Q & A #64, Patricia Abbott, “I Bring Sorrow & Other Stories of Transgression”

In 2017, I moderated a panel for the Edgar Awards Symposium and among the writers was Patricia Abbott.

Abbott was nominated for the Best Paperback Original category for her novel, Shot in Detroit.

It was a fun panel for lots of reasons including the fact that among the fellow panelists (Tyler Dilts, Reed Farrel Coleman, and Wendi Corsi Staub) was Patricia’s daughter Megan, who was nominated that year for best short story.

Yeah, that’s me the name dropper. But what a powerhouse group! And what a cool thing, mother and daughter nominated in the same year for related awards.

Shot in Detroit (Polis Books) was certainly a worthy choice as a finalist—gritty, memorable, and unusual in a variety of ways. So I started following Patricia on social media and admiring both her deep engagement in the writing community and her keen awareness of the history of crime fiction.

Then we got a chance to talk in Toronto when we met again at Bouchercon. (Side note: she’s classy, kind and very smart.)

Patricia Abbott has published two novels but she’s also known for her short stories—125 of them! And when this new collection came out, I Bring Sorrow & Other Stories of Transgression, I wasn’t surprised to find the same raw, real voice that revealed itself in Shot in Detroit.

A full review follows but, first, Patricia Abbott was kind enough to answer a few questions by email.

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Question: Transgression is such a great word—it covers so much ground, doesn’t it? Does every good story need some sort of transgression to be effective? One boundary or rule violated? Is thinking about the transgression often a starting point for you?

Patricia Abbott: The use of the word transgression was actually Jason Pinter’s (publisher of Polis Books) idea. Looking over the stories, all of them have either a crime, a conflict, a misunderstanding, illness, or something dark. I usually start with a character and as I get to know him, I can see what his likely conflict will be. I think every story needs conflict.

Question: You’ve published 125 stories—how were these 25 selected? Were they your choice?

Patricia Abbott: I published two ebooks, Monkey Justice and Home Invasion (which are coming out again in print and ebook next year from Down And Out Books) a few years ago which included about 40 of my stories. I tried to pick stories for this collection that varied in setting, gender, class, subject, and to some degree genre. Yes, they were entirely my choice although Jason asked for at least one new story and five more than I originally sent.

Question: When you come across an idea for a short story, do you have the ending in mind right away, or do you find a character to write about and dig in, see what happens?

Patricia Abbott: I rarely have an ending in mind although that would be a good way to go! Sometimes I hear a line that evokes a story. That happened with “Burned the Fire” where I heard a woman on the street in Ann Arbor say, “I really don’t mind the scars,” which fascinated me. (And I used that line for a flash fiction challenge on my blog) Usually I start with a character, but sometimes a news story or a story someone tells me spurs a story. Lately, I have been writing more for themed anthologies, so I am more hemmed in. I just wrote stories based on a painting, a song, a clown.

Question: You seem to have an eye out for ordinary people, overlooked characters, people on the fringes. Is that a fair statement? The big umbrella of crime fiction typically features cops and detectives and lawyers directly involved in law enforcement, but this collection of stories is more drawn to the personal dramas, real struggles of regular people. What attracts you to those lives and spaces?

Patricia Abbott

Patricia Abbott: I think it comes from writing mainstream stories for five years before I moved over to crime. But every short story I wrote had a significant conflict in it and gradually I fit better in the crime fiction field. (Editors began to tell me that).  I was determined to stay away from academic settings as much as possible. That sort of person populates far too many stories. I grew up among every day people as did my husband. It is their struggles that I understand best.  We had blue-collar backgrounds. Although blue-collar, union, Democratic party families. Things have changed now.

Question: Okay, the title story, I Bring Sorrow, is macabre and surreal and creepy with a nifty structure, too. Care to share what inspired this bit of darkness?

Patricia Abbott: I have a friend who plays the cello just for herself. She doesn’t need to perform to enjoy the instrument. The cello has a pride of place in her living room and so too the music she practices. She is very petite and the cello looms. That image has always haunted me. I took that idea to its extreme and introduced the idea of a husband who was equally obsessed in his own way. He enables her life style, but he also dreads it over time. And it begins to haunt him. Is it a horror story? Has he murdered her? Is he imagining it? The reader gets to decide.

Question: You seem to have such an easy way of getting a story up and running, so matter of fact in your storytelling style. What’s your secret? How does one develop a short story touch?

Patricia Abbott: I am not sure I can answer that one. It takes me a long time to write a story. Four to six weeks, three to four hours a day. Most of that time is spend in rewriting. I move forward very slowly. I am constantly weeding out words that are unnecessary or too fancy. (Unless I am writing about that sort of person.)  I want it to sound like something someone has told you over a cup of coffee. A short story touch probably came from taking four writing workshops where I wrote shorts exclusively. It felt like it was leading to a novel, but in fact it made it harder to switch. It suits my personality to have few characters, compressed time, one setting.

Question: Favorite short story writers? And, while we’re at it, favorite writers in general?

Patricia Abbott: The writers that most inspire me include: Alice Munro, William Trevor, John Updike, Ray Carver, Tessa Hadley, Jean Thompson, Lorrie Moore, Flannery O’Connor. Novelists include, Stewart O’Nan, Margaret Millar, Elizabeth Taylor, Charles Willeford, Larry Watson, Shirley Jackson, Ruth Rendell, Patricia Highsmith, Ken Bruen, Laura Lippman, Josephine Tey, Wallace Stegner, Ross Macdonald, Henning Mankell. Oh, so many more.

Question: Okay, not about short stories but you’ve been keeping and running a blog for a long, long time including a feature called Friday’s Forgotten Books and mentions of forgotten television and movies, too. When did you start the blog, how much time does it take to keep the blog full of fresh content, and what do you get out of looking back through all that’s been published and all the stories that have been filmed? How much do you read each day? Each week?

Patricia Abbott: I started the blog in 2006 and those were the halcyon years for blogs. I was looking for interesting things to do with the blog. Something not completely solipsistic. I intended for Friday’s Forgotten Books to last only a few weeks with different people talking about books they liked from the past. I recruited various writers to write one review. I asked Bill Crider to write one the first week, but he thought I was asking him to write one every week. Other people began to do that as well so I thought, well, we’ll see how long they can keep it up. And somehow ten years have passed.

Another feature I did a lot back then was to post a flash fiction challenge and the book Discount Noir came out of one of those challenges. As more flash fiction sites came into play, I gave that up. I also asked people to use my blog to promote their new work (How I Came to Write This Book).  But after a while it seemed like I was asking them for a favor rather than doing them one, so I largely gave it up but would be happy to resurrect it for anyone who wants to do one.

I only post on the blog three days a week at most now because Facebook serves the purpose blogs used to serve. And I don’t really keep it very fresh. But for a long time, I put a lot of thought and time into it. I like asking questions so it fit my personality well. I still ask them but mostly on Facebook. There was a time when I would get dozens of people a day on that blog. Now 4-5 is more likely. And those are people who are not on Facebook.

Question: What are you working on now / next?

Patricia Abbott: I am working on a novel called Out Collecting Berries at the moment. I have about 75 pages and know how it will end for once. I just wrote a story for the next Lawrence Block anthology and one for Holly West’s Go-Go Girls anthology, and am doing one for an anthology of clown stories.

Thanks so much for hosting me, Mark. It has been great getting to know you over the last year.

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Patricia Abbott’s blog.

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Review:

Patricia Abbott makes it look easy. Her stories hit you as matter-of-fact. In their simplicity and everyday flavor, they are beguiling. After she delivers a few twists, jabs you with a surprising jolt, you might think you’re ready. But you drop your guard again and you dive in again, all innocent and unaware.

Not all her stories are of the twisty-twisty-whoa variety. The 25 entries in I Bring Sorrow & Other Stories of Transgression are a variety pack—from plaintive to moody to shocking to surreal to whimsical. Abbott gives a dose of sci-fi, a splash of history, and many keenly-observed characters of the present dealing with friction, troubles, issues, obsessions, conflict, and the occasional murder. Abbott follows no formula for setting the stage for these gems; she doesn’t tip her hand on what level of darkness (or relative lightness) lies ahead.

Empathy is a hallmark. She writes warmly of the overlooked and some of her characters, like the woman who owns the Tucson café in Is That You?, see less-fortunate lives and wonder about getting involved.

But at every turn, the storytelling is organic, easy-going, and unforced.

“You’ll find my mom sitting most days on the sun-bleached bench outside Von’s Market.” That’s the opening line of “On Pacific Beach,” about a daughter with a need to find and protect her homeless mother from a looming danger—and an unusual plan to do so.

“When I was twelve, my mother shot a soda pop salesman she’d known less than eight hours.” That’s the opening line of “Fall Girl,” one of the most literal and ironic titles ever.

“Weddings after a certain age, say thirty-five or forty, often smack of a bargain.” That’s the opening line of “Social Contracts,” one of those murder-twisty stories, a splash of Patricia Highsmith washed and rinsed through O. Henry.

I was enjoying all the stories but then hit No. 13, “Ten Things I Hate About My Wife,” and No. 14, the story that lends part of its title for the collection, “I Bring Sorrow To Those Who Love Me.”

The structure of both stories is clever. The first, quite obviously, is a list. “Number one: no one knows more about almost anything than Kerrie. No kidding. You might your degree in social anthropology makes you an expert in gang practice in modern L.A., but I’m telling you that Kerrie, despite only being in Los Angeles once, knows more about the subject than Mayor Garcetti.” The ending of this one will have you circling back to the beginning and wondering how Abbott suckered you along for the ride and its gut-punch ending.

In “I Bring Sorry to Those Who Love Me,” Abbott deploys mini-headers to set off her story of obsession. The mini sections are Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Minuet and Gigue. I’m not too proud to say I had to look up all but ‘prelude’ and ‘minuet.’ The other four are references to Renaissance or baroque dances, which is perfect once you learn how deeply Eli and Nanette will tangle. Again, a zinger finish. Why do some of us see the “door to freedom” and nonetheless run the opposite way? Eli hangs around Nan’s practice room “as if it were a hive and he, a drone.”  You’ll be the one buzzing when this story wraps.

I Bring Sorrow & Other Stories of Transgression is a dazzling collection. Due to the variety, it might be best to wait a day or two between reading each one or savor a dish of mango sorbet to cleanse the mental palette so you can start each story fresh, uninfluenced by what you just read. But the next story is sitting right there. And it starts so well … so …

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Previously reviewed:

Shot in Detroit

 

 

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One Judge’s Tale

A piece on the RMFW blog about judging the Edgar Awards for Mystery Writers of America. Here.  Photo is Deborah Shlian, one of my fellow judges, with her stack of 535 entries.

Jeffrey Siger, “An Aegean April”

How does the first world wrap its head around third-world problems, let alone crises like the outpouring of refugees (millions of people) looking for sanctuary and a new home, a fresh start? How do we begin to imagine the day-to-day suffering and the complicated global politics that manipulate and control the exodus? How do we begin to comprehend around the various entities that exploit the families, drain them of their last bit of money and what’s left of their dignity?

Fiction helps.

Published earlier this year, the fourth entry in Ausma Zehanat Khan’s Esa Khattak/Rachel Getty series, A Dangerous Crossing, tackled the complexities of the refugee crisis and focused on the fate of a young Canadian volunteer named Audrey Clare. Audrey disappears from the island of Lesvos and is implicated in a double murder. One victim is a French Interpol agent and the other a Syrian refugee.  A Dangerous Crossing is loaded with issues, both Esa Khattak’s internal challenges with his Muslim faith and Esa and Rachel’s efforts to understand how politics and money collude to manipulate families making desperate crossings to unknown lands.

Lesvos is also the setting for the ninth entry in Jeffrey Siger’s Andreas Kaldis series, An Aegaen April. Please ignore the bucolic evocation of the title, and its pleasant alliteration, and prepare yourself for an equally complex and nuanced mystery that uses the plight of the refugees as a flashpoint for trouble and, quite naturally, mystery.

Khan’s series started with two Toronto-centric mysteries before flying far afield for the third, Among the Ruins, set largely in Iran. So the shift to the Greek islands (and various settings from The Netherlands to Belgium) didn’t seem that much of a stretch for Esa Khattak or Rachel Getty.

But for Andreas Kaldis, who is Chief Inspector for the Greek National Police Force’s Special Crimes Division and by job necessity an island hopper (Murder on Mykonos, Prey on Patmos, etc.), an unusual murder on Lesvos is a natural lure. And Siger, who spends half his time in Greece, brings a local’s sharp eye to the details, the politics, and the criminal justice bureaucracy.

The victim at the outset of An Aegean April is an influential guy named Mihalis Volandes. He’s a seventy-year-old Greek shipping tycoon. His death is, well, both vivid and shocking. He’s been sliced in half. Vertically. “Neck to crotch.” One swipe of a sword.

When Kaldis is informed over the telephone of the murderer’s methods, Kaldis says, wrly, “Run that by me again.” Kaldis often says out loud what we’re all thinking. He’s jaded, weary, and not given to histrionics. He lives in a zone that is free of melodrama.

Dana McLaughlin is in charge of refugee operators on Lesvos for an organization called SafePassage and, over the phone, tells Chief Inspector Kaldis that one of her refugee workers has been arrested for Volandes’ murder. The worker is a ‘native refugee worker,’ someone who wanted to help his fellow countrymen. His name is Ali Sera. He’s been found spattered with blood.

At first, Kaldis opts to call the shots remotely and sends his longtime sidekick, the “bull-like man” Yianni, to do the initial investigation. Some of An Aegean April unfolds through Yianni’s eyes (and other characters, including our vicious bad guy; Dana; and even Ali, who has spent much of his life “looking up from the bottom of the refugee barrel”).

Despite the brutality of the killer and the rough conditions for refugees who make it to Lesvos, there is plenty of appealing Greek island scenery, You will want to dive into the water, smell the air, and reach for a bottle of ouzo while you savor the atmosphere.  But Siger sees the warts, too—the overpopulation, the graffiti, the “uninspired concrete apartment buildings with their ubiquitous slab-sided balconies that plagued all of modern Greece, no matter how well-off the neighborhood.”

Well, how could the world address the refugee crisis in a more human manner? It turns out that Mihalis Volandes had a plan and it’s in laying out that plan, half way through the story, that Siger shows his hand and seems to be floating (ahem) a suggestion. The plan envisions ferryboat-size ships with medical, social, and immigration services processing refugees in a way that gives traffickers no chance to prey on the weak and desperate. Volandes’ plan to inject decency and humanity in the middle of mayhem is what gets him killed. You don’t interrupt someone else’s evil, lucrative business without consequences.

Nobody’s whistle clean. The media are jabbed and so are interloping do-gooders who only stay long enough so they can say they were there. It’s Dana who sums up the “sad reality” of the competing interests. “Crisis brings media attention,” she says. “Media attention brings openhearted people who translate into money. Along with money come profiteers who don’t give a serious shit about the people in crisis. They’re only interested in their own image and fundraising. Slick PR and sound bites draw in the donations, and for them, that’s all that matters.”

An Aegean April takes us to Turkey (the sword-wielding assassin makes an impression at a key meeting) and doesn’t stop until it reveals the wide variety of pressures that bear down on what was once a placid, quiet island. Our killer has gone rogue, he’s turned the tables on his employers, and developed an idea for a brutal bit of theatrics. But he’s not the only one staging a movie-ready, tense showdown.

Want to learn a little something about the massive, ongoing exodus from Syria (now in its eighth year)? Yes, read the newspaper or watch videos on the web. (And don’t be caught flat-footed when somebody mentions a city named Aleppo.) Or read An Aegean April.

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Previously reviewed: A Dangerous Crossing

Christopher Bartley, “Sleep Not, My Child”

“I was almost an hour past Davenport and the sky above held no texture. It was a flat, gray screen of indeterminate height, impossible to approximate, set above fields of waist-high corn and the hard, straightaway road I traveled. A rare slow tune from Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra floated through my mind—lush strands of pure grace and sorrow.”

That’s Ross Duncan in a nutshell—always on a hard, straight road. Moving under an inscrutable sky. And always in between grace and utter sorrow. He’s a thinker. And he’s a killer, but only as justified. Yet he watches birds, notices the landscaping around a house, and studies the stars. He hears the crickets and the yodels of a loon. And he’s a Bible reader—as in, Bible thinker. “Lately, I’d been thinking about Hell more. I was rediscovering Genesis, the first book of Moses—the Old Testament. It held none of the Sunday school charm that I remembered from a distant childhood, but rather carried newer and deeper relevance. I read silently for an hour, with only my own thoughts of what lay ahead for occasional interruption.”

Sleep Not, My Child centers around a kidnapping. It’s the 1930’s. At first, Duncan is part of a crew of “modest bandits” with plans. They understand times have changed, in the wake of the Great Depression. They don’t want to request a ransom that doesn’t match the market rate. Post Lindbergh baby, after all, even Al Capone frowned on that particular form of extortion. But the plot goes sour. The kidnap victim is among the schemers. And there’s a kid who gets caught up in the mix, too, and a double-cross. Duncan feels foolish he didn’t know.

Sleep Not, My Child is beautifully, smoothly written. The plot is deft. Christopher Bartley takes the pace from brutal and quick to pastoral and contemplative with ease. The prose is a blend of noir and high-action fiction, pulp-free. Bartley is not afraid to let Duncan ponder the universe for a few pages while the bandits decide their next move or even let Duncan enjoy the lulls in the action, especially after Duncan is off on his own, riding solo and fending off the overtures of a young dame.

Yes, dames and Tommy Guns, cigarette smoke and booze. The scenery and atmosphere are familiar and so is a brooding bad guy who wants to be a better man and who does enough of the right things that we all want to see him survive. Duncan is so earnest and forthright, at times, that he even gets briefly deputized by the FBI.

Do those who live on the right side of the law come with an unlimited supply of pure honor? We all know the answer to that one. (Recent police beating—and shooting—videos, anyone?) Duncan sees it all. He knows his place, knows his record, knows why he’s being hunted and also that he’s fallible. He recognizes The System, how the government takes care of itself. Duncan spots the suit a detective’s woven silk suit and understands its meaning. “I wondered how it was that so many big city detectives seemed able to afford clothing like that,” he thinks, “while down at the corner of Monroe and Sangamon three thousand unemployed Chicagoans had been protesting economic and living conditions in the city.”

Duncan is on a never-ending search for his exact spot in the universe, all the time dragging around his particular, innate despair. Sleep Not, My Child is a terrific entry in a series that doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

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Previous review of Naked Shall I Return includes Q & A with Bartley.

 

 

 

Previous review of Unto the Daughters of Men

 

Q & A #63, Jonathan P. Thompson, “River of Lost Souls”

As environmental disasters go, it doesn’t get much more dramatic than what happened at the Gold King mine outside Silverton in early August of 2015. With The Animas River fouled a frightening color of orange, the blowout became instant national news.

The fallout will go on for years, most likely, and years. Initial damage claims of $1.2 billion or more have dropped by half but the fight is ongoing. The target culprit is the federal government’s EPA, whose personnel and contractors caused the incident.

Gold King’s impact might have been dramatic, but the cumulative impact of Colorado’s mining history is taking its toll on a daily basis, too. A Denver Post story following the Gold King disaster found 230 other old mines leaking heavy metals at a discharge rate of at least one Gold King blowout every two days.

Why and how is this tolerated? Well, Jonathan P. Thompson’s recent River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster, published by Torrey House Press, is solid reading for context, background and insight.

A full review follows.

Jonathan P. Thompson was kind enough to answer a few questions by email.

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Question: On some level the Gold King spill / disaster seems so simple and looked like it was fairly easy to trigger. True? Shouldn’t we be worried about similar situations and accidents all over the state?

Jonathan P. Thompson: Yeah, it was almost too easy! Some guys with an excavator were digging around in an old mine portal and next thing you know they had a major disaster on their hands. And yes, there are thousands of abandoned, draining mines across the West, all of which have the potential for this kind of blowout. That said, I wouldn’t be too worried about these types of things happening all the time, because the perfect storm of conditions that existed at the Gold King when the blowout occurred are not all that common. There will be more blowouts; that much is certain. But most will not be of the magnitude, or the dramatic color, of the Gold King.

Question: I think I know the answer to this one, but do you think if the Gold King blowout happened in a place where it had damaged Clear Creek (in other words, along the Front Range) that the statewide reaction would be different? That there would have been a more concerted effort to change the way mines are managed?

JPT: Well the Gold King got a huge amount of attention as it was, so it’s crazy to imagine what it would have been like had it happened on Clear Creek, with that orange-yellow water running right through the Coors brewery in Golden, then down to Denver, and turning the South Platte yellow down there in downtown Denver. That whole “Brewed with Rocky Mountain Spring Water” motto would take on a much different meaning. That said, I’m not sure that it would have necessarily resulted in a major shift in policies, because the fact is, there’s not a clear policy path for dealing with abandoned mines like the Gold King. Certainly the 1872 Mining Law needs to be reformed, or scrapped and replaced, but for all the existing mines (whether abandoned or not), it wouldn’t make much difference.

Question:  Do you think the state legislature is capable of making significant changes that will affect how claim holders will be expected to develop plans and minimize pollution?

JPT: Actually, there are pretty good laws in place when it comes to developing plans and minimizing pollution from new mines. The Clean Water Act requires any mine that will drain water (and thus pollute), to have a plan in place that would result in no dirtying of the streams. Basically, this means water treatment plants like the one the Sunnyside Mine had in place when it was operating and until 2004, when a variety of circumstances resulted in its shutdown. Also, mines are required to post a bond that will hopefully cover the costs of cleanup if the company were to go bankrupt or something.

However, those bonds are often not big enough to cover cleanup. The Sunnyside Mine, for example, only had a $5 million bond (I believe), but they spent well over $20 million on cleanup (and that turned out not to be enough). So increasing the amount of the bonds would be a start. Also, the laws (and bonds) now don’t really fully account for what happens when a mine shuts down. It’s very rare that you can just put a plug into the mine and stop the pollution. The only real way to deal with a draining mine is to continue to treat the water into perpetuity, and that costs a lot.

Also badly needed is a royalty on hardrock minerals — there is none now — like the one on oil and gas (12.5 percent royalty on federal oil and gas). Those revenues could go into a fund that would be used to cleanup abandoned mines like the Gold King.

Question: Your book makes painfully clear that the ongoing discharge from existing mines is causing major damage to Colorado waterways all the time—each and every day—even though the impact isn’t as visible as what happened at Gold King. It seems like background pollution we’ve come to accept. What’s the answer here? A whole new legal framework and requirements for claim owners? Or is this just the way it is?

JPT: See the answer for #3! Higher reclamation bonds. A royalty on minerals. And a fund for cleanup of abandoned mines (and for research and development of better long-term water treatment methods).

Question: The background of other related industries and their impact on the region, even going back centuries, provides a much larger context for the Gold King disaster. And you make it clear there is a mentality in the region (maybe everywhere) that leaks and spills and contamination are simply par for the course. What’s the general mood in Silverton today (and I know you don’t live there any longer)? Were most in favor of the Superfund designation or does that taint, so to speak, their reputation as an outdoor playground? Is that “inextricable” link between people and place a forever thing?

JPT: Yes, there are Gold King disasters occurring on a daily/weekly basis of various shapes and forms, from the daily drainage of abandoned mines, to the methane leaking from oil and gas infrastructure. I wouldn’t say that it’s acceptable to everyone; there have been folks pushing back against this pollution. But as long as the industry is bringing money into the communities then a large portion of the population is going to accept the pollution, in part because they feel (erroneously) that they have no choice.

People in Silverton are, I think, mixed on the Superfund designation. Some people favor it, because it seems to be the best hope for some sort of lasting solution to the acid mine drainage. Others continue to worry that it will hurt property values and tourism, although that hasn’t yet happened (and probably won’t). Still others are okay with Superfund in principle, but would like more control over how it moves forward, and would like to see some of the 48 sites removed.

I think people who live in Silverton year-round will remain inextricably linked to the land with or without mining just because that place is so close to the land/water/climate, and so much at the mercy of those things.

Question: Your recent piece in High Country News about the oil and gas pressures around Chaco Canyon, one of the most amazing spots in New Mexico and for many states around, I mean—all the lessons of Gold King apply to other industrial activities, right? Do you think the fracking industry will face their Gold King moment?

JPT: Yes, exactly! What’s going on with fracking now is a sort of echo of what happened with hardrock mining 100 years ago. There’s all of this development, and it’s having a variety of impacts on the land and the people, and the people who live in and near the gas patch are pushing back, but their voices are being drowned out by industry’s economic heft. As was/is the case with mining, it’s sometimes hard to see exactly how fracking affects the water, especially since we’re talking about groundwater. There might be a Gold King-like disaster for fracking that wakes people up, but my guess is that it will be less dramatic, yet more widespread and pervasive. It will have a far greater impact, but will be less noticeable, and therefore will provoke less of a reaction.

Question: What was the hardest part of reporting or writing River of Lost Souls?

JPT: Good Question. I think it may have been trying to take this enormous amount of information — historical, scientific, personal, and my own observations — about an extremely complicated topic and distilling it down into a (hopefully) readable, engaging, and clear book.

Question: What are the unanswered questions about the spill itself and, in general, what are your thoughts about how the damages will be sorted out?

JPT: The big unanswered question is, Exactly where did the water that built up in the Gold King mine (and then came bursting out) come from? Answering that question will help determine who might be responsible for the water buildup. Thing is, we may never know the answer, because it’s all happening deep underground. As for sorting things out, well, a lot of that’s going to happen in the courts. There are a number of lawsuits swirling around right now, and they could drag on for years.

Question: For Coloradoans who are thinking about moving to the Western Slope—and I’m “asking for a friend”—what do people need to know?

JPT: It’s an amazing place, with a rich, rich history and culture and an incredible landscape that ranges from lush warm valleys to high-desert to rocky, 14,000 foot peaks. Part of that history was built upon the extractive industries, who in turn wrecked parts of that landscape, and left scars that will never go away. That doesn’t diminish the beauty, or Sense of Place, however. I think a bigger challenge than the legacy of industry is the housing crisis that is growing worse and worse throughout the region. Housing costs keep going up, and the jobs to support it aren’t there.

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Jonathan’s website

Torrey House Press

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REVIEW:

There are all sorts of videos plastered all over YouTube so it doesn’t take much to get an idea of the environmental tragedy that was the Gold King disaster back in August of 2015.  There is even a video of the initial moments when a trickle of toxic sludge turned into a roaring river as the workers’ cries (in the EPA video) are bleeped out. “What do we do now?” one worker asks. “Get a little video of this I suppose.”

Yes, get a little video. Soon, the images of The Animas River turned burnt orange would be plastered all over national news—the snaking ribbons of water carrying millions of gallons of dangerous chemicals for hundreds of miles downstream.

Ironically, it was contractors for the Environmental Protection Agency who accidentally destroyed the plug holding the water trapped inside the mine. The mishap sent three million gallons of poisonous water down the valley. The name of the contractor company was Environmental Restoration. (Um, not so much.) The water and tailings that poured from the dormant mine down Cement Creek and then into the Animas River contained arsenic, cadmium, lead, beryllium, iron, and copper—a stew of trouble.

Using this touchstone event as a springboard, Jonathan P. Thompson has written River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. Thompson’s account is part personal narrative, part historical exploration, and part investigative reporting. Most of the book ventures away from Gold King itself to set the context and backdrop for the disaster itself.

Thompson’s keen knowledge of the mining community gives River of Lost Souls a visceral feel. Thompson was a reporter and photographer for two newspapers in tiny Silverton, the small mountain community 10 miles down the valley from the mine itself, and he spent part of his youth in Durango, another 50 miles downstream. His family’s roots go back over a century to Ouray and Silverton, too.

Thompson was in Durango on the day of the blowout. “Turbid, electric-orange water, utterly opaque, sprawls out between the sandy banks, as iron hydroxide particles thicken within the current like psychedelic smoke … Within a few hours, the river through town is empty, an eerie sight on a hot August afternoon. The bridges across the river, on the other hand, are crowded with people milling about, waiting for the slow-motion disaster to unfurl in the dark green water below them … People are angry, sad, and befuddled.”

The recriminations continue. If the owner of the Gold King mine can be believed, the possibility of a similar event is possible if the neighboring Sunnyside Mine, on the other side of Bonita Peak, also blows out. Similar, that is, but ten times more harmful. The lawsuits, the damage claims, the proposals for legislative fixes are still churning three years later. (We’ve probably only just begun on sorting out the fallout).

So how did we get here? Thompson goes back. He dives deep into the early settlers—ancestors of today’s Hopi and Zuni, Spanish explorers, then the 19th Century silver rush and so on. He digs into the history of tensions between miners and the downstream property owners (like farmers and, well, all people) who depend on untainted water.

Thompson looks at the pollution from the Four Corners Power Plant, the environmental mess left behind by the old Durango smelter, and related disasters and near-disasters around the American West. At every turn, Thompson unravels the complicated legal and political tangles that allow companies permission to let those downstream or downwind deal with their waste and particulates and poisons. Yes, some waters must be sacrificed. Too bad.

A longtime reporter for High Country News, Thompson knows the region well, not only the environmental issues and challenges but the ever-changing connection between the economy and what the land has to offer.  A major subplot involves the rising and falling fortunes of Silverton, both mining base camp for over a century and, more recently, kitschy tourist trap for day-trippers on the narrow gauge railroad that runs up the valley from downtown Durango.

There are many “bottom lines” to the Gold King mess, but Thompson makes it clear that the tangle of bureaucracies, mine ownership and public sentiment is as tangled and dark as the labyrinth of tunnels under Bonita Peak. One issue is to make the clean up of acid waters a priority. The natural drainage of the area, given the underground minerals, produces imperfect water.  “Acid mine drainage is too complicated and subtle to be a sexy environmental topic, at least until disaster strikes,” writes Thompson, “so it’s hard to get people to rally around it.”

Gold King may have changed that—or maybe not. Now that the site has earned Superfund status, will the issue revert to the background for another few decades? Will it prompt new regulations for mine owners going forward? Will mine owners ever be held accountable for the full costs of their explorations? (And would consumers be willing to pay for those costs of goods if they were?)

Written with the knack of a sharp story teller, River of Lost Souls is hardly an environmentalists’ screed. Thompson sees the layers and understands the politics. He’s realistic about the future, too.

“Mining is hard,” he concludes. “Putting the earth back together again afterwards is a hell of a lot harder.”

If you have any doubts about that, watch the video.

 

 

 

 

 

Thomas Perry, “The Bomb Maker”

During the first three weeks of March (2018), five package bombs exploded in and around Austin, Texas. Two people were killed and five more were injured. The whole country watched, in anguish.

The suspect blew himself up inside his vehicle on March 21 as police moved in.

I finished reading The Bomb Maker as the Austin story grew in intensity. And I didn’t need reality to make me feel any more convinced that the idea of a ruthless bomb expert was a genuine possibility.

Dread and anxiety play tag-team in this masterfully suspenseful tale. I have a hunch the reason it works is that Perry is as matter-of-fact as his fictional killer. The prose needs no extra purpling. The story and facts are horrific as is. The killer knows his stuff and Perry lays it out with a cool confidence, too. Detonators, blasting caps, circuits, remote controllers, chemical processes, barometer switches, motion sensors, Semtex, C-4, RDX crystals…on and on. As someone who gets nervous setting a mouse trap, let alone trying to figure out how to use mouse trap components in a freaking bomb, I know nothing about bombs and how they work, but I know for sure that Perry knows.

“The bomb looked like a bomb, but it was the kind of bomb it appeared to be. The clock would complete the firing circuit to set off the dynamite and the layer of plastic explosive he’d sewn under it in a few hours. He had also placed a layer of Tannerite next to the main charge. Tannerite was the substance used in exploding targets. It was harmless and inert until a high-velocity projectile hit it, at which point it would explode.”

You get the idea. (It’s easy to follow and not overdone.)

Perry’s bomb maker works with his materials in cool and meticulous fashion. He’s a pro’s pro. He’s willing to take on just about any cause. And he’s adept and making the bombs appear as if they can be diffused only to reveal an ‘uh-oh’ moment for the bomb expert who realizes he’s been duped by a deadly trick.

Our hope is with retired bomb squad guy Dick Stahl, who gets recruited away from his private security gig to help return the collective blood pressure of Los Angeles to normal levels. Stahl runs afoul of the police department regulations when has a steamy fling with a female bomb expert and The Bomb Maker powers along on a variety of levels, including some City Hall politics and complications with a nosy reporter.

Stahl “had been both a soldier and a cop, two professions that never left a man unchanged.”  He’s forty-four and carries a bucket load of confidence, which he’s going to need. That’s because the bomber seems to be after the bomb squad itself. The first device detonates and takes out one-half of the bomb disposal specialists. In order to be successful in this case, Stahl has to figure out the bomb maker’s attempt at disguising the trigger-within-a-trigger ruse and then fighting every instinct of how he’s been trained. He also has to stay ahead of the bomb maker’s ever-shifting strategies.

The Bomb Maker is scary. I have to concede I’m a bit worried about how easy this all sounds to, well, execute. I heard Perry talk about this book at a recent conference and he said all his information and research was readily available online. Gulp.

In Perry’s book, the bad guy (unnamed throughout) gets tempted to sell his skills Rto terrorists with very big plans. Some of the bomb maker’s purchases and maneuvers seem as if they might have left a blip on law enforcement radar somewhere, somehow. But we don’t really care. We want a showdown and we get it in the form of one big fiery release, though Perry doesn’t let our bad guy go down too easily.

The Bomb Maker is a story where high concept meets solid research and much-too-real reality.

Memorable.

Nate Blakeslee, “American Wolf”

In certain places, American Wolf is the prose version of a Wild Kingdom episode (I’m dating myself now) or Blue Planet.

“Suddenly O-Six came exploding out of the woods with a gang of wolves in pursuit. She was alone, separated from her pack, racing downhill through a small meadows. Rick instinctively began mapping her escape route, but to his horror he saw immediately that she had none. Fleeing heedlessly, she had allowed herself to be driven to the edge of out outcrop bordered by a sheer precipice. Behind her were the charging Mollies … “

This is from a heart-pounding chapter called “Rampage of the Mollies” and by this point of Nate Blakeslee’s riveting book about the wolves of the American West, we are fully plugged into the life story of O-Six, an alpha female with loads of personality.

“Rick” in the excerpt above is Rick McIntyre, wolf watcher extraordinaire, and we get to know Rick and whole group of watchers whose tireless work forms the basis for much of Blakeslee’s narrative. Rick’s extensive notes are a key source and so are notes, some 2,500 pages worth, from fellow watcher Laurie Lyman.

American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in The West, comes complete with extensive Source Notes, an Index, and lengthy acknowledgements for all those who contributed to the work. American Wolf is a work of journalism. Blakeslee is an award-winning writer who prioritizes facts.

Blakeslee tracks the thriving packs in and around Yellowstone National Park. Pack life, pack survival, pack mentality, and how pack leaders are chosen—it’s all here. Blakeslee also follows the complicated and the shifting politics and attitudes about the growing population of wolves.

The wolf, in the American West, is not a middle-ground issue. Hunters and ranchers abhor the thought of a reduced elk population or lost livestock due to the wolf’s return. On the other side, all those who support the essence and spirit of the Endangered Species Act with the goal of restoring habitat—all of it—to its natural state. Early superintendents of Yellowstone, Blakeslee points out, finished the work of wolf trappers in the 19th century. To protect the park’s “prime attractions” of elk, antelope, moose, and bighorn sheep, park rangers destroyed wolf pups and tracked and killed adult wolves, too.

Writes Blakeslee: “They didn’t realize that wolves and elk and coexisted in Yellowstone for thousands of years, that the two species had in fact evolved in tandem with each other—which explained why the elk could run as fast as the wolf but no faster. Wolves were the driving force behind the evolution of a wide variety of prey species in North America after the last ice age, literally molding the natural world around them. The massive size of the moose, the nimbleness of the white-tailed deer, the uncanny balance of the bighorn sheep—the architect of these and countless other marvels was the wolf.”

Reintroduction means a fight—and Blakeslee brings us up close and personal with both sides of the impassioned debate, from the farms and the wilderness to the courthouse. Blakeslee’s star is O-Six, who gave birth to three litters and taught brothers to hunt. O-Six is the chief protagonist. She’s got the savvy personality and leadership chops. But many other wolves play key roles with their individual quirks and personalities. Blakeslee, however, plays fair—he shows as much empathy for the wolves and as their fans as he does for the hunter who ended O-Six’s life; the conversation with O-Six’s killer is moving, thoughtful, and well-rounded.

In the big sweep of a changing ecosystem, the wolf’s reintroduction shows how nature had things pretty well balanced all on its own. (Yeah, go figure.) In fact, the reintroduction led to a chain reaction called a “trophic cascade,” a series of positive adjustments that took place simply by the fact that wolves once again roamed the woods, mountains, and valleys. Smaller elk herds meant willows weren’t being decimated. In turn, beavers thrived with more food. Riverbanks endured less erosion due to the increased vegetation. More wolves meant fewer coyotes. Fewer coyotes meant a burgeoning rodent population, which in turn was good news for the owls, hawks, weasels and foxes. On and on. The list of changes from the re-introduction of this one mammal would be a long one.

As with many issues in the American West, the wolf is a hot-button dividing point—science on one side and vested interests on the other. And American Wolf is a terrific, and meaningful, window into a fight that continues to play out (get ready, Colorado). American Wolf  begs the age-old question, can’t we all just get along?

 

 

 

 

 

Terry McDonell, “The Accidental Life”

Terry McDonell’s The Accidental Life: An Editor’s Notes on Writing and Writers is insightful, interesting, blunt, witty and packed with a selection from the A List of fiction and non-fiction writers from the last handful of decades.

Scan the contents, there you go, and you’ll get an idea of the wordsmiths McDonell edited during a colorful career.

Do I have to list them? It might fill this whole review.  Jim Harrison. Ed Abbey. Peter Matthiessen. Tom McGuane. Richard Ford. James Salter. Jan Wenner. George Plimpton. Hunter Thompson. Richard Price. (I’m scratching the surface. Yes, diversity factor is low.) On and on.

McDonell’s credits? Try Sports Illustrated, Men’s Journal, Rolling Stone. He was editor-in-chief of Esquire. There’s also a stint at Newsweek and a magazine he started called Smart. There’s the fact that he was founding editor of Outside and Rocky Mountain magazine. Is that enough? No. McDonell is a screenwriter and novelist, too.

The title alone—The Accidental Life—gives you the sense that despite the bright credits McDonell does not think of himself as anything special. Only a guy who cares about language. “Editing is about ideas, but it is mechanical, too. You have to get under the hood of the language, and editors use many tools.” One of those tools is word counts—knowing the length of something you’re about to read helps you understand its shape and pace, he argues. (Thus the title of every piece is followed by the word length to come.)

Most writers like to overshoot their assigned word length. “No writer I ever edited wanted to go short, anyway. Neither do I, but I also know that the best pieces seem to find their own length. That’s the alchemy.”

Reading The Accidental Life you hope some gold dust will fall on your keyboard, just by reading about what it is like to work with all these feisty, funky, mostly inscrutable bunch of truth tellers. You hope for some “how to” list of handy tips. How to edit. How to reject. How to know the right story to report—and when. How to cut.

Well, not quite. The editing nuggets are there. They are in the mix. But The Accidental Life is mostly stories about big time writers and McDonell’s relationship with them. (Just a hunch but I think those relationships is where the editing begins.) Along the way, McDonell riffs on photography, headlines, layout, the changing nature of the business, and what is like to be around Sports Illustrated during swimsuit season (February) and some of the jaw-dropping numbers for sales when there is so much female skin on the cover.

The Editing 101 stuff is there, but McDonell deals out those bits around stories (good ones) of his celebrity writer pals.

“Good editors, like doctors, develop a bedside manner. My editing was full of questions—all the same question, really. What is the story. What’s the point of it? What do these sentences mean? Do they mean what you want them to mean? What if I told you they read like walk-ons in a Pirandello play?”

This is from a brief entry, “Bibliomemoir.”

More: “To diagnose is an excellent verb for editors to keep in mind. But what are you trying to say? Is not always an easy question, and the story isn’t always what the writer says it is. I thought often about what it was like to read the writers I knew best, how direct their prose seemed and how the work spoke for itself, yet that made them even more mysterious. It was that way with all of the writers whose work I loved.”

McDonell celebrates certain passages—and quotes them. Whether fiction or non-fiction, he seemed to be on a quest for truth tellers, whether the prose is fiction or non. Sure there is a difference between what comes out of the imagination and the stories a reporter tells, but McDonnell seems interested, in both cases, in sharp observers who don’t flinch from hard truths. It’s a “commitment to revealing the shadings and complexities of the human condition,” he writes in the “Fiction, Nonfiction” entry.

I only hope The Accidental Life isn’t a reflection on what will be considered a golden age of journalism—the second half of the 20th century and maybe the first decade or so of the 21st century before The Internets gutted the budgets of big-city daily newspapers and magazines.

McDonell was there in the prime of magazine publishing—limos, fat expense accounts and fatter advances. These tidbits may be fantasy land for someone writing long-form today.

I’m writing this on the day that The Denver Post announced yet another wallop to its newsroom staff—another 30 staffers slashed from the newsroom, down to 70 total reporters and editors—it’s hard to not think back to the day when we took steady streams of good daily journalism for granted. And it’s hard to imagine how many writers and reporters won’t get a chance to develop their craft simply because the jobs aren’t there.

Do you write? The Accidental Life is a must-read. Do you read? Ditto. Some suggest to read these entries at random. I started at the front and read straight through, glued the whole time and wanting to go back and pick up some old Jim Harrison stuff or early Hunter S. Thompson.

Great read.

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Final note: I listened on audio. James Culp’s blunt, punchy narration was terrific.

Final, final note: In the piece called “Swimsuit,” McDonell talks about the fact that the selection of the final cover model and cover shot is the result of research, not whim. “The models all thought the editor decided, and that was true. It wasn’t just about instinct or relationships. It was about questions in malls in places like Trumbull Connecticut.” Of all the places for Terry to mention—Trumbull was the hometown of my friend Barry Wightman, the guy who recommended this book to me. Strange! And, thanks, Barry.

 

Word

A few thoughts about using precise words for the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers blog here.

 

Q & A #61 – Ausma Zehanat Khan, “A Dangerous Crossing”

The Unquiet Dead debuted in late 2016 and, with it, Ausma Zehanat Khan introduced readers to a pair of unusual detectives in Toronto who focus on culturally sensitive cases and vulnerable communities.

Esa Khattak is a Muslim. He is keen on solving cases but he is also on a long, inward quest. Rachel Getty is, well, Canadian and youthful. She digs hockey.

The first book dealt with a long trail of misery following the genocide of Srebrenica. The New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly and The Washington Post all raved.

Three more titles followed, including A Dangerous Crossing (launching next week). In all four books, Khan let Khattak and Getty explore cases drawn from international tensions. Among the Ruins found Khattak in Iran. A Dangerous Crossing focuses on Greece and travels all over Europe and into Turkey. Readers have watched Khattak explore his core beliefs and they watched the space between Getty and Khattak grow and change shape.

A full review of A Dangerous Crossing follows but Ausma, who has been here before, was kind enough to answers some questions (by e-mail) again.

Note: The Khattak/Getty mystery series has been optioned for television by Lionsgate. Ausma is also the author of a fantasy series for Harper Voyager. The Bloodprint, Book One of the Khorasan Archives was published in October 2017.

Ausma holds a Ph.D. in international human rights law with a specialization in military intervention and war crimes in the Balkans. A British-born Canadian and former adjunct law professor, she now lives in Colorado with her husband.

Ausma will be at The Tattered Cover (Colfax) on Thursday, Feb. 15 at 7 pm for the launch of A Dangerous Crossing.

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Question: When you started writing Esa Khattak, did you have an idea of what kinds of issues and situations you would ask him to face? Did you have an idea how far he would travel—both internally and around the world?

Ausma Zehanat Khan: Yes, definitely. I’ve been thinking about books I wanted to write long before I began to write them. I’ve had a varied career but it’s been focused on some consistent themes: the exploration of identity, alienation, and belonging—and how those things might be weaponized. I knew what I wanted to do with a character like Esa in terms of his internal journey as a man of faith in a world that is hostile to his identity. He begins from this place of being very sure of himself, but as the series progresses, he finds his convictions challenged at every turn, and has to struggle to figure out a way to reconcile the different sides of himself. Based on my own background and my academic research, I knew there were a range of global issues and human rights crises that I wanted to examine in these books, and Esa’s perspective was a natural fit for exploring these issues.

Question: Rachel started out relatively green in your first two books, but she’s grown quite a bit. What was it like to write about her reactions to what she experiences in A Dangerous Crossing?

Ausma Zehanat Khan: I love seeing Rachel come into her own and grow in confidence, it’s the natural progression of her journey as a police officer, and as a woman. Many of us know very little about what day to day life is like for refugees in camps like Moria or Kara Tepe, so Rachel having to respond and react to those realities provided an entry point into that story. I’d interviewed volunteers and read several volunteer blogs to document what that experience is like. To move from not knowing to be immersed in firsthand knowledge, and to have all your assumptions challenged, takes not only compassion but grit. And no one is more suited to that than Rachel.

Question: Is it easier to write Rachel’s scenes? Or, Esa’s? Did you start planning or figuring out romantic entanglements at the outset of the series? Are you surprised how things have turned out for each of them?

Ausma Zehanat Khan: It is always easier to write Rachel’s scenes because Rachel is a character who’s allowed to be herself and have her experiences, and to falter or grow without constraint. Writing Esa is more challenging because like all Muslims in the public eye, he has to do more than exist as a character. He has to carry the weight of a dangerous and hostile discourse about Muslims on his shoulders, so when I write his scenes I’m conscious of how his actions may be interpreted, and what he needs to be able to convey about his own humanity. I spend a lot of time on that and take a lot of care with it because I view it as a kind of speaking back.

In terms of romantic entanglements, I had a general sense of what I wanted to happen with Rachel and Esa right from the beginning of the series, but it hasn’t turned out exactly how I planned. I expected certain things for Rachel and Nathan Clare to happen in A Dangerous Crossing, following on from the relationship I established in earlier books. But by the time I was able to put my master plan in action, Rachel and Nate took the reins right out of my hands and confounded all my plans. With Esa, I wanted to ground him in his own history and community, so a very important part of that was to decide whom (who?) he might love and why. I suggested otherwise in The Unquiet Dead—that history and community might not be as important when weighed against his feelings for a certain woman, but by this latest book, he’s back where I expected him to be. Where he needs to be to stay true to his own beliefs. But that doesn’t mean I have any intention of making things easy for him. He’s going to fall and fall again.

Question: How did you research so many foreign locations—Calais, Athens, Lesvos, The Netherlands, Cesme, etc?

Ausma Zehanat Khan: It was mainly a lot of reading: travelogues, human rights reports, even a useful little article on the weather and sheep-farming on Lesvos. In some cases I conducted interviews with people who had firsthand knowledge of the camps on Lesvos. And there was quite a bit of documentary-watching, plus prior travel to parts of Europe and Turkey. One of the things that has been incredibly helpful with research is the amount of photography and video online: it helps me assess the nuances of specific locations.

Question: Why do you think the Syrian refugee crisis ebbs and flows here as a news story? It’s ongoing. It’s happening today. Right now. Tensions haven’t eased in years. Cities being destroyed, etc. Is this just a chronic, forever battle or something that will eventually be resolved? What’s it going to take to bring Assad down and to bring stability back to Syria?

Ausma Zehanat Khan: When fighting erupts in Syria, and a new flow of refugees is created, that makes the news. But most of the major fighting in Syria is over. The conflict has produced more than five million refugees—the worst refugee crisis of the past twenty-five years. In the last rebel-held province of Idlib, Assad has launched a new offensive that may produce a new flow of refugees.

As for the future of Syria, there can be no stability or genuine peace as long as Bashar al-Assad remains in power. The Assad family has ruled Syria with an iron fist for nearly half a century. The Assad regime is responsible for the vast majority of the atrocities that have been committed during the current conflict, resulting in a death toll of approximately half a million people. The foremost issue deterring a resolution in Syria is that the international community has refused to confront Russia and Iran, the two key players who have shaped the course of the conflict. Over the course of the past seven years, Russia cast eleven votes at the Security Council that blocked international action on Syria. Unless this changes, Syria will continue to be ruled by the Assad family, and most refugees will be unable to return. The forces of radical extremism are among the biggest beneficiaries of this state of affairs—a factor that will contribute to the region’s instability for decades to come.

Question: Without giving anything away, A Dangerous Crossing looks at all the different layers and motivations for how people in crisis can be exploited. Did you know your antagonists going in? Or did events and motives unfold as you wrote the story?

Ausma Zehanat Khan: I follow developments in international criminal law, so I knew exactly what I wanted to write about: the question of how massive human rights violations continue to be committed with impunity. It’s that space between impunity and the pursuit of justice that I’m interested in examining, so writ large, I knew I would be writing about who is responsible for the destruction of Syria, and what the nature of that destruction is. For a full year I focused my research on the human rights crisis in Syria, and as I read in that area, I was able to put the pieces of a much larger puzzle into place. The book was about the Assad regime’s oppression of the Syrian people, but then it spiraled out into a discovery of all the others who opportunistically prey upon the vulnerable and displaced. Some things were so shocking for me to read, in terms of dangers that refugees are exposed to, that it was absolutely vital that they become part of the story.

Question: A Dangerous Crossing deals with, among many issues, the ‘disproportionate burden’ issue—how countries negotiate and decide how many refugees they can take in. If you were benevolent dictator of the world, how would you resolve this? How do you address the roots of the crisis? The United States’ non-interventionist approach, as you write in the author’s note, cedes control of the crisis to Russia and Iran, which is not a path to resolution. What to do?

Ausma Zehanat Khan: As defined by the Refugee Convention, a refugee is a person with a well-founded fear of persecution, based on certain discrete criteria. So I wonder if we had substantive public education about how these criteria have been met in the case of Syrian refugees, we might see a greater willingness to resettle them. There’s a significant gap between the perception and reality of which nations host most of the world’s refugees. The the top five refugee-hosting countries are Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, and Ethiopia. Germany is the only Western nation to make the top ten. So that disproportionate burden actually falls upon some of the world’s poorest countries, when it should be allocated more reasonably between all the signatories to the Refugee Convention, so that treaty obligations are met.

We’ve talked about the root causes of instability as directly related to refugee flows. While the crisis is complex and military intervention could lead to greater instability, there are a number of steps that merit consideration. First, the Russian and Iranian position in Syria could be challenged. That would require a commitment to establish a safe zone within Syria, and a no-fly zone over Syria, allowing moderate opposition groups to establish an alternative to Assad’s rule. Tipping the balance of power in Syria could lead to serious negotiations. In 2013 and 2015, Assad was close to being toppled. The Russian and Iranian foreign ministries acknowledged this, and in turn stepped up their intervention to rescue the regime from imminent collapse. If things were to change, a plan for the day after would also be needed, one that would encompass security, stabilization, reconstruction and national reconciliation. To be successful, any such plan would require the full participation and support of the Syrian people, in tandem with global leadership on a scale equipped to recognize and respond to the realities on the ground. As you can see, there is no easy prescription for success.

Question: How do you switch back and forth from writing a fantasy series to writing mysteries?

Ausma Zehanat Khan: When I write about human rights issues in my mysteries, it’s critical that I write from a solid foundation of knowledge, and that I neither overstate nor understate the magnitude of the crisis I’m writing about. So my research is more extensive, and I check and re-check the accuracy of my facts. I try to provide a range of perspectives on an issue, without creating a false equivalency. Genocide and war crimes should never lend themselves to false narratives that fly in the face of the evidence. I’m thinking particularly of the material I had to tackle while writing The Unquiet Dead. And again with A Dangerous Crossing. I begin from the premise that there is no ideology that can justify the violation of human rights. But you’d be surprised by how many people take issue with that premise.

So writing my fantasy series is much easier for me. I come to those books almost with a sense of relief. There’s more narrative space to be inventive, and I’m able to indulge my curiosity about the world without quite as many constraints.

Question: What’s next for Esa and Rachel? And for the fantasy series?

Ausma Zehanat Khan: Next up, Esa and Rachel return to Canada, where they’re asked to lend their support to an investigation into a mosque shooting in Quebec. I’ve been slowly unraveling this theme in the series through Esa’s eyes: what is like to be a Muslim in the West today? What realities does he confront as part of his daily existence? Does Esa believe that battle lines have been drawn? The fifth book in the series brings these issues out into the open to force Esa to a moment of reckoning. Rachel’s reckoning is more personal: is she going to go after what she wants—personally and professionally? Does she believe that she’s worthy of happiness? What might that look like for her? Strangely enough, this has been the easiest book in the series for me to write.

And Book Two of the Khorasan Archives—The Black Khan—will be out in fall of 2018. I’ll tease it a little: expect smoldering romance and an epic battle where women are at the forefront of the charge.

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Ausma Zehanat Khan’s website.

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REVIEW:

In Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead, Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty dug into the genocide at Srebrenica to get to the root of a stunning murder in Toronto, where they are based. In The Language of Secrets, the pair infiltrated a terrorist cell brewing up wicked plans within a mosque. In Among the Ruins, a personal trip to Iran put Khattak smack into the middle of a decades-old murder that peeled back the cloak of history, particularly the deadly prison system.

Given the track record of this compelling duo, it’s no surprise to find them embroiled in the Syrian refugee crisis in the latest entry, A Dangerous Crossing, a story that stretches to Turkey, Greece, The Netherlands, and France.

Inspector Khattak and Sergeant Getty are given the task of finding Audrey, a woman who has vanished from a Greek island. Audrey was working for an NGO, helping to implement Canada’s efforts to resettle Syrian refugees. The missing woman’s brother is a childhood friend of Esa’s. The missing woman is not only implicated in a double murder, but any hint of violence and controversy could take its toll on Canadian political leadership, unless the truth of her disappearance is uncovered.

As with all three previous books, there’s a steady undercurrent of emotions between Khattak and Getty. But to add to the tension here, Khan brings back Sehr Ghilzai, a former prosecutor first introduced in The Language of Secrets, to tempt Khattak out of his devout, often inscrutable shell.

Khattak’s serene Muslim faith gives the entire series a unique flavor. Getty is more carefree, less burdened by the world—but no less dogged or sincere.

After a few set-up scenes in Toronto, we’re off to Athens and eyewitness accounts of the inhumanity, the camps at Kara Tepe on the island of Lesvos and cinematic scenes on cold beaches at night as waves of (literally) huddled masses of refugees wait by campfires, hungry and wondering what’s next. Rachel, ever empathetic and smart enough to know what she doesn’t know, is the one to loan her coat to a shivering little boy.

Rachel’s reactions to what she sees are visceral.

“As she watched at the girls playing in the mud, her despair was overcome by self-contempt. Each person in this camp could likely tell a story more painful than her own … The temperature had dropped and the water was cold, the pristine shoreline marred by detritus on the beach: black flotation devices resembling rubber tires, stacks of orange life jackets, the occasional dinghy that would never float again, odd bits of clothing, mismatched shoes, a single sock.”

Esa, meanwhile, contemplates the tragedy within the context of his faith, the Muslim concept of ummah (community). “It was instinctive to him as a man of his faith to be deeply concerned about the ummah. He thought of the cruelty that characterized the abuse of dissidents in Iran. He knew the situation in Syria was worse on a scale that defied imagination—of a nature to wring tears from a statue of the Madonna.”

How can Esa reconcile what it feels like to be proud of his faith, proud of his beliefs, proud of his heritage—and know that many horrors were being meted out in the name of the same community?

How can Esa justify the well-funded search for one privileged Canadian, a woman with connections and resources, when so many souls are being set adrift, instantly homeless, into a cruel world?

Esa’s struggles are internal—and he keeps them, for the most part, to himself. “These were scales Esa had been weighing all his life, an actuary of the dead and disposable.” (What a great line.)

The story is driven by the puzzle of deciphering Audrey’s last communications with her brother—and her actions. Why had Audrey risked a trip to the Turkey-Syria border? Why had she taken two children with her?

All around them as they work are the vast sea of needy refugees and the many ways they can be exploited. Khattak and Getty’s work shows how nations find a way to justify dusting their hands as if nothing is going on. There is, as Esa notes, plenty of blame to go around.

A Dangerous Crossing is driven by mystery, but it’s also poignant and complex. As her team bounces from country to country, digging into documents and confronting power, Khan does not shy from intricate global politics. A Dangerous Crossing is another gripping Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty Mystery brewed from the depths of mankind’s capacity for brutal inhumanity to others.

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Previously reviewed:

The Language of Secrets

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Unquiet Dead

(This post also includes an earlier Q & A)