C. Joseph Greaves is an honors graduate of both the University of Southern California and Boston College Law School who spent 25 years as an L.A. trial lawyer before becoming a writer. He has been a finalist for most of the major awards in crime fiction including the Shamus, Macavity, Lefty, and Audie, as well as the New Mexico-Arizona, Oklahoma, and Colorado Book Awards, the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction, and the CAL Award for Fiction. He is the author of six novels, most recently “Church of the Graveyard Saints,” which was the Four Corners/One Book community reading selection for 2019-2020. You can visit him at www.chuckgreaves.com.
The following is an interview with C. Joseph Greaves.
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
What inspired you to write this book?
My wife and I moved to southwestern Colorado in January of 2012, just a few months before my debut novel (“Hush Money” from St. Martin’s Minotaur) was published. As each successive novel was published (two more from Minotaur, written as Chuck Greaves, and two from Bloomsbury, written as C. Joseph Greaves), our new friends and neighbors here in the Four Corners would ask me, “When are you going to write about here?”
And I did want to write about here – about the people, and the landscape, and about the social and economic forces that shape and threaten both. The resulting novel, “Church of the Graveyard Saints,” is a kind of Shakespearean tragedy in which the grudges and conflicts of the New West Capulets of environmental conservation and the Old West Montagues of ranching and resource extraction form the backdrop to what is essentially a love triangle between a young woman returning to her old hometown, the new boyfriend – an environmental studies professor – who accompanies her, and her old high school sweetheart – a drill rig operator – eagerly awaiting her return.
Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole and why did you select it?
The novel employs four alternating viewpoints, representing the lived experience of the four main characters – Addie Decker, her father Logan, her new boyfriend Bradley, and her old sweetheart Colt – with regard to a range of local issues like gas drilling, public lands cattle grazing, land and water conservation, Native rights, etc. The excerpt I’ve selected appears early in the novel and features Colt feeling sorry for himself after running into Addie and Bradley at the funeral of Addie’s grandmother.
I’ve chosen it both for the voice, to which I’m particularly partial, but also to illustrate a lesson I learned long ago about character development and about my own writing process. Colt, you see, started out as a relatively minor character in the first draft of the novel, but the more I worked with him the more I realized I needed him and the perspective he could bring to the story. So he went from being a kind of two-dimensional avatar to becoming a fully-realized POV character by the third or fourth draft.
Having made that decision, and that commitment to the character, I then needed to afford the reader insight into his personality, and since action reveals character, this was the readers’ first glimpse into who Colt Dixon is as a person and what’s really going on behind the rough-and-tumble exterior he shows to the world.
Tell us about creating this book: any research and travel you might have done, any other influences on which you drew?
It was important to me, if I was going to fairly and accurately portray a wide range of attitudes toward hot-button social and political issues facing the American Southwest, that I understand those issues and that I be able to empathize not only with those characters whose beliefs I happen to personally share, but also with those I might find inexplicable, or even abhorrent.
In that sense, my “research” involved living here in McElmo Canyon (where the novel is set) and listening to my neighbors, be they fellow urban refugees or sixth-generation ranchers and farmers. McElmo Canyon is a unique and evocative setting for a novel. For one thing, it forms the southern border of the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, which is home to America’s largest and densest amalgamation of archeological resources – it’s estimated that there are over 30,000 Ancestral Puebloan sites within the Monument.
McElmo Canyon also sits atop the McElmo Dome, one of the largest and purest repositories of carbon dioxide on earth. The oil & gas industry extracts CO2 from here in the Canyon and sends it via pipeline to oil fields in Texas and Oklahoma where it’s used to stimulate oil production.
Since conflict is the mother’s milk of compelling fiction, I wanted to employ these resulting frictions – environment v. extraction, compressors v. cattle – as the centerpiece of “Church of the Graveyard Saints,” and to do justice to all points of view. Needless to say, I was gratified when six public libraries here in the Four Corners – those of Cortez, Dolores, Mancos, Montrose, and Ignacio, CO, and Moab, UT – chose the novel as their inaugural Four Corners/One Book community reading selection for 2019-2020. So maybe I didn’t screw it up too badly.
What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?
I’ll tell you something weird about writing this novel, and I’ll use two examples to illustrate it. There’s a scene early in the novel in which I describe a funeral procession as it traverses the main highway leading into Cortez, passing “a succession of faded billboards for the likes of Denny’s and Wendy’s, Arby’s and JESUS SAVES.”
The thing is, there was no Jesus Saves billboard along that route when I wrote that line. Then, around a week before publication, there magically appeared a bright, optic yellow JESUS SAVES! billboard (and it wasn’t my doing, I swear.)
The other, more substantive example involves the Navajo Generating Station near Page, Arizona, which I describe in the novel as “the largest and dirtiest coal-fired power plant west of the Mississippi.” Without giving too much away, closure of that plant plays a significant role in the story, but again, when I started writing the novel in 2015, actual closure wasn’t on anyone’s radar, least of all mine.
Then, within a month or so of the book’s September 2019 publication date, the plant’s closure was publicly announced. Weird, right? But I suppose I shouldn’t have been too surprised, since my 2013 novel “Green-Eyed Lady” features a billionaire real estate developer with fidelity issues and vague mob connections running for national public office . . .
Walk us through your writing process: Where and when do you write? What time of day? Do you listen to music, need quiet?
Before becoming a full-time novelist in 2006, I spent 25 years as a Los Angeles trial lawyer, and I like to think that I bring a certain lawyerly discipline to my writing process. My routine has evolved over the years, but these days I eat breakfast at around 8:00, spend an hour or so with my dog in the vineyard – I grow Viognier and Pinot Noir grapes here at Stark Raven Ranch – and then I hunch over the laptop in my home office until lunch.
In the afternoons I return to my morning’s output and do some light editing. I would estimate that I average four to five writing hours per day, seven days a week, when I’m working on a novel. My line is, I only write when I’m inspired, but I make it a point to be inspired every morning at nine o’clock.
I’m also a firm believer in writing every day, even if it’s only for ten minutes or so. I don’t outline, but rather regard my first draft as my outline. I try to write in silence, with the door closed, and I never share my work-in-process with anyone until I have a first draft with which I’m satisfied.
A lot of writers – probably most, in my experience – belong to a critique group in which members share and discuss each other’s manuscripts in progress. For some reason I’ve never been able to do that. I suppose I view the creative process as uniquely personal, and I don’t want anyone else influencing the outcome. At the end of the day, you’ve got to find a routine that works for you, and you need to stick to it.
What’s your next project?
I’ve been unusually busy while in semi-quarantine, and so have three different projects in the pipeline, only one of which is a novel. First up is a contribution to the University of New Mexico Press’s forthcoming “Reel West” series on classic Western film.
Last year they recruited a group of Western authors to each write a single book on a single film, and allowed us to choose our own subjects. Since as a lawyer I represented the late Richard Pryor for over a decade, and since he co-wrote the screenplay, I chose “Blazing Saddles: How the West Was Fun” as my subject, and I submitted that manuscript to the publisher in July.
At the same time I was working on the fourth installment in my Jack MacTaggart series of legal mysteries, and I submitted that to my agent this month. Finally, I wrote the screenplay for, and I’m partnering with veteran TV director Felix Alcala (“ER,” “Breaking Bad,” “Madam Secretary”) to co-produce, a dramatic scripted television series called “Badwater,” the pilot episode of which (I’m delighted to report) will begin principal photography in mid-October, right here in Montezuma County.
So yeah, there’s nothing like a global pandemic to help focus your creative energy.