Thursday, October 01, 2009

Nevada Barr at The Poisoned Pen

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, " wasn't working out for Elizabeth." Nevada's paintings are on her website,

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

13 1/2 by Nevada Barr. Vanguard Press, ©2009. ISBN 9781593155537 (hardcover), 320p.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Thanks for the report from the bookstore...I felt like I was there!

The aftermath of murder for a murderer is an intriguing thought. With cozies, you never get to go very far with your killer--they're revealed at the end of the book. I'll have to read her books and see how Nevada explores this idea.

Mystery Writing is Murder

caite said...

wonderful post!
I have read several of the Anna Pigeon series and love them, but I certainly don't mind a break in a series for a standalone book...and this sounds like a very interesting standalone.
I must say, Ms. Barr is a little different than I might have expected from reading her books. But then I guess authors often are.
Different in a good way

Molly said...

I just LOVE these author visit posts --- you write in such detail I truly feel like I am there. Someday I hope to visit the Poisoned Pen.

There are so many golden nuggets from the author - but I think I enjoyed hearing the basis of the title, 13 1/2, best.

I have heard such wonderful things about Nevada Barr, but I have yet to read one of her mysteries. Do you have a suggestion for a great one to read first?

Kaye said...

Wonderful, wonderful post. I enjoyed it tremendously. It's so interesting to see how an author thinks and what makes them tick.

Kay said...

Thanks for the great report, Lesa. I've loved Nevada Barr's books since the beginning with TRACK OF THE CAT. I think I might be a couple behind now. Look forward to this stand alone book and am hearing some really good things about it. Loved the philosophies talked about and the thoughts on redemption. I knew the story about Anne Perry (another favorite author of mine) and have seen the movie. Interesting stuff.

Again, great post. I'm hoping we can get back to Phoenix next year and I can attend another author visit or two at the Poisoned Pen.

OdysseySeaGlass said...

Sea Glass? You bet!

♥Jen♥ said...

Very fun Lesa! Nevada sounds like a wonderful person. Thank you so much for sharing this experience with us.

Lesa said...

Sorry I'm late this morning, everyone. Slept in. Furloughed today and it's our 26th wedding anniversary.

Elizabeth - 13 1/2 is the only book that deals with the aftermath, so that's the one you'd want to read if you're interested in that idea.

Caite - I agree with you. She was different than I expected, "in a good way." She was so relaxed and funny. I didn't expect that.

Thank you, Molly! If you want to read an Anna Pigeon, my favorite was Firestorm, and I think you could read that without knowing her background.

Lesa said...

Hi Kaye - It is interesting to see how an author thinks, isn't it. Thanks!

Kay - I hope you do get back to Phoenix. We might be able to get together again at the Poisoned Pen.

OdysseySeaGlass - Thanks for the comment. Sea Glass is gorgeous, isn't it.

You're welcome, Jen! It was fun. And, I really enjoy sharing the author appearances.

Diane said...

Fabulous post; the book sounds thrilling and what a great photo of you both. Thanks so much for this post...very fun indeed.

CindyinTempe said...

Nevada had a cameo in the Ken Burns national park program last night - it was so short it was over before I registered that it was her.

Ingrid King said...

What a wonderful post! Thank you so much for sharing your evening with Nevada Barr. This was a fascinating glimpse into the mind of an author. And I had no idea that she's also a painter - what an amazing talent.

I wasn't going to read 13 1/2 after reading your initial review, it just seemed too dark for my taste, but after reading this post and knowing a little bit more about how Nevada came to write it, I'm curious enough to give it a try.

Thanks Lesa!

Lesa said...

Hi Diane,

Thanks! I was pleased with the picture. I've been having problems lately with getting people to take close enough pictures. This one turned out OK.

Lesa said...

Yes, Nevada Barr mentioned her cameo in Ken Burns, but she told us it was going to be on the night we were at the bookstore, so I never even bothered to look.

Lesa said...

Ingrid, I'll be interested to hear what you think if you get around to reading 13 1/2. I thought it was terrific.

Anonymous said...

There is nothing in Anne Perry's bio on Wikipedia that mentions a NZ upbringing, murder, and change of name. What's up? John McEvoy

Lesa said...


If you're looking at Wikipedia, search Parker-Hulme Murder. Or, you can Google Juliet Hulme, and it will take you to that site. That article in Wikipedia mentions the name change to Anne Perry. And, Barbara Parker said Perry acts as if it happened to someone else. This topic comes up on DorothyL so frequently when people didn't know about it, that Anne Perry's background has become a forbidden topic of discussion on that board.

Pat Browning said...

Wonderful report on a great evening. Funny -- looking at Nevada Barr's photo, I would never suspect her of being interested in horrific murders! I'm familiar with the Anne Perry story but will never understand it. Great photo,too, Lesa! Thanks for this intriguing post.
Pat Browning

Lesa said...

You're welcome, Pat. I don't know that Nevada Barr is interested in the murders themselves, but how the murderers cope with the fact that they've killed after the fact, when these aren't serial killers, but people who often killed just that one time, and, usually family members. How do they go on living with themselves, and how do they deal with it?