All indications were that Nevada Barr was going to be a fun, comfortable speaker, as she bantered with Poisoned Pen Bookstore owner Barbara Peters, and took off her flip flops to sit more comfortably barefoot. Even her introduction to her standalone thriller, 13 1/2, was funny.
Peters asked Nevada Barr if she'd give us the history of 13 1/2. Barr said the thriller was started five years ago, and the provenance of the book included betrayal, death, and the destruction of American cities. Then, she wrote the book.
She said, you start a simple, honorable task, but, as the quote says, "shit happens." But, she continued on, and then the book happened. This book was written during Hurricane Katrina, and Barr lives in New Orleans. It was also written during her last, worst divorce. Then, she introduced us to her new husband, Don Paxton.
Nevada said 13 1/2 came out after she persevered against all odds. The book is dedicated to Barbara Peters, for many reasons, but one is because they both took on Random House.
Peters commented that she loves Anna Pigeon, and it was daring for Barr to write 13 1/2. But, the book has received numerous starred reviews, and her faith in the book has been rewarded. Barr said she had to fight the publisher for the title, 13 1/2. Publishers don't like numerals and fractions on the cover of a book. They said you can't Google it. Barr proved you could Google numbers, and they went with the title, even though they hated it at the publisher's.
This book is a departure from the Anna Pigeon books, but sometimes plots just won't fit in the Anna Pigeon series. Barr said she knows Pigeon's voice, but this book just wouldn't go there. It was difficult for her, though, because she had to find the other voices for this book.
Peters said Nevada Barr has been at the Poisoned Pen for every book since 1993, with Track of the Cat. But, for some reason, they missed Bittersweet, the book Barr called her "Gothic lesbian western."
When Barr asked how many in the audience were writers, only a couple people raised their hands. She said people will never admit to being a writer, but if you ask how many people have felony warrants, all kinds of people willingly raise their hands.
She asked about writing because she said she wrote five other manuscripts that no one was interested in publishing. But, she said there was three feet of water in her cellar during Katrina, and those manuscripts were destroyed, since that's where they were. Now she can say, "Some of my finest writing was destroyed." Barbara Peters commented that so many authors say they have these manuscripts that are unpublishable, and no one will ever see them. She doesn't understand why the authors just don't burn them. Barr's response? "So you would just burn your children who are ugly?"
In discussing 13 1/2, Barr said there's Polly, a trailer trash girl, who leaves for New Orleans, and a family killed in Minnesota. It's a story of redemption, but that's all she could say without ruining the story for the audience.
When Barr was living in Minneapolis many years ago, before the news was updated every three minutes, there was a news story out of Rochester, Minnesota. A nice young man of fifteen or sixteen, went home, and butchered his entire family, parents, brother and sister, with an axe. He's getting out of prison now. Nevada was inspired by that story, but it's not based on it. The story stuck with her. She said she's not particularly interested in serial killers because they're crazy, and never stop being crazy. But, she is interested in multiple murderers who did one horrific thing, and how it affects them later. How do you live with it after you get sane?
Peters and Barr both mentioned mystery author Anne Perry as an example of this kind of killer, and asked if everyone in the audience knew the story. Peters recommended the movie Heavenly Creatures, directed by Peter Jackson, who went on to produce The Lord of the Rings. Anne Perry grew up as Juliet Hulme, daughter of the rector of Christ Church School in New Zealand. Her mother took a lover, and moved him in. When her father took a new post in South Africa, the family unraveled, and Juliet's brother went to South Africa. Anne had bonded with a school chum, and one day, they both killed the friend's mother, beating her with forty-eight blows with bricks. They were two teenagers who think they are so smart, but get caught. Anne was tried at fourteen, and went to jail in New Zealand until she was twenty-one. Then, she was released with one of the criteria of the release that the two girls couldn't meet again. Juliet Hulme became Anne Perry, who moved first to England, and then to the United States where she became a devout Mormon. Barbara Peters said she didn't know this story, and Anne Perry, a lovely person, had stayed with her Barbara, and they'd stayed at her house in Scotland. But, the media contacted Peters when the movie came out. Peters said Perry has distanced herself from the event. In her mind, it happened to someone else.
Nevada Barr is interested in horrific acts. What are the echoes? How do the killers deal with the past when they grow up? She researched people who did one horrific act, and never did another. When an audience member mentioned Lizzie Borden, she pointed out Borden was never convicted. She was interested in Andrea Yates, who killed her five children by drowning them in the bathtub. She's interested in the aftermath. How does one go on after that horrific event?
Barr has never been interested in books that don't have redemption. 13 1/2 is a book about redemption, coming to terms, and rising above the past.
As an aside, she said when she was telling campfire stories in Isle Royale, if she couldn't scare some kids enough to make them cry going back to the campground, she wasn't doing her job.
After divorce, Random House, and Katrina, Barr found redemption at the end, with 13 1/2. There are just some stories that can't be told with a series.
Barr was asked how this book would affect the Anna Pigeon series. She answered that she's 3/4 through the next one, set in New Orleans. It's wonderful to be back in the old voice. It's like putting on a comfortable, old pair of sweats. The time away has brought joy and freshness to Anna. She felt as if she was cheating on her.
Asked about the setting for a book, she said she's flirting with Maine and Acadia National Park. Nevada had never been there until she went with a friend, and, now she's thinking about an Anna Pigeon American Gothic ghost story set at the Bear Island Lighthouse in Acadia. Barbara mentioned that there's a booming sea glass industry in Bar Island in Acadia. The audience guessed correctly that the brown glass is from beer bottles. She said the stunning blue glass comes from Phillips Milk of Magnesia bottles.
One audience member asked about the name 13 1/2, and Barr said she knew a psychologist at a juvenile detention center. He said kids had 13 1/2 tattooed on them. It stood for 12 jurors, 1 judge, 1/2 a chance.
She mentioned that she painted, and someone asked if her painting changed because of this book. She said she did nice cat paintings before the book, and now does women with guns in evening gowns. She's gone to the dark side. She has one painting, with a woman sitting with a gun, and clown feet peeking out. It's titled, "Match.com wasn't working out for Elizabeth." Nevada's paintings are on her website, www.nevadabarr.net.
Barr said there are 350 parks, so she had plenty of opportunities for Anna Pigeon. she still wants to set one of those books at the Grand Canyon. She's wanted to put Anna on a health flight into the Grand Canyon, but they keep crashing.
Nevada Barr said she works at her own pace, and she'll take as much time as she can get. She does one book a year, and has three more Anna Pigeons under contract, so that will be three years. Then, she might go to every eighteen months. But, she works better under deadline. She just wants a chance to let her brain cool off for a while.
And, during the book signing, it was Nevada who asked someone to take the picture of us together, when I asked for a picture. She said she didn't want to be on the blog by herself. So, here we are!
Nevada Barr's website is www.nevadabarr.net.
13 1/2 by Nevada Barr. Vanguard Press, ©2009. ISBN 9781593155537 (hardcover), 320p.