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Interview: October 2, 2009

October 2, 2009

A departure from her bestselling Anna Pigeon series, Nevada Barr's latest novel, 13 ½, is a stand-alone thriller that connects a string of murders by an 11-year-old child in 1971 Minnesota to the marital troubles of a literature professor in present-day Louisiana. In this interview with's Roz Shea, Barr describes her most recent work as a process 20 years in the making and discusses her reason for setting the book in post-Katrina New Orleans. She also characterizes her famous park ranger protagonist as an idealized alter ego of herself and explains why she chose to let Anna Pigeon sit out this particular adventure. What a pleasure it is to discuss your new book, 13½. It was with some surprise that I discovered that it is not a new Anna Pigeon novel. As a huge fan of Anna, I couldn’t wait to see what new adventures you’d cooked up for your readers. I have to say up front that 13½ is right up there with Shirley Jackson’s THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE in raising my neck hairs. I’ve shivered my way through some of Anna Pigeon’s adventures, especially the psychopathic killer in WINTER STUDY, and the claustrophobic subterranean chase beneath the New Mexico desert in BLIND DESCENT, but the climax of 13½ had me on the edge of my chair. What was it like creating an entire new world and leaving your familiar cast of characters behind? Were you flexing your writing muscles and seeking a new challenge, or has this devious plot been simmering in the back of your brain for a long time?

Nevada Barr: This book has been a long time in the writing. The plot has been simmering in the back of my mind for nearly 20 years but was unsuited to any sort of adventure Anna might be involved in.

BRC: Your books depict an almost cinematic sense of place. Was there a special reason you picked post-Katrina New Orleans as a setting for this book?

NB: Living in New Orleans through Katrina, I couldn't help but feel the craziness, devastation, depression and, mostly the determination to survive that permeated the city. It so wonderfully echoed the themes of the characters in the book that it was an obvious choice.

BRC: I’m always fascinated by the writer’s process. Especially intriguing are the unsigned journal entries between chapters, a plot device that pulls the reader along, yet tantalizes because of their macabre subject matter. Did you decide to use these notes from the beginning, or were they something that came to you as the story progressed?   

NB: They came to me as the book unfolded. In doing the research for the book, I read first-person accounts of multiple murders from the 1800s to today. As I did my homework, it struck me that this was a perfect tie-in to the work one of the leading characters in the book did.

BRC: Is any of 13½ based on true events?  

NB: I think “based on” would be wrong; let’s say “inspired by.” When I lived in Minneapolis many years ago, there was a horrifying multiple murder in Rochester. The why of it was such a sad mystery that I never did get it out of my mind.

BRC: What kind of research did you do to bring authenticity to the juvenile detention center where Butcher Boy was incarcerated? 

NB: The detention center is completely fiction. I wanted a place that was, like my characters and the book, straddling the past and the future, a place with modern leanings and sins of the past soaked into the walls.

BRC: You really get into the mind of the Butcher Boy. Did you do some specific research on the criminally insane?

NB: I read so much about criminally insane murderers that, should Homeland Security ever check my online wanderings, I will undoubtedly be dubbed a Person of Interest. 

BRC: In the Anna Pigeon series, your protagonist is a National Parks Ranger. One supposes that Anna’s personal traits reflect some aspects of your own experience, since you are a career park officer yourself. In 13½ you have created an entire new cast with some doozies of personality quirks. Without giving up any spoilers, not a single one resembles your main characters from the Pigeon series. If the above assumption is accurate, that Anna is in some respects a reflection of you, is there a character in 13½ who might come close to your own experience?   

NB: This was an aspect of the book that was most challenging and most satisfying. Anna is, indeed, me in many respects (just younger, prettier, funnier, braver and smarter). No one carries my emotional belief system in 13 ½. Each is created anew.

BRC: There are many characters in 13½ who play significant roles in the development of the main characters of Polly, Dylan, Richard, Marshall and Danny. Without giving too much away, is there another character you think plays the most significant role in the lives of your protagonists? 

NB: Polly's daughters play a huge part. Not in the moving of the plot, but in the symbolic sense of redemption and innocence to be protected or lost.

BRC: Have any of your books been considered for movies or television? They would make a great TV series, ala “Bones” and “Women’s Murder Club.” 

NB: The Anna Pigeon series has been optioned for many years running, but nothing has ever panned out. I don't know if I'm sorry or not. You know they would cast Pamela Sue Anderson as Anna…

BRC: How many years did you work as a National Parks Ranger, and how long did you “moonlight” as an author before you gave up your day job?   

NB: I was a seasonal park ranger for six years and a permanent for two. I wrote the whole time. It's a compulsion.

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