Please welcome Sandi Ault, author of the beautifully charged Jamaica Wild series!
Sandi's Jamaica Wild Titles
New Mystery Reader: You’ve had great success with your series featuring New Mexico BLM Ranger Jamaica Wild. Tell us a bit about Jamaica’s background with the BLM and Jamaica herself.
Sandi Ault: Jamaica Wild is a Resource Protection Agent who works out of the Taos field office of the Bureau of Land Management. Her charge is to protect the public lands and resources in the remote areas she patrols. As readers will attest, Jamaica has an uncanny knack for sniffing out danger and finding herself in the middle of dilemmas. She’s tough, a bit of a loner in spite of her forest ranger boyfriend, and she lives with a wolf named Mountain, with whom she has deeply bonded.
NMR: As a native New Mexican, naturally I’m loving that you set your series in The Land of Enchantment. What led you to this great choice of settings?
SA: I will confess: I have been completely in love with northern New Mexico since the first time I set foot there. For me, that area represents a place that is still wild, still untamed, still rich in natural resources, and mostly undeveloped, although I see that changing more and more as the years go by. I love the remote mountain villages where it seems like time has stood still for centuries. I love the adobe structures that resonate with the earth’s temperatures and rhythms. I love the tri-cultural aspect of that area—that vibrant mix of American Indian and Hispanic culture blended with the assortment of Anglos who have come to live wild there.
I taught writing at the University of New Mexico in Taos for a couple semesters, and we have adopted family at a few of the pueblos. My husband and I were married in New Mexico, and it will always be dear to us.
NMR: You include a bit of the mystique that is inherent in NM in your Wild series, and so I have to ask if you’ve ever had one of the types of otherworldly experiences you often describe first-hand.
SA: You dang betcha! I don’t think I could invent much wilder experiences than I have had in the Land of Enchantment, from meeting an old wizened curandera very much like Tecolote (the curandera in the WILD Mystery Series) to getting trapped in a cave-dwelling ruin under a canyon rim in a hundred-year rain that turned the desert into roiling flash-flood rivers in a matter of hours. As for the extra-sensory aspects, I seem to be drawn to that kind of experience in my own life, so it’s easy for me to paint that kind of episode into Jamaica’s experience
I think the more our highly-technical society pulls away from nature and the earth in terms of our daily life experience, the less useful this extra-sensory skill seems to be for navigating through the maze of one’s adventures, and so few people today have developed a high level of perception for that element of life. But my Puebloan family, especially the elders, still live in a way that assumes everything is alive with spirit and meaning: the rocks, the trees, the plants and animals, the wind, the moon and stars. And in studying and decoding these meanings, they see things that most people miss. Jamaica sometimes bridges the gap between modern culture and the ancient ways of the Puebloans, and so she gets glimpses of things that seem “unreal” to our modern way of life. I’m lucky that the same thing has happened to me a few times.
NMR: In your last novel, Wild Penance, you built your tale around the somewhat controversial issue of Los Penitentes; can you share with your readers what this entailed and what it was about this subject that inspired you to write about it?
SA: I feel like I’m hurrying as fast as I can to capture the vanishing West as I write the WILD Mystery Series. Los Penitentes are a real sect, a tertiary of the Catholic Church that many believe developed in the 1500’s when Spain sent a few missionaries to the new world and those few developed a lay order to take care of weddings, burials, baptisms, and other religious rituals in the remote areas. When Bishop Lamy (a French bishop) recalled the Spanish priests some time later, the Penitentes became the only arm of the Church left to do its work in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. The medieval practice of harsh penance was one of the remnants that remained with this brotherhood, and like so much of Hispanic culture in northern New Mexico, it remained unchanged for several centuries. I found it captivating the first time I witnessed a Penitente procession. I was smitten with Los Hermanos’ moradas, their places of “secret” worship. Just like Jamaica, I found my curiosity mounting, and I just wanted to know more about them. And the more I learned, the more fascinated I became!
I truly did meet an elder in a small village who—much like the character of Regan in WILD PENANCE—told me the story of witnessing a Penitente crucifixion when she was a small child, and how the crucified man died and his shoes were left on the doorstep for his wife to find. As soon as she told me this story, I thought it would make a tremendous basis for a murder mystery!
NMR: Your regard and thorough research on the subject goes pretty deep; did you find this an easy subject to learn about considering the secrecy surrounding it, or did you find yourself hitting some block walls?
SA: So, that’s a great question, Stephanie, and one that most reviewers wouldn’t think to ask. It was extremely difficult to get people to open up and talk to me about Los Penitentes. In the time when I was doing my research for this book (the nineties), it was still forbidden to share any of their secrets. Lately, the brotherhood has opened up some in order to seek more members, since their numbers are dwindling as the elders pass on and fewer and fewer men feel compelled to join at a young age. I was literally chased out of one village by stick-bearing residents when I tried to photograph the moradas with the huge crosses that Los Hermanos drag lying outside. Another time, I was warned not to come back to a village when I asked questions at the house next to the morada. And most people I questioned either feigned ignorance or refused to answer my queries. But once I did find an elder or two who would talk with me, they then referred me to others, and that led to a wider and wider network of folks who shared their experience and knowledge.
I’d also like to champion the librarians at the public libraries in Taos and Santa Fe, who helped me find all sorts of remote texts, some of them even from as far away as Spain and Italy, to help with my research.
NMR: All your books seem very well researched, and as they seem to go pretty in depth - I have to ask: truthfully, how much fun do you really have with that part of the process?
SA: Uh-oh! You busted me! I LOVE the research aspect. It’s an excuse to live dangerously and have a ton of fun! I went to Oregon to observe mountain lions in the wild on a preserve (just as they were bringing their young out of their dens) in my research for WILD SORROW. I rode with the river rangers and interviewed a handful of medical examiners and all the Search and Rescue folks for the info I needed for the body recovery for WILD PENANCE. Of course, I served as a fire information officer on many wildfires in my research for WILD INFERNO, and the climax scene in WILD INDIGO is based on the time I was trapped in the cliff dwelling during the hundred-year rain. I research as if I were writing non-fiction. I try to be every bit as credible as I possibly can, so I don’t break the fictive dream for the reader, who would naturally “wake up” from the story and begin to disbelieve it if they discovered something that wasn’t right in the details.
And I live with a wolf. We have adopted two. Mountain was our first, and the character of Mountain is based on the real wolf who was my best friend in this life.
On the research subject, I’m doing a ton of research right now for the next book—have done everything from SWAT training to learning to use a variety of different guns. I hope to get to do some sniper training with the Army for this book as well. This involves getting and staying in really buff shape so that I can keep up with the folks who teach me this stuff, carry my own rig, and look out for myself and not get in their way. I spent over a year preparing to take a 26-point physical qualification test to take Special Reaction Team training. It nearly killed me, but I passed the test!
NMR: Your novels seem just as focused on the setting as on the deep characterizations; which of the two do you find yourself enjoying more when writing?
SA: For me, it’s all the same. The setting is a character in my work. I could not write a novel without considering the landscape as important as any other aspect of the work. No matter what that setting was. I think that comes from being a part of a Puebloan family, where every sign and cue and message from nature is just like a phone call or text message is to one of us more techno types in our culture. I have been taught to read all the signs that come to me, and the landscape is always speaking. Always.
NMR: Readers who are familiar with your Wild series would no doubt love to hear more about Jamaica’s choice for a close companion – a wolf - and might be surprised to find that this is something you’re more than familiar with. Tell us a bit about this interesting choice of companions.
SA: My husband and I thought it would be a romantic idea to adopt a wolf some years back. Boy, were we ignorant! The whole episode was an education of the most trying kind. It ended up completely changing our lives, and for the better in our case, but it’s not for everyone. And it could have gone the opposite way and either ruined or ended the wolf’s life. Mountain was an alpha-type male, and he did all the things (and more) that I describe in the WILD Mystery Series, from escaping from locked cars, gates, and doors, to ruining all our personal possessions. The “abandonment anxiety” thing is completely real. Fortunately for all of us, we changed our lives so that Mountain could live with us. It could have been disastrous if we hadn’t. Mountain led us to the West, to the Wild, and to an earth-centered life, and he taught me how to live and to love life. I have never fully recovered from losing him, but I know he would be delighted to know that he is the “star” of a mystery series.
The wolf we live with now, Tiwa, is a more docile (though much larger) companion. More of a Beta type. Everything we learned from Mountain, we were able to apply to living with Tiwa and so the whole thing has gone much more smoothly.
Our lives are both enlarged and confined by living with a wolf (and a Missouri wildcat we adopted—his name is Buckskin). It’s sure not for everyone. It’s not like having a dog. We don’t try to tame Tiwa, and he is not at all obedient. We pretty much live on his terms.
NMR: I was lucky enough to personally attend one of your readings after the publication of Wild Penance when you revealed that your next book was going to go in a different direction. Could you share some of that with our readers?
SA: Yes, it’s time (and a really good career move) for me to take things in a new direction for this next book because I want to keep high on the bestseller lists so I can keep writing WILD Mysteries. I’m introducing a new character in the novel I’m working on now, but never fear: Jamaica will be back!
Let me reveal to all your readers how much I admire YOUR writing. I loved meeting you, and wish I could have had more time with you.
NMR: Do you have plans to return to your series?
SA: Yes, yes, yes! I don’t think I have a choice, really. Momma Anna wakes me up at night with things she wants me to write down. Tecolote whispers to me when I’m hiking with the wolf. And Jamaica was kayaking with me just the other morning on Lake Estes. These characters of mine—they won’t leave me alone! It gets pretty crowded in our little mountain cabin at times!
NMR: And finally, how would you describe a perfect summer evening?
SA: Again, what a great question! My husband and I built a big deck on the front of our cabin that looks out across our forested mountain valley. We put an arbor over part of it with a sunscreen, and a friend of ours made us some lovely redwood furniture with pine-tree cutouts. I like to put down a lambie for the wolf to lie on, light a candle lantern, and maybe even play tunes from my iPod through portable speakers while my husband and I sit and watch the light shimmer over the top of the mountain and then fade into night. Our front meadow is almost always populated with elk at dusk, sometimes deer as well. When it begins to get dark, we usually see a fox. And every once in a while a mountain lion or a bear.
I might add that we don’t get to do this very often, which makes it all the more precious. We both travel more than is right for anyone to do—my husband builds really big things and commutes all over the country by plane, and I do a lot of touring, promoting, speaking, teaching, and conferences, not to mention all the extensive research, which usually means travel. Our neighbor, the Button Rock Ranger, is a great wolf and wildcat sitter and house-watcher. But when we do get a night or two at home, that’s my idea of a perfect summer evening.
And a perfect summer morning could go either of two ways: I like to write in the same spot on the deck and smell the pines and hear the birds as I do. Or, if I can get myself out of bed early (I’m mainly a night owl), I like to put my kayak on Lake Estes while the water is still smooth as glass. The snow-capped peaks reflect in the water as I paddle, and the eagles fish, sometimes swooping down right in front of the bow of my boat, which I named the Sea Wolf. It doesn’t get much better than that.
NMR: Thank you Sandi, it's been a true pleasure!
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