I finished writing the first draft of The Same River Twice yesterday morning. This will be the third book in the Red Rock Canyon series, featuring Silas Pearson and his journey to find his missing wife, Penelope de Silva.
I finished the first draft of Black Sun Descending in the middle of May. It’s the second book in the series that started with the publication of The Slickrock Paradox last year. The trilogy is set in the American Southwest, around Arches, Canyonlands and Grand Canyon National Parks, and the Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monuments.
In total I wrote about 155,000 words in just over three months. As I’ve said before, first drafts are the literary equivalent of me vomiting words onto a page as if I’d been binge drinking all night. I write as fast as I can just to keep up with the kaleidoscope of images, characters, plot lines and the myriad voices in my head.
I’ve written seven other books in three different mystery series, as well as two books of non-fiction, and a couple of unpublished manuscripts, but I’ve never written two first drafts back-to-back. This was an experiment, and it seemed to work.
Credit for the idea goes to Ruth Linka, at Touchwood Editions for suggesting it. Back in March she and I met and discussed the uncomfortably long list of books that are banging at the side of my head trying to get out. Earlier in the day Don Gorman, with Rocky Mountain Books – who is publishing my upcoming book of essays and photographs Running Toward Stillness – did the same. Both of these publishers work under the umbrella of the Heritage Group. During the course of those two meetings we mapped out my next ten or eleven book projects, which accounted for about a quarter of the books that I’ve got sulking around in the frontal lobe of my cerebellum, vying for attention, insisting on being written IMMEDIATELY.
Ruth suggested that I write the next two books in the Red Rock Canyon series at the same time, and we’d release them together as a sort of concluding salvo in that series sometime next year. This made a lot of sense from a productivity perspective; it turns out it made a lot of sense from a creative perspective as well.
Starting in early April I began working on Black Sun Descending. The process nearly went off the rails early on because I broke one of my cardinal rules and didn’t write a detailed outline. I had a five page summary of all three books I’d used to pitch them to TouchWood back in 2009 but didn’t bother to flesh that out before starting Black Sun. That was a mistake. I was relying on momentum to propel me through sections of the book I wasn’t entirely clear on, but in order to count of such forward motion you actually have to build up a head of steam and that was slow in coming with this novel.
My normal process is to write an outline and just hold on as tight as I can. This means penning about 2,000 words every morning between the hours of five and seven or eight a.m. This slowed to five hundred words during the most difficult sections of the book. I considered, about a third of the way into the book’s 70,000 word first draft, stopping and penning a more detailed outline. I didn’t: I feared I’d lose the one thing I had going for me, which was a routine, and never recover. That was stupid, and the next time I get bogged down like that I hope I’ll remember to take a day or two and just write the damn outline.
I plowed through, slowly, and by the end of May had completed the draft. It sucks of course. Most first drafts do, and that’s alright, because while first drafts are hell, second drafts are pure bliss; they are my favourite part of the writing process. In the first draft I focus on plot and dialog. I’ve found I rarely change either of these in the second draft. As long as I get the story from point A to point B in the first draft I’m happy. I’ve also recently observed that I rarely change dialog in subsequent drafts. I cut a lot, but the general voice of each character usually emerges directly from my head during the first draft and I just write as fast as I can, trying to listen to the story they are telling me.
This is why, during first drafts, that I often seem preoccupied to the outside world. Sometimes while I’m making dinner for my family I’m actually listening to two characters in my novels having a conversation in my head.
I finished the first draft of Black Sun Descending in a hotel room in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan while I was on tour for my most recently published novel The Third Riel Conspiracy.
Where Black Sun Descending was a daily struggle, The Same River Twice was smooth as the tongue of rapid slipping between boulders on a river. (I’m not sure if that metaphor worked.) I wrote the outline while on a plane to New York City for my full time job in conservation, and began writing the novel at 5am the first day I was there. That was late in May. There have been a few other business trips since, and the small matter of the Canmore flood in mid June that pushed me off my writing schedule, but otherwise this second first draft has proceeded quickly. Summer is a pretty easy time to get up early; the ravens are awake and serve as my alarm clock.
Both drafts need a lot of work. Both are short by most anybodies standards, and for me they are uncomfortably so. The Same River Twice is only 57,000 words (I can hear by publisher saying Thank God). They need some meat on their bones; that’s what the second draft is for. That starts tomorrow. Today I’m just writing a few blog posts – sport writing – that have also been banging around in my head for the last few months.
Writing two books in the same series back-to-back has been so rewarding that I’m going to do the same with both of my other mystery series. The continuity of working with the same characters, similar plot lines, and landscapes has been so much easier this way that I may continue this practice in the future.
The next two books in the Durrant Wallace series – one set in Vancouver during the great fire of 1886 and the next set in the Kooteney’s of BC’s interior at Fort Steele – will be next. Then I’ll write two books in the Cole Blackwater series – one set in Vancouver’s downtown east side that addresses human smuggling and sex trafficking and another that puts Cole’s daughter Sarah directly into the plot.
And there’s a half dozen other projects – mysteries, a standalone thriller, essays, and a book of photography – to turn my attention too.
My way of summary, here’s what I learned while penning these two first drafts back to back. None of it is really new, but I hope it’s helpful:
- Write an outline and follow it until the story itself makes a compelling case to go in a new direction.
- Don’t get distracted by other writing (which is why this is my second blog post in the last three and a half months).
- Have a routine. Write at the same time every day. Whatever works for you. Mine is early mornings and lots of tea.
- Write in layers: start with plot, ad dialog, character development, setting, etc as you proceed through subsequent drafts.
- Don’t worry if the first draft sucks. That’s its job. That’s why we get second and third and forty-fifth drafts, if that’s what it takes.
Sometimes you just can’t stop. Sometimes, despite knowing that slowing down, stopping, regrouping, is the best way to handle a plot challenge, or the slow-as-molasses in January feeling you get while working on a first draft, you just keep going.
That’s what I’m doing with Black Sun Descending. It’s been, by far, the most lethargic first draft I’ve penned as a writer. I’ve been at it for six weeks and I’m just 43,000 words in. Normally I take a month and I’m done. The words just pour out like sewage from a ruptured municipal pipe, all raw and fowl but at least on the page, and ready for the second draft treatment.
Not Black Sun Descending.
Part of it is I’ve been on the road a great deal with my full-time, paid work; part of it is I haven’t outlined this novel as well as I should have. Maybe part of it is I’m distracted by so many other book ideas that Black Sun literally has to compete for neural pathways to get to my fingertips and out onto the computer screen.
I did take a few hours the other morning to stop my manic effort to bulldoze the book into existence and sort out a few plot challenges. Who are all these people, I asked myself? Who are the suspects, the supporting characters, and what are their motivations? Normally I work all of this out ahead of time, but for some reason I just threw myself into this project with considerably less of an outline than I’m accustomed too.
Four years ago I wrote the synopsis for this three-book series, with Black Sun Descending being the second book of the trio. Sitting on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon I mapped the whole Red Rock Canyon Mystery series, and when I returned from that trip, wrote a six-page précis of the novels. That’s what I’m working off of now. Usually I’ll have twenty or thirty pages of a hand written story-board. Now I’ve got two pages of typed material and it’s proving to be insufficient.
Why? Because writing a first draft is no time to stop and wonder what the hell is going to happen next, or who is this character and why do they keep insisting on showing up in my manuscript.
I got some of that sorted out the other day, but I’m still flying a little blind. And I suspect there is a canyon wall somewhere there in the fog.
I’ll get through it. If you scroll back through some of the posts in the Deconstructing Draft One section of this blog, you’ll see, as I do, that its always the same. Middle of the book: slow down, complain, question, moan, and keep going. Its the only way to get these things done. Plow through. No matter what.
It’s dumping snow and I’m sitting at my keyboard, rather than hitting the slopes. That must mean I’m working on a first draft. The book is called Black Sun Descending, and it’s the second novel in the Red Rock Canyon mystery series set in the American Southwest.
It’s been ten months since I finished the first draft of The Glacier Gallows. That book, the fourth instalment in the Cole Blackwater mystery series, is now safely at my story editor (safe, that is, until I get it back and all hell breaks loose).
Ten months is a long time for me to go without working on a first draft. My publication schedule with TouchWood Editions has us releasing a book every six months. With three series on the go, that means whenever a new book is released in one series, I start working on the first draft of the next one. That leaves 18 months for the development of a novel, from word one to the final edit, cover design, printing and launch. That’s not much time, and my publisher has suggested that we need to get ahead of the curse and start working 24 months in advance.
That’s a great theory, but it’s proving tough in real life.
It’s not because I don’t want to write, or have ideas; the opposite is true. I have too many ideas. And sometimes life gets in the way.
Shortly after The Slickrock Paradox, the first book in the Red Rock series, was released last September, Jenn and I went to Morocco. The fall had been very busy with my paid work, and I didn’t get a jump on Black Sun for a variety of reasons. We spent three weeks in Northern Africa, and on the last day in Marrakesh we learned that Jenn’s mom, who had been sick with pancreatic cancer for a while, but who had been stable since June, had suddenly fallen into a coma. It took us 48 hours of exhausting travel to get from Morocco to Spain, London, Calgary and finally Nanaimo. We spent a week at her bedside before she passed away without having woken.
Two weeks later my mother’s husband, Ernie, died of cancer too.
I didn’t write a word of Black Sun until early January.
There have been other words in the intervening months. I wrote three new essays for my forthcoming work of non-fiction, Running Toward Stillness, to be published by Rocky Mountain Books in September. I also worked with the amazing editors there on the final story and copy edits, and spent a spellbinding week sorting through some 20,000 of my images to select forty for that collection. That was a highlight of the last few months for me; I’ve dreamed of having my photos published for longer than I’ve dreamed of being a writer.
All that to say, I’m behind. Fortunately, TouchWood made the decision not to publish my next mystery until next year at this time – so I wouldn’t have two books released at the same time – so I’ve caught a break time-line wise. I’m 15,000 words into what I expect will be an 80,000 word first draft, and have started to develop the familiar rhythm to the work. I’m writing a couple thousand words before breakfast most mornings, and on weekends I’m getting in three or four thousand down on paper.
It feels good, and I’m enjoying the characters and the plot and trying not to get hung up on research as I’m writing. I’m keeping a list of big questions that I’ll have to go back too to sort through at the end (such as, how long would it take a body to decompose if it was buried in the toxic tailings of a uranium mine?).
My constant enemy in this process isn’t writers block. I’ve simply never, ever had it; never for more than a few minutes or an hour. I’m simply too bull-headed to stop. My theory about writers block is to just keep writing, no matter what. No, my enemy is ideas. I have too many of them.
In addition to the seven books I’ve had published (The Third Riel Conspiracy has just been released), and the three that I currently have in the works for publication in the next 18 months, I have another twenty-seven book ideas in some form of development. Yes, I am a geek: I keep a chart.
When Jenn and I were in Morocco, a simple event like taking too long in the washroom at the airport spawning a story idea that by the time we returned had developed into a novel called Insha’Allah: The Willingness of God. Last week, in the time to took to walk to the bathroom at 3 a.m. and back, a few decades of thinking about a book set during the French resistance during World War Two became a trilogy mixing sci-fi and hard-boiled noir called Occupied.
You see the problem? I’m writing about 200-250,000 words a year right now, including all this inane blogging. Two books a year is a hell of a pace for a guy with a full time job. Thirty books will take me fifteen years to write. I’ll be fifty-seven. And it’s not like I can turn off the tap. Hell, I’m afraid to go to the john at night for fear of having new ideas.
My challenge is to stay focused. To, as blogger and novelist Chuck Wendig says, finish the shit I start.
So Black Sun Descending is on my morning’s agenda for the next month. Stay tuned to the Deconstructing Draft One section of this blog for updates from the front lines.
I’m one of those authors who always reads his reviews. I don’t get a tonne of them: five or ten for each of the six books I’ve published so far, so it’s not an onerous commitment. Two of every three reviews I’ve received since starting to publish books in 2006 has been positive, and as Meatloaf crooned, that ain’t bad. I like the ego-massage of reading good reviews, and knowing that my intention as an author is hitting the mark, and I take heart when a reviewer points out where I could improve either the content or the style of a book. I’m new to this, and committed to learning as much as I can about the craft of penning novels and non-fiction alike.
The recent review of The Slickrock Paradox in Briarpatch Magazine hit on a third topic: what I apparently missed completely in penning the novel.
In The Slickrock Paradox Silas Pearson is looking for his wife Penelope de Silva in the searing heat of the American desert. De Silva went missing three-and-a-half years before while working on a clandestine conservation project in the canyon country of Utah and Arizona that centred on the writing of Edward Abbey, the iconic and controversial desert rat who penned The Monkey Wrench Gang and other books.
The reviewer, Yukata Dirks, seemed to enjoy the central mystery of the book, and has very nice things to say about how I portray the landscape of the Canyonlands, but points out:
“Unfortunately, Legault never addresses Abbey’s reprehensible racism. In 1963, Abbey wrote: “I certainly do not wish to live in a society dominated by blacks, or Mexicans, or Orientals.” Just as insidious were Abbey’s racist, colonial ideas about Indigenous peoples and their relationship to the land he fervently defended. Midway through The Monkey Wrench Gang, the gang destroys a coal train and plants false leads around the site to point the blame at Red Power radicals. Indigenous people don’t have a place in Abbey’s narrative of eco-resistance, even if it is their traditional lands that are being destroyed.”
I can’t say I’m shocked by this feedback. Edward Abbey was a controversial figure in American literature and the life of the American West in many ways. In addition to being racist, he was misogynistic, crass, anti-social and at times bordered on abusive. He had five wives and it’s probably fair to say that the first four were happy with being left in the rear view mirror as he carved his path through life. He fathered five kids. He was a complex writer and a complex person, and just like the rest of us had plenty of demons to grabble with, more than a few created by his own hand.
I consider racism reprehensible and unjustifiable. If I were writing a book of literary criticism, or a critical biography of the man, it would be shameful not to mention these character flaws while praising his prose and his depth of feeling for life. But I’m not. The Slickrock Paradox is a mystery novel that is centred on Abbey’s nature writing. My protagonist, himself a critic of literature, openly states his distaste for Abbey’s writing; he prefers Ivan Doig, Wallace Stegner and Cormac McCarthy (all of whom I love). It was a bone of contention between Silas and his missing wife.
Briarpatch goes on to criticise my portrayal of the American Indian in the book:
“Sadly, although Legault’s plot turns on the discovery of the ruins of a Pueblo gathering place by a young Hopi woman, The Slickrock Paradox suffers from a similar, though less crass, erasure. Despite his realistic portrayal of the political and economic landscape of the Southwest, the role of Native Americans in the defence of their land and water rights goes unmentioned, and Legault’s few Indigenous characters are treated as objects more than actors: victim, grieving sibling, spiritual Elder.”
It’s true that there are no American Indians among the leading characters of this book. It’s not a book about tribal water rights or the efforts of the Navajo or Hopi to defend their traditional lands. Characters like Darla Wisechild, the sister of one of the deceased in the book, are much like other supporting characters in the novel; they help carry the plot. In a book of 85,000 words there isn’t time to create in-depth portraits of every person that appears and still maintain a fast pace with lots of suspense. These characters are foils for Silas’s investigation. The fact that so much of that investigation involves the discovery of Ancient Pueblo ruins, artifacts and mythology merely reflects the reality that life in the Southwest today is an overlay of an ancient culture that has existed there for ten-thousand years and there is no place you can turn without confronting that.
In my 2008 novel The Darkening Archipelago Archie Ravenwing, a “Northern Salish” elder is a complex and flawed leading character fighting salmon farming on traditional First Nations territory in BC’s Broughton Archipelago. Every book can’t be about everything.
All of this reminds me of the curious moment when, after publishing Carry Tiger to Mountain: The Tao of Activism and Leadership, that I read a review that criticised my portrayal of the Tao te Ching for not including a discussion about Taoist sexuality. Really? I tried to imagine about how I could have shoe-horned a discussion of ancient sexual energy into the book between chapters on strategy, fundraising and leadership styles. I recall thinking at the time that 1) my book was about leadership and activism, and not about sex; and 2) that sometimes reviews are a good way for the reviewer to make a tangential point only peripherally related to the topic at hand.
I used Edward Abbey’s writings as a centre-piece for The Slickrock Paradox’s mysteries because I love his passionate description of the landscape and because of his iconic stature among the canon of western literature. It doesn’t mean I endorse everything about the man, or his life, or even every word that he has written.
All of that said, every review I read gives me something to think about, and I’ll certainly been considering this feedback while penning the second book in the series, Black Sun Descending, due out from Touchwood Editions in 2014.
Have your say. Should Edward Abbey’s racism necessarily be part of any discussion of his writing? Or can we accept that he was a good nature writer and a passionate man without investigating his other character flaws?
The Red Rock Canyon Mysteries were born of adventure and exploration in Utah and Arizona’s magnificent wilderness, such as the Escalante National Monument, described here in this tale of mis-adventure.
“Do you think we can get down that?” I ask.
I’m sitting behind the wheel of “Toro Azul,” – the Blue Bull — my trusted and dependable 1989 Toyota SR5, gripping the wheel with white knuckles. The road slopes down at a twenty percent grade, but it’s anything but graded. It’s sandy and deeply rutted, and in addition to the downward pitch, the whole road lists to one side, tilting precariously towards an arroyo, a dry wash that once or maybe twice a year floods with water the colour of blood, and then goes dry.
Greer Chesher is sitting beside me, her border collie Bo at her feet. It’s early spring, and we’re exploring the Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument, a 1.9 million-acre swath of wilderness in south-central Utah. Greer is doing research for a book on The Monument and I am along for the ride, such as it is. Greer and I met in the early 1990’s when she was a ranger at Grand Canyon National Park and I was a volunteer there. We’d stayed in touch, and when I wanted to spend a month in the Escalante, she agreed to show me around.
And now we’re driving down the Red Breaks “Road,” which is really a couple of sandy ruts that snake across the desert, around stunted Juniper trees, and up over bare red rocks. We’re trying to get as close to a place called the V, where Harris Wash meets the Escalante River.
When we get to a point where we can drive no further, we’ll hike the remaining miles.
“Do you think we can get down that?”
It should have occurred to me that this was that point. But it didn’t. Instead, Greer said cheerfully, “Yeah, we can get down that.”
What I didn’t think about, at least until we were down, was – gravity being what it is – can we get back up that?
I shifted into first and crept down the grade in four-wheel drive, leaning to the right to avoid being pressed against the driver side door, steering to keep the tires in the ruts of the road. The moment we were down, I knew that getting back up was going to be a serious problem. I should have just cut to the chase, turned around, and begun the 12-hour ordeal of driving that twenty meters of road right then and there. Instead we drove on another mile, parked where the ruts disappeared into slick rock cliffs, and wandered over the canyon country towards the V. We didn’t make it, for whatever reason. That isn’t important now. Instead we rendezvoused with the truck an hour later and began the return journey.
When we got to the place where the road was perched on the edge of the dry wash, I stopped. That was a mistake. If I was an experienced off-highway driver I would have just kept driving, and might possibly have used momentum, horsepower and a devil-may-care attitude to make it to the top of the grade. But I didn’t. The image of the sand giving out under the truck, and Greer, Bo, and I tumbling sideways into the wash made me let up on the gas and roll to a stop. The fall wouldn’t have killed us. But we were 40 miles from the town of Escalante – population 400, including dogs – and I was rather attached to my truck. I didn’t want this arroyo to become henceforth known as Legault Wash with my battered truck as a monument to my stupidity.
After a few minutes of study I geared down into compound low and began to creep up the grade, hardly touching the gas. Even at this snail’s pace the tires dug into the loose blow sand, and we ground to a halt. I backed down – nerve-wracking at the pitch and angle of the road – and tried again, this time giving the truck a little more gas. We went up. We stopped.
We tried again, and again we dug into the sand.
Cursing. Back down. This time we got out to survey the scene. The sand was loose and dry and the wind was picking up, blowing in more from the desert all around.
We tried a few more times, me nervous and watching out of the corner of my eye the dry wash twenty feet below looming out of the passenger window.
What came next was an hour or two of road work. We hauled rocks from the wash and the surrounding desert, and found loose brush that could be used to build up the road to give the truck some purchase. The wind picked up and more sand blew in, burning our eyes and filling our hair with grit. It was exhausting work, with the nagging concern of being stuck out at the end of a road that saw maybe one or two vehicles a week (or less, who knows!) gnawing at the back of our minds.
When we got the road to where we thought it could support our weight, we mounted up and took a bit of a run at it in four-high. We climbed nearly to the top, the truck swaying back and forth, the engine revving as it worked hard to keep its momentum. Just as we reached the crest our handiwork gave out, the tires left the rocks and brush and dug deeply into the sand, and we lurched to a halt. I tired to reverse and couldn’t. I switched to compound low again; nothing. We were stuck deep.
Stepping out of the truck into the blowing sand, I could see that we were going nowhere. On the driver’s side, the back wheels were pushed to the very top of their wells and half buried in sand. On the passenger’s side, there was a two-foot gap between the top of the wheel and the bottom of the well, and it was likewise buried. The axle was completely obscured by sand.
Hiking. Greer and Bo guarded the truck and I began the hike towards Greer’s vehicle – also a Toyota SR5 (our expedition was not sponsored) – parked six or seven miles away. The plan was to return with her truck and use it to pull mine from the sandy quagmire.
After just four miles, at the trailhead for Harris Wash, I flagged down some hikers and they offered to give me to Greer’s vehicle. One of them had been stung by a scorpion and they were on their way to Escalante to find medical attention. I had a snake-bite kit and did first aid while be banged over the rough road. I wished them good luck, and they me.
Behind the wheel again, I started back with Greer’s truck, over the rocky and pitted road as far as Harris Wash, then down through the creek and up past the sign that warned travelers that the Red Breaks Road was four-wheel drive only.
Who was it that told me that that four-wheel drive just gets you stuck deeper, further from home?
As I drove Greer’s truck back towards my own, I noticed with some dismay that the tracks from my morning’s passing were already gone, blown over as more sand drifted across the pathway.
Down and around the stunted Juniper tree and up over the slick rock, I finally got to the place where my truck rested axle deep in the road. We hooked up a sturdy tow rope, and I got into my truck while Greer pulled with hers. Nothing. We were in too deep, and her four cylinder SR5 lacked the chutzpa to pluck mine from the desert’s greedy clutches.
Driving. We made our way in Greer’s truck over 40 miles of sand, rock, ruts and bad attitude and finally reached the asphalt and Escalante. We ate a pizza and drank coffee at the town’s only Espresso Bar – a sign of the times with the creation of the Monument attracting new business to this tiny town. And then we called the tow truck. Singular; there was only one.
Greer suggested offering one of the sturdy Escalante men, with a muscular Ford, Chevy or Dodge truck a hundred bucks to drive out into the desert and pull my dinky import from the clutches of the Monument. I always felt out of place in Escalante with so small, and so quiet, a truck. But I lacked the guts or brains to give this a try. The tow truck seemed so much safer.
That’s when Darrell showed up.
My first response was one of tremendous relief. The tow truck was massive. Its wheels – all six of them – were up to my shoulders! Good news, I thought, this rig will do the trick.
When Darrell emerged from the cab to discuss the particulars of the situation I noted that he looked ready enough. He smiled a wide grin and I noted that he was missing two teeth on top and two on the bottom, just about where you might land a well-placed punch. Excellent. He either fought enough not to care, or so rarely that he was really bad at it.
I drove with Greer, Darrell followed behind. We had to stop at the Conoco on the way out of town so Darrell could pick up a friend who could help with the job. That’s when I met Steve. Another affable chap, despite the fact that most of his teeth were present and accounted for.
When we got to where Greer and I were camped in her trailer dubbed the “Adventure Pod” I climbed in with Steve and Darrell, and we left Greer behind. No sense in getting two Toyota’s stuck. It’s not like there was a two-for-one sale on in Escalante that day.
We groaned along in low gear over the rocks and ruts of the road to Harris Wash. I inquired after the workings of the big rig, and learned that indeed it was four-wheel drive, but all the wheels that “drove” were in the back. The front two were for steering only. Then and there I should have seen the trouble brewing.
As we crossed the wash I was ruminated on cold beer, which I mentioned was in a cooler in the back of my truck. Darrell couldn’t drink, a condition of his recent parole from prison.
Further into the desert.
Down and around stunted juniper, blow sand accumulating quickly at the bottom of that swale, and up over the slick rock we ranged, the wind beginning to howl. By this time it was late afternoon. Sundown was just a few hours away, and ahead was the last long, straight stretch of sandy road before the steep decline, the wash and my truck. We drove headlong into sand, and stopped. The front wheels of the massive rig burrowed into the soft sand and the back wheels spun and we were rendered motionless.
The tow truck was stuck.
We clambered out and found some rocks and brush and used a couple of four-by-fours that Darrell had on the back of the truck for just this sort of situation and drove again. We made a solid four or five feet of progress and then down went the rig into the sand again, hub deep in the powdery grit.
Suddenly the couple of hundred yards between us and my Toyota seemed like the distance to the moon. For two hours we dug, hauled rocks, moved the four-by-fours, gunned the engine, lurched forward, dug in again, and repeated. Each time we made a few feet of progress. Once we drove twenty feet with loud raucous cheering before sinking back into the desert. We bonded.
We fixed bandana’s over our faces to keep the blowing sand out of our noses and hauled more rocks, reorganizing the desert as we went.
When we finally reached the Toyota it took all of a minute to pluck it from the Monument’s greedy fist. It popped out like a cork. I pulled the top from a couple of Mormon 3.5% microbrews and those of us not on parole enjoyed them, the watery suds washing the sand down our gullets.
We three stood side by side looking back over the road we had just spent several hours transforming. It looked as if it had been carpet bombed. The sandy ruts were churned up several feet deep from the tow truck’s massive tires.
“I can’t drive my truck over that road,” I said.
“Just drive it like they do in the commercials, man,” grinned Darrell.
I didn’t have the heart to tell these fellows that I had never actually seen a Toyota commercial.
I handed the keys to Steve.
I’ve never seen my truck do the things that Steve made it do that evening. Somehow he got it going fast enough to surf over much of the loose sand, and when he did get stuck once, he shifted into compound low so fast that the momentum of the truck seemed to propel it out of trouble again.
Darrell pointed the tow truck toward to the side of the road and roared across the desert, avoiding the hazard all together. I groaned at the thought of the hardworking men and women at the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance ever learning of my malfeasance.
Then I remembered that I was standing in the desert, Steve was sitting behind the wheel of my truck, and Darrell behind the wheel of the tow truck. 40 miles from town. I hurried to catch up, congratulated Steve on an impressive display of manly driving, and resumed control of Toro Azul.
In the failing light and blowing sand we made our way back towards Harris Wash. But our misadventure was not complete. Remember the ‘down and around the stunted juniper’ part of the road? The down and around went fine on the way back, me in the lead and the boys following close behind, but as I gunned the Toyota on the uphill side (I was emboldened by Steve’s driving and the thought of what a Toyota commercial must look like) all the gear in the back of the truck slammed against the tail gate, which popped open, spilling my stuff in the middle of the road.
Run it over! I yelled, as Darrell piloted the tow truck around the Juniper. But he didn’t He stopped. And didn’t get started again.
More brush, more rocks, more deep and abiding guilt. It took us another hour to free the tow truck from the incline that it was marooned on. The winch came in handy. It’s amazing how sturdy stunted juniper trees are.
It was past 10 pm when we finally reached Greer’s Adventure Pod. She handed me what money she had and I drove on ahead of my new friends to Escalante, drinking 3.5 and singing the saddest Ian Tyson songs I could as the wind buffeted my Blue Bull.
At the town’s only bank machine I took out all the cash I could – Darrell could take neither cheque nor credit card – and paid nearly $500 US for the privilege of their assistance that afternoon. I gave them each a $20 tip – all the cash I had left – for their trouble. Then we parted. Muchacos.
I stopped at the Conoco for more beer, courtesy of Visa, and finally reached the Adventure Pod and my sleeping bag near midnight. As I closed my eyes I could feel the sand grating over my corneas. The following morning we drove back to town to shower and I deposited bright red sand from the Escalante Monument into the corners of my shower stall.
Two days later we were driving out to Egypt Point, over a washboard road, when my muffler, loosened by being buried in blow sand and unceremoniously wrenched from the desert, fell off and I drove over it.
But at least now my truck, braying like a jack ass, fit in around Escalante.
Rough Breaks on the Red Breaks Road was first published in I Sold my Gold Tooth for Gas Money, an anthology of adventure travel stories edited by Matt Jackson and published in 2006 by Summit Studios.
Greer’s book – Heart of the Desert Wild – was published in 2000. My Toyota SR5 blew a head gasket climbing a steep mountain pass and was sold for scrap in late 2004. Now I drive a 1993 Nissan 4×4, but for how much longer?
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.
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.
For the last month I’ve been working on the story edits for The Slickrock Paradox, book one in the Red Rock Canyon Mystery series. This is always an amazing experience. As this is the third book that I’ve worked on with the same story editor, we’ve developed a bit of a rhythm. I’ve also begun to notice a pattern in my response to this initial editorial process. Here are, somewhat tongue in cheek, the 15 Stages of the Story Editing Process:
1) False sense of hope that comes when you finish your “final” draft and send it to publisher.
2) Uncomfortably long wait while your publisher amasses an editorial (SWAT) team.
3) Awkward questions from said editorial team: “did you send us the wrong draft?”
4) Forewarning from the publisher that soon the editorial team will be done. For now.
5) Anticipated arrival of the marked up draft, complete with intro: WE have some work to do.
6) Utter disheartening sense of abject failure that accompanies reading the mark-ups. Drinking commences.
7) Misplaced frustration with those who have killed all your darlings.
8) Inevitable regret for having slept through grade 9 phonics.
9) Self loathing for having made all the same mistakes over again. Shame.
10) Grudging acceptance that the story is better without the 47 pages of exposition that have been cut.
11) Just plain hard work re-writing the story so that it makes a shred of sense.
12) Strange affection for those who have taken a well tuned chainsaw to a year of your life’s work.
13) Recognition that creating a good (even decent) novel is a team effort.
14) Further acceptance that the writer is not the captain of said team.
15) Perverse – even borderline masochistic – willingness to do it all again.
As posted on Twitter @stephenlegault.