Betty Jean Craige
Black Opal Books (2018)
Interviewed by Sheri Hoyte for Reader Views (10/18)
In 2011, Betty Jean Craige retired from the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia, after thirty-eight happy years. During this time, she published books in the fields of literature, poetry translation (from Spanish), history of ideas, ecology, and art. She curated two museum exhibitions of the art of Alvar Suñol and produced a documentary about him titled Alvar: His Vision and His Art, which won first place in its category in the Indie Gathering Film Festival. Her non-academic books are Conversations with Cosmo: At Home with an African Grey Parrot (2010); three Witherston Murder Mysteries: Downstream (2014), Fairfield’s Auction (2016), and Dam Witherston (2017), published by Black Opal Books; and Aldo (2018), a thriller, also published by Black Opal Books. Fairfield’s Auction won a first place in the category of Murder and Mayhem in the 2018 Chanticleer International Book Awards. Dam Witherston received Honorable Mention in the Mysteries category of the 2017 Royal Dragonfly Book Awards and Distinguished Favorite in Mystery in the 2018 Independent Press Awards.
Welcome, Betty Jean! Thank you for joining us today at Reader Views. What is Aldo about?
Aldo is about the consequences—academic and political—to a terrorist’s holding a university president for ransom. It is also about the controversial science of modifying a human’s germline to affect future generations.
Here’s the situation that sets in motion a chain of events: On the same day that Isabel Canto, associate director of Pembrook Atlantic University’s Institute for Genome Modification, discovers she is pregnant with IGM post-doc Frank Marks’s baby, Pembrook’s president Mary Ellen Mackin receives a letter from “Aldo” threatening harm if she does not dissolve the institute and fire its director, Linus Winter. Linus hopes to use genetic therapy to eliminate Huntington’s Disease, for which he has tested positive, and other horrific hereditary disorders from the human population. His grant from the LeClair Foundation, which funds germline gene modification in Europe and the United States, supports Frank. When President Mackin does not comply with the terrorist’s demands, she is kidnapped.
The novel is also a love story, Isabel and Linus’s love story. The story is framed by Isabel’s notes to her son Lino on his sixteenth birthday, when he delivers his Papa’s eulogy. Isabel has written the “novel” to tell Lino the story of his father, who is not Papa. Lino’s father is Frank. Papa is Linus, whom Isabel married a month after Lino’s birth and who died sixteen years later from Huntington’s Disease. Because of Linus’s modification of his own germline, Linus has given Lino a younger sister who is healthy, as will be all her descendants.
What inspired you to write this story?
One evening I began wondering what academic crime would be most consequential to the health of a research university. I realized that a terrorist could hold a university president for ransom and disrupt the ordinary functions of the institution to its core. I decided to focus my story on genome modification because of its potential to arouse passionate opposition as well as passionate support, and because I have long been interested in it for its capability to do good.
I wrote Aldo both to entertain readers and also to alert readers to a university’s vulnerability to external pressures to discontinue controversial programs. I want readers to contemplate the importance of maintaining freedom of speech and thought in higher education.
Which character do you relate to most and why?
Isabel Canto. She is a young associate professor developing her academic and scientific values. I was there once.
Are there bits of you or people you know reflected in any of the characters?
Yes, I am part of Isabel Canto.
How extensive was your research for the book, particularly involving genome modification?
Quite extensive. Years ago I read in manuscript a book titled The Hope, Hype and Reality of Genetic Engineering written by my colleague John Avise, a distinguished professor of genetics. So when I started writing about genome modification I realized that I was already familiar with some of the issues. I consulted John while writing the book, but I also did a lot of research on the web.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating Aldo?
In writing Aldo and the Witherston mysteries, I came to see that a good murder mystery is a system. Everything is—and should be—connected to everything else. Every paragraph I wrote affected the meaning of the events I had already developed and imposed constraints on what I could develop next. The reader’s pleasure comes from seeing the interconnections as well as the whole.
You have written in a number of different genres. Which one is your favorite and why?
Murder mysteries! I like creating a puzzle for the reader—who committed the murder?—and then enabling the reader to solve the puzzle by picking up clues from various sources. The writer must play fair with the reader: Give clues but not make the solution of the puzzle too easy.
I want to give the reader pleasure, stimulate the reader’s mind, and make the reader smile.
Tell us about your Witherston Murder Mystery series.
After the Sunday column, “Cosmo Talks,” which I had written for two years for our local paper, was discontinued, a novelist-friend encouraged me to write fiction.
Having loved mysteries since I read Nancy Drew in my girlhood, I decided to try that genre. I set my first mystery in a fictive town in the north Georgia mountains, twenty miles north of Dahlonega, site of Georgia’s gold rush in 1829. In Downstream, which turned out to be the first in a series of four murder mysteries, I created a story that brought together north Georgia’s thousand-year-old Cherokee civilization, the white settlers who took their land and gold, and the current residents of Witherston. The second and third mysteries, as well as the forthcoming Chieftains in Witherston, likewise bring together Georgia’s past and present.
In all my mysteries I provide the reader with information from many places: online conversations, emails, texts, letters, police reports, obituaries, wills, deeds, legal documents, diaries, radio interviews, and news accounts, as well as third-person narration. I don’t limit the novel’s point of view to one character. Ultimately, the reader knows more about what happened than any single character.
Which writers have inspired your own work as an author?
Barbara Kingsolver for her style of writing and Louise Penny for her creation of a fictive town. The late ecologist Gene Odum, whose biography I wrote, inspired my thoughts about the environment.
What is one thing you wish you knew when you started out?
I didn’t know how much fun I would have. If I had known, I would have started writing mysteries long ago.
Tell us about your writing schedule. What is a typical day like?
When I’m writing a book I don’t have a schedule. I write every moment I have free. The computer is like a magnet to me. I can’t stay away.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Travel, plan trips, cook, drink fine wine, entertain friends, watch movies, and talk with my African Grey Parrot Cosmo.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, about writing, or about life in general?
Write what you want to learn about. And that’s what I do. I love steep learning curves.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Write what you want to learn about.
Do you have a website or blog (or both) where readers can learn more about you and your works?
Where can readers connect with you on social media?
Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org .
My parrot Cosmo has a Facebook page– https://www.facebook.com/BettyJeanAthens/–but I don’t.
So, what’s next? Do you have another project in the works?
I’m between projects.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I am a lifelong liberal and an environmentalist. I am not religious. I care deeply for non-human animals, especially dogs and parrots. I live with a highly intelligent, very talkative African Grey Parrot named Cosmo. I have one bumper sticker that says MAKE AMERICA GREEN AGAIN and another that says LOVE FOR THE EARTH / JUSTICE FOR ITS INHABITANTS.
Betty Jean thank you so much for joining us today at Reader Views – it’s been a pleasure getting to know more about you and your passions!