Monday, July 25, 2011

Scene of the Crime with Author Betty Webb

It's always a very special week when I have the chance to interview one of my all-time favorite crime fiction authors.

For several years now, I've been enjoying the cases of private investigator Lena Jones, who's based in Scottsdale, Arizona. Lena does most of her work in the Phoenix metropolitan area, but she's been known to travel to places as remote as the Arizona Strip. In this series, author Betty Webb shows her serious side, especially with two books concerning polygamy, Desert Wives and Desert Lost.

Three years ago, Webb "branched out" with a series much lighter in tone. The Zoo mysteries with main character Teddy Bentley gives the author a chance to show her love of animals-- and her marvelous sense of humor. (After you've read a Zoo mystery, read Betty's blog post about going on a book signing tour with her husband the driver. She wound up being left at a truck stop. I laughed so hard, my husband walked in the room and wanted to be let in on the joke!)

Betty Webb
If you'd like more information about Betty and her books, here are some sources:

Now let's get to the fun part-- the interview!

What was the very first book you remember reading and loving? What makes that book so special?

The Valley of Adventure by Enid Blyton. Since I began reading at around 4 years old, I’d read a lot of books before discovering this one at the age of 10. “Valley” impressed me so much I re-read it more than a dozen times, and remember it fondly to this day. It’s about 4 kids and a cockatoo who stow away on a plane and wind up near a camp of art thieves in a hidden valley, then through their own efforts, bring the thieves to justice. One of the reasons this book has stayed with me over the years is because for the first time I was reading about children – even GIRLS! – who took their fates into their own hands and triumphed. What a positive message that was for the independent woman I was in the process of becoming.

Outside of your writing and all associated commitments, what do you like to do in your free time?

I don’t really have time for any free time because my life revolves around writing. I’m a reading demon, too, and have a regular column on independent press books in Mystery Scene Magazine. I also teach creative writing courses here and there, such as at Phoenix College and the Scottsdale (AZ) Library. But again, writing is the main focus of my life. Both my daughters-in-law appreciate this benevolent neglect, because it keeps my nose out of their respective nests. Unfortunately, I have developed a certain amount of fondness for my five grandkids, and am always pestering them with unwanted attention. I’m sure I’ll hear from the daughters’-in-law about this someday. Oh – I almost forgot. I do love animals, and because of that, I volunteer at the Phoenix Zoo. Whenever and wherever I travel (with my camera-packing photographer hubby), I always take time to visit the local zoos, where I pester the animals, too. But that’s about it. If you leave aside the fact that I’m always plotting various ways to kill people, I’m a pretty dull person.

If I were to visit your hometown, where would you recommend that I go? (I like seeing and doing things that aren't in all the guide books.)

Phoenix Zoo resident
First, I’d take you to the Phoenix Zoo, which is wonderful, with large, wild-appearing habitats for the animals. The zoo’s giant anteaters (The Anteater of Death) and black-footed ferrets (highly endangered, and which will one day be featured in one of my zoo books) are particular draws. The second spot you’d visit would be the Desert Botanical Garden, which showcases thousands of desert species, and at this time of year, is hotter than Hell itself. After you’d had a few accidents with the spiny cacti, I’d drag you off to the desert area near the National Guard base at the western edge of Scottsdale, where the old German POW camp used to be located. This is the camp I used in Desert Run. Then we’d go over to the Salt River/Pima Indian Reservation and lose our shirts in their casinos. Believe it or not, all these places are within walking distance of my home. Next up would be a 20-minute drive to the Superstition Mountains, where the Lost Dutchman Gold Mind is supposedly located. If you found the gold mine, I’d bonk you over the head, hide your body, and keep the gold for myself.

You have total control over casting a movie based on your life. Which actor would you cast as you?

Shirley MacLaine
The “mature” me would be played by Shirley MacLaine. The young me, by Lindsay Lohan. In my early days in Los Angeles, I led a wild life. At least, that’s the way I choose to remember it.

Who is your favorite recurring character in crime fiction?

Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks. He’s so confused and depressed. I find that refreshing.

There is such a difference between your two series, and I love it. What inspired you to move from the more serious Lena Jones books to writing about a zookeeper?

Anyone who’s read the Lena Jones books knows that they’re based on real human rights abuses that are still happening in America (and Arizona). To write those books requires mountains of research, and sometimes it entails hanging out with the very people who are committing those abuses, such as Arizona’s polygamists. After years of writing this serious material, I started the Gunn Zoo series as comic relief. This means that as soon as I finish a Lena Jones book, I jump right into a Gunn Zoo book (after finishing Desert Wind, due out in February 2012, I started The Llama of Death).

Lena Jones is a tortured private investigator raised in a series of foster homes, but Teddy – my zookeeper sleuth – is about as normal as a human being can get without becoming boring. Yes, her parents are a wee bit nuts, but Teddy -- bless her animal-loving heart -- is sane. Because I spent so much time as a reporter uncovering the same humans rights abuses I now write about in my Lena Jones novels, many of my readers think I modeled Lena after myself. They’ve even asked how many foster homes I lived in! (Answer: none) I resemble Teddy much more than I resemble Lena. My parents were both highly eccentric, and so was/am I. As a kid, I was always rescuing one animal after another and putting them up in our basement until I could find homes for them. I grew up planning to become a zookeeper, but somewhere along the way, took a wrong turn and became a journalist. [However, your readers are benefiting from that "wrong" turn!]

Before your very first published mystery, what else had you written (short stories, articles, unpublished manuscripts)?

I’d written thousands of syndicated newspaper articles and columns, plus a mainstream novel. I’m one of those rare birds who was able to find a publisher for her very first piece of writing. I still can't figure that out.

What did you do the first time you saw one of your books on a shelf in a bookstore? How did you celebrate when you first heard you were to be published?

I was living on a farm in a small, rural community in the Midwest when I received the letter from the publishing house that my first novel had been accepted. I immediately got drunk on my butt. A year later, when the novel finally made its way into the nation’s bookstores, no store within 60 miles of my house would stock it for several reasons: one, because it portrayed a happy racially-mixed relationship; two, because it showed a gay couple in a positive light; three, because I used several four-letter words (but not the F-bomb). Therefore, I never had the pleasure of seeing my first novel on a store shelf. Reading my reviews in out-of-state newspapers such as the New York Times and magazines such as Ms Magazine took some of the sting out. I’ve since moved to the big, bad city where bookstore owners don’t care who canoodles with whom, just as long as they don’t mix their metaphors.

I don't know if you've seen it, but I love Parnell Hall's video about book signings. What is the most unusual experience you've had at a book signing or author event?

I had the great pleasure of seeing Parnell perform that hilarious ditty live at one of the mystery cons. He’s a national treasure, isn’t he? As for my own “most unusual experience” at a book signing, it would have to be my very first national book tour for Desert Noir, when I combined the Webb Family Reunion in Hamilton, Alabama with my tour. The last day of the reunion, we Webbs went tromping through the piney woods to visit the graves of our ggg-grandpa (William Douglas Webb) and ggg-grandma (Nancy Boyd Webb). While I was standing there admiring their hand-carved tombstones (we’re talking backwoods pioneers, here), something stung my leg. I looked down to find that I was standing on a red ant hill, and that the red ants had managed to make their way up my legs and onto my chest, where they were making a meal out of me. Other Webbs leapt to the rescue, but within minutes I’d blown up like a balloon.

However, I still had about six more signings in various states to go to before I could head home, so – dosed with antihistamines and slathered with calamine lotion – I headed for Oklahoma. I won’t identify the store, but my visit just happened to coincide with a tornado warning, so I and my books and the staff hid under sales tables while we chatted about literature and weather. They were nice enough not to ask why I had oozing pustules all over my face, neck and arms. When the tornado warning was lifted, we came out from under the sales tables, but by then it was time for the store to close. Not one person had entered the store in the meantime; they were probably too busy cowering in their basements.

The way some people talk, the only way to read now or in the future is with some sort of electronic device, like my husband's Nook. What is your opinion of eBooks, and how will they affect you as a published author?

All of my own books, which are published by the superb Poisoned Pen Press, are available as eBooks as well as hardbacks and paperbacks, so I’m more or less neutral on the subject. I don’t care where my royalties come from, just as long as the checks clear the bank. But regardless of what all the eBook hype would have us believe, I’m still making more money on print copies than I am via downloads. This may change in the future, but for now…

Let’s use my own buying/book browsing habits to make a point. I’m a pretty busy person and my time is limited (as they say, time is money). When I go to a bookstore, I can look at, say, 20 books in 15 minutes. I can flip back and forth through them and check out the writing style. I can read the reviews on the back cover by The New York Times and such. And I still haven’t yet invested one penny (by the way, I ignore Amazon reviews; those are usually done by the author’s mother and people he owes money to). While at the bookstore, I can also ask the bookseller about the book, whether it lives up to its press or not. The way they answer lets me know the truth (Embarrassed pauses? Not meeting my eyes?). Anyway, it’s pretty hard to match that kind of selection speed and depth with the eBook process.

EBooks are still clumsy to navigate around if I’m simply scrolling through them, looking for new writers who are producing material I might be interested in. And there’s another problem I’ve found with the eBook selection process, too. These days, everybody and his dog is self-publishing their own eBooks, so even if I could find a quick way to scroll through dozens of the things, I’d still have to wade through a lot of amateurish writing before I hit on something that’s been professionally written. This irritating, time-consuming process isn’t true, of course, if while on line I plug in a known (and beloved) author’s name and scroll through their offerings.

But then, you see, I’m right back to a bookstore situation. When I want a book by a famous author, I go into a store knowing what I want, the title I want, and the author’s name. As it stands now, the brand new writers on eBooks – even the very, very good ones -- are being left to make their way through the huge literary forest populated by amateurs who haven’t bothered to hire an editor to fix their problem-prone manuscripts. I just don’t have the time and patience for that sort of thing. Yes, I’ve heard people say that even the big New York publishing houses produce bad books, but take it from me – there’s a difference between hopelessly amateurishly bad, and bad by a jaded pro who just phoned it in. At least the jade’s book is readable.

Regardless of all this, I’m not a “fame whore.” I buy an average of 3 to 5 hardbacks per month, usually signed by the author, many of them first-timers (I love to find new talent!). I also buy numerous mass market paperbacks. This past week, because there the Poisoned Pen Mystery Conference was in Scottsdale, I bought five hardbacks at the conference (only one of them by an author I was familiar with), then drove over to the Poisoned Pen Bookstore and bought nine mass market paperbacks. Three-quarters of those purchases were books written by authors who were new to me.

For the meantime, I’ll continue to restrict my book purchases to print, where at least I’m not buying – as we used to say on the farm – a pig in a poke. When making my selections, I can flip through printed pages a lot faster than I can download. To read the Wall Street Journal’s take on the eBook slush pile (which is what it’s become) check out "Cherish the Book Publishers, You'll Miss Them When They're Gone."


Thank you so much, Betty, for spending this time with us. May your book sales do nothing but increase! I, for one, am eagerly anticipating Desert Wind and The Llama of Death.


  1. Betty Webb is delightful; I might have known she'd be a midwesterner. She's so right about the Phoenix Zoo. We went there on New Year's Day years ago and there was actually a good crowd. We loved everything about it, particularly the prairie dog village and the show-and-tell talks by experts with animals.

  2. I've known Betty for several years, love her books and it's always a pleasure to see her at events. Thank you for the terrific interview of a fascinating author!

  3. In addition to getting to hear that 'drunk on [your] butt' was your response to the news that you'd be published, this interview was a pleasure to hear as regards the book selection process. You hit the nails' heads on so many benefits the bookstore interface (and the inclusion of the bookseller) provide. Your books have been on my must-check-out list for a while--now I really must.

  4. I met Betty at my first Public Safety Writer Association conference two years ago and have been following her ever since. I enjoyed the interview and learned much about Betty. I love the wild younger days. You have to have great memories, real or imagined, calm or embellished. Great entertaining post!
    W.S. Gager

  5. I'm a real fan of the Lena Jones books, and I'm so glad Betty has the courage to write them. Those polygamists are as frightening as the Skinheads if you ask me. While I don't find the zoo stories as memorable, they're still loads of fun to read. Keep'em coming, betty.

  6. Very good interview. Very good, unique questions with thoughtful answers. The Llama of Death? What a great title. Thanks.

  7. Your questions to Betty were thoughtful and original. giving the interviewee plenty of scope. A refreshing change, plus I enjoyed the whole of it. You could interview me anytime.

  8. I always love a character who comes out of the authors loves and experiences. I'm intrigued by these zoo stories.

  9. Great refreshing questions and interesting replies. I like the balance between serious writing and humorous seriting. It sounds like a good way to keep one's sanity.

  10. What a fascinating interview. While I've read the Lena Jones books, I haven't started the zoo books yet. I won't let that wait any longer. Betty, your wit will take you a long way.

  11. I loved this interview and I especially love Betty's titles.
    The Kaola of Death, Desert Wind, The Llama of Death, etc., reminds me of Arizona, your Shirley MacLaine and Lindsay Lohan picks are great.

  12. I love this site. The interview was both inspiring and insightful. Thank you Betty for giving us another place to read about women mystery writers. Toni Weymouth

  13. Barbara-- Actually I think Betty is originally from Alabama. I know you and I are from central Illinois, but we can't claim 'em all! ;) I have a small video of me being nibbled by a ray at the Phoenix Zoo. I should put that on my blog sometime.

    Sunny-- You're very welcome. Thanks for stopping by!

    Jenny-- Yes, you really must!

    Wendy-- I'm glad you enjoyed the interview.

    C.K.-- I agree... keep 'em coming, Betty!

    Stephen-- You're welcome.

    Jack-- Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed it!

    John-- Give them a try. I love Betty's humor.

    Lesley-- I wonder why more authors don't give it a try? :o)

    Toni-- I'm glad you like what you see. Thanks for stopping by!


Thank you for taking the time to make a comment. I really appreciate it!