To be perfectly honest, I've had better weeks. I'm still recuperating from some sort of stomach bug that laid me so low that I missed a favorite author at The Poisoned Pen, so I was bound and determined that I'd make it to Betty Webb's official launch party for Desert Rage.
It was a gorgeous October afternoon and crosstown traffic was light, so I made good time to my favorite bookstore. I had plenty of time to chat with one of the staff, buy some books (pictured to the right), and reserve a copy of yet another book before I sat down with my advance reader's copy of Timothy Hallinan's latest Poke Rafferty mystery.
At least that was my intention. Instead I heckled David and Jeff as they set up the chairs, and got to chat with Betty as she sat down by me to autograph a big stack of mail order copies of Desert Rage. "I've been told that the room where I usually sign is a mess, and they're afraid books will fall on me," Betty told me. "I think that would be the perfect death for an author-- to be buried under a mountain of books!" As she went off to browse, I did finally find myself lost in Thailand with Poke, but Betty's fans began arriving in smiling, chatting groups, and I was torn between people watching and reading.
|Betty Webb with one of her fans.|
While I was ruminating over the other folks' reading material, Betty was laughing and chatting with one fan after another. Being a local author, she knew several by name and gave one or two big hugs, but she was happy to talk with everyone who approached her.
A Puffin on the Horizon
|Background L to R: Betty Webb, Barbara Peters. Foreground: Ariel with the cake!|
Since this was a launch party for Betty and her latest Lena Jones mystery Desert Rage, The Poisoned Pen staff made sure there was cake and iced tea for everyone, and the goodies underscored the festive atmosphere. Seconds before the official start of the event, which was recorded on Livestream, host Barbara Peters donned her editor's hat and asked if there was a puffin on the horizon-- referring to the next Gunn Zoo mystery, The Puffin of Death. Betty smiled and said, "It's moving right along!" which is wonderful news to everyone who loves her second, light-hearted, series.
Once the camera began to roll, Peters told us that there was indeed a puffin on the horizon, although she thought the book was "a rather spurious reason for a trip to Iceland." Betty knew she was being teased, but she did mention that she'd already been audited, so she'd just have to wait and see. Peters (who is also a lawyer) said, "As long as you produce the book, the IRS won't care!"
Back in editor mode, Peters said that Webb hardly needs any editing now. "I think that's because I've grown into the voice of Lena," Betty said. Barbara agreed. "In the beginning I constantly had to remove all the cute words Betty used because they just didn't suit Lena."
Webb laughed and said, "Anyone who knows me knows that the voice of Teddy is the real Betty Webb. I can let my own voice really rip in the Gunn Zoo books."
Desert Rage & Lena
Warning us that there wasn't a lot that could be said about this latest book without giving too much away, Betty gave a brief synopsis of the novel. A right-wing candidate for the U.S. Senate wants Lena to investigate the gruesome murder of a Scottsdale family to which the 14-year-old daughter and her boyfriend have confessed. Lena doesn't like the woman or her politics and doesn't want to take the case. The woman persists, so Lena insists on knowing why the woman is so interested in the case. When the woman was a poor, struggling college student, she sold some of her eggs to a fertility clinic. After doing her own investigating years later, she discovered that the 14-year-old girl who's confessed to torture and murder is her biological daughter. With that information-- and the knowledge that the girl's boyfriend is a product of the same foster care system that Lena herself barely survived-- Lena agrees to take the case.
One of her fans asked Betty where in Scottsdale these characters lived, was it north? Betty laughed and said, "Whenever I talk about big bucks, I have to move my characters north of where I live here in Scottsdale!"
"Since we can't talk much about the book," Peters asked, "what's been going on in Lena's personal life?" Betty began to fill us in a little bit.
As fans, we all knew that Lena Jones is a product of the foster care system and had to survive more than one abusive foster parent. In doing research for her character, Webb learned that adults who have gone through this are usually in one of two groups: they become clingy because their emotional needs have never been met, or they go out of their way to form no close attachments to other people. Lena belongs to the second group. She's had several relationships, but none of them have ever lasted. In fact, she's been the one to end many of them. This pattern of behavior begins to change in Desert Rage. As she gets deeper into the case, she forms an attachment to young Ali and her boyfriend Kyle. This growing closeness blinds her to some of the facts she uncovers in the investigation.
"But Lena does get to spend a lot of time with the wonderful foster mother who changed her life," Barbara said.
"Yes, she does," Webb agreed. "For quite a while readers were led to believe that this woman was dead, but she's not. She's an artist who lives between Apache Junction and Florence-- which just so happens to be on one of my favorite stretches of road to drive. And you'll notice as you read the books that Lena always has to interview someone in Apache Junction!"
"Write what you know..."
Betty Webb's books are usually written in main character Lena Jones' voice, but in Desert Rage Lena shares the spotlight with the voice of 14-year-old Ali.
"In order to get ready to write in the voice of a 14-year-old, I read all of Jodi Picoult's books. I used to make fun of Jodi Picoult, but now I love her!" Webb laughed.
"I was a beast when I was fourteen," Betty divulged, "which made those parts of Ali easy to write."
"Well, you know what they say: write what you know," Barbara quipped, which made us all laugh.
Talk turned to the future of the Lena Jones series, which was originally planned to be nine books. (Desert Rage is number eight.) "I've thought of some prequels!" Betty said, which perked us all up after the news that the next book was supposed to be the last. After all, prequels means more than one, right?
Barbara Peters didn't look all that enthusiastic, but Webb didn't notice because she'd immediately gone on to tell us that the ninth Lena Jones book is tentatively titled Desert Vengeance and will have Lena begin to understand what happened to her as a child. "Remember that I said 'tentatively,'" Webb cautioned. "This eighth book was originally titled Desert Regret, but Barbara changed it."
"Yes. I read the manuscript and told Betty, 'Everyone in this book is enraged, not regretful,'" Peters said.
Betty then told us that there would be ten books in the series, but Barbara jumped in to say that she wouldn't be surprised if the series went to twelve. It's no surprise that everyone in the room really liked the sound of that.
"I have to admit that my husband is the one who suggested prequels," Webb said. "He asked me what Lena was like in college."
Again, talk of prequels had made Peters' face darken slightly, but the mention of college visibly cheered her. "For a minute I was afraid this meant that we'd be seeing Lena as a four-year-old. Lena as a college-age student would be interesting. Who are you going to channel for the 19-year-old Lena?" she asked Betty.
"Oh, I can channel myself for that one!" Betty assured us.
The two women then went on to talk about how characters age in books. Lena Jones is an active woman who often finds herself in dangerous physical situations. In a long-running series, authors have to take care in how they age such physically active characters; otherwise, Lena would find herself too old and decrepit to get herself out of danger. Peters then mentioned that Ian Rankin had had to stop writing his Rebus books because Rebus had reached the mandatory retirement age for a policeman in Scotland-- an age limit which has since been raised. "I still think the Scottish Parliament changed the retirement age for policemen so Rankin could write more Rebus books," Barbara said with a twinkle in her eye.
Talk began to wander from one interesting tidbit to the next. For instance, I never knew that Lena lives above the original location of The Poisoned Pen, which means Desert Investigations is located in the former bookstore. This fact has always made Barbara feel a little proprietary about Lena's business.
From that we went on to learn that Betty would prefer to be executed by firing squad during a short recap of the way Arizona has executed its prisoners on Death Row. (Hanging, which changed to firing squad after a woman's hanging was horribly botched, to electric chair, to lethal injection.) When Betty referred to someone as having been hung, Barbara hopped in with "Pictures are hung. People are hanged"-- something that I'd heard in the last episode of "Lewis." With James Hathaway and Barbara Peters reminding me, I think I'll remember!
Probably the biggest laugh of the afternoon came when talk returned to the Gunn Zoo mysteries, and Webb referred to "Desert Anteater"-- a perfect blend of Lena Jones whose book titles all begin with "desert" and the very first Gunn Zoo book The Anteater of Death.
A fan had asked when Webb had begun writing her second series in relationship to her Lena Jones books. "I started writing the Gunn Zoo books after the fifth Lena Jones book, Desert Cut," Webb said. "Writing Desert Cut was so grisly and disturbing that I decided I needed a little cheer in my life so I wrote Desert Anteater."
"Oh, we're going to have a cross genre book now!" Peters exclaimed. "Lena Jones will be investigating the death of an anteater, and the Phoenix Zoo will be the venue!"
When Webb began writing her second series, she used the Phoenix Zoo as the location for the books, since she'd been a volunteer there for many years, but she soon realized that the location would have to change. "Oh my God, they're not going to let me volunteer there anymore if I keep having people die in their zoo!" So the location was changed to the Monterrey Bay area of California. Gunn Landing is based on Moss Landing (population 500), "a great town-- I stay at the Captain's Inn every time I'm there!"
|Betty and Barbara|
It was definitely the type of afternoon a person hated to see end. In the free flow of questions and answers, more interesting morsels were shared.
The idea for Desert Run came from Webb's newspaper days when a nearby reporter was interviewing a former prison guard for the World War II era German POW camp in Scottsdale.
The Maytag family was responsible for giving the land (and a large chunk of money) for the creation of the Phoenix Zoo.
Another great town was mentioned when Betty declared, "Globe [Arizona] is a great town. I'm going to kill someone in Globe someday!"
Webb started out in art school. She's a very visual person, but when reading David Morrell's The Successful Novelist, she came across the fact that most writers leave out a very important sense when setting a scene: the sense of smell. She now tries to include that in her writing.
Barbara added that it was due to Betty's second Lena Jones book, Desert Wives, that they all learned the importance of footnotes. Desert Wives deals with the polygamist sects up on the remote Arizona-Utah border, and Webb included her research in several footnotes, both to enhance her story, show that she was telling the truth, and to ward off lawsuits.
The polygamists' location was very carefully thought out. If Arizona law enforcement officers showed up, all they had to do was step over the border into Utah, and when Utah law enforcement officers showed up all they had to do was step into Arizona. It was clear that only some sort of technicality would put a stop to something which has wrecked countless human lives. Like income tax evasion brought down Al Capone, something as simple as federal welfare fraud could bring down the polygamist leaders of the Arizona Strip. Barbara Peters sent a copy of Desert Wives to then Governor Janet Napolitano who read it with a great deal of interest, and you might just remember the trial of Warren Jeffs.
The afternoon ended on another humorous note when Betty mentioned a book review of Desert Wives by a syndicated reporter living in Nevada. The reviewer panned the book, stating over and over how nothing in the book could possibly be true. Since she was syndicated, that review appeared all over the United States. "You can almost track my sales by where that review appeared!" Betty laughed.
Although none of us wanted the afternoon to end, it did. At least there was cake and tea waiting for all of us!