Author Shannon Baker on Hopi culture, Barbara Kingsolver and fake yellow snow
Reading is about more than following a narrative or learning facts; it can also be a profound shared experience that culminates in a better understanding of ourselves and each other. In that spirit, welcome to the Westword Book Club, a weekly feature celebrating the books that inspire Denver artists.
Shannon Baker is a mystery writer who lives in the Boulder area. Her novels, such as Tainted Mountain, combine the nervy perspective of Nora Abbott, Baker's protagonist, with the unique milieu of politically embattled sacred tribal lands. Broken Trust, Baker's next entry in the Nora Abbot mystery series, is set in Boulder and scheduled to be published by Midnight Ink Publications in March 2014. Westword caught up with Baker to discuss participating in writer's groups, Hopi tribal culture and fake yellow snow.
How do you work up to the discipline to write according to a regular schedule?
I started writing when I already had kids and a whole life, so I started getting up really early in the morning, before my kids, and writing for a couple hours before going on with my day. No one interrupts me when it's that early. I'm also a really fast writer, so I could make a lot of progress in that short time. I'm now transitioning to being a full-time writer, which essentially means that I just got laid off from my other job, but it also means that I have more time to write throughout the day.
Was Tainted Mountain the first book you had published?
No, the first book was published in 2010 by a different company. They were like the puppy mill of presses, they just put out a bunch of books with very little individual care or even much editing.
Was that part of the Nora Abbott series?
No, it was a thriller.
Hopi traditions are a theme running through Tainted Mountain. Are they present in Broken Trust as well?
There are dual themes throughout this series. Hopi cultural traditions and their conflict with the changing environment as well as the interpersonal relationships between the characters. The Hopi are so fascinating to me. They are probably the hardest tribe to write about, so of course I chose to base a whole series around them.
What compelled you to begin researching the Hopi tribe?
Well, we moved from Boulder down to Flagstaff. I was working for the Grand Canyon Environmental Trust, which was an environmentalist group. The first thing I noticed was that there was a huge local controversy about using man-made snow for the Big Mountain area ski slopes on their peaks because of the drought in northern Arizona. I started researching because of that, and I found out that these peaks are sacred to twelve different tribes. The environmentalists hate it, too, because they're using treated waste water to make this fake snow. All the tribes have this sentiment of like, "Hey, we don't pee in your church."
Seems fair enough to me.
For the Hopi, the sacred mountains are central to their creation story and they are the home of their Kachinas, and there are like 300-plus different Kachinas who live there. They have a very precise and intricate calendar, so the Kachinas spend half of the year in the mountains and half of the year on the mesas. So if you destroy their environment, where are they going to live? So, they're not happy with the ski resort, even though it's one of the oldest in the United States; it's been there since 1938.
I'd imagine there was probably a lot less red tape for that sort of thing back in 1938.
Yeah, but they also just voted to expand. The ironic thing is that the legislation passed, and when they did start spraying snow up there, the pipes had rust in them, so the snow came out looking yellow.
Did you read any particular books that helped with your research about the Hopi?
Yeah, there was this really interesting book that I read called The Hopi Survival Kit: The Prophecies, Instructions and Warnings Revealed by the Last Elders. It was written by Thomas E. Mails, a white guy; I think he's preacher or something. Anyway, half of that book is frustrating build-up, essentially just the author saying, "Wait until I tell you what I'm going to tell you, you're going to be blown away." I was waiting for him to just get to the point, which is basically this idea of "live simply" and "plant crops." And I thought, "Okay, this is pretty typical new-age stuff," but then they get so mystic and foreboding. I used all the information in the book, though, because I'm not above indulging in conspiracy theories and end-times myths. When I got the manuscript for my book all done, I took it down to a Hopi man, an elder, who has an art gallery in downtown Flagstaff and I asked him if he would read it, and I started talking to him about some of thine things I had read in The Hopi Survival Kit. He told me that some of things I had found so far-fetched were closer to the truth than I might think. Then, as I was getting ready to leave, he said, "Do me a favor. Plant something."