Friday, September 24, 2010
Betty Webb for Authors @ The Teague
Then, Webb packed up to tell us about her background. She was a reporter for twenty years for The Tribune. She was hired as a music critic, for no good reason. Maybe it was because she could tell the difference between Bach and Mozart, and Metallica and other bands. After a while, she realized there was no book reviewer, and asked if she could review books. She was told no, because they already used the syndicated reviews from the New York Times. But, Betty covered all the bands and symphonies that came to Arizona. So, she said, why can't we treat authors in the same way? If an author is coming to Arizona, let me interview them. After a while, those articles started to be picked up by the New York Times.
Webb said she was nosy, born nosy. She always asked unacceptable questions. When she noticed the oddities about Arizona living, she started doing articles about odd things. From there, she started covering everything from domestic abuse to polygamy to child abuse. She made her career up as she went along.
Betty Webb's Lena Jones mysteries are based on real crimes and problems in Arizona. Desert Noir, the first book, came from the abuse of eminent domain. When they wanted to build the stadiums in downtown Phoenix, they used eminent domain to take a neighborhood of old adobes. Webb said most people sold for $25,000, but there was a grandmother who held out, saying she was born in that house, the one her own grandfather built. She'd never known another house. The publicity favored her, and finally she was given a much larger amount, enough to buy a decent house. She sold, reluctantly, the same year she died. A subplot of Desert Noir is eminent domain.
Desert Shadows came about because, as the newspaper's book reviewer, Webb received all kinds of books. Self-publishing was starting to boom, and Webb was receiving some whacked-job books. Two books she received at the same time sent her over the edge. She received two racist books in one day. One claimed the people in the Japanese internment camps were happy. Webb said anyone who publishes with a reputable publisher would have to prove their argument, but with self-publishing, people can publish anything they want. Desert Shadows deals with self-publishing.
The old German prisoner of war camp in Phoenix in World War II is the subject in Desert Run. Sailors taken prisoner in the North Atlantic were sent to this camp, because the best place to imprison sailors was considered to be the desert. Thirty-two hundred German POWs were there, but the security was quite lax. There are stories of German prisoners who crawled under fences to meet girlfriends, and came back to camp. They were well-fed, had a softball field. Many of them did not want to return to Germany after the war, and some came back. Several live in Glendale, and every few years there is a reunion with the guards and the ex-prisoners.
But, officers were supposed to attempt to escape. So, they came up with a plan, and twenty-five people went along with it. They'd dig a tunnel out, one 176 feet long. They had a map with squiggly blue lines, and blue lines indicated rivers. They built a collapsible boat, thinking they'd sail it down the Salt River Canal, and end up sailing to Mexico.
On December 24, Christmas Even, they took the boat through the tunnel, just to find a dry canal. So, they carried the boat to the Salt River, only to find it was all sand. Then, they dropped the boat, and decided to spread out through the desert. They had no food or water with them. They were living on roadkill. Soon, they started to surrender. They even surrendered to housewives and kids. The Arizona Republic published their pictures, saying there was a $25 reward. That was a good amount in 1944, so some of the Pima Indians went back to tracking, and went out in the desert, and brought them back. They were all caught. Desert Run is told from two points of view, that of Lena in present day, and, in 1944-45, that of a sailor who escaped.
Desert Lost is Webb's other polygamy book, a story of the lost boys. In polygamy, if one man has many wives, some men won't have any. Some boys don't survive, but others, at the age of thirteen or fourteen, are loaded into vans, and dumped in cities such as Phoenix, Flagstaff or Salt Lake City. They lead terrible lives.
The Lena Jones books are hard to write, with heavy subjects, and a great deal of research. So, Webb wanted to cheer herself up, and write something funny. As a volunteer at the Phoenix Zoo, she works in Monkey Village, where zoo guests are allowed in the enclosures where monkeys run free. There are no barriers. It's a personnel-heavy exhibit. They have to make sure no one picks up a monkey, or gets bitten.
By this time, Webb had retired from The Tribune, and her volunteer duties at the zoo got her out of the house. One day, on her lunch hour, she took the back path, and saw the anteater. The anteater, Jezebel, had a baby. An anteater baby crawls up on its mother's back. It looks just like mom. Anteaters also have a three-foot long blue tongue. So, Jezebel and her baby were chasing each other, and then they were laying down boxing with each other. Webb thought it was so cute, and she should write an article about the anteater. Then, she decided to try it out as a book.
The Anteater of Death was fun to write, but Betty never thought she'd get it published. She sent it to her editor, Barbara Peters at Poisoned Pen Press. It usually takes Barbara a couple months to respond because she's so busy. Poisoned Pen Press is now the second largest mystery publisher in the U.S. But, by the end of the week, Barbara contacted her, and said we want to do it. And, it is going to be a series, isn't it? And, Betty assured her she has several more planned.
Then, they had to decide if the books were going to be published under Betty Webb or a pen name. Sometimes there is a reason to use a pen name. If an author is publishing in a different field or genre, a pen name separates you from your other books. Webb had a good reputation with her Lena Jones books. If The Anteater of Death bombed, Webb would have egg on her face. Fortunately, the book was very popular, and had good reviews.