Friday, March 20, 2015

Q&A with Shannon Baker

This week, we sat down with Shannon Baker, author of the Nora Abbott Mysteries. Her latest, Tattered Legacy, was released earlier this month!

Midnight Ink: How long have you been writing?
Shannon Baker: My daughter turned 30 last week, so it’s been about that long. I’m not one of those artists who came out of the womb with a story to tell. When I was 11, I wrote a poem and it won some awards and netted me attention. When my older sister read the poem, she declared I’d stolen it from her and informed me SHE was the writer in the family, not me. I believed her, even after a college prof wrote on an essay, “You have a real facility for the language. Consider being an English major?” When I became a stay-at-home mother, I needed some outlet, so I started writing.

MI: What influence have other authors had on your writing?
SB: Way back when dirt was new, I read “And Ladies of the Club” by Helen Hooven Santmyer. I loved that book—a sweeping saga. I’d read that she wrote it when she was in her 80s and I figured if I wanted to ever get good enough to write such a big book, I’d better get started. I was big into Franklin Day Planner and The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, so I wrote out a long-term plan, medium, and short-term, complete with daily tasks. I’ve long since lost the plan, but it got me moving. A body in writing stays in writing.

MI: If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?
SB: If I weren’t a writer AND I had a ton o’ money, I’d go SCUBA diving a lot. A whole lot. I’d also hike mountains and kayak rivers. Skiing, riding a bike in Europe, hiking the Camino de Santiago, and climbing to Machu Picchu seem like great ways to fill my days. Oh, and the Great Wall and volcanoes in Costa Rica….

MI: If you have a job outside of writing, what is it?
SB: I have an MBA and really loved being the tactician in start-ups. Not the strategist—I have no vision. But I rock at follow-through. (Or, I used to. I’m much less driven now.) I’m pretty happy being a stay-at-home writer, although I miss the regular paycheck.

MI: What are your favorite things to do when you’re not writing or working?
SB: See the answer above, but without the money side. I ride my bike and hike, backpack, float on lakes, and a couple of times of year, if I’m lucky, I get to go diving. When I’m deep into writing avoidance, I like to bake and cook. And always, there’s a book to read.

MI: Who is your favorite mystery sleuth and why?
SB: I came late to the mystery game. I’m playing catch-up so I don’t have the repertoire of classics. But lately, I’m loving Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire. And I’m eating up Jessica Lourey’s Mira James.  With Walt, I love his humor and connection with the natural world, plus, I’m a sucker for Wyoming. With Mira, she makes me laugh out loud.

MI: Do you have a favorite murder case from a book (either yours or another author’s)?
SB: This question makes me feel so stupid! My brain doesn’t hang on to details like this. I’m much more of a “SQUIRREL!” type. So I can tell you what’s going on right now. My brilliant and slightly deranged husband is days away from retiring from 40 years as a BNSF conductor. I am writing a book set in rural Nebraska with a murder on a freight train and I asked him for ideas. His plan, which took him an alarmingly short time to come up with, involves suspending a railroad tie from a bridge and decapitating an engineer.

MI: What was your inspiration for this series?
SB: When we moved to Flagstaff in 2006, there was a huge controversy raging over pumping treated wastewater to the ski resort just outside of town. While creating a constant snow supply would be good business for the town, the ski resort sits on a peak sacred to 12 separate tribes. My first thought was, “Someone’s going to die over this.” So I wrote Tainted Mountain. When Midnight Ink offered to publish it, they asked if it was a series, and I said, “Yes, yes of course.” Then I had to set about making it one.

MI: How does this book/series compare to your past works?
SB: I’d published a thriller in 2010 with a Nano-press. I didn’t really know I’d written a mystery with Tainted Mountain, I thought it was a thriller. So after I sold it, I started reading lots of mysteries and some series. Now I consider myself a mystery writer and have every intention of sticking around here!

MI: What inspired Nora Abbott’s character?
SB: I wanted to write about the man-made snow controversy in Flagstaff and I thought about who would care the most. Obviously, the ski resort owner. Then I wondered how to make her more conflicted, so I made her an environmentalist. I was working for The Grand Canyon Trust at the time. It’s an environmental non-profit with the goal of protecting and restoring the Colorado Plateau. (The area from south of Flagstaff to southern Utah, including the Grand Canyon.) The people at the Trust are pretty passionate about their work, so I had some great examples to work from.

MI: How did the ancient Hopi culture make it into your books?
SB: When I started to research the sacred aspects of the San Francisco Peaks—where they wanted to pump treated wastewater—I came across the Hopi tribe. They are a fascinating culture. One of the smallest, oldest, and poorest tribes in the country, they believe they are responsible for the balance of the whole world. They are also very secretive. So, of course, I chose to write about them. I could write a twenty book series and still not cover all the mysteries of the Hopi tribe.

MI: Saving and conserving the environment is a huge part of your Nora Abbott series. Is this a significant part of your life as well?
SB: I worked for The Grand Canyon Trust, but my job was finance director of the cattle operation on the North Rim. It’s ironic that an organization that fights overgrazing all over the west runs cattle, but there is a reason. By buying up nearly one million acres of land and leasing rights, the Trust could reduce the number of cattle to the bare minimum required by the government, instead of letting a commercial cattle operation run the maximum allowable and pillaging the delicate landscapes.

But I’d spent 20 years in the cattle country of Nebraska so my perspective was a little different from the enviros at the Trust. However, I’d been living in Boulder, CO before moving to Flagstaff, and environmental awareness drifts off the Flatirons like pine pollen. So, yeah, I’m kind of conflicted.

Am I an environmental activist? No. But I am aware and I try to leave as little trace as possible, especially in the wild places.

MI: Do you have a pet? Tell us about him/her.
SB: PUPPY! We lost our last Boxer in 2012 and since our lives were in such flux at the time, we decided to hold off getting another pet until we were more settled. We’ve been a very sad household without a dog. But since we’re heading down to Tucson and staying home full-time in less than 90 days, we’re getting a Weimeraner puppy. The mother’s been ultra-sounded and she’s due March 26th, which means we’ll have our little bundle of pee, poop, needle-teeth and joy in May!

A Weimeraner puppy, like the one that will soon join the Baker family.

MI: What food could you live off of for the rest of your life?
SB: Pizza. Or tacos.

MI: Do you have a favorite recipe?
SB: My mother was the world’s worst cook. Seriously awful. When I got married, I moved to the ruralist of rural Nebraska and my mother-in-law taught me how to cook. But I never used recipes (except for baking), just threw in this and that. About 5 years ago, a friend gave me a subscription to a cooking magazine and I started to make the recipes, getting the right ingredients and measuring them.  I’m totally amazed at what a better cook I am now!

MI: What’s your favorite part about being an Inker?
SB: I treasure the friendships I’ve made at Midnight Ink and the feeling of camaraderie. It’s so wonderful to walk into a conference and see other Inkers and feel like part of the group. Everyone has been so helpful, generous, and FUN! The other aspect of being an Inker is being part of a respected press. MI has street cred in the mystery world. When I approach a bookstore or other venue to set up an event, I’m often met with a cautious reaction. Then I tell them I’m published by Midnight Ink and the smiles open up.

 Tattered Legacy is available online and in bookstores now!

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