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Conversation with Betty Webb

February 28th, 2008

My friend and fellow Poisoned Pen Press author Betty Webb has just had her fifth Lena Jones book released, the amazing Desert Cut. Following is a conversation Betty and I had about Lena and Desert Cut, Betty’s upcoming series, and the writing life. Enjoy.

Donis: Your fifth Lena Jones mystery is quite an eye-opener. Tell us about it.

Betty: There’s been so much fuss about illegal immigration, very few people have bothered to take a look at the kinds of people we’re allowing into the U.S. legally. Some of these folks are from cultures very, very different from ours… cultures where it is legal to beat your wife and trade your 12-year-old daughter for a cow. Many of these cultures continue these practices in America, and to make a long story short, that’s what Desert Cut is all about.

Donis: When did the idea for Desert Cut begin to form in your mind?

Betty: I’d been reading some odd newspaper stories about child abuse cases across the country — odd because the specific type of abuse was never described. When I contacted journalist friends in those cities, they told me what had been left out of the story, and I was absolutely floored. That was around 4 years ago. Desert Cut has been percolating in my mind ever since.

Donis: In the book, Lena confronts a horrifying practice that has been perpetuated on children in some cultures for thousands of years, yet most Americans are totally unaware that it is going on right in this country. How were you able to research a topic that so many go to such lengths to keep hidden?

Betty: Again, many of my friends are journalists, and they told me what they’d been forced to leave out of their stories. They also directed me to organizations that had collected a lot of information about this practice. There really is a lot out there if you know where to look.

Donis: Your books concern socially relevant topics. You seem to have a well-developed social consciousness and like to shine a light on the darker corners of human behavior. In fact, you’ve actually seen your fiction contribute to social change. Tell us a little about what happened with your second book, Desert Wives. Are there as yet any indications of something similar with Desert Cut?

Betty: It’s a little early for Desert Cut to have an impact yet, since it’s only been out for two weeks. It took almost a year for Desert Wives to get a law written against polygamy.

Donis: Lena is an interesting character – a troubled former foster child who literally doesn’t know who she is. In each of your books, Lena finds out a little more about her past. Will she eventually find out her whole story? Do you intend to end the series when Lena learns what happened to her? And just for the sake of those of us who care about her, I hope you’ll let her love life take a nice turn for the better.

Betty: Yes, Lena will eventually find out her own back story in book number ten, Desert Redemption. And believe me, it’s a pip! I may or may not end the series there, though. When Lena finds out where she came from, and what really happened to her, she will face enormous problems. As to her love life, many readers don’t like Warren and still miss Dusty. That cowboy has a lot of women half in love with him. Maybe he’ll come back, maybe he won’t. As for Warren… at this point, the less said about his future in the series, the better.

Donis:You were and still are a journalist, a book reviewer, and a writing teacher. What made you decide to go over to the dark side and become a novelist yourself?

Betty: After reviewing novels for about 10 years, I finally said to myself, “Girl, you can write a better novel than half this slush you’re reading.” Easily said, not so easy to accomplish. But I gave it, and am still giving it, the old college try.

Donis: The Lena Jones series is quite intense, but I hear you have a second series in the works that is a complete change of pace for you. What do you have planned?

Betty: You must mean The Anteater of Death, my first attempt at writing a traditional mystery. The first of a series set in a coastal California zoo, it will be released by Poisoned Pen Press in March of 09. If the Lena Jones series is tales from the dark side, the zoo series could be called tales from the light side. The book was inspired by my volunteer work at the Phoenix Zoo, and I had almost as much fun writing it as I’ve had working in (don’t laugh) Monkey Village. Each book in the series will highlight a different animal. Obviously, a giant anteater from Belize leads off the first. In a way, the zoo is the Cabot Cove of zoos. People keep dying.

Donis: As a book reviewer, you must read innumerable books a year. Do you ever get the chance to read just what you want to read? Whose work do you particularly like? (present company excepted, of course)

Betty: I’m always swamped with books, and I do have my favorites. Leaving aside the mysteries (and possible political problems!), I tend to enjoy what is loosely called “literary fiction.” People like Carol Shields, the farther reaches of P.D. James, Wallace Stegner, John Updike… they’re my heroes. As for not being able to read what I want to read when I review, I’m very fortunate in my work for Mystery Scene magazine that they let me send in a list of people whose work I like, and they make sure I get their books… as well as books similar to theirs. Therefore, I am very seldom, if ever, put in the position of reviewing something I loathe.

Donis: You always ask the authors you interview if they have any advice for aspiring writers. I’ll ask you the same.

Betty: If you want to write good books, READ GOOD BOOKS. And a lot of them. In my writing class, the first thing I ask my students is how much they read and what they read. If they are not reading at least 5 books a month, their future as a writer is dim. And they should be reading RECENT books that have won prizes in the genre you want to write in. It’s all very well to read Dickens, but today’s reader is not a Victorian lady reclining on a chaise in the conservatory. She’s most probably a married (or divorced) woman with kids who holds down a full time job. She doesn’t have time for books that take 100 pages just to get off the ground — she wants action, and she wants it fast. Readers’ tastes have changed dramatically over the past 150 years, and publishers know that. Look at it this way: would you buy a car designed by an automotive engineer who had only studied and designed Model T’s? Of course not. Sad though it may seem, the same is true of writers. If you are writing from a 150-year-old (or even 20-year-old) paradigm, don’t expect to find a publisher. Writing is a business, just like everything else. Publishers aren’t in the field for “literary” or charitable reasons; they’re in it to make money. Period. Stay current in your reading, and write at least 3 hours every single day — it’ll take you that long just to write your way through the cliches. If you don’t have the discipline to write for hours every day, then choose an easier profession — like brain surgery.

Donis: My sentiments exactly. (“Brain surgery…” I love it!)

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