The novel that I published in October is called The Sun: a Mystery.
It wasn’t the first novel I wrote – I’ll discuss that book later – but it was the first one I could make available to readers. I’ve had the idea for the story since early 2015, though the desire to transform my experiences with the Quivira Coalition into fiction extended back by at least a decade. The environmental and cultural landscape I was getting to know well through my nonprofit work was so rich and ripe with characters and possibilities that it practically begged for a plot. But what plot? As I traveled around the American West visiting with progressive ranchers and farmers and becoming familiar with the issues confronting the region’s land and people, I kept an eye out for potential story lines. Trouble was the nonfiction angle on these issues was fantastic enough. Feed the world with regenerative agriculture? Mitigate climate change with soil microbes? Work together in the radical center to bridge cultural divides for the benefit of all? That already sounded like fiction!
Then in January 2015 a small plot popped into my mind involving an outsider who inherits a large historic ranch without warning. I’m not certain where the idea came from – part of the enigma of how imaginations work, I suppose – but as I toyed with its possibilities a world began to unfold itself. I made some quick decisions. First, the main character would be a she. Second, she would be a doctor – Gen and I come from doctor families. Third, her specialty would be bone cancer, which I knew very little about other than it was a devastating disease. In the back of my mind, I was already thinking about the link between her work and a cancer cluster situation in the story that I would develop. Fourth, our hero flies out to New Mexico from back East someplace – Boston, say – to sell the ranch to the highest bidder, but her plans are foiled when a ranch hand is found dead in a cattle tank…murdered. A mystery novel? Hmm. Why not? Alright, then. But who would commit such a terrible crime? I had no idea.
Here’s what I jotted down in my writing notebook at the time: “There are a range of suspects, all of whom want the ranch, and she’s menaced at various times. Her ranching neighbor gets shot and she saves his life with her medical skills [this didn’t happen], introducing new characters to the story. She works an intense 10-day schedule and then goes surfing. She can’t make up her mind…events come to a boil…the story ends with her decision to keep the ranch, defying everyone, especially the murderer.”
Except I didn’t know was the murderer was yet!
The trouble with my decision to write a mystery is that I’ve never been a mystery reader. In my youth, my reading habits were shaped by two sources that stuck with me. The first was my passionately devoted book-reading mother who had eyes mainly for serious literature, particularly William Faulkner and other southern writers (she hailed from West Virginia). She also loved biographies of great writers and I have fond memories of books scattered around our house featuring cover photos of stern-looking authors. Inevitably, I picked a few up. I was soon hooked, especially on the books of Joseph Conrad, whose dark themes and exotic locations appealed to my young heart. He was stern-looking too! My mother’s tastes weren’t all sturm-und-drang, however. I know she loved the racetrack mysteries of Dick Francis – I just didn’t pick them up. I stuck with the serious stuff. As an aside, when my father, who was not a reader, discovered a family connection to Faulkner on his side of our family tree my mother nearly died of envy.
The other literary source was my rapidly growing interest in the environment and literature of the American West. Exploring the region physically as well as intellectually during my high school years, I discovered Wallace Stegner, Edward Abbey, and other western writers, consuming their books with a passion as fervent as my mother’s. I tried to introduce them to her, but she wasn’t interested. John Steinbeck was tolerable in her eyes (he won the Noble Prize after all), but that was it. In her defense, my mother never warmed up to the West. She moved to Phoenix, where I grew up, reluctantly and never adjusted to the city’s reputation as an unsophisticated ‘cow town.’ It was an attitude she extended to the region. It wasn’t just her of course. Many literary critics were dismissive of ‘western writers’ (and continue to be). I never understood why the South could be considered a legitimate source of ‘serious’ literature but not the West. Anyway, after college I quickly expanded my reading on the region, devouring as many words as I could, fiction and nonfiction alike. On the mystery front, I read nearly the entire oeuvre of Tony Hillerman, set in Navajo country, which I enjoyed.
So, it was a thrill to see my book on display at Collected Works, our wonderful local bookstore, sitting on the fiction table next to Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, a book that had a big influence on me as a young man. Abbey was a hero of mine and I read nearly every book he wrote. He inspired my early interest in the American West and conservation. I thought he was a fine writer, though maybe a bit too breezy and polemical at times. Perfectly in tune with the era, his work had a big impact in the wider world, especially within the wilderness movement. Toward the end of his life, Abbey struggled to complete a sprawling novel that he sardonically called (as I remember) his “fat masterpiece.” Although Abbey’s writing was widely respected, he chafed at the label of being an “environmental” writer. That’s where you would often find him in a bookstore, lumped in with more traditional conservation fare. I think he wanted to be taken more seriously as an author and despite having written a masterpiece already – Desert Solitaire – he set out to write a big work of fiction. Unfortunately, the book – A Fool’s Progress – wasn’t well received, as I recall, but I admired his desire to push personal boundaries, the sign of a true writer, in my opinion.
As much as I admired Edward Abbey as a writer, he wasn’t very helpful as a mentor for composing a mystery. Although his fiction often confronted the inexplicable and contradictory ways of human behavior, including his own, and his plots were occasionally peppered with a dead body, Abbey never wrote a mystery per se. Nevertheless, the ‘high drama’ of much of his writing and the ‘placeness’ of the western lands they inhabited provided a useful backdrop to the composition of a mystery, I thought, especially one set in the Southwest as I intended to do. Abbey was also funny, which was refreshing in a genre – environmental writing – that was notoriously pious and gloomy. It was an admirable quality and one that I stored in the back of my mind for writing purposes. By the way, the ‘environmental’ section of bookstores has noticeably shrunk over the years, I noticed, reflecting an important change in reading habits and interests among Americans, I suspect. Apparently, ‘save-the-planet’ books, once prolific, don’t hold the same appeal anymore – but that’s a topic for another day.