Saturday, July 15, 2006
Ann Parker on Johnny Depp, the Silver Rush and Fluid Dynamics
Ann, your website speaks of your idea of true fun: “The only thing more fun for her than slipping oblique William Butler Yeats references into a fluid dynamics article is delving into the past.” Well, isn’t that true of us all?
Ha! I read your comment/question and thought: Well, hmmm. I wrote that bit of bio in a burst of enthusiasm after finishing the draft of the fluid dynamics article, quite a while ago. But really, the most fun? Ever? In the spectrum of my life? Finishing the first draft of a book is a much bigger rush. Hanging out and relaxing with spouse and "da kidz" is way more fun, in a different way. And sitting in a dark movie theater, with a bucket of popcorn, watching Johnny Depp in "Pirates of the Carribean Two" http://www.deadmentellnotales.com/onlinetexts/potc/images/2depp2.jpg) is ….. hmmmm. Yeah, I need to change the phrasing of that sentence in the bio….
But seriously, how do you slip William Butler Yeats references into a fluid dynamics article? I think we would all like to know.
Well, since you asked … check out the article itself, "Into the Vortex" (http://www.llnl.gov/str/April03/Miller.html there's a link also on my website's "Other Work" page) and scroll down (no reading necessary) to the second subhead (not counting the boxed text). You'll find the opening line from WBY's "The Second Coming" ("Turning and turning in the widening gyre…"). The inspiration came from reading the technical papers about the research and watching the movie simulations of fluid dynamics (i.e., fluids in motion),while trying to wrap my mind around the topic so I could explain it to the readers. There I was, watching all that spinning, spinning, spinning (see further down in the article for the links to the simulations at http://www.llnl.gov/icc/sdd/img/images/aps02.mov … You can speed past the experimental setup and simulation details to the little movies themselves). And, the line just popped into my brain. Vorticity, anyone? Or a bit of baroclinic torque? At one point, I really understood this. Honest. At least for the space of time it took to write the article.
Your mysteries, Iron Ties and Silver Lies, are set in the silver-mining town of Leadville, Colorado. How did you come to choose this setting?
I chose Leadville initially because of my family history. One of my grandmothers, it turns out, was raised in Leadville. Now, Granny never talked about Leadville. Ever. It wasn't until 1997 (long after Granny was gone) that my Uncle Walt happened to mention it. When I professed complete surprise at this bit of information and ignorance of the town, my uncle gave me a glowing description of Leadville as an "amazing, hell-raising town" in its mining heydays, and urged me to do a little research. He said, "I know you're thinking of writing some fiction. I think you should read about Leadville, because I bet you could set a story there."
The more I read about the town and what it was like during the early days of the big silver rush (1878 – 1880s), the more intrigued I became. The overwhelming drive to get rich. Plenty of shady doings and shenanigans. Murder and mayhem. (For example, one of the local papers had a daily column titled "Breakfast Bullets" that detailed the previous evening's crimes. One column's offerings included: "Assault and Robbery on Harrison Avenue," "A Tenderfoot Garroted on Capitol Hill," "Arrest of a Notorious Confidence Man." Etc.) It was the perfect setting for a little fictional foray into the darker side of the Old West…. How could I resist? The rest, as they say, was history.
Booklist praises your “carefully researched and fascinating period details.” What are some of these period details?
See above. :) Also, for Iron Ties, I spent a great deal of time (probably too much, but that's always the danger of research) hunting down details about specific types of Civil War guns. Thank goodness for subject-matter experts and Civil War re-enactors! I also had a great email exchange with a woman who was able to provide details about how one went about riding sidesaddle. From her, I learned that, back in those days, women had special corsets for riding (shorter in the body than "normal" corsets), how to mount and dismount, and how to keep your balance. It was fascinating … Of course, only a little bit actually makes its way into the story in the end.
Did you have fun researching them?
Absolutely. I can disappear into a library's microfiche room and spend all day looking at old newspapers. I love to hear experts talk about their passions. And reading books … especially of the time period … provide all kinds of interesting tidbits. The hard part is knowing when to stop researching, and get to writing.
You are a member of numerous writing organizations, including Women Writing the West. Tell us about this one.
To quote from the website (http://www.womenwritingthewest.org/), WWW is "a non-profit association of writers and other professionals writing and promoting the Women's West." This includes past and present (so, for instance, a story of a woman working in a high-tech company in San Francisco, circa 2006, would be as applicable as my story of a woman saloon owner in Leadville in 1879). It's a very supportive organization, and not just for women; men belong too. This web page http://www.womenwritingthewest.org/membership.html talks about some of the benefits of membership—the catalog, the conference, and so on—and some of the less tangible benefits as well. For instance, when I was searching for information about what it would be like to witness a burning barn or livery, I posed the question to the WWW e-list. Several members had first-hand knowledge of such incidents. … More research, you see. I never stray too far from it, it seems.
I have questions about your grandfathers. One was “a gandy dancer on the Colorado railroads.” What’s a gandy dancer?
A railroad worker or laborer. This grandpa was a rough, tough, hard-drinking kind of fellow. He did maintenance work on the rails for a while before moving on to a job knocking hoboes off the train cars (this was around the time of the Depression). For this last position, he employed a nasty-looking set of brass knuckles, which he showed to me once when I was way too young to know what the heck they were.
Your other grandfather was a professor at the Colorado School of Mines. Is this a real school, or do you mean that in the sense that one means, “I went to The School of Hard Knocks.” If it’s real, what did he teach there?
Ha! The first grandpa was probably the graduate from the School of Hard Knocks (actually, maybe he was a professor of such … those brass knuckles, you know). The Colorado School of Mines is indeed a real institution of higher learning … see http://www.mines.edu/index_js.shtml . He was a professor of metallurgy, back in the 1940s and and into the '50s. He was a stern taskmaster, I was told. According to family stories, his students referred to him as "Wild Bill" Cramer. So, who knows? Maybe "hard knocks" came into play at CSM somewhere along the line…
You live in the San Francisco Bay area. Is it beautiful? Would you ever relocate somewhere else?
Beautiful. I guess that depends on your perspective. I live in the endless suburbs, with trees, lawns, etc. The traffic, I could sure do without that. But, there are great coffee houses (caffeine being my drug of choice, as opposed to my character Inez's penchant for alcohol) and lots of bookstores. The ocean and mountains are reachable within half day's drive. For da kidz, there are decent schools and hardworking teachers. It's home. I've lived in the Bay Area all my life and managed to move only one set of hills inland from my place of birth. A little depressing, for someone who always intended to live in Colorado. Perhaps in retirement, we'll finally make the move to the Rocky Mountains. We'll see.
In the Bay area, you have “observed several high tech boom and bust cycles.” Can you expand on this? Have we learned anything of merit since the time of the silver boom?
The dot.com boom and bust was the most recent, big cycle, but there have been other such cycles in the past fifty or so years. There was the defense boom/bust in the mid-1960s (I think) in the Bay Area and elsewhere. Then, other boom/bust cycles in the semiconductor and computer industries. If I remember correctly, there was a very hot market for engineers in the mid-1970s. I was at UC Berkeley then, slogging through physics (and taking English Lit on the side). At the time, I thought, Darn! I should've gone into engineering! Later, computer science was the hot career choice. These golden opportunities were out there, for those who were in the right place at the right time. Very much reminds me of what I've read about the gold rush, the silver rush, any of those times. People just go nuts in these situations, thinking they could be the lucky ones … If they change their major. If they join this or that company. If they pick up the family and move West. If they just "take that chance."
Have we learned anything about ourselves since the crazy times of the gold and silver rushes?
The short answer? I'd say, not really. During the dot.com times, I saw people leave their jobs of 20 years and join startups, thinking they'd get rich quick and it'd be easy. Others pulled out their life savings and poured them all into high-tech funds. When the bust came, some survived, many didn't. Time passes, and a new generation will come into adulthood. Boom times will start again. And some folks will get rich, have it all. Other folks look at them and think, "That could be me!" and the rush will be on to get in on the good times. The belief that when Dame Fortune smiles, she'll smile on you, is only human nature. And human nature is hard to change.
You’re also a member of the National Association of Science Writers. Do they throw some pretty good parties?
Can't say, as I haven't attended any of their annual meetings (somehow, my personal travel budget is consumed every year by mystery conventions and such instead, imagine that). One of the membership benefits listed is "several lively (perhaps even contentious) listservs," From that, I imagine that things could get energetic at the conferences.
Do your husband and children help with promotion of your books?
My family … they are such sweeties, and very patient with this obsession of mine. My husband puts all of my reviews up on his office door and never takes them down, so the door is pretty much covered. Recently, I ran into a colleague at work, who obviously didn't know my spousal connection, who said, "Did you know you have a fan in such-and-such a building?" After some questions and fine deductive reasoning on my part, I figured out this "fan" was my husband. The inquirer seemed relieved … maybe he thought I had a secret stalker, or something like that.
My kids, well, I haven't been able to convince them to wear those t-shirts with the covers of my books on them. Lots of eye-rolling at the suggestion. (Teen and pre-teen, what do you expect? It's amazing their eyeballs are still in their heads.) My son did carry around a copy of Iron Ties to and from school for a while. I picture him pulling it out, casually, "Oh yeah, my mom's second book is out…" Of course, he might have been using it for some other, nefarious teen-type purpose.
Suggestions that I maybe talk to his Literature teacher and come give a talk were met with horror and defensive maneuvers. On the other hand, he did read an early draft and helped me "fix" the teen character (who was, according to said son, acting "hokey." Character now acts like an appropriately sullen, hot-headed teen). My daughter took postcards to her class for the teacher to hand out, so she gets a gold star. But the award for most effort in providing familial promotion has to go to my mother-in-law, who rattled the family tree, sent out emails to everyone she knew, talked up the books to her various community groups, and made sure all her local libraries had Iron Ties on the shelves. Way to go, Joyce Ann!
Your website is very nicely done. Did you do it yourself? Does it contain any William Butler Yeats references, or are those for the fluid dynamics articles only?
Thank you! But … do it myself? Are you kidding? No, I have no html genes anywhere in my genetic makeup. I employ a wonderful graphic designer, Kate Reed (http://www.badeggmedia.com/), who is also an amazing artist (http://www.katereed.com/). I very much admire her clean uncluttered style. So, I hired her to do my website, she created a clean, uncluttered design, and I then asked her to fill it with tons of words and links. Which she managed to do, elegantly.
Darn it, though, there's no WBY unless you follow that link from the Other Works page. Unfortunately, I can't drag WBY into my Leadville stories, even in carefully placed books on Inez's bookshelf, because he was just 15 years old in 1880 (http://research.umbc.edu/~mccready/yeats2.html). Ah well. So, in my fiction, I sprinkle in a little Milton (http://www.paradiselost.org/), some Shakespeare (http://absoluteshakespeare.com/), and some pseudo-Shakespeare (http://www.trevorstone.org/curse/). Maybe eventually I'll figure out a way to shoehorn in references to Spenser's Fairie Queene. Now, if I could only figure out a way to work in Johnny Depp ….
Thanks for the fun interview, Ann!