Taking the Flack
Most authors love to hear from readers, and we are especially grateful for reviews, but sometimes the negative messages we receive are tough to digest. Because I write about environmental issues, I’ve incorporated a few controversial subjects into my Sam Westin series: hunting, guns, property rights, etc. Even though I try my best to portray authentic points of view from my characters without making them into caricatures, sometimes I receive critical messages about those POVs.
A few reviews, however, are simply surprising. When I wrote my second Sam Westin novel, BEAR BAIT, which is about switching a piece of land from the National Forest system to a National Park, I was anticipating comments on “land grabs” and locking users out of some uses, like ATV riding and harvesting wood and mushrooms and such, because that switch in jurisdiction means changing the regulations from multi-use to conservation. Instead, because at one point my protagonist hears about the deaths of soldiers in the Middle East and hopes that the soldiers died for a good reason, that book got a review that accused me of not supporting our military. Personally, I think the best way to support our military is to send them into harm’s way only when it’s absolutely necessary for defense, and I hope that all Americans also share that opinion. But I guess that’s not how that reader interpreted it.
My most recent Sam Westin mystery, BORDERLAND, is set along the Arizona/Mexico border, and necessarily involves the border wall. I knew that subject might set off a few alarm bells, and indeed, it has. I write environmental mysteries, so I went to the area to learn more about the ecology of the “sky islands,” the unique groups of mountains that rise up out of the desert in a chain from northern Mexico through eastern Arizona. They are truly incredible ecosystems, and I’d never experienced anything like them before.
I wasn’t thinking about the wall. But once I was there, I could see how the border wall disrupted all the normal patterns of nature, from wildlife migration to the flow of water. The environmental destruction was appalling; I hadn’t thought about how a border wall means a parallel patrol road and hundreds of intersecting roads to get to that parallel road, not to mention lights and drones and surveillance towers and thousands of Border Patrol agents, who need somewhere to live and eat, and uniforms and weapons and vehicles to patrol in. Then there are the construction and maintenance crews. I was struck by how so much of the land on the US side had been stripped of all vegetation. Goodbye, Nature.
I also hadn’t thought about the property rights and attitudes of the folks who actually live along the border. The wall cannot be built along the actual border line in many locations because of topography. So, crews are building the wall where it’s convenient to build, and our government is giving away a lot of ranchers’ private property to Mexico. Nobody who lived along the border seemed to welcome the wall; they had signs out to protest it. I didn’t expect that, either, because of course there have been and still are real issues with criminal activity and illegal immigrants. But everyone I talked to did not think the wall helped solve the problems. Humans are inventive; they cut holes in the wall, climb over, tunnel under. Even the Border Patrol acknowledges that the wall doesn’t stop crossings, it merely slows them down, by about 10 minutes, I was told. Is that really worth more than $2 million per linear mile?
So, after experiencing all this firsthand, how could I not set my next Sam Westin novel there? It’s a perfect, troubled setting for a mystery. BORDERLAND involves a missing Latina-American woman who photographed a rare Arizona jaguar stopped at the wall.
To date, I have not met anyone who has actually been to the border wall and still supports its construction, with the exception of those who are making big money from the project. I urge all those who believe the border wall is a worthwhile project to actually go see what their tax dollars are paying for. Be sure to visit some of the parks and (formerly) natural areas down there.
I don’t write about places I’ve never been and issues I haven’t researched, so I will continue to take the flack, along with the complimentary reviews and email messages. That’s what being a professional writer is all about. Next up, earthquakes and avalanches and wolverines--are those controversial? Time will tell.