Local author Scott Graham takes a stroll in search of inspiration in his “back yard” on Animas Mountain recently. Graham’s first mystery, Canyon Sacrifice, just came out and he is working on the second in the series, Mountain Rampage. The series was picked up by Utah-based publisher Torrey House Press./Photo by Steve Eginoire

Covering new ground

‘Canyon Sacrifice’ marks local author’s foray into mystery

by Page Buono


What: Book launch and signing party for Canyon Sacrifice by Durango author Scott Graham
When: Tues., May 20, 6:30 - 7:30 p.m.
Where: Maria’s Bookshop, 960 Main Ave.

Durango native and author Scott Graham has written the first commercial fiction book to be published by Torrey House Press out of Salt Lake City. A mystery novel, Canyon Sacrifice launches a mystery series set in national parks across the United States.

The publishing of Graham’s novel is the product of a series of love affairs: Graham’s with Durango, the Colorado Plateau and mystery novels; Torrey House Press’ love of the West and Maria’s Bookshop; and Maria’s love for local authors, regional successes and a publishing house with a vision.

“What links us all together is a love of this place and a love of storytelling,” Torrey House Editorial Director and Co-publisher Kirsten Allen said.

And, in 230 pages of action, lore and cultural collisions – Graham tells a compelling story.

Graham’s first five nonfiction books have been reviewed positively by numerous publications, including the New York Times. Extreme Kids, his most recent, won him the National Outdoor Book Award.

Canyon Sacrifice is Graham’s first successful foray into fiction – but it isn’t his first attempt. There was another, about 10 years back, also set in Durango. Graham said it came close to seeing the light of day, but the failure – if we must call it that – didn’t deter him from trying again.

“If as a writer you aren’t comfortable with failure, you’re in the wrong profession,” Graham said.

Graham’s renewed inspiration, the one that resulted in Canyon Sacrifice, sprouted on a road trip with his family. Zig-zagging between colleges, Graham, along with his wife, Sue, and their two sons passed through Yellowstone National Park.

“In every single gift shop the main thing they were featuring were C.J. Box’s books,” Graham said of the well-known Wyoming writer.

Box is among the top five New York Times bestselling authors, with 15 novels to his credit, the majority of which are mystery. To Graham, the millions of people who visit national parks every summer seemed to be a good target.

Other inspirations included Death in the Grand Canyon, a nonfiction account of deaths in the canyon, which has been a best-seller in Grand Canyon gift shops for years.

Knowing that he wanted to write mysteries, the biggest task for Graham was ensuring there would be an opportunity to market them – and a summer road trip seemed to offer up just that.

Canyon Sacrifice, the first in the planned series, takes place in the Grand Canyon – a national park Graham knows and loves best, having traveled through it multiple times on foot and afloat. 4

“It’s such a fantastic place,” Graham said.

Graham in his home office., working on  the next book in his new mystery series../Photo by Steve Eginoire

The protagonist, archaeologist Chuck Bender, is a fairly “standard” Durangoan, complete with a Fort Lewis College education, desert wrinkles and a preoccupation with fitness. Throughout his career, Bender is assigned digs in various national parks.

“The idea is that at each national park ... bodies start to pile up and he has to figure it out,” said Graham.

Fiction has proven a unique challenge for Graham, as all the pieces have to come together perfectly. And unlike nonfiction, where the real world provides tangible fodder, fictional characters, relationships and interactions all have to come from inside the writer’s head.

“You want entertaining, a real sense of place, strong story, strong plot, interesting characters and value added” Graham said.

For Graham, the ingredients for the story, plot and sense of place were easily established – the Grand Canyon being what it is and all. The value added for Graham is archaeology, whereby readers can learn about the history of the various parks. To facilitate this, Graham took a three-day intensive archaeology course at FLC.

As far as characters, Graham enjoyed playing off cultural riffs unique to this region. Bender was raised by a single mother and after discovering the outdoors was most comfortable spending days alone. Then, in his 40s, he falls in love with a Latina woman who has two little girls – you know, to present multiple challenges on all levels.

“You throw all those components together in the Grand Canyon, and then you give him the worst problem he can have,” Graham said. “His new young daughter gets kidnapped.”

As a parent, Graham knows that kidnapping is as bad as it can get. But, true to the genre’s character, it all out alright. “You know we’re headed toward a Hollywood ending,” Graham said.

With both Bender and his wife having some skeletons in their closets, the mystery becomes finding out who the kidnappers are. Graham takes readers intimately into the setting, his knowledge of the places he writes about apparent at every turn.

 “He takes you on a literary trip into wild places,” Allen said. 

Of his writing process, Graham said there seems to be two camps when it comes to mystery: those who outline the whole thing, map it out and almost work backwards; and those, like himself, who are taken for a ride themselves, adding an element of surprise to the final product.

“The problem with my method is that it takes a lot longer,” he said. “You write yourself into a corner where things don’t add up, then you have to lop off that chunk and start over.”

Canyon Sacrifice took about a year to write. Once he completed a first draft, Sue, his wife, was editor.

After sending it to fellow writers for feedback, Graham began the marketing process. One copy wound up in the hands of Andrea Avantaggio, co-owner of Maria’s. Stranded in the snow at a book conference somewhere, Avantaggio gave it a read and contacted Torrey House. She told them Graham’s novel was worth looking at, and she told them she could sell it.

For Torrey House, its genesis started at Maria’s during a journey through the Four Corners several years ago. With the idea brewing for starting a publishing house, Allen and her husband, Mark Bailey, passed through Durango. Standing in Maria’s, staring at books by authors like Thorough and Terry Tempest Williams, they said, “we want a book on this shelf.” And in 2010, Torrey House – named for the Utah town on the edge of Capitol Reef where the couple has a home – was born.

Graham’s novel will be the first work of commercial fiction for the publisher. Commercial fiction speaks to the plot-driven genres like romance, mystery or thriller, that appeal to a broad base. The rest of Torrey House’s books fall into the “literary fiction” genre – also connected to place and a love of the land, but generally more introspective.

Once Allen and Bailey read through Canyon Sacrifice, they too saw a place on the shelf for the riveting mystery. Preservation, respect, family and wilderness are all subtle themes, and the very nature of the setting advocates awe for and protection of these incredible places. For Allen, a particularly strong part of Graham’s novel is the emphasis on the clash of cultures – namely Hispanic, Native American and Anglo – that drives character in the book and is so representative of this region. 

With book No. 1 on the road, Graham is hustling to finish No. 2 in the series. 

“It’s such a challenge to write one book and sell another,” Allen said, commenting on Graham’s busy schedule. Allen said some authors think once the final version of the book is submitted, their work is done, but not so. “Writers have to work really hard to get out there,” she said.

So, between marketing Canyon Sacrifice, serving on the Regional Housing Alliance Board of Directors, and being a father and husband, Graham is pounding away at the next in the series. Mountain Rampage, due next summer, will take place in Yellowstone, back where the idea for the books first sprang forth.

Find out more at www.scottfranklingraham.com

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