Interviewed by Sandra Parshall
Ann Parker has deep family roots in Colorado, the setting of her acclaimed Silver Rush historical mystery series – her ancestors include a great-grandfather who was a blacksmith in the silver boomtown of Leadville, a grandmother who worked at the bindery of Leadville's Herald Democrat newspaper, a grandfather who was a Colorado School of Mines professor, and another grandfather who worked as a gandy dancer on the Colorado railroads. When she decided to write mystery novels, her family history made Leadville a natural choice for her setting.
Ann’s first novel, Silver Lies, won the Willa Award for Historical Fiction and the Colorado Gold Award. The second in the series, Iron Ties, won the Colorado Book Award. Both books were short-listed for other awards and appeared on various best-of-the-year lists. Leaden Skies, out this month, is already receiving rave reviews.
Ann writes fiction at night and spends her days earning a living as a science, technical, and corporate writer. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area.
Q. Tell us about Leaden Skies.
A. With pleasure! Leaden Skies is the third in the Silver Rush historical mystery series; it picks up just about where Iron Ties (the second book) leaves off.
It's July 22, 1880, and Ulysses S. Grant—former president and Civil War general—has just arrived in Leadville for a five-day visit. He's in town to visit the silver mines, with an eye to investment, to meet with the city's Union veterans, and be feted by Leadville's upper crust. As his visit commences, Inez Stannert, part-owner of Leadville's Silver Queen Saloon, strikes a backroom deal with upscale brothel madam Frisco Flo. The deal turns deadly when one of Flo's women turns up dead and Inez discovers that Flo has a secret third business partner. Meanwhile, some folks are "playing politics"—at the local level and much higher—and some are playing for keeps. The title refers not only to the darker atmosphere that permeates the book, but the weather as well. According to historical records, the weather during Grant's visit was truly nasty for those five days: lots of rain, some hail, and unusually cold for late July.
Q. It seems like a big leap from writing about science to writing mystery fiction. Had you tried to write fiction before? Were you an avid reader of mystery novels?
A. I've always been a reader since those synapses "clicked" in first grade. I can still remember reading the word "morning" and having some amazing switch flip in my mind. After that, there was no stopping me. I read anything and everything—including an entire set of children's encyclopedias bought one volume at a time from the grocery store. I recall I was a big and early fan of Edgar Allen Poe and Sherlock Holmes. I wrote my first novel when I was about 12 years old. It was a pseudo-Western, strangely enough, featuring a woman physician, circa 1880, set in … of all places … Maine. (I guess Maine sounded pretty exotic to a kid who'd never been further east than Colorado!) I didn't turn my hand to fiction again until I was in my forties.
Q. What prompted you to write historical mysteries? Were you already a history buff? And why did you choose Leadville, Colorado, as your setting?
A. I've read all over the map throughout my life, including historicals. (I recall with great fondness the "We Were There…" series as a youngster, particularly "We Were There on the Oregon Trail.") I wasn't a history buff per se, although I loved digging in the trunks full of old photographs, letters, clothes, hats, fans, etc., in my maternal and paternal grandparents' basements in Colorado.
I came to writing mysteries set in Leadville through my family history, actually. When I was about 45 years old, there was a family reunion in Colorado (my grandparents on both sides were Coloradans of various degrees). At the reunion, my Uncle Walt told me that my paternal grandmother—the original Inez Stannert—had been raised in Leadville. Now, Granny had NEVER talked about Leadville, although I'd heard plenty of stories about Denver. Surprised, I asked Uncle Walt, "What the heck is Leadville?" He got very excited and told me a bit about Leadville's silver-boom and mining history, then said, "Ann, I know you've been thinking about writing a book. I think you should research Leadville and set your novel there."
Well, I followed Uncle Walt's advice and that's what led to the Silver Rush series. I was simply seduced by Leadville's stories and history and, later, by the physical beauty and depth of the place itself.
Q. Did you visit Leadville before you started writing? Were any of your characters inspired by your research?
A. I wrote about half of Silver Lies before I finally visited Leadville… and boy, am I glad I finally did! Even though I had photographs and maps, it turns out I had formed an entirely erroneous mental picture of the topography. Just goes to show, all the paper research in the world can't supplant being "on the ground."
As for the characters, I certainly drew on bits and pieces of the people I read about. I very much admired Mary Hallock Foote and her writings. Many of the women who came early to Colorado had fascinating stories and amazing resilience: Dr. Susan Anderson ("Doc Susie"), Isabella Bird, and others. Malinda Jenkins (whose story is told in Gambler's Wife) was quite the tough, resourceful woman. My fictional city marshal Bart Hollis has many similarities to real-life Mart Duggan, who was Leadville's city marshal in 1879. Other characters are similarly an amalgam of real folks and my imagination. And I was inspired to add a few "real people" here and there as a result of all that research. In Silver Lies, Bat Masterson makes an appearance as does Denver madam Mattie Silks. In Iron Ties, the chief engineer of the Denver & Rio Grande Railway, J.A. McMurtrie, wanders through. Ulysses S. Grant is much in evidence throughout Leaden Skies. I take my character inspirations wherever I find them…
Q. You set a daunting task for yourself – not just writing a novel for the first time, but making it a mystery with all the demands of the genre, plus giving it a historical setting that required extensive research. Which has been most challenging for you: learning to write fiction after a career as a science writer, mastering the mystery form, or transporting yourself imaginatively to a different time? Which has been the most fun?
A. Actually, science writing uses many of the same writing tools and mindset as fiction writing, only in a different venue. As a science writer, I had to quickly come up to speed on new scientific or technical subjects to the point where I could write articles that were accurate and engaging to a general audience. I learned early in the profession to interview experts, listen closely to what they say, and look for that "hook" that will bring the topic to life. As for imagination, well, I've always been a daydreamer (check the reports from my first-grade teacher Mrs. Kildebeck…), so transporting myself mentally to a different time and place is no problem. Probably the most difficult part of the whole writing process for me is getting the clues right (not too many, not too few, not too obvious, not too obscure) and making sure the mystery—the "who done it and why"—holds up under scrutiny. It's a learning process with each book.
What's the most fun? Entering that magic state where the scenes, dialogue, and action are rolling through my brain faster than my fingers can type. I love being in "the zone." And I've come to enjoy my interactions with readers. It's fun to hear what they get out of the books. Creating a story is like creating a painting or any other work of art: the artist may have one thing in mind during the creation; the observer/reader brings his/her own interpretation to the finished piece.
Q. Your protagonist, Inez Stannert, is a saloonkeeper who’s having a secret affair with the town’s preacher. Why did you develop this type of main character instead of using, for example, the wife of a Leadville prospector or businessman (or the preacher)? What possibilities does a character like Inez open up that you wouldn’t have with a more conventional woman of that era?
A. There are always, of course, many choices when starting something like this. I knew from the start that I wanted a protagonist who was a woman in a "man's world." (In the 1880 Leadville census, three women were listed as saloonkeeper/bartenders, whereas 288 men laid claim to that occupation.) I initially considered having Inez be a member of the "fourth estate," working on or perhaps publishing a small newspaper, rather like Serena Clatchworthy in Leaden Skies. (This would have also fit my initial criteria, as there were 30 male journalists to the single female inkslinger in town, per the census.)
I finally decided I wanted a female protagonist who, while originally from a higher social strata, had easy access to the "seedier" side of town and could also be, in some ways, "invisible" to a large swatch of society while still in their midst (think of what people say as they drink and how much attention they pay to the person behind the bar…). I wanted my sleuth to be morally ambiguous, sometimes leaning toward the light, sometimes shifting toward the dark. In some ways, Inez is much like the Silver Queen Saloon itself, which stands at the intersection of Leadville's red-light and business districts. I have plenty of precedent: the heady atmosphere of a boomtown in boom times encourages folks to believe that anyone—including themselves—can become rich overnight. People take chances and gamble on long shots that they might not even consider under more sober circumstances.
Q. What does your research tell you about law enforcement in the time and place you write about? Did the real Leadville have a functioning justice system, or was it pretty much anything goes?
A. Certainly at the beginning, it was "anything goes." Fortune seekers flooded in from all parts of the world: Leadville was the place to be in the 1879, 1880 time frame. Leadville had a police force and a justice system—how well it functioned is another story … there were many instances of corruption. Police and the appointed city collector collected fines. There was an interesting relationship between the law, the justice system, and the prostitution "industry," for instance. Basically, prostitutes and the madams paid monthly "fines" and the law looked the other way (unless things got too rambunctious). Another strange thing: Gambling was, technically, illegal in Colorado, but it went on, every hour of the day, in Leadville. There was also a "Vigilantes Committee," 700 strong, who took justice into their own hands more than once, so apparently a number of locals felt that the law wasn't doing its job.
Q. Did you ever watch the HBO series Deadwood? What did you think of it? Was it historically accurate?
A. I loved Deadwood! I think it presents a different side of the "Old West" that counters what we saw on TV in the 50s and 60s. If I were to draw a spectrum, the older, squeaky-clean, morally black-and-white Westerns would be at one end, with "spaghetti Westerns" (sometimes called anti-Westerns or revisionist Westerns) of the mid-1960s and early 1970s claiming the morally ambiguous middle ground, what with their anti-heroes and more cynical view of law and the West. Deadwood is the antithesis of the early Westerns, occupying even darker regions still. Was it historically accurate? Heck if I know. The producer claims so. Some of the things I've read about and researched have me believing that the language used in the series was probably authentic (although I don't know about the frequency and ease with which it was bandied about).
Q. Poisoned Pen Press has a well-deserved reputation for publishing superior books that, for one reason or another, the big New York publishers thought were too risky to take a chance on. Was that the case with your series? Did you try the NY route first, or did you approach PPP without submitting to the bigger houses? What do you feel are the advantages of being published by PPP?
A. I did indeed try to break into New York first. I had an agent who submitted to the major houses—they all passed. (However, I do have some very encouraging, nicely worded rejections on fancy letterhead in my files!) Then, my agent went out of the agenting business! I was faced with either 1) putting Silver Lies aside and moving onto the next or 2) trying to find a home for it myself. I tried to "move on," but my heart wasn't in it. So, I researched smaller presses, asking those I knew in the mystery field what publishers they'd recommend. Poisoned Pen Press was always at the top of everyone's list. When I saw they were located in Arizona, I thought, well, maybe they'll understand this book. I went through the submittal process, and boy, was I thrilled when I got that great email from Barbara Peters, saying, "Yes, we want Silver Lies. Are you working on a sequel?"
I love the sense of camaraderie and community among the Poisoned Pen Press authors, as well as the accessibility to the folks who run the company. Some more tangible advantages: the backlist doesn't go out of print, so it's always possible for a reader to start at the beginning of a series, and PPP is always trying new things, such as offering books on Kindle and audio and so on. Plus, my editor is Barbara Peters … I count myself lucky in that regard: editors don't get any better or more insightful than Barbara!
Q. Are you still working as a science writer? How much time are you able to devote to fiction writing? Do you have a writing routine, or do you fit it in whenever you can?
A. I'm still working as a "word slinger," although I'm now a contractor/consultant with my own business. In this particular incarnation, I'll tackle anything to do with words: employee handbooks, patents, web content, science or technical writing and/or editing … you name it, I'll do it. That's what 30 years of writing and editing experience provides, and believe me, these days, I don't complain in the least. You could say that, instead of having one employer or client, I now have several that I need to juggle along with everything else. The time I can devote to fiction varies greatly. I usually end up writing late at night … right about now, actually. (It's 11 p.m. and here I am, still cranking out the words).
Q. What do you see as your greatest strengths as a writer? Are there any aspects of craft that you’re still trying to master?
A. Hmmm. I'm not certain I have the right perspective to answer this. It's rather like trying to perform surgery on oneself. I'd have to fall back on what reviewers and others say are my strengths: bringing the time and place "alive," and creating convincing characters. The thing I need to work on: writing faster!
Q. Mystery authors whose books are set in the present day have to worry about getting police procedure and forensic details right so their stories will be believable and they won’t face the wrath of sharp-eyed readers. Does setting your books in the past free you from such worries, or do you still have to deal with a certain amount of crime scene and forensic detail?
A. It's true I don't have to worry about sending DNA samples out for analysis. But the details still need to be correct. Inez may not know about "blood splatter pattern," but if we're looking at a scene through her eyes, it's nice to get that part right, just so the scene is more or less "real." I also try to keep in mind other, simple things, such as not sending a character reeling backwards when shot with a Colt 45 (or some such). Doesn't happen; the bullet doesn't have that much momentum. (Don't believe me? Check out Mythbusters Episode 25 http://mythbustersresults.com/episode25 ).
Q. What fiction writers, in any genre, have inspired you and taught you by example? Whose mysteries do you rush to read as soon as they’re published?
A. Picking favorites is difficult, given that I read so widely and voraciously. I was a big fan of the Lord of the Rings epic fantasy … loved the world that J.R.R. Tolkien created (I wasn't big on The Hobbit, though). I very much enjoyed Dianne Day's Fremont Jones historical mystery series. One current-day mystery writer I admire greatly is Martin Cruz Smith—I'll drop everything to grab a new one by him!
Q. Do you hope to continue the Leadville series indefinitely, or do you have a plan for concluding it after a certain number of books?
A. I don't have a specific number of Inez books in mind. But there are certainly "variations on the theme" that might be fun to explore, such as taking a secondary character from the series and creating a story around him/her.
Q. Are you working on a new book now? Can you give us a hint of what it’s about?
A. I'm stepping into the shallows of the fourth book … haven't started swimming yet. It's hard to provide a hint without giving away spoilers about Leaden Skies!
Q. Where can readers find information about your signings and conference appearances?
A. My website has all that at http://www.annparker.net/app.htm.
Q. In parting, do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
A. If you are aspiring to write, my first bit of advice is: Read. Read the kinds of books you want to write. Silly, I know, but I've run into plenty of folks who want to be writers but … don't read.
Second bit for writers: Write the story that you feel passionate about. And then be willing to revise and "kill your darlings."
If you are aspiring to be published and you have the writing part of the job wired, my advice is: Learn all you can about marketing, promoting, branding … all those things that published authors these days must do in addition to writing a great story. If you have a background in marketing, PR, advertising, you already have an advantage. (Many pre-published hopefuls hate to hear this, but … sorry! It's true!)
My second bit of advice to those who want to be published: Persevere. It's not easy to find an agent or publisher in the best of times, and these are definitely not the best of times. Be prepared to collect a stack of rejections, and remember: Every "no" you get brings you closer to "yes."
Ann wants to alert readers that an Author's Note which should have appeared at the end of Leaden Skies sadly went astray in the printing process. Those who are curious about the story behind the novel (and what's real and what's not) can download a copy of the mysteriously missing Author's Note at www.annparker.net/book.htm.