Tuesday, April 12, 2011

My Ivory Tower is a Beige Ranch-style House

They say writers live and write in Ivory Towers. Me, I live and write in Beige Ranch-style House. In the ‘burbs. Surrounded by cats, kids, and couch cushions. It’s not exactly the writing life I pictured, but it works. Especially when I have a deadline.

Last weekend I escaped the beige house and headed for Santa Fe, New Mexico, to join a murder of mystery writers who had gathered for the annual Left Coast Crime Conference. We were all in search of grist for the mill, literary enlightenment—or at least a good margarita. While Santa Fe is an artists’ colony, it’s hardly an ivory tower—mostly just flat and beige, much like my house.

But I immediately found myself enchanted by the multi-beige-colored deserts. Still, since I’d paid to attend the conference, I felt I needed to drop by a couple of panels on the state of publishing today, hoping industry professionals would address the elephant in the business—the expansion of e-publishing. Unfortunately no one really knew what to think about Amanda Hocking, the million-dollar e-kid turned traditional author, nor Barry Eisler, the half-million-dollar man who went e-WOL.

So I ducked out and headed for the Beige Outdoors in search of that grist I’d come for. There were lots of mini-trips to choose from—a tour of historic Taos, the famous artist colony where people like Georgia O’Keefe, Ansel Adams, and Andrew Wyeth hung out; the Tent Rocks, where ginormous cone-shaped rocks made by volcanoes and erosion hug the steep cliffs of a canyon; Bandelier National Monument, where remains of ancient Pueblos, petroglyphs, and cliff dwellings of the Anasazi Indians are preserved; a cooking class featuring the state vegetable—chiles—which not only fire the tongue, but also have medicinal properties (clearing the sinuses?).

After climbing the tent rocks and exploring the cave dwellings, I knew there was only one place I had to see before the weekend came to an end: The Atomic City, AKA Los Alamos. As a mystery writer, I couldn’t help but be curious about what’s going on there these days…and how I could get a good story novel out of it.

But I also wanted to go to The Hill because I have a history with Top Secret Facilities. My dad worked for the Atomic Energy Commission in Oak Ridge and in Berkeley, and I interned one summer at Lawrence Lab. Plus I grew up with The Bomb, where my school practiced duck-and-cover air raid drills, my neighbors built Fallout Shelters, and we lived in fear that the Russians were coming, any minute.
Driving up the winding mountain to the home of so many brilliant scientists, I wondered what it had been like, living in this isolated city that hasn’t changed much since those remarkable days. The houses are still military style, the checkpoints still in operation, the streets still named Trinity and Oppenheimer, the surrounding barbed wire fences still sporting signs that read: “Danger: Explosives!”

After a couple of hours I headed home with enough ideas for a dozen books. Now I’m back in my flat beige house, on my matching beige couch, working on another mystery without the benefit of an Ivory Tower.

No matter. I’ve got some fresh grist, several cool photos of me climbing rocks—and a recipe for a really good margarita. Sometimes that’s all it takes to be a writer.

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