Into the Mist - Author Q&AsPosted by | 07.25.2017
Q&A with 'Into the Mist'
Author David Brill
These beautiful, mist-shrouded mountains can, and often do, turn deadly. Volume I of “Into the Mist” depicts men and women in extreme situations, struggling to survive against brutal and often deadly adversity.
Through the book’s 13 chapters, “Into the Mist” readers will piece together the events leading to a tragic encounter between an elementary school teacher and two black bears in the park’s backcountry; share in the heroic response of the park’s rangers in the face of brutal weather events, including the March 1993 “Storm of the Century,” and their successful efforts to rescue hundreds of stranded visitors and ultimately prevent loss of life and limb; experience a lone hiker’s final moments as he succumbs to bitter cold without benefit of a shelter as wind-driven snow piles ever higher on the trail; and learn how the body of a murdered Jane Doe discovered in a park stream leads to a cross-country hunt for her killer.
“Into the Mist” includes a bonus appendix of park’s leading causes of death and most dangerous places.
Q: Where did the idea for this book originate?
A: The idea originated with GSMA’s Steve Kemp and retired GSMNP Interpretive Media Branch Chief Kent Cave. Steve and Kent floated the idea of a book on disasters and tragic events in the park and invited me to begin to do some research. Once I began to explore the topic, it quickly became apparent that the park staff’s extraordinary record keeping, including the minutely detailed incident reports, would provide all the information necessary to craft compelling narratives on these events and present the contexts in which they occurred.
Q: How would you describe your writing style?
A: That’s a tough question for a writer to answer and one that might better be posed to my readers. That said, I’ve always been drawn to events and experiences that possess a natural narrative drive, and all of the chapters in volume I of the Into the Mist series possess that drive. As I drafted the chapters, I sought to build dramatic tension to engage the reader and invest him or her in the characters involved and the pending outcomes that awaited them. In many of the book’s chapters, the outcomes were tragic, but others depict the often heroic efforts of the rangers and other NPS staff to avert disaster and directly save lives.
Q: These are disturbing stories, for the most part. How did you maintain a positive outlook during your research and writing?
A: Because of the subject matter, this book was emotionally difficult to write. Indeed, many, if not most, of the stories presented in Into the Mist are undeniably sad. They’re about human beings—fathers, mothers, children, friends—who suffered mightily before they succumbed in some cases, or were rescued, in others. Through the writing process, I endeavored never to lose sight of the enormous pain and suffering these deaths caused for the family members and friends of the deceased. But these stories are also engaging because they depict human beings in extreme situations, struggling to survive against brutal and unrelenting adversity. In telling these stories, I embraced fully my responsibility to the victims, their families, and their friends to present the details accurately, and the GSMNP incident reports allowed me to do that.
Q: Speaking of research, how did you approach information gathering for this book?
A: While most topics I’ve written about in my magazine articles and books were thematically fairly linear and circumscribed, Into the Mist embraced the sweeping topic of deaths and disasters that occurred in a park established more than 80 years ago. My research really took on a life of its own as I discovered more and more information preserved in the park library and archives, in superintendents’ reports, in incident reports, in published newspaper accounts, and in the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.
This wealth of information prompted me to start the writing process by compiling a list of all known fatalities occurring in the park from 1931 (when the NPS began managing park lands) to 2013. The result, an appendix included in Into the Mist, presents all 466 fatalities by date, location, and victim name and home town and includes a textual description of the cause and circumstances of the death. The appendix also identifies the park’s leading causes of death, deadliest years, and the deadliest places within the park.
This is one of the very first comprehensive lists of know fatalities created for any of the national parks. This master list allowed me to select the incidents that are included in volume I of the Into the Mist series and those that will appear in subsequent volumes.
Q: Should people be fearful of the Smokies? Or should the take away be a healthy dose of respect?
A: In the book’s introduction, here’s the way I phrase the balance between minimizing risk and maximizing reward:
“All those who read these stories and who plan to visit the park should recognize that GSMNP remains a place of exquisite beauty and mystery, of biological and geological riches, of vast tracts of untrammeled wilderness, of clear-running streams and dense old-growth arbors. But beneath the spectacle and beauty lurks a degree of risk for those who fail to properly prepare or who neglect to adequately respect the dominion of nature and her occasionally unrelenting harshness.”
So, should visitors fear the park? No, but an abiding respect for the power of nature coupled with adequate preparation and meticulous planning are essential. Indeed, the lure of nature lies, in part, in the prospect of unanticipated events or outcomes. Many such events are enriching (a rare wildlife sighting, a mountainside carpeted in trilliums and spring beauties, a night sky lit up by shooting stars), while others can be challenging and even life-threatening (late-season blizzards, flash floods, violent thunderstorms, 70-mile-per-hour straight-line winds that shred tents and topple trees).
While the fearful will rarely venture into the park’s backcountry, those who do can significantly enhance their safety and enjoyment by expecting the best conditions but preparing for the worst. Such prudence and planning might have allowed John Mink to survive the February blizzard of 1984. Likewise, many of the 59 park drowning deaths could have been avoided by a healthy respect for the force and power of Smoky Mountain streams, particularly the Sinks, the fifth deadliest place in the park. And most of 19 persons who fell to their deaths might have lived, had they heeded park warnings about the notoriously slick rocks that top waterfalls.
Q: Any one story you’d point to that has stuck with you since you finished the book?
A: As I wrote each chapter, I really felt connected to the subjects depicted in that chapter and often experienced a great deal of sympathy and compassion for them. In that regard, I value all the stories contained in the book. But, were I pressed, I’d say I value most the chapters that depict the park staff working tirelessly to save the lives of people directly imperiled by violent weather events, including the blizzard of March 1993—also known as “The Storm of the Century”—and the deadly derecho of July 2012.
Q: What’s next?
A: This book is volume I of the Into the Mist series, and I’ll soon begin work on volume II. Through my research, I gathered information on hundreds of incidents—many equally as engaging as those chronicled in the current volume.
Q&A with 'Into the Mist'
Publisher Steve Kemp
Q: What was it about this topic that made you think it would be a good book?
A: In our increasingly civilized and urbanized world, it is unusual to face the kinds of dangers that people encounter in a wilderness park like Great Smoky Mountains. That makes such encounters rare and interesting. However, if you look at the odds, the most dangerous thing about visiting a national park is the drive to the park. And maybe the cheeseburgers and french fries you eat along the way.
Q: Why is it important to tell these stories?
A: People who grow up without much experience in the out-of-doors sometimes have unusual ideas about good ways to recreate in the Smokies. Like the people you see on the snow-covered Appalachian Trail in flip-flops or those dragging their oversized coolers into a backcountry campsite. This book offers folks a dramatic preview of some of the adversity they may experience in the mountains.
Q: Should people be afraid of the Smokies?
A: No. They should be afraid of driving too fast, eating unhealthy food, falling off ladders, smoking, and mowing the lawn. All of these things are much, much more dangerous than anything they will encounter when visiting a national park.
Q: What’s your vision for the complete series of 'Into the Mist' books?
A: I think it could easily go to five volumes. With 10 million annuals visitors and 800 miles of pristine mountain wilderness, there are almost unlimited stories of dramatic encounters between people and nature.