An Interview with Nevada Barr


By Jonne Hower

Spring 2003




Murder mystery author Nevada Barr is well known for her eleven-book-and-counting series that features her character Anna Pigeon, a National Park Service law enforcement ranger.  The books are each set in a different National Park.  Anna Pigeon always gets the bad guy and she gets to live and work in one of our nation’s “crown jewels.”  Ranger Pigeon’s days are filled with hiking, camping, exploring, and avoiding the long arms of supervisors and agency bureaucracy. 

I interviewed Nevada Barr by phone in early February 2003, and also listened to her speak at a bookstore in Bailey’s Crossroads, Virginia,


Women in Natural Resources:  Your books include many examples of the day-to-day minutiae of life in the federal civil service.  When did you begin working for the federal government?

Nevada Barr:  Let’s see.  My first job with the Park Service was in 1989.  I just fell into a job.  I’ve been an actor my whole life, and I was living in Minnesota at the time, making a pretty good living.  But Meryl Streep wasn’t losing sleep because I was going to show up at an audition!  I was doing a lot of work in industrial film—corporate training and education films.  It was the mid-80s and the environmental movement was big.  So, I decided I could work in the summer in the National Parks and in the winter as an actor.  But after the first summer I never went back to acting.  I got my law enforcement designation status and my Emergency Medical Technician training.  I liked carrying a gun.  As an actor, I’d wanted to carry a gun, but it was illegal!

WiNR:  Did you always work as a seasonal or were you hired permanently by the National Park Service?

NB:  I was permanent for 18 months—it’s the longest I’ve ever held a real job in my life.

WiNR:  Did it take you a long time to get hired permanently?

NB:  It took me six years.  I tried to get on permanent off and on as the spirit moved me and it was very difficult. 

At the “Meet the Author” presentation at the bookstore in Virginia, Nevada related how she got her permanent job with the National Park Service.  She was:

recovering from a divorce and spending the winter living in the Sierra Nevada in a house which was still undergoing remodeling.  It was snowing and cold.  The Park Service called and offered me a job at the Naches Trace in Mississippi, and I remember thinking: Why not?  I’m going to Hell anyway; I might as well stop in Mississippi first.  However, I didn’t stay there long because that was when I started traveling to do book promotions.  First it was a week off, then it was two weeks, and then finally it just made more sense for me to resign.

WiNR:  Did you take your law enforcement training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC)?  What was your experience like? 

NB:   I’ve actually been twice.  I had to go the training given for seasonal hires, that you pay for yourself.  And then in ’93 I went to the “real” one.  I was in my 30s and I was about in the middle of the age range.  There were some young people but it was also right after the requirement was made that the Tennessee Valley Authority staff had to go to FLETC.  So my class was filled up with these marvelous old “Captain Smiths”—fabulous older, handsome cops.  We also had a sprinkling of seasonal rangers that had just gotten on permanent.  And you know how hard it is to get on with the feds, so most of them were in their 30s.  It’s just almost impossible to get hired on permanently.   

WiNR:  Do you think there is gender equality on the playing field in federal service? 

NB:  Well, you have to realize that my experience with the Park Service is now eight years old, so it may have changed a bit.  When I was there, it seemed as though the administration and brass gave me every break they could and it was wonderful.  The other side was the guys I was working with on a day-to-day basis in law enforcement—maybe it was the macho thing—they didn’t like me there working with them, even if they liked me personally. 

Of course they didn’t like that I could shoot better than them.  I was the best shot in my class.  My colleagues would stand around and talk about whether Jim or John or Joe was the best shot.  And I would stand there thinking, “No, I beat all of you.”  I had the unpleasant realization that it was still a boys club.  Although they accepted me and liked me, I kind of spoiled it for them.  Oddly enough, the older guys were terrific and it was the younger guys who were resentful.  Of course it wasn’t all of them, but I got the feeling that they felt the playing field wasn’t level and I had an edge because of my gender. 

I was the only girl in my law enforcement class.  Now I just laugh because I understand some folks are worried that we are leaving the boys behind in schooling.  I think, yeah, you made it equal and now we beat you on every level.  It’s what they were afraid of all those years. 

WiNR:  Can you describe one of your negative experiences in National Park Service law enforcment? 

NB:  I had the experience of not being given backup.  I think it was done to “let the girl hang out to dry.”  I found out more about this after I left the park, from the person who replaced me.  They told me, “Did you know ________ told me they never would come when you called for back up?”  Most of the guys who were grumpy and didn’t like having a girl work with them would never stoop to that, but I worked with a couple of guys who did.  Amazing!  And I thought they liked me. 

WiNR:  At the “Meet the Author” night, you explained that you borrowed your character’s name, “Anna Pigeon,” from a real-life Park Service employee, although Anna is not modeled on any real person.  How long will Anna Pigeon work for the Park Service?  Will she retire as a government employee? 

NB:  I’m aging her as I write new books because I’m much more interested in people my age.  I’ll probably drag her kicking and screaming through menopause with me.  Besides, most of the people who get to be park supers [superintendents] are in their 50s.  So, I will keep aging her and keep her in the parks and maybe boot her up rank ever now and then.  I think it is much more fun to read stories about women who do physical heroics.   

WiNR:  Do you do all the sports that Anna Pigeon uses in her work in the Park Service? 

NB:  I do some mountain climbing, some caving, some scuba diving, and I have been on a wildfire.  Basically, I do the “baby version” to see what it’s like, but I do love like hiking and canoeing.  For the scary stuff like cold water diving, I do the “readers’ digest” trip and then talk to people who do the scary bit and just make up my story around that.  I’m not a dare-devil. 

WiNR:  How did you get started doing outdoor sports and activities? 

NB:  I grew up out in the Sierra Nevada and had to walk a mile to school.  The outdoors was right outside my back door.  We didn’t have a lot of money, so vacations were camping vacations.  A motel with a swimming pool was unbelievable luxury and it happened only every six or eight years. 

My mom was a pilot who worked her whole life.  I didn’t see her in a dress until my sister got married.  We went to such tiny little schools that if the girls didn’t play baseball, there weren’t nine kids for the team.  I remember being shocked when I went to college that I wasn’t considered fit to run heavy equipment.  We were so rural that we grew up with ladies that did everything and by the time I was fully baked, I got punky about it if they don’t let me do what I wanted. 

WiNR:   Are you hoping young people will want to work in the National Parks as a result of reading your books? 

NB:  I don’t write with a message in mind because I think the message should come out of the character and the story naturally, but yes, I hope so.  And I hope I encourage women to go into law enforcement.  I hope I encourage women at 45 who have just finished a career teaching and who have always wanted to go into the parks to just “do it.”  I didn’t go in the Park Service until I was 36 years old.  I want to encourage women to do what they want, what they love. 

And, I want to encourage people to take care of parks.  People who love the parks will take care of the parks because they mean so much to us.  I am hoping people who have never gone to a park will read my books and will now vote for park measures.  I hope they’ll think “Oh yeah, I read about that and it sounds like a cool place.”   

WiNR:  Do you think big city crime is moving out into the parks? 

NB:  I think that perhaps we just hear about it more.  Unless you go to the big party parks, like Lake Mead, going to a National Park is still the safest vacation you can have.   

WiNR:  How did you start to write fiction? 

NB:  I wrote tons and tons and tons my whole life, just like other people chew their fingernails.  I just did it.  I wrote letters and poems and short stories, but not for publication—just for screwing around.  I started writing my first book because, as an actor, I got sick to death of all those women’s roles.  They were just vapid and so few and far between that I decided I’d write a book and then I’d star in it when they made the movie.   

WiNR:  Was it hard to get published? 

NB:  I wrote one full-length book and it didn’t get published, so I wrote another book just to prove to myself that I could do it.  And by some miracle, that second book did get published.  It sold about 12 copies—I’m sure my mother bought them all!  I didn’t sell another book for ten years, even though I wrote four more that are still stored out in my garage.  I looked at them a little while ago—they’re not that good. 

WiNR:  At the “Meet the Author” night, someone asked if you made the people you didn’t like into the bad guys in your books. 

NB:  There are so many bad people walking around, why would I want to give them a longer life by writing about them?   

WiNR:  What did you study in college?  Did you study English or Writing? 

NB:  I got an M.A. in acting.  You can imagine what kind of job you can get with that!   I took the required English but never had a formal writing class.  I got paranoid because when I studied acting, the teachers wanted to snuff out any tiny little spark of idiosyncratic talent.  They thought I should do what they wanted me to do. 

So, when I started writing, I decided it was either “I’ll find something unique to me, or else I won’t write.”  I was afraid if I took a writing class they’d squish whatever tiny unique part of me that might have existed.  When I realized I wanted to be a writer, I was paranoid about taking classes. 

WiNR:  Yet, I notice that the University of Mississippi lists you on their author’s page as an instructor in their writing program. 

NB:  I periodically teach if someone asks me.  I taught a while back because I wanted to get some free classes there.  I took art.  Mostly what I teach is “don’t pay attention to anybody” because you have your own idiosyncratic spark.  And write a lot. 

WiNR:  For you as a writer, was it hard to create Anna Pigeon? 

NB:  No, it wasn’t.  I had one of those experiences where I sat down and there was nothing between me and the paper. 

WiNR:  Do you miss working for the Park Service? 

NB:  I do, I miss it.  It was a really good job on the Natchez Trace. 

WiNR:  Have you worked at all the parks you’ve written about?  Have you worked at other parks? 

NB:  I wrote about every park I’ve worked at, and then I started actually having to do research on parks when I ran out of my own personal parks.  So, every year I have to go spend several weeks in a park.  It’s great and I can write it off on my income tax. 

WiNR:  What is your impression of the people who work at the parks?   

NB:  The people at parks are amazing.  You know, they really could hate me because everybody has to be kind of fishy in murder mysteries.  I couldn’t write my books without the people who work in the parks.  Since I quit working in the parks, if the Park Service wasn’t so kind to me, I would have to do something else. 

My newest book is set in the Dry Tortugas [located off Key West].  It is so isolated that if the Chief Ranger and Superintendent hadn’t found a way for me to legitimately be there, I couldn’t have written the book.  There is nothing park people like better than to learn something about the park and then tell other people about it.  A ranger at Dry Tortugas gave me copies of a whole bunch of letters he had collected from women who had lived there when it was a Civil War fort.  Just amazing stuff, and it was in a box!  Where would I have started to look for letters written by ladies who happened to live on that seven-acre scrap of dirt 150 years ago?  But he had collected them and let me use them.

Although I don’t usually sign up as a volunteer, I will sign papers so that if I die while I’m at the park, it’s nobody’s fault.  Over the years I’ve become friends with lots of Park Service folks.  My next book (the one coming out in ’04) is set in Yosemite and I’ve become friends with the Superintendent, when he used to be the Park Super some other place.  ‘Tis a small world. 

WiNR:  I understand there is a movie option on one of your books. 

NB:  Track of the Cat has been optioned.  It’s been right up to where it looked like production of the film would happen, but then they couldn’t agree on who would play Anna.  So it’s back on drawing board.

 It would be nice to get the money, but you don’t get to say anything about the making of a movie as an author unless you are really a big deal.  They can do anything they want and if they did something that was just nasty, it would leave a bad taste in my mouth.  I’ve always had this terror that they would cast a “blonde bimbo” as Anna.  So, I will be happy to get the money and it will be fun if it happens, but it’s not really something I dream about.  I think it could have a real down side.  They don’t even want you on the set mostly—they pay you your money to go away and be quiet.  

WiNR:  What advice would you give young people about the skills needed to be successful in a career? 

NB:  Learn to speak well, write well, and read well.  Then you can do anything.  I got along quite well in the Park Service with an acting degree.  Or you can specialize.  Go into the zoological sciences.  There is such a wide range of things you can do.  The more specialized you are the better.  You might be able to find your niche a little more quickly. 

WiNR:  Finally, what advice would you have during this time of the “War on Terror,” for those of us who love the parks? 

NB: Stay awake.  Stay alert.  War puts you to sleep so that while we are over there fighting this war, they can quietly go and pillage elsewhere.  And it is all in name of getting resources for war.  Read what Congress is going to vote for because there might be little things tacked on to bills.  And on local level, vote in every single Green candidate you can find.


At present, Nevada lives in Clinton, Mississippi.  Her latest novel, Flashback, was just released in February 2003, and takes Anna Pigeon to remote Garden Key in Dry Tortugas National Park, a group of tiny islands in a natural harbor 70 miles off Key West, Florida.  Nevada is presently working on the twelfth Anna Pigeon novel.  Her book of introspective meditations entitled Seeking Enlightenment . . . Hat by Hat will be released by G.  P.  Putnam and Sons in June 2003.