Interview with Betty Webb

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Primarily I interview writers of fantasy and science fiction (since that’s what I write) but today, I am pleased to be interviewing mystery writer Betty Webb.

Before writing mysteries full time, Betty Webb worked as a journalist, interviewing everyone from U.S. presidents, astronauts who walked on the moon, and Nobel Prize-winners, as well as the homeless, the dying, and polygamy runaways. The six dark Lena Jones mysteries, based on stories she covered as a reporter, include DESERT LOST (judged “One of the Top Five Mysteries of 2009,
Library Journal), DESERT NOIR (“A mystery with a social conscience,” Publishers Weekly) and DESERT WIVES (“Eye-popping,” New York Times). Her humorous Gunn Zoo series debuted
with the critically-acclaimed, THE ANTEATER OF DEATH (I love that title) to be followed this August 15 with THE KOALA OF DEATH. A long-time book reviewer at Mystery Scene Magazine, Betty is a member of National Federation of Press Women, Mystery Writers of America, and the Society of Southwestern Authors. She also volunteers at the Phoenix Zoo, which is the inspiration for her Gunn Zoo mysteries. Her web site is

Ms. Webb, you began your career as a journalist, writing nonfiction. Why and how did you make the switch to fiction?

BETTY WEBB: I was a full-time journalist for 20 years, but after 15 years, all that fact-checking started to drive me nuts. So I thought I’d just write a novel “for fun.” After three rejected novels, I hit pay dirt with DESERT NOIR, the first of my Lena Jones mysteries. The second Lena Jones book, DESERT WIVES: POLYGAMY CAN BE MURDER, was sold to Lifetime-TV, eventually making my retirement from journalism possible.

VENTRELLA: Do you find your writing style changes from fiction to nonfiction?

WEBB: Absolutely. In journalism, which is non-fiction to the max, you must always use non-judgmental language, especially verbs, such as “He said,” as opposed to “He shrilled.” And unless you’re a columnist — which is very, very different than straight reporting — you can never interject your own opinions in an article.

When you’re writing fiction, you can let it all hang out, as I do in both my Lena Jones novels and even the Gunn Zoo series. Of course, the Lena Jones books are much more political and issue oriented; Publishers Weekly called them “mysteries with a social conscience.” The Gunn Zoo books, being very funny and much more relaxed, are much less issue-oriented, but they do give readers a lot of information about exotic animals and a behind-the-scenes look at life in zoos. Plus they say nasty things about people who are cruel to animals.

VENTRELLA: Your Lena Jones books are based on actual cases. How do you go about preparing these mysteries?

WEBB: I spend an average of two years researching each novel, which includes trips to the area where the event happened. During that time, though, I’m doing the actual writing for the previous book. Therefore, although I’m now in the process of writing DESERT WIND, I started researching it two years ago. And I am now in the process of researching the next Gunn Zoo mystery and the Lena Jones book.

VENTRELLA: Have you received any protests for these books (from Mormons, for instance)? And how have you dealt with it?

WEBB: Mainstream Mormons weren’t bothered at all by either DESERT WIVES or DESERT LOST, which were both about polygamy. In fact, various Mormon newspapers and periodicals gave both books warm, accepting reviews. Why? Because the mainstream LDS (Latter Day Saints) church outlawed polygamy almost 150 years ago and today’s Mormons are appalled by polygamy as it is currently being practiced. Also, the state of Utah is leading the way in polygamy prosecutions. They have sent many polygamists to prison for polygamy-related crimes, such as child rape (polygamists like 13 year old girls), financial fraud, and sadly, murder. the infamous Warren Jeffs is just one of the now-imprisoned polygamists.

The people I have had a problem with are the polygamists themselves. I’ve received death threats from them, and some of the male polygamists have shown up at my book signings in order to scare me. They finally stopped doing that when I started identifying them to the audience, and asking them to stand up and take a bow. That’s when I discovered that those guys are cowards. They’re good at intimidating 13 year old girls and battered “sister wives,” but not so good at intimidating grown, non-polygamous women.

VENTRELLA: It certainly seems that you still have that journalistic goal of exposing injustice, but are working through fiction now. Is that the case? Have you had much success about informing people about these issues?

WEBB: I absolutely write the Lena Jones books to expose injustice. For instance, are you aware that we have legally allowed immigrants into this country who believe in cutting off little girls’ genitals in order to make them submissive? They see it as no different than spaying a dog or gelding a horse. Those folks continue their ghastly practice in America today. I exposed it in DESERT CUT, and I named names.

Have I had success? Again, absolutely. DESERT WIVES caused such a fuss in Arizona that the Arizona legislature enacted its first ever anti-polygamy law. Readers of DESERT WIVES continue to organize and ride herd on the still-existent polygamy compounds. DESERT CUT has been read by many social workers, medical professionals, and law enforcement officers, who are now on the lookout for it. Immigrants who continue this practice are now being sent to prison, when before it was just shrugged off as a “cultural difference.”

VENTRELLA: What other issues are you interested in that may make future books?

WEBB: Can’t tell you that. DESERT WIND is still a big secret. I always keep my subject matter secret until the book comes out.

VENTRELLA: Your character also lives in Arizona. Why did you decide to do this?

WEBB: I’ve lived in Arizona since 1982, and much of my subject matter — such as polygamy — is rampant here. Plus, Arizona is a beautiful place to write about. On the other hand, the Gunn Zoo mysteries are all set on the Central California Coast, where I vacation every year. And my zoo keeper sleuth lives on the same houseboat I once spent a summer on.

VENTRELLA: How did you make your first sale? Did you have an agent?

WEBB: I was fortunate enough to get an agent, based upon my reading of “The Literary Marketplace.” She also sold one of my books to Lifetime-TV. Thankfully, I still have my agent!

VENTRELLA: Why did you choose Poison Pen Press for your work?

WEBB: My agent sold my books to Poisoned Pen Press. In a happy coincidence, I had already written an article about that particular publishing company for the newspaper I worked for. Therefore, I was very, very comfortable with the sale. We have now enjoyed a 10-years-long relationship.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest mistake you think new writers make?

WEBB: I think the biggest mistake they make is in thinking the first book they write deserves to be published. I didn’t write a truly publishable novels until my 4th, which was DESERT NOIR, the first Lena Jones mystery. Even though I’d been a professional journalist for years and wrote for an average of 10 hours a day, 5 days a week at my newspaper job, the two skills don’t always cross over. I had to learn to write like a novelist, and that took about 5 years of writing from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. every single day before I went to the office. Good, publishable writing is more hard work than most beginners realize.

Another big beginner’s mistake? Writing only when they feel “inspired.” I teach creative writing, and one of the first things I tell my students is, “If you only write when you feel inspired, write a haiku. You won’t able to produce much else.” Professionals write for hours every day, regardless of how “inspired” they feel. As for the entire “inspiration” issue — I say “Baloney!” True inspiration only hits once you’ve been at your keyboard for several hours. Writing is work. Period. It’s not a game you play only when you feel like playing.

VENTRELLA: And finally, a fun question: With a time machine and a universal translator, who would you invite to your ultimate dinner party?

WEBB: William the Conqueror (1066), William’s opponent Harold Godwin (also 1066), Shakespeare, Dorothy Sayers, Dorothy Parker, Ernest Heminway, Lillian Hellman, Truman Capote, William Buckley, and Gore Vidal. Of course, I’d have to wear a suit of armor to that dinner party because it would probably turn very, very violent. And I’d enjoy every savage, bloody minute!

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