When I was ten, my family took a road trip from Chicago to San Francisco and back. One memorable highlight was our stay at Yosemite National Park. I was amazed then, and still am today, at the incredible beauty of America’s national parks, and the leaders who had the foresight to preserve them for the public to enjoy for decades to come.
Since then, I’ve visited several other parks, including Hot Springs, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Parks–each breathtakingly gorgeous in its own way. But topping my to-visit list currently is Washington’s Mount Rainier National Park.
In 1901, renowned naturalist John Muir wrote of this park, “Of all the fire-mountains which, like beacons, once blazed along the Pacific Coast, Mount Rainier is the noblest.” It seems fitting, then, that author Karen Barnett chose Mount Rainier as the setting for her historical novel, The Road to Paradise, the first in the new Vintage National Parks series.
The Road to Paradise (published by Waterbrook) takes the reader on a journey to Mount Rainier National Park through the eyes of Margie Lane, a naive young socialite who is drawn to the park by her love of nature as well as her wish to escape an undesirable situation at home. The year is 1927, but unlike in the cities, the only things “roaring” in the park are bears and mountain lions. New to park life, Margie at first butts heads with the reclusive park ranger assigned to help her get her bearings. But soon they find themselves working together to stop an unscrupulous businessman from ruining the park for his own profit. The Road to Paradise offers plenty of romance and intrigue against the rugged, untamed beauty of the mountain wilderness.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Road to Paradise, especially the details of what it was like for a woman to work there during my very favorite era, the 1920s. Come join Karen Barnett and me in our imaginary park lodge as we settle into comfortable chairs near the great stone fireplace and have a chat.
Jennifer Lamont Leo: Tell us a bit about the story behind The Road to Paradise. You used to be a forest ranger, right? Tell us a little about that. Is that where you got your inspiration?
Karen Barnett: That’s definitely what inspired the Vintage National Parks novels. I worked as a park ranger at both Mount Rainier National Park and at Oregon’s Silver Falls State Park. I started working in parks while I was still in college and graduate school and had some of the best summers of my life doing so. There’s nothing like living in a national park all summer, spending time with people who are enjoying the beautiful outdoors, and then having the park all to yourself after they head home. I still remember grabbing my breakfast and sitting outside the park housing at Mount Rainier watching the sunrise turning the peak purple and pink. The joke is always that rangers are paid in sunrises and sunsets. It’s actually pretty true.
I’d been working for Oregon State Parks for a couple of years when we decided to start our family. I stepped away from park work to become a stay-at-home mom and to follow a new dream—writing. It took over a decade to get my writing career off the ground, though, so I don’t encourage aspiring writers to quit their day job.
JLL: “Forest ranger” sounds like a dream job to many of us desk-bound types. Do you ever wish you still had that job?
KB: I do–often. I miss working in beautiful places and opening people’s eyes to the intricacies of the natural world. I sometimes have to remind myself that it was also a draining job. When you put on the big hat, you’re a public commodity and always have to be ready to represent the park’s public image or enforce park regulations. You also are expected to work weekends, evenings, summers, and holidays. Whenever the rest of the world is out playing, you’re on the job. And park housing wasn’t always about the sunrises–think cramped quarters that you share with rodents and large insects. So there are definitely good and bad aspects of the job. But I still miss it.
JLL: Have conditions changed much for National Park employees since the 1920s? If so, how? What things remain similar?
KB: In preparation for writing The Road to Paradise, I spent time in the archives at Mount Rainier reading through the Chief Ranger’s monthly reports for 1927 to get a feeling for what my hero would be doing on a daily basis. I was surprised to find him doing some very basic work like repairing phone wires, refinishing wood floors, patrolling trails, and such. Today that position is much more administrative. In fact, I’d say the NPS as a whole has become more streamlined and specialized. Rangers are hired for specific types of jobs. I was part of the interpretive staff—the naturalists who run the campfire programs, offer guided hikes, answer questions at the visitor centers, and get to work with cute little junior rangers. Other rangers serve as park police, climbing rangers, natural resource stewards, fee collectors, trail crew, maintenance, etc.
Also, as shown in The Road to Paradise, 1920s-era park service was a man’s world. There were a few isolated cases of women rangers scattered around the country, but the staff was overwhelmingly male. Parks still struggle with cases of discrimination and sexual harassment (there have been some very public cases in the past ten years), but I wasn’t aware of any in the parks where I worked. [If you’d like to know more about the history of women in the parks, head over to my website and sign up for my email newsletter. You’ll receive a link to a free download of my “Women in the National Parks” e-booklet.]
JLL: The Vintage National Parks series follows your earlier series set in San Francisco. As the old song goes, does your “heart belong” in the West? Do you find the region a particularly rich source of story ideas?
KB: I’ve spent most of my life in the west, so it’s a comfortable place for me to set novels. I’m familiar with the lay of the land, the climate, the smells, and sounds. That frees up some of my research time to focus on the history rather than the basics of the setting. But with that said, I’m not opposed to writing farther afield in the future. I have a simmering story idea that centers around a hot spring resort in Georgia, and if I end up writing more books about National Parks (after these three), I’d love to explore parks located in other regions of the country.
JLL: Do you share any personality traits in common with your main character, Margie? Is she based on anyone you know?
KB: I originally based Margie on my own experiences in the National Park Service. When I first started working as a ranger, I had a huge amount of enthusiasm and book knowledge, but no practical outdoors skills. As I wrote Margie’s character, however, she took on a voice all her own. She’s poetic, artistic, and whimsical—much more so than me. One reader compared her to Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne Shirley character, and I can definitely see that.
JLL: What inspires you to write historical fiction?
KB: I write historical fiction because I have a secret desire to travel through time. I’m not a genius inventor, so this is my way of accomplishing that dream.
JLL: How did you choose the time period(s) you write in?
KB: Both my debut novel (Mistaken) and the Golden Gate Chronicles were inspired by historical events, so the time periods were pretty set. With The Road to Paradise, I was looking to tell the story of women breaking into this male-dominated profession and the 1920s just felt like the right time for that to me. The 1920s and 30s were a period of massive change for our nation and also a golden age for our national parks. People were beginning to embrace the idea of family vacations and traveling for the purpose of recreation. Prior to that, most US travel was done for economic or family reasons.
JLL: What are some ways you “refill the well” of your creativity?
KB: That’s a great question and is something I’ve honestly struggled with in the past year. I used to say that watching TV and movies in my downtime inspired me (I’m a Netflix junkie), but I discovered recently that it had begun to actually sap my desire to write. So in recent months, I’ve started reading a lot more—coming back to my “first love” if you will. Seeing what some of my favorite authors are doing in their novels inspires me to get back to the computer and improve my own craft.
I also enjoy photography. My dad is a retired photographer, and he taught me a lot about viewing the world through a camera lens. I find that my favorite photos are the ones that tell a story, or at least hint at one.
JLL: What aspects of novel-writing do you enjoy most? Least?
KB: I love the research most of all. I get all giddy when I find a great book or webpage that will provide fodder for my writing. I also love to travel and immerse myself in the setting. Sometimes it’s tough for me to put the research aside and get on to the task of writing.
Least? The self doubt. Whenever I’m about two thirds of the way through the first draft of a manuscript, all the negative voices start chanting in my head:
You’ll never finish this.
Who would read this garbage?
Everyone’s going to realize you’re not really talented.
Why did you ever start this?
It makes me shudder just thinking about it. I don’t think the voices really abate until after the novel is published and the first reviews begin to roll in, but by then I’m on to another project. This writing business is not for the faint-hearted.
JLL: Are you a “plotter” or a “pantster”?
KB: I’m a pantster. I do write a loose synopsis so I know the general framework of the plot, but I leave myself lots of wiggle room. I like when the characters surprise me. Those moments always take me off-guard, but it’s also a lot of fun. I do have to say that being a pantster is also terrifying. The blinking cursor is NOT my friend.
JLL: What are you working on now?
KB: I’m currently writing the third book in the Vintage National Parks series. It is set in Yellowstone in 1934 and will feature a woman who has grown up in Yellowstone, a hero who has never been off the streets of Brooklyn, and one of FDR’s New Deal programs, the Civilian Conservation Corps. I’m still in the early stages of writing this one, and already the characters are flying off the page. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.
JLL: The Road to Paradise is part of a series, right? Tell us a little about the other books in the series.
KB: I guess I just told you about book three, didn’t I? Haha! The second book of the series is undergoing edits at my publishing house and will release this June. Where the Fire Falls is set in 1929 Yosemite. Olivia Rutherford has rocketed onto the watercolor art scene and mastered an avant-garde reputation to distract wealthy buyers from her family’s shameful past. When she is hired by a popular travel magazine to illustrate Yosemite and its one-of-a-kind Firefall, she hopes the lucrative contract will lift her and her sisters from poverty. Trail guide Clark Johnson knows a lot about running from your past, but he also knows that God sometimes uses Yosemite to show people who they really are—or rather, who He wants them to be.
Look for The Road to Paradise and other books by Karen Barnett at your favorite bookseller. To enter to win a free e-book of The Road to Paradise, simply leave a comment below. I’ll pick a winner at random on Wednesday, December 6, 2017.