Scott Graham’s National Park mysteries combine murder, mayhem and mysticism in spectacular landscapes while embracing a keen awareness of environmental and social justice issues – a heady brew that’s winning him a growing audience.
Hi there I’m your host Jenny Wheeler and in today’s Binge Reading podcast Scott talks about why he chose to set his five book series around an archaeologist sleuth Chuck and his Latina wife Janelle.
Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode:
- An exciting new field of environmental fiction
- The long road to publication
- An archaeologist sleuth leads the way
- Living in the tri-cultural South West
- Rocky Mountain writers
- Being the ‘luckiest writer on the planet’
Where to find Scott Graham:
What follows is a “near as” transcript of our conversation, not word for word but pretty close to it, with links to important mentions.
Jenny Wheeler: But now here’s Scott. Hello Scott, and welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us.
Scott Graham: Hi Jenny, I’m happy to be here.
Jenny Wheeler: You made a reputation for yourself as a journalist and a nonfiction writer before you started on the fiction. I’m just interested on what made you switch to fiction and was there something that like a Once Upon A Time moment where you felt that urge to change to writing fiction?
Long road to publication
Scott Graham: Well, the truth is, I was a failed a fiction writer for a long time before I was finally a successful, published fiction author. I’ve had the dream of being a fictional storyteller pretty much my entire adult life.
And I’ve also enjoyed the writing process my entire life as well. I could make a living as a journalist, as a business writer, and I was able to then publish some nonfiction books. I was always getting up early in the morning and doing some fiction writing just for myself because I loved that idea of being a storyteller so much.
It took me, probably like many fiction authors, four or five manuscripts that didn’t go anywhere. That came close, came closer and closer before I got what I feel like I’m good enough to find a true publisher and get rolling with my actual published fiction.
The National Park series
Jenny Wheeler: That’s fantastic. So you’ve now got five books in your National Park series and these starring an archeologist called Chuck Bender and his Latina paramedic wife Janelle. What made you decide on that theme and setting?
Scott Graham: I’m from a small town that’s named Durango in the far Southwest corner of Colorado in the Southwestern United States, and that area is a hotbed of archeological discovery and old civilizations that are around here. I was raised here in Durango.
I’m familiar with all the archeological discoveries that have been made here and throughout the Southwest of the United States. And I’m fascinated by it, to be honest. I thought readers are probably going to be fascinated by that as well. I just built that in as one of the themes or the key aspects of the series; that there is always an archeological discovery. There is an archeological dig or an archeological survey that is ongoing as part of the plot for each of the books.
An archaelogist sleuth
Jenny Wheeler: You’re a self-proclaimed outdoorsman and your love of the natural environment comes through very strongly. Lots of reviewers comment on it. Each of the books features one particular national park, doesn’t it? It might be Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone. . . the most recent one is set in Utah in Arches National Park and as titled Arches Enemy. What draws you to the landscape?
Scott Graham: Again, I’m so fortunate that I’ve been raised in a family by my parents who were real outdoors people and who loved exploring the national parks in the West of the United States. So I was dragged around in the old station wagon to all those national parks when I was a kid, and then I was doubly fortunate to be able to return to my hometown. My wife and I raised our children in Durango, which is really in the heart of national park country for the western United States.
And so I have had a love of national parks and the Western national parks in America specifically that was put into place by my parents and then grew by my being able to share these wonderful landscapes with my own children as they were raised. What I’m doing is sharing my love for these places with a greater audience.
It’s basically a pleasure for me to set my stories in these places. In addition, the national parks in America and the public lands in Western America are constantly under threat because there’s always money to be made off of developing places that are undeveloped. I also then have the opportunity through writing about the national parks to call attention in each book to a specific, either social justice or environmental justice issue that is specific to that park.
And so again, that’s a part of my love of the national parks and of my hopes for their protected future that I’m able to share in my books.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, so in Arch Enemy, it’s actually seismic damage caused by mining – deep ground mining – that is affecting some of the natural features.
Scott Graham: Again, people need to understand is, and I think all people who read mysteries and know mysteries do understand. What you’re doing with the murder mystery, of course, is taking things and sending them over the top. Okay, so I’ve got a bumper truck that is a seismic truck that is doing seismic work outside the park.
It’s been allowed by the powers that be to, in the case of the story that I’m telling – the fictional story – to get too close to the park, to the point where it may well have been the cause of the collapse of one of the iconic parts – well they are nearly all iconic in Arches National Park – but one of those natural arches that the national park is known for.
And that is the inciting incident that sets off that particular story, but the reality is that such a seismic truck doing that much damage is probably infinitesimally unlikely. And yet the idea that these national parks and the Western United States are under threat from extractive industry development is absolutely true. I’m just basically taking some of these threats that are there and expanding upon them in a way that makes for what I hope is a fascinating and interesting story.
Jenny Wheeler: Sure. And then you’ve got the social justice aspect of it. As we’ve mentioned, Janelle has Latina heritage. There’s quite a lot of little bits of Spanish dotted through the book.
It’s quite clear that she’s a very well-integrated character in the book. She isn’t just there for her looks, so to speak, and I gather you’ve got quite a strong background in Spanish culture as well.
Up the Rio Grande
Scott Graham: Yes, I do. In the culture that I’m been raised in here in Southwestern United States, it’s really a tri-cultural place. There are the indigenous peoples, the tribal peoples who have been here long before Caucasians showed up.
But then the first real Caucasians or Europeans who showed up were the Spaniards coming up the Rio Grande Valley in the 1500s. At about the same time that the original pilgrims were coming across to the Eastern coast of the United States from Northern Europe, the Spaniards were coming up from the South.
They have left an indelible mark across the Southwestern United States before the European ‘Manifest Destiny’ crossing of the covered wagons and whatnot, brought in more of a Northern European culture to this part of the world.
Integrating a Latina family
And so we’ve got this wonderful tri cultural world that I was raised in that I wanted to share with my readers because the books that I’m writing are based in the Western United States where these three cultures are still coexisting and learning to get along, and hopefully growing together and becoming more aware of one another.
And so I’ve got my Caucasian archaeologist who then marries a Latina wife who comes into his world with two Latina, in his case, stepchildren. Not only is he having to learn to deal with being a father to these children and a husband to a wife after a lifetime of being an established bachelor and an established loner, he’s also having to learn to recognize these other cultural values that have suddenly come into his world. He’s having to learn to deal with those as well.
Multiculturalism in action
And so it’s been a really fun progression that I’ve been able to put him on, that I’ve enjoyed going to. There wasn’t so much Spanish in the earlier books, and in particular, Chuck himself didn’t really use any Spanish. And now by the fifth book he’s using Spanish as well with his wife in the same way that she’s using Spanish with him. I feel like that’s the real progression that would occur in this relationship. And it’s been one that I’ve purposely built in order to share with the Southwest and the West of the United States, and show how that multiculturalism plays out here.
Jenny Wheeler: And I gather that you’ve found a publisher who is very much behind the environmental push to highlight things like species eradication in Yellowstone or those sorts of issues. Chat to us a bit about your publisher.
‘Luckiest author on the planet’
Scott Graham: I have to tell you, I feel like I’m the luckiest mystery author on the planet in terms of where I’ve landed with my mysteries. At the end of my nonfiction writing run when I finally put myself to the task of wanting to be a successful author of fiction and to be a mystery author, I won the National Outdoor Book Award with my last nonfiction book, which was a pretty big award. That, combined perhaps with the fact that the quality of my writing was improving, gave me the opportunity of getting to the point where I probably could have won a contract with a publisher back East, one of the big publishers out in New York City.
But at the same time I heard about this smaller publisher that was just getting going. They are called Torrey House Press, the only a non profit environmental publisher in the Western United States.
A mission-driven publisher
They’re a mission driven publisher that is a specifically involved in the mission of preserving and talking about and producing literature about the American West public lands and the dangers that they face from development and the importance that they play in the Western environment of the United States. That environment that all of us think about when we think of the old westerns that we’ve seen, that is what this publisher is about preserving and protecting.
And so I got to come in as an author. And at the time that I got to know them, they were a brand new publisher about six or seven years ago who were really involved in publishing literary fiction and very literary oriented nonfiction, and I was able to say to them, you know what?
I’ve got something here that I think would be of real value to you because I’m talking about producing entertainment oriented fiction that’s aimed at people who may not be nearly as familiar with these issues as the audience that Torrey House Press had reached to that point.
And so they did. They came with me and they said, yes, that’s a great idea. This gives us an opportunity to reach out to a different audience than we’ve been reaching out to before. And the result has been this wonderful team between myself and Torrey House Press where we’ve grown together. I continue to be one of their best-selling authors with all the books that I’ve got coming out. They are also, as a result of their growth, getting to pull on bigger and bigger name environmental authors.
And so we’re both growing together and it’s just been a wonderful relationship, one I’m very proud of and very proud to be a part of.
A new park created
Jenny Wheeler: Fantastic. I gather they get involved in some political action as well, don’t they? That they don’t just publish books?
Scott Graham: No, they are what you would call an activist organization, a nonprofit organization with a mission. They are actively pursuing that mission. And they have been integral in for example, one of the key things they were able to do was produce, very quickly, a book that provided essays about a very specific piece of land that 25 indigenous tribes in the Southwest United States had come together and asked the previous American presidency administration to preserve.
By reaching out to Barack Obama, President Obama, before he ended his term of office, to say that he should use his power as president through the Antiquities Act to preserve this particular very large chunk of South Eastern Utah as a national monument. And these tribes wanted it to preserved because it’s the homeplace and the birthplace and the burial place of all of their forefathers.
Bears Ears National Monument
It’s a high area called the Colorado Plateau, a high portion of the Colorado River basin. Everything falls away from that into these various tribal communities, and these were foraging areas where these people hunted and lived and died for centuries before the white man showed up.
And my publisher was able to pull these essays together that were written by all different constituencies, present them to the Obama administration, and convinced the administration then to pull the trigger on creating that national monument. Literally two weeks before the end of the Barack Obama presidency, he preserved what’s now known as the Bears Ears National Monument.
And, and I’m proud to say that my publisher played a key role in having that preservation occur.
Access to public lands
Jenny Wheeler: That’s fantastic. Now, I know that this thing about access to public lands is close to your heart because you’ve talked about a drive that you did with your family in Texas where you found it very difficult to even access park land. Talk about that a little. It was absolutely fascinating to me.
Scott Graham: You would think I should have known better, right? I’m an adult. I’ve been living out here in the West all these years. I didn’t really know the history of Texas. I did know, and many people know, that the big state of Texas and the south central United States came into the United States as a result of bargaining through the Mexican American war.
And of course pressure that the American government brought on the Mexican government, brought the territory over to Mexico.
When it came over and became a state, one of the deals that made it become a state was that all of the lands that came over as part of Texas were not preserved as public lands.
The privatization of Texas
None of them were preserved, virtually none as public lands, but rather they were all made private – well, I shouldn’t say private. They were initially turned over to the state government of Texas, basically the new state government of Texas in a semi-autonomous way. The state government of Texas immediately turned around and because everyone was in each other’s pockets, sold off all these massive tracts of lands to all the people who had the money to buy, back in the day.
So the entire state of Texas basically became privatized. And so all of these big chunks of public lands that we think of as these big, beautiful open areas in the rest of the Western United States, in the case of Texas are all fenced off. The way I’ve traditionally traveled with my family was we would travel around the West, we would go into these national forests and what are called Bureau of Land Management lands that you can just pull off the road anywhere and camp and have a good time and hike.
No Trespassing . . . everywhere . . .
I thought we would do the same thing when I took my two young children and my wife and I headed down South into Texas and instead we went down there and found out everything was fenced off to us. We would look off at these beautiful scenes and these beautiful mountain ranges and every one of them had a No Trespassing sign in front of it.
It was a real learning experience for me to see what a state in the United States that is hooked onto my state, my home state of Colorado, and yet is so different because it has no public lands to go explore and access. I saw how different a feeling that state gave about how you were able to visit and travel in than all these other states that I have traveled in in the West in the past, and it was really a turning point for me.
Rocky Mountain Writers
It was like, Oh. This is why public lands are so important. This is why they should not be privatized. This is why they should not be sold off. We all own them in America as the general public.
They’re all open to us if we can preserve them.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, I see. That’s fascinating. There’s quite a strong community of Rocky Mountain writers who’ve got part of this ethos isn’t there? Like I’m thinking of Craig Johnson and CJ Box, a couple of the others that I know. Do you work together much as a group?
Scott Graham: I have been fortunate to basically count on them for support and to count on some of the bigger names. They’ve been wonderful about offering people like me, the smaller names, wonderful blurbs for my books.
The support of other writers
They’ve been extremely supportive in terms of when I talk to them at writer’s conferences, giving me hints and giving me advice.
At this point because I’m still working my way into hopefully someday, perhaps the echelon that some of the top Western writers are at. I can’t consider myself part of their team, but what I can tell you is I’m extremely appreciative of the welcome they have given me as a relative newcomer to this world and the support they give me literally by reading my work and offering me wonderful reviews of my work that I’ve been able to use to help build my own audience.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, I know that Craig Johnson, who’s made his name, for those who might not be familiar with his work, with the TV series Longridge which has just finished after about seven seasons or so. But he called your books “One part mystery, one part mysticism and one part mayhem”, which sounds like a great combination! Would you agree with the mysticism bit?
Murder, mysticism, mayhem
Scott Graham: Oh, absolutely. And I think, you know, I can’t speak necessarily for Craig, but if I were to think about it in my own way, I think the mysticism is really that multicultural aspect of what I have sought to build into each of my titles.
The fact that I’ve really got, in addition to Chuck Bender’s wife, Janelle, and this Latino culture that I’m trying to introduce to my readers, I’ve also really – pretty much every book – involves some sort of an indigenous and tribal aspect to the books as well, and there truly is a mystical aspect to the way indigenous tribal peoples in the Western United States will view their relationship with the landscape, versus the way the traditional white European Caucasian may view their relationship to the world.
Giving access to the back country
And it’s that mysticism that I try to really offer to my readers. One of the things I specifically do with every book is in that national park that that book is covering, I try to take that plot line away from park headquarters and into some portion of the back country, because that’s really what is both mythical and mystical about our national parks. And it’s something that 90% of the people who visit America’s national parks are unable to see.
They come to these places to view the beautiful back country that is spread before them, but they don’t have the wherewithal to go into that back country. And so one of the goals of the books is to take that plot line and take the reader into the back country that most people aren’t able to visit.
Investigating a historic murder
Jenny Wheeler: One example of that tribal involvement was that you have Chuck, your archaeologist, investigate an historic murder of two gold miners killed 150 years ago. The local people were blamed and now in contemporary times, a tribal trust is wanting this reinvestigated to see with what really did go on. That’s the kind of thing, isn’t it, that you’re talking about. (In Yosemite Fall, book #4)
Scott Graham: That’s exactly what I’m talking about. And in that particular case, what’s fascinating to me about that, in that particular case, it’s based on absolute truth. These miners did come into Yosemite Valley. Two miners were killed, and the indigenous peoples, the Yosemite people who were in the Valley were blamed for their deaths.
And they were then subsequently chased out of the Valley by militia from the state of California, the newly minted state of California, as a result of that inciting incident.
Searching Yosemite archives
I went back and explored that incident. I actually visited the National Park Service library in Yosemite Valley. I spent a day there researching. The Yosemite archives are located in a climate-protected building inside a massive warehouse outside of the parks that has all sorts of old maps and old documents that I was able to visit wearing a winter coat and white white cotton gloves so that you didn’t harm any of the of the materials that you were looking at.
And I was able to specifically research that incident and then look at it from today’s lens and recognize that the deaths of these two miners and the blaming of their deaths on the indigenous peoples who were in that Valley very handily enabled the gold mining interests of the time to move the indigenous people out in a murderous way in order to then have this Valley to at first explore for gold, and when no gold happened to be in Yosemite Valley, then to look around and say, this is a beautiful place. We ought to turn it into one of America’s first national parks.
The way we were
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. When John Muir came along.
Scott Graham: That’s exactly right. Yes.
Jenny Wheeler: Scott, we’re starting to run out of time a little, so let’s just talk a little about Scott as reader. This podcast is called The Joys Of Binge Reading, and we assume the people who listen to it are into doing a lot of reading.
Tell us about your taste in fiction. What do you like to binge read or just read generally?
Scott Graham: I keep waiting to get tired of reading mysteries as I write mysteries, and as I immerse myself in reading every other mystery that I possibly can to, to hopefully learn and grow as an author of mysteries myself.
And I’ll be honest with you, I don’t get tired of it. And so in my case, I just continue to enjoy exploring new mystery series as well as established mystery series and just seeing how the masters do the craft.
What Scott is reading now . . .
Jenny Wheeler: And so, who are you reading at the moment, or who have you been reading?
Scott Graham: Some of the masters that I’m sure people will have heard of, so I’ll move quickly onto some of the less known because that’s probably more important to your listeners. But the masters that I really respect are people like Tana French out of Ireland and Louise Penny out of Canada. Two amazing, amazing authors, who just blow me away every time I read their work. And then to come closer to home, the names you’ve already mentioned are legitimately big names for the reason that they are so good.
And that would be CJ Box and Craig Johnson and then someone who is not perhaps as well known to your listeners, but who is really just hitting in a big way now in the standalone novel this year, is William Kent Krueger, and he writes about the Ojibwe people in upper Northern United States, and in a wonderful way.
Valued regional writers
His work is some that I just entirely respect. And then also the fact that Anne Hillerman, the daughter of famed Navajo reservation mystery author Tony Hillerman has taken over her late father’s mystery series and crafted as her own. I think it’s wonderful; a tribute to Tony Hillerman and also a wonderful mystery series on its own.
So those are kind of some of the bigger names. Some of the smaller names are people you have had on – and they’re getting big themselves. Like Margaret Mizushima – her books are just wonderful explorations of both a flawed central character, and a detective who’s got this wonderful dog. Robo is just so fun to read about. And then, in my own area. in Montana, Christine Carbo, who is doing a series entirely based around Glacier National Park, which is on the Canadian border in Northern Western United States.
A new voice
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, we’ve had both Margaret and Christine on the show and they were both lovely to talk to. We’ll make sure all of those links are in the show notes so that people can easily find the ones you’re talking about.
Scott Graham: I’ll mention one more real quick just because I think you’ll enjoy knowing about Chuck Greaves and your listeners will to. He has just joined me. He’s been a very successful mystery author with mystery series set in Los Angeles. And now has just joined me at Torrey House Press as a fellow author and has a book that’s out called Church of the Graveyard Saints. That is a quasi mystery. I guess it’s really stand alone.
It stands as a mystery itself, although not necessarily a series mystery. And it really gives people a wonderful feel of the various politics that are at play with regard to public lands and private development of those lands in the Western United States.
A new local voice
And that’s Church Of The Graveyard Saints by Chuck Reeves. I believe your listeners will enjoy his Los Angeles mysteries – they’re humorous and his really insightful, smart, intellectual way of an attorney as well as Church of the Graveyard Saints, his new, more of a polemic political, environmental mystery set here in the Southwestern United States where Chuck has moved from having been an attorney in Los Angeles.
Now he lives near me here in the Southwest United States and is now he is setting his fiction here.
Jenny Wheeler: We are starting to come to the end of our time together. Circling around and looking back over your writing career, at this stage, when you take stock, if you were doing it all over again, is there anything that you would change?
What would you do differently?
Scott Graham: You know, I have to tell you, as I said, I feel so fortunate to be with the publisher I’m with now. For many years, when I was writing my nonfiction, I had a wonderful agent in New York city who represented my interests extremely well. I have to tell you, I have had a wonderful experience as an author, both of nonfiction and of fiction, and I count myself lucky. I really do.
I think the thing that if others are out there thinking about being authors themselves that is important to understand is don’t get tied up feeling like you’re going to be doing it for the money. The money hopefully is going to flow to your publisher if you do a good job for them because they are the ones taking the risk on you.
Doing what you love best
But when I’ve come to is that I love to write, I get the opportunity to write, I get to opportunity to publish and share my writing with others. And that is the most satisfying and wonderful thing I could ever imagine for myself as an author. That’s fantastic.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. I think the publishing scene is changing in that respect that quite a lot of mid level authors are finding the publishing world is tougher than it used to be.
Scott Graham: It is true. Musicians are finding the same thing. It’s how the world is, somewhat how the world is going. And you and I think could probably spend an entire, whole other podcast talking about that subject in particular. I was only speaking to the reality of it, which is that there’s always the chance that you can break through and become a very wealthy, famous author.
But in the meantime, the wonderfulness of putting words together and telling stories is an end in itself that I have come to completely be comfortable with.
The plan for the next year
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. That’s lovely. So what does the writer, what have you got on your plate for the next 12 months, the first year of 2020.
Scott Graham: I’ve got the next two mysteries underway and in progress for the series. The series has been growing steadily. It’s also been really selling well with eBooks because of the fact that it has gotten to be enough books in the series that, that the eBook readers are now interested.
Readers really like a mystery series where there’s several books to sink their teeth into. And as the series, expands and grows, I’m looking at the next parts in the series. I’ve got a book that is set entirely in the whitewater rafting scene of the Colorado river. In Canyonlands National Park, called Canyonland Carnage. That will come out next year.
Mesa Verde Victim coming
And then this year I’m happy to report that just in a few months, I’ve got Mesa Verde Victim coming out, which is a book that is set in Mesa Verde National Park, which many people probably recognize it as one of the top world heritage sites on earth, where the ancestral Pueblo people built those beautiful homes and villages underneath the cliffs in Southwestern Colorado, very near my home.
They abandoned them in the series of droughts in the 1200’s. That mystery that is set basically here in my backyard, will go on presale in March and will be released in June. And it’s a book that is all about this world that I’ve been raised in, here in Durango, Colorado and in Southwestern Colorado.
It’s my favorite so far. I can’t wait for the it to come out in a few months and see what its reception will be.
Jenny Wheeler: Oh, that’s very cool. Now, do you like to interact with your readers, and if so, where can they find you? Either in person or online?
Scott Graham: Oh yes. I know, that’s the name of the game for all of us these days.
And I love hearing from my readers and in fact, I feel like I’m continuing to learn through every step of this process. And hearing from readers what they like and especially what they dislike is really helpful to me. They can reach me through my website, of course, which is www.scottfranklingraham.com and my contact information is there.
Where to find Scott online
I’m also active on Twitter. I’m active on Facebook and I love it. It just love having people reach out to me because it’s what we’re doing. All of us as authors are sitting in, our little rooms with our computers, hoping that we will reach and touch readers with what we’re working on.
I love hearing back from people, and I have been very helped by what people have given me as feedback because I am trying to do some political stuff. I’m trying to do some environmental work. There are people who have strong opinions about that and I love hearing them. It’s very helpful to me.
Jenny Wheeler: Look, that’s wonderful, Scott. It really is. We’ll make sure that the links for all of those web sites and, and connections on social media are also included in the show notes. So thank you so much for your time today. I’m sure that these novels will have a lot of interest for readers, so thank you so much again.
If you enjoyed hearing about Scott’s work you might also enjoy
OR Margaret Mizushima
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