Wednesday, October 8, 2014
Author J.M. Mitchell had a long career with the National Park Service before he turned his attention to writing a series of mysteries featuring Ranger Jack Chastain. The series started with Public Trust and will soon continue in the even more exciting sequel, The Height of Secrecy, scheduled to be released next week. Mitchell draws on his own work in Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and Zion National Parks to craft a unique series of "national park mysteries."
Like the friendly park ranger he used to be, Mitchell took a break from his writing adventures to answer questions for Rose City Reader.
How did you come to write The Height of Secrecy?
Most people probably think of national parks as simply places of great beauty, but they are more than that. They're places with conflict and controversy, places where greed, self-interest and politics play out every day.
The conventional wisdom says, write what you know. The Height of Secrecy continues the story started in Public Trust, and in both I've used what I know to weave together stories of mystery and political intrigue, from an insider's perspective, because, for one, someone needed to tell that side of the story, and I realized it could be me.
The book is permeated with the atmosphere of New Mexico and its National Parks. Did the setting influence the plot? Or vice versa?
Good question. It was the latter; the plot influenced the setting. I did not want to write about places like Yosemite, Grand Canyon and Zion. I had worked in those places and I did not want people jumping to conclusions about who the characters were based on, or what parts of the story were surrogates for actual events. I had things I wanted to say, and I didn't want people losing sight of them by jumping to those kinds of conclusions.
Piedras Coloradas National Park is a fictional park in New Mexico. I needed a place where unique communities, and communities within communities, could give me a colorful pallet to use in painting a meaningful picture (story). There in northern New Mexico you have the histories and cultures of the Pueblos, the Hispano, the Anglo, and now the influences of the modern world. The plots of the books I've written, and the several more I hope to write, can play out in that setting, but the mysteries and conflicts are common the world over.
What is your professional background? How did it lead you to writing the two books in your Jack Chastain series?
I'm a biologist, hard-wired for public service. I was Chief of Biological Resource Management for the National Park Service, also worked at Yosemite, Grand Canyon and Zion, and retired after 36 years of service. My last position was a fairly political one--even though that's hardly how you would characterize me. I observed many conflicts in the course of my career, and with them many ironies. I also saw lots of games. I figured those experiences gave me lots of material for mysteries in the kinds of places people love.
What do you admire most about Jack Chastain? What is his least endearing trait?
What I admire most about Jack Chastain: he's not in it for himself.
His least endearing trait: he's naive as hell, but he knows it, which means he's not.
Did you know right away, or have an idea, how you were going to end the story? Or did it come to you as you were in the process of writing?
I knew exactly how I wanted the story to end. The trick--and I suppose the art--was in writing the story to arrive at that point, or actually, those points.
What did you learn from writing The Height of Secrecy – either about the subject of the book or the writing process – that most surprised you?
In this second novel I've continued to work on mastering conflict and suspense, and giving the reader the feeling that something is at stake. What I stumbled onto in book one and became more aware of as I edited the draft of book two was that, for me, building a mystery with something at stake means you need characters who value something. You need to know them well enough to know what they value. Ultimately, you'll toss them into situations where they'll either stick to those values or turn their back on them. Some of my characters surprised me, but I needed to know them well enough to figure out how it would affect the outcome.
Who are your three (or four or five) favorite authors? Is your own writing influenced by who you read?
John Grisham, Trevanian, Ian Fleming, Tony Hillerman, Daniel Silva.
Yes and no. For the yeses, I study what impresses me and I try to learn from it; Grisham's work, for example. After being told my action scenes flow like Silva's, I found one of his books (liked it and read more) and studied it to understand what he did well.
Do you have favorite mystery series you love to read? Which ones?
Tony Hillerman (okay, I admit, I have the complete works of Agatha Christy, and I love to listen to Sue Grafton on long drives).
What are you reading now?
The Rembrandt Affair by Daniel Silva.
What do you do to promote your books? Do you use social networking sites or other internet resources?
My publicist knows the industry better than I do, and she's better at promoting my books, however, I do have an author's page on Facebook (J.M. Mitchell), and a website for Prairie Plumb Press.
Do you have any events coming up to promote your book?
Book Passage, San Francisco, November 6
Book Works, Albuquerque, November 16
Moby Dickens Bookshop, Taos, Mystery Book Club, November 19
What is the most valuable advice you’ve been given as an author?
Have something to say, and don't overwrite it.
What is the best thing about this kind of writing?
In contrast to scientific and technical writing, I can let my imagination run wild. I can be more creative. I can let down my objectivity and tell you what I think, or rather, I can create circumstances where someone gets theirs in the end. If I think my protagonist is having a hard time of it, I can let him stumble onto a beautiful woman swimming in the creek, and I can find a way to make it important to the rest of the story.
What’s next? Are you working on your next Jack Chastain book?
Yes, Jack Chastain returns. Book three is nearly finished. I can't wait to share it with you.