Reading is about more than following a narrative or learning facts; it can also be a profound shared experience that culminates in a better understanding of ourselves and each other. In that spirit, welcome to the Westword Book Club, a weekly feature celebrating the books that inspire Denver artists.
Shannon Baker is a mystery writer who lives in the Boulder area. Her novels, such as Tainted Mountain, combine the nervy perspective of Nora Abbott, Baker's protagonist, with the unique milieu of politically embattled sacred tribal lands. Broken Trust, Baker's next entry in the Nora Abbot mystery series, is set in Boulder and scheduled to be published by Midnight Ink Publications in March 2014. Westword caught up with Baker to discuss participating in writer's groups, Hopi tribal culture and fake yellow snow.
How do you work up to the discipline to write according to a regular schedule?
I started writing when I already had kids and a whole life, so I started getting up really early in the morning, before my kids, and writing for a couple hours before going on with my day. No one interrupts me when it's that early. I'm also a really fast writer, so I could make a lot of progress in that short time. I'm now transitioning to being a full-time writer, which essentially means that I just got laid off from my other job, but it also means that I have more time to write throughout the day.
Was Tainted Mountain the first book you had published?
No, the first book was published in 2010 by a different company. They were like the puppy mill of presses, they just put out a bunch of books with very little individual care or even much editing.
Was that part of the Nora Abbott series?
No, it was a thriller.
Hopi traditions are a theme running through Tainted Mountain. Are they present in Broken Trust as well?
There are dual themes throughout this series. Hopi cultural traditions and their conflict with the changing environment as well as the interpersonal relationships between the characters. The Hopi are so fascinating to me. They are probably the hardest tribe to write about, so of course I chose to base a whole series around them.
What compelled you to begin researching the Hopi tribe?
Well, we moved from Boulder down to Flagstaff. I was working for the Grand Canyon Environmental Trust, which was an environmentalist group. The first thing I noticed was that there was a huge local controversy about using man-made snow for the Big Mountain area ski slopes on their peaks because of the drought in northern Arizona. I started researching because of that, and I found out that these peaks are sacred to twelve different tribes. The environmentalists hate it, too, because they're using treated waste water to make this fake snow. All the tribes have this sentiment of like, "Hey, we don't pee in your church."
Seems fair enough to me.
For the Hopi, the sacred mountains are central to their creation story and they are the home of their Kachinas, and there are like 300-plus different Kachinas who live there. They have a very precise and intricate calendar, so the Kachinas spend half of the year in the mountains and half of the year on the mesas. So if you destroy their environment, where are they going to live? So, they're not happy with the ski resort, even though it's one of the oldest in the United States; it's been there since 1938.
I'd imagine there was probably a lot less red tape for that sort of thing back in 1938.
Yeah, but they also just voted to expand. The ironic thing is that the legislation passed, and when they did start spraying snow up there, the pipes had rust in them, so the snow came out looking yellow.
Did you read any particular books that helped with your research about the Hopi?
Yeah, there was this really interesting book that I read called The Hopi Survival Kit: The Prophecies, Instructions and Warnings Revealed by the Last Elders. It was written by Thomas E. Mails, a white guy; I think he's preacher or something. Anyway, half of that book is frustrating build-up, essentially just the author saying, "Wait until I tell you what I'm going to tell you, you're going to be blown away." I was waiting for him to just get to the point, which is basically this idea of "live simply" and "plant crops." And I thought, "Okay, this is pretty typical new-age stuff," but then they get so mystic and foreboding. I used all the information in the book, though, because I'm not above indulging in conspiracy theories and end-times myths. When I got the manuscript for my book all done, I took it down to a Hopi man, an elder, who has an art gallery in downtown Flagstaff and I asked him if he would read it, and I started talking to him about some of thine things I had read in The Hopi Survival Kit. He told me that some of things I had found so far-fetched were closer to the truth than I might think. Then, as I was getting ready to leave, he said, "Do me a favor. Plant something." Why is agriculture so central to their culture? Other than being a necessary component of civilization and basic human survival, of course.
Their myths say that when they came up from the third world into the fourth world, they were so meek and polite that when Masauwu -- one of their deity figures who's sort of the guide between worlds -- gave all the different tribes a choice of maize, the Hopi held back and were left with the smallest ear. Because of that choice, the Hopi would always be a poor tribe, but they would live the longest. Sure enough, the Hopi are one of the oldest surviving cultures in North America, but they are also a very small and very poor tribe. Even though they are a teeny-tiny tribe of fewer than 20,000 people, they believe that their traditions are responsible for the balance of the whole world.
So they're like the stewards of the fate of the world?
Yeah, so they believe that climate change and extreme weather phenomena is their fault. Because they're such a dwindling tribe they haven't been able to keep their ceremonies going, and so the world's gone to hell. They've allowed things to get out of balance.
I imagine they can't be contributing that much. At least historically, I'd imagine that the Hopi kept things pretty green.
You'd be surprised at how polluted the reservations are. When I visited the Hopi reservation, I reacted a lot like Nora does in the book, like, "Oh, god, these are third-world nation conditions."
Is Nora Abbott like a personal roman à clef? Is there a lot of yourself in this character?
No, there isn't really. Just some of her initial reactions to things that seem bizarre to an outsider. I also might be a little insecure, but not nearly as insecure as she is. When you're writing a book, a lot of people will tell you that your characters need to be bigger than life. People who've read the book always point out how insecure Nora is, and how that stands out.
That's an unusual quality for the protagonist of a mystery story.
I didn't know I was writing a mystery when I wrote the first drafts of Tainted Mountain. I hadn't really read much in the mystery genre, and I didn't set the story up like a mystery at all. I have a hard time with plotting and structure. The story encompassed too much; mysteries should boil down to a single question. I thought that I was writing a thriller until I sat down with my editor at Midnight Ink, who said, "This isn't a thriller, it's a medium-boil." Then she asked if it was a series and I said, "It could be!"
Beth Groundwater publishes with Midnight Ink too, right?
Yeah. We're planning to do a Midnight Ink group reading at the Tattered Cover some time in November. That's still coming together. They have quite a few Denver-based writers. A lot of Midnight Ink writers are also Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers.
Do you have any sort of leadership role within RMFW?
Yeah, I'm the treasurer. I was registrar for a long time, but now that I've moved back to Colorado from Flagstaff, I can be more involved. I've been with RMFW for twenty years. I've got an MBA and accounting experience, so this is a good fit.
A rarity, too. Most writers are terrible with money.
Yeah, writers and doctors. Though writers have much less money to be terrible with.
And fewer existential crises. Do you find it helpful to attend those conferences and network with other writers?
Absolutely, yeah. I started going to the conferences when I lived in Nebraska, which is not exactly a cultural whirlwind. I may have been the only writer in the Sand Hills. I saw an ad for the conference and thought, "I can drive to this one, and it's cheap." So I came with a manuscript that I thought I was going to sell and get my foot in the door. They had this editor who was so mean, I feel like he must have had horns hidden underneath his hat. I asked him to critique the manuscript. We only got through the first page, which wasn't even a full page, the text began a third of the way down. He just tore into it, little problems, major problems. I just wanted to slit my wrists when I walked out of there. I didn't know what I was doing yet. Writing isn't for sissies. If you don't have a thick skin, this is a bad career.
So, if not mysteries, what kind of books did you like to read? Who are some of your favorite writers?
Since I sold this book, I've been reading a lot more mystery, but before, I always read more literary books, which makes me sound deeper than I am. I love Barbara Kingsolver. I started reading her books when The Bean Trees came out, and then Animal Dreams came out and I just ate it up. I think that The Poisonwood Bible was one of the most amazing books ever, but I haven't liked any of her subsequent books as much. I just read The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Those are still the types of books that I enjoy the most.
Shannon Baker is also a finalist in the upcoming New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards; Tainted Mountain was nominated in the mystery/ suspense category. The winner will be announced on November 15.
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Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.