Up Late Thinking with mystery writer Kevan T. Hunt
“AS LONG AS YOU ARE BREATHING, it’s never too late to do what you love,” says mystery writer Kevan T. Hunt.
Hunt is talking about the publication of her first novel, Maiden’s Grave -- an achievement that, at a stroke, made her an inspirational figure for aspiring novelists everywhere. She is calling from her ridgetop home, deep in the mountains of California’s old Gold Rush country. She was impressive long before her debut as an author. Hunt is an attorney with degrees from Smith College, Santa Clara University School of Law and Stanford University. She practiced law in San Francisco and Silicon Valley for many years prior to moving to northern California's Sierra Foothills.
ULT: You wrote your first book – Maiden’s Grave—in your 60s. What took you so long? I suppose you’re going to tell me you’ve been busy…
KTH: I’m a late bloomer for sure. I didn’t get married until my late 30’s and had two children with my husband Mike, who designs and publishes nature and science guides. Full time law practice in San Francisco and two kids kept me occupied. I then completed a master’s degree at Stanford in 2009 and began research for Maiden’s Grave right after finishing my thesis.
ULT: That’s busy! When did you find time to write? And how long, start-to-finish, did it take to complete Maiden’s Grave?
KTH: I started writing Maiden’s Grave eight years ago. After both kids left for college, I could spend evenings and weekends writing. We live on a ridgetop, about 3,500 feet, so we get snow and wintertime is very conducive to writing…but, yeh, it probably took me eight years, on and off. [laughs] That’s probably not really encouraging to people! I mean, there would be times when I wouldn’t touch it for 6 or 8 months, possibly maybe even as long as a year, but then I’d always go back to it. In the end, the long breaks actually helped me get some distance and really helped me to see that it was a story that was worth pursuing – so, breaks can actually help, if you live long enough! [laughs]
ULT: Is Maiden’s Grave an actual place?
KTH: Yes, it’s an actual place and there’s an historical marker there. It’s one of the most beautiful views in the High Sierras. There is a highway turn off and from there you can see the entire Desolation Wilderness, which is the back of Tahoe in the El Dorado National Forest. From that viewpoint but also literally across the highway, is this grave of a young pioneer woman. She was 18 years old when she died and was buried there in, I think, 1849… Every time I would drive up to the High Sierras I would think just how poignant it was that she happened to die on this wagon train crossing the High Sierras at the most beautiful spot that you can see… she was almost across the mountains, just on the brink of entering the Hope Valley. It just always struck me as very poignant and sad…it’s right at 8,000 feet.
The author, out and about in Volcano.
Credit: Mike Spence
ULT: Aspiring authors are often advised to write what they know…how much of Kevan Hunt is in Sidney Dietrich?
KTH: I’m a little – actually, a lot – older [laughs] than Sidney but I, too, was an attorney in San Francisco and I moved to the foothills from the San Francisco Bay area…but the parallels with Sidney are more that I, like Sidney, am interested in the human condition and in helping people. Also, like Sidney, I had a wonderful mentor – who inspired the Jack McGlynn character in the novel. When I was much younger, I worked for former Congressman Pete McCloskey. After retiring from Congress, Pete practiced law in Woodside, California. He’s a great, wonderful man, and our relationship was the basis for the relationship between Sidney and Jack: a colorful character, small town attorney but a lot like Pete McCloskey. Pete still fights for causes he believes in and I’ll always be grateful for the time I spent with him. So, yes, as a writer you draw on the people in your life, people who have had an incredible impact in your life…and Pete McCloskey was definitely one of those for me.
ULT: I am thinking of another parallel, of course. Sidney’s father is in prison. As a young woman, you had to cope with the imprisonment of your father – the intelligence officer E. Howard Hunt – and the very public trial and events we all know as, simply, Watergate. You were an undergraduate at Smith College when Watergate broke open…
KTH: Yes, there’s that – and what that does to people and how it completely dislocates your life: even though you are not the person that is actually behind bars, you are the person who everybody looks at differently, whose career is affected, who is uncomfortable with that knowledge that other people may be watching or judging you…. So, in writing the book and thinking back on why would a young woman leave a successful law practice in San Francisco, that’s the storyline that naturally occurred to me as it was such a fundamentally transformative experience – for Sidney as it was for me. I could have created a different scenario but it would have felt false to me.
I think drawing on some similar experiences and feelings make it real. If I had never had that experience in my own life, I don’t know how I could have written about it affecting the character. It wouldn’t have sounded authentic.
ULT: Of course, long before Watergate made him a public figure, your father was an author…
KTH: My father was many things: he was a spy and a detective novelist who wrote under his own name and others… The mystery genre is very different than what I had experienced as the child of a writer growing up. My father wrote and published more than 60 spy novels – they were very hardcore detective- and Cold Warrior-types of books and I learned from him how much time and discipline it takes to turn out even one manuscript. I cannot imagine having done it more than 60 times.
His drive and discipline to write was probably, of course, creatively motivated but also I think the genre he writes about, the spy novels…I’m not comfortable with moral ambiguity…and a lot of his work had to do with the moral ambiguity that just encompasses your life as a spy, whether it’s being untruthful to people you know or not being able to form close relationships with friends and family because you can’t tell people who you are. That genre appeals, I think, to a lot of people but I like mysteries because there is clarity in terms of values and morality. Of course, there is evil – I’d say evil waits for opportunity in Amador County – but there is also a group of people dedicated to trying to find justice for others. And that is a very clear demarcation between good and evil and I prefer that type of fundamental issue, that struggle, than all the grays and ambiguity that are inherent in the spy genre.
Obviously, mysteries need to wrap up what occurred: the most unsatisfying ones are the ones that are closer to real life where maybe no one is ever found responsible or guilty and that leaves the reader kind of hanging and we don’t want that in real life and we don’t want that in our entertainment……we want to know who’s guilty and that person has been brought to justice and it gives us all a degree of comfort to feel that way and certainly in your entertainment you want the loose ends to wrap up!
ULT: Maiden’s Grave is set in Amador County. The setting is almost another character. It obviously inspired you...
KTH: Amador County is a unique and fascinating place; it stretches eastward from the very flat agricultural San Joaquin Valley in central California almost to the Nevada border and the High Sierras, and the highest peaks here are above 9,000 feet.
And population-wise, it’s very small – the entire Amador County is, I think, under 40,000 people and that encompasses all of the little gold mining towns and the agricultural areas. You get to know people in such a small community: you can’t walk into the bank or grocery or a gas station without seeing someone you know and that’s what makes it intimate and special at the same time.
ULT: Given the location, I was surprised by the mix of people living and working or passing through Amador County. It seemed every bit as diverse as San Francisco…
KTH: Yes, you have the people that migrated to a rural place from Silicon Valley and from San Francisco and but also the people who are the descendants of the original Gold Rush miners or the descendants of the original Italian settlers that brought the old Zinfandel vines with them and the cattleman and farmers and agricultural interests. There are also the layers of professionals that you need in any society, like the doctors and hospital people and teachers. It’s a very interesting group of people, to be sure.
ULT: This really is a story of the West. It’s a story that has its roots in the settling of the West…
KTH: You are absolutely right – it has everything to do with opening up the West in areas that were as far from statehood as you could ever imagine and people coming out here from all over -- not just the East Coast – and mining and prospecting. If you go to the little cemeteries – which I do – in places like Volcano and Sutter Creek you see so many graves of people who left County Cork in Ireland or left some small village in Italy to come to the West, round South America to get to San Francisco, get off a ship in San Francisco Bay and try to make it to the gold fields. It’s just an amazing story and very intriguing because there’s so much of it left here. All these little towns have buildings from the 1850s, from the Gold Rush times – they are very much preserved, maybe because they were so isolated.
ULT: Will there be a sequel? Amador County sounds like the motherlode for inspiration.
KTH: The next book is called Tragedy Spring and, like Maiden’s Grave, it is a real place, too. It focuses on a couple murders and is a modern day conflict involving Native American rights. So Sidney, Jack and Matt are coming back! You can already see the cover and prologue for Tragedy Spring on my website:
ULT: Finally, do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
So, I actually do. As long as you are breathing, it’s never too late to do what you love. And I think that is especially true for women, who may have devoted so much of their lives to careers or family or both and just put aside their dreams for fulfilling their creative side, whatever that may be… So my best advice is just to do it, don’t give up and don’t let anyone stop you. For writers, there are so many more options these days than the traditional agent /publisher route of old. Even the local newspaper has essayists and writers that publish every week and that’s as good a creative outlet as any.
My high school, the Holton-Arms School, had – still has – a great motto that I’ve remembered my whole life. It’s in Latin but when I figured out what it said, it really resonated. [laughs] I can’t quote the Latin because I didn’t take Latin with Mrs. Sherman and I’m sure I’d butcher it, but it (Inveniam viam aut faciam) translates as “Find a way, or make one”. That just means if you are not finding your way along the traditional pathways, make your own. That’s a motto I’ve embraced and hopefully lived my whole life and it has just been incredibly inspirational to me, always. I told my children about it. I still have and use an old Holton-Arms mug that has the motto on it.
ULT: I love that motto! It’s like an affirmation.
KTH: And I think an especially good motto for older women who find themselves at that point in life where the major milestones – career, whatever – are no longer to be made and are asking….What is my purpose now? How can I continue to live a fulfilling and meaningful life? Going forward, what can I do?
I think we have a lot to offer in our later years. When you are young and you’re female, and the cultural milieu in which you work and live is so critical of how you look, how you behave, how you speak, how you present yourself – those fears can just be left behind at our age because really, who cares?
If you have a passion, do it. Fill your life. Offer that gift without fear.