It's the Readers Who Count

Did you ever have a moment when dream-destroying words sledgehammer you flat? I’m guessing most of us do.

Three years ago, I stumbled toward a New York City subway, reeling from a publisher’s verdict that “environmentally themed fiction is the kiss of death.”

 “You think my book’s going to sound like Al Gore droning through a PowerPoint or the wonky science guy who’s always last on the news?” I asked.

“Yup,” he’d said.

In the city to attend a pitch training, where debut authors are schooled on talking up manuscripts to agents and publishers, I’d spent a week absorbing my classmates’ writing passions and nursing my own. We struggled to find nifty and novel (yes, pun) ways to cram thousands of words into sales pitches that might open doors. I found the door closed.

Back in Portland, Maine, I scraped ice off my car and thought, I can figure this out. This kiss-of-death thing. I’ve worked outdoor and environmental jobs for years. I can figure this out.

By the time the defrost kicked in, I realized the publisher was wrong.

Nature has driven and elevated many successful novels, especially mysteries and thrillers. In Louise Penny’s mysteries, her Brigadoon-like town and the woods, waters, and wildlife that define it are always a thematic corrective to bad human behavior. Nevada Barr’s novels celebrate National Parks’ wilderness even as the terrain amplifies everything from a dying groan echoed off dripping cave walls to a baby’s first cry on a river raft trip gone horribly wrong. And while Barr’s landscapes instigate greed and mayhem, ultimately they also work to heal her characters’ deepest wounds.

Carl Hiaasen started a string of “out there” mysteries with a protagonist willing to murder to save Florida's natural beauty from a berserk tourist industry. I always feel sweaty, stranded, and afraid about the next snake and the next villain when he puts me on an Everglade island. Out west, C.J. Box churns out best-selling page-turners that infuse plots and characters with raw, rugged landscapes. His life and death dramas over competing land values read like grizzlies and wolves circling a disputed kill.

Maine’s own Paul Doiron puts animal rights activists, national park controversies, and even the fear of coyotes run amok, front and center. And always, to solve crimes, his game warden must struggle with storms, mud, carcasses, or wild mountain terrain. Nature is his petri dish, and his character development, plotting, death, and drama grow out of the natural world he creates.

Since readers obviously love these books, there has to be a reason why the publisher would not take a chance on mine. By the time I slid sideways into my driveway, I had an answer.

I’d spent years editing preachy sentiments out of press releases and legislative testimony when I managed Maine Audubon’s public relations. I even had a word for it: eco-evangelicalism. The New York crowd did not trust us green folks and often we deserved it. As a group, we could be preachy, too sure of our facts, too buried in facts, too smug, too strident, too boring, and just, well . . . too.

But I knew the eco-evangelistic danger from day one at the keyboard. I wanted a protagonist with a real voice who faced real-life dilemmas, from thawing the toilet to riding a failing career even further downhill. I wanted a story that leaped off the page, where I didn’t preach about a threatened world, but just took readers on an exciting field trip through it.

And then, at the Portland library, I actually got to ask best-selling authors Doiron and Box about the “kiss-of-death” thing. They laughed. The audience laughed. It was so obvious these men wrote successful environmentally-themed mysteries.

Here’s the wisdom they shared. An exotic location is an exotic location. Readers love them because they are a trip to a foreign-feeling, exciting destination. It might be sneaking down a filthy back alley in Amsterdam dodging rats, crawling through a tangled and muddy Maine swamp, or bending double into a mountain blizzard that freezes cattle (and men) standing up. How the exotic location shapes character and plot is the sizzle in the narrative.

So, maybe it’s the readers who count. The ones who write reviews that get it. Like this: [Deadly Trespass] “...will propel you across the wildest of Maine’s terrain and into its coldest waters—in search of whispered wolves, possible murderers, odd bedfellows, greedy sons of bitches, and reasons for it all.”

And reviewers who get it: “...a beautiful book that brilliantly captures the battle to conserve Maine’s mythical woods...”

Thank you, Mr. Doiron and Mr. Box!