Sunday, May 12, 2019

At The Poisoned Pen with Betty Webb!

I've gotten behind in posting my recaps of the events I've attended at my favorite bookstore, The Poisoned Pen. Shame on me! This means that I'm not going to waste a lot of time with setting the scene when one of my favorite authors, Betty Webb, came to the bookstore to talk to us about her latest book, Desert Redemption, which may or may not be the last Lena Jones mystery. Suffice it to say, lots of fans showed up, which is always a good thing!

Betty chatting with fans pre-event.
Barbara: Good evening, everybody! Thank you so much for coming. Thank you also to our Facebook and Youtube audiences. This is a landmark event tonight: a ten-book... has it been a ten-year project, too?

Betty: Actually, it's more like twenty! [audience laughter]

Barbara: The part I've been involved in has been shorter than that, I think.

Betty: No, remember that halfway through I started writing the Gunn Zoo mysteries.

Barbara: Yes, you're right.

Betty: At that point, I would give you a book every year, but one year, it would be a Lena Jones and the other it would be a Gunn Zoo.

Barbara: Twenty years. Wow! The thing that's interesting about Betty-- well, there are many things that are interesting about Betty-- is that her voice is very different in the two series. When she wrote the Lena Jones books, I had to redline through all the stuff that was cute. When she wrote the Gunn Zoo books, when the story got dark, I had to say, "Whoops, wrong voice!" [audience laughter]

Betty: I tell people who have read some of my books that Lena Jones is my dark side. Lena Jones is the side where when you do something evil to me, I will do something three times as evil back to you. Okay. So that's Lena Jones. Now the other voice, my light side, my clean side, my good side, my better angel, is Teddy, who is the zookeeper in the Gunn Zoo mysteries. If you do something evil to Teddy, the first time she'll say, "I forgive you." But if you do it to her the second time, you're dead. [audience laughter]

Barbara: I really have a hard time finding a dark side to Betty, but I agree that Lena is probably as bad as she gets. However, Betty's had a recent wonderful encomium in a publicity campaign done by our new publishing partner Sourcebooks in which they compared you to...

L to R: Barbara Peters, Betty Webb

Betty: I've been compared to Sue Grafton and J.D. Robb! When you stop to think about the two different types of books those women write, it's kind of interesting. I don't know what to think about that.

Barbara: Why don't you just be glad?

Betty: Yeah. Well, you do notice that I tend to complicate things. [audience laughter] If someone says to me, "Oh, you look nice today, Betty," I'll ask, "What do you mean?"

Barbara: Just flash your red shoes at them and be done with it. [more laughter] Your origin story of the Lena Jones books always pleases me, so let's start at the beginning since some people in the audience haven't heard it.

Betty: Once upon a time in a little town called Scottsdale, Arizona, I was a reporter, and I was working on the Tribune newspapers here. When you work on a newspaper-- and I know you don't believe this, folks-- you really have to check your facts and make sure they're right.

Barbara: That was twenty years ago. [audience laughter]

Betty Webb
Betty: I got so irritated being fact-checked all the time, I just thought that I wanted to write some fiction, but I didn't know what kind of fiction to write. I thought it may be a mystery, but I just couldn't come up with a plot. The odd thing is, I teach writing now. I have students who come in and say, "I want to write, but I don't know what I want to write." I can feel for that!

Anyway, my editor made me come down to the Scottsdale Art Walk to cover that. I went to an actual art school; I've been a working artist for thirty-five years in LA and New York City. So they thought they'd turn me loose on the Scottsdale Art Walk and see how that works out.

I go into a gallery that says "Native American Paintings," and that's what I expected to see. What I saw were naked pictures of Indian women done in oils-- and not all that well.

Barbara: Wait. Start again. You saw naked women in pictures, not in oils. Not naked pictures.

Betty: Well, they were framed, so... [audience laughter]

Barbara: I can't help it! I'm her editor and I'm used to improving her syntax! [audience laughter]

Betty: So anyway, I took one look at the painting and said, "This wasn't done by a Native American artist because they do not paint their women nude." I went up to the gallery manager-- or owner, don't know which-- and said, "That's not Native American art you've got on your wall." She said, "Yes, it is!" "Nooo, it's not." "It is, too!" And I said, "What tribe?" And then there's this big blank look. The look of terror you see on someone's face when they're caught in a lie. I said, "You really should take your signs down that say Authentic Native American Art."

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I was furious; we had a fight. My husband was there with me. He knows when I'm getting mad, and he knows to clear the decks. So he went outside. I was scaring the other patrons away. I finally stalked out, turned to my husband and said, "Somebody ought to kill that woman!" He looked at me and said, "Well, there's your plot!" [audience laughter] A year later, I turned Desert Noir over to Barbara, and that book is about the killing of an art gallery owner in Scottsdale, Arizona on Art Walk Night!

Barbara: The part she left out is that it was on the doorstep of the original Poisoned Pen because we were next door to the art gallery in question.

Betty: Yeah, and the doorstep had blood on it! There was a big splatter of blood-- in tile, of course. [Some of those tiles now grace the cash register area.]

Barbara: How could I turn her down when she killed someone practically on our doorstep? So that was Lena, and Betty said then that she envisioned this ten-book story arc, which is pretty unusual for an author to come to you and say. But by golly, you did it.

Betty: Well, Lena helped. As I've said before, Lena actually came to me in a dream. After I had that brawl with the art gallery owner, I went home and wrote the first chapter of Desert Noir, but I didn't have a detective. I knew I had a dead gallery owner, but I didn't have a detective. It could've gone into a cozy. I could've made my detective some sweet lady who knits or makes quilts, or I could have some hard-bitten police detective.

I went to bed that night after finishing the first chapter, and Lena Jones actually came to me in a dream. Her entire life came to me in a dream. Including who shot her because Lena was found at the age of four, lying by the side of Thomas Road with a bullet in her head. She was in a coma for two months, and when she came to, she had no memory left. She had to learn how to walk again, talk again. She had behavioral problems. I have behavioral problems, so I just gave mine to Lena. [audience laughter]

Betty Webb
She was considered unadoptable and went through the foster care system, which at that time is rougher than it is now because they didn't have the ways to doublecheck the stories of the people who were applying to be foster parents. In one of the foster homes she went to, she was raped at the age of nine. She was able to stop the rape because she had a butcher knife.

As I was dreaming that, it became so implanted in me that I felt I knew her. Lena actually became the daughter I never had. I have two sons, but I never had a daughter, and I really feel that Lena is my daughter. So with this tenth book, it was really hard to write because it was like I was abandoning her, but not really. For those of you who... don't worry! I did not kill Lena! And I did not kill Jimmy either. [audience laughter] So don't worry about that.

It was really hard for me to finish this. I struggled with it, but the story arc was natural. To know that, all the way through these books, Lena has been looking for her parents. She wants to know why she was shot, who shot her, and why they never showed up at the hospital to claim her. For ten books, she's been looking for these answers, and in this book, she gets those answers.

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Barbara: Every first novel in a series is introducing you to the characters and to the whole world the characters are going to inhabit, so there's a lot of what we call "set-up." Desert Noir has some desert survival elements to it, but after that Betty's career as an investigative reporter gave her the tools to look into one interesting social issue after another. So the books are Lena's story, but in each one, you also get a complicated investigation into something that personally outraged you.

Betty: Yeah, and I'm always outraged. Those of you who know me know this, but it seems like Arizona is the fulcrum of outrages. If there's something horrible going on in the world, I'm not going to say that it starts here, but it gets here pretty darned quickly. Human rights abuses... this is one of the great states to explore them. That's what all the books turned out to be about--human rights abuses-- which is not something I planned in the beginning.

But if you'll notice, there was a ghost of it there because in that first book, Desert Noir, I talked about what happened to the elderly Hispanics who owned the original adobes where they built Talking Stick Arena. They were just given a check for $25,000 and moved out. Those people owned those homes and had lived in them all their lives. There you have someone who's eighty years old. She's a widow. She has no job. And she's given a check for $25,000 and told to go buy a new house. That's kind of unfair, and it's an abuse of eminent domain. So even in that first book, I started going after abuses.

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Barbara: Well, you're really good, and when you wrote the second one, Desert Wives, which was about the polygamous communities up north, Janet Napolitano was governor. Janet and I had been friends since the time I opened The Poisoned Pen because she was a lawyer practicing here in Scottsdale and a big mystery fan. She would come in at about 5:30 at night before I closed and lean on the counter, and we would talk about mysteries.

So when I read Desert Wives, which if you recall, was it back in the thirties when an Arizona governor tried to...?

Betty: It was the fifties.

Barbara: was a political disaster for the governor. When Betty wrote this book, I thought maybe I should talk to Janet before we publish this because the governor was a part of this. I wanted to talk about it on this side of a lawsuit rather than the far side, and it actually prompted Janet to do something about the border communities. But in the process, I said to Betty, if we're going to publish this, we need you to put your notes and your research in the back of the book so that it doesn't appear to be completely unfounded allegations, and that's been the pattern in the books ever since. She's written an afterward in each of the books so you can kind of follow along in the investigation.

Betty: A lot of people have used the information in the backs of the books to start citizens groups to protest that sort of thing. One of the books that you said was the hardest to sell was Desert Cut...

Barbara: Yes, that was the hardest to sell.

Betty: ...because it was a really unpleasant subject-- female genital mutilation-- which most people here are not aware that it's in Arizona. In fact, it's all over the United States. When I wrote that, I had a book tour, and I talked to people and told them that they needed to look into their own communities to see if it was happening there. One of the great things that happened in the aftermath of Desert Cut was when the Arizona government realized that there was not a law prohibiting female genital mutilation and became one of the twenty-three states in America that now does have a law against it. The books have made a difference, and I'm proud of that-- which was another reason why I was really torn about bringing this series to an end.

L to R: Barbara Peters, Betty Webb
Barbara: Betty then wrote a very moving book, Desert Lost, about the boys in those polygamous communities because-- let's face it-- if you live in a society in which all the women belong to a very few of the men, what happens to the boys?

My favorite of all the Lena Jones books is Desert Run because I just love the idea that a group of German prisoners in Papago Park built a boat, and their whole plan was to break out of the camp and get in their boat and float down the great Salt River to the sea.

In many ways, I think it's your cleverest plot.

Betty: It had to be clever because twenty-five of them escaped. They didn't do anything dastardly while they were out there, but I'm a mystery writer. I have to kill somebody. [audience laughter] So I had to think hard about that. Oh, I know? I'll make it twenty-eight of them escaped, and three of them were involved in something dastardly. So I took a real event and intermixed the three fictional characters, and I just had a lot of fun writing that one.

Barbara: I was embarrassed to realize that we even had a German prisoner of war camp in Scottsdale. I didn't know it until I read your book. How did I miss that?

Betty: How I first learned about it was that I was sitting in my little pod at the newspaper, and the guy sitting next to me was interviewing someone over the phone. The person he was interviewing was either German or the son of a German. I eavesdropped. Reporters will eavesdrop, be very careful! If you notice someone following you down the street, it may not be a stalker, it may be a reporter who heard you say something interesting and he wants to hear about it. [audience laughter] When he hung up, I said, "Wait a minute! Did I hear you correctly? There was a prisoner of war camp down in Papago Park?" "Well, it wasn't a park then." He was interviewing one of the old guards. He gave me the phone number, and I got to talk to him.

There were 3200 German sailors there that were taken out of the U-boats on the North Atlantic. After the war was over, they were sent back to Germany, but many came back to settle in Arizona because they'd been treated so well. Every few years, they would have a reunion party, and the Germans would come over from Germany, and the guards would show up, and they'd have a big party.

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Barbara: Actually one of the most interesting conversations we've had-- and the only time I've ever seen her nervous when we were talking about a book-- was for Desert Wind.

Betty: Oh, Desert Wind, yeah! Desert Wind was about the atomic bomb testing in Nevada in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. During that time, there were over 940 bombs tested out there. The nuclear fallout spread heavily over the Southwest, but it also made the Geiger counters go off in Central Park in New York.

There's no way of knowing how many American civilians died, but many developed poisoning from the fallout. A lot of young children and babies developed leukemia. Breast cancer, cancer of the esophagus... because the fallout would land on the gardens of the people who lived up there. The cancer rate was going sky-high. Some lawyers got involved and people with a little bit of education in nuclear energy, and they petitioned the government about reparations.

The government said oh no, it's not us. It's just a fluke. One of the interesting things about that time was there was one bomb that was so dirty it was called Dirty Harry, the fallout was so serious. At the time Dirty Harry was dropped, John Wayne was filming The Conqueror up in Snow Canyon, Utah. The way the canyon was shaped, it became a funnel for most of the radioactive fallout. In ten to fifteen years, 50% of the cast and crew of The Conqueror had died from various types of cancers. The government used the film crew as an example-- their very unhealthy lifestyle-- to prove it wasn't the government's fault. But then some of the other civilians came forward and said, "We're Mormons. We don't smoke. We don't drink. We didn't do it to ourselves, you did it to us." They were what was called the Downwinders. Eventually, each of the victims was awarded $50,000.

Barbara: We haven't touched on the reason why you were nervous about talking about the book. John Wayne and the...

Barbara and Betty
A fan: Ghost!

Betty: Oh, I got a little woo-woo in that book. I used John Wayne's ghost in the book. I was worried about it for a while because there had never been a woo-woo aspect to a Lena Jones book, but I decided to go for it.

The funny thing about it was that I had never been a fan of John Wayne. I liked his movies, but by the time I finished all my research on him, I was a total fangirl. Because there are times when we need heroes. Perhaps he wasn't a hero in real life, but he portrayed one so well, it was easy for other Americans to look at that and say, "Yes, that is what a hero is like."

Barbara: So when he tips his hat at the end, I think Betty thought I was going to take my vicious red pen and chop away, but I thought it was wonderful. But that's the only time I've ever seen you nervous about how I was going to react to one of your books.

Betty: Yes! I've got John Wayne and a ghost, and Barbara's going to kill me.

Barbara: And before we got to book ten, which would have been terrible.

Betty: That's really why you didn't kill me.

There then followed a few minutes in which Betty talked about Lena's penchant for the wrong men being based on her own life and how she is considering writing a Lena Jones prequel when Lena is eighteen and has aged out of the foster care system. (Barbara is a big supporter of the prequel option.) They also talked a bit about Betty's Gunn Zoo series before taking questions from the audience. If any of you would like to see the entire event, I urge you to watch it on The Poisoned Pen's Youtube channel.


  1. Oh, lucky you, Cathy! I really do like Webb's work. I also give her credit for writing different sorts of series, and exploring different settings. Glad you enjoyed yourself.

    1. Webb is one very talented writer. I always enjoy myself when I go to see her.

  2. How much fun was that? A lot! Enjoyed reading your recap. I was so pleased to get to meet Betty Webb at Left Coast in Phoenix. I told her that loved, loved, loved her Lena books. I haven't read them all, but will at some point.

    1. It makes me smile knowing that you have a Lena Jones comfort blanket awaiting you!


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