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BookThink's Author Profiles

Revisiting Nevada Barr

by Catherine Petruccione

#138 28 September 2009

Barr recently invited me to come on down to New Orleans, where she and her husband Don graciously made Ron and I feel at home in that beautiful and historic city. It was thrilling to finally meet - in person - the woman behind the writing and to find that she truly is the warm, dynamic, down-to-earth person we all have come to know through her Anna Pigeon character.

From being greeted by their friendly family of dogs and cats, to seeing Nevada's impressive art gracing the walls of their comfortable home, it was truly a privilege to get to know Nevada in her own surroundings. With her new psychological thriller 13-1/2 set for release on September 29 and her appearance in Ken Burn's upcoming National Park Series which will begin airing on PBS September 27 (just to name a couple of projects she has been working on), Nevada is one busy lady!

Nevada's Anna Pigeon mysteries all have settings in various U.S. National Parks and spring from the author's experience; she worked as a ranger in a number of national parks across the country including Isle Royale, Guadalupe Mountains, Mesa Verde and the Natchez Trace. She will appear in episodes 4, 5, 6 of National Parks: America's Best Idea.

In a true break from her Anna Pigeon series, Nevada Barr's Psychological thriller 13-1/2 (Vanguard: Perseus ISBN 978-1-59315-553-7) is her first "stand alone" novel since Bittersweet (St. Martin's Press, NY, 1984). With settings from Minnesota to the Big Easy, where complex characters' lives and fates intersect, tension builds with each turn of the page as hidden evil unfolds. It is a riveting story that will grab your attention from beginning to end, so grab a copy as soon as you can. The book clearly demonstrates that Barr's writing talent is unlimited.

And don't worry Anna Pigeon fans - she isn't abandoning us! Nevada is putting her finishing touches on the latest book in the series, with the heartening promise of more to come.

BOOKTHINK: You have a new book - 13-1/2 - being released this month, which is your first stand-alone novel since Bittersweet in 1984, is that correct?

BARR: Yes. I had that little non-fiction book Seeking Enlightenment Hat by Hat, but it wasn't a fiction novel.

BOOKTHINK: What was your inspiration for 13-1/2?

BARR: It wasn't one inspiration; it was a long time festering concept. When I was living in Minneapolis years and years ago, there was a terrible murder by an apparently decent and wonderful young man who killed his family. That was the first horror I'd heard of, and it just sort of sat with me for a long time. I've heard of many horrors since, but not the fascination of someone who was not a serial killer, but a killer that suddenly does one horrific mass murder. And I wondered what the repercussions are down the line, to the family, the people around him, to the person himself. That sort of fascinated me. Then I moved down here, and after Hurricane Katrina, I felt an echoing sense of destruction that made me want to focus in on that, so I finally wrote the book after all these years.

BOOKTHINK: As a visitor here for the first time, even though the people I've met are so friendly, helpful and hopeful, and there is still somewhat of a "Big Easy" party atmosphere alive and well in the French Quarter, I can sense a sort of lingering psychological aftermath from all the destruction of Katrina.

BARR: Yes, it's different. Even now if you strike up a conversation with a stranger, they'll say "So…did you get any water?" And it's been four years! When I came back right after Katrina, and the book was sort of perking along, I saw a lot of depressed people. Now, I have seen depressed people before, but a whole city both depressed and determined - it was a wonderful time to write dark fiction. For me, all dark fiction has to have hope. There has to be a reason to read it. If it just gets darker and darker and then everybody dies a sordid death, I have no interest. The characters have to be given the chance to rise above the darkness. There has to be some way to rise above it. If you don't rise above it, it's history; if you do rise above it, it's fiction!

BOOKTHINK: How did it feel to break away from Anna Pigeon for a little while?

BARR: It was kind of strange. At first it kind of felt like I was cheating, you know? Like she would find out. Sort of like when you play with other cats and you come home and your cat snubs you. One of the hardest things about this book is that there are six different voices. I've been doing Anna's voice for twenty years. A couple of the voices just came to me - they were gifts. But some of them were very hard for me to find, and that was a challenge I hadn't dealt with in a very long time.

BOOKTHINK: I'm sure you must identify with Anna quite a bit, being her voice for all these years. I think it's brave to go off in a new direction for a change. I hope your readers appreciate your courageous venture.

BARR: Interesting that you brought that up, because I hadn't thought about that, but of course I identify with Anna beat for beat; she started out being me - but taller, stronger, younger, braver! I don't identify with any of the characters in 13-1/2. I empathize, I sympathize, I understand, I hear them, I create them, I enjoy them, but it's not like "this one is me in the book," and that's a whole different thing.

BOOKTHINK: You participated in Ken Burns' upcoming PBS series The National Parks: America's Best Idea. What was that like?

BARR: It was wonderful. I was such an idiot; when I got invited to do this it didn't dawn on me who Ken Burns was. But I'd never been to Walpole, and made the decision to go. I had no idea who Ken Burns was. On the airplane to Walpole, my husband said, "You know, he did the Civil War series on PBS." I said, "You're kidding!" I'd seen and loved everything that Ken Burns has ever done. But just being a viewer, I never really paid attention to the name of the producer, I just enjoyed it. We got out there and got to spend time with John Hope Franklin and Dayton Duncan, whose baby this was, and Ken Burns. The whole experience was positive from start to finish.

BOOKTHINK: Where is Walpole?

BARR: It's in New Hampshire, an adorable little town, and that's where Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan have their studio in a beautiful old house.

BOOKTHINK: You also traveled to Acadia National Park recently. Are you considering this as a setting for a future Anna Pigeon novel?

BARR: I'm hoping to. It's a beautiful park. But it's very complex because there are little towns in the park that are not part of the park, and there's a thriving lobster industry around the park, so it's very interesting and gorgeous. I'm kind of itching to do a gothic ghost tale on Bear Island in this abandoned lighthouse on the rugged coast of Maine.

BOOKTHINK: I was surprised to learn that there's a couple of National Parks right here in New Orleans. The New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park, for one.

BARR: Yes, and the Jean LaFitte National Park right in town. The Anna Pigeon novel which I'm working on (and I'm now within spitting distance of the end) is set in New Orleans. And it's based around the Jazz Heritage Park. I used to work at the art gallery near that park, and one day I heard incredible blues singing in this big voice, and I trotted out to look in. There giving a concert was a singer dressed in the green and gray with the cordovan shoes - they were rangers! It was the coolest thing! Their job as rangers is to preserve the historical music.

BOOKTHINK: I didn't know you were working on an Anna Pigeon book that was based here in New Orleans.

BARR: Yes, it's due out December 1st.

BOOKTHINK: How exciting is that! Does it have a title yet?

BARR: I'm calling it Burn, but that's a working title. We'll see, because sometimes I get my title, but often the publisher comes up with something better.

BOOKTHINK: I had a chance to see your beautiful paintings while visiting here. How big a role does art play in your life, and how do you find time for being both an author and a painter?

BARR: They compliment each other. Well, you know this, because you're in the book business, but our lives start revolving around words. I do crossword puzzles, I read, I write, I talk ... everything is about words. I discovered painting about fifteen or twenty years ago and found it so refreshing because you cannot think words while you're painting. You're thinking colors, like blue ... or this is not coming out quite right visually, but you don't think in words. I'll write for awhile, and then to cleanse my mental palette, I paint. I've been doing it pretty seriously for a long time now, but I think pretty soon I'm going to have to apprentice myself to somebody who really knows what they're doing.

BOOKTHINK: I think you are doing just fine ... your art is just as creative and interesting as your writing. You have a website that really looks terrific with lots of great information, beautiful photos, a blog, a Twitter and Facebook link, there's even a spot for Nasty Fans to complain. I laughed so hard when I saw that!

BARR: My sister Molly does this for me - and she does such a superb job. I wanted her to do this, because I don't do the internet. She has this blog on the site that's called "Revenge and Ramblings of Thorpunious" because for some unknown reason, I called her Thorpunious when were little. I just laugh out loud reading what she does. My husband makes sure she has all the information she needs to keep it up to date. She is so good at it, she's a wonderful writer. The website is all Molly. It's not a coincidence that Anna Pigeon has a sister Molly who takes care of her.

BOOKTHINK: And I miss Molly. Does she make any appearances in the next book?

BARR: I think there's a mention or a phone call. In a series you start gathering more and more people; with Anna, fortunately, I can move her from Park to Park and dump some of them. But you don't have time to bring everybody in unless they factor into the story itself. So, poor Molly often remains in New York helping crazy people.

BOOKTHINK: So what else are you up to in the future, as if there needs to be more?

BARR: Finishing up this Anna Pigeon book. And then I have contracted for two more, which I have some wonderful ideas for. I'd like to do another stand-alone. Although I love Anna Pigeon, it would be nice to be free to write anything you want. When you write a series, the challenge is to keep it fresh. And every series writer (except Dick Francis) finally writes a clunker, because they just kind of burn out. And I don't ever want to write that clunker. I want the last one to be as good as the first.

I have about sixty or seventy pages of a therapy book I've been writing that may turn into something about caring for aging parents ... Warehousing Mom is the working title, which is about dealing with Mama's Alzheimer's Disease.

BOOKTHINK: I think a book about dealing with your mother's Alzheimer's disease would be so helpful to people.

BARR: What my sister and I would be focusing on in the book would be not only taking care of Mama but dealing with the progression of the disease. You know when you watch kids how they begin to integrate ideas - well, an Alzheimer's patient starts dis-integrating ideas. Two ideas don't go together anymore. Mama could tell time, and then one day it disintegrated to where the hour hand and the minute hand no longer went together. And she couldn't understand; one would be pointing at four and one would be pointing at ten and it wasn't either time - the two things had come apart.

BOOKTHINK: How old is Mama now?

BARR: Mama's 84.

BOOKTHINK: And when did her Alzheimer's begin?

BARR: We think it began when she was about 79. She still lived on the ranch by herself and she still spoke on the phone very clearly and so forth. She had always been a little eccentric, so we didn't really get it until she was 82, and then we realized something was terribly wrong. We went and scooped her out of the ranch and brought her to New Orleans. My sister and I dealt with terrible guilt ... horrible guilt. And that's what I think would be helpful to other women. We know we care for our aging parents and we go and do this and that and everything we can possibly do, but the guilt if you don't call, the guilt you experience if you would rather stay home and give yourself a little time rather than help your poor old mom. And dealing with the abuse of elders - and I'm not talking punching them in the nose. Neglect, and loss of respect are what I'm talking about. Mom had two insurance policies for extended care, because she was a planner. My husband spent five months, literally one to four hours on the phone every day, fighting insurance companies who didn't want to make good on the policies. And Mama had forgotten she had them. Fortunately my sister and her husband found them in her papers.

BOOKTHINK: That tells you how important it is to communicate with our parents to find out what policies they have, before they need them.

BARR: It's very important.

BOOKTHINK: Nevada, I can tell you are very happy in your home here in New Orleans.

BARR: We enjoy it here so much. My life is very small, and I like it that way. I was so pleased when Ron said you spend 90% of your time at home in your quiet ways, because we do too. I have to travel a lot on business, that's part of the deal. I didn't really have a sense of home for a long time when I was younger - I moved constantly. When I lived in Minneapolis, I loved Minneapolis, but it was so cold. And when I lived in New York City, although I loved it, after a number of years I didn't really want to come home from vacations. But here - I want to come home from places like Paris and Venice, which I adore, because I love it here so much. It feels like HOME.

Nevada's art hangs in the "Great Artists' Collective," 815 Royal Street in New Orleans and is also available on her website - she signs her work "Paxton." 13-1/2 will be released for sale on September 29, 2009. Visit her website at

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