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Interior rainforest sets spooky scene for Anderson-Dargatz's new thriller
Inland rainforests are part of the Shuswap area that author Gail Anderson-Dargatz calls home.
These stands of old-growth forest don't usually get the same publicity as their coastal counterparts, but the bestselling Anderson-Dargatz is changing that by taking readers into these dark, lush woods in her latest novel, The Almost Widow.
“The inland rainforest is much less well-known and, of course, very rare and very endangered and it's very close to me,” said Anderson-Dargatz, who grew up in the woods of the Interior.
“It's a huge area and it is disappearing at an alarming rate. So, it is certainly by personal interest — it's home.”
In Anderson-Dargatz's tale, a battle is brewing between tree-poachers looking to make a living after the shuttering of the local mill, and those who want the forest to be designated as a park.
“The town is somewhere in our Interior rainforest,” Anderson-Dargatz said about her fictional town of Moston.
“It's very much a resource-based town like so many towns in the B.C. Interior. One that has lost its mill and jobs are scarce and, of course, people are turning to tree-poaching. The landscape ... will be recognizable to a lot of people because it is many, many towns I have been to over the years.”
At the centre of The Almost Widow is Piper, who is passionate about the park project, and who enlists her resource management officer husband Ben to track the poachers. But it goes wrong, and Ben goes missing.
What ensues is a wife not willing to give up on her husband — even after search-and-rescue believe he has drowned. Frantic days and nights are spent in thigh-high snow in dense woods that also happen to be home to a lurking bushman whose own story turns out to be one of heartbreak and grief.
“It is such a beautiful landscape, but it is also a haunting landscape to walk through,” Anderson-Dargatz said during a recent phone interview.
“From a storyteller's perspective, it is a wonderful place to put a thriller. There is a sense of being watched in the forest, anyone who spends any time in the forest will feel, because there are things watching you in the forest. It's full of misty fogs, it's heavily forested and there's the understory which is both beautiful and, again, haunting. It made for a perfect landscape for a thriller.
“I have been wanting to set a book there for a very long time.”
The landscape is an unforgiving and treacherous mix of thick forest, large rock outcroppings and sheer drops into deep ravines and icy waters.
Oftentimes, officials rely on drones to help keep an eye on the rugged territory.
“I was very much aware because my husband (Mitch Krupp) teaches GIS (global information systems) and GPS mapping, which of course is a tool used heavily within the forestry industry,” said Anderson-Dargatz. “I was quite familiar with the (poaching) problem, but it wasn't until I started researching for this book that I realized the extent of it and the social problems behind it too. So, that was quite an eye-opener for me as I looked into things.”
The drones, in the end, offer crucial clues to the mystery of the missing husband; a husband who is also father to a teen boy.
Piper is the son's stepmother — a good one that has to become an even better stepmom as she must manage her own fears and potential grief in order to support and comfort a kid whose dad might be dead.
“That, in itself, is a complex and huge job,” said Anderson-Dargatz, who is herself a step-parent. “I wanted to get across the role of the step-parent is crucial and important and necessary.”
Fans of Anderson-Dargatz's previous work (The Almost Wife, A Recipe for Bees, Turtle Valley) know she likes to give women a lot of challenges to overcome and situations where they can show their strength. She doesn't deal in shrinking violets. Piper continues that tradition. She is kind but not a pushover. Her passion powers her, as well as having the potential to get her into tough spots.
“I had sort of a basic idea of the kind of character I wanted. I knew she would be an environmentalist in her own right. I knew she would be a little hotheaded about it. I knew that would get her into trouble,” said Anderson-Dargatz, who spent close to a decade teaching in the University of B.C.'s MFA program. “You have to start with the character's flaws.
“I meant her to be a character who (ticks) people off,” added Anderson-Dargatz, who admitted Piper was much less likable in earlier drafts. “I really like working with difficult characters. The more difficult the better. But they are not always characters who are easy for the reader to love. So, I constantly have to pull back from that impulse to work with really difficult people in my narratives and ... strive to make them much more likable in the published work.
“The defining trait of a good protagonist is they do the things they should not do. That makes for a compelling story.”