Barbara Nickless is a Wall Street Journal and #1 Amazon Charts bestselling author. Her new series features forensic semiotician Dr. Evan Wilding—a man whose gift for interpreting the words and symbols left behind by killers has led him to consult on some of the world’s grisliest cases. Barbara has lived most of her life in Colorado near the Rocky Mountains where she loves to hike, cave, and snowshoe.
SunLit: Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?
Barbara Nickless: The release of the Pandora Papers in 2021 made clear that unscrupulous dealers were buying and selling plundered antiquities. From Iraq to Egypt to Cambodia and elsewhere, irreplicable treasures have been smuggled out and sold to museums and private dealers.
It’s a crime I want to shine a light on. The nasty underbelly of the business also provides a perfect place for a murder or three.
SunLit: Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?
Nickless: I decided to start with Chapter 1. While there are a couple of short pieces that come before, I thought it would be fun to dive right into the story’s central mystery.
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SunLit: Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you sat down to write?
Nickless: I had to ramp up on the legal—and illegal—aspects of dealing in antiquities. It was fascinating to learn about offshore accounts, trust funds, the intricacies of looting, and to talk to agents in the Homeland Security’s Cultural Property, Arts, and Antiquities Unit about their work. I thought my focus would be on ancient papyri and lost treasures. But my research expanded quickly.
SunLit: Are there lessons you take away from each experience of writing a book? And if so, what did the process of writing this book add to your knowledge and understanding of your craft and/or the subject matter?
Nickless: Writers often say that when you learn to write a book, you’ve learned to write that one book and not others. For me, it’s true. That said, with each book I write I learn more about my process, how long the research will take, and how much of that research to include (always far less than I want to).
SunLit: What were the biggest challenges you faced in writing this book?
Nickless: Learning the ins and outs of how wealthy and/or unscrupulous people loot artifacts, smuggle them out of the country of origin, and create a provenance—a history—of the item in order to whitewash the theft for potential buyers.
“Dark of Night”
Where to find it:
- Prospector: Search the combined catalogs of 23 Colorado libraries
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- NewPages Guide: List of Colorado independent bookstores
- Bookshop.org: Searchable database of bookstores nationwide
SunLit present new excerpts from some of the best Colorado authors that not only spin engaging narratives but also illuminate who we are as a community. Read more.
SunLit: If you could pick just one thing – a theme, lesson, emotion or realization — that readers would take from this book, what would that be?
Nickless: I’d love for readers to understand the sheer number of plundered artifacts that reside in private collections, never to be seen by anyone save the owner and his or her family. And for readers to urge museums to return items to the country of origin.
While it may sadden people to think that these antiquities will no longer be available for viewing in America and Europe, oftentimes the items remain in place as part of an agreement made with the country of origin. In countries like Afghanistan where it would be risky to return artifacts, the items are kept in their original museum or tour the world until it is safe to return them.
SunLit: In a highly politicized atmosphere where books, and people’s access to them, has become increasingly contentious, what would you add to the conversation about books, libraries and generally the availability of literature in the public sphere?
Nickless: I don’t know that I have anything to add that hasn’t been said, so I’ll just speak my piece. Stories have always been how we excite, inspire, and build knowledge. As soon as a small group tries to dictate to the larger populace what books are acceptable and which aren’t, we hit that slippery slope of government-controlled information. When that happens, we are essentially living under a dictatorship, condemned to hear only what those in power want us to hear.
SunLit: Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
Nickless: Monday through Friday I’m in my office right after I eat breakfast and read the news. I write until noon. After lunch, I go for a walk and either return to the work or conduct research.
SunLit: Tell us about your next project.
Nickless: I’m breaking into new territory with my next novel. I’m very excited to explore a new area of crime fiction, and I hope it’s a book readers enjoy.
Quick hits: A quirky collection of questions
SunLit: Do you look forward to the actual work of writing or is it a chore that you dread but must do to achieve good things?
Nickless: When I first started dealing with deadlines, I became terrified that I couldn’t get the work done. I knew that the story on the page wouldn’t match the story in my head, and I felt horribly crunched.
But I have worked to recapture the joy that made me want to write in the first place. Now, most days are wonderful, and I’m grateful I get to do the work I do. As a plus: having deadlines means I’m more likely to write all the stories I want to tell.
SunLit: What’s the first piece of writing – at any age – that you remember being proud of?
Nickless: I wrote a lot of poems and short stories in elementary school. But my first novel — ”Blackie, the Wolf Dog,” written on a Big Chief writing pad — made me feel like a real author.
SunLit: When you look back at your early professional writing, how do you feel about it? Impressed? Embarrassed? Satisfied? Wish you could have a do-over?
Nickless: I would like do-overs on all my professionally published short stories. All, Of. Them.
SunLit: What three writers, from any era, can you imagine having over for a great discussion about literature and writing? And why?
Nickless: Only three? I’d want to talk to the poet who wrote Beowulf, to find out firsthand what life was like in England in 1000 CE. I’d ask Shakespeare how he created such powerful stories; I’d want to know what was going on in his head as he wrote. I’d invite Geoffrey Chaucer to make us laugh and add more stories to his marvelous Canterbury Tales.
SunLit: Do you have a favorite quote about writing?
Nickless: It’s such a great line it’s almost become cliché, but I love Hemingway’s advice to write the truest sentence you know. It took me a while to understand what he meant by that, but I’ve found an answer that works for me.
SunLit: What does the current collection of books on your home shelves tell visitors about you?
Nickless: That I’m interested in absolutely everything, but history dominates.
SunLit: Soundtrack or silence? What’s the audio background that helps you write?
Nickless: I love music, but my aged Mac can’t deal. And I’m not fond of earbuds. So, for me, it’s the glorious sound of silence.
SunLit: What event, and at what age, convinced you that you wanted to be a writer?
Nickless: I started “writing” at the age of three, when I was in the hospital for eye surgery. I think I wanted to both comfort and distract myself with stories.
SunLit: As an author, what do you most fear?
Nickless: Being incapacitated in a way that makes me unable to capture the stories buzzing around in my head.
SunLit: Also as an author, what brings you the greatest satisfaction?
Nickless: Editing! Yes, I’m nuts. But I love to take something rough and smooth it out.