In George Mercer’s mystery novels predators can be both human and animal.
George and I live on the same island off British Columbia’s coast and it was great to chat with him about his career, his books, and his inspiration for more stories about the wild, sometimes forgotten places, in Canada’s wilderness.
In the introduction I mention that this is the final episode of It’s a Mystery Podcast for a while. I have enjoyed myself enormously in the last two years interviewing nearly 70 authors from around the globe.
When I had the idea for show in late 2015 it seemed like it would be a win for everyone: for you, the listeners, who would learn about new books and authors; for the authors themselves who would have an opportunity to shine a light on their books; and not least of all for me. My intention was to meet other authors and create a community of people I knew who are as passionate about writing as I am. I’m happy to say, that’s what happened.
I keep in touch with many of the authors I’ve interviewed over these last two years. It has been a joy getting to know a bit about all of them through our interview together. There is a wealth of creative talent and energy in the world, and I’m so grateful, as I’m sure you are, that these writers take the time, effort and energy to bring us stories that touch our lives.
Thank you for being a part of this adventure for the past couple of years. It has been tremendous fun for me. I hope you enjoyed the interviews as much as I did. ;-)
All the episodes from It’s a Mystery Podcast will remain available from the podcast page, and also on iTunes and YouTube, so if you happen to find the show after we’ve gone off the air, never fear! You can still learn more about the authors I’ve interviewed, and about their books of course.
This episode of It’s a Mystery Podcast is sponsored by the brand new Town Called Horse short mystery, Water Horse.
The Town Called Horse is reeling when its connection to the outside world is cut off. Arthur ‘Sully’ Sullivan’s passenger and freight ship has burned in the night. There are no witnesses, no clues, and any evidence that might have existed has been swallowed by the lake.
Links and resources mentioned in this episode
- Click on any of the book covers to go to George’s books on Amazon
- George mentions some of the parks he’s worked in, including Cape Breton Highlands, and Wood Buffalo.
- Geroge’s site about nature, WriteNature.com
You can also click here to watch the interview on YouTube.
Transcription of Interview with George Mercer
Alexandra: Hi, Mystery readers. I’m Alexandra Amor. This is “It’s a Mystery” podcast, and I’m here today with George Mercer. Hi, George.
George: Hi. How are you doing, Alexandra?
Alexandra: Very well. How are you today?
Alexandra: You’ve got a gorgeous background there. You’re in British Columbia as well, aren’t you, like I am?
George: Yeah, just outside of Sidney, on the Saanich Peninsula. So, looking out at the stormy southeast winds blowing in on town.
Alexandra: It has been quite a stormy time, hasn’t it, lately on the west coast?
George: Yeah, and I was just sort of getting updated on the earthquake last night. I don’t think we felt it here, although I think I woke up and walked around the house exactly when it happened, but I didn’t know what woke me.
Alexandra: Oh, wow, isn’t that interesting? Well, I’ll tell you what, I got woken by air raid sirens, and we were evacuated to high ground, which is the local high school, at 3:00 in the morning, and then they released us at about 4:20, and we were allowed to go back home when the warning was downgraded to an advisory or whatever the next level down is.
George: Wow. And now, you’re doing this? You’re a trooper.
Alexandra: Well, I slept in after that. All right, let me introduce you to our audience, without further ado.
George Mercer is a former Canadian national park warden with over 30 years’ experience working in national parks from the east coast to the west, including the North and the Rocky Mountains. Since retiring in 2012, he has been writing the first fiction series about Canada’s national parks, a mystery-suspense with each novel set in a different park, following his characters as they make their way across Canada.
George currently has three novels published, including the title book, Dyed in the Green, which was released in 2014, Wood Buffalo, released in 2016, and Jasper Wild, which was released in the summer of 2017.
George is currently working on the fourth book in the series titled “Fat Cats,” which he hopes to have out in spring or early summer, 2018.
George, tell me, when you were working for Parks Canada, did you want to write then, or when did the idea to write these series come to you?
George: I always sort of played around with writing. Most of my work in parks, most of my writing there was more tactical in that.
But, I was a bit notorious whenever we ended up at a warden cabin, patrol cabin, where a lot of other people would sign their name in a day. I would often write a small story or a little act all about our trip or whatever. So, I always was interested in writing.
The Dyed in the Green story was the first novel that I wrote, and I actually wrote it about 15 years ago when we were in Jasper National Park. I really wrote it because I found that when we went to Cape Breton Highlands, we had such a profound experience there that it was a story that just sort of resonated with me.
I actually whipped off that story in about three months of nights while our kids are in bed. And initially, I just wrote it, got it out of my system, and I shelved it. I put it in a binder and I shelved it. I did try and get it traditionally published. I did submit it to some publishers. I didn’t get any interest.
But, every time I would pull that binder out, that story would really resonate with me and I said, “You know, there’s at least one story here.” And then, when I gave Dyed in the Green as a draft to some readers to have a look at for me, they were all pretty keen on it and then I sort of thought, “Well, I’m gonna try and turn this into a series,” which is now what I’ve decided to do.
Alexandra: Oh, fantastic. I noticed in the forewords to one of the books, or the front matter, that you have books planned out until 2020. So, “Fat Cats” is going to be coming out this year, 2018, and then you have several other titles after that. My mind just boggles.
How do you know so far in advance what they’re gonna be about?
George: I’ve had a bit of a game plan for a while, and actually, what I’m planning now is after I wrote Jasper Wild, the third book, I felt that I’d left some unfinished business with that book and I actually have even inserted a seventh book into the series that I’m probably gonna call “Maligne Unfinished Business.”
I’ve had the plan for at least six books for quite a while, and I originally sort of started with, I mean, Dyed, as I told you, was written a long time ago, but “Fat Cats” was the thing that got me thinking here about getting back into writing, and it’s now book four on the series.
I’ve always had it sort of figured out that my characters would go across Canada, hit these different national parks that my wife and I worked in ourselves. I’m only writing to places that I know about and worked in. I always had it sort of figured out that it was going to be across Canada trek, and ultimately, the series was gonna return to the east coast, and the very last book is going to end where the first book began.
Alexandra: Oh, nice, what a nice full-circle moment, as Oprah would say.
George: Yeah, that’s sort of the angle. I’ve got so many other writing ideas in me, like all of us, I’m sure, but there is another book that I’m working on called “Hurricane,” which is outside of the series.
“Hurricane” is about a young girl who tries to save a family of grizzly bears, but totally outside of the Dyed in the Green series. But, right now, my focus is the series and just to try and follow through with all that I books planned.
Alexandra: Do you find that it’s easy to keep going? That you’re enjoying the series?
George: Oh, yeah. Right now, “Fat Cats” is with my editor, who’s now a law student at Dalhousie, and while she’s editing that one, I’m getting right back into “Hurricane,” and I’m also thinking lots about this fifth book idea that I had, “Maligne Unfinished Business.”
Because it is a series, there is oftentimes that I will get ideas as I’m going along writing one book about something that I need to incorporate in a subsequent book. There is an African Ranger that comes into the Jasper story who will play a big part in book six or seven called “Rhino’s Horn.”
I’m always adding pieces in, just to remind myself that I need to incorporate these characters and make the links back to the series.
Alexandra: Oh, that’s fantastic. I love hearing that.
When I started learning more about your books, I was reminded of Nevada Barr’s series in the American national parks, which you must get comparisons to that all the time. And also, Paul Doiron’s character, who is in Maine, I think he’s a game warden.
George: Yeah, he is a game warden. Both of those, I won’t protest to be as good a writer as either Nevada Barr or Paul Doiron, but part of the reason why I’m writing my series, and I think Paul hits the nail on the head quite a bit, the only thing I found with Nevada Barr’s writing is, I found that her stories… I called them blood and guts murder mysteries in U.S. parks.
And while I appreciate that it’s plausible, potentially, especially in the U.S. park maybe, let me see those as being the types of stories that really resonate with me for the realities of what we face as park wardens in Canadian national parks. And, even though Dyed in the Green is actually a bit of a murder mystery, that’s not the intent for my series.
My intent is really to certainly try and match the quality probably of writing of Nevada Barr and Paul, but to tell stories that I think are more plausible, and dealt with the experiences we had, with a bit of a fictional twist in them for sure, to try and ramp up the suspense and the mystery.
Alexandra: That’s a great segue actually into my next question.
When you were thinking of Dyed in the Green, was it based on an experience, or an event, or something that you encountered yourself when you were a park warden?
George: As I was saying before, so Dyed in the Green really was, well, first, the expression. It was provided by a friend, a fellow I knew from Lander, actually when we’re working with Buffalo National Park.
We’re talking about people’s commitment to parks and protected areas and people who work as rangers around the world. And, my friend made a comment that an older chief warden would know this, they’d use the expression dyed in the green.
So, unlike being dyed in the wool, similar to being dyed in the wool, yes, but in the sense that people who are passionate about parks and protected areas they’re not dyed in the wool, they’re dyed in the green.
The Cape Breton story was really, it was really an eye opener for me. When we went to Cape Breton. Cape Breton Highlands is an amazing park in the Maritime provinces, one of the larger packs in Atlantic Canada. And right away thought we were inundated with poachings; it was almost like a nightly that we would be out, staking out part of the product for either salmon poacher in the summer or a deer poacher in the fall and winter. And, it was so profound. Some of the people that we dealt with were just notorious.
And yet, within the community, they were almost accepted. They’ve never really been caught before, and people didn’t really have an appreciation for how much poaching these people were doing, and how devastating their poaching could be to the national park. And I think, when we first caught some of these guys and demonstrated people that, one, they could be caught and they were having a major impact on the park. I think we really helped change the community’s attitudes about asking the acceptance of poaching.
And it was, although at the same, I was told, when we moved, it was almost like the night after we left, the poachers came back, they go full-time. It was really sort of that juxtaposition of, on the one side, poaching and the impact that it was having on the park, and the acceptance of poaching within the community.
And the local communities were supporters of the park. I think they just didn’t have an appreciation for how much an impact that poaching, which they also accepted, was having. That started to change when they saw what we were up against and some of the successes that we had.
Alexandra: And, I imagine that then, carrying on from that, you had this experience yourself with poaching and Dyed in the Green came out quite easily.
Were you able to tap into other stories that you had encountered or events to continue on?
George: You know what? In every single park that we’ve worked in, the parks all face these unique challenges. And, when we landed in Wood Buffalo National Park as an example, there was an actual plan back in the ’80s to slaughter all of the bison in Wood Buffalo National Park because of disease issues, but it was really sort of a blown-up issue by Agriculture Canada and Alberta Agriculture, who were pushing agriculture and ranching closer and closer into Wood Buffalos through the Boreal forest.
Anyway, I throw in a bit of a twist with an elder in the community who could be influential about stopping this proposed slaughter, being kidnapped. And so, I throw in a twist in the Wood Buffalo story that adds sort of mystery and suspense to it.
But yeah, every single park faces its unique challenges, and that’s the other thing where my series, I think, is different from some of the stuff. For instance, Nevada Barr has written, and like I say, she’s a phenomenal writer.
But, what I wanted to do is really profile in a fictional way, profile some of the challenges faced by our national parks in Canada, and give people an idea about the challenges that people who work for our national parks, and not just park wardens, but everyone works for national parks.
A lot of people actually outside of parks who are just committed people in the communities who support parks, just to talk with some of the challenges that these places face. But, to do it using fiction and then try to attract readers who might not otherwise read the story about our national parks, might not read a nonfiction story about what was bison slaughter, or might not read a technical paper about poaching and the impacts of poaching. I just wanted to do it with a fictional twist to try and get people who might otherwise sort of slip through the cracks.
Alexandra: What a fantastic idea, I loved it so much. And I imagine, too, you worked in the parks for over 30 years, and so, it’s something you’re obviously very passionate about.
I’m imagining that writing these books then enables you to keep your hand in in a way, and to continue to serve this amazing natural treasure that we have in Canada.
George: I think you hit the nail on the head. That’s exactly it.
In retirement, I sort of didn’t think that I would be writing fiction. But, to be honest with you, I took a couple fiction writing courses at Camosun College in UVic, and the instructor was very encouraging and saw a little bit of the writing in Dyed in the Green and some of the other pieces I’ve written.
The idea of just using it, plus when I retired actually in 2012, I literally retired a day before the federal government did massive cuts to parks, so I wasn’t in a great mood about writing nonfiction. I just found that. And, when people would ask me, “Why are you writing fiction?” I would say, I’m actually writing fiction because I can’t handle the realities that we’re going on.
It is a way to continue, it is a way to keep my hand in it, and it’s also a way to pass on the stories that we’ve experienced over three decades, and to also try and describe some of these. I get a lot of people telling me, “I felt like I was on the Cabot Trail. I felt like I was in the piece south of Astro Delta.” And, that actually means more to me than anything that people were able to get the feeling of what these parks and these very special places are actually like.
Alexandra: Oh, that’s fantastic.
You’ve mentioned your wife, and so, was she working for the park as well at the same time?
George: Yes. Jen and I are both park wardens, and we both worked our way through the system. In the end, I retired as the monitoring ecologist for Gulf Islands National Park, and Jen’s planning to retire in the spring. She still works on the environmental side of things in national parks.
That’s the other thing about our outfit. We often live, even though we live in some of the most iconic, beautiful place in Canada. It’s often small, remote communities that we end up in. And, it’s very common within park circles that you end up with someone else from parks. We know a lot of parks, couples, not only here in Canada, but like around the world. I think that sort of phenomenon, working in this type of an outfit.
Alexandra: Lucky you.
I imagine you got to live in and experience many areas of Canada, Canadians themselves don’t get to experience.
George: Yeah, I think we’ve lived and worked in about seven national parks, and we’ve visited probably half of the national parks in Canada. But, I always think my epitaph over my own gravestone would be I want to come back, and if there is such a thing as reincarnation, come back and do the parks that we never did the first time around.
Alexandra: Great idea. There are a number of them, I was doing a bit of research before this call and there’s a total of 47, except they’re divided into 39 parks and 8 national reserves.
George: The system’s sort of broken into or separated by… There are terrestrial national parks and some of them are reserves, or given the name reserve, like Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, and that title is added on until any pending land claims in the areas are resolved.
So, when those are resolved, they become, oftentimes what happens, they become full-fledged national parks without the reserve sort of title added to it. But also, they become places where a first nation in the community, or in those areas, also have, is not necessarily a co-management role, but it’s pretty much a co-management role.
I’m not sure what it’s formally called anymore. But they have a pretty major role, and in some cases a more significant role than anyone else in the management of the park. And then, of course, there are also natural marine conservation areas which Canada’s, we do lagging behind internationally.
We don’t have a lot of marine protected areas. I know the current government is making a push, trying to create them, but for instance, right here in Southern Strait of Georgia, there is a planned national marine conservation area which would take sort of Gulf Islands National Park would be a core area within it. But then, it would capture all of those portions of the Salish Sea, Harrow Strait, and Georgia Strait, Strait of Georgia. That would then encompass one larger marine protected area where species like orca would have a greater level of protection than they probably currently do now.
George: There’s a lot of places, and if I could write about every national park, I’d have to live to be like 150.
Alexandra: You’re not going to get bored anyway in your retirement, that’s for sure.
I love that in the prologue the protagonist, if I can put it that way, is a cougar, a mountain lion. She’s there in the southern Gulf Islands National Park, correct?
George: That’s right. “Fat Cats” actually, it’s interesting. Before I retired, I was very lucky in my last several years with parks where I got to hire students to help me with the ecological monitoring program, and I had three, I’d say three kickass students of different ages and from different parts of Canada that actually work with me.
We had so much fun and I was so inspired by these students that were like a breath of fresh air coming into the outset, and you realize that the passion for parks and protective areas, wilderness and wild spaces is not unique to any one generation. Now, it is neat to see these younger people coming along.
But, I would often joke, they’d say, you know, “What are you going to do when you retire?” And I’d say, well, because the islands are inundated with deer, but have no predators and people shoot every cougar, black bear, a wolf that shows up, I said, “I’m gonna have a cougar in my dog carrier, in our dog crate, and I’m going to travel around, between the islands in my own boat, and I’m gonna put the cat out on the islands. And I’ll have a GPS collar on it, so I’ll put it out in the winter when there’s no one around and the GPS collar on it, go on, grab it again in the spring.”
And I happened to meet one of the provincial cougar trackers during my work, and I used to joke with him. It sounds funny, but I actually think it’s a very plausible idea. And, I used to say to Jerry, “You know, would you give me cats? You know, a cougar shows up in Victoria and instead of destroying it, let me have it for a few months.” And, I still think it has merit.
Alexandra: It sounds like a good idea to me. We should explain, yeah, that on the southern Gulf Islands, there are these tiny species of deer.
My parents used to live on Pender, and they referred to them as island deer, and they’re little, and there are no natural predators on the Gulf Islands for the most part. So, no bears, no cougars, no wolves, or anything like that. And they do kinda run the place.
My parents used to visit a bed and breakfast before they bought their place on Pender Island, and the family there had named a mother deer who came around the house all the time, and brought her babies in the spring, and that kind of thing.
I really could relate to chapter one in your book with the fellow who’s tracking the cougar. It’s pretty amazing.
George: And, it’s interesting because Sidney Island, which is just across the water here from town. When I arrived here, I was doing monitoring and try and get an idea of how many deer are on the island. It’s all European fallow deer. They were introduced to the island, they’re non-native, and they basically dominated the black-tailed deer. There’s almost no black-tailed in it.
We’re trying to figure out how many European fallow deer there were, and we came to the conclusion that there were somewhere in the order of 3,000 deer on the island, an island that’s only 10 square kilometers. I was working on some population modeling and talking to a British nature park and doctor so and so, I can’t remember her name there. When I told her the numbers, she was blown away. She said, “Like that is totally off the charts.”
And interestingly enough, as I got into writing “Fat Cats” this summer, a cougar showed up on Sidney Island. And, it’s an island that’s owned 20% by the National Park and about 80% by private land owners. And, the land owners ended up taking a vote and they voted to have the cougar killed. But interestingly, the cougar survived. It wasn’t captured for months and months. It just did its thing on the island. It didn’t bother anyone, but it took out a lot of deer and a lot of geese, which also have overpopulated many of the islands here.
And unfortunately, then it was caught and shot in the fall. I spoke to some of the owners over there and they said they were just absolutely disgusted that this cougar had been destroyed. There is this polarized issue of having a cougar on the landscape.
It’s sort of crazy because I also had a young student from Pacific Rim National Park work with me, and she did her masters on cougars. And she said, “You know, people always talk about the risk of having a cougar on an island, or wherever,” but she used the analogy of “But they don’t mind driving down the highway at 100 kilometers an hour, separated by a strip of yellow paint, you know, from oncoming traffic.”
And it’s just our perception of risk is sometimes very odd, and that’s part of the thing that I wanna do in “Fat Cats,” is just to show how a species like a cougar, any predator has an important role play in an ecosystem, and on the islands here in particular. And, that’s part of the frustration from our main character is a cougar shows up and ends up being destroyed, but then he sets about to put cougars on the island on his own. So, they’ll be living my fantasy.
Alexandra: If you can’t do it yourself, you might as well write about somebody who can do it, I suppose. I want to ask two more quick questions before we go.
Ben Matthews is the park warden that you write about. Tell us a little bit about Ben and his background.
George: There’s two main characters that I start with, Ben Matthews and Kate Jones are partners, originally from the east coast. Ben is sort of this young, rambunctious, rummy park warden, who tends not to take no for an answer.
Kate Jones is his partner but she’s much more grounded and she’s often the person that sort of grabs him and brings him back to reality. And really, the series starts out with them traveling across the country and experiencing these different challenges in different parks. Basically trying to fight for the protection of these wild places and wild spaces.
And, they will permeate the whole series, although in “Fat Cats,” I do have a character by the name John Haffcut, who shows up in the Jasper story, in Jasper Wild, ends up at the end of that story being transferred to the Gulf Islands, and then he becomes sort of the main character in the Gulf Islands story. And then, after that, we’ll see some more of Kate Jones.
Ben went to Africa as part of an African exchange program after the Jasper story. So, that’s the link into my “The Rhino’s Horn”. I wanted to incorporate one story that talked about from an international element and talk about sort of the poaching of rhinos and elephants internationally.
That gives this Canadian series a sense of an international component, an international element, and the sense that the issues that we face in Canada, in many ways, actually, the issues we face pale in comparison to what rangers face in protected areas in other parts of the planet. But, yeah, and who knows? That whole African angle may take off. We’ll see.
Alexandra: I can’t wait to see what happens with that. That sounds fascinating as well. One final comment, I guess, it’s not exactly a question.
The cover designs for this series are just spectacular, and Wood Buffalo especially, I think, is absolutely gorgeous.
Do you want to give a little shout out to your cover designer?
George: My cover designer is the only thing that’s not Canadian about my series. My cover designer is a fellow by the name Dan Stiles in Portland, Oregon.
And, how I ended up connecting with Dan? It’s interesting, on a little fiction prize here on the peninsula and I was in the Tanner’s Books to collect my prize, and the book The Sisters Brothers, it always caught my eye, the cover of that story, of that book.
I asked the lady who runs the fiction section at the Tanner’s, “Did this cover do anything for the book?” And she said, “Totally sold the book. It’s such a good cover.” And so, I literally opened up the inside flap and saw the name, and I emailed Dan in Portland, and I said Patrick deWitt wrote The Sisters Brothers and is an award-winning Canadian author. I’m a no-name Canadian author, but I said, “I love your covers and I wonder, would you do them for me, for my series that I’m talking of doing?”
Within a few minutes, I got this reply saying, “Absolutely.” I’ve had to work through his agent in New York, which I thought, “Okay, that’s going to be interesting because we’re probably talking a different price range than I was thinking.” But anyway, both his agent in New York and Dan had been phenomenal.
Dan’s covers are amazing. And, I should have been doing it before but I’m too cheap. But this year, I did submit his covers to Independent Publishers Awards. I’m almost going to put money on the table that Dan’s covers will top out in those awards because they’re phenomenal covers.
[Note: Dan Stiles has also done tour posters for Tom Petty, and Melissa Etheridge, posters for the Squamish Valley Music Festival, and more.]
Alexandra: I totally agree. I’d have money on that bet. They’re just absolutely amazing. I’ll be featuring the books throughout the show notes of this episode so people will be able to see what we’re talking about. Just gorgeous.
George: Well, I always say to him that my challenge is to write a story as good as the cover that holds it together.
Alexandra: This has been amazing, George. Thank you so much for chatting with me today.
Why don’t you let our listeners know where they can find out more about you and your books?
George: Hey, thanks, Alexandra. My books are actually available at independent bookstores right from here to White Horse, to Saint John’s, Newfoundland, or across Canada, a lot of independent stores.
They’re also available now at about 70 Indigo Stores across the country, and also on Amazon and IndiGo Cargo websites.
And if you want to check out my writing and see some of the prologue and first chapters of the books, and the series, the ones that I’ve written, and as well as “Fat Cats,” go to georgemercer.com for that.
I haven’t done a lot since I retired, but my initial plan was writenature.com. My initial plan was to write about nature and that was sort of a separate website. So, georgemercer.com and writenature.com.
I’m on Facebook, under my name, and on Twitter, @egeorgemercer.
Alexandra: Okay, fantastic. Well, I’ll put links to all of that in the show notes, as I said.
George: Hey, thanks so much. It’s been great.
Alexandra: Oh, it’s been fantastic. Thanks, George. And, since we’re both on Vancouver Island, we’ll have to get together for a cup of coffee one day.
George: We will do that. Thanks so much, Alexandra.
Alexandra: Okay, thank you. Bye-bye.
George: Okay, bye.