Friday, July 07, 2006
INTERVIEW: Betty Webb Chats About her Desert Series and her Scottish Roots
You are a renowned interviewer. Should I fear that you will find all of my questions pedestrian and amateurish?
Nope. I'm a real sweetie pie. Just ask my dog.
Your bio is so fascinating I don't even know where to begin-and ironically, you are one of two people to be interviewed this month who has chickens that lay blue eggs. Now that I would never have seen coming. Anyway, let's start with this: you have interviewed, among other people, John Updike and Norman Mailer. Were they fun guys?
Updike was very serious, very polite, very Old Guard. Mailer was mostly polite, but he kept saying, "I'm old and I'm gonna die soon, so I don't give a shit what anyone thinks of me anymore. Even YOU, kid!" I fell madly in love with him. But probably the two most interesting interviews were with Dean Koontz, who told me all about his terrible childhood with his schizophrenic father who once attempted to kill him. This was before a lot of this stuff came out. Koontz, a very nice man, remains one of my favorite writers (by the way, one of the California bookstores where I did a signing once told me that Koontz buys and reads the Lena Jones books!). The next most interesting interview was with Anne Perry the morning after the story broke that as a teenager, she had helped murder her best friend's mother. Mine was the first interview she did after that story hit the press, and she didn't have all her answers "jelled" yet. So she just told it the way she remembered it, which was horrific enough. My editor went nuts over the interview, and instead of giving me the usual measley 12 inches for my book column, gave me a half page--ABOVE the fold.
You were once a folk singer. I'm a huge folk fan. What songs did you sing? Did you compose your own music or cover folk favorites? Do you play an instrument?
I sang the old Border ballads and British standards, such as "Barbara Allen," "Matty Grove," "House Carpenter," etc. - the whole Joan Baez reperatoire. (I'm a soprano). But the weird thing was, it was boring. I had to keep singing the same darn songs in the same darn way, because I couldn't play guitar (I worked with a guitarist--we were billed as a duo). I started off at a Detroit bar named The Poisoned Apple that had "singing waitresses," where I hooked up with the guitarist; from there we performed anywhere they'd pay us. I got tired of it pretty quick, though. Maybe if I'd ever learned to play guitar...
You backpacked the Scottish Highlands, alone. Was it the most beautiful place in the world? Was it an intense experience, hiking there with nothing but your thoughts?
To this day I've been crazy about the Highlands--not even Arizona is more beautiful. While in the Highlands, I got fogged in one night on the side of a mountain above Glencoe (the Great Glen), and since I'm a real Girl Scout and believe in being prepared, I'd read up on the dangers. So I didn't try to walk out. I just unfolded my waterproofing and went to sleep right there in the middle of the trail. The next morning when I woke up, the fog was gone and I found myself surrounded by long-haired Highland cattle. Very strange. They looked like something out of Tolkien. One of the peak experiences was being invited by a guy I met later on the trail to join him at a mountain climber's pub in Glencoe, where everyone wanted to brag about their favorite single malt whiskey. I was given free booze all night, then told to say which was the best. By then, of course, I was so drunk I couldn't speak. He played the bagpipes for me the next morning (you'll notice I drew a curtain on the rest of the night's activities). One very weird thing happened while I was there - but I didn't understand the meaning of it until 20 years later. While I was hiking near Fort William, I saw a beautiful old house (kind of halfway between a mansion and a castle) on a nearby mountain overlooking a loch. I took a picture of it and have it in my scrapbook today. 20 years later I discovered that it had been built by the Riddell family as a "retreat."
You post many helpful bits of advice on DorothyL and MMA. You are a reporter, an editor, and a writer. If you could only give mystery writers who might read this one piece of advice from your vast store of knowledge, what would it be?
Write at least four hours every day, EVERY SINGLE DAY. No exceptions. The only way you can get better is to put in the hours. If you're too tired when you get home from work, no problem. Set your alarm for 4 a.m. (or 3) and write BEFORE you go to work. That's what I did for 10 years. As David Morrell, one of my favorite writers/writing teachers told me, "You have to want it more than anything in the world, more than your own comfort."
You once posted about a woman who blocked your table at a book fair and wasn't allowing people to read your sign and potentially buy your books. How did you handle this at the time? Must writers always be charming?
Actually, that was a man who blocked my table. At the time, I felt I had to be polite, so I gave him a pained smile and hinted that he should move on. He ignored me, and kept telling me all the reasons I should review his book. (I'll rot in hell, first). If something like this ever happens again, I will not be polite.
Let's talk about your books. Your Desert Series has received much acclaim and is, it appears, selling well. How did you come to write about Lena Jones?
Believe it or not, Lena Jones came to me in a dream one night. She told me everything about herself, about her missing parents, about getting shot, about being put in foster care, about being starved and raped, about becoming a cop, then a P.I., all about her amnesia and her search for her parents. She's almost as real to me now as my own children and grandchildren. And yes, I know what happened to her parents, and will eventually reveal all. As it stands now, I've put in enough clues that one member of my critique group has already guessed what happened.
WOW! That is very cool.
Your setting is Arizona, where you live. Are you a person who loves the heat?
I hate the heat. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. My ideal temperature is 65 degrees and cloudy (I'm Scots, remember?) It's a big cosmic joke that I wound up in the middle of the desert. Maybe I'm doing some kind of Karmic pay-back. However, I do think the desert itself is gorgeous, and I love the loneliness of it.
What should readers know about your latest book, Desert Run?
Desert Run was probably the most fun to write because I got to do all that lovely research. And it was the first time I wrote a book in two voices--Lena's and the German POW who escaped from Camp Papago in 1944. I live less than a mile from that old prisoner of war camp, and it was a thrill for me making it come alive again. Due to the ignorance of the Phoenix & Scottsdale politicians, the camp was levelled and an Oakland Athletics practice field built on top of it (ugh). The escape of 25 German U-boaters from the camp on Dec. 24, 1944, really did happen, and they really were eventually rounded up by various housewives, ranchers and Indians. It was called "Arizona's Great Escape" in one newspaper article, and in another, "The Crazy Boatmen of Arizona" because those POWs really thought they could float to Germany on one of our "rivers." The river, of course, was nothing but a dry wash, but the Germans didn't know that when they built their collapsible boat! During their time on the lam, the POWs didn't hurt anyone, but in my book, I got them involved in a murder (hey, I write mysteries!).
You can trace your ancestry back to Scotland. The Scots, fairly or not, are often stereotyped as a warlike, bellicose people. Do you feel this is a bum rap, or do you, when you get angry, attribute it to your Scottish blood?
Scots do tend to be a little, um, touchy. On my mother's side of the family--the Riddell side--we're pure Scots. On my father's side, we're half Scots, a quarter Irish and a quarter American Indian. Needless to say, I am not even-tempered. But boy, can I sing and dance!
The opera Lucia de Lammermore, about a young bride who decapitates her husband on her wedding night, is based on a real event in the Scottish side of your family. (See question above). Does having a colorful family history give you ideas for your writing?
Yes, I get tons of plot ideas from my family history. Aunt Lucy (she of Lammermoor) is one of my favorite ancestors. I love a woman with spirit! As the family motto goes, "Some folks just need killin'." (Just kidding: the real Riddell family motto is "I want to share.") I always put at least one of my relatives into each of my books. In "Desert Shadows," I put THREE relatives in. Gloriana was based on my great-grandmother, a very grand, stern lady. Gloriana's two sisters were based on two of my aunts. And all the dogs and cats in the book are mine.
I like the first motto better.
There is a lovely picture of a Scottish castle on your website, which is apparently the castle of your people. Is it a ruin, or can one go inside? If it's still liveable, do you ever intend to stay in it?
The Riddells have several castles; the one on the site happens to be one of the smaller ones, and it's still being lived in. The largest Riddell castle is near Lammer Moor (sound familiar?), in a town called Lilys Leaf in the Scots lowlands. It's called Riddell House, and was built in 1630 on the site of the old round house (small, circular castle) built by our first "Scotsman" after the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Gervaise Riddell, who is mentioned in the Domesday Book, came over from France with William the Conqueror, and was given the family's holdings by William for his "help" in exterminating the Saxons.
Riddell House (I've seen pictures and it was GORGEOUS) was used as a hospital during World War II, when it unfortunately burned down. Since it was made of stone, the shell remains, but it's pretty much unlivable now. There's a rumor going around that Major somebody or other, who lives in a new house nearby, is going to fix it up, but as yet nothing's happened. Of all the Riddell holdings in Scotland and England, I've only personally seen that property near Fort William (which has now also burned down--we Riddells must play with matches or something). I've never been inside any of the homes (being a poor American relation, I doubt if I'd be welcome!).
People sometimes forget that many lowland Scots families have been allied with the English Crown throughout the centuries. My family was. We were not Highlanders. Instead, we were the nasty brutes who always did the King's dirty work. Not a nice history, but what can you expect from a family where the women run around chopping off people's heads?
Will your fans find you at Bouchercon, or will you be in your Scottish castle?
I sure wish that castle on my website belonged to me. If it did, I'd be there with bells on. But the Riddell property and the family title (Baron) is always inherited by the first-born male. As for Bouchercon, I'll have to miss it this year. I'm swamped with work.
What are your current writing projects?
I'm still reviewing for Mystery Scene magazine, the Tribune (Arizona) newspapers, and writing the fifth Lena Jones mystery, Desert Cut, which is based on a growing but under-reported problem (much like polygamy was a growing but under-reported problem when I wrote "Desert Wives.") But I'm also working on a new series, which is about as far away from the Lena Jones series as you can get. It's actually funny. We'll see how that goes.
Now I have a bunch of new questions. Hopefully you'll consent to a Part II of this interview. Thanks so much, Betty!