by Karen E. Rigley
Hello, Betty. It’s a delight to interview you for MMC. You have quite a knack for entertaining your readers, so now we get to grill you.
Mystery Most Cozy is celebrating their tenth anniversary. What is your favorite thing about the group: reader interaction, fan support, being able to connect with fellow authors or what and why?
Well, let’s face it, we cozy writers are generally unwelcome on sites dealing with major explosives and serial killers, so it’s nice to be able to hang out with other folks of the cozy persuasion. You know, we authors who write about “gentle” killers, the polite killers who don’t splatter too much blood around because it’s so difficult for the maid to clean up. There’s the camaraderie, of course, and the promotion tips. But more than anything, MMC is simply a wonderful living room to hang out in. You never know who’s going to show up with chips n’ dip – or a blunt instrument.
How did you know you were meant to write?
I wrote my first book at the age of 14 – it was 100 pages long, and I was devastated when no one would publish it. Ironically, that little book was titled “Desert Mane,” because it was about a horse that lived in the desert. Fast forward 55 years and I sold my first mystery, “Desert Noir,” about a P.I. who lived in the desert. I wasn’t even aware of the odd coincidence until one of my creative writing students pointed it out.
What fascinates you about mysteries?
I’m going to take a chance and be honest here. In my books, I fictionally kill the people who in my real life I want to kill. In fact, I’ve killed a former boss three times, as well as those pesky people who’ve cut me off while standing in line at Motor Vehicles. Writing mysteries has kept me from acting on my baser urges.
What inspired you to write your mysteries?
I heard there was no money in writing literary fiction, but mystery writers were making a killing (pun intended) with their books. That turned out not to be as true as I wish it were, but it’s cheaper than therapy, so I guess you could say that writing mysteries has saved me a ton of money.
What intrigues you about writing a series?
In my dark Lena Jones series (“Desert Wives: Polygamy Can Be Murder,” “Desert Wind,” etc.), Lena is the daughter I never had, and I feel very close to her. In my cozy Gunn Zoo series (“The Llama of Death,” “The Koala of Death,” “The Anteater of Death”), Theodora “Teddy” Bentley is a lot like me, temperamentally at least. She lives on a houseboat, I lived on one for a summer. She works in a zoo, I volunteer at the Phoenix Zoo. She has nutty parents – don’t even get me started on mine. I can’t imagine not having these two women, Lena and Teddy, in my life – so I just keep writing about them. I won’t stop until my books stop selling. At that point, I’ll simply have conversations with them. (Yes, I know that’s a bad sign.)
What is the most challenging facet of writing for you?
When I was still working full time as a journalist, I started writing at 4 a.m. so I could get in 4 hours before I went to work. Now that I’m retired, I still get up at 4 a.m. because the habit has become so ingrained. The challenging part for me is stopping. If I don’t write every day I get buggy.
What do you enjoy reading?
Kate Atkinson, P.D. James, Christopher Moore, Dean Koontz, Stephen King, J.A. Jance, Margaret Coel, David Morrell, Rhys Bowen, Yrsa Sigurdardotter, Michelle Huneven, Robert Crais, Margaret Maron, Sophie Littlefield, Nathan Larson… the list goes on and on. I like a mix of cozy, dark, horror, and that nebulous thing called “literary fiction.”
Which authors have influenced you?
I learned plotting from Agatha Christie, arc of action from David Morrell (whose book, “The Successful Author,” I use in teaching my creative writing classes), and character development from Kate Atkinson and P.D. James. Oh, and how can I possibly not mention the ever-sainted Tony Hillerman, the man whose books urged me to move from New York to Arizona, where I found my “desert daughter” Lena Jones.
How much of a story do you have in mind when you begin a new book?
Basically, I have my victim and the reasons so many people are out to get him/her. As I write my way into the book and the main characters emerge, I learn more about them. Then the book begins to take shape. In some cases I start off with an outline but abandon it about a quarter of the way through. Why? Because the “killer” I’ve originally planned to do the dirty deed often refuses to lift a finger against the victim, while a perfectly lovely person turns out to have a hateful heart. Stephen King once said about writing, “If the author isn’t surprised by what happens, how can he expect to surprise his readers?” Fortunately, my characters keep surprising me.
Part of the magic of writing is creating memorable characters. Who are your favorite characters, why, and which of your mysteries feature them?
My protagonists, of course. Teddy Bentley in my zoo mysteries. And Lena Jones in 7 of my “Desert” mysteries, too many to list here. They are both so different: Teddy is light-hearted, outgoing, and non-neurotic, while, Lena is a hurt, haunted woman, who was raised in a series of foster homes and doesn’t even know who her parents are. Yet both women are equally courageous, willing to risk their own lives to protect others (in Teddy’s case, she’ll also risk her life to save an animal). But another favorite character of mine is Aster Edwina Gunn, the autocratic owner of the Gunn Zoo, who while unfailingly kind to animals, makes poor Teddy’s life hell every chance she gets. I based Aster Edwina on my great-grandmother, quite the autocrat herself. I also dearly love gentle Jimmy Sisiwan, Lena’s half-Pima Indian partner at Desert Investigations. My female readers love him, too.
What would you like to say to your readers & fans?
You all have been so good to me, sending encouragement and chiding me when I’m “writing too slow.” Love you all a bunch.
What advice would you offer a beginning writer?
I tell my creative writing students to hold off reading their work until they’ve finished their entire book. Reading raw material can be so depressing that many writers actually develop writers’ block over it. So don’t do it! Write all the way to the end without editing your work. The chapter or scene you’re struggling with now may be cut in the final draft, so why bother messing with it now? This makes me a charter member of the Terrible First Drafts Make Terrific Books Club, which says you can always fix “terrible,” but you can’t fix a blank page. Also – stop waiting around for “inspiration.” Inspiration shows up most often when you’re already at the keyboard working on your book.
Do you like a touch of romance woven into your mysteries? Do you add it into your own stories?
Zookeeper Teddy is engaged to the county sheriff, and every now and then – especially towards the end of “The Llama of Death” – they do a bit of snuggling in public. Lena, though, has romance problems; she always falls for the wrong guy, such as Dusty, a handsome cowboy with a drinking problem.
As author you create magic offering readers an escape into your story. As you write how deeply do you submerge into your own characters, setting and plot? Do you dream any of your scenes?
When I write about Teddy, I become Teddy. I’m warm, kind, caring, giving, the kind of gal mothers want their sons to marry. When I write about Lena, I’m emotionally closed off, bitter, and exhibit anger issues. My husband hates it when I write about Lena.
Why did you choose cozy rather than thrillers, intrigue or true crime?
Actually I write both cozies and darker material. My Gunn Zoo mysteries are definitely in the cozy camp, and my “Desert” mysteries (which are sometimes categorized as thrillers) are pretty hard-boiled. That’s because in real life, I’m a combination of the two – light and darkness.
What are you writing now?
“The Llama of Death” comes out January 6, 2013, wherein zookeeper Teddy takes a llama to the local Renaissance Faire. Murder ensues when someone kills Henry VIII with a crossbow dart. After 300-plus pages of llama, Renaissance tidbits, and zoo fun, Teddy catches the killer – but not until she’s almost becomes a victim herself. I’m currently working on “Desert Regret,” another Lena Jones mystery, which might come out at the end of 2013 or the beginning of 2014. And I’ve just returned from two weeks in Iceland, where I researched another zoo mystery, “The Puffin of Death.” In that one, I’ll include an Arctic fox, an Icelandic horse, and a polar bear cub – along with the titled puffin, of course. But as usual with all my Gunn Zoo books, no animal will be harmed, although humans fall like dominoes.
Where can we find out more about you and your books?
Follow me on Twitter @bettywebb and LinkedIn at Betty Webb
Visit Mystery Most Cozy for how to win one of her mysteries.
Mystery Most Cozy links: