Tuesday, June 5, 2018

I DIDN'T MEAN TO WRITE WHAT I WROTE!: Guest Post by Betty Webb

I Didn’t Mean to Write What I Wrote!

When I delivered the manuscript of The Otter of Death to my editor, I told her it would be my last Gunn Zoo mystery.

“Oh, no, it’s not,” she said. “These things are too much fun.”

And when your editor is the brilliant Barbara Peters, of Poisoned Pen Press, you respond, “Yes, ma’am. Whatever you say, ma’am.” The Gunn Zoo mysteries -- in order, The Anteater of Death, The Koala of Death, The Llama of Death, The Puffin of Death,” and now The Otter of Death) -- were almost never written. I’d put my heart, my soul, and my professional background as a journalist in the Lena Jones series. In those nine books, the mystery always centered around human rights issues, such as the abuse of eminent domain (Desert Noir), polygamy (Desert Wives and Desert Lost), and female genital mutilation (Desert Cut). I enjoyed alerting readers to existing social problems while entertaining them within the structure of the classical mystery form.

But I’ll admit, writing those dark, heavy books took a lot out of me; the research was frequently horrific. Couple that with the fact that the books mirrored much of the work I was doing as a full-time journalist, my life wasn’t always easy.

Then I retired from journalism and to lighten my life, began volunteering at the Phoenix Zoo. One day, I was enjoying my lunch break with another volunteer while watching the giant anteater play “Chase” with her pup. The sight was so adorable, I said, “Someone should write a book about those two.”

My friend looked at me and said, “You’re a writer, aren’t you?”

That was one of those happy surprises writers always hope for but don’t always get. I had just turned in the manuscript for Desert Cut, and I was feeling what I choose to call postpartum depression (yeah, writing a book is a lot like giving birth). I needed something to fill the hollow place now that Cut was as the publisher’s.

Deciding to take a chance on something totally new, I began writing The Anteater of Death. And to my surprise, it was funny.

Lucy, as I dubbed my fictional anteater, wasn’t really a killer. She just had the misfortune of being present when the murder victim fell into her enclosure. Because of the scratch marks on the man’s body, poor Lucy is at first blamed for his death, but my intrepid zookeeper Theodora Bentley sprang to her defense, eventually solving the crime. Since I’d just come back from spending my vacation in a tiny harbor town on Monterey Bay, I set the mystery there. And I gave Teddy a houseboat named the Merilee. This gave me a lot of room for colorful harbor life and even more colorful characters. I also gave Teddy an ex-beauty queen mother who’d been married five times, and a felonious father who’d embezzled millions and was now on the run in South America. Poor Teddy!

Three more books followed, each as madcap as the first.

But as humorous as they were, The Otter of Death is probably the funniest of them all, because it stars a cell phone-stealing otter named Maureen who inadvertently snaps a picture of a murder-in-progress. And oddly enough, in a way, it’s the most serious, too. During the writing, I experienced another happy coincidence. The local newspaper ran a story about young female college students who needed help meeting the rising costs of college tuition. Their solution? To hook up with a rich male “sponsor” and let him pay the bills. The students were called “sugar babies” and their sponsors, “sugar daddies.” (If you don’t believe me, check out www.seekingarrangements.com)

I started writing The Otter of Death two years ago. To balance out the sex-for-diploma business, I decided to include a subplot about something I was very familiar with: sexual harassment. Because I hadn’t reported the harassment when it happened to me, I wanted to show what usually did happen when a young woman was foolish enough to report it: she wasn’t believed. This subplot also gave me the chance to murder her harasser, thus allowing me to take a fictional revenge on my own long-ago harasser.

Then, just as The Otter of Death was rolling off Poisoned Pen’s presses, the Harvey Weinstein scandal hit. My book had inadvertently walked straight into an ongoing national disgrace.

So in a way, The Otter of Death – regardless of its humor – has wound up being every bit as socially conscious as my Lena Jones books. The tone is as light as it has been in the preceding books, and the animals in the Gunn Zoo are as adorably quirky as they’ve always been. But underneath all that adorableness is a serious social message.

Stephen King once said, “If a writer can’t surprise himself, how can he surprise the reader?” When I started The Otter of Death, I had not planned on delivering a “Me, Too” moment. And when I did, it caught me by surprise.

But writing is like that, isn’t it?

Whether I’m writing a serious Lena Jones book or a giddy Gunn Zoo mystery, I can never be certain of where I’m going. All I know is where I’ve been, and I almost never foresaw any of those events, either.

So today, as I begin the sixth book in the Gunn Zoo series, I’m keeping an open mind. Outlining is all well and good, but surprises are even better.

Just ask Maureen, the cell phone-stealing star of The Otter of Death.


Betty Webb is the author of 9 Lena Jones mysteries and 5 Gunn Zoo mysteries. Before writing full time, Betty worked as a journalist, interviewing everyone from U.S. presidents, astronauts who walked on the moon, and polygamy runaways. A nationally-syndicated literary critic for more than 30 years, she currently reviews for Mystery Scene Magazine. She is a member of the National Federation of Press Women, Mystery Writers of America, and Sisters in Crime. She is also well-known as a creative writing instructor and has taught creative writing at Phoenix College and held masters’ classes in Creative Writing at ASU.


Alice K. Boatwright said...

I agree. . . the surprise of each day's writing is a great pleasure. I like to have an idea where I am going with a story (or, let's say, where I think I am going to go) and then just set out on the journey.

Eve Fisher said...

Sounds like a wonderful series. Thank you for a very entertaining post!

Alex said...

Wow, a new author for me who I've never heard of, so, of course, have added her to my wish-list to investigate. These books sound right up my dark alley!

Marja said...

I started reading the Zoo series and somehow got away from it. I need to get back to it. You do well with both drama and humor, and I want to catch up. Thanks for sharing, Betty!