Monday, November 3, 2008

In The Dismal Swamp with Pat Balester

by Julia Buckley
Patrick Balester is a mystery writer, photographer and computer programmer who lives in Kansas City, Missouri. When he first began writing his novel, he actually lived only a few miles away from the Great Dismal Swamp Wildlife Refuge. He spent many hours hiking on its trails and taking photographs of this wild area.

Hi, Pat. Thanks for agreeing to a blog interview.

Your new mystery is called IN THE DISMAL SWAMP. Tell me about this setting.

The Great Dismal Swamp was known in colonial times as an impenetrable wilderness that straddled the Virginia/North Carolina coast. George Washington (our first President) proposed draining it & growing rice, but the task was too daunting. Before the Civil War, it became a refuge for runaway slaves, who knew that superstition would keep bounty hunters from entering it. Afterwards, it became a source for lumber. Cedar, the dominant tree, was prized for making roof shingles because of its natural water resistance. The water in Lake Drummond was often used on whaling ships, because of the high tannin content (leached from cedar tree roots). The water was resistant to the growth of bacteria, so it could stay fresh below decks for months and even years at sea.

Interesting! Readers can see the first chapter of your book on your website. The writing style reminded me of Jack London or Bret Harte. Were you at all influenced by the works of these writers?

Thanks for the comparison! I read a lot of Jack London as a youngster. I remember being awed by the story, “To Build a Fire” and its description of the Arctic wilderness and the effects it had on the main character. It was the first time I realized the power of fiction to tell a universal truth.

You are also a photographer and a computer programmer. How did you become interested in writing mysteries?

I was reading a lot of mysteries because I liked trying to solve the crime before the end, and liked a lot of writers from Avalon Books. Since I already wanted to write one myself, I decided to check out the publisher. I actually targeted them, because they took un-agented material and I had no agent. I submitted to other publishers, of course, but wrote my novel with Avalon in mind, placing their submission guidelines on the wall of my office. In no time at all (about 18 months) I received a letter from their editor saying they wanted to buy my book.

That's no time, huh? :)

Your photos of the Great Dismal Swamp Wildlife Refuge are also viewable at your site. Do you find this place to be especially photogenic?

Yes, especially in the spring and fall. Hundreds of bird species migrate or live in the swamp, as well as large populations of black bear, bobcat, beaver & rattlesnakes. You can even find the occasional alligator in the swamp, which is about as far north as they can survive. I took a nice shot of one, and it’s on my website.

BOOKLIST called you a “talented first novelist.” Did you have a party the day your review came out? :)

I was thrilled when my editor sent me a copy of the review. I asked her if they’d made a mistake! That night, I celebrated with a nice dinner out with the family.

How did you come up with the premise for your book?

I wanted to tell the story of the swamp and since I wanted to write a mystery, I thought it was the perfect setting for a crime (with a name like Dismal Swamp, it was a natural). I managed to use clues from within the swamp itself to provide the solution to the murder. This allowed me to tell people about the swamp while telling an entertaining story.

Your novel deals with people who poach on protected land. I knew this was a big problem in other countries, but is it a problem here?

Surprising to say, it is a big problem. Black bears are especially vulnerable to the East Asian trade in body parts used in traditional medicines. As Asian societies become wealthier and their own wildlife populations become depleted, international demand for bear paw and gall bladder have targeted our wildlife. Wealthy hunters looking for trophy sized game also attract a few unscrupulous guides who operate outside the law in several western states.

You have mentioned that you enjoy reading mysteries. Do you have some favorites?
I like some of the traditional suspense novelists like Patricia Carlon (Australia) but I’m broadening my interests. Mark Coggins and Anthony Neil Smith are producing some fine work. I’m also a big fan of JA Konrath. And I’ve recently discovered Rick Mofina and Sandra Ruttan, who are strong Canadian crime writers.

You enjoy hiking in the Dismal Swamp. Do you have other favorite sight-seeing destinations?

I like traveling along the Eastern Shore peninsula, which extends down from Maryland into Virginia, and has some of the last unspoiled beaches on the Eastern seaboard. You haven’t has crab cakes until you’ve dined at some of the restaurants in this area, unless you go to Baltimore or New Berlin.

Does your job in computers aid you in your job as a mystery writer?

Yes. It’s been a wonderful tool for doing research without leaving your office. I’ve also explored the ways in which a computer can be used in solving, and committing, crimes. You’d be amazed by how much data about the average citizen is available out there for thieves to steal.

That's a scary thought!

You live in Missouri. Have you always lived there?

I grew up in Pennsylvania and moved to Virginia as an adult. It was while living in Chesapeake, VA that the idea for my first novel came to me. I wrote it while living there. My office window looked out over a pond that attracted blue heron, egrets, mallards and tons of frogs.

What are you writing now?

I’m writing the next novel in the Greg Parnell mystery series. Greg was the protagonist of my first book. This one is set on Assateague Island, off the coast of Virginia, which is a home for some of the last wild ponies on the Eastern shore. The ponies, and a nearby NASA rocket launch pad, both figure prominently in the story.

You say that some of your characters are based on real people. Do the real people know it? :)

A childhood friend was one role model. I have told him, because I admired his dedication to the job and also asked him to fact check my research into law enforcement. Others I haven’t mentioned, and I sometimes wonder if they’ll ever recognize themselves.

How can readers find out more about you and your first book?

You can check out my website at I try to update it with news every couple of weeks. I’ll also be appearing at the Hiawatha Public Library in Iowa on November 15th at 1 PM to talk about my novel.

Thanks for chatting, Patrick.

Thanks for the opportunity to talk with you, Julia.

(All photos courtesy of Patrick Balester).

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