BOOKTHINK: Your character, Anna Pigeon, often draws on her strong relationship with her sister Molly. Is Anna's sister a reflection of your relationship with your sister?
BARR: It is - I have no imagination at all. My sister's name is Molly. She is not a psychiatrist, but she's my psychiatrist, and we talk on the phone constantly. I kind of mix who Molly is to me with my Aunt Peg, who was a hard-edged third grade school teacher in Long Island.
BOOKTHINK: I just love Molly's character, too. She and Anna are perfect in the books, and I love their conversations.
BARR: Now that you say that, I've kind of gotten away from Molly in the later books. She hasn't gone anywhere. Part of that is, in the first book, you are looking for ways for this loner to be able to air her thoughts. If it was in the theatre, you could just do monologues. But in a book you can't, so I came up with the sister thing. And of course since I hadn't read any murder mysteries, I thought that having her be a psychiatrist was just the coolest, most unique thing in the world. Later, of course, I find out that every sleuth in the world has a psychiatrist sister, but at the time I thought it was new. Also, Anna talking to her animals serves the purpose of the monologues for me.
BOOKTHINK: I love that Anna is a loner. I can relate to her and probably a lot of people can.
BARR: I thought that she would seem so bizarre that people might not relate to her because she was based on me, and sometimes I don't work and play well with others. But I think all of us have that part in us that is lonely and/or likes to be alone and can't quite decide - and that part of us that really does like to kick ass and win. In fact, I remember one interviewer said, "I love it that Anna's so neurotic." I said, "She's not neurotic; she's like the rest of us."
BOOKTHINK: I personally need to recharge by myself with nature - and with quiet. Sometimes I really can't wait to enjoy some silence.
BARR: Oh, yeah. I absolutely adore my husband. But he goes on hiking trips a couple of times a year with his friends, and they carry heavy objects through harsh terrain. And I look forward to those times; I love them. I don't know what I do; I don't do anything different. It's just that you don't have to think about anybody or anything.
BOOKTHINK: It's time to reflect and download.
BARR: Just wander around being completely totally your own self in your own skin with nobody there because people press on people, even if they sit quietly in the other room; they press on you.
BOOKTHINK: In today's society, people don't get enough time to do that. There's always something pressing on you. Thank God for people like you that write books we can get lost in. There's nothing I like better than going to bed, propping up my pillows and losing myself into somebody else's life story.
BARR: Exactly. I drag a glass of wine, a cat and a book to bed, and I'm so happy.
BOOKTHINK: I have not read your first novel, Bittersweet. What inspired you to write that first book?
BARR: It actually wasn't my first novel, but it was the first book I published. The motto of my alma mater is "Learn by Doing," and I always learned things the hard way; I never learned from other people's mistakes - I like to make each one myself. I'd written one kind of "cowboy" book because I'd grown up on westerns and loved those; it had a female hero and was a bit uneven, but I liked it. And in this second one, I was inspired by two women in San Diego who were thrown out of the Navy for being gay. And then I had all of this strange cowboy, Nevada desert stuff from growing up there and from my research on the first book. And so I just started in. I was still feeling my way trying to figure out how to write, and I decided to write it as if it was a movie, so everything had to be seen; you couldn't write "Joe felt sad." You had to show it like it was a movie. I think it was great training, and the book turned out not too bad. It's a story about two women who fall in love and buy an old stage stop in the 1800's out in the Nevada desert.
BOOKTHINK: When was Bittersweet published?
BARR: It was published in 1983. I remember because I thought, "Now here we go - I'm a writer!" And I didn't publish another book for ten years.
BOOKTHINK: Was that a fairly successful book? The theme brings to mind the success of the film "Brokeback Mountain," which of course was based on a short story by Annie Proulx.
BARR: This was 1983. The publishing house really didn't know what to do with it. A neo-gothic lesbian western? I think it sold 1200 copies and then went out of print. Five years later, a lesbian press in San Francisco picked it up, and it did pretty well as a trade paperback. That was way before any kind of homosexuality in mainstream novels happened.
BOOKTHINK: It's probably a valuable book right now in the rare book market.
BARR: Oh, it is because they only sold 1200 of them, and Mama bought most of them and libraries bought the rest - there's about three of them on the market. It can, of course, be purchased in paperback. Avon brought it out awhile back, and I think it's still in print. I've made more money in residuals over the last 25 years than I did for the original sale of it. I think I sold it for $6500.
BOOKTHINK: Writing - you've got to love it, don't you? Really, for the amount of sweat and thought and struggle that goes into it.
BARR: I sold my first book in 1983 and I started my first book when I was 29; I started making a living when I was 42.
BOOKTHINK: And you are one of the most successful writers.
BARR: I think it's because I simply never quit.
BOOKTHINK: That's the key to everything, isn't it?
BARR: My father, who has been dead a long time, he was so cool; he was my "John Wayne." He died of Lou Gehrig's disease. He said to me, "Sometimes Honey, you just have to wear the bastards down." And that's what I did, and I learned to write.
BOOKTHINK: Track of the Cat won both the Agatha and Anthony awards for best first mystery - is that correct?
BARR: That's correct, and Firestorm won the Prix du Roman award. I got a first class ticket to Paris on that one!
BOOKTHINK: Were you just on top of the world?
BARR: It was interesting, because I didn't know what to be when I got all the recognition for Track of the Cat. I'd sold the one book and then nothing sold for ten years. I'd written a lot of stuff - it wasn't that I wasn't writing - it just wasn't selling. And then I wrote this one, and it got published and I got my $7500 or whatever it was, and they told me it was up for these awards, and I had no idea what these awards were or what they meant. So when I got them, of course, I was excited; anytime you are in a competition you want to win. Getting awards after your first novel is fun. But it really drags you out of the pack, and thank God I didn't know how important that was or I wouldn't have enjoyed it a bit. As it was, I was just thrilled. And then I found out that it actually meant success and another book contract.
BOOKTHINK: What do you think it was about Track of the Cat that really garnered attention?
BARR: I think it was kind of a confluence of things. I think that it actually was a good book, so that helped, but that alone doesn't make it; I think the character was unique, which is good, but doesn't necessarily make it. My friend, Tom Gifford, who I'd known for many years and through many failed books - I sent it to him because I sent everything I wrote to him (and most of it was pretty bad), and he wrote back and said, "I was going to suggest that a friend of mine review this, but I'm going to review it." I was thrilled. He reviewed it in USA Today and gave it a walk-on-water review. I think that catapulted it up to where the publishers thought, "Let's back this."
BOOKTHINK: The book left me hungry for more too because the character, Anna Pigeon, really draws you in.
BARR: You know, I didn't know she would because I didn't know there were so many women out there who shared all these feelings. You know we are all pretty isolated in our own little worlds.
BOOKTHINK: It was a revelation?
BARR: It was! And it was a huge relief because I'd always felt like, you know, you feel like you are alone, freaky in your little own self. Then you go to a book signing in New York and you look around and there are 150 twenty-seven year old women with crooked front teeth, and you say to yourself, "I guess I'm not alone!"
BOOKTHINK: You also paint - you're an artist. I've got to hear a little more about that.
BARR: I've always drawn but never anything seriously. Then I started doing paper cuttings. And the reason I did art with paper cutting is because - have you ever tried painting with watercolors? That's the only kind of painting I had any knowledge of. I couldn't do it. It's totally unforgiving. One wrong move and it's garbage, and you have to throw it out. My sister, who was a digital artist, took up acrylic painting, and she said "you know, it's great - you make a mistake, you paint over it, it's dry in ten minutes, and you go ahead with it." So I started doing it as sort of an antidote to words. You really can't think verbally when you are painting; it just doesn't work. A friend of mine had an art gallery in Clinton, Mississippi and told me she'd give me a show. It sounded fun, so I spent four months painting eight hours a day. I got together a show; all the paintings were of cats, and we sold $5,000 worth of paintings to raise money for the animal shelter. By then, it had become something that I do. And I paint 3, 5 or 8 hours every day. Now, I'm not making a living at all, but last year I made $11,000. It is so much fun! If I could quit writing and just paint, I would, but, you know, it would ruin the fun of painting then. It's the perfect antidote because I don't have to make a living at it.
BOOKTHINK: You paint under a different name, right? (Paxton, her married name.)
BARR: I painted all my animal paintings under Nevada Barr, and the proceeds went to various animal shelters. And then for some reason I joined this gallery in the Quarter. It's a co-op and you pay $250/month rent and you have to work there 4 days a month, and you have your space. I placed my cat paintings there. They weren't selling; I was maybe making rent on a lucky day. One day I was in a cranky mood and I was painting (you can actually paint while you are there, putting your hours in), and I painted a woman with a gun. And the "Woman with Gun" series took off - it's selling great!
BOOKTHINK: In New Orleans, why not? It would probably take off in Savannah, Georgia too.
BARR: Probably would. We have two psychologists who work at the gallery, and one of them said to me, "You know, you start a different line of painting every time you start a different book." So this year it's the "Witches of New Orleans" and I'm painting women with cats.
BOOKTHINK: Have any filmmakers approached you about your books?
BARR: What they do is option the character, more or less. Track of the Cat was optioned for ten or so years, and every year I'd get the option renewed and they'd give me some money, and it was shopped here and there and almost came to fruition a couple of times, but nothing ever came of it. And I never much minded because you don't have any creative control when a book goes to a film maker. They can cast whoever they want. Remember the movie with Meryl Streep as a river raft guide, and Kevin Bacon (The River Wild)? It was a good movie, but it got kind of "Thelma and Louise" PMS type reviews. I think America still doesn't want a middle-aged female action hero.
BOOKTHINK: I always think PBS does a good job with mysteries.
BARR: Yes, if the BBC would do it; but they have such awful southern accents, those English! Their Sherlock Holmes series was terrific - when they did The Speckled Band, starring Jeremy Brett, they had the most neurotic, marvelous Sherlock Holmes in the world, and finally Dr. Watson wasn't a fat boob. He was a person that Sherlock Holmes actually would have had as a companion.
BOOKTHINK: Tell me a little about Winter Study, your latest Anna Pigeon book.
BARR: You know, I was here when Hurricane Katrina hit. It absolutely blasted me and Julie Smith and Laura Jo Rollins and pretty much every single New Orleans writer out of the water for awhile. So I hadn't published an Anna Pigeon book in a couple of years. When I came back, I wanted to come back with something that would bring me back in - picking up a story like that is like putting on a wet bathing suit. I wanted to do something that would be worthy for people to still remember me because two years gone is a long time in the business. I'd always wanted to do Winter Study on Isle Royale. It was like Blind Descent or Firestorm - it was one of those places that people just kind of know about but you can't get there from here. So I started nagging and pestering the Superintendent and Rolf Peterson the Wolf Man to spend a couple of weeks in January on Isle Royal with the Wolf/Moose Study Team. For one thing, it's completely undiscovered territory in murder mysteries.
You may have noticed that Firestorm was "the locked room" mystery. Nobody could get in; nobody could get out. With Winter Study, it's "the Victorian house mystery." Alone, trapped by the weather, a very small overheated group of people, nobody could come in, nobody could go out. It was a treat for me to get to do that.
BOOKTHINK: Do you have any favorite mystery writers from the past or present?
BARR: Upfield, from the past. Anne Perry's older work, and Laurie King's Beekeeper series is to die for. The Amelia Peabody books by Barbara Peters are incredible. I read a lot, and I read a lot of mysteries, so it's hard to narrow it down. Owen Perry's Civil War stuff is great. Barbara Hambly writes this marvelous historical mystery series about a free man of color in New Orleans before the civil war - it's wonderful!
BOOKTHINK: When I read Liberty Falling, I was really entranced. It had been three weeks before that we'd been in New York and had gone out on the Circle Line Boat Tour past the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Then I read the book and I thought, "Now I've got to go back and visit Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty and see it all in a whole new light because there is so much history there, and that's what was fascinating about your book - all the details that you go into that the ordinary person doesn't see.
BARR: The thing that sold me was the part of Ellis Island that nobody is allowed to go - it's like the biggest haunted house in the world. Vines growing in the windows, buildings in decay, and they let me just wander around in there.
You know, my dad died of Lou Gehrig's disease, and he shouldn't have died like that. So in Liberty Falling I gave him the death he would have liked; he was the old crippled guy with the cat who pulled the fish knife at the end and saved Anna's life. I thought, "Okay, Dad, this one's for you."
BOOKTHINK: That's beautiful. And you just have one sister?
BARR: Just the one. She's an artist as well. And I have a husband, and although I don't have kids, he does - and they are really good kids.
BOOKTHINK: Did you marry late in life? (I'm relating you to Anna Pigeon here.)
BARR: I married many times in life. I married first when I was twenty-seven, and that was a wonderful marriage, but it ended because, you know, things change. And then, well, Mr. Paxton and I are almost newlyweds - our second anniversary will be in October. Who was it that said you need to marry three times? The first time for sex, the second time for kids, and the third time for sex!
BOOKTHINK: I'll agree with that. I think the third time can be a great friendship, too.
BARR: Well, you know, he's a little bit older than I am, but we're both solid middle age. At this point, if it ain't fun, you don't have to do it. You've got your own income, you've probably got your own house, you don't have to get married unless it's going to be way more fun than being by yourself! We were laughing when on the third or fourth date we were having a marvelous conversation as we flossed our teeth. You know, when you can floss your teeth together, this is a good sign!
BOOKTHINK: Nevada, I love your humor and your honesty. It shows through in all your books and makes them so real and enjoyable. Thank you for taking the time to do this interview. It's been such a pleasure talking with you, and I look forward to reading every one of your books.
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