Journalist Mark Stevens has written two books in the Allison Coil mystery series; his current title is BURIED BY THE ROAN, which is set on the Roan Plateau in Colorado.
Mark, I’m intrigued by your protagonist: Wonder Woman, The Bionic Woman—they’ve got nothing on Allison Coil, the earthy and unsinkable heroine who rides the trails. Is this an idealized woman, or are women in Colorado much hardier than those, say, in my town?
No question about it. I’ve met them. Allison is tough, unflappable and unafraid of a challenge and there are many out there just like her. I think the key to Allison is she doesn’t think of herself in any way that would require a pair of tights and a cape. She has taken to the woods and the wilderness and finding a way to get things done is just, quite simply, what you do. Men and women who spend the bulk of their time in the woods and wilderness are common in Western Slope of Colorado, where Allison lives, and they are a tough, hearty breed. In fact, Allison is based on one of these women. I met her. I’ve gone riding with her in the Flat Tops Wilderness. She’s completely at home and completely at ease in the big outdoors, no matter the conditions. The real-life “Allison” doesn’t just love the Flat Tops—she knows it inside and out. The bugs, the flowers, the trees, the plants, the cloud formations, the geology, the history. Fictional Allison has this keen awareness of her surroundings, too.
She's cool. Your story is set against a beautiful Colorado backdrop that is itself in danger of being murdered. Are Colorado environmentalists concerned about the state of the water in drilling areas?
So is the federal government.
The Environmental Protection Agency recently linked bad water in Pavillion, Wyoming to nearby hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” to use the shorthand term. The water was so bad in Pavillion health experts warned residents to not drink what comes out of the tap only shower if with good ventilation. In other words, don’t trap yourself in a closed shower stall drawing from the local well.
If you watch the movie “Gasland,” there are several scenes in Colorado, including one outside Rifle, Colorado where a landowner who lives near a drilling pad lights his tap water on fire.
I started work on “Buried by the Roan” because one of the Denver newspapers—the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News—produced a five-part series called “Beyond the Boom.” That series came out four years ago, just after the publication of the first Allison Coil mystery, Antler Dust. The series looked at all the impacts of drilling along the Western Slope—and up on the Roan Plateau—in Allison’s backyard. Given the controversy, I figured there was a way to have the friction and tension wind its way up the trail and into a group of hunters camping in the Flat Tops.
One of your characters sums up the conflict implied in your title, BURIED BY THE ROAN, which references Colorado’s Roan Plateau: “Find yourself some friends if you can. Make sure they’re in high places and do what you can to save the Roan. If we lose the Roan, you may as well kiss the West goodbye.”
Was this character an extreme, or does he reflect a growing concern for the exploitation of the Roan Plateau?
The Roan Plateau is one of those treasured spots that everyone is watching, but it’s not the only one. It’s seen as a symbol, in a way, of the battle. It’s the Old North Bridge or Maginot Line. It’s highly visible along Interstate 70 running west from Rifle and it’s also home to one of the most biologically diverse environments in western Colorado. The feeling is that if The Roan Plateau is overrun, so much will be lost.
Several of the (non-speaking) characters in this novel are horses, and you describe them like one who knows his way around an Equus. Do you ride?
I also ride the Internet and/or books from the library and do a lot of research.
I have ridden horses from time to time over the years and have some pictures to prove it. A big group of us went up in the Flat Tops a couple years back from a horsepack camping trip and had a great time but nobody would confuse me with, say, Robert Redford in “Jeremiah Johnson.”
Your book put me in the mood for winter—I could really see and feel the swirling snows on the endless expanse of the Roan. There are certain characters who end up in battles for survival in the harsh elements, and I was put in mind of Jack London stories, especially “To Build a Fire.” Were you influenced by London at all?
You nailed it. I am not a Jack London aficionado by any means, but Call of the Wild and that short story are right up there. “To Build A Fire” is classic. Can we just stop right here for a second and admire those opening lines?
"Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth-bank, where a dim and little-traveled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland."
I mean, who doesn’t want to follow him? I love the repetition of ‘cold and gray’ and the simple, clear imagery.
Earth-bank. Little-traveled trail. Fat spruce. Great stuff.
There’s so much wondering temptation in this opening. It’s a lure. You’re hooked.
It is great. I mentioned in my interview with Craig Johnson that his character, who spent so much time outside, seemed to adopt an existential view of the world. I often felt this way about Allison, whose job is so much influenced by the whims of Nature. I loved this line: “Allison rode to Trapper’s Lake in a daze. The snowfall held steady. The afternoon light matched her dim view of the world—vague and in-between.”
Does being outdoors inform your character’s view of reality? Have you felt this way on outdoor expeditions?
Definitely with Allison and the same is true for me. Who doesn’t feel refreshed on a hike? Fresh air, wind in the trees, a view. Nature is such a big part of Allison’s world. She has found her healing spot in the Flat Tops and really sees no need to go back and risk experiencing what she went through in the city. The accident she endured led her to the Flat Tops and she is not going back. I think Allison realizes that when you spend time around the life and death in nature that you start to take a bit more of an existential view of the world and your place in it.
One of your characters, in dialogue about The Roan, suggested that people are short-sighted in the choices they are making now, despite the long-term repercussions. A second character adds, “The greed gets sick.” Do you think the Colorado landscape is falling victim to greedy and unscrupulous people?
I think there is always that risk and, right now, I do think there’s a risk. We’ve been on the bubble of that risk for many decades now. It’s only a few short decades ago when the aerial view of Weld County and Rio Blanco County or Mesa County (to name just three) would have been vastly different. Industry has left behind their messes and it’s not just oil and gas—it’s mining, too. I appreciate that there will be development and cities and I’m not arguing we all head back to the cave. But I think we have to be extraordinarily careful with Colorado and the environment here—it’s truly a one-of-a-kind place and put me down for siding with those who want the best-trained, most scrupulous government regulators and hope that every single industrial initiative is undertaken with extreme sensitivity to the water, soil and air. Is that too much to ask?
No. What should people do if they want to lend their voices to the dialogue about the Roan Plateau?
Stay in touch through the Colorado Environmental Coalition (http://www.ourcolorado.org/) or the Western Colorado Congress (http://www.wccongress.org/). Or subscribe to High Country News (http://www.hcn.org/). And I’m not just mentioning High Country News because they wrote a very kind review of Buried by the Roan. It’s an amazing and unique publication.
Have you always lived in Colorado?
Since 1980. Drove to Denver from L.A. in a small Toyota pulling an even smaller U-Haul trailer. But I’m originally from Massachusetts. I grew up in the town of Lincoln, which is right next to Concord. We used to drive to Concord frequently right past Walden Pond, which always fascinated me.
What made you start writing mysteries?
I grew up in a world of books—both parents were librarians and I enjoyed a good book from early on. But when I discovered the tremendous variety of stories and styles within the broad “mystery” genre and then when I came across an idea for a first book, I thought I’d give it a whirl. It took me six years to put that first novel together (this was the 1980’s) and I kept writing.
Antler Dust, the first in the Allison Coil Mystery Series, was published in 2007 and Buried by the Roan in 2011. The third in the series is on the way and I hope to go back and blow the dust off the earlier projects. I’m glad those weren’t published, however. I look back on the earlier attempts and cringe.
What do you like to read in your spare time?
I’m all over the place—a firm believer in variety. Straight-up literary fiction to non-fiction and mysteries. I don’t read much paranormal or horror, but I’m not opposed. I just finished Julian Barnes’ The Sense of An Ending and more recently Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot. Enjoyed both. I’m reading Wade Davis’ Into the Silence, about the early explorations of Mt. Everest and the British empire and its role in India and Tibet in the early 20th century. Riveting.
Where can readers find out more about you and your books?
Simple: www.writermarkstevens.com I also keep a book review site here: http://markhstevens.wordpress.com/.
Thanks for the virtual conversation!
Thanks for chatting, Mark! I enjoyed reading your book with its beautiful Colorado setting.