Nevada Barr is sporting a new hat. For her latest book, she has put her deeply creased "writer of mystery thrillers" chapeau on its peg and donned one fit for a venture into the genre of spiritual memoir. Seeking Enlightenment . . . Hat by Hat: A Skeptic's Look at Religion is a record of Barr's journey from being a borderline atheist in her youth to a deeply spiritual though not categorically Christian adult. Barr still brings her "sleuthing," analytical mind to her search for inner peace and spiritual understanding, though the hat she wears for this work is broader-brimmed and not without a bit of bounce and whimsy.
Her upbringing in Nevada (yes, she's named for her birth state) did not prepare her for the unapologetic talk of "God" and "Jesus" she encountered when she moved to Mississippi, but she was ready to listen. "I doubt a trip to Dixie would bring God into everybody's life," she explains, "but when I arrived, I had pretty much exhausted all other avenues. My marriage had gone down in flames. I was clinically depressed, haunted by nightmares, broke and, at the age of 41, embarking on my third career, this time as a law enforcement ranger for the National Park Service." Her protagonist, Anna Pigeon (featured in such bestsellers as Flashback, Hunting Season and Blood Lure), happens to be a crime-solving park ranger, so Barr's move to the South was fortuitous in more ways than one.
Despair and loneliness drove her out of her apartment one evening for a walk. The dimly-lit stained glass windows of a nearby church attracted her. She decided to try the door, figuring if it wasn't locked, she could sit inside and brood alone. The door was open, but there were four women inside; they herded her in, talked with her, made her feel welcome. It happened to be an Episcopal Church Barr stumbled into that night, and she became a member and has "hung her hat" there ever since. From then on, she explains, "I have been on a wonderful journey, sometimes Christian, sometimes not, but always in communion with other people." While writing from her own experience eliminated the extensive plotting and research required for a novel, Barr explained in a recent interview that this work had its own difficulties. "In some ways, this was easier. For one thing, each chapter is between two and six pages long, so I got to feel a sense of accomplishment finishing each section along the way. I didn't have to wait for the full closure of a novel." Still, Seeking Enlightenment was a major undertaking. "I spent about a year on it, but it covers the thoughts of a lifetime," Barr says. "The hardest part, though," and here she breaks into laughter, "was when it was actually accepted. I didn't even tell my editor I was working on it I just did it and then, when I sent it in and they bought it, there was this feeling: Oh no! Have I just volunteered to run naked through Times Square? Because it's so personal!"But Barr recognized early on in the writing that in order to bare her soul and write honestly about topics like "Sin," "Prayer," "Humility," and "An Argument for Life After Death" (all among the mini-chapters in her book) she had no choice but to use the "I" word. "If it wasn't personal, it would be preaching," she points out. "And I didn't want to do that. And if it weren't personal, who would identify with it? Women are very personal animals." Despite her spiritual awakening, there is no "holier-than-thou" tone to Seeking Enlightenment, and it will undoubtedly strike a chord with many women, who, like Barr, are of the "baby boomer" generation. "What we know intellectually and how we behave seems oddly dichotomous," Barr admits. "I believe with every cell of my being that cigarettes cause cancer," she says laughing candidly, "and yet I smoke four cigarettes a day come rain or shine." Seeking Enlightenment . . . Hat by Hat may be the saga of one woman's spiritual journey, but there is much to identify with and plenty to learn from Barr's experience. Hats off to you, Nevada Barr!