Interview with Mark Stevens

By Shirley Wetzel
(November 2, 2011)

Mark Stevens was raised in Lincoln, Massachusetts, and graduated from Principia College in southern Illinois. He spent twenty years as a journalist, including work with the Christian Science Monitor in Boston and Los Angeles. He moved to Denver and worked for the Rocky Mountain News, then had another career producing field documentaries for the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. He then moved on to cover the education beat for the Denver Post, which led him to the field of communications and public relations for the Denver and Greeley school districts. His hobby during all these years was writing fiction. Finally he turned that hobby into a career.

His first novel, ANTLER DUST, featuring hunting guide Allison Coil, was published in 2007 and was a Denver Post best seller that year and again in 2009. The sequel, BURIED BY THE ROAN, came out in August, 2011.

1. Your protagonist, Allison Coil, left a successful career in an ad agency in New York City to reinvent herself, becoming a hunting guide in the Flat Top Mountains of western Colorado. In your first book, ANTLER DUST, there are clues as to why she did this, shown through short flashbacks to a traumatic accident. More information is scattered through the sequel, BURIED BY THE ROAN (2011.) It's an intriguing way of revealing Allison's back-story. In an interview with Patricia Stoltey on Aug. 18, 2011, you explain why you use this process, using a charming analogy:

I like stories that slip this information into your head as deftly as a new, hidden tax on your cell phone bill. I like the
information subtle. I want it feathered in. I want just enough, no more.

Please explain how you decided to follow this path, rather than just spill all the beans about her back-story at the beginning.

First, Shirley, thanks for the interview and thanks to OMDB for the kind reviews! When I read a book I don't like to be given pages of back-story. To me, back-story stops the main action. It's as if you're watching a movie and one of the characters turns in the middle of a tense conversation or an action scene and looks straight into the camera to tell you some key tidbit you need to know. It better be quick because I want to get back to what's happening. And it better be pertinent and 100 percent necessary. Of course there has to be some back-story in every story but give it to me in small doses and let me put the pieces together. Of course there are exceptions. I break the rule in BURIED BY THE ROAN when Devo is watching the hunters' camp and smells coffee from a distance — this sends him into a trance thinking back on his city days as a barista and I think there it makes sense because he is actually recalling his transformation to woods dweller and devolutionist. I won't give away much more than that.

2. Why did you choose to write about a female protagonist? Many male writers have difficulty creating a believable woman character, but you manage to do this seemingly effortlessly.

Well, thanks! Here's my approach to writing about women. I start with character first and try to put the sex of that person aside. By that I mean, it's more important to understand character first. Every human being has access (I believe) to the same range of emotions and attitudes. Go ahead, make a list of emotions and I'll wait here while you tell me which emotions are exclusively male or female. Same for character traits. Same for experiences. Some careers are more populated by men or women but that doesn't mean there can't be exceptions. (And that's why I thought Allison Coil was fascinating — her job as hunting guide runs against type. Decide on the specific traits and attitude for your characters, then deciding how that specific person (not just women or men in general) process their experience is where the sexuality comes in, at least to me. Women come in all varieties. (Such a good thing.) I give you, say, Doris Day on one extreme and perhaps Aileen Wuornos, the serial killer Charlize Theron played in the movie "Monster." Find your character first, then dial up the sexual perspective.

3. Allison is a fascinating character, vulnerable, resilient, flawed, but essentially a strong and honorable person. Is she based on someone you met or discovered in your research? If so, please elaborate.

Well, the fact is that ANTLER DUST started with meeting a real honest-to-goodness, tough-as-nails, knowledgeable-as-all-outdoors female hunting guide. She wasn't guiding a hunt when I met her (partly because I don't hunt). She was just leading a summer trip of vacationers up into the Flat Tops Wilderness, a day trip. It was a beautiful, day-long ride in the stunning Flat Tops and she was as enthusiastic about her environment as anyone I'd ever met. She knew every tree, plant, insect, cloud formation, you name it. Smart, likable, engaging, charming. Then she told me she guided hunts, too, and I knew I had to develop a character based on the idea of her. I thought instantly she'd make a great character. It was one of those moments that stays in your head and gnaws at you so I started thinking of conflict for a likable female hunting guide and the one issue that was fascinating me at the time was animal rights so I started working on a plot about animal rights activists trying to disrupt the opening day of the hunting season and ANTLER DUST started to take shape. I went back with her group of outfitters and spent a day visiting hunting camps and I've done lots of other research, too. And the real woman was kind enough to answer an email here and there to check on certain details. We're still in touch.

4. Allison had a glamorous and lucrative career in the city. Why did you give her such a drastic change of occupation, one in which there are few women?

The key to Allison is that she survived a traumatic experience in the city and found her healing spot in the Flat Tops Wilderness. She decided then and there to call the Flat Tops home. Having had the city experience makes her appreciate the wilderness more, I think, and gives her perspective and appreciation that a native might not have. She views the Flat Tops as having special powers although in a very non-mystical way. She's very practical. Her friend Trudy is a whole different story, but I won't get into her.

5. ANTLER DUST deals with canned hunts and other kinds of exploitation of wild animals. BURIED BY THE ROAN is about the timely subject of fracking and its effects on the land. Did your previous experience as a journalist and documentarian influence your decision to tackle environmental issues?

Probably. I do like to use contemporary issues and do lots of research by poking around in newspapers and magazines. I'm a big news junkie and I like seeing the characters interact with current topics and local politics. Western Colorado is ripe with issues. It's a place of stark contrasts and those who see the wilderness in such conflicting ways.

6. Could you explain why, when you were producing field documentaries for the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, you were dubbed the "master of disaster?"

Well, I hope it had to do with the topics I was covering and not the quality of my productions. I was given a series of assignments that led to a number of major disasters — the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, a big mudslide in Puerto Rico, a volcano eruption in Colombia, another earthquake in El Salvador, and so on. I produced coverage of a variety of hard news events and for awhile I was their go-to person for those kinds of assignments. The experience was very powerful.

7. Both books take place in the Flat Tops Wilderness under very cold, snowy conditions. Your descriptions of some of the situations Allison finds herself in are so realistic I was shivering in the middle of the summer. Have you spent any time in the region during the winter? If not, how do you get the details so spot on?

In a word: research. Bill Streever's book COLD was a big help. I love Les Stroud's TV series Survivorman. I've read many mountain climbing books and there's inevitably a sequence about cold or frostbite. Nothing much better out there than Jon Krakauer's INTO THIN AIR. I've spent time in the Flat Tops but never gone winter camping. I like it warm and toasty when I camp, thank you very much. You could use the 'wimp' word. Go ahead. Being cold and unprepared is a source of fear for me; I'm fascinated by those who know how to handle it.

8. You have referred to BURIED BY THE ROAN as a sequel. Do you have any plans to continue to write about Allison in a series? I'm sure many of your fans are hoping that you will.

The third book is well underway. I'm closing in on a first draft right now and hope to have it out in the spring of 2013. That's the plan, anyway. We'll see whether Allison is willing to solve another mystery within that time.

Books by this author include:

ANTLER DUST (reviewed)

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