Nevada Barr is perhaps best known today as the author of 18 novels starring Anna Pigeon, a crime-solving ranger for the U.S. National Park Service. But Barr has enjoyed a life of disparate careers including stage actor, voice talent, law enforcement ranger and, through it all, writer.
Barr grew up in California, moved to New York to launch an acting career, spent about 10 years in Minneapolis acting, and now lives in New Orleans. She describes her current city as “a lot like Madison without the snow — full of odd people and interesting places.” She spoke with the State Journal by phone to talk about her upcoming appearance as part of the Wisconsin Book Festival’s “Biggest Book Club Ever.”
Q: You’ve been a lot of different things.
A: Yes, I’ve never been able to hold down a steady job.
Q: Have you always been a writer?
A: I have, but I never made any money at it until I was in my 40s. I got my first book published when I was in my late 20s and thought, “Oh, yippy skippy, now I’m a famous writer.” And it sold about 1,200 copies, most of which I think Mama bought. That was my neo-gothic lesbian western (“Bittersweet”).
Q: I bet that would do great now.
A: It was before its time. It was rereleased seven or eight years later by a lesbian publishing house out of San Francisco. They did much better with it.
Q: “Destroyer Angel” is your 18th Anna Pigeon mystery. Where did Anna come from?
A: She kind of was me, because I was a park ranger in Guadalupe Mountains, Texas, when I wrote the first one. So she was me, but taller, prettier, smarter, more heroic. ... Of course, that was a long time ago, and we used to be very similar in what we did and so forth. We’ve grown apart in a lot of ways as we’ve aged. She and I still think and agree on most subjects, but our life changes have been different. She has remained a bit of a loner and so forth. I’ve become a city girl who likes to party and moved to New Orleans.
Q: Why did you start setting books in the national parks?
A: It was just one of those idiot pieces of luck that makes your career. It was the fifth book I’d written. One had been published, the neo-gothic lesbian western, but the other four had been turned down. I was sitting in the ranger station and I started writing for the first time in my own voice, like I was writing a letter to somebody. It was the finding of the voice that was one of the strokes of luck. And the other was that I didn’t know it would be a series. I didn’t even think it would sell; I mean, I hadn’t sold a book in five years. A series that you can move your sleuth to wonderful new places with whole new casts of characters — talk about a gold mine.
Q: Because someone always has to die.
A: Exactly. But like Jessica in “Murder, She Wrote,” all her friends are dead, her family’s wiped out …
Q: So by moving from national park to national park, you spread the mayhem around?
Q: Do you have a favorite national park?
A: I don’t. It depends on my mood. For hiking, I just love the Southwest. For canoeing, you can’t beat the Everglades or Isle Royale. One of the parks that I thoroughly enjoy here is the national historic park in the French Quarter, where the rangers play the guitar and piano and sing classic, jazz, New Orleans music. And it’s free, because it’s a park.
Q: How are you so prolific?
A: I’m not as prolific as I want. I had a book a year contract, so you’re as prolific as they pay you to be. It’s gotten harder and harder as I put more books behind me. It hasn’t quite been a book a year for the last six or seven years. It’s been every 18 months, maybe two years. The series has incredible pluses and bonuses and it has a couple of drawbacks. One is that sometimes it’s hard to both move on to something else and to find something fresh in the old trick basket. In fact, this one is the first I’ve written that’s not a murder mystery at all; it’s a straight thriller. That’s helped me find new territory for my characters.
Q: Will you continue with the Anna Pigeon series?
A: I will. I have a contract for one more. I thought I wouldn’t do any more contracts because I would write all these fabulous things. So I refused a contract, and I didn’t write squat. I have to have the carrot and the stick or I’ll just paint and play with the dogs and goof off.
Q: What do you think is the secret to your success?
A: The huge factor of luck we talked about — the right book at the right time in the right place. The women’s movement, the environmental movement, a lot of things came together for me. And, the fact that I just never gave up.
Q: What can people expect at your reading?
A: I talk about me.
Q: What an interesting idea.
A: I answer questions, and the old theater background kicks in. Be fast, be funny, mention a local place and get off stage.