Home Range

The last few hundred meters are a push but the view of the tiny lake, still dotted with ice, makes the effort worthwhile. Jenn and I drop our packs and after a few minutes rest we set up camp. It was late in the afternoon when we get started but in the long light of summer we’ve got plenty of time. Soon we’ve got dinner in hand and are watching the sun paint Mount Smuts and Mount Birdwood a deep burnt umber. We’re alone, but not far from home, and feeling the magic of the landscape at work on us.

This is part of our home range. Smuts Pass, Commonwealth Creek, Burstal Pass, and the great circling range of mountains and valleys that extend in every direction. We’re at the southern end of the Spray Valley in Kananaskis Country, just an hour from Canmore, and home.

For nearly a quarter of a century the Bow Valley has been my base camp. I moved to Lake Louise in the early 1990’s to work for Parks Canada and have slowly migrated down valley. There have been plenty of detours along the way, but this range of mountains has always called loudest and it’s here I return to again and again.

Mount Lougheed and the Wind Valley, Alberta.

Mount Lougheed and the Wind Valley, Alberta.

For the last four years I’ve spent a lot of my time photographing and writing about the eastern edge of my home range, and pushing the borders of that demarcation south as far as the Rocky Mountain Front of Montana. During that time I shot more than 40,000 images for a book called Earth and Sky: A Journey Down the Front of the World, and as that project is coming to completion I’ve started to wonder what I was going to do next? I’ve got many other writing projects on the go, but the dream of being a professional photographer has been my greatest ambition since high school. I’ve learned to see the world in a complexly different way since setting a goal for my photography. I’ve loved every minute of the journey. Finding the next photographic endeavour to focus my intent has been on my mind for the last six months.

While Earth and Sky was exhilarating to shoot, it was also exhausting. The southern end of the geography for the book is an eight hour drive away. Last year alone I made over a dozen trips into the foothills of Alberta and Montana, and while some of them were coupled with my work in conservation, they never-the-less left me feeling a little bedraggled. I wanted something closer to home to work on next.

Kananaskis Country came quickly to mind. When I proposed the idea to my publisher at Rocky Mountain Books he suggested I do a statistically valid survey of local book sellers as to what they need. When I asked Jocey Asnong at Canmore’s Cafe Books she – without hesitation or prompting — said a book on Canmore and Kananaskis! That was good enough for me, and apparently good enough for my publisher. (Yes, this is really how decisions are made in the publishing business.)

This is a natural fit for me. I can get to most parts of Kananaskis Country within a couple of hours drive, and a short day hike. I know it well, having hiked and climbed there for two decades. I’ve got a big collection of transparencies to draw on, and a growing stock of digital images that I’ve been shooting over the last few years.

My passion for the landscape of the Bow Valley and Kananaskis Country runs deeper than that. In the 1990’s I spent six years as the volunteer Chair of the Kananaskis Coalition, lobbying the government and rallying the public to protect more of the multiple use landscape. Like many Albertans I was surprised that more of Kananaskis Country wasn’t protected as a park. Together with dozens – with hundreds – of other volunteers from recreation, conservation and community organizations, we worked doggedly to pressure Premier Klein and his government to turn down proposals for new ski areas, golf courses, resorts, heli-skiiing operations and marinas in the Spray and Kananaskis Valley’s. In the end we were successful. On the last day he was Minister of the Environment Gary Mar announced that he was rejecting proposals for development in the Spray Valley and instead creating a Wildland Park.

Around that same time a bunch of us nominated the Bow Valley as a Special Place. Thanks to people like Gareth Thompson, Mike and Dianne McIvor, Wendy Frances, Harvey Locke, the late Jim Kievit (AKA Captain Greenshirt), the late Andre Gareau, along with many others, we were able to secure the Bow Valley Wildland Provincial Park.

Not long after that I found myself flooded with calls from the media asking if I was attending an event with the Premier. Ralph Klein was going to be in Kananaskis Country to make an announcement on the Recreation Management Plan, under review for the last few years. I had sat on the advisory committee for that plan on behalf of the environmental community. I put on a sports coat, tied my hair back in a pony tail (this was a very long time ago) and drove out to Mount Lorette Ponds. The Premier wasn’t very happy to see me, but his announcement was good news, and I told him so as half a dozen media outlets let the cameras roll.

More protected areas followed though Special Places 2000, including the Sheep River and Blue Rock Wildlands, and the Don Getty Wildland. In all, around half of Kananaskis Country was protected from further commercial development. And while there are still major issues with oil and gas and logging in the eastern and southern portions of the region, progress has been made.

That time, between 1994 and 2000, when I left the Kananaskis Coalition to start a small national conservation group called Wildcanada.net, was about more than just fighting to protect a place: it was about falling in love with a geography. Deeply and intimately.

Now I get to fall in love all over again. Already I can feel the excitement buzzing in me as I think about where I’m going to go, and when, and how I’m going to shoot a particular landscape in order to ensure my passion for this place is felt through the pages of this book.

I’m calling it Home Range, though it may well have a different title when it hits the shelves. It’s my home range. And it’s the home range for hundreds of thousands of others who live in Canmore, in towns like Turner Valley, Black Diamond and Bragg Creek and of course, Calgary.

I’m inviting you to join me: tell me what they love about this place. If I’m going to capture this landscape and the people who love it, where should I go? What trail should I hike, and when? Where are the flowers blooming? What is the wildlife up to? I want to hear from people who live here, visit or work here about a favourite scene, an iconic image that has to be a part of this project. I can’t guarantee I’ll do it justice, but I’ll try.

I’ve got eight months to do what I did in four years with Earth and Sky. I’m going to have to push myself to capture what I love about this place in so short a time. But it’s close to home, and I’m motivated. This has been my lifelong dream – to be a photographer – and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to create a book we can all be proud of.

Here’s how you can be a part of it:

1) Go to the Home Range group on Facebook.
2) Tell me about an iconic scene that defines your home range in Canmore, the Bow Valley (defined for this book as south of the Banff Park Gate) or in Kananaskis Country .
3) Check back often. Share with the community when the first crocus blooms, when your favourite bird returns, when the snow is out of the high passes. I don’t want to miss anything and I’d love your help in doing so. I’ll post many of the photos I take there and you can let me know what you think.
4) In November 2015 I will randomly draw the names of three people who have participated in this effort to receive a copy of the final book when it is published in 2016.

Thank you for joining me on this journey.

 

The Final Frame

In Augusta I take Highway 287 south. I have three choices in Augusta, Montana and they’re all good. I could take Secondary Road 435 and travel south-west, or I could turn west on the Sun Canyon Road and make a bee-line for the mountains, but I have a plan. I take the old stand-by, Highway 287, south-east for another twenty miles through empty, lonesome country before reaching Highway 200 and turning west.

This is the start of it: the end.

Hwy 200 bisects a mountain chain that starts just south of Glacier National Park at Marias Pass and continues south towards Butte and beyond. The highway crosses Montana’s Rogers’ Pass – the less famous of the two passes named for A.B. Rogers – and snakes over a high, open plateau towards Missoula.

For the last four years this highway, through treeless grasslands that rise and fall in broken reefs of stone, has been the southern terminus of what I started by calling my “area of study” and now think of as the geography of my heart. It’s a big piece of country, stretching nearly six hundred kilometers, or 400 miles, from the Bow River – just a few minutes from my home – to the three forks of the Deerborn River.

In April of 2013 I signed a contract with Rocky Mountain Books (RMB) and a project I’d been dreaming of since 1997 took another step toward reality. I remember sitting in an Indigo Books in Calgary talking with RMB’s publisher Don Gorman about different book ideas when he casually agreed to take on the project. For two decades I’d been visiting the foothills of Alberta, and more recently had started traveling along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front, to hike, write about and photograph the landscape and its people. Don had seen a few of my photos from unrelated landscapes and on the strength of those images, and on the back of my writing, said yes to publishing Earth and Sky.

I held it together pretty good in front of Don, but when I called Jenn after leaving the store I was overwhelmed. Being a “professional” photographer has been my lifelong dream. I’ve always been happiest when I’m behind the camera; now I would get the chance to share that passion with the world.

Westward on Hwy 200 I drop down into the dell of the Deerborn and photograph the autumnal light caught in the dance of leaves on the cottonwoods. Here two of the three forks of the Deerborn come together emerging from between fins of stone and a bright grove of cottonwood trees. The river doesn’t exactly create a clean break between the Rocky Mountain Front and the  the swells and reefs of the “Nevada” Range and the Big Belt Mountains to the south, but it comes close. Things change here. To the north are the limestone, thrust fault peaks that in places create sheer walls and razor back ridges, abrupt and perpendicular. To the south are the mudstone hills, broken and erratic, of the Belt Supergroup geologic formation. While by no means uniform, the foothills and Rocky Mountain Front look and feel different north of the Deerborn River than they do to the south.

You’ve got to draw a line somewhere and for me, for the last few years, this has been it. The Deerborn River marks the southern edge of the Crown of the Continent, which I get paid to watch over, and it marks the southern terminus of the Rocky Mountain Front, which I have pursued as a photographer and writer while completing this book.

Another few miles and I reach the intersection of Hwy 200 with 435, which is part of the famous Lewis and Clark Trail, that will take me back to Augusta to complete a circuit. I want to spend this last 24 hours of my two-year intensive immersion in this landscape traveling it from one end to the other. It’s not a farewell tour; more a way of ending one chapter of my experience with this place before starting the next.

In their initial foray west, Lewis and Clark were confronted by the Blackfeet and forced to turn south, traveling through this very stretch of forlorn prairie before crossing the Continental Divide just a few miles to the west. I turn north and follow 435, driving the gravel road through coulees and small dells and up and over golden hilltops already glowing in the late afternoon light.

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Sterns Community Hall, built in 1911 on the Deerborn River.

In a few minutes I come to an abandoned community hall on the Middle Fork of the Deerborn. Sterns Hall is on the National Register of Historic Places. I’ve driven past it before when the light wasn’t as good but today it’s perfect so I stop and investigate. The centre of community life for the community of Sterns from when the hall was built in 1911 through the 1920’s when drought forced many to abandon their farms and ranches in this area, the community hall is unlocked and is starting to fall apart. Inside I take photos of the benches that must have lined the walls during dances or basketball games played here. In places the ceiling has collapsed and I’m careful so I join the ghosts that haunt such places. Last used in the 1940’s as a dorm and mess hall for construction workers building Hwy 200, the Sterns Hall is the last mark on the landscape from a community that thrived for four decades.

Driving again, and back into familiar country, I reach the North Fork of the Deerborn River. The road plunges down from the plain into a deep, convoluted canyon. I cross the river on a single lane bridge that I learn was built in 1897 and is the last remaining structure of its kind in America. It’s a pin-connected Pratt half-deck truss bridge, and it’s marvelous. The bridge was restored in 2003 and spans one of the most beautiful canyon’s I’ve visited along the Front.

The view upstream, where the river tucks between tight folds of vertical earth and flows through a grove of brightly lit cottonwoods, stops me in my tracks. I stand on the bridge, the river 30 feet below, for a long time. I want to stay. That’s what I always think when I discover a scene such as this. I want to stay forever. I never want it to end.

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The Deerborn River where Lewis and Clark crossed it on their journey west.

But that’s what this final journey from south to north is all about. It’s the end, and while I’m exhausted and a little relieved, I’m also sad that something that has been so meaningful in my life is changing dramatically. After I get home tomorrow I’ll put the camera down for a while and turn my attention to the editing and selection of the images that will fill the pages of Earth and Sky.

I’ve been working on this idea since 1997. I recently found a file that contained my first pitch for this book, complete with a synopsis, a few sample chapters and a mock cover with a photo of Alberta’s Whaleback on it. Back then the focus was on a series of essays, but as I spent more and more time immersed in the light of this landscape, the book took on a broader focus.

As much as I hate to leave, I pull myself away from the Deerborn River and venture back up onto the prairie above. The foothills here are subtle, rising and falling a few hundred feet before backing up against the Front Range peaks like Sugarloaf Mountain. A little further north – and I can see them in the fading light – is the Sawback Ridge and Castle Reef. Here the Rocky Mountain Front takes on its more characteristic appearance; the over thrust fault line that creates thousand foot cliffs that loom over the surrounding landscape. This is my destination for the night and as the light is already fading I make haste.

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Haystack Butte, south-west of Augusta, Montana, along the Lewis and Clark Trail.

There is a fire burning somewhere west of my location, maybe in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and it reddens the sky. As I pass the familiar form of Haystack Butte the sun looms wild and ruddy behind it; three horses stand in the foreground and I skid to a stop once more.

Back in Augusta, I’ve come full circle this afternoon and now I motor west on the Sun Canyon Road, then take the left fork and follow the gravel track to the southern entrance to the Sun River Wildlife Management Area. Dating to 1913, when the Montana Legislature protected the area for wintering Elk herds, the Sun has become one of my favourite places long the Rocky Mountain Front. I follow a familiar two-track road out onto the rolling plains and as twilight falls across the western earth I set up my tent in the lee of a giant limber pine and make a simple meal. The wind picks up and the smoke from the fire in The Bob blows east; I can smell it thick in the air. I scout a location for sunrise – something that I’ve learned to do most nights that I’m in the field – and get ready for bed.

By nine I’m lying in my tent, reading my friend Trevor Herriot’s book The Road is How, and enjoying a cold beer, when the moon rises red as a plum over the eastern horizon. I set up my tripod and take a few photos, but my night photography skills suck and I know these will only be token reminders of my final evening’s camp. It occurs to me that it was here, in May, that I started the spring photographic season and it’s here that I’ll end it. I’ve been to the Sun four times this year and every time it’s a gift.
I fall asleep as the tent is pushed and pulled by the wind, the familiar voices of coyotes just over the next swell filling my ears. All night the wind trips over my tent, but each time I wake I feel warm and comfortable; it’s the kind of night that you never want to end it’s so perfect.

In the middle of October the sun doesn’t rise until after seven-thirty. When my twin alarms go off, again and again, I think about all the times this spring and summer that I was up at 4:30 to get to some predetermined point on the map in order to greet the sun. The best light during the summer months happens in the few minutes before and after sunrise. It’s a very narrow window, often no longer than fifteen minutes. By 6 or 7 AM the best photographic opportunities would have passed if I’d slept in and I’d have to wait thirteen or fourteen hours for the long crepuscular light to return. In October the light can be good for much of the day; the sun is lower on the horizon so that the light strikes the subject matter obliquely, more softly, creating long shadows.

I follow my familiar routine, rising and dressing and make two cups of tea by headlamp. One I drink right away, sitting in my camp chair watching the eastern horizon redden. The second cup of tea goes in my favorite travel mug – one that I can invert and shake like mad and not spill a drop of precious elixir, and that keeps my beverage warm for several hours – and gets stuffed into my camera bag. I pace off a short distance to a point on the top of a nearby hill and begin to photograph the dawn.

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The sunrises and the moon sets over Sawback Ridge (left) and Castle Reef (right) from my camp on the Sun River Wildlife Management Area.

It’s perfect too. The smoke from the night before has blown off and the morning is clear and crisp. There are a few high clouds to the west, just the way I like it, but the nearly full moon still hangs fat in the sky. The Sawtooth Range’s impressive flank turns pink and then red as the sun edges towards the horizon. When the flaming orb finally breaches the plain to the east I let out a yell of delight.

It’s my last sunrise of my photographic odyssey and I’m overjoyed at the gift of being present to watch the dawn one more time. Every single time the sun has crested the horizon and I’ve been present to witness it I marvel at the improbable set of circumstances that have conspired to make life possible. Those same circumstances allow me to rise, breathe deeply, and remember that I am alive to celebrate that mystery.

Shortly after a bank of low cloud obscures the sun and I pack up and hit the road once more.

For two years I’ve been methodically, systematically photographing the 600-kilomter stretch of country that I’ve demarcated as my study area. Once my contract was in place for Earth and Sky I made a list of all the places and events I wanted to shoot and I’ve been steadily checking them off over the course of the last two years: wind scoured bitterly cold winter scene; check. Sunrise during -30 morning; check. First arrowleaf balsamroot of the spring; check. Wild crazed stampeding horses; check. I’ve shot this long narrow stretch of country form north to south and south to north a dozen times over and every single time I step out the door I know I’m going to find something new, something exciting, see the world in a different way, meet new and interesting people and feel the inevitable pang of melancholy that I can’t stay here forever. Nothing remains the same and my job as a photographer is, as Ian Tyson says of Charles M. Russell’s job as a painter, is “to get it all down before she goes.”

That’s it in a nutshell. That’s why I’ve been getting up at 4am and staying up all night and missing weekends and running myself a little ragged for the last few years: to get it all down before it’s gone. I take my role as witness to this stretch of earth and sky seriously. I don’t want to dwell on that; that’s not really the point. The landscape is changing and that change is inevitable; Calgary is spreading south, turning the hills and valley’s into enclaves where the super-wealthy erect smallish castles on hilltops and fence off their kingdoms. Logging and petroleum interests are making inroads into places they should never have been allowed to venture. Alberta proposes more and more dams on the Belly River, the Elbow, the Sheep and the Highwood Rivers in the name of flood mitigation. The country is grazed down to the quick in some places. Off highway vehicle users demonstrate, repeatedly, that their selfishness far outweighs the ability of any government to regulate them as they tear through trout spawning streams, fragment wildlife habitat and desecrate meadows and hillsides in the name of having a little fun.

Despite all of that, and so many other blasphemies, it’s yet a heart-stoppingly beautiful landscape. I love it above all others. Every single time I press the shutter release my intent is to share with anybody who will take a moment to look the beauty and magnificence I see across this rare piece of earth; this sun-splashed, cloud streaked sky.

The drive home is through country I know as well as any in the world. Up through Choteau, a side trip to visit a rancher on Dupuyer Creek, and then Bynum and Browning. I take the Duck Lake Road – past the North Fork Ranch where I’ve spent so much time hunting the light on the eastern flank of Glacier National Park – to Saint Mary’s Lake and cross the border at Peigan. There’s a storm over Waterton and the Castle region, so instead of one last visit there this fall I go north through Claresholm and head west at Nanton and follow the lovely Willow Creek between the north and south Porcupine Hills. At Longview I head west again, choosing to drive out the Highwood River valley. The sun is setting as I pass familiar landmarks – the Rio Alto, the Stampede and the Buffalo Head Ranches – and press on towards the gap in the mountains where the Foothills end and the Front Range begin.

The sun is low; there are long shadows at play between the slender trunks of aspens trees: the leaves so golden at this very moment that it pains me to look at them. Fall is so short and winter long that I want to walk up into those trees and lay down and not leave until the last leaf has fallen. I don’t. The light is fading. I take the same photograph’s I’ve taken two dozen times once more. I know I’ll be back again. This isn’t the end of everything; it’s just the end of this project. It’s the beginning of the next phase of my work and I’m looking forward to the next two months when I get to sift back through billions of electrons and watch again as my journey for the last few years – really for the last twenty years – unfolds once more under my editorializing eye. It will all be here when I return – the aspens, the hills, the sunlight – but somehow that’s cold comfort as I frame a few final photographs as the sun slips behind the Bull Hills.

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The final frame: just before leaving the foothills and entering the mountains. This image won’t end up in the book or likely ever been seen again, but its the last scene I shot for the Earth and Sky project. Bull Hills, Alberta.

Another few minutes and I pass the trail to Grass Pass and the Eyrie Gap and then I’m heading north towards Highwood Pass. I realize: that was it. That was the last frame of the project. I’ve slipped the gap and am in the mountains proper now and the foothills and Rocky Mountain Front are behind me. Behind me stretches a long path filled beyond full with gratitude for the gift of being able to immerse myself in a piece of country and the wild things and wild people who inhabit it. Ahead of me the road stretches out towards new possibilities. I’m humbled that I get to live this life doing what I love and sharing it with a few folks along the way.

A few thoughts upon the publicaiton of my 10th book

BlackSunDescending_3inMy tenth book is officially available in book stores this week. Black Sun Descending is the second book in the Red Rock Canyon trilogy. Set in the American Southwest it chronicles the efforts of Silas Pearson, a University Professor turned desert rat, who is searching the canyons and mesas for his missing wife, Penelope de Silva. Penelope set out on a hike nearly five years previous and never returned. Silas, worn thin by the search, and plagued by nightmares where his wife leads him to the discovery of bodies buried in the desert around Moab, Utah, has never given up.

Black Sun Descending is set in Utah, and also at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Arizona, and around the Glen Canyon Dam. The first book in the series, The Slickrock Paradox, is widely available. The final book in the trilogy, The Same River Twice, will be released next year at this time.

If you had asked me ten years ago today if I’d be celebrating the release of my 10th book I would have thought you both mad, and a little cruel.

Ten years ago I had yet to publish a single book. I had a stack of PFO (please flounce off) letters, that in the words of William Faulkner I could use to “wall paper my room.” I had been methodically pitching book ideas to publishers for a decade at that point. I had a chart. No surprise there. In one column were my various book ideas, myriad even back then. In the next, the publisher who, according to both the Canadian and US Writer’s Market books I might be able to trick into publishing my tomes.

At that point I had all but given up on freelance writing, after publishing about one-hundred and fifty stories in various magazines, journals, newsletters, napkins, etc. It was just too much bloody work for too little return on investment. It was books or bust, and it was looking dangerously like bust.

In 2005 something happened that changed all that. I moved from Canmore, Alberta to Victoria, BC, and on the way stopped off in Vancouver for a week. I had pitched Arsenal Press on a book idea a few months before and called the Publisher Brian Lam and he invited me to come in and meet with him. I expected it to be another interesting, but nearly pointless conversation, and believe I may have been stunned speechless when Brian told me they wanted to publish my book Carry Tiger to Mountain: The Tao of Activism and Leadership, and would a small advance be OK?

I remember walking back to where I was staying to break the news to friends and family thinking, Holy Crap (I used a different word but this is a family friendly BLOG), this is really going to happen!

By the time Carry Tiger came out the following year, I was already falling into a familiar pattern of pitching my next books before the previous one comes out. It took two years, but The Cardinal Divide was accepted up by the nice people at NeWest Press and was released in 2008. Two years later came the next book in the Cole Blackwater mystery series: The Darkening Archipelago.

Things picked up in pace after that, and in the last four years I’ve published eight more books, including the first two in the Durrant Wallace historical-mystery series, and Running Toward Stillness, a collection of essays on Buddhism, running, family and personal catastrophe turned poignant learning opportunity.

It’s hard to remember what it felt like ten years ago, believing that I would never publish a book. Hard, but not impossible: it felt like there was something empty inside of me. It felt as if my life’s purpose, or at least a part of it, would be left unfulfilled. It was frustrating and sometimes made me angry to see what some publishers chose to release instead of my books. At times it made me a little cynical.

This isn’t a rags to riches story. Despite having published a fair mess of books in the last eight years, I’m not making much money from them, and that’s a source of frustration for both me and my publishers. A publisher needs to sell a thousand books to break even, and only a couple of mine have done that. Sometimes when discussing book sales with my publishers I simply can’t believe how hard it is to make a buck in this business these days.

Books making money means I get to write more books: it’s a simple equation. If a publisher keeps taking risks that your next book will pay off for the press, and it doesn’t, then the publisher decides to invest elsewhere. Writing books is a business, one I’m happy to be a part of. Yes, it’s a creative exercise and part of the manifestation of my Dharma and all that, but it’s one with a bottom line. If all I cared about was communicating my thoughts and ideas to the unsuspecting, unwarned public then I’d write more blog posts.

That said, I keep writing books as fast as my publishers will print them. I have a different chart these days, one with book ideas on them and which publisher has agreed to usher that volume into the world. I’ve got a lot more book ideas than publishers, but at least I know where my next half-dozen books are going to land. The book ideas are essentially always pounding on my head, and I have to get up early so I have time to let them out. There are about forty ideas on that chart, so even if I can keep up the pace of two books a year, which seems unlikely, I’ll be in my mid-sixties before all of my current ideas see the light of day. And the ideas don’t stop coming.

I suppose my final through on the publication of my 10th books is of gratitude. First, to the people who have supported me through all of this. My partner Jenn first and foremost: writers are distracted, often preoccupied, dreamy and distant. We squirrel ourselves away in our writing spaces at odd hours – for me that’s most mornings at 5 am – and emerge bleary eyed and in need of caffeine and coddling. Jenn puts up with all of this and so much more.

My publishers – Arsenal, NeWest, TouchWood and Rocky Mountain Books – have all taken a chance on me and for most that chance has yielded only the pleasure of my company and some nicely turned out phrases. Thanks gang. I’ll keep trying.

And my readers; yes, I know there are lots of you out there, and it’s for you that I rise early and keep banging holes in my keyboard, churning out stories and essays and captions for photos. Thanks for making it possible for me to live my dream for the last eight years; you make me want to write better, more thoughtfully, with more passion, so that together we experience the mystery and delight of being alive on this strange blue world.

The Last Book

I’ve never read anything by David Rakoff but I guess I’ll have to start.

The trouble is, I suspect I’ll fall in love, and it’s going to be bitter sweet because as just about everybody knows, David died of cancer last year.

On the weekend The Globe and Mail published a story on David’s last book, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish. The story was part eulogy and part biography and part review, and it made me want to go out and read everything Rakoff has written.

I always joke when people say to me, “I just read your last book.” I smile or laugh and say “do you know something I don’t?” Then they correct themselves, or I do it for them as some king of a grammatical service and say “my most recent book, you mean.”

But who knows?

That’s the trouble with writing; it’s never over until it’s over. It’s not like there’s an allotment of ideas for each writer and you use them up and then that’s it. It’s that way when I’m behind my camera too. I bet it’s that way for artists of all mediums.

Edward Abbey, one of my favourite non-fiction writers, always mused about writing The Fat Masterpiece and then retiring on the exorbitant royalties he would receive, smoke evil cigars and contemplate his own genius. But pretty much to the moment of his death he was writing, in his case the sequel to The Monkey Wrench Gang called Hayduke Lives (which sort of spoils the first book’s suspense). Abbey admitted it wasn’t a very good book, and it wasn’t, and that he did it for the money; not for him – he knew he was dying when he wrote it – but for his family.

I wonder how that feels? As I read the Globe piece on David Kakoff’s final book, and then the NY Times essay on the same,  I wondered how it must have felt for someone so dedicated to literature to know, as he did, that the words he was writing would be his last.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I have a lot of ideas. The truth is I have a lot of ideas but really I’m just trying to find different ways of getting to the main point. The thought that any one book might be the last is deeply unsettling. I guess if that one book, the last one, is truly outstanding, and conveys what the writer hopes to impart his or her readers with, then they could retire or expire knowing they had left the world having done their best work.

But creativity doesn’t seem to work that way. It seems to me that the writer, the photographer, the artist, is always trying to find the perfect words, the perfect light, the perfect shape that expresses how she or he feels about this life, the world, and one another. So we write another book, shoot another sunset, sing another song, paint another canvas or throw another bowl on the wheel because maybe, with each renewed effort, we will create something beautiful or hilarious, touching or disconcerting that says “this is what I wanted to tell you about how I feel.”

And then we do it again.

Knowing that something – a book, a photograph, a play, a sculpture – is going to be the last one could be heartbreaking. It could be overwhelming. It could be a relief too, but a bitter sweet one at best.

I’ll pick up David Rakoff’s new book, and for me it won’t be his last.

Two for the price of one

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:

  1. Write an outline and follow it until the story itself makes a compelling case to go in a new direction.
  2. Don’t get distracted by other writing (which is why this is my second blog post in the last three and a half months).
  3. Have a routine. Write at the same time every day. Whatever works for you. Mine is early mornings and lots of tea.
  4. Write in layers: start with plot, ad dialog, character development, setting, etc as you proceed through subsequent drafts.
  5. 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.

Writing in the Real World

A few days ago I finished the first draft of what will be my tenth novel. I took a few hours off and the next morning began work on the story edits of what will be book number nine. Next week I’m going to be reviewing the galleys for book number eight. This is a dream come true; it’s what I’ve spent the last twenty-five years practicing for; to be an author with a steady stream of books being published and people finding enjoyment reading them.

The challenge for me is that all of this writing takes place not in the fictional world where authors retreat to the woods, or to a sea side resort in the Bahamas’ to pen their masterpiece, but amid the chaos and distracts of everyday life.

This morning I was working through the edits on The Glacier Gallows; this will be the fourth book in the Cole Blackwater series. The story edit process is a tough one. I have an amazing editor who knows my work well and helps me craft and hone each story. I write the book, but she keeps me from getting bogged down, repeating myself, or from making some egregious procedural mistakes with my crime fiction.

The Glacier Gallows has been a pretty easy edit so far. I have to re-write a few sections, but for the most part things are moving along well. That said, it does require concentration, and when I’m deep into the story, it’s sometimes hard to extricate myself to deal with the world around me.

So it was this morning. The boys needed supervision and there were logistics to be sorted out and all I really wanted to do was stay absorbed in what I was doing. Returning to the real world from the fictional one  didn’t go well. I wasn’t at my best.

But that’s the way it’s got to be. I don’t have the luxury of being able to disappear four or five times a year to pen first drafts and do story edits. And I wouldn’t want to miss my real world for anything. Every morning is a blessing; to wake to find I have a healthy, beautiful family, a full-time job making the world a better place, and the ability to venture out into the surrounding mountains to ride, run or ski. Sure, these things require me to parse out my time transfixed by the imaginary world of my characters, my essays, and my photography, but they are what fuels my creativity, and I couldn’t have one without the other.

Plowing Through

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.

Black Sun Rising

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.

The Hardest Book I’ve Ever Written

The hardest book I’ve ever written is set to be released in the coming weeks (mid March, 2013). The Third Riel Conspiracy is the second novel in the Durrant Wallace Series of historically themed murder mysteries, and is my seventh published book. It was hard to write in several ways: the research was hard; the writing process was hard; and the editorial process was by far the hardest I’ve gone through.

The book follows Durrant – the one-legged North West Mounted Policeman – from the newly minted town of Calgary to the battlefield of Batoche at the apex of the Northwest Rebellion. He arrives during the chaos of the final day of the four day battle to find that a man has been murdered in the Zareba, the African inspired fortifications erected by the Northwest field force. A Métis man is in irons for the crime, but Durrant suspects that there is more to the murder than simple revenge.

When I started working on the Durrant Wallace series in 2007 I quickly plotted out the first three or four books in the series. This is how I’ve approached all of my writing projects. I don’t think in terms of single books, but narrative arcs that continue over several volumes. The first book in the series, The End of the Line, was published in the fall of 2011, and by the time it came out I was already neck-deep in the second volume.

That was the first thing that was hard: the research. Writing historical fiction isn’t like penning a regular mystery novel. In addition to mapping out the plot of the story and ensuring that the settings are accurate – something that I think is very important – there is the additional challenge of matching the storyline with the actual events of history.

In the case of The Third Riel Conspiracy, that meant doing a great deal of reading about the Northwest Rebellion and actually visiting many of the places in the book. Starting in the summer of 2009 I began reading dozens of books on the history of this seminal period of Canada’s development. The roots of the second Northwest Rebellion were in the uprising of 1870 in Fort Garry so I had to reach back that far in my research. The conspiracies that form the backbone of the novel’s plot are based on actual political skulduggery at the time so I made a chart of the real life machinations afoot and then changed them to meet my needs. (Interestingly Riel and his colleagues’ sentiment in 1885 was that “the west wants in;” 100 years later the Reform Party would use that same sentiment as a motto but with a much different result.)

I tried my best to understand the various motivations – religious, social and political – for the return of Louis Riel from Sun River, Montana to the Saskatchewan Territory in late 1884 and use those to create suspects for the murder. This gave me the chance to explore each of these themes in turn throughout the novel. In addition, I wanted to tell the story of the Battle of Batoche, a fascinating and often overlooked marker in our nation’s history, but didn’t want to reduce myself to mere exposition. Instead, I selected four key suspects and through Durrant’s interrogation of them revealed the events of the four-day conflagration.

I made dozens of pages of notes and charts and printed maps of the battleground and created a detailed timeline that placed my characters into the context of the real action of the day. As is my custom, I created a thorough outline of the book – what happens in each chapter, and how the characters interact – before I started writing. I made a chart of all the suspects – and there are a fair number in this novel – and then created a list of red-herrings that would be used to distract the reader from the actual killer.

All of this took place in the summer and fall of 2009. It was obvious that I would have to visit Saskatchewan, so instead of taking a trip to Utah to ride our mountain bikes, Jenn and I went on a four- thousand-kilometer road trip from our home in Victoria BC to the battlefields of the Resistance: Fort Pitt, Frenchman’s Butte, Fort Carlton, and finally Batoche National Historic Site. My wife is a good sport.

Photo taken from a grown-over riffle pit on Frenchman's Butte, looking toward the ground held by General Strange during that skirmish.

This on the ground research was vital. While I had a vague sense of the landscape from reading the historical accounts of the conflict, seeing it, feeling it underfoot, breathing in the prairie air, was critical to being able to write about the place, and for understanding the origin of the uprising. It was very much about the land and the Métis and First Nations relationship with these beautiful places.

When we got back from the trip we were distracted by our upcoming move back to the Canadian Rockies (we had bought a house in Canmore on the final leg of the journey) and writing The Third Riel Conspiracy got put on the back-burner. It would be a year before I took it up again.

That was the second thing that made writing this book so difficult: the time lapse between research and writing. I’ve outlined some of these problems in more detail in the section of my blog I call “deconstructing draft one.” The main problem was that my notes, while plentiful, left me guessing in places about what I wanted to happen, to whom, and when. I didn’t have to start over once at the keyboard, but I did have to reconstruct some of the plot.

Reconstructed gate at Fort Pitt.

The next challenge was fitting the actual historical events into the timeline I had constructed for my characters. Durrant Wallace is a sergeant in the Northwest Mounted Police, but because there was no official investigative branch in the NWMP, he operates outside of his jurisdiction. He reports to Sam Steele, who during the period of the Battle of Batoche was more than 300 miles away, tracking the Plains Cree and Big Bear as they fled towards Frenchman’s Butte and Steele’s Narrows. I had a critical exchange that I needed to engineer between the two men, but they couldn’t just text each other; I had to get them in the same place at the same time. Steel stopped at the burned-out Fort Pitt at one point, so that’s where the scene would take place. I had to jimmy dates and Durrant’s progress in the investigation to allow him to arrive at Fort Pitt the same time Steele would. It worked, but it took several tries to get the dates aligned.

Similar challenges occurred with Leif Croizer, who was the Deputy Commissioner of the NWMP at the time. I took some liberties there.

Undoubtedly the greatest challenge with writing the book was how to address Louis Riel. More than one-hundred and twenty-five years after his execution, Riel remains one of the most contentious characters in Canadian history. One possible motivation for the murder in this book was the complex web of politics that surrounded his life, and death. I figured that having Riel as an actual character in the book would be a flashpoint for controversy, but only he could have the critical piece of information that Durrant Wallace would need in order to find the real killer in the novel.

You’ll have to read the book to judge how I handled this challenge.

The cemetery and Mission church at Batoche; the scene of heavy fighting on day one and day four of the battle, and where the Métis killed during the fighting were buried.

The final challenge for this book (so far) occurred when I sent it to my publisher, and the book went through the inevitable story-editing hell. I love my publisher, and I love my editor. We’ve worked together on five books now, including The Third Riel Conspiracy, and the upcoming Glacier Gallows, and without a doubt they have made every single one of those books better. But it isn’t easy. Buy the time I press send on another novel, shipping it off to the publisher, I’ve spent several years with the book. I’ve dreamt about it; I’ve sweated bullets over dialog; I’ve made painful decisions about, as Bob Seger says, “what to leave in and what to leave out.”

So I’m attached. I try not to be, but inevitably when the edits start rolling in, I realize that I am.

The Third Riel edits were very difficult. I’m not going to go into details, because it’s water under the bridge, but suffice to say that for the first time in decades I seriously considered stopping writing. It lasted for a few weeks. On a good day I require a pretty heavy hand when it comes to edits, but The Third Riel was by far the most red ink I’ve ever seen. I plowed my way through, frustrated and a little despondent, wondering how it could be that seven books into my writing career I was still making all the same mistakes. I got through them, and with a pep talk from my publisher, got excited once more about writing. But there were some pretty dark days during the editorial process for this book.

The book should be back from the printer this week, which means soon I’ll get my shipment of complementary copies, and will experience once more the excitement of opening the box, smelling that fresh-printed-ink smell, and get to fondle a copy of The Third Riel Conspiracy for the first time. I know from experience when that happens all the challenges of creating the book will dim and I’ll get to feel the excitement of holding this creation in my hands.

I don’t know if this being the hardest book I’ve ever written will equate to being the best book I’ve written. I’d like to think that’s true for every book I write, which would mean that my writing is always improving. That’s for you to decide.

Addressing what Slickrock Paradox does not

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?