Scott Graham is the author of the National Park Mystery Series, featuring archaeologist Chuck Bender and Chuck’s wife, paramedic Janelle Ortega. Book seven in the series, “Canyonlands Carnage,” was a finalist for the 2022 Colorado Book Award in the mystery category. Graham also is the author of five nonfiction books, including ”Extreme Kids,” winner of the National Outdoor Book Award.
He has worked as a newspaper reporter, magazine editor, radio disk jockey, city councilor, and coal-shoveling fireman on the steam-powered Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. He’s an avid outdoorsman who enjoys backpacking, river rafting, skiing, and mountaineering. He lives with his wife, an emergency physician, in Durango, Colorado.
Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?
As an experienced river runner, I long believed the remote setting of a whitewater rafting expedition would make for a great “closed room” mystery. I launched on the writing of “Canyonlands Carnage,” the seventh book in my National Park Mystery Series with Torrey House Press, with that concept in mind when news of the dwindling waters in the Colorado River began making national headlines.
In “Canyonlands Carnage,” two groups of people—water policymakers seeking to protect the Colorado River from overuse, and water executives who control rights to the river’s water—journey together down the rapids of Cataract Canyon in the heart of Canyonlands National Park.
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The policymakers and businesspeople are tasked with debating around the campfire each evening the use and protection of the Colorado River. However, when questionable—and deadly—accidents pile up during the trip, the members of the two groups instead find themselves looking warily across the campfire at one another, recognizing that if the accidents aren’t really accidental, then, deep in the uninhabited canyon, whoever’s responsible must be one of them.
Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?
The excerpt included here is from Chapter Two of “Canyonlands Carnage,” when one of the first “accidents” occurs. A snapped oarlock in the midst of a seething rapid is a truly life-threatening event, and the very real dangers described in the excerpt—the backward-breaking wave, the pinwheeling oar, the sluicing water—foreshadow the deadliness to come as the expedition ventures deeper into the canyon.
Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write?
“Canyonlands Carnage” is aimed, first and foremost, at taking readers on an entertaining rafting trip down the Colorado River through Cataract Canyon, a place few readers will ever experience. I’m pleased to share with reader my personal knowledge of Cataract Canyon, and of whitewater rafting with all its thrills and potential spills.
At the same time, I share with readers the history of Utah’s stunningly beautiful Canyonlands region, from the area’s earliest inhabitants, through John Wesley Powell’s exploratory expedition down the Green and Colorado Rivers in 1869, to the intense demands placed on the waters of the Colorado River today.
As a lifelong resident of the Four Corners region and Colorado Plateau, I’m pleased to provide readers a real-life look at the immense backyard I’ve enjoyed exploring for decades.
Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions?
I learned, and shared with readers, that when John Wesley Powell was named the first head of the U.S. Geological Survey after his years as an expedition leader were over, he quickly grew disenchanted with the avaricious claims on the limited waters of the Southwest’s desert rivers that came with the early colonization of the West.
Powell foreshadowed the challenges of climate change we face today in the desert Southwest, writing, “Years of drought and famine come…and the climate is not changed with dance, libation, or prayer.”
He predicted more than a century ago that overuse of the Southwest’s rivers would plague the region in the future. In a speech upon resigning in protest from his position as head of the U.S. Geological Survey, he said, “You are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply the land.”
His prophecy is playing out in banner headlines, and in courtrooms, today.
What else did you learn through your research for “Canyonlands Carnage” that you shared with readers?
I learned that, among all the germination stories of America’s national parks, that of Canyonlands National Park stands apart as perhaps the most unusual, and I tell the unique and little-known story of the park’s creation in “Canyonlands Carnage.”
Thanks to the creation of Canyonlands National Park, the value as a protected landscape of Utah’s magnificent Canyon Country is now nationally and internationally recognized, and that awareness has played an integral role in discussions surrounding the preservation of other parts of Canyon Country, like the creation in 2016 of 1.3-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument, which abuts Canyonlands National Park to the south.
Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
I’m a morning writer. When completing the first, very rough drafts of my mysteries, I write at least 1,500 words before I leave my computer each day. When rewriting—a process I love more than any other aspect of the writing and editing process—I find I have to force myself to stop working after hours in front of the computer, when I reach a state of nonperforming catatonia.
What makes your mysteries stand out?
The multicultural-family aspect of my National Park Mysteries makes them unusual. My mysteries feature archaeologist Chuck Bender, his wife, paramedic Janelle Ortega, and his step-daughters, Carmelita and Rosie. Through the arc of the series, Chuck, long a bachelor, learns through plenty of missteps what it takes to be a good husband to Janelle and father to the precocious girls.
Janelle, Carmelita, and Rosie play increasingly important roles, alongside Chuck, in solving the mysteries in each book. In “Canyonlands Carnage,” Janelle and the girls set out overland to warn Chuck of the danger they’ve learned he faces on the expedition, leading to their involvement in the life-threatening events deep in the canyon that lead to solving the mystery.
What’s next for Chuck and family?
I recently sent off the manuscript of “Saguaro Sanction,” set for release in March 2023, to my editors at Torrey House Press. “Saguaro Sanction” features the ancient petroglyphs of southern Arizona, and explores border issues affecting the health and well-being of the Sonoran Desert and Saguaro National Park outside Tucson through Janelle’s ties to her extended family in Juárez, Mexico.