stomach starting this hike: it was so much into the dark unknown.
I started work at Grand Canyon in October, and my first night hikes where during the full moons of that month and November. My third was during the week between Christmas and New Years. The South Rim, though a thousand feet lower than the North Rim, still gets its fare share of snow, so for the first couple of miles I wore my in-step crampons. Unlike those worn for mountaineering, these crampons only cover about a third of the sole of your book, and are perfect for such conditions. The trail was icy, especially near the top where tourists had taken a few tentative steps into the gorge and packed the snow hard. A slip could mean a very rapid decent over cliffs that dropped hundreds of feet straight down.
I adjusted the headlamp on my head as I made my way down a series of steep switchbacks. I wanted to use it as little as possible, but on the upper icy sections it was just too much of a risk. By the time I got to Indian Garden, where there is a Ranger Station, I was able to stow my crampons in my pack and rely on the moon to light my way.
There is a stillness in the Grand Canyon at night that is mesmerizing. The canyon walls glow with a silvery-blue light; the sky, smeared with stars, is hemmed in between these ramparts. In the middle of winter there is also a silence: many of the Canyon’s nocturnal creatures are hibernating. Off in the distance, however, you can always hear the murmur of the Colorado River.
From Indian Graves I struck out on a trail I’d never walked, in daylight or night, that followed the rolling plateau two-thirds of the way into the grotto. This path, unlike so many in the canyon that go straight up and down, followed the rolling contours of the Tonto Plateau. It was here I was able to stride out, marching long at a brisk pace, the moon hovering above like a spotlight.
I recall getting turned around once or twice, but never for long. The hard packed track stood in stark relief against the red sand and scattered vegetation found along the plateau. Most of the way I walked without the aid of my headlamp, confident in my own route finding and comfortable and at home in the canyon environment.
By six in the morning I’d reached the intersection of the South Kaibab Trail and had started the long, grueling climb up three thousand feet of steep, winding trail. That’s about when the sun came up.
Everything stops for sunrise. I sat down on the rocks at Skeleton Point and waited. This is always a time of anticipation at the Grand Canyon. Every single morning I lived there I got up and walked to some random point along the South Rim to wait for the sun before reporting for duty at the Visitor Centre. These mornings, deep in the canyon, were the most precious sunrise experiences I had. Alone with the wheeling ravens and my thoughts, I began to develop a deep appreciation for what makes this place so grand. Its not just what is there: its what is not.
There is nothing that compares, in my experience, to the marvelous space that is the Grand Canyon. Watching the light adorn the Canyon walls in every conceivable shade of red and orange from several thousand feet below the rim that morning, and others, was the highlight of my time there.
After an hour the show was over, for the time being, so I hiked up the trail and at the payphone in the parking lot called my boss and asked for a lift back to the village from Yaki Point.
The second book in the Red Rock Canyon Mystery series is called Black Sun Descending. It’s set, in part, at the Grand Canyon. The Black Sun in question refers to Edward Abbey’s book of that name. On those moon-lit walked through the Grand Canyon I think I imprinted some of what Abbey must have felt when he said this of the place:
“It is an honor to be a visitor in the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, as it is an honor and a privilege to be alive, however briefly, on this marvelous planet we call Earth.”
I worked at Grand Canyon for about four months, and after some circling in the Southwest came back for another week later that winter before heading north to Canada. In that time I began to learn what another famous canyoneer did about the place:
“You cannot see the Grand Canyon in one view, as if it were a changeless spectacle from which a curtain might be lifted, but to see it you have to toil from month to month through its labyrinths.”
Major John Wesley Powell wrote that when he, and his half-starved and more-than-half crazed expedition rowed their way through the Grand Canyon in 1869.
I wouldn’t say I ever toiled through its labyrinths, but I spent many joyous days hiking in, and sitting on the rim of that extraordinary spectacle, and when I left it had dug an impression in my head and in my heart as deep and wide as the canyon itself. Telling the stories of Silas Pearson in the Red Rock Canyon series is an excuse to impart some of what I felt while exploring this amazing landscape.
The Slickrock Paradox is now available from fine book sellers near you, and online. You can follow these and other adventures on twitter @stephenlegault.
In the fall of 1993 I applied for a position with the Student Conservation Association (SCA) to volunteer, full-time, in one of America’s red rock canyon National Parks. My love affair with Edward Abbey firmly entrenched, and a couple of years of seasonal work with Parks Canada under my belt, I thought I was a good fit. I applied to Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon National Parks and waited for a call. Grand Canyon was my fourth choice, and I only included it because there were four spaces on the application. I didn’t really want to work there: After two summers in Banff, at busy Lake Louise, I was already developing a healthy distaste for what Abbey called “industrial tourism.”
I shared his sentiment that “there was a small dark cloud on the horizon [whose] name was progress.”
I feared that Grand Canyon would just be more of the same.
Of course, that’s where the SCA sent me. Their explanation was that because I wouldn’t have a car, stationing me in remote Arches or Canyonlands would mean I couldn’t get to town to buy groceries or beer. The beer part was my concern. Grand Canyon, they explained, had all the amenities I could want within walking distance.
Perfect, I thought. I purchased a ticket to Las Vegas, Nevada, which I thought must be the nearest airport to the Canyon (it wasn’t; Phoenix would have been far easier), and in October of that year, said goodbye to the Rocky Mountains of Alberta and flew south.
I arrived in Las Vegas and into a strange new world. I was twenty-two years old, and had spent some time on the east coast of America, in places like Boston, and rural Connecticut and Pennsylvania. That year I had even convinced a friend drive 6-hours out of the way to visit Home, Pennsylvania, the birth-place of Ed Abbey. There wasn’t much there except a cross-roads sign, but at least I could say I’d been.
But those foray’s didn’t prepare me for what I found in Vegas. The massive billboards in the airport cautioning me to relinquish my firearms were my first sign that I was no longer in Canada. I wasn’t packing, but kinda’ wished I was. I missed my shuttle bus for Flagstaff by mere minutes, so was forced to find a place to hang my hat for twelve hours before I could get a Greyhound into Arizona. I decided to drop my bags at a hostel and explore the city without my heavy pack on my back.
After trying unsuccessfully to sleep for an hour I set off to see what I could on foot. I spent a week in Las Vegas that afternoon. For someone who had just spent his second summer in the back country of Banff National Park, leading hikes and doing camp-fire talks, Vegas was a kick to the nuts. It was everything I’d ever heard, but revved up on speed. I got out alive, but not before leaving five dollars in nickels in the slot machines at the Sands and having a massive cola thrown at me by a passing car-load of college frat boys. My ninja skills kept me from being soaked.
Around midnight I collected my gear and hauled it to the bus depot and boarded a Greyhound that would take me as far as Kingman, Arizona. It was a congenial trip, with a nice girl sitting behind me, and I thought that if the rest of the trip went this well, I was in luck.
It didn’t. I wasn’t.
The transfer in Kingman happened at four am. That’s not an ideal time to get on a bus under any circumstances; when the bus you are boarding is being driven direct from LA to New York – five days of overland hilarity and mirth – then you, as the interloper, are pretty much screwed.
First off, everybody on the bus wanted to know who the jack-ass was who necessitated the stop in the first place. 43 sets of eyes glaring at me as I politely – excuse me, pardon me – made my way down the aisle, searching for a seat. I reached the back of the bus without finding one. The rear bench, next to the john, appeared to be only partially occupied. But the dark set of bloodshot eyes that peered menacingly at me from beneath a musty blanket were all the silent caution I needed. I looked to my left and found a seat directly in front of the loo. My seat mate, leaning against the window, was either in a booze-induced coma or was dead. To this day I’m not sure. Drool leaked down the window from his open mouth.
I sat down as the bus lurched back into the night. The lavatory behind me reeked of vomit and faeces and I soon realized that there was something under my seat. To my horror discovered a child asleep there. Curled up in a blanket was a girl not more than two or three years old. I looked around and discovered – I swear to God – four more children sleeping in various non-Department of Transportation approved locales, including the overhead luggage rack. I tried to settle in but feared that I might start an international incident if I stretched out my hiking-boot clad feet.
I didn’t sleep a wink between Kingman and Flagstaff, a trip that lasted another three hours. I later learned, while chatting in the bus depot with a fellow passenger, that the children belonged to five Hispanic woman who were traveling straight through from LA to New York. Five days. I got off lucky.
I had breakfast in the bus depot in Flag, and caught a shuttle to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, where the US Park Service was headquartered. As I passed through the tourist-hovel of Tusayan, I feared that my worst nightmare about the Grand Canyon had come true: that this plastic-and-Kleenex constructed dump was Grand Canyon Village. It wasn’t.
I was dropped off at the Visitor Centre (this was 19-years ago, before the new Visitor Centre was built). Even still, it was a nice, old, stone building that to my great relief wasn’t constructed of plastic or Kleenex. I presented myself, was welcomed by a straight-brim Stetson-wearing Ranger and shown to my accommodation. I was given a bicycle and told to report for duty the next morning back at the VC, if I could find my way back through the maze-like trailer park that was my new home.
I hadn’t slept for more than an a few minutes since leaving Canada thirty hours earlier, but there was one thing I had to do before I collapsed. I got on my bike and rode towards what I hoped would be the Canyon. It was late in the afternoon, and well into October, so the days were short and the light was fading when I found my way to the Rim. I came upon it quite by accident, and I learned quickly that this was the best way to experience the Grand Canyon.
In all my preparations to spend the winter in Arizona, one thing I hadn’t done was read much about the Canyon itself. I was glad, because what I saw stunned me speechless.
There was a space beyond the rim of the earth that was at once complexly empty and utterly full of light and colour and shape and sound. I sat down on a hump of rock a few feet from the edge of the canyon, where it dropped down one-thousand feet to the next sloping bench, and then fell further thousands to the Tonto Plateau – two-thirds of the way to the Colorado River – and just stared.
It was beyond description, and in many ways, still is. Nothing can prepare you for what you will see when you visit the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. There are so many shapes – domes, reefs, fins, buttes and buttresses of stone – making up the convoluted landscape inside the canyon, that the eye has nothing to rest on. I tried to take it all in, but was quickly over-awed.
The sun set and the diurnal light and colour show commenced, with thousand foot tall walls of limestone glowing orange and red while the dark core of the canyon – the Inner Gorge – where the Colorado River was slowing burrowing toward the center of the earth lay in brooding shadow. I remained stock still for more than an hour until the colour had drained away and the night had eclipsed the walls of stone and all that remained was the dim hum of the River far below.
It was my first Grand Canyon sunset, and every single night that I was stationed there I wove my way through the woods to the rim, hoping to recreate the feeling of surprise and wonder I felt when coming upon the place for the very first time. I came close often, but never duplicated the feeling that somehow everything I knew about the world’s magnificence had been cast into doubt and I had a new benchmark for majesty.
That’s when The Slickrock Paradox and the Red Rock Canyon Mystery series started. Aside from telling a good story, that’s what I want these books to be about: magnificence.
I got a royalty check from my old publisher this week. This was for my back-list books The Darkening Archipelago, which was released in 2010 and The Cardinal Divide, which came out in 2008. The royally period was for one year, ending June 30, 2012.
The amount? You guessed it: twenty-six buck-a-roos.
It hasn’t really been a good stretch for me and the publishing world. I’ve been struggling with what will be my seventh book, The Third Riel Conspiracy. And it seems like all around us news of impending doom for professional writers is crashing down upon us.
So opening an envelope and shaking out a check for twenty-six clams didn’t really help.
I have a business plan for my writing. I know where I am going and how I can get there. I want to be a full-time professional author some day. Maybe in five years. Maybe seven. That plan includes writing two books a year, and allowing (hopefully) increasing popularity to suck my back-list of books along towards ever increasing sales.
This so-called plan called for selling 150 copies of both back-list titles in 2011 and 225 in 2012. According to my royalty statement I sold 20 copies combined over a twelve-month stretch straddling those years. I’m going to have to get cracking.
Authors need to sell their back list in order to make good in the publishing business. Like any good business, you need to create products that continue to sell after you’ve made your upfront investment in order to create a stable revenue stream.
My revenue stream is currently a fetid brook choked with rotting newspaper and cast-off tires.
I’ve been staring at the royalty cheque for a few days now. I’ve got to get it in the bank before I accidentally launder it. I mean with the washing machine.
I have a fund set up in one of my accounts that my royalty payments go into, after my wife subtracts the obligatory levy to hand over to the Canadian government to support their corporate tax cuts to big oil and gas companies. Everybody is feeling the pinch right now. I’m pretty lucky that my current publisher is moving a decent number of my books, so there are actually a few bucks in that account. Not enough to afford a trip overseas, but enough to get my family a ski-pass this winter. Or at least, come close.
The twenty-six smackers is going into that fund too. Jenn says it’s my tea-fund. When I’m heading off for a day of skiing, I can use it to buy a cup of tea on the way. At two bucks a pop, that means I’m good for twelve days of skiing. Not half bad, when you look at it that way.
At the end of the day, twenty-six bucks is twenty-six bucks. It’s a hell of a lot more than most writers who dream of publishing a book ever get. I know lots (too damn many) who just give their stuff away and never see a dime. And that I’m struggling with the edits on my seventh book is nothing to get all whinny about either. Stop your bitching, Legault, and get your big-boy pants on for God’s sake.
Reading The Corpse with the Silver Tongue is like having a conversation with a charming, slightly quirky, and highly intelligent aunt that you heard stories about when you were a kid, but never spent much time with. The aunt in this case is Cait Morgan, a criminologist by training with a specialty in victim profiling. She’s middle-aged, a little on the heavy-side and alluring. She loves to eat, enjoys good wine, and has a couple of extraordinary talents that make her a great amateur sleuth. First, she has the ability to profile not only people, but things, which she does in this debut novel from Cathy Ace. Cait also has a photographic memory: she can recreate a scene that she has only witnessed very briefly in startling detail.
These traits come in very handy when Cait finds herself in Nice, France, to present a paper on behalf of a sick colleague, where she runs into a former employer, Alistair Townsend. Before Cait became a victim profiler and University professor, she used her skills at understanding people at the ad agency run by Alistair. She, along with most of the rest of the world, hated the man. So when she’s invited to celebrate Townsend’s young wife’s birthday, she reluctantly accepts. Alistair does a face-plant into his escargot at the dinner table, and we soon learn he was poisoned.
This is a perfect set-up for a “closed room” murder. The setting is the Palais du Belle France, a grand old residence that during the Second World War was the headquarters of the Gestapo. The suspects are the remaining dinner guests celebrating the evening. The likely motive: the Celtic collar, a birthday gift from Alistair to his trophy-wife; a piece of ornate golden jewellery with a mythological history of killing those who wear it if they are not of Celtic blood.
What I liked about The Corpse with the Silver Tongue the most was the confined setting. We got to know one place, and its occupants, very well. There were just enough suspects in the murder investigation to keep me both guessing, and from becoming confused (something that happens much too often for my comfort). There were just a pair of clear possible motives. And the physical setting was both complex (I love underground tunnels in a mystery!) and confined. It brought to mind several of Agatha Christie’s classic who-dunnits, including Ten Little Indians and Murder on the Orient Express. When a second person dropped dead, I was delighted. Oh good, I thought, more mayhem!
I enjoyed getting inside the protagonist’s head. Cait is whip-smart, and professional, but also human. She smokes (it’s never even occurred to me to have a character light up a butt) and over-indulges and maybe spends a little too much time thinking about pastry for my liking, and she’s got plenty of flaws. But that’s what makes her identifiable. You could imagine your aunt, who happens to be a criminologist and busy-body, getting into this sort of trouble.
The solution to the mystery wasn’t particularly intricate, though I didn’t guess who the killer was. But then, I seldom do. I read mystery novels for insight into the protagonist, and the antagonist, and rarely trouble myself with trying to solve the riddle. Cait is going to return, and I was also reading to see what sort of set up would take place for the second book in this series, The Corpse with the Golden Nose. No doubt about it, Cait Morgan is going to have her hands full, and with Cathy Ace penning her life’s story, readers are in for a grand time.
Follow me on twitter @stephenlegault.
One: there is no end
The boys and I read a lot of books at bedtime. Both Rio and Silas are veracious readers; Rio is into Rick Riordan’s various mythology thrillers while Silas can read just about anything Dr. Seuss has ever penned. Most nights at bedtime we read stories; everything from Captain Underpants to Ernest Hemmingway. A little while ago we read The Oldman and the Sea. For a while we were making our way through Watership Down, and more recently we read Richard Bach’s There’s No Such Place as Far Away.
Bach, as you might recall, penned Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which didn’t do much for me, and Illusions, which did. No Such Place as Far Away is about a series of birds in conversation with Rae, who is on his way to celebrate his birthday party. Along the way he receives as gifts a series of oblique life-lessons from his friends. From the seagull Rae learns that “not being known doesn’t stop the truth from being true,” and from the hummingbird, he wonders “can miles truly separate us from friends? If you want to be [together], aren’t you already there?”
All good lessons, but a little obscure. The last lesson, however, was a whopper:
“You have no birthday because you have always lived; you were never born, and never will you die. You are not the child of the people you call mother and father, but their fellow-adventurer on a bright journey to understand the things that are.”
What do you think that means, I asked Silas and Rio as we snuggled together?
Neither boy was certain. I’m not sure they much carried. It dawned on me what Bach was saying: “There is no beginning and no end; not as we have come to believe in them. Life isn’t a linear progression from birth through adulthood to death,” I say, knowing that I’m treading on thin ice. Talk of death is difficult, especially before bed. “What makes you who you are, and what makes me who I am,” I pinch Silas’ cheeks, not to illustrate the point, but just because they are so pinchable, “has always been here. We’re just constantly being rearranged.”
I’m not sure if that made any sense. I still don’t.
Two: presence is your present
Sometimes one boy or the other has a hard time falling asleep. Not often, but from time to time. One of the things I’ve been teaching my children is the gift of the present moment.
If Rio or Silas is frustrated because they can’t sleep, I remind them of ‘present moment awareness.’ This is one of the most important lessons we can learn; this moment is all the life we will ever know. Both the past and future are illusion. This moment is the only moment we can live in.
How does this help a seven- or a ten-year-old fall asleep? I remind them that in this moment they are safe and have nothing to fear. I remind them that in this moment they are secure in their beds, comfortable, and so deeply loved. Safe in that knowledge, not worrying about tomorrow or contemplating yesterday, they can stay grounded in present moment awareness. I sometimes suggest they focus on their breath, as I try so desperately to do while meditating.
Recently we’ve been reciting something of a mantra, plucked from the final scene of the movie Peaceful Warrior (the book, which I read in high school, helped get me off my ass and started my lifelong passion for running):
What time is it? Now.
Where are you? Here.
What are you? This moment.
So I guess it should come as no surprise when, after reading a story a little while ago, and cuddling up with Silas, that he should remind me of the importance of the present. As I sometimes do, I told him: “I can’t wait to see you in the morning.”
He smirked and in a wry tone said “Stephie, present moment awareness!”
Three: The purpose of life
From time to time all the bedtime stories and the reminders about the present moment don’t help and one boy or the other has a tough time drifting off.
Such was the case a few nights ago. Silas was sad, missing his other household, and probably sore with growing pains. For several hours Jenn and I calmed him down and held him and he would drift off to sleep, only to wake again. Finally we went to bed ourselves, and a little while later I heard chatter from the boys bedroom, but it stopped, so I fell back to sleep.
When I got up to write the next morning, around 5:30, Silas was asleep on the floor. His comforter, not used during the warm summer months, had been bunched up to make a bed there. He was fast asleep.
Later, when Rio got up, he told me the rest of the story. Hoping to be able to fall asleep himself, and unable to because Silas was sad, he had climbed down from the top bunk and made a nest on the floor for his little brother, using extra pillows and the comforter to create a cocoon. Then the two of them had curled up there and fallen asleep together. Sometime in the early morning hours Rio had gone back to his own bed.
It’s the best bedtime story of all; it’s the story of our purpose: to love one another.
We are having a wonderful love affair together.
Cathy Ace is always thinking about great ways to kill someone. Fortunately, she’s a crime writer, not a psychopath.
“It’s nice to be able to look out of the window and see the sun,” Cathy Ace says. We are chatting by phone; she is in her Maple Ridge, BC home-office, and I in my own writing room in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta. Cathy admits that the rain, never-ending this spring on the West Coast, was good for her productivity. She’s working on a draft of The Corpse with the Golden Nose, her second novel for TouchWood Editions. Her first, The Corpse with the Silver Tongue, was released in March.
I’ve called Cathy to conduct an inaugural interview to discuss what I’m calling Process Stories: how writers exercise their craft.
“I’m not someone who has ever spent time studying the writing process itself. I don’t know how it happens for other writers, but I’m fascinated by it,” she confesses. Cathy and I shared an audience, along with fellow TouchWood author Debra Purdy Kong, in April. I was reading from The Vanishing Track, and after our ephemerally brief readings, someone asked about the writing procedure.
Cathy admitted that her first novel emerged fully formed on the page. She said it was as if she watched a movie playing in her head and wrote as fast as she could to get the story down as the film unwound behind her eyes.
“I’m not convinced that it’s unusual; it’s just the way I write. Perhaps it’s not normal for everyone; I’m learning that other people are different, that there are umpteen drafts.”
That would be me. Half a dozen, sometimes a dozen drafts, each one inching its way towards a legible story. I assure her that while it’s not unheard off for a novel to emerge fait accompli, it’s not the norm.
It was that reading at Cadboro Bay Books that got me thinking about process stories. How does it happen for Cathy Ace? I ask.
“It’s very much about focus,” says Cathy. She has a delectable Welsh accent. “I’ve always written for a living – advertising, PR, training courses and text books, business reports. I’ve always had a lot of things simmering. I focus on one to bring it to a boil and get it to a deadline. I take a business-like approach.”
Cathy explains that writing murder-mysteries is now her business. “It’s not a hobby. I’ve made a decision to stop my other work and this is now my business. It doesn’t mean I don’t love it; it’s a dream opportunity. But I have to look at it in a business-like way. If I don’t, I’ll end up just working in the garden all day. Writing is my main priority.”
I ask where that determination comes from. “It’s a Welsh, protestant work ethic.” Cathy explains that she hails from generations of people who just scraped by. She was the first person in her family to go to University, and she knew it. She worked 3 jobs to get through school. “There were no gap years,” she explains, referring to the modern phenomenon of taking a year off from University. She laughs: “Which is another way of saying you have your thumb up your ass. You find yourself through work. Not backpacking to Bali.”
Cathy tells me she read one of my blog posts where I confessed that about halfway through a recent draft of The Glacier Gallows I reluctantly had to create a detailed chart of all the characters to keep them all straight. Cathy says she creates a detailed list of characters before she starts writing. “I’ve got all my notes: names, parent’s names, how they grew up, how they dress, their features: height, weight, hair and eye colour. They are real people. It’s all written down before I start. I refer to it constantly while I write to make sure I don’t mix up a hair colour or which side they limp on. To me the places are all real too, even if I invented them. The story is all fully developed and real before I start. I’ve sat and watched the movie a couple of times. When I sit down to create a draft all I have to do is write it down.”
I ask about the movie reel: what does she see?
“It’s exactly the same as when I watch a movie, except that I can go backwards and forwards. I meet the characters I’ve created along the way. I start with what happened and who committed the murder and how. The rest of the movie is really just creating enough pleasant confusion to keep readers guessing. I want my readers to enter the movie with me. I want to take them on the journey that Cait (her protagonist) is going on. I want the reader to feel the emotions as the characters experience them. I hope they lose themselves enough to enjoy the storytelling.
“I don’t want my readers to feel they are being told a story: I want them to feel like they are experiencing the story.”
Here Cathy and I admit to one another that we haven’t read each other’s books. We both promise to get around to it soon. I ask about what she’s working on now: The Corpse with the Golden Nose. She explains the book is set in Kelowna wine country in BC’s Okanagan. “Someone is dead on the first page. I promise a corpse on the first page of every book.”
Cathy likes the classic style of murder mystery and employs one of its devises – the closed room – in her stories. “It’s an Agatha Christie devise: you reveal the victim while you set up the suspects. I love traditional classic whodunits and those are the stories I like to tell.”
The closed room creates boundaries for the reader: they know that one of these six or ten or twelve people has to be the killer. I tell Cathy that in The Glacier Gallows I’m using a high mountain ridge-line in Glacier National Park, Montana, as my “closed room.”
“The closed room can apply to many situations,” she says. “You can apply a closed circle of opportunity to many different settings. A room, or an environment, or a large geographic region – I like to use the closed circle of opportunity, matched with the very wide-open range of people’s motivation to kill, to create my plot. Sometimes I like to flip that on its ear: no one could have done it, but everybody wanted to.”
“In the Corpse with the Golden Nose, the deceased is ruled a suicide, but Cait believes that, physiologically-speaking, it was a murder. To the reader, the killer is invisible.” Cathy has created a closed environment but a wide open circle of opportunity. “I like to take the traditional rules and push them as far as the reader will allow me,” she says. “I’m writing for the traditional mystery reader. They know the long-established plot twists and turns, and like them. I just use them in a new way.”
So how does this all come together? I want to know how she writes:
“When I’m working on a draft of a novel I aim for about 5,000 words a day. I’m a three or four finger typist and pretty inaccurate. I can’t type an apostrophe; it always comes out as a semi-colon. I hammer away, trying to get the story on paper just as I’m seeing it in my head. I see it as a movie and I try to write that movie onto the page. I’m just there to introduce the things that you need to make a book: all the joining words.
“I do this for about an hour and then I print out what I’ve typed. I take it away to a different part of the house and mark it up: correcting the spelling and grammar. Then I go back to the computer and amend. Then I write the next part. I start at about seven in the morning and finish about five. Throughout the day I’ll do the laundry, play with the dogs, wander around with a cup of coffee. I usually eat lunch at four, when I remember. That’s the way it will go through the week.”
At that rate it takes about a month for Cathy Ace to write a complete novel.
“The story is pretty much set,” she continues. “I know what has to happen by the end of each chapter. Exactly how it happens depends on how the characters choose to act. Sometimes they say things that I didn’t expect them to say in order to present information and do it in character. I’ve met these people in my head, but I haven’t had conversations with them and they haven’t had conversations with Cait.”
Like many authors Cathy talked about her protagonist as if she’s a close chum with whom she has lunch most days of the week. And of course, she is.
Recently I read Stephen King’s book On Writing and explained that King says an interviewer should never ask where “the stories come from.” So I ask.
Cathy says, “The first book came from listening to a radio interview in the 1980’s of someone who said something and I thought ‘What a great way to kill somebody.’ That stayed with me. Now she says that stories all begin with that thought: ‘what a great way to kill somebody.’
I ask if we’re talking about means; you know, the candle stick or the butcher knife?
Cathy says yes, but it might be the method as well.
“I’m always walking around thinking what a great way to kill someone.”
I say “that must make you charming company.”
“Oh, I’m just a delight.”
Having shared a stage with Cathy I can confirm that she is.
While Cathy is writing her second book for TouchWood, she has nine mapped out for the series in total. She tells me that there could be more, but it seemed like plotting nine novels was a good start.
Like many writers, Cathy Ace had to make a conscious decision to invest in her writing: both time and money. She had a successful career in academia and public relations. In 1989 she was stuck in an airport and wrote a short story in response to a competition in a magazine. The story was published, and later anthologized, but at the same time she was starting her marketing communications business, so she decided to let fiction-writing simmer. But like everything else, the time came to put her focus back on her writing.
Two decades passed. In 2007 Cathy was approached by Martin Jarvis and Rosaline Ayres who wanted to produce her short story for BBC Radio 4. She was very proud to hear the story presented on air. She decided that that was the time to stop writing text books and training courses and turn the heat up under her fiction writing.
She sat down and discussed the prospect of writing full time with her husband. Geoffrey has grown children, but leaving her full time career would mean delaying his retirement. The couple decided it was worth the risk for her to pursue fiction. This didn’t happen until this year! Have moved it to right spot
While continuing her academic responsibilities at Simon Fraser University, Cathy wrote a collection of short crime stories and pitched them to publishers. Pitched? “I sent ransom notes to publishers with letters I cut out of magazines,” she says. “The note said that the characters and I were held captive and that the publisher could release them. Everybody wrote back and said that it was not quite their cup of tea. But I kept writing.”
Her break came when she spoke at a writer’s forum in Maple Ridge BC in April of 2009. She met Brian Antonson and he put her in touch with Ruth Linka, the publisher at TouchWood, part of the Heritage Group. Ruth asked Cathy to develop one of the characters from her short stories into a full length novel. In December 2010 Cathy sent Ruth the manuscript for “The Corpse with the Silver Tongue” and on May 11th 2011 Ruth called to say she would publish the book. “I remember the date because it was my late father’s birthday. It was bitter sweet, but sweeter more than bitter.”
She sat down and discussed the prospect of writing full time with her husband. Geoffrey has grown children, but leaving her full time career would mean delaying his retirement. The couple decided it was worth the risk for her to pursue fiction.
Cathy says that going through the story and copy editing process for the first time was completely alien. “I’m sure I was a complete pain in the ass,” she says. “I kept calling and asking what was going on. It was like going into the rabbit hole and just sitting there for ages. But the novel came out relatively unscathed, except for punctuation. I’m sure I was a complete nightmare for the copy editor.”
As both Cathy and I are edited by the same two people, I know exactly what she means.
As our conversation came to a close I asked Cathy what advice she would give someone who was just getting started?
“Make sure you know, before you start, what the story is that you want to tell.”
It’s good advice. The Corpse with the Silver Tongue is available from TouchWood Editions, and can be bought in quality bookstores everywhere, or online. It’s also available at libraries. Watch for the Corpse with the Golden Nose in 2013.
Follow Cathy on Twitter @AceCathy
Happy Independence Day America. As someone who spends a huge portion of his working life traipsing around your environs, I feel like I am getting to know you. And seeing how we’re all this – whatever the hell this is – together, I think I’ve earned the right to ask a simple question:
What exactly are we celebrating our independence from?
In 1776 the United States of America declared its freedom from the United Kingdom, earning the right to make its own laws and govern itself: of the people, for the people and by the people.
Two-hundred and thirty-six years later, we seem to have developed a few unhealthy dependencies.
White the first War of Independence was fought against taxation without representation; the next War of Independence will be fought against more complex, self-imposed forms of repression.
The next War of Independence will be fought against our reliance on dwindling fossil fuels that have chained our economy to the health of petroleum companies that by default rule much of the world;
The next War of Independence will be fought against our predilection to pick a fight with anybody and everybody, especially if our reliance on dwindling fossil fuels is at stake; and the defence companies that quietly urge us on.
The next War of Independence will be fought against our dependence on a handful of genetically engineered food crops and the companies we’ve allowed to take over and slowly destroy our heartlands, the greatest food producing region in the world.
The next War of Independence will be fought against our insatiable hunger for resources that no law, no park, no promise will ever protect our land, our wilderness, our wildlife, skies, and water from.
The next War of Independence will be fought against our fear that we will never have enough, and that we must always be accumulating more in the vain hope that somehow our homes, our cars, our smart phones and our grown-up toys will protect us from the inevitability of life, and death.
The first War of Independence was fought with muskets, swords, and pistols; with military cunning, bravery and courage. The next War of Independence must to be fought with courage too, but with our hearts and our minds and our love for one another, for our families, our future, and our nations.
The next War of Independence will be fought within ourselves: this revolution begins inside, and in the spirit of independence and the thirst for freedom that characterizes a nation with such extraordinary promise, blooms outward to create a world liberated from the factors that are leading us to destroy ourselves.
The next War of Independence will be fought hand-in-hand, across the borders that segregate us. None of us are independent from one another, and so we must wage a war of peace with love for our liberty from our self-imposed oppression.
Follow me on Twitter @stephenlegault
When I was starting off as a writer – seriously starting to think that writing was something that I wanted to do, and not just writing angst-ridden teenage poetry under street lamps – I wanted to be Edward Abbey. Not write like him: be him.
That was more than twenty-years ago. I had taken a summer job, after my first year (of two) of college, at a small Provincial Park called Murphy’s Point, an hour north of Kingston, Ontario. I was a student naturalist: I manned the small visitor centre, talked with people about the park’s plants and animals, especially the endangered black rat snake, and assisted with campground programs. One of the women who lived in the old Junior Ranger camp that served as park housing gave me a copy of The Fool’s Progress and I read it early in my season at the park.
It changed the way I look at the world. Not all of it for the better.
Now, twenty-one years after reading my first Edward Abbey book, I’m awaiting the release of The Slickrock Paradox, my mystery novel set in the south-western United States and inspired by the life and writing of Edward Abbey.
The Fool’s Progress is the thinly veiled autobiography of Abbey, alternately told in first person as Henry Hollyoak Lightcap and a third-person observer, as we watch the dying protagonist ricochet across the United States, from his adopted residence near Tucson, Arizona, to his ancestral home in the “smoky hills” of Appalachia.
It’s a brash, misanthropic, heart-wrenching read about a character who was born a hundred-years too late, and is at odds with nearly everything in his life: his procession of wives, his meaningless jobs, and the industrial society that is engulfing all that he loves; especially the canyon country of southern Utah and northern Arizona. It was in the canyon’s that the fictional Lightcap spent a couple of summers as a Park Ranger and fire lookout, mirroring Abbey’s long on-again off-again career with the Park and Forest services in such places as the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Lee’s Ferry, Canyonlands and Arches National Parks.
I loved every word. I recall sitting on the porch one rainy Saturday, listening to the CBC on a portable radio, drinking tea, and reading the hilarious opening scene of The Fool’s Progress, where Lightcap’s third (and final, he professes) wife leaves him for a computer engineer, and he gets snot-hanging, toilet hugging drunk, shoots his refrigerator and bakes a loaf of bread.
My days at Murphy’s Point were very much like those Ed Abbey described for his character when he took up his post at Arches National Park (then a monument), expect for me the locale was the mixed Carolinian forest of the Canadian Shield. I rose early and watched the sun rise. I started nearly every day with a paddle around Loon Lake, on which the old Ranger camp was perched. I donned the park uniform and proudly, if somewhat ineffectively, introduced visitors the natural history of the place. After work my friends and I swam in the 80-degree water of the lake and many lights I slept in a tent to escape the stiffening heat of the bunk house that summer.
At first I thought I was Henry David Thoreau, filling a 400-page notebook with observations on the mating habit of loons and my observations of giant snapping turtles, great blue herons, fox, beaver and nesting osprey. But as the summer wore on, there was less Thoreau on the pages and more Abbey.
In the middle of the summer I traveled from Murphy’s Point to Toronto to visit my girlfriend, who came up from her summer home near Sandusky, Ohio. It was a terrible trip: Toronto jarred my sensibilities, and lines from Abbey’s book about syphilization kept poisoning my impression of the world. I was grumpy (even more so than usual) and angry and only wanted to be back on the shore of Loon Lake.
I can’t blame Abbey for that: I was a grumpy bastard before I ever read him. But The Fool’s Progress didn’t help.
It did, however, introduce me to a whole new world, both in literature and geography. The next book I read by Abbey was (big surprise) Desert Solitaire. Arguably his most famous book, it’s the mainly true story of Abbey’s three seasons at Arches National Monument, and the surrounding wild country of the Four Corner’s region. I bought my copy at Banff’s Book and Art Den, and read it during my first summer as a Park Naturalist in Banff National Park.
That book, more than anything else, started my love-affair with the southwest. Two years later I applied to volunteer in the US Park Service through the Student Conservation Association (SCA) and was stationed at the South Rim of Grand Canyon. It hadn’t been my first (or even 2nd or 3rd) choice, but because I didn’t have wheels, they sent me somewhere I could walk to get groceries and to work. In the end, it was an extraordinary introduction to the canyon country. I hiked into the Canyon dozens of times. I was sent on a week-long raft trip down the Colorado River with the Glen Canyon Environmental Studies team. Three times I got out of bed around 2am and under a full moon hiked into the canyon to the Tonto Plateau (about 2/3rds of the way down from the rim to the river) to watch the sun rise and then hike up in time for breakfast.
And I read pretty much every other book by Abbey that winter, all borrowed from the tiny public library there on the South Rim.
I wrote my first work of fiction during that winter of 1993-94, sitting at my friend Greer Chesher’s computer. It was she, who after reading my work – an apocalyptic tale of father and son, set in the Rockies, and horrifyingly similar to The Road by Cormac McCarthy, except that the later is one of the best novels ever written, and my short story was abysmal – suggested that my fiction would be stronger if it actually had a plot. I took that to heart.
Later that winter, after my time at Grand Canyon had come to an end, I did a tour of the southwest, traveling from Flagstaff to Tucson to Las Cruses, New Mexico, into El Pasco, Texas and Juarez, Mexico, and then up to Santa Fe. While I was in Las Cruses, I visited the achieves at the University of New Mexico and asked for all of the papers they had on Edward Abbey. I read stories published in obscure journals featuring an early incarnation of Hayduke, his bridge-blowing-up Wildman from The Monkey Wrench Gang.
I returned to Utah and Arizona many times between 1994 and 2002, doing month-long trips in Canyonlands, floating the lethargic Green River and hiking its arboreal side canyon’s and sleeping on its sandy beaches under the vast constellations.
Despite the fact that I wrote hundred’s of my own essays and articles – I was started to get published in small magazines and free journal’s around that time – I was never able to become Edward Abbey. Not even a Canadian version of him: a little more polite, without quite so much bile, and wearing a tuque most of the year.
And that’s probably for the best. The world only needs one Edward Abbey. His singular place in the canon of western literature can’t be mimicked. And besides, what every writer must eventually do is shed the influences of their heroes and find their own way of telling their story.
But that doesn’t mean I didn’t want to find a way of honouring the role he played in exciting my love of writing and of the southwest.
In 2008 I was canned from my job at Royal Roads University where I was a Senior Development Officer for the Foundation. It was a syphelized job if there ever was one: I wore a tie to work most days, and tried to convince rich people to give the University money to help them build an art gallery and environmental education centre to honour the wildlife artist Robert Bateman. My position, along with a quarter of the other staff at the University, was cut during the recession of 2008.
The first thing Jenn and I did when I got the lay-off notice, and the fat severance package that accompanied it, was plan a trip to the southwest. And as I was seriously pursuing writing by then (my second book, The Cardinal Divide, was published in 2008, and the Darkening Archipelago was already in production) I decided that now was the time to create a novel that would take me back to the canyon’s that I love.
By the time our two-week trip was in the rear-view mirror, the Red Rock Canyon series had been mapped out. The protagonist, a Canadian named Silas Pearson, is searching for his wife, missing these three-and-a-half years, somewhere in the sprawling American desert around Arches and Canyonlands National Park. Penelope was working on a clandestine conservation project when she failed to return from a hike into one of the locales that Abbey wrote about. Pearson, an absent husband more interested in high-brow literature than the pedestrian Abbey, never paid much attention to his wife’s passion for wilderness and Cactus Ed’s ranting.
Until she disappeared.
Jenn and I visited Arches and Canyonlands, The La Sal Mountains, the North Rim of Grand Canyon, and the Escalante National Monument on that trip. Several days were spent just writing the outline of the first three novels in the series: The Slickrock Paradox, Black Sun Descending, and The Same River Twice. One afternoon I sat in a lawn chair at Cape Royal, watching the vast emptiness over the Grand Canyon, and writing dozens of pages of notes. Another was spent in the golden aspen forest on the North Rim, creating character sketches and plot lines. I would bounce ideas off my wife and she would ask me tough questions to help me firm up the outline.
When we returned, I wrote the first draft of the first book, and my publisher – TouchWood Editions – agreed to pick up the series, bless their souls. In September The Slickrock Paradox will be released.
The book is a murder mystery, and as my story editor constantly reminds me, the point is to create a compelling who-dunnit first and foremost. I think Slickrock accomplishes that. But beneath that drama is an ode to both a dramatic and inspiring landscape and the man who first introduced me to it.
Slickrock, among other people, is dedicated to Cactus Ed. The plot allowed me to use short passages from his various books – Desert Solitaire in particular and One Life at a Time, Please – to point my sleuth in the direction of his clues. But most importantly I was able to use what must surely be my favourite line of prose ever written. It’s from The Fool’s Progress:
“I want to weep. Not for sorrow, not for joy, but for the incomprehensible wonder of our brief lives beneath the oceanic sky.”
There were many other things that inspired the Red Rock Canyon Mysteries, and over the next few months I’ll write about them here. But it was Edward Abbey who started it all, and it’s to Cactus Ed I owe my deepest literary gratitude. We never met – he died the year before I started reading his books – but if you’ve spent as much time crawling over the slickrock mesas and slithering through slot canyon’s as I have, you get to know him a little bit. He’s there in the rocks, down by the river, and up in the sky masquerading as a lonesome black soaring bird.
For updates on the release of The Slickrock Paradox follow me on Twitter @stephenlegault.
This pains me, but I didn’t enjoy Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig as much as I had wanted to. I’m a big fan of Wendig’s online, expletive-laden, deliciously-vulgar and self-described dubious writing advice. Much has been made on Wendig’s blog and twitter feed about Blackbirds, so I was prepared to really enjoy it. I wanted to really enjoy it. I picked up a copy last week and read it over the next few days, and while it wasn’t really bad, it wasn’t as good as I had hoped.
I suppose the Buddha was right that all expectations lead to disappointment. Makes book marketing tough, mind you. Twitter doesn’t really lend itself to subtlety.
Blackbirds is the story of Miriam Black, a young drifter who has a unique gift: with just one touch she can tell when, where and how you will die. The whole story of your death plays out before her eyes in just a quick blink. This, as you might imagine, causes some consternation for young Miriam, until she learns how to profit from her gift. When she comes in contact with someone who is near their demise, she shadows them and like a vulture, picks over their bones (and their pockets) when they croak. Despite this predilection for profiting from other’s bereavement, Black remains a tortured soul.
It’s a great premise, and Miriam is an interesting character, with a complexity that makes her both hard to love and lovable at the same time. She’s crass and fowl mouthed, and extremely violent, but with a latent tenderness that is seeking a soul to settle on.
In the end Blackbirds is a violent and disturbing incursion into the very darkest corners of human nature. Miriam’s gift comes to the attention of some very bad people and they fix their attention on exploiting the exploiter.
It struck me as I was reading Blackbirds that the world that Chuck Wendig creates must exist somewhere, but it’s so dark, so craven, that I have a hard time accepting it. I couldn’t suspend my disbelief, as all fiction begs us to do. Maybe that’s just me. Maybe I live in a naive, rose-coloured world where the sort of uni-dimensional characters that make up Blackbird’s list of bad-guys simply can’t be real. I had the same feeling recently while reading The Glass Rainbow, the most recent offering by James Lee Burke, one of my favourite mystery writers: how could so many truly awful people all find each other in a place like New Iberia, Louisiana, or in the case of Blackbirds, the truck-stops and diners along the Interstates of Pennsylvania?
I’m not a prude: a curse a blue streak, both in real life and in fiction. My kids are growing rich from the swear jar in my house. My most recent fictional antagonist is a psychopath who enjoys a good torture session as much as Wendig’s character Herriot does. That’s not what bothered me in Blackbirds. What got me was the lack of restraint: sometimes you don’t need three or four contiguous descriptions of vulgarity to explain an act of psychopathic homicide or torment. Sometimes one will do. Let the reader fill in some of the blanks.
I read Blackbirds cover-to-cover in a couple of days, though one of those included a cross-country plane trip, so that gave me a few extra hours. I’m a pretty slow reader, so I either motored through it, or it was a pretty easy read, or both. The ending was satisfying, but not surprising. The much vaulted act of redemption, of balancing the equation, that leads to the altering of a man’s fate, felt a little contrived.
The sequel, Mockingbirds, will be out in 2013. I’ll likely pick it up, with lower expectations, just to see what fate has in store for the young woman who knows so many other’s providence. In the mean time, I’ll keep reading Wendig’s excellent and hilariously crude advice for writers. Somehow there all the vulgarity works.