Talk about a thrill for a novelist!
While visiting Collected Works, our wonderful local bookstore, I was surprised and delighted to see The Sun 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 (mostly in a burst during college). 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. It’s an honor to share a table with him!
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 (though less so as a person), 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 Collected Works has essentially disappeared in recent years, reflecting, I suspect, a significant change in reading habits and interests, sadly. Apparently, ‘save-the-planet’ books, once prolific, don’t hold the same appeal anymore. I can’t say I’m surprised given current events – but that’s a topic for another day.