Last week, the time came to make some hard choices. I had felt the moment hovering around my peripheral mindspace for months, the tension building, the confusion and chaos and indecision swirling like mist on the slopes of the mountains right before it snows, warning me that change was coming. It didn't strike me unaware, I had seen it building for some time, and I knew it was inevitable, that resistance was futile.
And then something else happened that hastened in the climatic scene: the passing of someone whose work I deeply admired. Never again would there be a new book from Tony Hillerman, another of his accounts of events in the west, or one of his short stories, even a blurb from the master for a new author's book. Suddenly an urgent whisper began to loop in my head: what are you in this life? Why are you here?
It has been my habit, probably since early childhood, to try to live at least three or four lives simultaneously—it keeps things incredibly exciting. One of these lives I have loved beyond measure is firefighter. In the handful of years I have served as a volunteer firefighter, I have seen a fair amount of death, participated in many rescues, served in life-saving and life-losing dramas, comforted the injured, sad, broken, and grieving, searched for the missing, given aid to those in many kinds of need, and worked with some of the most heroic and humble people I have ever known. This has been a world of night-screaming pagers, cliff-diving automobiles, heart-stopping medical emergencies, dangerous rescues in rugged terrain, extraction of the living and the dead from cars on ice-coated mountain roads and in driving blizzards, keeping custody of bodies until the coroner could arrive, seeing the sorrow of suicide and the uplifting hope of getting to someone in time to perhaps make a difference not only between life and death but in quality of life because of expedient intervention in trauma. It has been a world of staging for moonlit chopper landings in the field across from our tiny mountain fire station, of complex rope-rappel team rescues over cliffs, of wading in freezing water and finding broken-but-breathing bodies on the banks of the river, and of helping to hoist a heavy stretcher in order to carry a corpse out of the woods.
The part that is hardest to describe and dearest to me is fighting wildfire. As with all wildland firefighters, I have an indescribable love for this dangerous and exciting occupation—a sense that the edge between life and death is where life is most meaningful, and the line between is sharpest when it is boiling black smoke and roaring with flame. I will not try to explain this here, for I feel that I have already described it to the best of my ability in WILD INFERNO, and you can find a sense of it there if you are so inclined. But I will say this: I have passionately loved being a wildland firefighter.
Now, back to the whispering voice. I have also loved this other life I've been leading lately—the life of an author. Stories well in me like the flames erupting in a wind-driven wildfire. The tales take on a life of their own with characters queuing up to take part. And I so love the West that I hurry as fast as I can to capture its fragile, endangered, rapidly-vanishing nature in the stories I tell in the WILD Mystery Series. I hurry to describe it before what I see is gone forever. And the world has rewarded me for this in so many ways, right from the beginning.
This has been the year of WILD INFERNO. Hailed with critical acclaim, it has also been named one of the best books of 2008 by Publishers Weekly. This book is my tribute to the fiery world of wildland firefighting, where I felt so alive, and where I knew my sleuth, Jamaica would have a thrilling adventure with her wolf, Mountain, and her Pueblo medicine teacher, Momma Anna.
But the next book is better, my best yet. WILD SORROW's story had a powerful grasp on me, and in the writing of that book, in the telling of that tale, I began to slowly let go of fire. I needed time and energy to craft WILD SORROW. I needed expanded emotional bandwidth to do service to the story. By the time I had submitted the manuscript to my editor, I already felt torn between two of my several lives, the two most demanding ones-that of author and that of firefighter.
To be honest, even if I were not seduced by these WILD Mysteries of mine, there is not time enough for both of these lives in one person. There is not energy enough, not compassion enough, nor is there enough availability for both. Touring is hard work, demanding, and strength-zapping. Firefighting is, too. And writing, like firefighting, requires intense focus and complete and total presence. There can be no division of self at the edge; one is either there or not. That is the only way to bring a story to life, and that is the only way to save a life.
When Hillerman passed beyond the ridge, I grieved. And the whispering voice started almost immediately: what are you in this life? Why are you here?
In a matter of days, I knew the answer, and I knew the choice I had to make, though it grieved me painfully to do it. It was time to put out the fire and dedicate myself to the one life I feel truly called to lead: author.