Minnesota writer’s new thriller novel set in Boundary Waters
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — “Mejia remains a writer to watch.”
That’s Publishers Weekly’s applause for Mindy Mejia’s new psychological thriller, “Leave No Trace.” Booklist’s starred review called the story “brutal, devastating, and utterly riveting.”
“My goal is to bring Minnesota to the world stage,” Mejia said. “There is so much here — culture and diversity, basic decency and sense of community. I write what I would like to read — contemporary, plot-driven books that deliver both entertainment and substance.”
Mejia, 39, lives in Apple Valley with her husband, Philip, their son and daughter, and three orange cats. A slender woman with an endearing smile, Mejia wears her growing fame lightly. Her two previous books — “The Dragon Keeper” and “Everything You Want Me to Be” — were well received nationally but she’s not as well-known as she should be in Minnesota, where she set her new book.
“Leave No Trace” is the story of Maya Stark, a 23-year-old assistant language therapist working in Duluth’s Congdon Psychiatric Facility, where she had been a patient. Maya’s mother, a geologist who tried to kill herself, had disappeared and her father was often away, scavenging for lost ships beneath Lake Superior. Maya is assigned to work with Lucas Blackthorn, a handsome 19-year-old who is famous because he and his father disappeared 10 years earlier in the Boundary Waters and were presumed dead.
Lucas, violent and almost feral, refuses to speak to anyone but Maya after he attacks her when she tries to stop him from escaping. When he whispers, “I know you,” she’s baffled because that isn’t possible. Lucas is desperate to return to the Boundary Waters where he and his sick father have been living. Against her better judgment and despite the fact she’s throwing away her career, Maya accompanies Lucas to the BWCA , where she and her mother often canoed and her mother had a cabin. Will they find Lucas’s father alive? It isn’t a spoiler to reveal that the conclusion is an act of such compassion you will admire Maya, who is not the warmest protagonist.
“This idea of likability (in characters) intrigues me,” Mejia said. “I think of them as unfriendly, not unlikable. I am looking for that conflict in characters you want to follow for 500 pages. You need to understand their motivation, where they are coming from. In this book, the hook is looking back for Maya, abandoned by her mother. Lucas is a more clear-cut victim so it’s easier to get into him. I am interested in decent but flawed people with an internal moral compass. That’s Maya.”
Maya’s loss of her mother is “sort of” based on Mejia’s own life, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported.
“My mom was sick from my birth until I was about 10,” she recalls. “She had major surgeries and almost died. She’s OK now but I had that paralyzing fear of abandonment that every child understands. It’s a way for readers to get into Maya.”
Another influence was the real-life stories of the Lykov family, who lived in the remote Siberian wilderness for 40 years, and Ho Van Lang, who lived almost his entire 41 years in a tree house with his father after the U.S. bombed their village in Vietnam.
“I thought, if that had happened here, where would they hide?” Mejia asked herself. “The Boundary Waters came to mind.”
Another benefit of setting her story in the far north is that readers outside Minnesota are fascinated by our vast stretches of wilderness, which Mejia depicts with a perfect sense of place, from the changing color of Lake Superior’s water to the penetrating cold and the steep hills of Duluth.
“My editors think Minnesota is another culture,” Mejia said with a laugh.
Mejia, whose grandparents were Minnesota farmers, was born in Minneapolis and graduated from Rosemount High School: “I live five minutes from there now.”
She was always writing stories and novels as a kid, but she didn’t major in writing or English during her undergraduate years at the University of Minnesota, choosing religious studies instead because “I never imagined I could make writing a career.”
As the daughter of an electrical engineer, she enjoyed numbers and was an accountant for 15 years, but “it was writing, always writing. It’s in my makeup,” she recalls. “On lunch break at my job, to keep my sanity I would pull up my laptop and dive into another world. In fiction, you have total control.”
In 2004, Mindy married Philip Mejia in a rooftop ceremony in Minneapolis. Two years later, Mindy decided to take her writing seriously and enrolled in Hamline University’s MFA writing program. “I needed to get tools to write a novel,” she said.
Mejia kept writing during the years the babies arrived. Her son Logan was born in 2010 and her daughter Rory in 2012.
Rory was 3 months old when Mindy’s debut, “The Dragon Keeper,” was published in 2012. This adult novel is a touching ecological love story in which zookeeper Meg Yancy guards and protects Jata, the Komodo dragon that has been in her care at the Minnesota Zoo since arrival from Indonesia.
Mystery writer Mary Logue, author of 19 books, including eight in her Claire Watkins series, worked extensively with Mejia on “The Dragon Keeper” as one of her Hamline advisers.
“When I read the whole manuscript, the thing that struck me was that Mindy does know how to do suspense, which is very close to my heart,” Logue said. “I was impressed at the depth of the world in such a small, intimate landscape. I thought what a smart, unusual book it was, how some of the questions she was posing are pretty big: What do we owe the rest of the world? Why are we making decisions about animals that maybe are not ours to make? It’s interesting how readers become involved in the lives of Meg and the dragon. That’s what I find so inspiring about her work.”
In the years between her kids’ births Mejia was working on what would be her breakout novel, “Everything You Want Me to Be,” published in 2017. It’s a crime thriller about the last high school year of an actress who is found stabbed to death in a crumbling barn. She’s a strong-willed woman who wants to get out of Pine Valley, a twisty story told in multiple voices and critics loved it.
“That book did amazingly well,” Mejia said. “It’s now in 20 languages and it got reviews I never dreamed of receiving.”
Emily Bestler, editor-in-chief of Bestler Books, said, “Everything You Want Me To Be” was one of 2017’s most successful thriller debuts.
As though it isn’t enough for Mejia to write, spend time with her family and run half-marathons, she went back to school for a third time this spring, earning a certified public accountant degree from St. Catherine University. She’d like someday to do tax advising for writers (“some have difficulty with money”) and use her financial skills to benefit the nonprofit community.
That’s why she’s looking for a kick boxing gym. “That’s the fun of being a writer,” she said, “researching what you need to know.”