Monday, November 02, 2009

Southwestern Authors at the Poisoned Pen

The Poisoned Pen Bookstore hosted a special event on November 1, honoring Southwestern authors. Barbara Peters, owner of the bookstore, said that so many authors owe a debt to Tony Hillerman, and the celebration was a tribute to him, and to other authors who write about the Southwest.

I had a wonderful chance to talk to Margaret Coel privately before the program. She
chose not to do a big tour this year for her book, The Silent Spirit. She did spend a week in New Mexico, and a week in Wyoming, where she had wonderful book signings for her latest Father John O'Malley and Vicky Holden mystery, books set in Wyoming on the Wind River Reservation. Coel's next book is another one in that series, The Spider's Web. It will be about strangers on the reservation. A beautiful girl comes to the reservation, and death follows.

We discussed The Silent Spirit, and Tim McCoy, the cowboy star who looked out for the interests of the Indians when they went to Hollywood. Margaret said there was so much prejudice against the Indians in the 1920s, and McCoy had the clout to look out for them. She said that was a fun book to research. Her publisher for her series of short stories, the Arapaho Ten Commandment series with ASAP Publishing, drove her all around places from the 1920s, from Hollywood Boulevard to the museums.

Coel is in the throes of rewriting The Spider's Web, and then she'll do another Catherine McLeod book. The first one in that series, Blood Memory, allowed Coel to stretch her wings. Coel is a native of Denver, who now lives in Boulder. She knows Denver well, though, and it was fun to write about that city.

She did have a funny story to tell about that book. She had a journalist friend, who works for the Cheyenne Eagle Tribune in Wyoming, read the book, and soon after, the friend said she'd been threatened by a killer. She received threatening emails. When Margaret asked if she was scared, she said, no. She'd just read the manuscript for Blood Memory, and she knew what to do. She just did what Catherine McLeod would have done.

Coel said she has a plot running around for Catherine. And, of course she'll bring back Nick Bustamante, the police officer. Coel said she really likes him. Catherine is now in touch with her Indian heritage, and she's interested in finding out who they are. I commented that all of her characters seem to be trying to find out who they are. She said, yes. In her book, The Lost Bird, a person is taken from the reservation, and adopted out on the black market. She said someone else told her all of her characters are "lost birds." They're all trying to figure out who they are.

We talked about Vicky Holden, who is so displaced. There is no one in her life, other than Father John, who actually accepts her as she is now. Coel said she gets angry emails from readers, who dislike Adam. Coel said Adam is a Lakota, and on the plains, the Lakota ruled. Other tribes tried to get out of their way. She sees Adam as wanting to rule, and Vicky just wants to get along.

Readers want to see Vicky with Father John. The majority who write her think they should get together.

When I mentioned that I liked to see Father John back at the mission, Coel said in real life, the Jesuits are leaving that mission next year. They just don't have enough manpower to staff the small places. She said she has one book scheduled after the Jesuits leave, and she'll have to see what happens with Father John. She said she stays at the mission when she goes up to Wyoming. When she mentioned a casino, I asked about the Arapaho finally getting a casino. She said, yes, in real life, there are three casinos, including one large one. The Shoshone also built one. But, the main one is just beautiful, and has a dining room so good it draws people. The casino has brought 500 jobs, although there are also problems that come with them.

After taking a picture of Margaret Coel, and thanking her, we moved on to the actual program.


Before introducing the authors, Barbara Peters said with a group of authors, it's a spontaneous discussion, and you never know what will happen. When John Connolly was there, he ranted about Dan Brown, and then discussed children's literature. When Michael Connelly was there recently, they ended up discussing iambic pentameter.

After encouraging the audience to get to know Arizona by taking the fabulous trip on the Verde Canyon Railroad, Barbara introduced Robert Greer. Dr. Robert Greer's new book is called Spoon. She mentioned that Greer is a rancher, and has owned ranches for many years. She said the way of life in Spoon, the ranch life, is evolving. Then she turned the program over to Margaret Coel and Robert Greer, so they could interview each other.

Coel started by asking Greer if he'd flown in from Colorado. Both authors had flown in to appear at the Poisoned Pen, and were then going back.

Robert Greer said he writes mysteries and medical thrillers. He said he wanted to
write this book, but his publisher, Random House, wasn't interested in a literary novel. Big publishers usually don't want literary novels. So he went with a small press, Fulcrum Books, for Spoon. He said the book was a short story first, and the character of Arcus Witherspoon was introduced in that miniature version.

Greer admires three books - Huckleberry Finn, the great American novel, 1984by Orwell, because we're there, and Shane, the story of a gunslinger who falls in with a ranching family.

Spoon is a novel about an itinerant cowboy who is half-Indian, half-black. He goes to work for a ranching family in Montana, and helps out the son, and then helps the family in a fight against a coal company. But, there's lots of suspense in the novel because he wants action. Coel commented that lots of times, in literary novels, nothing happens.

Spoon is about the West and the problems today. Greer used to own a cattle ranch in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. But his wife died just over seven years ago, and he couldn't go there anymore after a few years. He couldn't get over his wife's death. He just cried every time he went to the ranch. So he sold it, and bought one in Wyoming, the Triangle Long Bar Ranch. Dr. Greer said there's a brand in Spoon, marking chapter breaks. That's his brand.

He said he did grow up with an agricultural background, of sorts. His mother's family were farmers in Ohio. When Coel asked, he said there's a difference in culture between Colorado and Wyoming. Wyoming is much smaller, with a greater sense of community. There's still a flavor of the West and small community life. He bought 3200 acres on a handshake.

Since Barbara had mentioned an article in the New York Times about cattle ranching, Greer addressed that issue. He said, yes, cattle helps on the land, with the natural fertilizer, but most ranchers can't afford to do the cycle of ranching as they're supposed to. It's expensive to do that. In order to make a living, corners are cut. Margaret told him he did a wonderful job capturing Wyoming.

In response, Greer said he never thought Margaret Coel would go Hollywood on him. Coel's latest book, The Silent Spirit, takes the Arapahos to Hollywood. Coel said it was a book she wanted to write for a long time. She knew the Arapahos had been in early cowboy and Indian silent movies. And, today, the families are proud of that. Early Hollywood was a crazy place. People slept around, took cocaine, drank. There were a number of unsolved murders in the 1920s. The studios controlled the police and the D.A.s. Hollywood wanted to control what people thought about it. So, if something went wrong, they'd call a studio fix-it man. If a crime occurred, by the time the police got there, there'd be no evidence. So, the book has a plot in the 1920s in Hollywood. The Arapaho were in the first western epic, The Covered Wagon. That storyline connected with a murder on the reservation, so Father John and Vicky get two for the price of one.

Robert Greer writes the C.J. Floyd mystery series. The next one in that series, First of State, will be out next October. But, he's trying to write a book about his wife's family. Greer said his wife's father was a famous Hollywood doctor to all the black stars, Nat King Cole, Cab Calloway. He wants to write that story. There's a family picture of his wife sitting on the floor, and it's really a picture of his wife, but in the picture is Nat King Cole, in profile, and a picture of Lena Horne's legs. If you know anything about Lena Horne, she always wears pants, so it's an unusual picture that shows her legs.

Greer said C.J. Floyd is a bail bondsman and antiques collector who collects license plates. He finds a cache of license plates, and someone was killed over them. A collection of the first license plats, the "First of State," would be worth killing someone. This is a prequel to the series. Floyd is a young man, just back from Vietnam, in this book.

Greer kidded Margaret Coel that Father John has a shaky priesthood. Father John had gone to Rome in an earlier book, because Margaret wanted to go to Rome. Then, she discussed Blood Memory. It's a suspense novel set in Denver, featuring a journalist because in her other life, Coel was a journalist. Catherine McLeod, the journalist, thinks someone is trying to kill her. She thinks it might be about something she's written, but it turns out to be about something she's about to write. This book allowed Coel to stretch her wings. After thirteen books about Father John and Vicky, she wanted to see if she could create other characters.

Robert Greer said he's been lucky enough to create strong female characters that stick in readers' heads, at least according to reviewers. In Spoon, the 1950s stuck in his head. The mother of the family went to the ranch during the Korean War. She had been a New Yorker, a June Taylor dancer. She was a feisty woman who married a rancher. She was a well-educated woman, but took on a western persona. A large part of the book is about her. She's straight from Greer's imagination. Margaret Coel said she could imagine her, a strong, independent woman in Wyoming.

Greer bought his own ranch from a widow. The Laramie River runs through the property, and he asked if there were fish in the river. She said go take a look. So, he and the realtor went to the river. He didn't see any then, but bought the ranch. Later she asked if he eventually found fish, and when he asked her why she wouldn't tell him, she said if he decided not to buy the ranch, she didn't want him telling others about the fishing on her property.

There were also guns in the barn, and many of them were quite old. He asked if she wasn't afraid someone would come to take the guns. She said, if they did, she'd know who they were. Wyoming really is the last frontier, with independent people.

Barbara Peters mentioned an Arizona Republic article that discussed series that flourished because of Tony Hillerman. Peters supplied the list of authors for the article. She said she first met Margaret Coel at a mystery convention when she was on a panel with Tony Hillerman. He was an old pro introducing a new author. Coel was there with her first book, The Eagle Catcher. Barbara went on to mention some of the authors, James Doss who writes about the Utes, Susan Slater, who wrote about the Tewa Pueblo, Sandi Ault, who writes about Taos, New Mexico. And, Steven Havill doesn't write about an Indian culture, but the Hispanic culture in Posadas County, New Mexico.

Coel said Hillerman was the first to write about the Native Peoples, and treat them like human beings. No one else wrote about the Indians like that. She said she treated the Arapahos the same way, as people. Some are killers, and some are ordinary people.


At this point, the speakers changed places. Barbara Peters introduced Steven Havill. His first book, Heartshot, came out in 1991. Peters said when she was dating her husband, Rob, she thought they were going to live in New Mexico, since he went to St. John's College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Instead, they ended up in Scottsdale.

Heartshot is set in Ruidoso, New Mexico, in southwestern New Mexico. Havill said in the Posados County novels, he invented his own county. That's a hoot for a fiction writer. But, he forgot an important element. He didn't put a railroad there, and that could have been a nifty plot device. Peters reminded him he
had all kinds of small airports. He said if you fly over New Mexico, there are all kinds of small gas company runways, because they would fly in to check on the gas. Drug runners and student pilots love those short little runways, but they have to remember they're very short, usually with barbed wire.

Havill made Posados County a border county. His character in Heartshot, Bill Gastner, was sheriff, but he was not a young man when the series started. . Gastner was already 60, smoked too much, and had a heart attack in the book. Then he sold it, and had no clue for the followup. In Bitter Recoil, Gastner is recovering. It's the only book set outside of Posados County. But, Havill locked himself into a real-time series, and Bill is getting older. But, the series that started out as a Bill Gastner mystery is now a Posados County series. In the first book in the series, Deputy Estelle Reyes is single. As time passes, she's engaged, married, then gets pregnant and has kids. Gastner retired from the sheriff's department, and took a job as a livestock inspector. Estelle Reyes-Guzman took over the series as the new Undersheriff, and Bobby Torres is the Sheriff.

The action in the latest book, Red, Green, or Murder, goes back in time. It takes place immediately after Dead Weight, and before Bag Limit. Red and green are chile choices in New Mexico, and one of them will kill you, which is where the title comes from. The book didn't fit in the sequence. It was a transition book, and St. Martin's Press didn't want to publish it since it was out of sequence. So Barbara published it with Poisoned Pen Press. She said it was weird to step into a series as editor, when it was a series she read as a reader. Havill said sometimes an author goes too long before running into a hard-core editor. Stephen King said, "Editors may be wrong, but they're always right." Steven Havill said he listened to Barbara Peters, and thinks it's a better book because of that. Barbara said as an editor, she's a really good reader, and if she doesn't get it, others won't either.

According to Havill, the art of the writing business is storytelling. A good editor finds places where the story is too opaque. An editor says, the story loses me. Find a way to get me back. A good editor finds a way to write stuff without putting their footprints all over it.

Havill had a good editing story. he wrote a western Timber Blood, published by Walker in New York. His editor sent him one of those dread four page letters, single-spaced. It said, I like it, like it, like it, however the story is set in winter, but you don't know much about how much snow falls there on average. You have horses prancing through snow, and men walking through thigh high snow. Havill never thought of that. He made the amount of snow in the manuscript consistent.

Barbara mentioned that Havill is taking a different route for a new series, setting Race for the Dying in the Pacific Northwest in the late 19th century. Havill said he wasn't leaving Posadas County forever. It has the highest crime rate in the U.S., he thinks.

But, he's always been interested in the history of medicine. It's a hobby. So, he wrote an historical medical adventure. He found a report done by the AMA called Nostrums and Quackery. It included things such as mail-order diagnoses, and getting the desperately ill hooked on drugs.

The protagonist in Race for the Dying is a University of Pennsylvania medical school graduate, Dr. Parks. He made him a graduate of that school because Havill owns an 1890 edition of Modern Surgery, written by Dr. Roberts, who was on the faculty there. Havill's character, as a graduate of the school, would own a copy of that book. And, the book gave Havill the mindset and medicines of 1891.

Dr. Parks went to the Puget Sound area because his father suggested it. He wanted to practice trauma medicine, and the lumber industry would provide a danger. A rule for a writer is that it has to be an uncomfortable life for the hero. Dr. Parks is hideously hurt, and has to cope while trying to treat new patients.

From there, the conversation went to medicines and Coca Cola, and the early ingredients. In 1910, fussing babies were given opium. Havill said, well look at the trip they've taken, and where they've just been. Wouldn't you be fussy?

During the Civil War, there was no anesthesia. Speed was important in surgery; how fast you could do things. Surgery was sometimes so fast, and so rough, that it would put back the convalescence.

Steven Havill said there will be more Posadas County books, but there will also be sequels to Race for the Dying.

As Barbara Peters ended this section of the program, she told us that Steven Havill and Margaret Coel will be the Guests of Honor at Left Coast Crime in March 2011 when it's held in Santa Fe. Then there was a short break before the final presentation of the day.


Barbara Peters introduced Anne Hillerman, Tony Hillerman's oldest daughter. Anne is
the author of the book, Tony Hillerman's Landscape: On the Road with Chee and Leaphorn. Photos are by Don Strehl, and they were both there for a slide show of Hillerman country. Anne Hillerman read from the script, while Steven Havill read passages from Tony Hillerman's books that matched the slides.

Anne Hillerman started by saying how much her father loved the Poisoned Pen Bookstore. She said this was the first performance she and Don were doing. They had worked on the book for about three years. She had read all of the Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn novels again in order to prepare for this book.

Anne said they had first started working on this book with her father's editor, but then she retired. But, it may be a stronger book for having worked with a new editor, someone who didn't know the Chee/Leaphorn novels as well.

Tony Hillerman died a year ago in October, and the publisher wanted to get the book out in time for the anniversary of his death. Because they hurried it, Anne and Don had to make it a smaller book. They had to condense it. Originally there were plans for a chapter for each book, but in changing it there was one chapter for the books off of the reservation, and the book was condensed in other ways. She said she was very pleased with the final book.

Anne Hillerman narrated Tony Hillerman's Landscape, reading the script, since it was the first time they were doing the slide program. She showed pictures of her father in the service, receiving his Silver Star and Purple Heart, and told the story of his early life. While working at the University of New Mexico as Head of the Journalism Department, Hillerman pursued his dream of writing fiction. (It was quite funny to see a picture of Tony Hillerman sitting at a computer with a game of solitaire on the screen when Anne Hillerman said he was pursuing his dream.)

She said her father often told the story of submitting his first book, The Blessing Way, to his agent, who told him to take out the Indians. But, he found Joan Kahn at Harper & Row, and she liked the Navajo police, and wanted Joe Leaphorn to have a larger role. Hillerman went on to write seventeen other Navajo novels.

Hillerman's slide show of her father's country was a perfect ending to an afternoon of a celebration of Southwestern authors.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Lesa, thanks so much for the report. Once again you put me there at the bookstore!

Interesting stuff here--Greer going with a smaller publisher for his lit fic, the journalist who took Catherine's lead in responding to threatening emails, and babies getting opium!

Thanks again for sharing,

Mystery Writing is Murder

Lesa said...

You're welcome, Elizabeth. It was a very interesting program, and it was great to have the chance to talk to Margaret Coel privately.

Margot at Joyfully Retired said...

This post has me with some new additions to my List. I felt like I was right there in the bookstore listening to the conversations and watching the slide show. Thank you.

Lesa said...

You're welcome, Margot. And, I'm glad you found some new titles!

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful report, Lesa. I've read Coel's books and the other authors are on my list to read.

The cover of Anne Hillerman's book is gorgeous. Tony Hillerman grew up in Oklahoma and is dear to our hearts here. I love Leaphorn and Chee, but my favorite Hillerman book is THE FLY ON THE WALL, written from his experiences as a statehouse reporter in Oklahoma City.

Many, many thanks for sharing this program.
Pat Browning

Lesa said...

You're welcome, Pat, although my husband told me my report was much too long. And, I told him, the program was much longer than most of them, and I had to cover all of it!

I haven't read Robert Greer, but I'm a big fan of Steven Havill's Posadas County mysteries.

Beth F said...

Great report! I need to bookmark this post so I can copy down some of the great titles.

Lesa said...

Thanks, Beth! And, you can always find it on my site by searching for Poisoned Pen.

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