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Douglas R. Cobb did this interview with Jefferson Bass on December 20, 2008.
Douglas R. Cobb: We at MysteriesGalore.com are pleased to present you this interview with “Jefferson Bass,” the duo who collaborate to create the Body Farm series of novels: Dr. Bill Bass, the forensic anthropologist who founded the Body Farm in Tennessee, and Jon Jefferson, who has worked as a journalist, science writer, and documentary filmmaker. This interview comes just in time for the release of the writing duo's latest book, Bones of Betrayal.
This multi-part question is for the both of you, Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson - How did you first meet, what made you decide to collaborate on the Body Farm novels, and did you ever expect to still be going strong with the newest (fourth) book in the series, Bones of Betrayal?
Dr. Bass: Jon has made a number of television documentaries, and he called me one day and asked if he could make a documentary about the Body Farm. He ended up making two 1-hour documentaries for the National Geographic Channel, which were great. Early on during the documentary project, I asked Jon if he'd be interested in helping me write a book. My students had been after me for years to write a book about my career, but although I've published a lot in the scientific press, I'm not good at writing for a lay audience. But when I asked Jon about collaborating, he played hard-to-get.
Jon: Actually, I wasn't playing hard-to-get; in fact, I thought it would be wonderful to work on a book about the life and career of a living forensic legend. But I wanted to finish the documentaries first, so that Bill could see those before deciding if he really wanted to work together on something as big and ambitious as a book. That first book, Death's Acre, came out in 2003, and I've been underfoot ever since. We've done six books together, and have three more novels under contract. Bill was initially dubious about the fiction, but I always figured that if I could do a decent job of translating the real-life Bill Bass-brilliant scientist, death detective, and funny fellow--into a fictional character, people would love the books and want more.
Douglas R. Cobb: What is the ratio of input and actual writing of each of you in writing the plots of these intense and suspenseful novels?
Dr. 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 had 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-and so we've incorporated radioactivity into one of the murders.
Jon: Bill has done a half-century of research that we draw on for these books, which is a remarkable resource. Once we've settled on the forensic techniques we want to highlight-which is important, since we want readers to learn things as well as enjoying the story and the characters-I take a shot at a draft, and then Bill reviews everything for scientific accuracy. After he reads the drafts, we tweak whatever needs tweaking to get it right.
Douglas R. Cobb: The next few questions relate directly to your latest novel, Bones of Betrayal. Much of the plot centers around Dr. Bill Brockton's attempts to discover who killed 93-year-old Dr. Leonard Novak, a fictional "renowned Manhattan Project physicist working at Oak Ridge" in Tennessee, where your novels are set. He's been poisoned with a pellet of the radioactive isotope iridium-192.
A lot of the story is told from the perspective of Novak's ex-wife, Beatrice, herself an elderly woman. Was the character of Beatrice based on a real person (s)?
Jon: One aspect of Beatrice is based on the hundreds of young women during World War II-most of them fresh out of high school-who operated the machines that separated uranium-235 for the first atomic bombs. The machines were called “calutrons” (short for “California University cyclotrons”), and the operators were called “calutron girls.” Our character Beatrice tells Dr. Brockton stories about her work as a calutron girl during the war. Other aspects of Beatrice were borrowed from my maternal grandmother, who-like Beatrice-was abandoned at age 13 and had some other difficult experiences as a young woman. Still other aspects are totally imagined.
Douglas R. Cobb: The research scientist Arpad Vass, who developed a corpse "sniffer" that can detect corpses from the release of thirty gasses that dead bodies give off, also plays an crucial role in the locating of the corpse of a soldier, Jonah Jamison, murdered in 1945. The novel mentions that Arpad was a "former student" of yours. Was he, or is that an example of creative license?
Dr. Bass: The line between fact and fiction is sometimes blurry in our novels, and Arpad Vass is a good example of that. There really is a research scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory named Arpad Vass, and Arpad really was one of my Ph.D. students. And he actually HAS developed a “sniffer” to detect clandestine graves-an analytical instrument he designed after doing years of research at the Body Farm on the chemicals given off by human bodies as they decompose.
Douglas R. Cobb: Dr. Brockton has a romantic interlude in this book with Isabella Arakawa, a librarian at Oak Ridge who helps him narrow down the possible location of the dead soldier, Jonah Jamison, whose picture faintly appears on a roll of film found in Novak's refrigerator. Do you have plans to get Dr. Brockton involved in a lasting romantic relationship in the future?
Jon: That's hard to predict-sort of like real life!
Douglas R. Cobb: One of the coolest aspects I liked about Bones of Betrayal is the use of faint, ghostly, spooky photographic negatives before each section and chapter. Are these images of Oak Ridge?
Jon: Those ghostly images are negatives of historic photos taken in Oak Ridge during World War II by Ed Westcott, the official photographer for the Manhattan Project. Westcott took thousands of photos; unlike almost anyone except for the highest-ranking people in charge of the project, Westcott had virtually unlimited access to all the top-secret facilities working on the bomb project in Oak Ridge. One of the historic images we use in the book-a striking negative of a young woman-shows a calutron girl seated at the control panel of a calutron. I had that image in mind as I pictured Beatrice as a young woman.
Douglas R. Cobb: How accurately does the quote from Dr. Brockton in the novel about what he does if he believes he's "overlooking something" in figuring out the cause of a victim's death (he puts "the bones on my desk where I can see them") describe the way you approach a similar mystery, Dr. Bass?
Dr. Bass: It describes what I do exactly. One of my earliest cases, more than 35 years ago, involved identifying a toddler whose bones were found in a creek in Kansas. This was long before DNA testing existed, of course, and although we thought we knew whose bones we had, we had no way to prove it. I set that child's skull on my desk and looked at it off and on for days-changing the angle of the skull every now and then, glancing at it out of the corner of my eye sometimes, anything to help me see something different, something I'd not noticed in all the dozens of other times I'd already looked at it. Finally, I noticed some small but distinctive notches in the front teeth-notches that were genetic traits, not chips in the teeth. Luckily, we had a photograph of the little girl we thought this was, and in the picture she was smiling-showing those very same notches. So in that case, my keep-looking technique worked.
Douglas R. Cobb: Garland Hamilton, the deranged medical examiner of The Devil's Bones who killed Brockton's lover and tried to murder him in Flesh and Bone, is one of the most memorable villains in recent mysteries. Which of you came up with him, and is he based on any real person?
Jon: Well, let's just say that Tennessee has had more than its share of colorful medical examiners! One key difference is that our fictional villain, Garland Hamilton, isn't just colorful, he's truly evil.
Douglas R. Cobb: In Flesh and Bone, one of the plot complications is that college students picket outside Brockton's classroom at the entrance of the McClung Museum with signs that say things like DR. BROCKTON HAS NOT EVOLVED and BROCKTON MONKEY'S WITH GODS CREATION.
Has anyone ever picketed outside any of your classes in reality, Dr. Bass; and, if so, how did you deal with it?
Dr. Bass: No, although there was a protest at the Body Farm once, complete with a huge banner draped on the wooden privacy fence that surrounds the facility. But I always enjoyed a really good relationship with students and with the university, and one of the honors I'm proudest of is being named “National Professor of the Year” once.
Douglas R. Cobb: Do you both have a working title for the next novel in the series yet, and when can our readers expect another installment to come out?
Jon: Not yet. Titles can be tough; in fact, we didn't settle on a title for Bones of Betrayal until the manuscript was almost finished. Like Dr. Brockton's future love life, the title of the next Body Farm Novel-which is scheduled to come out a year from now-is still shrouded in mystery!