A SHARP SOLITUDE – A GLACIER PARK MYSTERY
Interview for Benjamin Thomas
What’s your creative approach to writing a book?
I usually get my ideas from small things that spark my interest: an interesting article, a unique person, a story I’ve heard in the past that sticks with me, a line from a poem or a song…. If that thing of interest stays with me, I know I have the seed of an idea I’m willing sit with during the time it takes to write a novel. Once I have that idea, I will take some notes and brainstorm more ideas around the topic or character, but I’m not much of an outliner. I often simply end up diving in and writing as far as the headlights. Sometimes I’m at a loss for what should come next, get frustrated, and force myself to outline, but I rarely end up writing what I outline anyway, so it always comes out differently than I imagine it will. I also have no set writing schedule. I fit it in whenever it makes sense, sometimes in the morning, sometimes over the weekends, sometimes later in the day after my other job. I realize this is different from many other authors, but it has worked for me so far. I always think, someday I will create and stick to a writing schedule, but so far it hasn’t happened. Ha, I’m reminded of the saying: someday is no day.
You write great characters in the Glacier Park mysteries. What’s the first thing you begin with? How do you develop them and bring out their flaws?
I often begin by thinking about a character’s childhood. So much of a character’s makeup depends on their upbringing: some important family dynamic (or even the lack of a family), a relationship with a parent, a traumatic event that may have happened. Our upbringings so often shape how we deal with circumstances that pop up later in life. Sometimes they prepare us well or sometimes our pasts leave us ill-equipped to deal with various situations and we end up making them so much worse than we want because of our own baggage. I find it interesting when a certain case or criminal situation that my detective or sleuth finds themselves embroiled in brings up unexpected emotions that have not been fully dealt with because of things that have occurred in their pasts.
For example, in my my first book, The Wild Inside, my main character is a lead detective – a Series 1811 – for the Department of the Interior who is called to the federal land of Glacier National Park to investigate a murder that occurs there. However, Glacier is the last place he wants to be because when he was young, something very traumatic occurred while he was camping there with his father. Right from the get-go, I know my character will be haunted by not only the place but by the crime he’s investigating. In my fourth book, A Sharp Solitude, my main character is a local, resident FBI agent in northwest Montana. She is also a single mom of a daughter she fiercely wants to protect and shield from having the type of childhood she had because when she was young, her father was not present and was even in prison for some time. She does not want her daughter to experience the lack of a father and makes sure she is able to spend plenty of time with her dad. However, he ends being a prime suspect in a local case, and my main character gets tangled up professionally because she is driven to protect her daughter. She gets involved in the case in spite of the professional conflict of interest. So, essentially, the things we throw at our characters can often resonate more deeply if they somehow brush up against past experiences of their lives.
What’s the relationship like between Reeve Landon and FBI investigator Ali Paige?
Reeve is someone Ali actually respects. She admires his steady, persistent drive to go into the woods and do the work he does, which is part of the University of Montana’s canine detection program in which dogs are trained to help find the scat of certain wild animals for biologists to study. She does not view him as a deadbeat dad, like she saw her own father, yet, she does get irritated with him for putting his work first at times. Plus, in general, she does not understand how they can make a relationship work because, in fact, she sees him as being a little too much like herself. At one point, she thinks: “We both seemed to be followed by a certain darkness like a stray dog you can’t convince to go away. It was if we were always reminding each other that people never rid themselves of lonesomeness even in the company of a partner.” And of course, they both feel this way because of things that occurred in their lives when they were younger.
“We both seemed to be followed by a certain darkness like a stray dog you can’t convince to go away. It was if we were always reminding each other that people never rid themselves of lonesomeness even in the company of a partner.”
The settings are woven perfectly into your books. How important is it in your writing?
Setting is very important to me, but I like to point out that setting does not always have to be an entire area or town, or even nature. A strong setting can be a well-described trailer park, a busy, concrete-laden city, a popular bar, an old Victorian home, a cold cell in a jail, a small house not far from a refinery where the windows need to be shut when the wind is blowing in the wrong direction….
So, for me, the question is less about a particular setting, and more about the entire place that is the larger backdrop, or locale, for my stories which are made up of specific scenes in specific places. I don’t dwell on how to weave it in because I think that occurs naturally for the most part, but I do believe describing place is essential to creating good characters and stories because people are shaped by the places they reside, just as they are by their past experiences. And even past experiences took place somewhere, and that area will often inform how that experience played out and the character’s memories of what happened.
Because I reside in northwest Montana – where the landscape is such a huge part of our lives, where its grandness is obvious, I tend to weave geography and nature into my stories. I think many writers from the northwest and the west in general are well-aware of the area’s exceptionalism and therefore, incorporate it into their stories. I’m only about a half-hour drive from Glacier National Park, and at my house, where I usually write, I often see deer, elk, bear and sometimes a stray moose meander through my yard. Already this spring, I’ve seen a herd of up to seventy or eighty elk pass through about three times a week. It tends to inform our existence when every time we look out a window, we see something wild or dramatic, even if it’s simply the jutting mountains in the distance. When we drive to the store, we see fields with eagles perched on telephone poles looking for prey, reminding us that we’re never far from the wilderness. When I walk my dogs, I wouldn’t think of going into the woods without bear spray when the grizzlies are out of hibernation since I live close enough to fairly undeveloped areas, and even the developed ones have bears that meander through.
Also, Glacier brings millions of tourists to see its grandness, and I love Glacier, so it’s fun to set some of my stories in it or near it. I try not to preach in any of my novels, but I do keep in mind that nature is not something separate from us. And although Glacier is, in essence, an island of undeveloped, unmined, unlogged land – a place of unfettered beauty which is sometimes experienced by people like it’s an amusement park to be enjoyed briefly and then departed to return home where nature is not so obvious – I know that we are all a part of nature, even if we’re surrounded by concrete. I’m thrilled that we have conserved certain areas as we have, and I hope that people understand that these places should not simply be islands for enjoyment for a few weeks out of their lives and then left for their homes that might be viewed as less natural. No matter where we live, we are not separate from nature, and although concrete can create the illusion that we are, it’s important to understand how we are a part of it, even when we’re in the center of a city.
Because I carry these personal beliefs about the natural world, and because I’ve mainly written about characters living in northwest Montana, I tend to make characters that are acutely aware of their natural surroundings. I believe I would do this no matter where my book was taking place, even if not among the wilderness of my state. Over-description can definitely bore a reader, but a little attention to the clouds above and the trees on the sidewalk –even if they’re dying – and how characters notice these things or even the lack of them and how they treat them goes a long way to seat a story in geography, in place, and thereby create atmosphere. I do think that’s essential to a good story with deep characters.
Have you been to a lot of sites you write about?
Yes, I’ve been to most of them, but every once in a while I make a place up: a landmark, a restaurant or a bar, a house, a campground…. In A Sharp Solitude, I have a scene about a shooting range near Tallahassee, Florida, and I made it up entirely because I have not been to a shooting range in Florida. Of course, even when making up a place, I still try to pay attention to the details that I imagine make that place unique.
In A Sharp Solitude, who is officially on the case of Anne Marie Johnson?
The county sheriff’s office has jurisdiction over the case since her body was found on county land, not far from Glacier National Park. She wasn’t found within the park; if she had been, the case would fall primarily under federal jurisdiction. Nor was she discovered in the city limits, so the police department is not involved either. In some instances, the county might ask for help from the city police department or from the resident FBI agents. However, I did not have my county characters corroborating with other agencies in A Sharp Solitude. The county runs the investigation on their own with two Flathead County deputies working for the detective division who are leading the investigation. The police department and the local FBI resident agents, however, would be well-aware of the crime and have access to its developments, which allowed me to have Ali, a resident agent, nudge up closely – too closely – to the investigation in spite of having a conflict of interest. When I was doing my research for the novel, I had called the lead detective from the county, and I asked her, would it be plausible for one of the local resident agents to just pop in to the county building while a detective from the county is interrogating a person of interest for a local crime without any reason other than to see how things are going? I had thought I was stretching things a little too far, but to my delight, she said that it happens all the time and that they all work closely together – that’s it’s not uncommon for the local resident agents to check in and see what’s going on and that they wouldn’t think twice of it. Sometimes, she said, the county asks for their opinion, their advice or for their help.
What has helped your writing craft over the years?
Lots of reading, hanging around with other writers, going to workshops and learning to trust my own intuitions about my work. At times, especially when I first began writing, I have been insecure – as all writers tend to be at one point or another – and I have learned that insecurities can be helpful. So often, we think of the feelings of insecurity as awful and unwanted, but insecurities can actually provide fuel to get it right. They helped to keep me wanting to learn more, to never quit trying to do better, and to take advice.
On the other hand, I’m a little bull-headed too, which is also a useful trait in the world of writing. If you’re always taking advice from readers and critique groups, you can revise forever, especially if you can’t parse the good from the bad. It’s important to trust when you think you have it right and to stick to your guns when you do. Knowing when to listen to the critiques and when to shut them out can be a tricky balance. In other words, you need to know when it’s time to fully go with your story and trust in it, and that does take a certain amount of confidence. So, in other words, I’ve learned to use both my insecurities and my bull-headedness to my advantage, which has ultimately led me to be more confident in the process. But, it’s definitely a fluctuating process and some projects go more easily than others.
What are you working on next?
I am working on my fifth novel – one that has been a bit of a challenge for me (speaking of projects that go more easily than others). I have heard that sometimes a manuscript will resist us, no matter how much we love a subject, and this is my first experience with that. It doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be written. Quite the contrary – it means we’re onto something that is worth working harder on to get right. It just means we struggle a little more. In this novel, the main character has a very unusual job that not many people are aware of. She is a death-row mitigation specialist, which means she helps research, understand and interpret the dark case histories of criminals destined for death row to present recommendations to judges and jurors with the goal of mitigating their sentence. Only, she is currently taking a break from that job because she has had a crisis of conviction that has compelled her to retreat to a cabin in northwest Montana. A crime occurs in her neck of the woods that draws her back into that world which now haunts her, and she is forced to reckon with who she believes she is as a person.
Thanks so much, Benjamin, for asking such great questions!
All best, Christine
Christine Carbo is the author of The Wild Inside, Mortal Fall, The Weight of Night, and A Sharp Solitude (all from Atria Books/Simon and Schuster) and a recipient of the Womens’ National Book Association Pinckley Prize, the Silver Falchion Award and the High Plains Book Award. After earning a pilot’s license, pursuing various adventures in Norway, and working a brief stint as a flight attendant, she got an MA in English and linguistics and taught college-level courses. She still teaches, in a vastly different realm, as the owner of a Pilates studio. A Florida native, she and her family live in Whitefish, Montana. Find out more at ChristineCarbo.com.