Nevada Barr is now regarded as one of America's greatest living mystery writers. Every book in her superb Anna Pigeon mystery series is set in a different National Park, authentically brought to life in great detail by the author who spent many years as a National Park Ranger. Her plots are intricate, unpredictable and realistic, her characters nuanced and totally engaging. She artfully delves into fascinating explorations of both Mother Nature and human nature. And each book seems better than the last. If you love the outdoors, animals, mystery, and flat-out good writing, you will love Nevada Barr.
Ranger, writer, artist - Nevada Barr is all of these and more, as you will see in my recent interview with her.
BOOKTHINK: I love the pictures on your
website from different stages of your life! I'm amazed at all the things you have done. You've had an acting career, right?
BARR: Yes, that was fun. I lived in Minneapolis after I left New York, and that's where I had my acting career. I actually wasn't a very good actor. But I studied acting in college, and then in New York I worked for Morgan Stanley. It was in the 1980's when I moved to Minneapolis, and I actually made a pretty decent living there doing voice-overs and industrial training films, and I'd do a play every once in awhile, but that's kind of the route that I ended up on. I liked Minneapolis - it was just too cold!
BOOKTHINK: Tell me about living in Louisiana - you live in New Orleans, right?
BARR: New Orleans. I've been here since December 2004. I came down here because I got my last park service job in Mississippi and I used to come here all the time with my girlfriend. About four years ago, I thought, "You know, I think that's the city for me."
BOOKTHINK: And do you still think it is?
BARR: I love New Orleans. It's the murder capital, and the regrowth and rebuilding is going slow, but it's happening. Here it's got a European flavor; which is unique; very few American cities manage it completely - New York and a few others manage it. In New Orleans you can be anything you want and nobody cares. We were going on a march to City Hall to "Take back the Night" a year or so ago and we were standing next to a six-foot tall transvestite in six-inch silver heels and somebody in a clown suit and a suburban mom with her kids wearing little peddle pushers, and me and my husband with our dogs, and nobody batted an eye.
BOOKTHINK: Are they making progress down there on the rebuilding?
BARR: Very much so. It seemed to take forever, and of course politics are crooked and federal money disappears down the spout, but the parts of New Orleans that a visitor would go to are much better now than they were before. There are a lot of areas we'd like to see more progress on, of course.
BOOKTHINK: Are you still working for the National Park Service?
BARR: 1996 was the last time I worked for them. The writing was taking up huge amounts of time with touring and different things. Also, it got to the point where I would have lunch with the head of the Department of the Interior and then go back to my little GS-7 job, and you know, what does your boss do with you? People were wanting to keep the tickets that I gave them and have me sign them. It got to be a kind of conflict of interest, almost, to try to still be a Ranger.
BOOKTHINK: What led you to become a National Park Ranger?
BARR: I was in Minneapolis, and I was making a living as an actor but I wasn't going to go any further. I was about forty years old, and you know men can kind of slide into the old silver fox thing, but women just start to lose work. I also was getting tired of it, and I became very interested in the environmental movement. The Park Service seemed like a really neat way to segue out of acting because I could do it during the summers and still make a living as an actor during the winters.
BOOKTHINK: So you got into it when you were forty years old?
BARR: I started with the Park Service when I was 37 and quit acting completely when I was 39 or 40 and went full time with the Park Service. I never regret a moment of my acting career, but I don't miss it a bit either. I've always liked public speaking. As a writer, you can speak in public all you want; you get to be the star and do your own stuff.
BOOKTHINK: You're kind of in control, until the editor hits it, right?
BARR: Actually I got my best bit of writing advice from a Minneapolis writer, Tom Gifford. "If your editor says to change it, just change it. If your book is so weak that one paragraph can't be cut, you shouldn't be writing anyway."
BOOKTHINK: That's probably true. I've interviewed quite a few authors, and it seems the editing process is always hard, but they always come to terms with it.
BARR: I've been blessed. I've had the same editor for all the Anna Pigeon books. She discovered me when she was twenty-six. I turned out to be successful, so I was a feather in her cap. She has treated me with complete dignity even when I wasn't making them a dime, and we've just done so well together.
BOOKTHINK: She must be a smart cookie because a lot of people in their twenties don't have that kind of maturity and appreciation.
BARR: Exactly. They often just want to make their mark on your manuscript. But she didn't; she was just great.
BOOKTHINK: Your Anna Pigeon books are so interesting, not only because of the story line but also because of all we learn about the environment and about our National Parks. I feel like I've been through them I've read them. I've read a sampling of your books. I started with Track of the Cat, which I absolutely loved. Then I read Blind Descent, then Firestorm, then Liberty Falling. I loved every one! After reading Firestorm, I felt like I'd been through a forest fire. The ending of that book just totally took me by surprise; it blew me away. I had to go back and re-read the last several pages to soak in what Anna really did at the close of the story.
BARR: You know, it's actually difficult for me to recall the ending of the story. I've always promised myself that when I get old I'm going to start re-reading my stuff. I did it once; the first book I ever sold was my neo-gothic lesbian western, Bittersweet. Twenty years later, it had gone out of print and Avon picked it up and told me to make any changes I wanted to. So I flopped down on the sofa and read the book cover to cover. It was surreal because it was like remembering stuff you did when you were young in acute detail, except of course you never did any of it. It was just amazing.
BOOKTHINK: And reading Blind Descent - I actually suffered claustrophobia while reading that book.
BARR: I have claustrophobia and so does my editor. She said, "You know we should publish the book with a little package of Xanax." I thought that book was one of my best because the place was so bizarre.
BOOKTHINK: I've been to Carlsbad Caverns, but I never had any idea of what lays beyond the caverns the normal tourist sees. I'm sure they probably told us while I was there, but I didn't get it.
BARR: You can't quite grasp the immensity of this holy underground.
BOOKTHINK: It's like another world - a journey to the center of the earth. Did you ever have a favorite park that you worked in?
BARR: I don't think I did. I grew up in the West, on the eastern slope of the Sierras, so the western parks really kind of cling to me. But it depends on your reasons for visiting a park; whether you are whitewater rafting or canoeing or climbing - that is one of the great things about them; it all depends on what activity you are going to do.
BOOKTHINK: When you think of the millions of people that traipse through these parks every year - and there are so many of them, so many possibilities of things that could happen. I don't think you could design a better setting for mysteries.
BARR: I've had so much fun because I didn't plan this as a series; I just wrote a book. But it is a perfect setting for a series, because you can't really take Miss Marple off and comfortably put her down into some outrageous setting, but Park Rangers do it all the time. And you can ditch all of the baggage if you are on special assignment because when you write a series you get boyfriends and cousins and uncles and mothers; when you are on special assignment, all of that can just be left in the last book.
BOOKTHINK: Are you working on a new book now?
BARR: I'm right in the middle of the Big Bend book. The next Anna Pigeon is going to take place at there. I've been wanting to do that for years because I'd never been there. It's just one of those parks that's not on your way anywhere. We went down there and went on a couple of rafting trips and messed around for a couple of weeks. I think this is going to be a really good action book.
BOOKTHINK: It's nice that you are still filled with ideas for the series. It's amazing that you started something that became such a fertile ground for future books.
BARR: I've actually been accused occasionally of starting the genre, which isn't true. Upfield started it in the 20's - the Napoleon Bonaparte series in Australia - but I don't tell people that; I just take the credit. But also, you can get away from technology. I love police procedurals, but I have no desire to write one. You have to get away from all the machinery.
BOOKTHINK: That's interesting because I interviewed Sue Grafton, and she's adamant about not bringing her character up to the point with cell phones. She likes keeping her back before all that happened. There's a certain charm to that because we all have enough of it anyway, and it's wonderful to escape. And I think your settings help us do that.
BARR: I think some of the fun - with Sue's writing with her character set in the 80's and with Anna Pigeon in the wilderness - is that you can do a story where your protagonist has to rely on wit. To me, that's a lot more fun. That's why everybody loved MacGyver! It was always so fascinating to watch somebody think their way out of trouble. And it's fun with a female protagonist who's little because Anna's the same size as me. I used to just scoff at my fellow rangers sometimes because a lot of them were big guys. I would think, "All the arrests that you've made would be as if I never arrested anybody over ten years old." Having to overcome odds that are physically greater than me is fun.
BOOKTHINK: How was your relationship with the guys on the job? Were there many female rangers when you started out?
BARR: When I started out, there were very few. They certainly existed, but I was the only female in my law enforcement class at FLETC (Federal Law Enforcement Training Center) and different places. It was exactly opposite of what you would expect. The old guys, the District Rangers and the forty and fifty year old crusty guys - they were fine with it. It was the young studs that weren't.
BOOKTHINK: They resented you?
BARR: I think so. My sister was an airline pilot for years. And I think what it does is that it ruins the mystique. I was 37 when I started, so if this middle aged lady is doing it, it kind of takes the wind out of their sails. My sister used to say she'd get out of the cockpit and people would look crestfallen because it was like, "Well if she can do it, I guess it's no big deal, I guess a French poodle can do it!" I think it takes away the romance for the young guys.
I did a little TV show in Mississippi called Mississippi Roads, and I and this other guy would go to different funny places in Mississippi and do a weekly show. So my husband and I were down at an event called the Iron Horse Festival in a tiny town in Mississippi. I was 54, I guess, and my hair is almost completely white. I had on a little dress because I was doing the Mississippi Roads show. I had my dogs with me, and my husband, who also has snow white hair. We came across this Marine recruiting booth. I had spent the entire summer painting and moving and setting 18" x 18" cement blocks in my back yard in New Orleans, so I was at the peak of my physical strength. Well, they had this chin-up bar at the booth. I looked at the young man who was running the booth and I said, "How many pull-ups do you have to do to be a Marine?" And he said, "You have to do five, Ma'am." I said, "Well, can I try it?" He said to me, "If you can do five pull-ups, I'll give you my hat." I handed my little dogs over and I did five pull-ups. All these Mississippi good ol' boys were standing around, and they made that boy give me his hat. And I still have my Marine Corps hat. That was pretty fun, but the most fun part is thinking about how every time some spindly little kid goes up to their booth, they're going to say, "Look, a little old lady came in here and she did five pull ups." And you know, I've never been able to do five pull-ups again, but I did it then, and I got my hat!