Saturday, March 10, 2012

Have Pen - Will Travel by Mike Orenduff

Unlike his protagonist, Mike Orenduff acquired his first pueblo pottery legally, buying small pots from the pueblos his family visited and – in one case – acquiring one when his sister traded chocolate chip cookies for it. His love of pottery expanded to a general interest in archaeology which he studied as an undergraduate.
While in graduate school at the University of New Mexico, Mike worked during the summer as a volunteer teacher at one of the nearby pueblos. After receiving his M.A. at New Mexico and his Ph.D. at Tulane, he became a university professor and administrator. He served as president of the University of Maine at Farmington and the American University in Bulgaria. As Chancellor of the University of Maine System, he created the first cyber-university in the Nation. After opposition of the faculty union to electronically-delivered classes led to a vote of no confidence, Newt Gingrich described Orenduff as “a hero to the American taxpayer” in his book, To Renew America.

Mike went on to serve as President of New Mexico State University and as a visiting faculty member at West Point and President of Bermuda College. After retiring from higher education, he rekindled his love of the Southwest by writing his award-winning Pot Thief murder mysteries which combine archaeology and philosophy with humor and mystery. Among his many awards are the “Lefty” national award for best humorous mystery, two “Eppies” for the best eBook mysteries and the New Mexico Book of the Year Award.

His first book, The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras, has a cover blurb by then Governor Bill Richardson, thus balancing the mention by Speaker Gingrich. The Baltimore Sun described it as, “funny at a very high intellectual level and deliciously delightful.” His latest, The Pot Thief Who Studied Escoffier, was called "the perfect fusion of murder, mayhem and margaritas” by The El Paso Times.

Have Pen – Will Travel

Mike Orenduff

I’m often asked why I set my books in New Mexico. From a practical point of view, the answer is that hackneyed phrase, “Write what you know.” But the real reason is it gives me an excuse to visit there when I do signings.

          Of course I’ve done signings in New Mexico’s largest cities – Albuquerque (600,000), Las Cruces (100,000), Santa Fe (70,000), and Roswell (50,000). But I’ve also done signings in places like Cloudcroft (749) and Carrizozo (996). There is no marketing justification for doing signings in towns with fewer than a thousand inhabitants. I go to New Mexico’s villages because they are fun places to visit.

Lai Orenduff on the catwalk near Mogollon

          New Mexico attracts more than its share of people who march to their own drummer or, perhaps more accurately, refuse to march at all. Self-styled artists, homeopathic healers, astrologers, reflexologists, herbalists, poets, and vegans seem drawn to New Mexico’s out of the way places like trout to cold mountain streams. On the road to Mogollon (population 15 – too small for a signing even by my standards), my wife and I saw a fellow walking along the road with a gold-panning vessel tied to his belt. One guy we met kept referring to his mother as Beatrice as if we knew her, and he claimed that she was adopted by Gertrude Stein. He also claimed to be related to Tony Hillerman but said he couldn’t prove it because he had left his mother (single at the time) to make it easier for her to attract a husband. He gave me two poems, one of which, he explained, had remained incomplete for twenty years because he couldn’t find a word that rhymed with meadow. Hmm.


          I was supposed to do a signing at the library in Cuba, New Mexico (population 590) but it was closed when we arrived. I suppose the librarian decide to take the day off. But we met Aggie Villanueva there, and she took us on a picnic to Resumidero. I remembered from my days as a plumber in El Paso that sumidero is the Spanish word for drain. (I was the only native speaker of English among the fifteen employees of United Plumbing, so I quickly added plumbing terms to my Spanish vocabulary.) I don’t know what adding ‘re’ as a prefix does to sumidero, but Aggie says it means sink hole.

          Aggie lives in Regina (pronounced reh-heen-ah in New Mexico, and be sure to roll that first ‘r’), a collection of cabins in the forest above Cuba. She shares her place with three dogs and a mouse that has taken up residency in her pick-up. They all seem quite content. Aggie is an author and artist, attracted to New Mexico like so many others by the dry air, clean-scented forests, and magnificent vistas. You can see her fantastic photography at

          Aggie was married at Resumidero. The marriage didn’t last, but her love for the area has endured, and she took us to see waterfalls, rock formations, beaver dams, and high alpine meadows. Our picnic on a Forest Service table was joined by a chipmunk who devoured two big leaves of romaine lettuce and several grapes.  There were also birds, butterflies, and bees. In a break with tradition, there were no ants.

          The next day was a signing at Black Cat Books and Coffee in Truth or Consequences. Afterwards, we drove out to Engle, built in 1879 by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad as a shipping point for cattle and ore. The construction of Elephant Butte Dam (1911-16) swelled the town’s population to 500, but most of those left after the dam was completed. The Engle post office, opened in 1881, was closed in 1955.

On the road to Engle

          Only six people live in Engle today, and only three or four original buildings still stand, including the old schoolhouse where church services continue to be held on the third Sunday of each month. A sign declares “Preaching, Gospel reading, and singing.”

          The next day found us back in Northern New Mexico at Los Alamos, home of the Manhattan Project. Robert Oppenheimer selected the remote mesa top because he had gone to camp there as a boy. The government moved in, took over all the land, moved in the scientists and began building the weapon that would end WWII.

          In the early days, no one could access the town without a security clearance.  Today, the National Labs no longer own everything in town, but security remains an issue even for the civilian portions of the village. Not too long ago, workers were repairing the roof on Otowi Station Bookstore where I did my signing. The workers left their cooler of drinks on the sidewalk next to the ladder they were using. Someone called security about a suspicious package, and within minutes the store and the connecting museum were evacuated and the suspicious package detonated, spraying Mountain Dew everywhere.

          I said earlier there is no marketing justification for signings in small towns. That isn’t entirely true. I sold only one book at my signing in Roswell which has 50,000 people. Author and Roswell resident Alice Duncan bought it. She said no one else there reads.

          But in Questa (population 1700) I sold 17 books. If I could sell books at that same rate (1 for every 100 persons) when I sign in Albuquerque, I’d sell six thousand books in one day. But it still wouldn’t be as much fun as the small town events.

          So if you live in a tiny town that never has book signings, call me.

Pistachio orchard in Tularosa Basin


Anonymous said...


Love your post. You really have been there,done that! Love the tour of New Mexico,too, and your sense of humor. No wonder your Pot Thief books are so much fun.

Thanks to you and Kaye for the visit.

Pat Browning

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Welcome, Mike!

I always enjoy reading anything you write - including your guest spots here at M&M.

The pictures are a bonus this time, thank you. Especially the pistachio.

Thanks very much for being a part of Meanderings and Muses.


jenny milchman said...

After 4 cross country trips, NM is one state I haven't been to, and one I'd love to see. Your pictures are spectacular. I think I will be finally coming in through in spring 2013. Mike, maybe you can tell me the best place to do a book event. Hey, maybe we can do one together!

Mike Orenduff said...

Hi Pat,

Sorry for not responding sooner, but this is Lai's spring break, and she has dragged me off to another museum tour - the curse of being married to an art historian. She keeps applying for jobs at Appalachian State, but Kaye says she is lucky not to get them!


Mike Orenduff said...

Hi Kaye,

I knew you would love the giant pistachio. How camp is that?


Mike Orenduff said...


A joint signing tour would be great. I'm told they actually increase sales for both authors. But even if not, it would be fun.