Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Giving Witness to an Outstanding Book

The Only Witness by Pamela Beason is one of those books, that hasn’t been hyped, has no major marketing campaigns behind it…but should have--a major one. In 2004, Pamela Beason won the Overall Daphne, the highest scoring entry for The Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense. Knowing this, and curious about her writing as well as intrigued by the title, “The Only Witness,” I clicked on her link. What followed was a cover… of...well, an ape. Naturally I read the blurb, and then downloaded this book. I’m so glad I did. Please welcome freelance writer/editor and private investigator, Pamela Beason, to The Five Scribes.

Pam, Welcome. I am so happy to be doing this interview. I know that you’re a private investigator, but has anyone ever mentioned that you can write? ;) Talk about these two professions. Are they of equal importance to you, or does one have precedence over the other?

P.B.: Due to the current economic climate, I actually have three professions, which explains why I'm a crazy woman these days. I do freelance writing and editing, including technical writing, ghost-writing, and book doctoring; I do private investigation cases; and then I do my own creative writing.

Private investigation is very disruptive; you are basically on call 24 hours a day, accommodating yourself to everyone else's schedule. You end up interviewing a cop on the night shift during his break at one a.m., waiting to be called into court in the middle of the afternoon, doing surveillance at dawn or during a lunch hour, etc.—working whatever hours you need to get the job done. Investigation pays well per hour, but the hours are not necessarily contiguous and the work can be stressful and occasionally dangerous. There's a lot at stake—jobs, marriages, money, child custody, jail time—so emotions are always high on both sides.

In between investigation tasks, I'm sitting in front of my computer doing my own creative writing or my contract writing and editing jobs. I can't wait for the day when I can give up the other jobs and just write fiction. That's my dream.

As an investigator, I get involved with a lot of families in trouble. That has provided fodder for my stories. For example, I know it's easy to accuse someone and harder to prove innocence, so in my romantic suspense, Shaken, my heroine Elisa is accused of insurance fraud because she's filed so many claims after her business is plagued with vandalism and arson. The mystery we're talking about here, The Only Witness, deals with the issue of having a vital witness to a crime who cannot testify in court.

D.B. : The Only Witness. What an amazing story. Your plot revolves around a teenage mother and her infant daughter. I don’t want to give too much away. But this young mother is clearly not ready to be a mother. She’s unwed, lives with her parents, and when her baby goes missing, Brittany Morgan becomes the prime suspect in her daughter’s abduction. Told in third person, from multiple points of views of your characters, the author immediately draws us into the small fictitious town of Evansburg, Washington. While not one single human sees this crime, there is an animal witness. A 12-year-old signing gorilla named Neema.

Okay, That’s a plot I think of every day. Not. Where did you come up with an idea for an ape to be a witness to a kidnapping? Are there any documented cases of primates helping to solve crimes? And tell us what brought this story to life and why you decided to put it to words?

P.B.: I love animals, and I'm fascinated by animal intelligence. I've read all the books written by people who study apes. There have been several sign language projects involving apes: the most well known are by Dr. Roger Fouts, who taught chimpanzees sign language, and Dr. Penny Patterson, who taught Koko the gorilla. Penny and Koko were my models for Dr. Grace McKenna and Neema in The Only Witness. So after reading about the creative language used by real-life chimpanzees and the gorillas, and then dealing in my investigation work with the issue of credible witnesses in court cases, I put together the plot for The Only Witness. A gorilla has the intelligence of a five-year-old child, so if a five-year-old deaf child could testify, could a signing gorilla? It hasn't happened yet, but it would certainly make a controversial case.

D.B.: There is so much law enforcement expertise, you pull in FBI characters and you understand so much about police procedure. I assume this comes with being a private detective? Do you interact with the police and the FBI in the course of your work?

P.B.: To be a good PI, you have to understand a fair amount about all the different law enforcement agencies. I interact with local police from time to time, and we sometimes share information back and forth. Cops are individuals just like the rest of us, with their own strengths and weaknesses and personality quirks. I've talked on the phone a few times with FBI agents and been involved in a few cases that they were also involved in, but I have never worked on a case with an FBI agent. Generally speaking, law enforcement professionals don't appreciate PIs getting into the mix. PIs often do defense work where we investigate whether the law enforcement professionals did their job well, so that can cause friction.

D.B.: You let us into Brittany’s world immediately, and then, a master weaver, you go from light to serious in a heartbeat and vice versa. You introduce us to Dr. Grace McKenna, Neema’s trainer. Grace has a Ph.D. in Psychology and is a research fellow with the University of Washington. While this sounds glamorous, Pam heaps on loads of conflict on Dr. McKenna. She teaches Neema and a male gorilla Gumu, a version of American Sign Language. (Note to readers: Do you have any idea how much it costs to house, feed and cajole two full-grown gorillas?)

What brought Grace to life? What came first, er…the gorilla or the trainer?

P.B.: The gorilla, of course! Like I said, I'm an animal lover. But if you think about the amount of care a huge intelligent animal like a gorilla would require, and then you consider all the budget cuts and money issues at universities these days, you can see how someone doing a gorilla sign language research project like Grace's could get in deep trouble. And of course deep trouble is what makes for interesting drama.

D.B.: Then you introduce another character, who, sorry, readers, I just have to gush. Detective Mathew Finn. What a three-dimensional character. Matt, originally from Chicago, follows his wife to Washington, where she leaves him for another man, then dumps Matt further with two cats and a giant Newfie-mix dog. Matt is passionate about art, about animals not so much. To top it off, he has no time to take care of these very needy pets.

Readers, if you don’t read but one scene in this book. You must read when Matt goes to interview what he thinks is a slow child (Neema has the mental capacity of a five year old. Pam sets this up, a cross between Stephen King and Mel Brooks.) It was priceless when he meets Neema -- his witness to a kidnapping.

Talk about Matt and how he came to be. Are Grace and Matt a compilation of people you’ve known, or are the total figments of the author’s imagination?

P.B.: I think most authors create characters they'd like to know, and so I created Grace and Matt from my imagination. They're both smart and formerly very successful in their careers, although in the book they're at an extremely low point. It looks like Grace might lose her livelihood and her gorillas—imagine someone taking your pets or children away along with your job! And after being a hot-shot detective in Chicago, Matt took a modest position in rural Washington to accommodate his younger wife, and he's now the object of snide gossip after she ran off with another man. Both Grace and Matt are lonely outsiders who are under a lot of pressure. In Grace's case, she's got to find a way to save her research project and her gorillas. In Matt's case, he's got to solve the case of Brittany Morgan's missing baby to protect all the innocents involved and to save his reputation. And because he's my creation, I made him tough on the outside but a softie on the inside, because that's how we really want men to be, don't we? He starts off thinking animals are a pain and ends up truly appreciating them.

D.B: Brittany is compelling in her own right. It’s clear that this young mother loves her daughter. I felt for this girl when she creates the little fairy costume for her daughter for when she comes home. She’s devastated when people accuse her of harming her daughter, and the author does an amazing time line, e.g. four hours after Ivy goes missing, eight hours, two days, three day, etc. etc. I found myself holding my breath as the timeline got farther away. Ivy belongs to a support group for young mothers created by her high school. The program is also tied in with the social networks. There’s a janitorial service that hires ex-convicts that comes into play. Will you tell us about these organizations, why you brought these into the picture. I’d like to understand your plotting scenario here because both these organizations fed in brilliantly.

P.B.: As I said earlier, as a PI, I encounter a lot of troubled souls. That includes teenage mothers and their children and ex-convicts. As we all know, teen moms can do foolish things just because they don't have the experience to know better, so I wanted Brittany to be a loving but somewhat careless mom. I also got some ideas from watching TV shows about pregnant teenagers, and I am aware that some high schools have special programs to help encourage them to graduate after becoming mothers.

Then there's the issue of ex-convicts. I've met a lot of them, and while as a society we should definitely keep an eye on them, I also know that they are a very vulnerable group. Think about their situation: How can they prove they're reformed if nobody will give them a job? If they are accused of a crime, how can they prove they're innocent when they've been convicted before? Who is going to believe them? So I wanted to throw all that in there.

D.B.: Is The Only Witness a stand alone, or will it be part of a series. Truthfully? I would love to see Grace and Matt end up together. They were a great couple. Will we see them again?

P.B.: I wrote The Only Witness as a standalone, but if readers ask for sequels, I would love to create them. Like all authors, I hate to leave my characters; I do hope we can at least visit each other from time to time. I'd like to see Grace and Matt's relationship grow; I'd like to see Brittany raise baby Ivy; and I'd dearly love to see what the gorillas get up to in the future!

D.B.: How long have you been writing, and please tell us about your schedule and writing process. You edit and work as a private detective. Do you ever feel pulled in too many directions?

P.B.: I've always written from the time I was a little girl. But I started writing seriously for publication about ten years ago. These days, I write whenever I can. You ask if I feel pulled in too many directions: My answer is HELL, YES! (Oops, can I say hell here?) But my reading audience is growing by the day and soon I hope to do nothing but creative writing, with a lot of outdoor activity thrown in to break up the computer time (I hike, snowshoe, kayak, and scuba dive whenever I can).

D.B.: You’ve self-published, but you also have books coming out from Berkley. You’re agented. How do you feel about the transitions going on in today’s market? Do you plan to do a mix of self-publishing and traditional publishing? What would you tell someone interested in self-publishing, then turn this question. What would you tell an author determined to sell only to New York?

P.B.: I tell all writers to support each other, no matter what route a writer chooses. I'm doing a mix because there are advantages to each route. With self-publishing, the money can be better and certainly comes in much faster, but you also have to do and pay for everything yourself. You are running your own business. Also, most important reviewers and contests still won't touch self-published books, and it's hard to get them into bookstores and libraries, too.

Then there's the traditional route. Let's face it, the New York publishers can make any author into a superstar, but they choose to do that for very few. However, they can help you build a worldwide audience, and I'm counting on that from Penguin/Berkley. However, if you count on NY alone, you're probably losing a LOT of money and time, because the percentages and time frames for publication and payment are SO much better with self-publishing. I hope that traditional publishers will adapt to the times and treat authors better. But who knows what will happen? The whole book business is changing at lightning speed.

D.B.: Pam, I loved The Other Witness. I believe you have other books along this line. Will you talk about them, and then tell us about your mystery series and when we can expect it, and perhaps give us a blurb?

P.B: Thanks for saying you loved The Only Witness! As well as that book, I currently have a romantic adventure novella, Call of the Jaguar, available in ebook form, as well as my romantic suspense, Shaken. You can read excerpts from them on my website: www.pamelabeason.com. In early December of 2011, the first Berkley Prime Crime book in my Summer Westin mystery series—Endangered—will hit the market. As I mentioned above, I'm a nature gal, and all Summer Westin mysteries take place mostly in the wild. The setting for Endangered is the canyons of Utah; the second (the Daphne winner) is set in the Olympic peninsula of Washington State; and the third (which I'm desperately trying to finish now) takes place in the Galapagos Islands. My character, Summer 'Sam' Westin, is a wildlife biologist who is eking out a living as an internet outdoor adventure writer, so these stories are a mix of internet craziness and wilderness adventures (both of which I have experience with). Here's a short blurb for Endangered:

When a toddler vanishes from a Utah campground, the television news quickly targets the park's cougars as the likely suspects. Wildlife writer Summer Westin has good reason to suspect that a human is behind the child's disappearance. But can she prove it before it's too late for both the child and the big cats?

Of course the plot is much more complicated than that. You can read a longer blurb and some reviews and even pre-order the paperback version on this Amazon page: http://tinyurl.com/64x4fdx, although right now in typical done-too-early fashion, there are a few typos in the description and the reviews are from my self-published version called WILD. (I always self-pub while waiting to see if NY comes through with an offer, because they move at glacial speed.)

D.B.: Thank you so much for being here. I hope you’ll come back and see us when your mystery series is released.

P.B.: It was my pleasure! I don't have copies of Endangered yet, but I'll be happy to give away an ebook copy of The Only Witness to whoever is the most entertaining or thought-provoking commenter here.



Edie Ramer said...

Wow! Great interview and I can tell how much Donnell loved The Only Witness. What great and unusual characters. I'm putting this is on my must-read list.

I hope I win, but I can't think of anything thought-provoking. It's too early in the morning.

Kristi said...

Great interview Donnell. I wish all author interviews were that in depth. I would love to read the book, her characters sound so compelling, but don't have an e-reader so don't include me in the competition but I did want to comment.

Nancy Sweetland said...

What an intriguing idea for a plot! I was astounded to watch my two very young grandchildren (under a year) communicating by sign language (hungry, all done, etc.) and can only imagine the excitement of your characters working with a gorilla to uncover a mystery. I really want to read this book1

Kevin R. Tipple said...

Well, I can't think of anything or thought provoking to qualify either. Though I will say that I often resemble a gorilla during football season.

Ann Carpenter said...

When I was told "Three dead dogs and the guy doesn't get the girl" won't sell and then "Can the pit bulls become vampires?", I put my screenplay away. I can't imagine what agents said to you about having a gorilla as the "Only Witness". Your story sounds like groundbreaking crime-solving fun!
I have a Nook.

Ellis Vidler said...

I'm a huge fan of Washto and Koko, and I loved Michael Crichton's Congo. Your books sounds fascinating--so does your life! I'm putting in on my list. Very interesting interview. Thanks Donnell and Pamela.

Ellis Vidler said...

Oops! That should have been Washoe. She was a signing chimpanzee who taught other chimps to sign. Gotta read your book.

Dale Mayer said...

Hi Pam and Donnell!

I loved The Only Witness!!! Great story with very unusual premise and characters. I've read several of Pam's books and I have to say her characters are always very indepth and unusual.

Maybe the detecting business is good preparation for a full time novelist career - it seems to me, writers are at it all hours of the day anyways.

As usual Donnell, an excellent interview!

Pamela S. Beason said...

Hi, everyone. Thanks for your comments.

Kristi, I don't have an e-reader either. That's on my list of things to buy when my publisher (Penguin/Berkley) finally sends me a check. For now, I use Kindle for PC or Nook for PC when I want to read an ebook. But I plan to have THE ONLY WITNESS out in print form in a few months.

Ann, I can identify about your screenplay comment. I too write screenplays and haven't sold anything to Hollywood; so I'm converting mine to novels.

Ellis, Washoe and I used to live in Oklahoma at the same time, and then we both moved to Washington State. Sadly, though, we never met.

Gotta go sleuth and write now.


Ann Charles said...

Pam and Donnell, I'm late to the party, but wanted to say how interesting this interview is. I got to read Pam's Endangered and loved it! Now I'm very curious about Witness. Pam, you're incredible with all that you juggle. Donnell, you are so good at interviewing!

Ann Charles

Misty Evans said...

Pam and Donnell, great interview! Sorry I'm so late getting to it.

Pam, your experience as an investigator sounds intriguing, even though it has it's drawbacks. And your writing is awesome!

Best wishes for future success.

Paula Phillips said...

Just finished reading "The Only Witness'. I am now a new follower