Elise Broach follows her E.B. White Read Aloud winner, Masterpiece, with another kid-pleasing mystery, Missing on Superstition Mountain, the first in a trilogy set in the American southwest.
You live in Connecticut – what’s the connection to your setting, in Arizona?
I sort of claim the west as home because my parents moved to California when I was in high school [Broach attended high school in Lafayette, east of Berkeley] but also my education, in college, was the history of the American West. I wrote my senior essay on the Santa Fe Writer’s Colony and my dissertation on sacred landscapes – the Grand Canyon, the Dakota Badlands. As a setting, I love the west. I just love that western landscape.
Why Superstition Mountain?
The area is just so spooky! I knew about the legend of the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine – supposedly, the richest gold mine in the country is located somewhere on Superstition Mountain. Gold seekers have been looking for gold on that mountain for centuries. But there’s also this whole supernatural element to the real-life history of the mountain. People have been hiking there for 200 years and disappearing, including this past summer when three adult men went hiking and were never found. I started doing the research on the unexplained disappearances. I call it the “Bermuda triangle on land,” when I’m explaining it to kids. There are all sorts of theories, one of which is that Native Americans believe the mountain is home to the Apache thunder god and he’s taking his revenge on people who hike up with the intent of stealing his gold.
When did you realize you had more than one story?
It took me forever to write this, partly because I realized there was enough material for more than one book, and I had never even conceived of a book with a sequel before, never mind a trilogy. But once I realized that, I had to create the arc for all three books, each one building on the one that came before it. I also wanted each book to have its own mystery plus for there to be an overarching mystery, a grand mystery that connects it all. It was quite the challenge.
Have you spent a lot of time in the area yourself?
I just went in October because I’d been there before but not in years. I went with my [college-age] daughter and we hiked the mountain. We were definitely a little spooked. We called home to say, ‘This is the trail head we’re on just in case we don’t check back within four hours.’ The really weird thing is this mountain is renowned in the area as a dangerous place. We’d stop for gas or to get lunch and people would ask, ‘What brings you here?’ and when we told them, they’d say, ‘Don’t go there! You’re crazy! Hike somewhere else!’ It was like a horror movie where the main characters get warned again and again not to do something and they do it anyway.
But you lived!
It was the roughest hike by far that I’ve ever taken. We hiked up to Weaver’s Needle. It’s very eerie, beautiful in a harsh way.
Are you a big consumer of mysteries in your reading life?
The funny thing is, though I write mysteries, it is the one genre in adult fiction I never read. I read Nancy Drew, of course, when I was a kid, but I think the real appeal is as a writer because I’m drawn to puzzly, complicated plots. Mysteries always have the potential for interesting connections between the elements. I’m also most interested in the relationship between the characters. As in Masterpiece, I’m trying to create characters who not only are solving a mystery but are solving the riddle of their own personal relationships. I’m interested in those events that lead to an amazing friendship that clicks between two people, or between a boy and a bug, or in this case of Missing on Superstition Mountain, among three siblings who are so different from each and have to find their own strengths.
You also write picture books. Do you alternate between shorter works and novels?
Ha! “Alternate” is a very generous word and makes me sound more organized than I am. The truth is I cannot work on two novels at the same time but I can put aside the novel I’m supposed to be writing and work on a picture book. I love picture books.
On your Web site, I learned that you have been an elected official in your hometown of Easton, Connecticut. Are you still in office?
I am. I serve on the Board of Finance, which is the body responsible for funding schools, the library, open space, everything. I first ran in 2003 and was re-elected for a six-year term in 2009, to which my husband said, “You would serve less time for manslaughter.”
He’s right! What led you to this particular endeavor?
It was having three kids in the school system. I really felt that we in the community had to shift the tenor of support for important things that would make a difference in the lives of our children. The schools were grossly underfunded. The library was underfunded. And I think we are on the right track. I’m not an especially partisan person but this was an elected position that the Democrats needed someone to run for at a time when a lot of us felt something had to be done. I serve on this board with mostly older men and I like to think we’ve helped shift each other’s perspectives on things. I know I have learned so much from them. But it is a huge commitment of time. My kids have grown up knowing that their mom made a big investment in making sure there was art and language instruction in school and books in the library. Hopefully, they’ve internalized that.
Missing on Superstition Mountain by Elise Broach, illus. by Antonio Javier Caparo. Henry Holt, $15.99 June ISBN 978-0-8050-9047-5