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Interview: Jefferson Bass by Gayle Surrette
Cover Artist: Photo: Erik Bledsoe
Review by Gayle Surrette
Gumshoe Review *Interview  
Date: January 2009

Links: Jefferson Bass Website / Review: Bones of Betrayal / Show Official Info /

Lately, I've found myself very interested in forensics. Perhaps it was the Bones marathon I watched over the holidays. But perhaps that only prepared me to really enjoy not on the story but also the science of Bones of Betrayal. I was not only entertained by a cleverly wrought mystery, but learned a lot about the Manhattan Project and the importance of Oak Ridge, Tennessee in building the atomic bomb. It naturally followed that I'd want to learn a bit more about the authors of the Body Farm books, and luckily they were willing to answer my questions.

Writing Team of Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson

Gumshoe: Sad to say, Bones of Betrayal is the first Body Farm novel that I've read. Sad because I realize I've missed out on some great stories. I found the whole story revolving around WWII, Oak Ridge, and the Manhattan Project to be fascinating. How did you settle on this particular story idea for your story?

Jefferson Bass: We like drawing on the distinctive culture and history of East Tennessee in the books. For example, we set our first novel, Carved in Bone, in the mountains, where activities like ginseng poaching and cockfighting are practically considered sacred traditions. Oak Ridge--a small but high-tech city 25 miles northwest of the Body Farm--helped change world history back during World War II. Oak Ridge was a top-secret military installation, a boom town (pardon the pun!) of 75,000 people, so secret it wasn't even shown on maps. The mammoth facilities there separated and purified the uranium for the first atomic bombs. So, as we discussed what to include in our fourth crime novel, we realized we had to find a way to showcase that momentous piece of East Tennessee history. And the only way to do it justice was to set part of the story in the 1940s. It's a bit of a departure from the first three novels, but we think it adds a lot of narrative and historical richness, and we hope readers will enjoy it.

Gumshoe: Since Dr. Bass founded the Body Farm and you write the Body Farm novels, do you find some readers confusing the reality of the research facility with the characters from the novels and their stories? Has visits to the farm increased as the novels popularized the area?

JB: It's not just readers who get confused sometimes--occasionally we get a little fuzzy ourselves on the boundary between fact and fiction! But that's part of the fun of the books, too. For instance, Dr. Arpad Vass--an actual research scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory--makes a cameo appearance in the fictional pages of Bones of Betrayal, along with his "sniffer," an instrument he developed to detect clandestine graves. In real life, Arpad recently used the sniffer to search for additional victims of the Charles Manson cult, at a California ranch where the Manson clan stayed for awhile. Arpad and the new forensic technology he's developing are a great addition to the novel, and part of what makes it so cool is that it's genuine, not something we made up out of thin air. Our plots and characters--well, MOST of them--are fictional, but the science is 100% authentic.

Gumshoe: We've interviewed authors before who collaborate and write under one name. Just how do you share the plotting, characterization, and writing of the novels. Do you sit down and brainstorm the ideas and plot together than then Jon writes it up and then you both edit? Just how do you approach it?

Dr. Bill Bass: I supply the science, and Jon creates the story. Every time we start on a new novel, we talk about ideas and forensic techniques we want to highlight--for example, our third novel, The Devil's Bones, focused on fire, so it included multiple murders involving burned bodies and burned bones. The new book, Bones of Betrayal, revolves around the Manhattan Project--the World War II race to develop the atomic bomb--so it was natural to incorporate radioactivity into one of the murders. But there's almost always some bone-detective work involved in identifying one or more murder victims in the books. Bones of Betrayal has quite a bit of detail about determining the age and sex and--ultimately--the identify of a skeleton. The scientific basis for that sort of forensic analysis is contained in my osteology field guide--a textbook I wrote decades ago--but in a very different form. Jon took that information and fleshed it out, you might say, weaving it into the plot of the novel.

Jon Jefferson: Bill has done a half-century of research that we draw on for these books--not just his osteology textbook, but the hundreds of cases he's worked on, and his knowledge is a remarkable resource for me to tap as a writer. Once we've settled on the forensic techniques we want to highlight--which are crucially important, since we want readers to learn things as well as enjoying the story and the characters--we bounce around ideas about the plot lines and characters. Then I take a shot at a draft, and Bill reviews everything for scientific accuracy. After he reads the drafts, we tweak whatever needs tweaking to get it right.

Gumshoe: What has surprised you most about your readership and their response to your novels?

JB: It's sometimes surprising how attached people get to the characters. Our hero, Dr. Bill Brockton, is Dr. Bass's fictionalized alter ego--but unlike Dr. Bass, he's single. People at book signings give us relationship advice for Dr. Brockton, and tell us which characters we shouldn't have killed off, and they have very strong feelings about those matters.

Gumshoe: What does the future hold? What's next for you? Any projects you can talk about?

JB: We've just signed a new contract with HarperCollins, so we're now under contract for three more novels in the Body Farm series. We're thrilled about that. One of those three will pick up a plot thread that was left unresolved at the end of Bones of Betrayal. Beyond that, we haven't a clue yet!

Gumshoe: Thanks for taking the time to respond.

JB: Our pleasure--thanks for the interest!

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