America’s National Park Service will celebrate its centennial Aug. 25 and is planning plenty of celebrations. The Department of the Interior agency is tasked with overseeing the 84 million acres that constitute our 59 national parks and 353 affiliated areas such as monuments, preserves and rivers.
Given that, we thought it timely to chat with best-selling author Nevada Barr, whose 19-title “Anna Pigeon” mystery series is set in national parks. Anna is a law-enforcement ranger with the NPS whose latest case unfolds in “Boar Island” (Minotaur, $26, 384 pages). The teen daughter of Anna’s close friend is the victim of cyberbullying and stalking. To get her out of harm’s way, Anna takes the girl to Acadia National Park in Maine – but the menace follows.
Barr is on close terms with the outdoors, having worked part- and full-time for eight years as a NPS ranger in Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas and on the Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi in the 1980s and 1990s.
The author grew up in Susanville, where her pilot parents operated a small airport. Her mother was a skilled mechanic and carpenter who taught her daughter to fly. Barr, 64, lives in New Orleans with her husband, who acts as her business manager. She is a Buddhist who has “reclusive tendencies.” Visit her at www.nevadabarr.com.
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Q: There are various stories about why you were named “Nevada.”
A: I can tell you the story my father told me. Mama had a thing about not letting any mechanic who couldn’t fly work on her airplane. So when she got pregnant, she (similarly) didn’t want (a doctor) who couldn’t understand the strain on the machinery of having a baby – she wanted only a female OB-GYN. The nearest one was in Yerington, Nevada, and she flew out there once a month (for checkups). Boy or girl, my parents decided the name would be Nevada.
Q: After you received a master’s degree in acting, you had an onstage career in New York and Minneapolis.
A: I loved being in the theater and wanted to be a great stage actress, but I wasn’t particularly good at it. … There are no people like show people. They’re fun, and I have done my very best to have fun at every turn.
Q: You were in TV commercials and did voice-over work in radio to support yourself.
A: Yes, but my bread-and-butter was making training films for a ton of Fortune 500 companies with a lot of money. I looked like the quintessential yuppie and had all these fabulous suits left over from working at Morgan Stanley in New York. I was an executive secretary there for 18 months, then decided that was long enough for me to have a real job, so I quit.
Q: How did you fall in love with the outdoors?
A: Growing up, they were just out the back door. We would go to Lassen Volcanic National Park (and others) every summer for vacation. The environmental movement caught me in the ’80s and I began to realize the outdoors weren’t a given, so I wanted to become a park ranger. I could do it during the summers when there wasn’t much acting work.
Q: What were your rangering experiences like?
A: Most of (my work) was pretty tame, so I have to make things exciting for Anna. (My duties were) largely issues of resource depredation, which you try to repair it. And domestic issues, because there’s a lot of stress on vacation. My favorite part was the animal things, like moving a litter of baby skunks out of a campground.
Q: Do you still get out to the parks?
A: Oh, yes, I have been to most of the big parks in the Lower 48 and (many of) the national seashores and recreation areas. We went to Olympic (in Washington) this year, and last October to Grand Teton and Yellowstone. We were in Acadia in Maine two weeks ago.
Q: “Boar Island” takes on the very current and dangerous issue of online bullying.
A: Usually, the first thing I do (in a novel) is get rid of the technology. I mean, if you’re in an emergency, you dial 911, the helicopter comes in and the book is 10 pages long. This time I decided to bring the technology along. (Cyberbullying) is done by people you often cannot catch. Still, I think we’re way more evolved than we used to be – we haven’t burned a witch in weeks, and we now know it’s bad to lynch people.
Q: How has the NPS reacted to the series?
A: The park service has completely supported me, except for early on when one (bureaucrat) didn’t like a book and banned it in the park. Which was fabulous. People were sending that book into the park overland by mule pack.
Q: When you start a book, do you contact someone at the park where the story is set?
A: I learned something at Morgan Stanley: I call the superintendent’s secretary, because she knows everything that’s going on and has probably read my books. I say, “I’m thinking of coming to the park to set a book there, what would you recommend?” Then the secretary gets me set up.
Q: The crowded conditions at national parks are making headlines. Are we loving our parks to death?
A: It’s public land and it’s cool that any of us can go. But if there isn’t some kind of restriction on the visitor load – maybe a lottery – you’re going to be shoulder-to-shoulder on a dusty trail looking at armpits and nose hairs if you’re short, which I am.
Q: You’re not only a novelist, but a professional artist.
A: I’ve sold hundreds of paintings in my “Women of the Night” series, which is about taking back power. But I got bored with those, so I’m painting other things. If a painting sells, yippie-skippy; if it doesn’t, it goes in the attic. My poor nieces, who are my only descendants. ... When I die they’re going to have an attic full of weird stuff the old auntie did.
Q: Do you take advantage of living in one of the world’s dining meccas?
A: I like food, and when I’m hungry I like to eat it and then it’s over. A hot dog is great, and you can’t go wrong with potato chips and tuna fish.