The name Nevada Barr may sound like the perfect moniker for a spirited heroine or a Vegas showgirl, but Ms. Barr's legions of fans know she's the author of an intelligent, suspenseful mystery series set in various national parks. A former actress and National Park Service ranger, Barr didn't use her own name when she created her alter ego Anna Pigeon, but she readily admits she was the model for the sassy sleuth.
"She was based on me -- except she was taller and stronger and smarter and braver," laughs the petite author. Barr channeled her feisty, independent spirit and love of nature into the intrepid park ranger's roving mystery-solving adventures. Whether it be Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park or New York City's Gateways Park, when Anna arrives, disaster seems to strike. Along the way the heroine has faced raging wildfires, battled claustrophobia in a cave rescue and even saved the Statue of Liberty.
But Barr admits that over the years "we've evolved in different ways, so now she is very little like me." While Anna Pigeon battled alcohol dependence and slowly became more of a work-oriented loner, Barr grew "more whimsical, more lackadaisical, lazier, happier. I've rejoined humanity, and Anna has no intention of getting near it," she says.
Anna's increasing isolation is even more apparent in Blood Lure, Barr's latest mystery. This time Anna travels to Waterton-Glacier National Park in the Rockies to join a grizzly bear research project. While gathering samples of bear fur and DNA in the wilderness with two other researchers, Anna's peace of mind is shattered by a violent bear attack. The woman who has always turned to nature for comfort and solitude finds her world turned upside down.
"The big thing in Blood Lure that makes her seem isolated is that it's not people that seem to be warped and twisted, it's nature itself. Suddenly the place she's always gone to find peace has been screwed up," Barr explains.
Often praised for her arresting depictions of park scenery, Barr's keen psychological insight is even more impressive. She's able to communicate the grandness of the wilderness and then nimbly magnify the smallest gestures and details of her characters into funny, dead-on descriptions. "I just find it riveting why people do things," says the avid student of the human mind. "That's one of the things that makes life so interesting."
The National Park Service isn't worried about Barr tampering with their tourist business by scaring off would-be campers. She's become a sort of park poster girl, with rangers and superintendents vying to be considered for her next setting. That's how she wound up in Glacier, the "stunning" park she's "been wanting an excuse to visit for some time."
Deciding on the setting was the easy part. Then Barr waited for the story to come to her, plunging in with no idea how the ending would come together.
"All I know when I start is who dies, where they die, how they die and usually I know who did it," she says. "But sometimes I'm wrong, and in the middle I realize, he didn't do it. My gosh, it was this other guy!"
Her write-now-and-worry-later attitude has filled several drawers with scrapped ideas. "I tried once, years ago, to outline it all like a grown-up and write a synopsis for every chapter, and it read like the English assignment from hell," she admits. "Every bit of spontaneity got sucked right out." One failed attempt includes a prison book with a cast of male characters. "About 60 pages in I realized, Wait a minute, these are all men, what do I care? So I dropped it."
Barr had hoped to take a break from the Anna series and go in a different direction with her next book, but the success of her 2000 release, Deep South, changed her mind.
"The need to do [a different book] is getting stronger and stronger, but the money they'll give me not to do it is getting better and better," Barr admits with a laugh. So in her next adventure, Anna is heading back to the Natchez Trace Parkway to catch more criminals and to continue her semi-serious relationship with a local sheriff.
"I have to balance artistic integrity with material greed," Barr says ruefully. "Material greed won this time, but I'm hoping artistic integrity will win in the next few years." But for Anna's many fans, Barr seems to have the balance just right.