When I asked Ann Parker if she would sit in the hot seat, she not only answered questions, she sent me a wealth of photos as well. Leadville, Colorado is the setting for her mysteries, including her latest, What Gold Buys. Since she had more than a couple photos I wanted to include, I’m splitting the interview in two. Thank you, Ann.
Ann, would you introduce yourself to our readers?
Hello all… Ann Parker here, scribbler of fiction, physics, and marketing fa-la-la for any who will toss a coin my way. I have always been a “lover of words,” starting from that moment when I was stumbling through the remedial reading class in first grade and somewhere, deep in my brain, some synaptic switch was thrown when I read the word “evening.” In the blink of an eye, I no longer had to haltingly sound out each syllable, thrashing desperately through a mess of alphabet letters, trying to make sense of how the individual ABCs, when strung together, somehow morphed by magic into “words.” After that, there was no stopping me, and I became a voracious lifetime reader.
A close second to my love of reading is my love (and appreciation) of music. Both of my parents played classical piano, and one of my early memories is lying under the grand piano and listening as my mother played Chopin, Beethoven, Liszt, and so on. However, my musical appreciation didn’t extend to my own performance. I halfheartedly played a few different instruments in my childhood/youth—violin, piano, the obligatory acoustic guitar (during the 1960s folk music era). After that, I settled into my role as an avid listener. I listen to music when I write (I have my noise reduction earphones on this very moment as I type while Pandora is serving me up a delectable mix “from Bernini’s Angels Radio.”)
Close to words and music would have to be my lifelong interest in science. My objective on entering University of California, Berkeley, was to become an astronomer. I could imagine no more wonderful employment than exploring the reaches of the Universe, looking back in time, to the very origins of everything. However, as often happens in life, some doors closed while others opened. I graduated with a double major in Physics and English Literature (I couldn’t leave the world of stories and words behind, even as I sweated to wrap my brain around quantum mechanics, fluid dynamics, and so on). From there, I more or less wandered into becoming a technical editor/writer (which at first meant taking inadvertent post-lunch naps over dense engineering specifications), and then branched out into science writing, corporate communications, creating marketing collateral, and so on. I usually tell people that, if a project involves spinning words, I can do it.
My fiction-writing career came late in life. I celebrated the publishing of my first Silver Rush historical mystery, Silver Lies, when I was fifty. Quite a way to start the second half-century of life!
Perhaps the best way to introduce your series is to start with Leadville, Colorado. Would you tell us about it?
Well, the other passion of my life is Colorado, and Leadville in particular. I have deep family roots in Colorado: both of my parents came from Denver, and I had many relatives in the area. My paternal grandmother was raised in Leadville, which is what led me to investigate the area and ultimately “stake my claim” writing a mystery series focused on that area.
The city of Leadville is in the heart of the Rocky Mountains at 10,152 feet. Winter lasts a loooong time up there. In the 1860s, gold lured the first prospectors to its rarified setting. By the late 1870s, silver was king. When the silver rush kicked into high gear in 1878, people started pouring into Leadville from all around the globe, making it one of the largest silver camps in the world.
Folks often ask me, why Leadville? In addition to my family history, which initially led me there, I have found the history of Leadville to have many points of resonance with the present. (Giving proof to the old saying “History repeats itself.”) Whether it’s the mania to “get rich quick;” the prevalence of dirty politics and casual abuse of power; the heartbreak of those ill with incurable diseases as they and their families search desperately for anything, anyone that holds out a shred of hope of a cure … it’s all there, in the history.
Would you introduce Inez Stannert?
Hmmm. She can be a bit reticent about her background, but I’ll do my best. I like to describe Inez as a woman with a mysterious past, a complicated present, and an uncertain future. Stubborn, wily, strong-minded, opinionated, and possessing an astute eye for human character and failings, she’s prone to making snap judgments based on her intuition and powers of observation. She’s also not above pulling a trick or two to get her way and is fiercely loyal to those she cares about.
A little background (without going too deep into her “mysterious past”): The daughter of a wealthy family back East, Inez kicked over the traces to marry the too-charming-for-his-own-good gambler and occasional-con-man Mark Stannert (who is wily enough to be a match for her… or nearly so. I’ll let readers decide on that one!). Of course, she was disinherited instantly, and she and Mark spent the next ten years in the company of Abe Jackson, a free man of color that Mark befriended after the Civil War. The three wandered south and ever-westward through Reconstruction-torn territory and into the Plains, living by their wits and charm, sometimes one step ahead of the law. By the time they hit Leadville, the Silver Rush was on the rise and the three of them were tired of the constant travelling. When Mark wins the Silver Queen in a poker game… not an unreasonable happenstance in rough-and-tumble 1878 Leadville… he proposes that they share ownership equally three ways: himself, Abe, and Inez (I did say he was a charmer, right?)
As part owner of the Silver Queen Saloon in Leadville, Inez is a 30-year-old woman in a man’s world. Of the 300 or so saloons in Leadville in 1880, only 3 were run by women. She is constantly having to prove that she is NOT a disreputable woman even though the saloon’s location on the corner of Leadville’s red-light and business districts might indicate that she sells more than just liquor. When Mark mysteriously disappears in mid-1879, Inez sends her young son William back East to live with her younger sister. She misses him fiercely, but is determined to do what is best for him. She stays in Leadville and continues to manage the Leadville business in tandem with Abe.
In addition to serving up drinks, Inez plays piano like an angel, plays cards like a pro, manages the business accounts, breaks up fights, and faces down the bad guys and gals. Oh yes, and being an independent-thinking woman who flaunts convention as it suits her, she has taken a lover in Mark’s absence: the Reverend Justice B. Sands. That’s not to say she is immune to what others think… in fact, we see her bristling at the cold shoulder that many of the church women give her. But that doesn’t stop Inez from doing what she wants. She just takes more devious steps to keep the affair discreet. However, when Mark reappears, as suddenly as he left, all her carefully constructed plans to divorce him on grounds of desertion are thrown into disarray.
In many ways, Inez is very human, very flawed. She walks a fine line between what is morally “right” and wrong, and steps over the line when needed. Not a white hat or black hat … she comes in complex shades of grey.
I think we have enough background for the next question. Without spoilers, would you tell us about What Gold Buys?
Autumn 1880 in the Rocky Mountains brings frost, snow, and the return of Silver Queen Saloon owner Inez Stannert to Leadville, Colorado, after an extended stay in Manitou Springs.
In this silver rush boomtown, those who are hungry for material riches seek their fortunes in precious metals. Others, hungry for spiritual relief, seek to pierce the veil between life and death with the help of fortunetellers, mediums, and occultists. Deep in the twisted byways of Leadville’s Stillborn Alley, soothsayer Drina Gizzi awaits the promised arrival of her benefactor, the mysterious Mr. Brown. When she is found murdered, strangled with a set of silver and gold corset laces, no one seems to care except the three who find her body—Inez, Reverend Sands, and Drina’s young daughter, Antonia. The mystery surrounding Drina’s death deepens when her body vanishes without a trace.
As Inez and Antonia band together to seek out Drina’s killer, they unearth disturbing evidence of underground resurrectionists, long-held grievances, and white-hot revenge. Meanwhile, Mark Stannert, true to his word that he only “plays to win,” contrives to drive Inez and Reverend Sands apart, gambling that he can convince her to abandon her plans for divorce. But what can gold buy, after all? A new life? Freedom from the past? Truth and justice for those murdered and unmourned? Or a final passage for Inez and Antonia into an unmarked grave and the world of the dead?
And what of Mr. Brown, whose missing presence hovers over all, like a spirit from beyond?
And, what more? Come back tomorrow for the second half of Ann Parker’s Q&A.