You don't want to mess with Anna Pigeon, the park ranger who's starred in author Nevada Barr's best-selling mystery novels for more than a decade. But she wasn't always a tough customer.
In fact, as Barr's new novel "The Rope" explains, Pigeon arrived at her first job at a national park with little more than emotional scars. But soon, she would find herself tested by darkness, including the kind that lurks in others.
As the book begins, she's trapped in a deep hole near Lake Powell, a sprawling reservoir in Arizona and Utah. She is injured, naked, and alone. And the time is back in 1995, before she had learned the ways of the wilderness on the job.
As always, Barr expertly captures the beauty and savagery of the natural world and the creatures (human and otherwise) that are part of it. This time around, Barr – a former park ranger herself – focuses on themes of obsession and redemption. In a phone interview from her home in New Orleans, Barr spoke about the strange national park in the Southwest where the action takes place, how her own life experiences affect her fictional sleuth, and why she began writing murder mysteries in the first place. ("There was someone I just really thought should be dead").
Q: What made you think of sticking Anna into a hole in the middle of nowhere?
A: I was inspired by the actual "solution holes" that I saw for the first time at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. There are hundreds and hundreds of them. They are so cool, and I wanted to make Anna really helpless. I wanted to crash her into the wilderness before she was Anna Pigeon.
Q: Why are they called solution holes?
A. There was some stuff in the ground that was softer than the sandstone. As water seeped in, it melted into a solution, like pouring a drop of water into a bowl of sugar. It just liquified and leeched away, leaving a hole.
Q: Lake Powell, the humongous reservoir where the action takes place, turns out to be quite an amazing place. And it was 600 feet deep in 1995! What drew you to it?
A: It just had all these ingredients of absolute gorgeousness and human disaster.
They build the Glen Canyon Dam, a huge gigantic dam, and basically filled up the Colorado River basin. You've got this weird teal-green lake in the middle of the Red Rock desert. It's very controversial because they took this incredibly beautiful desert canyon and just flooded it.
[This question will spoil a small part of the story, so you might want to skip to the next one if you plan to read the book.]
Q: Anna ends up making friends with a baby skunk. As a person who has a nasty habit of screaming when he sees a skunk – that's not recommended, mind you – I found this especially intriguing. Have you had experience with friendly skunks yourself?
A: The guy who owned the gas station where I grew up in Susanville, Calif., had a skunk. They’re kind of like a cat. I’ve learned since that they don’t make the best pets because they are not domesticated. But they can be friendly little guys, and they’re pretty and soft things when they're young.
Q: Just about every person in "The Rope" is obsessed with someone. Is obsession the book's theme?
A. It's about obsession and redemption, coming face to face with what and who are you, and overcoming helplessness, whether you're helpless because of your obsessions, your memories, or your physical state.
Q: Why did you decide to focus on obsession?
A: I was going through a really tough time in a legal situation. It was all lawyers, and I was being reduced into a helpless little female by people talking over and around me. You could never have your say, and you always had to be like a trained monkey.
I became interested in the emotions of having something that's obsessing you day and night.
I funnel everything into Anna, but [the circumstances are] totally changed around. If I'm obsessing about something, it's almost impossible for Anna to be able to escape my obsession, she being at the end of my pen and all.
Q: Do you think the average person misunderstands what park rangers do, especially those on the law enforcement side of things?
A: I think so, and I love it.
For the most part, you think rangers will tell you what kind of flower that is and warn you to keep your dog on leash. For the law enforcement rangers, it's more about more search and rescue, putting out fires, and emergency medicine.
Q: What about the level of crime in national parks? Is that misunderstood?
Anything that happens in the world can also happen in a park. But usually, criminals are a lazy bunch and don't like to go too far from their cars.
Q: You were a park ranger when you began writing about Anna Pigeon. What made you decide to focus on mysteries?
A; I started the way a lot of mystery writers start: There was someone I just really thought should be dead. I started to think to of ways I could kill him and get away with it.
Q: Did you ever kill him in print?
I put someone in print that reminded me of that person so I could channel all of my evil properly. Writing is therapy!
Q: Anna travels to national parks around the country. Where's she headed next?
A: I haven't decided yet. I'm in that marvelous fallow period after touring and speaking for four or five weeks. I'll probably garden and veg out for another couple weeks, and look out and see what’s what.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor correspondent.