Alice Henderson’s first mystery, A Solitude of Wolverines, is the first in a knockout nature and adventure series featuring wildlife biologist Alex Carter.
When the protagonist of A Solitude of Wolverines, Alex Carter, is forced to flee a shooting, she ends up in a remote area of Montana studying the elusive and rare wolverine.
Author Alice Henderson is already an established horror and fantasy writer with an apocalyptic series, Skyfire Saga, and novelizations of popular shows like Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and Supernatural, but A Solitude if Wolverines marks the first in her new wilderness mystery series. Just like Alex, her heroine, Henderson studies wildlife in their habitats.
Her author site states, "She undertakes wildlife surveys to determine what species are present on lands that have been set aside for conservation. There she ensures there are no signs of poaching and devises of ways to improve habitat."
Mystery Scene columnist and reviewer Robin Agnew caught up with Henderson to discuss her gripping new book. All things being equal, A Solitude of Wolverines kicks off what promises to be a long-running and enjoyable new series.
Robin Agnew for Mystery Scene: I know this isn't your first novel, but it's your first mystery. What made you want to switch over to the mystery side of things?
Alice Henderson: I've long been a huge fan of mystery and thrillers. I've been devouring the works of Nevada Barr, Sara Paretsky, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, James Rollins, and others for years.
The readers of mystery are devoted and passionate, and I loved the thought of writing something for readers as voracious as I am. Plus, I really enjoy the analytical process of devising a mystery, planting seeds, and building suspense.
What is your background? Are you experienced or trained in tracking animals? I thought the tracking details in the book was one of its strongest elements.
Thank you! I do indeed do a lot of work with wildlife and I've even been lucky enough to see rare wolverines twice in my life.
I survey for the presence of species in a variety of locations. Sometimes I do this by walking transects and looking for tracks or scat. I've surveyed for the presence of jaguars in New Mexico, wolves and wolverines in Montana, endangered bats in Arkansas, spotted owls in California, and more.
I also employ bioacoustic methods. I place recorders out in the field to capture the sounds of both audible creatures such as birds and amphibians, and mammals like wolves, as well as the ultrasonic calls of bats. Then I can examine the recordings and determine what species are present. I also do a lot of geographic information systems (GIS) work for wildlife. I map preserves, design wildlife corridors, and undertake things like species distribution modeling.
Several times when your main character, Alex, is out in the wild, she thinks about how it's where she feels most comfortable and at home. Is the outdoors where you feel most at home?
Yes, the outdoors is definitely where I feel most at home. To be hiking in a remote location, hearing the wind sighing in the trees, smelling pine carrying in on the breeze, and delighting to the roar of a whitewater river is when I'm most at peace. If I'm out gazing at a grizzly bear digging for roots in a wildflower-strewn meadow, or watching a family of wolves cavorting with their playful cubs, I am in heaven.
I loved one of the settings in the novel of an abandoned hotel—very Stephen King. It's wilderness gothic. Is it based on a real place?
Thank you! That place was indeed inspired by a real location. I was doing a wildlife survey on a preserve that had at one time been home to a thriving conference center with a number of outbuildings. The conference center had closed down and later on a land trust had acquired the land and protected it for wildlife. The buildings had all been left in place. At the time I did my study, the conference center had fallen into disrepair and become home to bats. There were empty stairwells and long, lonely hallways where the wind whistled through spaces around windows. Moss and other plants grew inside the building, water seeping down walls and through the floors. Nature was retaking that place, and I was inspired.
For a long-running series, the author often has a character arc she is thinking about. I know this is your first mystery and I'm making a leap, but this feels like the beginning of a long series. So, what might be your plans for Alex?
Alex feels torn between her longing to be out in nature and where she fits in with society. Though she has two close friends (her dad and her college friend, Zoe), she often feels a disconnect with most other people. She's a bit adrift when it comes to many aspects of society. She works alone in remote places. Her last serious relationship fell apart because her partner did not understand her need to be out in nature. In future books, I'd like to explore her journey with striking a balance between finding solace in nature and exploring her place in society.
Where did you start when you began to put together the story—character, setting, or plot—or all three? Is there a most important element to you?
I was inspired to write A Solitude of Wolverines while I was on a cross-country trek doing wildlife presence surveys on a number of sanctuaries. The work is fascinating, and I wanted to give voice to the many species that are vanishing. I thought the remote setting of such surveys would be conducive to a suspense series.
My character, Alex Carter, and my plot came into being simultaneously. I wanted to create a strong protagonist who cared deeply about wildlife, had a wide range of skills, and could think and fight her way out of dangerous situations. So then I just needed to choose which species to feature for the first book. I decided upon wolverines because few people are aware of them, and their population is down to only 300 in the contiguous United States. So wolverines then determined the setting, as they only live in isolated areas of the Rockies and Cascades.
In general, I view character, setting, and plot as interwoven, so I wouldn't say one is more important to me than another. I tend to come up with the plot first, then figure out what kind of character would be most challenged by that plot, and what kind of setting would provide the most suspenseful and adventurous twists.
Who are your influences and what mysteries do you like to read or find inspirational?
I absolutely love the work of Nevada Barr, as I very much enjoy mysteries set in outdoor locations, like the work of William Kent Krueger. I also love thrillers that tie into science or history, like James Rollins' The Demon Crown and Douglas Preston's and Lincoln Child's White Fire.
I revel in historical mysteries, too. The Matthew Corbett series by Robert McCammon, set in colonial America, is among my favorites, as are the Molly Murphy mysteries by Rhys Bowen, set in early 1900s New York. Tough, three-dimensional female characters really appeal to me, like Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski, Nevada Barr's Anna Pigeon, and Robert McCammon's Berry Grigsby.
Did you learn anything new about your writing craft putting this novel, ,your first mystery, together?
While I've spent a lot of time in the wilds of Montana where I set the book, all my research about wolverines allowed me to picture that setting from their point of view. What would be considered extremely technical mountain climbs for us are treated by wolverines as almost flat terrain. They can move up and down near vertical surfaces quickly and with ease.
In terms of pacing, two of my favorite things to write are action and fight scenes, so I had to make certain to put in some carefully thought out downtime between climaxes to give Alex some time to steep in her surroundings and deal with her relationships both with her ex-boyfriend and the townspeople she encounters.
Was their a book that was transformational for you as a reader or a writer?
I read Watership Down as a kid, and that was the first time I felt truly transported by a book to another time, another place, another world of mythology and language. I was enchanted.
Later, as a writer, I discovered the works of Robert McCammon, like his novel Boy's Life. He manages to bring whole worlds and characters to vivid life. When I read his fiction, I feel like I could call those characters on the phone, and that I've lived in those places he describes. It inspired me to bring my own worlds to such vivid life.
And finally, what's are the best and worst parts of writing a book? What really makes your heart sing? What fills you with dread?
My favorite stage in writing a novel is the very start, when I'm devising the plot and characters. At that point, anything is possible. My imagination can roam and I can try out different ideas and see how they mesh with each other. When things start to take form and fit together, it's an exciting feeling.
I think the hardest part for me are those days when I'm well into writing the actual narrative, and I worry over the execution of the novel itself—is this interesting? Will this draw readers in? Is my pacing okay? Then as I near the end, I find myself happily excited again, flowing along with the story to its completion.
Alice Henderson is a writer of fiction, comics, and video game material, as well as a wildlife researcher. Her love of wild places inspired her new thriller series, which begins with A Solitude of Wolverines, as well as her novel Voracious, which takes place in Glacier National Park.