Denis wasn't happy when I climbed into the Jeep and headed to my favorite bookstore, The Poisoned Pen, but his work schedule wasn't going to prevent me from seeing Betty Webb talk about her latest Lena Jones mystery, Desert Vengeance.
This is the time of year when the Valley is jumping with things to do and with visitors from all over the country (and the world) to participate in them. Traffic was a bear, and my favorite route was hampered by road construction all along Indian School Road; nevertheless, I persisted. I got there plenty early to reserve my seat then I sat at the table in the back and alternated between reading and people watching. The joint was hopping with customers (just how I like to see it), and when a couple of winter visitors asked me why the folding chairs were set up, I happily told them about Betty and her Lena Jones books. I was even happier when they decided to buy her books and stay for the event. My joy grew when The Poisoned Pen staff had to keep running out for more chairs for all the people pouring in.
Host Barbara Peters' husband, Robert Rosenwald, baked some scrumptious brownies for the event, and when Betty took a bite of hers, she quipped, "You know you have a great publisher when he bakes brownies for you!" (Rosenwald is the president of Poisoned Pen Press.)
|L to R: Betty Webb, Barbara Peters|
Desert Vengeance is the ninth Lena Jones mystery, and when Webb originally started the series, she only planned for ten books. (Yes, there were many worried faces in the crowd.) Lena began as a dream and now she's like a member of the family. "When I have a problem, I ask myself, 'What would Lena do?' and then I do the opposite," Betty laughed. She's busy blocking out the tenth book, and she's not helped when her husband says things like "I wonder what Lena was like when she was eighteen?"
"When you write a series, you have to start somewhere," Barbara said, "and sooner or later everyone wants to do a prequel."
The book Betty is working on now has eighteen-year-old Lena earning a scholarship to Arizona State University, and the question in the author's mind is "What if her roommate is killed? What would Lena do?" She also has a series in the works featuring one of Lena's ancestors. "Some of my past history mirrors Lena's great-great-grandmother's-- and it takes place in Paris."
"In preparing for the book, I interviewed several women who discovered they were married to serial child molesters. All but one of them left their husbands when they found out what was happening," Betty said. Her research also took her to Black Canyon City, a small Arizona town most people only get a glimpse of as they speed past on Interstate 17. However, there are quite a few Phoenicians who drive the forty-six-plus miles to Black Canyon City because of the Rock Springs Café, home of one hundred kinds of delicious pie. "If you go-- and I hope you do-- don't expect to walk right in, get a table, and have your food in a matter of minutes," Betty said. "This is one very busy restaurant!"
Betty assured her that it was. When Webb first moved to the Valley in 1982, she became a reporter for the Arizona Republic. One day she and her husband were in an art gallery on Main Street in Scottsdale when Betty began having a heated argument with the gallery owner. Her husband, a Quaker, walked outside to wait. When Betty joined him, they noticed the blood splatter tiles on the sidewalk in front of The Poisoned Pen which was next-door to the gallery. The sight of those tiles made Webb realize that she was going to kill a gallery owner in her first book. Some of those original tiles grace the front of the cash register area in the present bookstore.
It didn't take Betty long to realize that there wasn't any mystery series set in the Scottsdale area, and it was perfect. "Here's a typical Scottsdale crime for you," she said, "and I'm not making this up! A French woman killed her husband and chopped him into little pieces which she then divided up and put into separate little plastic baggies. She loaded the baggies into her Jaguar XKE and proceeded to drive around Scottsdale visiting one dumpster after another. She was beautifully dressed and coiffed and was wearing gloves. Somehow she managed to get stopped by a cop, and eventually the cop stopped listening to her French accent and looking at all her loveliness to actually see one of the baggies and what it contained!"
Throughout the series, Lena Jones has been looking for her mother, and in book ten, titled Desert Redemption, this ongoing search will be wrapped up "to some extent. I've learned that it's not a good idea to talk too much about future books," the author said. Of course, we also wanted to know about her next Gunn Zoo mystery, and she obliged by telling us the title: The Otter of Death.
This led to talk of the San Diego Zoo, and I almost swallowed my teeth when Betty said that admission now costs $100. (Guess it's been a long time since Denis and I went there!) Webb asked us if we were familiar with Conrad Prebys, a philanthropist whose name is mentioned at the beginning of Masterpiece Theatre. Well, it seems that Conrad donated a lot of money over the years to the San Diego Zoo, and his name is on every single thing his money paid for. "He did like to see his name on everything," Betty said, "and I did toy with the idea of having Teddy Bentley travel from the Gunn Zoo down to the San Diego Zoo where Prebys would wind up being murdered, but I decided that wasn't a good idea!"
A fan hadn't forgotten what Betty had said about her Lena Jones series at the beginning of the event. "Have you known all along who Lena Jones' mother is?" Betty nodded. "Yes, I have." The fan then asked, "How many drinks will it take to get it out of you?" The bookstore erupted in laughter.
Betty reminded us, tongue-in-cheek, that writing a mystery is easy when the middle of the book begins to drag. "Have a book with a saggy middle? All you have to do is kill someone else!"
Both women agreed that Lena Jones' voice was a combination of them both. As her editor, Peters' comments on a manuscript are often "Too Cute." Lena is not a cute or humorous character, but Barbara explained, "Betty can't help it; it's who she is."
Some of my favorite parts of these events at The Poisoned Pen are when Barbara talks about being an editor. "Elmore Leonard is the writer who told us to take out the words readers skip," Peters said. "I learned early on that Betty loves adverbs."
Barbara is a speed reader and has an eidetic memory. She's learned that the best way for her to edit a manuscript is in one sitting. "Editing, to a huge degree, is taking stuff out," she explained. "Sometimes it's putting stuff in that the writer thought was already in there. An editor is a first reader and has to put herself in the place of the average reader."
And when it comes to reading, these ladies don't mess around. Betty Webb reads on average three books per week. The speed-reading Peters reads three books per day!
The hour was over much too soon, and the signing line for Betty's Desert Vengeance? It was so long, it went out the door!