Welcome to my guest, Betty Webb, award-winning author of seven Lena Jones mysteries and two Gunn Zoo humorous mysteries, with a third, The Llama of Death, due out January 6. It will debut at the famed Poisoned Pen Bookstore, in Scottsdale AZ, which just happens to be near Betty’s home.
I recently became a fan of Lena Jones when I read your book, Desert Wives, which delves into Arizona polygamy cults. You tackle difficult subjects such as this in your books: uranium mining practices, immigration issues, prisoner of war escapes and murder.
What inspired you to write the first Lena Jones book and what led you to write about these controversial subjects? I spent more than 20 years as a journalist covering some of those very issues, but as we all know, one newspaper article can hardly get to the depth of some subjects. I always wanted to write to the “emotional core” of these issues, and because of the very strict format of journalism, that was impossible. In fiction, however, I could do that – through the hearts of fictional characters. Thus, in my very first Lena Jones book, I told the true story of an elderly woman who was forced out of the home she was born in when the Arizona government declared “eminent domain” and forcibly took her home away to build a sports stadium for a group of private investors. The 85-year-old woman was dead within the year – of heartbreak. The success of this book, Desert Noir, showed me I was on the right track, and that this was a technique which could be used to expose human rights abuses in Arizona and elsewhere.
You’ve written two books that deal with polygamy, Desert Wives and Desert Lost. Have you ever received criticism or threats from members of that group? Polygamists tend to be bullies, especially towards women, whom they have absolutely no respect for. Their disrespect is exemplified by their practice of trading young girls around in the polygamy compounds as if the girls were nothing more than baseball cards. I received several death threats when Desert Wives came out, mainly because I had exposed the polygamists’ Welfare fraud schemes, as well as the child rape that runs rampant in polygamy compounds. Twice, when I appeared at bookstore signings, several polygamist men sat in the front row giving me very threatening looks (you can spot polygamists by the way they dress). After I’d spoken, they followed me out to the parking lot, but I’d had the sense to ask several other people to accompany me, so nothing happened.
How frightening! You are a brave woman.
The third time the polygamists showed up, I’d had enough. I said to the audience, “Tonight we are honored to have as uninvited guests a group of polygamists in the front row. Gentlemen, please stand up and introduce yourselves.” The polygamists immediately left, and after that, they never attended another signing. The lesson here? Stand up to bullies; they’re always cowards at heart. By the way, Desert Wives told the story of what happens to little girls under polygamy; Desert Lost tells what happens to the boys, which is even worse, because if one man can have 10 wives, then 9 men will have none. The cult leaders – “prophets,” as they’re called — aren’t about to allow 9 extra men hang around in the compounds causing trouble, and have devised an ingeniously evil way to get rid of them as soon as these “extra men” reach puberty – around age 13. It’s horrific.
Have your books resulted in any further investigation into these cults? Yes, once Desert Wives came out, many members of the Arizona legislature read the book, and afterwards, began drafting anti-polygamy legislation. When Desert Wives was first published, the legal marriage age for girls in Arizona was 14; the legislature changed that to 16, but that was as far as they would go. However, the FBI was alerted to the Welfare scams I’d uncovered, and began investigating Warren Jeffs, one of the most notorious of the polygamy cult leaders. Jeffs was eventually arrested on my birthday, and is now serving 25 years to life.
What a great birthday present!
What kind of research do you do for your books? Each Lena Jones “Desert” book has been researched for a minimum of three years, via combinations of library research, interviews with victims, and trips to the area where the crimes have taken place. It’s a very wearying process, but it’s necessary so that I get my facts straight. In my recent Desert Wind, I actually found and interviewed two people who had watched – without any sort of protection — the A-bomb tests in Nevada during the 1950s. The area they live in became one of the largest cancer clusters in U.S. history.
How do get to know your characters before and while you’re writing? Oddly enough, other than Lena Jones, I don’t know my characters at all until I start writing about them. Then they begin to reveal themselves to me as the book progresses. My husband says I “channel” them like a psychic. Come to think of it, I do have to make one exception. While I was writing Desert Wind, the face of a young girl of around 13 years old kept appearing to me. I didn’t know who she was or what was going on with her, but now that I’ve begun a book called Desert Regret, I know what she was trying to tell me.
How do you construct your plots? Do you outline or do you write “by the seat of your pants”? I write very detailed outlines before beginning each book, but by the time I’ve reached the third chapter, I’ve thrown the outline away. I’ve done that for 12 books now! You’d think I’d just not bother with an outline anymore, but outlines serve as odd sorts of “comfort blankets,” so I just keep writing them.
You have another fun mysteries series with The Anteater of Death and the Koala of Death, and the upcoming The Llama of Death. Tell me how these books came about. For the past 6 years I’ve been a volunteer at the Phoenix Zoo. Watching the animals’ antics has heightened my interest in exotic species and the people who care for them. One day, when watching the giant anteater from Belize play with her baby, I decided then and there to write something about them. It began as a newspaper article, then became a short story, then it morphed into a full-length book! My publisher loved it, and thus the Gunn Zoo mystery series was born. The animals are real; the human beings are fictional. And the zoo is actually the Phoenix Zoo, but I picked it up and moved it to the Monterey Bay area of California, so as not to overdo the Arizona stuff. Plus, I wanted my zookeeper/sleuth to live on the same houseboat I lived on one summer. Exotic animals and houseboats – can’t beat that!
Which series do you enjoy writing more? For sheer “enjoyment” the Gunn Zoo series is the clear winner. I giggle all the way through those books, because the comedy level is quite high in them. But the Lena Jones “Desert” mysteries are the books that are closest to my heart.
What are some of your writing challenges and how do you overcome them? The usual. I’d rather stay in bed than write, but I still get up every morning at 4 a.m. to bang away at the computer until noon. Also, there are times I write myself into a corner, and it’s sheer bloody hell in our house until I figure out of way to write myself back out.
I understand you were a journalist before beginning to write fiction. Tell us about this background and how it helps in writing your books. My 20 years as a journalist has everything to do with my books. For starters, I learned discipline (Can you imagine telling a newspaper editor that you don’t “feel like writing today,” that you’re suffering from “writer’s block”? You’d be fired on the spot!) My journalism experience also taught me how to research hidden crimes, and how to interview people who would really rather not be interviewed.
How did you manage to get a blurb from David Morrell? I’m a major fan of David’s work, and he’s been a fan of the Lena Jones books for a long time. He actually volunteer to blurb a couple of my books, most recently, Desert Wind, which exposed the cancer clusters in the Southwest and the history behind those cancer clusters.
What’s your next project? The Llama of Death, a Gunn Zoo mystery, comes out January 6; zookeeper Theodora Bentley takes Alejandro the llama to the local Renaissance Faire, where the phony minister playing King Henry VIII gets murdered via crossbow. But right now I’m writing the 9th Lena Jones mystery, Desert Regret. By the way here are all the Lena Jones books in chronological order, oldest listed first: Desert Noir, Desert Wives, Desert Shadows, Desert Deceit (a 100-page novella in the Desperate Journeys anthology published by World Wide Library), Desert Run, Desert Cut, Desert Lost, and 2012’s Desert Wind. As soon as I finish Desert Regret (it’ll probably be released sometime in late 2013 or early 2014) I start on The Puffin of Death, which necessitated a two-week research trip to Iceland, to study those odd-looking birds, Icelandic horses, and Arctic foxes.Almost the entirety of The Puffin of Death will be set in Iceland. That was far and away the most fun I’ve ever had researching a book!
Read a review of Desert Wives by Mary Trimble.
In her writing, Betty makes liberal use of her varied background. She earned her way through art school by working as a folk singer but gave up singing to concentrate on her commercial art career, eventually winding up on Madison Avenue. At various times she has picked cotton, raised chickens which laid blue eggs, worked in a zoo, was a go-go dancer, ran a horse farm, founded a literary magazine, helped rebuild a 120-year-old farmhouse, and backpacked the Highlands of Scotland alone. In her journalism career, she has interviewed U.S. presidents, astronauts who walked on the moon, Nobel Prize winners, Death Row inmates, and polygamy runaways.