White-Knuckle: A Book Review/Interview with William McGinnis by Douglas Hergert, Rossmoor News, 2/13/2013
The setting for William McGinnis’s breathtaking new mystery novel, “Whitewater, a Thriller,” is California’s Kern River Valley, where we meet two remarkable young characters: Adam is just home from three tours of duty as a Navy SEAL captain in Iran and Afghanistan, and is intent on learning the reason for his parents’ violent death when he was a boy of five. Tripnee is a beautiful FBI agent who is in the Valley conducting a dangerous, and probably ill-advised, solo investigation.
From the very first chapter, Adam and Tripnee are both in deep trouble: Their adventures include surviving the violence of an aggressive forest-based drug cartel; facing the unexpected contingencies of class-5 whitewater rafting; and barely managing to descend a cliff together with improvised emergency climbing materials.
Author William McGinnis is the founder of Whitewater Voyages, which conducts whitewater rafting trips in rivers up and down California. Whitewater: A Thriller is his first novel.
His writing is powerfully descriptive and action-packed, you might even say cinematic. His fast-paced story will keep you reading into the small hours of the morning. Wear a lifejacket.
McGinnis agreed to an interview, which we conducted by e-mail. The e-book version of Whitewater: A Thriller is available for the Kindle on Amazon. Printed volumes can be ordered online at WhitewaterVoyages.com/books or by calling 800 400 7238.
DH: A sense of fear pervades your story. In some sense, your characters seem to rely on fear to hone their performance in dangerous situations. Tell us about this theme.
Fearless cavemen died young. But overly fearful cavemen did not do well either. To survive and evolve, humans have continuously struggled—and struggle even now in modern life—pretty much daily—to find the right balance of risk taking and caution.
It seems to me that being alive—especially living in a way that explores one’s full potential—means being afraid much of the time. Our goal is not so much to avoid fear, but to carve out a healthy relationship with it. The ideal, in fact, is to make friends with it. Doing and reading about outdoor adventure activities like rafting and rock climbing can, I think, help build this inner relationship.
A key aspect of river guiding – which has been a big part of my life for over 40 years—is helping people build this inner relationship within themselves, enabling them to move from fear to confidence to joy. In some of my books on rafting I call this “making friends with pandemonium.” The goal is not to be fearless, but to attend to fear. To notice and work with it, to use it to motivate you to greater focus, higher awareness, and peak performance.
I made fear a big part of Whitewater: A Thriller first of all to fill the story with energy and grab the reader’s attention, but also to explore the positive dimensions of this inescapable emotion.
DH: Your story is a compulsive page-turner. But it also examines several unexpected themes, including: the potential of group dynamic; the edges of human strength; the power of nature; and even the delight of new love. How did you weave all these narratives into an adventure thriller?
WM: My goal was to write the type of book I myself like to read: a tale at once gripping and irresistible, but also somehow inspiring and educational. A novel with riches woven right into the action.
For example, by vividly evoking its setting, the Kern River and Sequoia National Forest, Whitewater: A Thriller vibrates with the beauty and magic of nature. My hope is that this implicitly heightens appreciation for the natural world and wins friends for the planet. By portraying the river and river running with freshness and accuracy, I strove to provide not only the novice but also the veteran river runner new insights, deeper understanding, and renewed excitement for the sport.
The novel also explores themes of kindness, peak performance and holistic health achieved through listening, processing and self awareness. In doing this I strove not be preachy—and judging from positive feedback I’m getting I gather I maintained the appropriate light touch.
I wanted to send my reader away not only thrilled with a fun read, but also a touch wiser, and maybe even a notch more evolved, alive and aware!
DH: A hidden drug cartel resides in your whitewater river valley. What’s the real-life background?
WM: Cartel pot farms are a grim reality on public lands throughout California and beyond. Sequoia National Forest, in fact, is ranked by some law enforcement people as one of the top cartel pot growing areas in the US. The cartels do indeed pollute the environment, set booby traps, and sometimes murder their own campesino growers rather than pay them.
Perhaps because killing river runners would likely spur a law enforcement crackdown and serve no useful purpose, the cartels pretty much leave the river runners alone and vice versa. So, yes, the cartels and the river folk actually do coexist with very little friction or notice taken of the other.
One of the few exceptions to this that I am aware of was some warning shots fired over the heads of some rafters who hiked up a favorite side canyon which that summer had been turned into a pot plantation. Naturally, news of those warning shots spread throughout the boating community and for years the place was avoided like the plague.
DH: To a large extent, you seem to have followed the basic rule of writing: Write about what you know. But there are maybe some exceptions: The backgrounds of your two main characters—Navy Seals, Iraq and Afghanistan; FBI—do not seem to be part of your own personal résumé. How did you research these backgrounds in order to make them seem authentic in your story?
WM: To research Navy SEALS, I read and watched Navy SEAL training videos on YouTube—and it also helped that a friend of mine is a psychotherapist who has worked for the Veterans Administration treating military vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. To learn about my FBI character’s background I consulted with friends in law enforcement and studied how the FBI is portrayed in popular culture. Of course, to enhance the story I created a somewhat larger-than-life rogue agent.
DH: Tell us about the experience of creating this novel.
WM: In the beginning, when I first set out to write the book, ideas galore circled about me, but I knew just one thing for sure: my setting was the Kern River.
Next an opening scene came to me—my main character was driving east on 178 away from Bakersfield toward the deep-V mouth of Kern Canyon.
Beyond this, at that moment, I knew next to nothing. I didn’t know who this person was, why they were entering the canyon or anything about what would happen.
Little by little, bit by bit, however, the story came to me. My two main characters just sort of dawned on me like a slowly rising sun: First, there was Adam Weldon, an ex-Navy SEAL captain whose parents had been murdered in the Kern Valley 28 years earlier. Next, Tripnee came into view: She’s a force of nature—and I’ll let your readers discover her for themselves.
Slowly, over two years the entire novel unfolded. I can describe the process in two seemingly contradictory ways: On the one hand, I wrote one word, one sentence at a time—selecting each from an infinite sea of possibilities. Yet, at the same time, the overall story seemed to emerge like a pre-existing shape. It was almost as though I was uncovering something that already existed, like unearthing an archetypal artifact.
One interesting aspect of the process was that, the deeper into the writing I got, the easier it was for me to turn away from distractions and focus upon it. When I wasn’t spending an occasional evening with friends, working out, or performing the few essential responsibilities that I had not delegated to others in my company, all I wanted to do was work on the book. I hardly watched any TV for over a year. In fact, I actually forgot how to operate the remotes that turn on my complicated TV.
Years ago I published my first book—a non-fiction guide to whitewater rafting which became a sort of bible of the sport—with New York Times Books and received a 10% royalty. Since then I’ve self-published all of my subsequent non-fiction books—which are about rafting and sailing—and received all of the royalties. So, without thinking about it too much I did the same with this my first novel “Whitewater: A Thriller.” I just plunged ahead with my same Hong Kong printer who produces very high quality books on high grade paper for a little over two dollars per copy if you order five thousand or more books at a time.