Hello readers and welcome back to another Genre Talk here on The Novel Approach. Today we’re delighted to welcome DSP Publications author, Don Travis talking about his newest novel, The Lovely Pines. Before we dive into our discussion with Don, let’s see what the book is all about.
When Ariel Gonda’s winery, the Lovely Pines, suffers a break-in, the police write the incident off as a prank since nothing was taken. But Ariel knows something is wrong—small clues are beginning to add up—and he turns to private investigator BJ Vinson for help.
BJ soon discovers the incident is anything but harmless. When a vineyard worker—who is also more than he seems—is killed, there are plenty of suspects to go around. But are the two crimes even related? As BJ and his significant other, Paul Barton, follow the trail from the central New Mexico wine country south to Las Cruces and Carlsbad, they discover a tangled web involving members of the US military, a mistaken identity, a family fortune in dispute, and even a secret baby. The body count is rising, and a child may be in danger. BJ will need all his skills to survive because, between a deadly sniper and sabotage, someone is determined to make sure this case goes unsolved.
Elizabeth: Hi, Don and welcome back. It’s always a pleasure to have you join us. Would you tell us about your genre?
Don Travis: The Lovely Pines is a mystery, as are the previous three BJ Vinson books and the two following it. I have always been a mystery fan (with a historical interest tucked in there somewhere), so it was not a stretch to settle on this genre when I decided to write a series featuring a gay protagonist. To avoid stereotypes, I made him a former US Marine, ex-Albuquerque police detective turned confidential investigator after he suffered a gunshot injury while apprehending a suspected murderer. But his sensitive side surfaces when his life companion, Paul Barton, is around. BJ met Paul in the first book, The Zozobra Incident, and after a rocky start, their bond has merely deepened. I try to show this in successive novels. The books can be read alone, but I suggest a reader start with the first and go down the line. It’s more fun that way.
Elizabeth: We’d love for you to tell us about The Lovely Pines.
Don Travis: The book cover and synopsis will give you the gist of the story of The Lovely Pines, but I would like to clue the reader to some of the fun I have in writing this series (and another reason for reading them in sequence): I like developing interesting secondary characters because I have a penchant for taking a minor character in one book and featuring him or her in a succeeding novel. Thus, Ariel Gonda, the owner of the Lovely Pines Winery and Vineyard around which this novel revolves, was given a name and a shadow character in the second book in the series, The Bisti Business. Another much more engaging character from Bisti becomes the central figure in my next book, Abaddon’s Locusts. And Mrs. Gertrude Wardlow, BJ’s elderly across-the-street neighbor was originally to be a nosy widow but insisted (yes I said she insisted—every writer in the world will understand that) on becoming a feisty, retired DEA operative who keeps an eye on BJ and lends a hand when least expected. She inhabits every book of the series.
And as perceptive readers will see, I have an additional major character in my novels. It is my adopted state of New Mexico, the setting of every one of my BJ Vinson books, a player that tries to run off with the story by taking advantage of her preening beauty and tough landscape… and BJ’s penchant for history.
Elizabeth: How do you define “diversity” in your writing, and how you explored it in this book?
Don Travis: Aha! That word… diversity. Do I strive for it? How do I achieve it? I’ve given you a clue (that’s permissible… after all, I write mysteries) in the answer to the previous question. A state as diverse as New Mexico that goes from plains to deserts to mountains in the span of a half-day’s drive, and that is home to Anglos (we white folk) and Spaniards and indigenous people (at least four reservations and nineteen pueblos) is the definition of diversity.
BJ (an Anglo) and Paul (a coyote—half-Anglo and half-Spanish) are gay, but only one other person who moves in their social circle is. Lt. Gene Enriquez, BJ’s riding partner at APD is Spanish and totally heterosexual yet treats BJ and Paul like he treats other good friends. Then there’s Hazel, BJ’s office manager and surrogate mother, who is puzzled by why anyone would be gay but loves both BJ and Paul fiercely. The winery owners (the Gondas) are Swiss nationals, and their crew is made up of other Swiss citizens, a Japanese-American, a Navajo, a Mexican, and a black man.
Why did I go to such extremes? Because these are the people who populate New Mexico and fit naturally in such an environment. I think they make the stories richer.
Elizabeth: The Lovely Pines is being published through DSP Publications, Dreamspinner Press’s imprint for genre novels that don’t necessarily focus on or even contain romance. Could you describe the relationship in The Lovely Pines and why it doesn’t fit the accepted definition of Romance in the M/M genre?
Don Travis: The professionalism of the staff at DSP and Dreamspinner is refreshing. I am given a chief editor who stays with me, although the editing team may vary. After my first book, I specifically request the artist who did my first book for all my covers. In whatever area I need support, I ask, and it is always accommodated. Kudos to DSP and Dreamspinner. This is heartfelt and based on experience. I have had two other publishers before I landed at Dreamspinner. Neither of them worked with me the way these folks do.
I am comfortable here.
As far as the second part of your question, The Lovely Pinesis a Romance. At least, it features an easy, comfortable, passionate romance between BJ and Paul. Of course, identifying and solving the mystery at hand takes up most of the words in the novel. The same can be said of all the novels in the BJ Vinson mystery series.
Elizabeth: And now my favorite part. The lightening round!
How has your writing changed since you published your first book?
Don Travis: I’d like to believe that my writing has gained maturity since my first book. My first book was never published (nobody wants a 220,000-word tome laboriously chopped down to 147,000 words). I became emotionally invested in that story, which is both good and bad. It is good because I wrote it with passion. It is bad because, as a new author, I felt that everything I put on paper was vital to that story. It had been a long road from that attitude to “Naw, that doesn’t fit. Can it!” The ability to recognize those passages in your “precious” writing represents maturity.
I have always been attracted to writing series, likely because I become invested in the characters I create… or more accurately, characters I give voice to. And this presents challenges to a writer. How much do I have to introduce my characters in second and succeeding books? If BJ had apple green eyes in The Zozobra Incident, did I flub in the second book and make them brown? He’s developed as a character in the first book, do I have him doing things in the second or third or fourth that is contrary to that character? (Believe me, if I know BJ as well as I should, he’d kick and scream if I tried to make him do something morally repugnant to his nature.)
I suspect I’m rambling now, so I’ll shut up.
Elizabeth: And because everyone likes to talk about what they’re doing the old standby: What projects are you working on now and what is coming next from you?
Don Travis: The fourth book in the BJ Vinson mystery series, which is called Abaddon’s Locusts, has been accepted by DSP Publications and given a release date of January 22, 2019. I am presently about 60 percent of the way through the first draft of the sixth novel, The Voxlightner Scandal.
Given that New Mexico is a major player in all the books of the series, Abaddon, a book about human trafficking—specifically sex trafficking—roams the state from Albuquerque to Shiprock on the big Navajo Indian Reservation to To’hajiilee, a splinter reservation 30 miles west of Albuquerque, to Alamo Indian Reservation, another part of the Navajo Nation in Socorro County. This novel reintroduces us to Jazz Penrod, the half-breed young man my readers liked in the second novel, The Bisti Business.
Voxlightner does less traveling, taking place in Albuquerque and the Sandia Mountains east of the city, although BJ and Paul take a trip up the Jemez Valley. The murder of a novelist who lives just four blocks from BJ, triggers an investigation that leads back to a seven-year-old scandal that scammed millions of dollars from investors in a precious metals recovery scheme.
Elizabeth: Don has brought us a wonderful excerpt.
Don Travis: I chose the beginning of Chapter 2 as the excerpt to include because it shows off a bit of New Mexico’s history. This is BJ’s first visit to the winery after he’s engaged to look into a break-in at the winery. Enjoy:
I drove to Valle Plácido directly from the house the next morning, saving myself a trip downtown and then a run back north. In a bucolic mood, I took the old Highway 85 to Bernalillo about fifteen miles north of Albuquerque.
Bernalillo was an interesting town, at least to history buffs like me. The area had been more or less continuously inhabited for probably close to 1,000 years, first as an indigenous Anasazi town and later by the Spaniards when they arrived in the late sixteenth century to claim it as a trading center and military outpost. In one of those odd coincidences, Albuquerque became the governmental center of Bernalillo County, while Bernalillo was the seat of Sandoval County. Go figure. The present day town fathers liked to say their community was the gateway to the Jemez Mountain Range to the west and the Sandias to the east.
At the north end of town, I hung a right on Highway 550 and crossed over I-25, climbing steadily toward the mountains on what was now a gravel state road. Before long, I passed through another former Anasazi settlement renamed Placitas, which meant Little Town. With its large adobe homes tucked into folds in the foothills or hanging on the slopes, Placitas managed to bring some of the famed Santa Fe style south.
Shortly after leaving the town limits, I entered an even smaller settlement about whose history I had no knowledge—Valle Plácido. All I knew of the place was that people had grown grapes and made wine here for centuries. New Mexico was one of the earliest wine making centers in North America.
As instructed by Ariel Gonda, I turned north on a well-graded gravel driveway and saw the winery about 200 yards ahead of me. My first impression was of a French chateau plopped down in the middle of New Mexico. As I grew nearer, the image was reinforced. I passed over a cattle guard between an impressive black wrought iron gate anchored to solid four-foot stone walls stretching off in both directions. I assumed it enclosed the entire place, or at least the ten acres of the winery. The wall would probably have stopped a tank but provided little protection from stealthy intruders afoot. The vineyard lay to the east.
Up close the stately house did not seem so forbidding, less of a mysterious manor harboring psychopaths and star-crossed lovers. House, of course, was a misnomer. It was truly a chateau, even though small by European standards. I judged it to be three floors of around 1,500 square feet each. The gray stone of those tall walls wasn’t native rock. A cloudy green patina stained the copper mansard roof. Brown brick framed doors, windows, and the roofline beneath the gables.
As I swung around to park beside a few other vehicles, some with out-of-state license plates, I caught sight of another solid-looking stone building about a hundred yards behind the chateau. Probably the winery.
A sign with black lettering mounted on a field of white to the right of the main entryway confirmed this as The Lovely Pines Vineyard and Winery. The placard mirrored a larger billboard I’d seen out on the highway. The effect of the whole layout was stiff and formal. A bit off-putting for my tastes.
That changed as soon as I walked into the front hallway. High ceilings gave the place an airy feeling, and windows that seemed rather small from the outside admitted bright light to play off eggshell and pale gold walls tastefully hung with good art. I couldn’t be certain from this distance, but some seemed to be old masters. Reproductions, probably. The chocolatier’s kiosk was modern without being jarring. The word Schoggi was prominently displayed, leading me to believe this was Swiss German for chocolate. An attractive woman of about fifty lifted her head from a notepad and smiled as I entered. I clicked the REC button on the small digital voice recorder on my belt as she spoke.
“Welcome to the Lovely Pines. Please feel free to make yourself at home. Our wine tasting won’t begin for another half hour or so. The entire first floor is given over to our public rooms—the Bistro, a salon for lounging, our gift shop, and, of course, our tasting room.”
I thanked her for the sales pitch and let her know that Mr. Gonda was expecting me.
Elizabeth: Meet and follow Don Travis:
Don Travis is a man totally captivated by his adopted state of New Mexico. Each of his B. J. Vinson mystery novels features some region of the state as prominently as it does his protagonist, a gay former Marine, ex-cop turned confidential investigator. Don never made it to the Marines (three years in the Army was all he managed) and certainly didn’t join the Albuquerque Police Department. He thought he was a paint artist for a while but ditched that for writing a few years back. A loner, he fulfills his social needs by attending SouthWest Writers meetings and teaching a weekly writing class at an Albuquerque community center.
Elizabeth: I’d like to give everyone a big THANK YOU for joining us today. Don’t for get to like our Facebook page, join our Facebook group (pssstt we give away free books once a week), and check out our web page.