At the rest stop off Interstate 70’s Exit 90 — near the banks of the Colorado River, just before you enter the sleepy town of Rifle — a legendary drug-cartel enforcer known as Chopo drew his last breath, felled by a bullet in the neck.
“Over there is where Chopo was hiding,” says Erik Storey, pointing toward a copse of trees, scrub and dry grass at the western edge of the rest stop parking lot. It’s a warm summer morning, but clouds are rolling in on the horizon. Storey’s voice is quiet and quick, as if he’s eager to get his sentences over and done with. His face is shaded by a well-worn baseball cap; his faded blue jeans and scuffed chukkas speak to a life spent outdoors. “The grass was higher then. It’s been cut down now. And back there is the access road that Clyde escaped down when the cops showed up.”
Despite his intimate knowledge of the scene, Storey did not witness this crime. He created it. Chopo and Clyde are characters from his debut novel, Nothing Short of Dying. In it, a Colorado native and outdoorsman named Clyde Barr returns to the States after serving as a gun for hire in Africa and South America. He has just finished a stint in a Juárez prison. He’s camping in Utah, en route to a welcome, solitary existence in the Yukon, when he receives a phone call from his older sister, Jen. Frantic, she says she needs his help. Then the phone goes dead. The problem is, he hasn’t had contact with his family in years. He has no idea where Jen is. Yet the two siblings share a secret, violent bond, tied together by blood in more ways than one.
The doomed Chopo is just one of the many compelling secondary characters — not to mention one of the many corpses — that pile up throughout the book. Clyde’s foil is Allie Martin, a feisty bartender he runs across during his less-than-legal investigation. She becomes “the Bonnie to my Clyde,” he jokes at one point. Their relationship deepens as Clyde’s quest to save his sister draws him into a web of drug-ring politics, meth cookhouses and the most remote reaches of Colorado’s high country.
Nothing Short of Dying is coming out this week via Scribner, the revered New York company that’s published everyone from Ernest Hemingway to Stephen King. It was sold to Scribner by Storey’s literary agent, Darley Anderson, who also represents mega-best-selling thriller writer Lee Child, creator of the Jack Reacher series. A glowing quote from Child adorns the cover of Nothing Short of Dying: “Very, very good. It’s all here. Reacher is keeping an eye on this guy.” Storey’s book deal landed him a six-figure advance, which includes an as-yet-unnamed sequel, due in 2017. Anderson is already aggressively shopping a deal in Hollywood for a film or television adaptation.
It’s the stuff of a debut author’s dreams, especially someone like Storey, who has long idolized Child. Many other authors he loves — including C. J. Box and Craig Johnson, both of whom pen crime novels set in Wyoming, the state of Storey’s birth — have already heaped praise on Nothing Short of Dying. “The response has been overwhelming,” Storey says. “I did not think that would happen. You don’t usually get that kind of stuff for a debut novel by a writer nobody’s heard of. And they’re all authors I read and love. Some of them I used to read in bunkhouses or logging-camp tents. I’ve been writing a lot of long thank-you letters lately.”
When Storey talks of a childhood spent reading books in cabins and tents, he’s not embellishing. Since moving to Colorado as a young boy, he’s spent more time in the wild than in towns. Before hitting pay dirt with Nothing Short of Dying, he worked various and sundry jobs across Colorado and Wyoming, including as a ranch hand, a horseback guide and a dogsled musher. The father of two young girls and the husband of a third-grade teacher, he still sprays weeds for a private company in Rio Blanco County during the summer to help make ends meet. He writes in the winter when the seasonal work dries up.
“It’s not like I can afford to quit work,” Storey says. He and his family recently moved to Grand Junction after many years spent in Rangely, where he and his wife went to school together from kindergarten through high school. “People in Rangely might think I can quit working just because I’ve got this big book deal, but it doesn’t work that way.”
In fact, the Storey family left Rangely because living there had gotten uncomfortable in the wake of his six-figure windfall, which he humbly declines to tag with a specific dollar amount. “One of the fallouts of the book deal was being in a small town where we were known as the poor people,” Storey explains. “Everybody else in Rangely was making oil-field money. And then it changed. My book deal happened about the same time that the bubble burst for the oil and gas industry. Everyone in town lost their jobs, and I was starting to get all this attention. We pretty much got run out of town. It’s a small town — 1,200 people — and no one would talk to us. There was a lot of resentment, I guess. On top of that, my wife and I were already two of the only liberals in town, so that didn’t help.”
Jack Reacher, the protagonist of Child’s novels, often gets compared to the author himself. Similarly, Storey is a bit like his creation, Clyde Barr. He speaks softly. He’d do anything for his family. He’s no stranger to Colorado’s forests, peaks and hogbacks. He prefers the graceful rhythms of the wilderness over the frenzy of so-called civilization. And while he hasn’t happened upon any drug-cartel enforcers, Chopo or otherwise, throughout his rough-and-ready life, Storey knows his way around a gun.
“About a mile up the canyon, to the right, that’s where I shot my first elk.” It’s later that day, and Storey now stands on his family’s homestead, about twenty minutes up Highway 13 from Rifle, halfway to Meeker, not far from Monument Peak. Piceance Creek runs through the property, gouging a six-foot-deep gully into the hard earth. The clouds have settled in, and a light rain has begun to fall, its patter mixing with the buzz of hummingbirds. Not that it deters Storey, who stands in the drizzle smoking Camels and pointing up an aspen-covered hill.
“I must have been twelve,” he continues. “I’d been hunting since I was eight. I started with rabbits, but I was always with my dad when he shot elk and deer. Taking down the elk was shocking. I’d seen it happen so many times, but it’s different when you actually do it.”
Like Storey, Clyde — who holds a sharpshooter qualification from the NRA — doesn’t kill indiscriminately or with gusto. Then again, in Nothing Short of Dying, his prey often leans toward the human end of the species spectrum. Like all great action heroes, Clyde has a code. And in his own way, so does Storey. “You see the animal running, and it’s all exciting,” he says. “But when you pull the trigger, it’s not fun anymore. When you see it lying there, it’s sad. And then it’s all work after that. So I don’t pull the trigger much anymore. I still go hunting with friends and family, but it’s just a hike with a gun now.”
Storey’s link to this land runs deep. His family’s homestead dates back a hundred years, to when his great-grandfather migrated west from Oklahoma in a wagon, lured by the promise of the Homestead Acts. “He wanted some room,” Storey says simply. “They raised foxes and grew potatoes. They’d trade the fox fur for all the food they couldn’t raise themselves.” He points toward the log cabin that sits on the property, next to a tiny, slightly more modern house. “My grandma was born in that cabin.”
Storey himself was born in Cody, Wyoming, in 1978. His family — he had just one sister at the time; he’d eventually wind up with three siblings — moved south to Rangely when he was four. “One of my sisters was almost born in a teepee,” he says with a chuckle, then explains. “My parents were part of a rendezvous club. It’s like a Creative Anachronism thing. They wore period garb from the 1800s, the mountain-man era. They dressed up and stayed in era-specific tents, which were teepees. My mom went into labor with my sister in a teepee on the Fourth of July, the year we moved to Colorado.”
Like so many in Rangely, his father worked in the oil fields. Small-town life, along with the occasional retreat into the nineteenth century, made a profound imprint on Storey. A Boy Scout and a member of 4-H, he learned to feel as comfortable in the Colorado wilderness as he did in his living room — if not more so. “I remember winning my first tomahawk-throwing tournament when I was six,” before switching to a hunting rifle at eight, he says. He also began regularly visiting the family’s homestead, as well as a separate, more remote cabin that his grandfather owned in the Flat Tops Wilderness, which required a five-mile hike into steep, dense woods.
As rugged as Storey’s family members were, they were passionate about at least one indoor activity: reading. “When you grow up outdoors, at night there’s nothing else to do but read,” Storey recalls. “At the Flat Tops cabin, where we stayed a lot when I was growing up, there was no electricity. So when the sun went down, we read. Everyone in my family did. It’s what made me a heavy reader. It was just the culture at my household. We didn’t watch a lot of TV. Everybody had a book going.
“Since there was no electricity, we’d read by lantern. The hiss of a Coleman lantern is always familiar. For me, it went hand in hand with page-turning. Sometimes in the summer, though, we’d read by flashlight, which was horribly annoying because of all the miller moths out here. You’d be trying to read, but because they’re attracted to the light, your face would be covered with them. You needed a really good book to keep your mind off the moths.”
Luckily, Storey did have some really good books. First came fantasy staples such as J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Terry Brooks’s Shannara series. Soon, however, his tastes wandered a little closer to reality — but not too close. “My brother and I read fantasies. I was a heavy fantasy reader at first,” he says. “But my dad read Westerns, and my mom read mysteries. I started reading the Westerns that my dad had lying around. One summer I actually read every Louis L’Amour book. There’s a hundred of them or so. And [H. Rider] Haggard was one of my favorites.”
Haggard’s famous Allan Quatermain stories had a tinge of fantasy to them, though it was the author’s flair for African adventure that captivated Storey. In Nothing Short of Dying, Clyde has a slight disability, the result of a run-in with a hyena when he was a soldier of fortune in Africa. “That’s a straight nod to Haggard,” Storey admits. “The fact that Barr spent time in Africa and walks with a slight limp, that’s a Quatermain thing.” He also adored the popular Travis McGree thrillers by John D. McDonald, whose introspective hero can be seen as a stylistic uncle of Clyde.
For all his bookworming as a boy, Storey’s road to becoming a writer held plenty of switchbacks. After graduating from Rangely High School in 1997 — he’d spend his summer breaks working on ranches — he tried college. It didn’t last long. After a year of studying literature at Colorado Northwestern Community College in Rangely and another at Colorado Mountain College in Leadville, he parted ways with academia for good.
“I was writing a little while in college,” he says, “and I was encouraged by one of the professors up there. He liked a couple of short stories I’d written. But I wasn’t very good at it at the time. I also fought with professors a lot, their specific way of looking at things. My wife was really good at college because she understood the game. You have to write papers the way they want them written. There was some chafing against authority on my part. College kind of ruined me for writing for a long time. In college, you want to write this Nobel or Man Booker winner, this great American novel. Writing is a craft, just like carpentry or any other trade. It’s an art, but you also have to be precise and technically sound; otherwise, your house falls down. My early stuff that I wrote was pretty, I thought, but it didn’t hold. If it was a house, it would’ve leaked in twenty places and one wall would have fallen off. It took me a long time to realize I didn’t need to write some great piece of classic literature. I could just write what I like to read.”
That realization did not come quickly. Frustrated, Storey let his writing lapse while he embarked on a string of odd jobs that would occupy his next few years. “I was working with this eighty-year-old cowboy up at Browns Park [Wildlife Refuge],” he remembers. “He was an amazing guy. He rode every day. He smoked three packs a day. He ate bacon and eggs and sausage every morning. He drank whiskey every night. And he would ask every kid he met, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ Then he told the kids he was asking them that question so that he could get ideas, since he hadn’t grown up himself yet. He wanted to try everything first before deciding. It was hilarious. But when I think about it, I was the same way for a long time. I had no idea what I wanted to be. So I had to try everything.”
Trying everything led to stints as a horseback guide in Browns Park, Estes Park and Steamboat Springs, not to mention a season in Wyoming mushing a dogsled for tourists in subzero temperatures, a job that wore thin quickly. “It was a lot of fun, at least half the time,” he recalls. “If you had bad clients, though, it was sheer hell. It’s hard to help people have fun and be in charge of their lives at the same time. It’s like, ‘You guys have a blast, but you have to listen to me or you could die out here.’ The sled dogs are close to being wolves, and they hated kids. They run in packs like wolves, so we had to make sure all the kids were being held by parents. If they see a kid that’s not being held by an adult, they’ll eat it.”
Feeling a bit feral himself at that point in his life, he decided to settle down. After reconnecting with an old Rangely classmate, he married her in 2004: “She was a bartender, and I was at the bar a lot. So I married my bartender.” They even relocated to Denver, renting a place in the suddenly trendy, bustling Baker neighborhood. They lasted a year before fleeing back to the mountains. “We had a year lease on our apartment in Denver,” Storey says, “and as soon as it was up, we left. It was just too much. We moved away from Denver because the city was too big and traffic was too heavy. I had a job ten miles away as the crow flies, but it took me an hour to get there in the morning and two hours to get home.”
Back in Rangely, they started a family. One daughter was born, then another. Storey worked outdoors during the summers and his wife taught during the winters, which helped the struggling couple save on child-care bills. One thing still felt unconsummated, though: Storey’s love of the written word.
Two men, Piper and Roan, are stuck in the snow. They deserve to be. Bumbling crooks with their eye on burglarizing an empty home, they miscalculate their snowmobile ride across the frozen Wyoming landscape. Now, with each at the other’s throat, a more dire threat makes itself heard: the howling of wolves.
“A Bright and Tranquil Morn” is one of a handful of short stories that Storey published on various crime-fiction websites — including Shotgun Honey and Out of the Gutter — in the few years leading up to Nothing Short of Dying. They didn’t exactly establish him as an author to watch; quick, clumsy and crude, they’re clearly the work of a writer learning how to hit his target. But one thing is certain: He knows what his target is.
“When I started writing in college, it was like I was trying to be the next Updike,” Storey says. “I can’t do that kind of thing very well. I didn’t have the huge family drama that a lot of writers and artists have, so that didn’t work out.” Finally, spurred by years of dead ends and his wife’s encouragement, he turned toward his first love: genre fiction. “There are just as many serious issues you can bring up in genre fiction, but it’s more fun to read, I think. Gradually I started working in more outdoors stuff and putting my own experiences into my writing.”
Indeed, reading “A Bright and Tranquil Morn,” it’s not hard to picture some of the more clueless tourists Storey had to shepherd during his time as a dogsled musher in Wyoming. For all its crassness, though, the story steeps itself in the hard-edged, pulp-adventure style that he grew up reading.
“I don’t look back at those stories,” Storey says with a laugh. “Even then, I knew I could do better.” And so he did. Emboldened by his admittedly modest publications on crime-fiction websites, he took that momentum and ran with it. “It was gratifying,” he remembers. “Some people actually liked it. I thought, ‘Maybe I can do this writing thing.’” Over the winter of 2012 and 2013, he buckled down and began writing what would become Nothing Short of Dying.
“I was writing the short stories just to fill time in winter between summer jobs, in those gaps where I was unemployed,” he explains. “Not to make money — because those stories didn’t pay very much. When my first daughter was old enough to go to school five years ago, I had the whole winter off. My wife told me to write a novel. That’s how all great things start — when my wife tells me to do them.”
He’d never tried to write anything that long. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” admits Storey, a man who’s endured entire winters working outdoors in ten-below weather. “To sit down and write a hundred thousand words, to push yourself to write a thousand words a day, was insanely hard. The goofy thing was, it didn’t feel like work. It was really, really hard, but to me, work was always blue-collar. If I’m not dirty and sweaty, it’s not work; it’s just sitting. Still, all that working with my brain was not normal.”
At first he had no idea what he was doing. All he knew for sure was that his main character was going to borrow a little bit from the heroes he loved — Jack Reacher among them — as well as his own background. And, of course, it had to take place in Colorado.
“Location was the first thing I started with,” he says. “There aren’t a whole lot of books set here, in what they call the Intermountain West. And I wanted some kind of tough, pulp-action hero to wander around this area, kind of like a knight errant. That archetype of the wandering hero has been in almost every culture. There was a giant block of gross granite that I had to chip at to get Clyde.”
Outside of his family, he received little encouragement. The few writers he knew said that big New York publishers just wouldn’t be interested in such a proudly provincial book, especially one that’s focused on flyover country. Storey knew, though, that authors like Box and Johnson — not to mention television shows like Breaking Bad and Justified — proved there was a hunger for crime thrillers set somewhere other than in major cities. In any case, he says, “This was just what I wanted to do.” Six months after starting, he finished the first draft of his first novel. After woodshedding it with his wife, he began the even harder work: trying to find a literary agent to help him sell his dream.
“I sent it to 25 agents, and it was a resounding no,” he says. He received no constructive criticism, just a flurry of form rejections. Undeterred, he sent the manuscript to another 25 agents. Again, no one bit. However, he did start to get a trickle of personalized feedback. “After my second round of queries, agents started saying, ‘I like this, but I can’t sell it.’ They’d say that it wasn’t their cup of tea. But the book isn’t a cup of tea at all; it’s whiskey on the rocks.”
Storey had faith in his book, but he admits that he couldn’t see its flaws at first. “My early draft was too raw,” he says. “It was obscene, I guess you’d say, in certain parts. There was too much swearing. When I revised it, I removed the F-word 200 times. It’s a regional-dialect thing. I grew up in an oil-field town, and the F-word is an adjective, noun and verb. I was trying to catch the language of the area, but you can’t sell that. What I leaned eventually was that this wasn’t journalism. This was fiction. I want to capture the truth, but not like a photograph — more like a painting.”
He also confesses to another, more fundamental problem with his early draft. “I’d read a lot of Spillane and stuff like that, which is really dated. So some of my first draft was a little sexist, a little Mike Hammer,” he says with evident embarrassment. “I did it unconsciously, just writing in that old style I remembered reading when I grew up. But it was wrong. My wife told me, ‘Your character is chauvinistic.’ And she was right. So I changed him.” Not only that, Storey turned the book’s two primary female characters, Allie and Jen, into complex, riveting heroes in their own right. Anyone expecting Jen to be nothing more than a victim to be rescued will be surprised by the backstory the writer suspensefully unspools, just as they are likely to be won over by Clyde’s dogged, resourceful, at times superhuman determination.
“Sometimes when you’re knee-deep in horse manure, you just have to keep slogging forward,” thinks Clyde during a particularly disheartening moment of his mission. It’s one part of the book where it feels as though the author is venting through his character. “When I worked in Steamboat, we had fifty horses in one pen,” Storey says. “I literally was knee-deep in horse manure. But it’s a good metaphor for any job — writing, especially. You don’t get a weekly paycheck. You don’t always get the validation. Sometimes you have no idea whether you should even write or not.”
The rejections kept coming. By the time he’d gotten his fiftieth “not my cup of tea” from agents, Storey had already written the first draft of the second Clyde Barr book. But instead of aiming lower in his search, he aimed higher: the renowned Darley Anderson. “My wife said, ‘Just pick your dream agent,’” Storey recalls. “Darley doesn’t represent a lot of authors anymore besides Lee Child, and he only accepts query letters and the first ten pages of a manuscript on paper. It had to be printed up; it couldn’t be e-mailed. My wife and I literally used the last nine dollars in our bank account to send the query to Darley Anderson. When I went to the post office in Rangely and said I wanted to send something to London, they said, ‘Where?’”
Storey threw a Hail Mary. Two weeks later, in October 2014, it was caught. “I got a phone call at home,” he says, “and the caller ID just said ‘Unknown.’ I picked it up, and a voice said, ‘Hello, this is Darley Anderson. I read your manuscript. I’m intrigued. I’d like to read more, if that’s okay with you.’”
It was indeed okay. Anderson immediately requested an exclusive reading of the full manuscript, which wasn’t a problem for Storey, seeing as how Anderson was the only agent currently looking at the novel following those fifty rejections. A few more transatlantic conversations ensued. Then, two months after Anderson’s initial phone call, he took on Storey as a client. Four months after that, Nothing Short of Dying and its sequel sold to Scribner. For a sum he could never have imagined.
“My agent called and said, ‘You might want to sit down.’ And that was good advice,” Storey remembers. “It was shocking. It was insane. We were broke, living paycheck to paycheck. It was a shot of adrenaline.” After the less than pleasant reception he and his wife began receiving in Rangely, they took his advance, bought a house in Grand Junction, and turned the page.
From the porch of his great-grandfather’s log cabin, Storey looks out at the rainstorm dampening the dust on his family homestead and takes a drag off his Camel. “It’s all been a giant whirlwind,” he says.
“Thunderstorms bring more than rain,” Clyde warns at one point in Nothing Short of Dying. Injured, against the odds and short on hope, he’s about to launch an assault on a heavily fortified compound near Leadville, a last-ditch attempt to save the person he loves most in the world. But even under pressure, he can’t help but pause occasionally to marvel at the awe-inspiring, sometimes deadly beauty of the Colorado wilderness around him. It’s just one more way the action hero resembles the man who made him.
“That still happens to me,” Storey says. “I grew up and work in this country, but it’s still jaw-dropping. I’ll see this perfect moonrise over the ponderosas, and it’s gorgeous. You become used to it, but some days it still gets to you. I’m sure it’s the same in New York City — certain nights when the lights are just perfect, and even the most jaded New Yorker would say, ‘God, that’s just gorgeous.’ That’s how it is here.
“I wanted to show off this side of the state,” he continues. “It’s not as visited as Denver. Western Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Idaho — they’re kind of forgotten. People will fly into the cities, but because the population density is so small, they overlook the rest of the region. To a lot of people, the West is kind of an obscure concept. I want to promote this area with my books. Not that I want everyone to move here,” he says with a laugh. “But please, come and visit. See all the space and the hills and the rocks and the trees.”
Storey stops short of claiming to be some kind of self-appointed spokesman for the Intermountain West. Indeed, he’s not above exploring the less savory parts of his homeland. As Clyde’s quest takes him from small town to small town throughout Colorado — Riverside, Clifton, Palisade, De Beque, Rifle, Meeker, Mack, Leadville, Steamboat Springs — he unearths both the grandeur and grit of life in the high country and on the Western Slope. Nothing Short of Dying, equal parts rural noir and contemporary Western, thrives on that friction between pretty and ugly. “‘Flipping rocks’ would be the best term for it,” Storey says. “Find the most beautiful spot out here, and as soon as you start flipping rocks, you’ll see all the little bugs and snakes. Meth is still a huge problem. There’s always an underbelly.”
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At one point in the book, Clyde and a friend of his, who happens to be Mexican-American, get accosted by the local racists. It doesn’t end well for the racists. “Racism is an issue,” Storey says, “and I put it into one little fight scene. But it shows one of the huge underlying problems we have out here, which is funny. Colorado is a Spanish name. This area was once owned by Spain, so half the towns out here have Spanish names. Durango, Cortez. Still, you hear people say, ‘Learn to speak English.’ Spanish has been spoken in Colorado a lot longer than English has. But I don’t want to be preachy about it, either. That’s not Clyde’s character.”
What does define Clyde’s character, besides his tenacity and honor, is a deep distrust of cell phones, apps, computers and every other innovation that distracts from the simplicity of humanity’s bond with the land. As Storey explains, “Clyde’s worldview, his disdain for modern life and technology, that’s from me. It comes from how I grew up, with no electricity or running water. We thought that was normal. When I was a kid and we got into town and saw friends of ours, they’d say, ‘That’s not normal. Nobody does that anymore. You’re a hundred years behind the times.’” In the book, Clyde waxes philosophical about the old-time mountain men that are his heroes: “They belonged to a different age. I guess I did too.”
“I used Clyde as a way to comment on things,” Storey says. He may be doing a lot more commenting in the future. Assuming the buzz surrounding Nothing Short of Dying equates to sales, he and his publisher are eager to turn the first two Clyde Barr books into an open-ended series. He’s already well into writing the third. “Clyde is half animal, really. Part of his struggle is with civilization, with being human,” Storey says. “What makes us human? He’s spent so much time in the wilderness, he has a hard time. I can relate to that.
“That’s how I am, too,” he adds without apology, leaning on a wooden post on the porch that his great-grandfather built with his bare hands. Three old horses graze on the rain-dappled grass in front of him, not a care in the world. “I don’t always want to admit that I’m more comfortable up here on the homestead than I am in town. We’re all supposed to be so world-savvy. I have an easier time crossing a creek than I do crossing a street.” Clyde couldn’t have put it better himself.
Erik Storey will appear with Colorado mystery author Mark Stevens at the Tattered Cover Colfax at 7 p.m. Tuesday, August 30, and at the Boulder Book Store at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, August 31. Find out more at tatteredcover.com.