Here are the questions that keep coming up.
Q. Are you REALLY a geologist?
A. This depends on exactly how stringent your definition of the term ‘geologist’ is. I have two degrees in geology (BA and MS), I’ve worked three decades as a geologist (okay, with a break or two- wanderlust, motherhood). I have taught geology at the college level, and I now teach geology by writing mystery novels about it. So yes, I’m a geologist! It’s a stain! It won’t come out!Q. Is your mother, like Em’s, an alcoholic?
A. My mother is a very sweet, white-haired retired English teacher who lives in a 200-year-old farmhouse in New England, and she’s all but a tee-total. See Where do you get your ideas.Q. When did you know you wanted to be a geologist?
A. About four years after I started working as one. I studied geology at college because it was fun, but also because I was good at it. I’m dyslexic, so finding a course I could pass without reading the textbook was great. I “read” the pictures. Then I accidentally found work in it and was downright lucky in finding a very wonderful mentor named Eddie McKee. So at first, I wasn’t being very serious about the profession, but over the years, it’s given me more than I could have imagined.
Q. Like what?
A. An understanding of how the Earth goes together, and what makes it work. The companionship of great people, and work in which I can take pride. A living doing something essential.
Q. What’s essential about geology?
A. (Astronauts excluded) when was the last time you left the planet? Hey, it’s home! As a petroleum geologist, I helped produce resources on which our nation relies. As an environmental geologist, I cleaned up some of the mistakes that come from extracting and using geologic resources. At the USGS, I learned that pure research is there to keep both sides honest. And in researching the Em Hansen stories, I’ve learned how each application of geology does the same thing: serves humanity, advancing us to this modern life in which we can become smarter about how humanity uses resources, how much we use, and which resources we exploit.
Q. It sounds like you’re getting down to your deeper reasons for writing these books…
A. That’s true. It amazes me to consider the gap between what geologists do for humanity and what humanity knows about these rather obscure scientists. So ultimately I write so my readers can learn more about geology and science in general and make more informed decisions as they vote at the ballot box and spend their consumer dollars. I do my best not to preach. I trust people to do what’s best with the clearest information I can give them. And I love geology and my fellow geologists, and want people to know about what’s so fascinating about both!
Q. Why did you decide to write mystery novels about a geologist?
A. Because I am one. And it’s not just a “write what you know” game; I wanted to share what I find compelling about geology, and I wanted to tell the story of what it’s like to be a woman in that male-dominated profession, though that’s changing, too.
Q. Why is Em from Chugwater, Wyoming? Are you from there?
A. I spent my first summer with the U.S. Geological Survey working near Chugwater, Wyoming. I was 23, and when I stopped for gas at the Co-op, the wheat combine drivers used to get on my case about the label on my vehicle door that read U.S. Department of the Interio-Interagency Motor Pool-for Official Use Only. "What kind of official use is this?" they’d sneer. The place sorta stuck in my mind…
Q. Are you like Em Hansen? Is she an alter ego?
A. No…I grew up in the East, not the West. I can’t drink black coffee (gives me whiplash) and I can’t ride a horse (give me flying lessons). But I will admit that I “lend” her certain experiences I have had. We are…close colleagues. She and I have certain things in common, but she’s her own person. I don’t write autobiography, but I borrow from my experiences.
Q. Where do you get your plots? Have these things happened to you?
A. The first few books are drawn directly from my experience working in geology, with a few dead bodies thrown in for interest (two of them actually happened…see the author’s note in A Fall in Denver). Since then my geoscience colleagues have been passing me their stories, and they invite to go to interesting places, like Antarctica, or the middle of the swamps in Florida.
Q. How about the characters? Isn’t that Susan Landon in A Fall in Denver ?
A. Most successful characters start out as amalgamations of "types" and then take on lives of their own, morphing wildly. Or I take someone I admire and turn them into a total villain. Or I take a normal person and remove one "pin" that keeps them normal, and what’s left? A hand grenade.
Q. Why such a long gap between In Cold Pursuit and Rock Bottom?
A. Life and other projects got in the way. For about four and a half years I took medication (Cymbalta) for a chronic pain condition, and the drug made me stupid. I couldn’t get my creative drive in gear. I’d forget what I was trying to say from one writing session to the next. Ironically, the medication was meant not only to quell the pain, but also make sure the pain didn’t cause depression. Instead, I got depressed because I wasn’t able to work. One day I realized that I hadn’t finished a writing project since starting the medication, so I carefully weaned off it and was soon up and writing again. I had learned new ways of dealing with the condition, so I was actually in less pain off the drug that on it. Go figure. Now, before the drug company sues me, or a bunch of people feel compelled to write to me and report that this drug works for them, let me state that it just wasn’t the right thing for me. And my recipe for pain management probably wouldn’t work for everyone, either.
Q. Do you write at the same time every day?
A. Nope. I write when my family are away from the house, or in the middle of the night if I can’t sleep, or…if I’m lucky, the process lights me on fire.
Q. How can a dyslexic write books?
A. Obviously reading and writing are not on the same neuron. Writing is very auditory for me. My mother read aloud to me, and my father was a wonderful storyteller. And my mother was an English teacher; she taught me the good old fundamentals, like diagramming sentences. There’s no shortcut for learning how, but a good gift of the gab certainly helps. In their book The Dyslexic Advantage, Brock and Fernette Eide point out that dyslexics often arrange information as a narrative, as a story. So actually, I find that it helps to be dyslexic.
Q. How do you find time to do it while being a mother and a teacher?
A. It’s a matter of priorities. Being a sane person around my son and husband comes first, the writing (and other creative pursuits) come second, and everything else is time permitting.
Q. How do you reconcile being an artist (writer) and a scientist at the same time?
A. The short answer is that I don’t recognize any walls between the two. But as accurately, geology is all about dealing with such ambiguities, so it’s a natural situation. Also most geologists I know are wonderful storytellers. Try getting together with some at a social gathering, and you’ll be hearing "top this" stories for hours!
Q. Why don’t you write a blog?
A. I take pity on my readers. My writing is best when edited.