Monday, May 7, 2012

1/2 Dozen with Jon Jefferson

Jon Jefferson, a New York Times bestselling author known as part of the Jefferson Bass duo, talks about his previous life in television, his childhood reading (in rhyming riff), and his idea of good-enough -- a humble notion (my, my his novels have gotten some wonderful praise). He's a dynamic writer, a creator of great mysteries and thrillers with a keen understanding of humanity, and a great big heart ... and his latest is here: THE INQUISITOR'S KEY. 

I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

Uh … define “moment”? The Inquisitor’s Key was inspired by a singular couple of days, though I didn’t know it until many years later. In 1998, I was making a television documentary about the Vatican. On the way back from shooting in Rome, we did a two-day shoot in Avignon, France — a place I’d never even heard of before the Vatican project. (I grew up in rural, Bible-belt, Protestant-prone Alabama; somehow, the fact that a string of 14th century French popes thumbed their noses at Rome and holed up in Avignon had escaped my childhood notice.) When I saw the Palace of the Popes — the biggest Gothic palace in Europe — I thought, “It’d be so cool to set a movie here!” I forgot the idea for a dozen years, but a year or so ago, it bubbled back up. Not having my own Hollywood studio – but having a deadline for a crime novel looming large – I started writing.

What's your worst writerly habit?

Note to self:  deal with this one later …

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?

I lived for my books. My books, books, books, books.
For books and more books – take a look! Take more looks!
Dr. Seuss was my favorite, the best of the bunch;
I read him at breakfast! At dinner! At lunch!
He made me love words and he made me love rhyme,
He made me love home-sick-from-second-grade time.
I love it today like I loved it back then:
To say and resay and resay yet again!

What’s your reading life like? Do you have any current favorites or sleepers that may have flown under our radar?

Most nights at bedtime, I read aloud to my wife, Jane—a pleasant way to wind down, and a sweet ritual. Our best recent read: Richard Marius’s An Affair of Honor, a novel about a murder and the subsequent trial (and an astonishing web of other things), set in a small East Tennessee town in 1953. Beautiful descriptions, fascinating characters, scary-as-hell moments. Marius’s lush writing reminds me of Cormac McCarthy’s, but his vision of the world seems less bleak.

What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?

I spent half a dozen years making television documentaries – History Channel shows about warplanes and ships, A & E shows about the Vatican, Paris, Florence, and several other way-cool places; a couple of National Geographic docs about the Body Farm. The Nat Geo gig led directly to my current bookwriting phase; more generally, though, writing television scripts taught me to write fast and to write “good enough.” Before writing scripts, I’d had this vague notion for years that I might make a decent writer, if I ever got “the chance.” Thing is, I was too intimidated by the inner critic I’d developed as an English major to take the chance. If you’re constantly comparing yourself to Shakespeare or Faulkner, it’s gonna be tough to finish that first novel or screenplay. The liberating thing about television was that nobody cared if a script was great; what counted was that it got done, and that it was good enough. “Jefferson Bass” and the Body Farm novels are a bit like that. It’s a book-a-year franchise; the books aren’t Faulknerian, but they get done, and they’re good enough. Some of them—especially The Inquisitor’s Key, I think—are better than just “good enough.” And they are—I hope—a great limbering-up exercise for something far better someday. You know: Someday when I get “the chance.” 

Are you a writer of place? Is place always one of your main characters?

Place matters hugely to me. Most of the Body Farm novels are set in East Tennessee, partly because ... well … that’s where the Body Farm is. But also – mainly – because it’s knock-you-flat gorgeous there. In the fall, when the mountainsides are afire with yellow and red, it’s as if the world is going out in a blaze of glory; in spring, when the redbuds and dogwoods burst out in riotous rebirth, it’s like one giant fertility rite. When I moved to Tallahassee three years ago, I fell in love with another intoxicatingly sensual landscape, so I set the next book, The Bone Yard, in the Florida panhandle. And while I was researching the new book, The Inquisitor’s Key, Avignon — present-day, living-museum Avignon and 14th-century, boom-town Avignon — totally seduced me.

Jefferson Bass is the pen name of Jon Jefferson, writer, and Dr. Bill Bass, renowned forensic anthropologist. Dr. Bass, founder of the University of Tennessee's "Body Farm," is an author on more than 200 scientific publications. Jon Jefferson is a veteran journalist and documentary filmmaker; his two National Geographic documentaries on the Body Farm were seen around the world. Jefferson and Bass have collaborated on 2 nonfiction books and 6 crime novels; their 7th novel, The Inquisitor's Key, will be published May 8, 2012. 

For more on Jefferson Bass, LIKE them on Facebook, join them at the blog, follow along at Twitter, and visit their website. Available now: a 99-cent e-story prequel to The Inquisitor’s Key entitled Madonna & Corpse.

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