Tuesday, August 07, 2012
An Interview with Jefferson Bass
Amanda's review of Jefferson Bass's The Bones of Avignon and Sue Armstrong's A Matter of Life and Death.
Jefferson Bass's website.
Jefferson Bass's Facebook page.
Jon Jefferson's blog.
The trailer for The Bones of Avalon/The Inquisitor’s Key:
After reading about the Body Farm in Sue Armstrong’s A Matter of Life and Death last year, it gives Euro Crime great pleasure to ask you a few questions about yourselves and your latest book, The Bones of Avignon.
EC: For those of us that don’t know you, can you both tell us a little bit about your background.
Jefferson: I’m an English literature major who’s gone over to the dark side. I’ve worked as a freelance journalist and television documentary writer/producer before turning to crime … er, to crime-writing.
Bass: I’m a forensic anthropologist. I taught for 11 years at the University of Kansas and then for about 25 years at the University of Tennessee, where I was head of the Anthropology Department. Early in my career there, realizing the need for a better understanding of postmortem human decomposition, I created the Anthropology Research Facility – better known as the Body Farm.
EC: You’ve been writing together for quite a few years now. How did you two meet in the first place?
Jefferson: We met in 2001, when I was writing and producing a documentary about the Body Farm for National Geographic. I called up Bill Bass out of the blue, told him who I was and what I wanted to do, and he gave the project his blessing. One of my favorite stories about our early acquaintance took place at a Knoxville restaurant. We were discussing the case of a young woman who had been stabbed to death, and suddenly, to illustrate a point, Bill reached across the table, snatched away my plate, and began stabbing my lunch with a steak knife. People at the nearby tables looked shocked for a moment, then – when they recognized the guy with the knife in his hand – they smiled, nodded, and went back to eating.
EC:. Both already accomplished professionals in very different fields, what was it that gave you the inspiration to start writing crime fiction together?
Bass: For years, people had been asking me to write a book about my career, but I’m not good at writing anything but scientific articles. While Jon was working on the National Geographic documentary, he wrote a magazine article about the Body Farm, and it was very good. So I asked him if he’d work with me on a book, and he said yes. Our first book together was a nonfiction memoir, Death’s Acre, was a lot of fun to do. We spent two mornings a week going over my case files and my life, and the book got excellent reviews in both the U.S. and the U.K. After that, Jon suggested doing a series of crime novels. I was a little dubious about whether anyone would buy the books, but I was willing to let Jon give it a try. Turns out he was right.
EC: One of the best parts of your book is the fact that your descriptions of procedures and bodies are, with very good reason, extremely accurate and realistic. Are any of the descriptions you use based on your personal experiences of bodies and cases?
Bass: Absolutely. For example, in the first novel in the series, Carved in Bone, the plot revolves around a body that’s found in a cave. It’s the body of a young woman, and she’s been there for 30 years. During that time, the damp environment of the cave has chemically transformed her soft tissue into a substance called adipocere (the word literally means “grave wax”), and her features have been remarkably preserved. During my career, I’ve worked on several cases involving adipocere, and one of those – a man – was instantly recognizable.
EC: Do you find people have a macabre interest in your books because of the body farm? Have donations to your research gone up or down as a result of your books?
Bass: Donations have definitely gone up. We now have about sixteen hundred people on what I call our “waiting list” – people who have filled out the paperwork to donate their bodies.
Jefferson: ! The number of donations per year has roughly tripled since the National Geographic documentary and the books. In fact, for awhile, every time the documentary was broadcast, there’d be a spike in the number of people calling to ask how to donate their bodies. The books have continued that trend. At one of our book signings, a woman handed us the book to sign, then she handed us her body-donation form, and asked to serve as the two legal witnesses who are required to co-sign the form. That was a first!
EC: So, The Bones of Avignon is your 6th book about dynamic Body Farm manager Dr. Bill Brockton and there is a 7th one already released in the USA. What do you have planned for next him, as well as yourselves?
JB: Actually, novel #7 in the U.S. – called The Inquisitor’s Key – is actually the same book as The Bones of Avignon, just differently titled. Our U.S. publisher was afraid that American readers would be less familiar with Avignon, and its important role in European history, than British readers, so we came up with a different title. They both work, in different ways. What’s next? We’re considering a story involving a serial killer – one who seems to be particularly impressed by, and obsessed with, Dr. Brockton.
EC: You don’t just write fiction together, do you? Can you tell us something about the other stuff that you have written together?
Jefferson: Here’s a story-behind-the-story about our first book, the non-fiction memoir Death’s Acre. That one almost had a premature and very unhappy ending, one that would have scotched the whole series of crime novels.
Bass: Shortly after we signed the contract for the book, I was on my way home from Nashville, where I’d given a talk. My wife and I stopped at a restaurant for lunch, and while we were sitting there, I blacked out and slumped over, with no pulse. Luckily, one of the other people eating lunch there was the local medical examiner, who got me on an ambulance very quickly. A few days later I left the hospital – with a new pacemaker installed to keep my heart from stopping again.
EC: What sort of books do you prefer to read yourselves? Which authors inspire you the most?
Bass: I like non-fiction best – biography and history. Especially the American historian Stephen Ambrose, who wrote excellent books about World War II and about the explorers Lewis and Clark.
Jefferson: I bounce back and forth between fiction and non-fiction. I’m a huge fan of the American novelist Cormac McCarthy, whose work is often quite dark and violent but whose language is astonishingly beautiful. One of the current crime writers I admire a lot is Michael Connelly, whose Los Angeles homicide detective Harry Bosch is a great character. Another favorite is Dennis Lehane, whose novel Mystic River is a fine, fine piece of work.
EC: How hard was it to find a publisher for your books? Did you find that it was easier than usual, given your own, already considerable, reputations or did that make it harder?
JB: Our non-fiction book, Death’s Acre, was miraculously easy. When we finished the book proposal, we sent it to a literary agent who’d expressed a lot of interest in the project. Even before he shared it with a single publishing house, he got a call from an editor who’d gotten wind of it, begging to see it. The editor loved it and quickly offered us a contract. The fiction deal wasn’t quite that easy, but nearly so. Our first editor decided not to buy the fiction, but the next one we approached snapped it up. Interestingly, she’d grown up in Tennessee, and had heard Bill lecture in one of her classes when she was in high school, so she already knew quite a bit about the Body Farm, and was delighted to buy a fiction series that was based there. We’ve been very, very fortunate.
EC: Any UK signings planned?
JB: We don’t currently have anything scheduled, but will hope for a chance at some point!
EC: And finally, do you still get a buzz when a new book comes out or does the excitement start to wear off after the first couple of years?
JB: It’s always exciting when it finally turns into a real book. You spend months and months working on something, send it in, and – even though we’ve published a fair number of books by now – there’s always a sneaking suspicion that it’s all a joke or a hoax, that the manuscript has just disappeared into a black hole. Then one day, almost as if by magic, a printed copy arrives by overnight courier: one special, sacred copy. A few days later, there are thousands and thousands of them. It’s especially fun when someone traveling abroad – in London or Dublin or Germany or Japan – sends a photo of the books lined up on the shelves of a bookshop overseas. That’s when it finally seems real, that yes, they really did print this, and people really are buying and reading it. So yes, it’s exciting every time!
Many thanks for taking the time to answer our questions, gentlemen. All the best with your UK launch of The Bones of Avignon. We hope it is as successful here as it is in the US.
Many thanks to Quercus for arranging this interview and providing a review copy of The Bones of Avalon.