Tuesday, January 26, 2010
Betty Webb at Velma Teague Library
With the Scottsdale setting of her Lena Jones mysteries, Betty Webb's programs are always popular ones at the Velma Teague Library. It was a packed room to hear her talk about Desert Lost, the sixth book in the Lena Jones series. Library Journal picked it as one of the top five mystery novels of 2009.
For those who weren't familiar with her books, Betty told the story of Lena Jones' life. At the age of four, she was found beside Thomas Road in Phoenix, shot in the head. She was in a coma for several months, and when she came out of the coma, she was brain damaged. She couldn't speak, didn't remember her parents, didn't know who shot her. Social Services advertised for a few months, but no one came forward to say they were her parents. She was too troubled to be adopted, so she ended up in the foster care system in Arizona. Sometimes foster care works out, but Lena's was a bad experience. In one home, she was raped, and in one, she was starved. But, she's a survivor. However, she does bring some of her problems to her cases.
Lena attended ASU on scholarship, studying Police Science. She joined the police force in Scottsdale, but was shot in a drug bust gone wrong. When they tried to give her a desk job, Lena opened her own detective agency in Scottsdale, Desert Investigations. She continues to try to solve the mystery of her own life, as well as other cases. In the tenth book, Lena and the readers will learn the answers to her life; if her paretns are alive, why she was shot, what happened.
Lena is definitely not lucky in love. Many foster children have problems in that area. They either can't make emotional attachments, or make inappropriate ones. Lena goes back and forth, doing both. At the start of Desert Lost, she's in the middle of a relationship with Warren, an Oscar-winning film director. That's an inappropriate relationship.
The second book in the series, Desert Wives, has been Webb's best seller so far. That novel involves the polygamy compounds in northern Arizona. Lena went underground as a wife to discover who killed one of the prophets. One of Lena's clients, a runaway from the compound, was blamed for the murder, so Lena investigated. Desert Wives was optioned by Lifetime for a TV series or movie. It hasn't happened yet, but it was sold in 2001, even before the book came out, and the check comes in every January. Webb said she's had nine years of checks, so she likes Hollywood, which is why she involved Lena with Hollywood.
In some ways, Desert Lost is a return to Desert Wives. At the beginning of the novel, Lena is on a stakeout in an RV storage lot. The lot has been hit by a rash of taggers, so she was hired to catch the taggers. That night, she hears a noise, and, when she investigates, finds a dead woman who was dumped there. Lena didn't recognize her, but knows she's a polygamist by her dress and hair. Sister wives can be identified by their hair, a pompadour in front, with a long French braid. They wear prairie dresses.
Betty Webb said there is a small polygamist compound in Tempe, and one in Mesa. She's related to some of the polygamists in Mesa. She said some members of the Alabama branch of her mother's family moved to Salt Lake City, but when the Mormon Church ended polygamy in 1890, her family members disagreed, and moved to Mesa. She was invited to lunch with her family, when they discovered each other through genealogy, but that lunch didn't last long. Webb also said a couple of Warren Jeffs' sons are attending ASU, majoring in finance, so they can handle the extensive financial dealings of the group.
In 2002, when Desert Wives was published, the welfare system had not yet been overhauled, and the FLDS was involved in welfare scams. The reason young girls are "married" is because thirteen-year-old girls are fertile. If a girl has a baby at thirteen, they could have lots of babies before menopause. The church is all about babies. At that time, there was no limit to the amount of welfare a single mother could collect on her children. There is no actual legal marriage. Instead there's a mishmash written up. If a man has ten "wives," and each "wife" has ten children, they're all illegitimate. There may be one hundred children in a household, and each child got welfare. In 2002, that was $550 per child, per month, so there may be as much as $55,000 coming into a household per month, with all checks forwarded to the prophet. There's a great deal of incest in a polygamy compound. It's been estimated that approximately 65% of children born in the compounds have serious birth defects. So, SSI and SSDI payments continue through life for each disabled child. Incest problems continue. Since the revisions to welfare, SSI and SSDI payments have taken over. The compounds operate for money, not religion, as they would have people believe.
Webb said some compounds are so crowded that they've been opening outposts in other states. Eldorado, Texas is the one that many people will recognize, but there are outposts in Wyoming, Seattle, Colorado, Canada, and Mexico. The women and children are in all of those places. It's important to keep all the girls pregnant, which is why Warren Jeffs had his own plane, and would fly around to different compounds. He had seventy-five known "wives," and, no one knows how many children.
Lena discovered that polygamist compound in Scottsdale. Betty said she does believe there is one there. She's identified a building with all of the features. Lena Jones wanted to know who killed that woman, and why, and why are they in Scottsdale? The women are kept behind barbed wire fencing, but it's only the most loyal women who go to outside compounds, not the women who are likely to run away.
So, here's the situation. If one man can have ten wives, there will be nine men with no wives. Webb asked if we noticed how few boys there were in the Eldorado raid? Polygamists get rid of the extra men, sometimes when boys are as young as thirteen. Vans are loaded, and the boys are dumped in Salt Lake City, Flagstaff, and Phoenix. Most of the boys can't read beyond the second grade level. They've been homeschooled, and the education is mainly religious indoctrination. They only have the basics of reading and writing. So, the boys are dumped on streets, and many become male prostitutes in order to survive. A few get into shelters, and get a remedial education, and construction jobs. They have a hard time adjusting to the outside world.
In Desert Lost, Lena learns the dead woman had a dumped son who was trying to get back to her. So, who killed the polygamist, and why? In real life, a woman who was battered to death was usually killed by her husband. But, this is a novel, and it could be anybody.
Betty said it was difficult to see polygamy from the boy's point of view. She tries to enter into the head of everyone in the book. She does research, and knows Flora Jessup, a former sister wife who escaped. Webb said she had an interesting conversation with one of the lost boys. But, it was a difficult conversation because language has a different meaning to them. The words "truth," "God," and "obedience," have a different meaning than we understand.
Lena Jones hopes the boy didn't kill his mother. The boys are never allowed to talk to their parents after they've been thrown out. Polygamists begin to break the parent bond early. The children live in dormitories, and there is not the strong family bond we've been given to believe.
Betty Webb was asked about the God Squad, and she said those are the men who carry out Warren Jeffs' wishes, his henchmen. Two of the men are in prison for murder.
One audience member mentioned that her family doesn't go to Peter Piper Pizza because they understand the FLDS owns the arcade machines. Webb agreed, and said polygamists also own some of the gaming machines in casinos, not all of the casinos, but many of them.
Webb was asked about Jimmy Sisiwan, Lena's partner in Desert Investigations. Betty said she lives over by the Salt River Indian Reservation. When Betty was starting to write the series, she knew that 75% of private investigation is done on the Internet. She was interested in that kind of investigation, and knew Lena had to have a partner do work the computers, and bring in money. One day, Betty was shopping at the Fry's near the rez, waiting for checkout, and she overheard a conversation between a father and son. The boy said he wanted a MAC so he could play more games, and the father said you're not getting a computer for games, but for school. When she turned around, it was a Pima father and son, so Jimmy Sisiwan became a Pima Indian.
When asked about the HBO series, Big Love, Webb said it glamorizes polygamy. She said the woman who wrote the book it's based on was a romance novelist with no clue about polygamy. The show features a good looking man, married to three women who live in nice houses, and look good.
Betty did say, if you drive up the highway toward Utah, Colorado City is one one side, and Centennial City is on the other. Those are two different types of polygamy towns. In Centennial City, grown women made the choice to live in a polygamist relationship. They have nice homes, and the schools are good. Colorado City is the bad situation with poor schooling and young girls as "wives." In Centennial City, adults are making their own informed choices.
Webb was asked about Lena as a character. She said she wrote the first chapter of Desert Noir, and knew it was going to be a mystery, but she didn't know who her detective would be. She didn't know if it would be a dark and bleak mystery, or a light and funny one. So, she wrote the first chapter, and went to bed. Lena Jones came to Betty in a dream. Every bit of Lena's life was in the dream, and Betty knows what will happen in book ten, when Lena's life story is revealed.
When asked about the foster child aspect of Lena's life, Webb said she went to junior high and high school in Detroit, and one of her close friends was a foster child. But, Webb herself wasn't one. Many former foster kids have become fans of the series. She said she feels like Lena's the daughter she never had.
One question was about Betty Webb's own background. She replied that she wrote her first book at fourteen, but it didn't sell. Interestingly enough, it was called Desert Mane, because she loved horses. She went to an art school for high school, and then went to LA, and eventually became a graphic designer, saying she would write a novel by the age of thirty. When she turned thirty, she remembered that, so she wrote a novel; it was published, but she won't tell the name of it. Then, she went back to her advertising career. Over time, she became more involved in copywriting, and eventually became the creative designer, combining copy and design.
By the time she was living in Phoenix, she was a single mom, attending a singles group at a church in Phoenix, where the leader of the group was a theater critic for a newspaper. He asked her to do some theater reviews for him, and then other editors called, and asked her to do them. Eventually, the Tribune called, and, for fifteen years, she worked full-time for them. The last five years, she was also writing the Lena Jones books. Then, she retired four years ago, and writes and blogs.
Betty was asked if the Mormons put any pressure on her, and she said, no, but she receives nasty emails from fundamentalists. She said it can be confusing since the Mormons are the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, and the polygamists are the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. It can be confusing, but if fundamentalist is in the name, they're polygamists.
It was mentioned that Betty uses real Arizona landmarks in her books, and she said, yes. She loves Scottsdale, and loves to write about it. In March, she's taking a trip to another location in Arizona to write about it for the next book.
Jimmy Sisiwan was mentioned, and Betty said he was adopted at a time when Indian children could be adopted by white couples, and Jimmy was adopted and raised by a Mormon couple. But, as so many adopted children do, he wanted to learn about his roots, and he went back, and lives on the Salt River Reservation, and he isn't a Mormon.
A question came up about the fundamentalists, and Betty reminded everyone they can't be arrested for polygamy because they actually aren't married. She said the age of consent in Arizona is sixteen right now, and there's a push to make it eighteen.
Before closing, and signing books, Betty was asked about her other series. She said she's a volunteer at the Phoenix Zoo, and one day, was entranced watching the giant anteater. So, she would work on the dark Lena Jones mysteries in the morning, and the fun, light story about a zookeeper in California at night. Betty spent one summer living on a houseboat, so she put her zookeeper on a houseboat in Moss Landing, California. One day, Betty's editor at Poisoned Pen Press, Barbara Peters, mentioned that she has to take all the funny lines out of the Lena Jones books. Webb said that's OK, she wouldn't put as many in because she had written a lighter book. When she told Barbara it was a book about a zoo, Peters wanted to see it. That book became The Anteater of Death. Webb just finished the second book, The Koala of Death. Lena Jones' life is complicated, but the zookeeper, Teddy (Theodora), has an uncomplicated life, and her story is told in funny books. Teddy enjoys life, and her relationship with the local sheriff. There's lots of poor little rich girl stuff in this series.
As always, Betty Webb was a hit with our audience, and spent time signing books, and answering questions after the program.
Betty Webb's website is http://www.bettywebb-mystery.com
Desert Lost by Betty Webb. Poisoned Pen Press, ©2009. ISBN 9781590586815 (hardcover), 264p.