It grew out of my missing the mountains. I’d just gotten home to L.A. after a week in the Sierra, and I was sulking because my summer adventures were over. I’d also been banging my head for two years against a historical novel that was going nowhere. As hard as I tried to focus on that book and on my everyday working life, my mind kept drifting back to the mountains. So I decided to give in and write about them.
Yes. I love Jack London, James Dickey, all those guys. I love to see what happens when people are pushed to their limits. When people are in danger, you get to see who they really are—and sometimes what you find is surprising.
In writing my own adventure novel, though, I wanted to add a different twist. Most adventure fiction is about men, and usually middle-class white guys. I wanted the characters in my book to be reflective of the world as I know it—multiracial, both women and men, of different class backgrounds. I wanted to see how all those variables would play out in the story.
Not at all. I never tire of Los Angeles as a subject. And I really wanted to write about areas—Watts and the Highland Park/Glassell Park area—that aren’t usually depicted in fiction, especially not in a loving way. One of the characters lives in Brentwood, and so you get three distinct, almost unrelated parts of the city. But that’s one of the things I find so interesting about L.A.—there are many different cities in one. And I wanted to show that there is beauty in unexpected places—not just in the wilderness, but in urban spaces too, in areas where some people wouldn’t expect it.
Sure. Gwen, who’s a counselor for at-risk youth in Watts, is devoted to her work and to the community, but she’s struggling with loss and burnout after one of her most promising kids dies. This trip is a big step out of her comfort zone, partly because she knows she’s likely to be one of the few black hikers on the trail. But she’s going because she wants to try something new, and she thinks some time in nature will be restorative.
Todd is a corporate lawyer in Brentwood who’s living an upscale life very different from his blue-collar childhood in Wisconsin. He has a beautiful family and successful career, but it’s starting to feel empty, especially since he’s grown apart from his society wife. This trip, he thinks, will be a hearkening back to a certain kind of authenticity. But as a guy who’s spent his adulthood in a very white and homogenous world, he’s not prepared for the things he encounters.
Oscar is real estate agent who’s done well for himself in Northeast L.A. He feels ambivalent about this, since the gentrification of Highland Park and Glassell Park has forced out many longstanding Latino residents. His own mother would have been among them, if he hadn’t bought a house for her. At the time of the trip, the market has cooled, which has led him to consider changes in his life. He’s drawn to the trip mostly for the physical challenge.
And finally, Tracy. Tracy is a popular trainer at a gym and physical therapy institute, and through her work, she’s the link to all the others. She has ties to mountains on both sides of her family—her dad is from Idaho, and her Japanese grandfather told her stories about sneaking out of Manzanar to go fishing in the Sierra. Tracy’s the least self-reflective of the group—a former soccer star and adrenaline junkie who loves high-risk sports. The other three characters believe in her maybe more than they should.
To me, the diversity within the group is reflective of Los Angeles and certainly of my own experience. The characters are all people I could know. But having such a mix of characters did create some interesting opportunities. It allowed me to explore how factors such as race and gender can affect the ways that people see the world. Would Gwen and Oscar respond the same way as Todd to the situations they encounter? Where would Tracy fit into the equation? Would things break down along gender lines? How would the characters’ past experiences play into who they perceive as friendly—or as dangerous? I was curious to see what would happen to these four people—and also between them—when they ran into trouble and had no one to depend on but themselves.
Absolutely. They’re all dealing with the normal issues of early middle age—career, family, money, the meaning of their lives. The nagging physical effects of aging, and the disconnect that people start to feel from their bodies when they spend so much time at the mercy of cell phones and computers. So yes, they’re all different, but there’s some common ground, too—they’re all at moments of questioning, of pondering change.
What I was really trying to do was tell a compelling story. Sure, the book is an adventure story and also deals with social issues. But the most important thing to me—in this book as in my others—was creating a set of characters that readers will care about, and a story that pulls them along. I tried to create a sense of urgency, suspense, and I also wanted to convey some of the exhilaration of being out in the wilderness. And ultimately, as with my other books, this is also a love story—an unabashed ode to the mountains.
Yes, I think it’s important to express—as Norman Maclean once wrote—“a little of the love I have of the earth as it goes by.” That’s also part of what Alice Walker was saying in The Color Purple—when God, or nature, puts on a display, it’s up to us to notice. I do feel a reverence for the world, a sense of wonder, and it would be disrespectful not to convey that. But I try to paint the natural world in a way that isn’t distracting. The descriptions have to be woven into what’s going on; they have to be essential to the story. James Dickey does a tremendous job with this in Deliverance. People talk about the obvious drama, the guys fighting for their lives. They talk less about what an amazing writer Dickey is—how beautiful and powerful his descriptions are, to the point that you can hear and feel the river.
Not nearly as much time as I’d like! I go up to the Sierras on holidays and for a couple of weeks in the summer. I also hike regularly in the mountains that border L.A. I’d say I’m an intermediate backpacker at best, and a neophyte mountain climber. But I’m a first-class dreamer. Every day I think about, imagine, and plan for my next backpacking or climbing trip. And I have pictures of mountains everywhere—my office, my phone, my house. If I ever got a tattoo, it would be of a mountain.
In writing this book, I included many mishaps I’ve actually experienced in the backcountry—and a few I only worry about experiencing. While I’ve definitely had some interesting wildlife encounters, the most dangerous creatures out there are other humans. Fortunately, I’ve never run into a really creepy situation—but I have friends who have. There’s a lot of activity around drugs in rural California, some of it violent, related to both crystal meth and weed production. There is also a lot of anti-government and white supremacist activity—as there is in many Western states—maybe because there’s so much space to disappear in. It’s intriguing to me that all of this exists in the same state where there are also huge, diverse cities. I wanted to capture some of that breadth in a single story.
I love dogs, their joy and their matter-of-factness; the way they’re just purely, unabashedly who they are. The dogs in the two books are very different, like my own. Brett, the English Springer Spaniel in Wingshooters, is a loving, steady, salt-of-the-earth hunting dog, the perfect companion for young Michelle. Timber, the Border Collie in Lost Canyon, is a whirling dervish. She’s wild and untamed, but sweet and irresistible. She jumps in mid-story—like our own Border Collie, who showed up one day during a blizzard, and never left.
There are at least two places named Lost Canyon within the Sierra, and probably more in other areas. But the landscape of my story is fictional. I just loved the name, its sense of remoteness, and desolation, and romance. There are so many great place names in the Sierra—looking at a map is like reading a fairy tale. Hungry Packer Lake. Inconsolable Lake. Deadman Canyon. Hell for Sure Pass. Detachment Meadow. Naked Lady Meadow. Well, maybe that last one wouldn’t be in a fairy tale.
I thought I’d never write a book set in contemporary times, so this really came out of nowhere. With other books, I needed a sense of distance or perspective, created either by geography or by time; when I wrote about L.A., it was usually the L.A. of the past. Why that changed all of a sudden, I don’t know. But I do know that my descriptions of Watts and Glassell Park grew out of my deep connection to those areas. And again, I started the book when I was missing the mountains. So this book, like all the others, no matter what the subject or setting, ultimately grew out of yearning.