The Sun

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!


Fifty-eight

I became a novelist at age fifty-eight.

That’s as crazy as it sounds. What’s the normal career path for a novelist, if such a thing even exists anymore? Start young, earn a creative writing degree, find a job, write day-and-night, take a second job, keep writing, hook an agent, get published, garner praise, write the next novel, win awards, become a social media star, write another book, pray again, grow your career, build your platform, earn a living if you’re lucky, sell the TV rights if you’re luckier.

Me

The wrong career path, I suspect, is to publish your first novel at fifty-eight. No writing degree, no agent, no platform, no awards. For nearly twenty years, I ran a nonprofit conservation organization called The Quivira Coalition that I cofounded with a rancher. I did a ton of writing as part of my duties, but all of it was heavy nonfiction stuff. I hadn’t planned to pen a novel – until I decided to give it a go. It didn’t feel crazy because that’s what writers do. We write. I didn’t want to write just one novel, however, I wanted to write a bunch of them. A series, possibly. I knew my timing was terrible and the path forward ridiculously difficult, but I’m the sort of person who doesn’t follow paths very well anyway. I like to find my own way. That makes life harder, but more interesting. Stick close to the edge, the views are better!

The decision to become a novelist didn’t arrive out-of-the-blue. I dabbled in creative writing over the years, including two screenplays that I wrote during my film school days at UCLA. In the mid-1990s, I worked out the plot for a murder mystery set in Old West. I also wrote a two-act play titled Canyonlands, which is set in a bicycle shop in southern Utah during the glory years of the so-called New West. However, my work at the Quivira Coalition precluded any major literary endeavors, though I put a great of energy into essay writing.

All that changed in 2010 when I stood on the Rialto Bridge in Venice on my 50th birthday and decided to start writing books. A sequence of nonfiction publications followed each focused on the hopefulness of regenerative agriculture and other save-the-world schemes. I intended to keep going, but I had begun to suffer from a serious case of futuritis which necessitated a change of gears professionally. Besides, stories were drifting into my head – fiction stories – occupying larger and larger amounts of my addled brain, sort of like hearing voices.

They were voices I decided to heed.

The Grass Canoe

This is a journal about my 30+ year career telling hopeful stories about land and people, starting with my decision to become a novelist at age fifty-eight.

I chose this particular title because my creative journey has been as unconventional and daunting as trying to navigate a river in a canoe made of grass. That I made it this far is something of a miracle. From the beginning, I knew my mission in life was to chronicle our times. I was drawn to archaeology and anthropology initially though I knew I would never be a scientist or academic. What I really wanted to be was an ethnographer – someone who studies a people and their culture during a particular time and place. I began by creatively examining the American West, my home ground, eventually becoming a participant-observer with my decision to start the nonprofit Quivira Coalition in 1997. My activism, which I always considered to be a form of storytelling, took me to a hopeful and wonderful land, expanding horizons and provoking new creative responses. Eventually, my adventure down the river carried me beyond Quivira and I adjusted my chronicling accordingly. Looking back, I see that my work, in all its variations, achieved my original goal. It forms a creative ethnography, not of a people or place so much as of a time – The Age of Consequences.

My journey in the grass canoe began in a small stream in the desert and flowed downriver in twists and turns, sometimes slow, sometimes fast, sometimes eddying, sometimes discouraging, sometimes anxious, but always exciting and always hopeful. The water grew wider and deeper as I went, which changed the nature of the journey in ways I didn’t expect, challenging my faith in the future at times. Still, you keep paddling and pray that your little canoe can hold together just long enough to see what’s around the next bend. Life should be an adventure – make it a good one!