Dr. Betty Jean Craige – Downstream

This week, it’s my honor to host distinguished author, Dr. Betty Jean Craige.

BJ Craige and Cosmo

Betty Jean Craige is University Professor Emerita of Comparative Literature and Director Emerita of the Willson Center for Humanities and Arts at the University of Georgia.

She received her B.A. in Spanish Literature from Pomona College (1968) and her M.A. (1970) and Ph.D. (1974) in Comparative Literature from the University of Washington.  She taught at the University of Georgia from 1973 to 2011.

Dr. Craige has published books in the fields of Spanish poetry, modern literature, history of ideas, politics, ecology, and art.  She is a scholar, a translator, a teacher, and a novelist.

Dr. Craige was Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Delta Prize for Global Understanding. Most recently she has written a murder mystery titled Downstream, published by Black Opal Books on November 26, 2014.

What inspired you to write this novel?

Let me tell you who inspired me to write Downstream. Novelist Terry Kay, who lives in Athens, Georgia, inspired me. He urged me to write fiction when our local newspaper discontinued my Sunday column, “Cosmo Talks,” about animal cognition. Cosmo is the loquacious African Grey parrot about whom I had written the book Conversations with Cosmo: At Home with an African Grey Parrot (2010).

I retired from the University of Georgia in 2011, after thirty-eight years as a professor of comparative literature and eighteen years director of the Willson Center for Humanities and Arts. For the last ten years I taught a course called “Ecocriticism” in which we studied ideas about nature after Darwin as well as current environmental issues. I became interested in the pharmaceutical pollution of our environment.

So I decided to use fiction to explore the problem of water contamination. I chose to write a murder mystery because I had been reading mysteries since childhood and I thought I could write one that would entertain the reader. Thanks to the web, I have become an expert on murder. But the mystery in my novel is not only about who did the murdering but also what was happening to the people in the town.  In Downstream a new estrogen-based longevity drug called Senextra keeps people alive and healthy well into their second century, but it has some environmental side effects. It causes fertility in a couple of post-menopausal women, undescended testicles in dogs, and extra feet in frogs.

How have your personal experiences affected your writing?

During my academic career I wrote a number of books on the history of ideas, including a biography of Eugene Odum, the ecologist who developed the ecosystem concept. The books all focused on the emergence of a holistic way of thinking about our environment and our global society. So when I started writing Downstream I wanted to show that we all live in an interactive whole, in which, for example, the infusion of pharmaceuticals in part of the system affects the whole system. I had originally called my novel “We All Live Downstream,” since we are all using water that has been affected by those humans and animals living upstream.

I set the story in a fictive town named Witherston, in north Georgia, a beautiful part of the country where we can still find wilderness and unpolluted waters. I have spent forty-two years of my life in Athens, Georgia, and have spent many weekends exploring the southern Appalachian mountains.

I live with an American Eskimo Dog named Mary and an African Grey Parrot named Cosmo. I once lived with four American Eskimo Dogs. I do love non-human animals. So in Downstream I gave almost every character a pet or two. One character has a Pacific Parrotlet named Darwin. In my second Witherston mystery, Fairfield’s Auction, I gave that same character an African Grey Parrot named Doolittle. Doolittle is a major character in that novel.

Is there any particular author or book that influenced you in any way either growing up or as an adult?

I like the mysteries of Louise Penny, who sets her stories in a rural village in Quebec. Like Louise Penny, I want my readers to get to know and like all the characters of Witherston, and I want my readers to get involved in the solving of the mystery.

I also like the novels and essays of Barbara Kingsolver, whose values I share and whose writing I admire immensely.

What genre of books do you like to read? Do you limit yourself to only the genre that you write yourself?

I like to read mysteries and spy thrillers. I spent my career reading and teaching great literature, so I have been influenced by Western literature from Homer through the present. But in my retirement, I am reading mostly current novels.

I like movies too, especially cerebral thrillers and mysteries. I would love to make a movie as funny as Little Miss Sunshine.

What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author? What has been the best compliment?

A friend who read the first draft told me that Downstream was “message heavy.” His wife told me the novel was “preachy.” Ooof.  I don’t even go to church, so I don’t know beans about preaching. But their honest criticism made me lighten the environmental message and try to make the novel funnier.

Another friend who read the published book told me that she “couldn’t put it down” and that she “laughed out loud” at some of the scenes. That was encouraging!

What project are you working on now?

I have completed the second novel in the “Witherston Murder Mystery” series. It’s called “Fairfield’s Auction.” And I am working on the third. I am also making a movie of Downstream.

Downstream

At the celebration of his hundredth birthday, local billionaire Francis Hearty Withers announces to the people gathered on the front lawn of Witherston Baptist Church that he has finalized his will. In it he bequeaths $1 billion to his north Georgia hometown of Witherston and another $1 billion to be divided up equally among the town’s 4,000 residents—in recognition of their support of a Senextra pharmaceutical factory. Senextra is a drug that enables individuals to lead healthy lives well into their second century, but it has some unanticipated consequences.

          The group assembled to hear Withers’s announcement do not all applaud. One person carries a sign that says SENEXTRA VIOLATES MOTHER NATURE. Another, KEEP SENEXTRA OUT OF OUR SYSTEM. A third, WE DON’T NEED MORE OLD MEN.

          Withers flies into a rage. He vows to change his will and disinherit the community. Two days later he is found dead.

          In Betty Jean Craige’s first murder mystery a few humans die in unusual circumstances. (A few others live in unusual circumstances.) Who dunnit?

A Short Excerpt from CHAPTER 1 

Friday, May 22, 2015, Labor Day weekend, Witherston, Georgia:

Old Withers is gonna make us all rich!”

“I heard he plans to give everybody in Witherston a million dollars!”

“But that’s when he dies. And he looks pretty healthy to me.”

“He turns a hundred today. He’ll be dying soon!”

“Oh my God! Georgia’s beauty queen Rhonda Rather looks pregnant! Isn’t she a bit long in the tooth to be carrying a foal?”

“She must be over fifty! God in Heaven! I didn’t know that Mayor Rather—I’ve always called him Rotund Rather—was such a stud.”

“Dear Rhonda doesn’t want to be pregnant, and her daughter Sandra does. I heard that Sandra and Phil are getting fertility treatments.”

“Faith Folsom has a bulge in her belly too, and she’s older than dirt. Do you all think she’s pregnant?”

“Probably. She doesn’t have the sense God gave geese.”

“Oh but she does.”

“Jesus God, I pray it doesn’t happen to me.”

“Honey, bless your heart and don’t get me wrong but you are way too old, way, way too old! You’re almost old enough to go to Withers Village!”

“But they don’t accept girls there.”

“Lottie, come here! Look at Francis Hearty Withers all dressed up on stage acting holier than the High and Mighty just because he’s going to bless us with his unearned money. He thinks we’ll clap for him when Scorch unveils his statue.”

“Gretchen, did you know he paid Scorch $50,000 to make that statue?”

“I’m not giving Withers a single clap. The old geezer is an environmental criminal. He thinks he can use our town and our creek and our land for his toxin-producing Senextra factory.”

“Who’s that hunk in the blue suit?”

“The man talking to Dr. Folsom? He’s the CEO of BioSenecta, Dr. Martin Payne.”

“Well, good gracious, I’ll be darned! He’s sure easy on the eyes!”

“Francis Hearty Withers talked him into building a Senextra factory here.”

Detective Emma Evelyn Arroyo, “Mev” to her friends, heard these conversations as she walked through the crowd. She was on duty until 5:00, and her assignment was crowd control on the front lawn of Witherston Baptist Church. Rumors abounded that today Witherston’s local billionaire would announce the construction of a pharmaceutical factory on Founding Father’s Creek upstream from Witherston and that Witherston’s KEEP NATURE NATURAL environmentalists would protest. The Witherston Police Department, for which she worked, was on alert.

Mev spotted a group of teenagers wearing KEEP NATURE NATURAL T-shirts.

“Ladies and Gentlemen!” Mayor Rather bellowed into the microphone. “It’s 4:30 and time for a grand and glorious party! We’re here to celebrate the hundredth birthday of Witherston’s most famous citizen, actually Lumpkin County’s most famous citizen, Francis Hearty Withers. Thanks to all you folks for turning out for the occasion. Let’s give a big hand to Mr. Withers, the last of five generations of Withers residing on Founding Father’s Creek.”

Mev was relieved to hear only clapping, polite and restrained as it was. She was too preoccupied with her own immediate problem to share in her fellow Witherstonians’ excitement.

“Fellow citizens, I didn’t hear you. Let’s give a big, big, big hand to—let me drop a hint—Witherston’s most generous benefactor.”

More clapping.

Francis Hearty Withers sat smiling on stage in his navy Armani suit with his aqua Salvatore Ferragamo silk tie, holding his ivory-inlaid mahogany cane. He was flanked on one side by the tall, solemn, well-dressed Dr. Neel Kingfisher, who stood, and on the other by the overall-clad Scorch Ridge, a giant of a man, who also stood.

“Now let us sing ‘Happy Birthday!’”

Mayor Rather led the crowd of some three hundred men, women, and children in a spirited version of the song, which included the second verse usually sung for the very young:

“How old are you?

How old are you?

How old, how old

How old are you?”

 Mr. Withers stood up and raised both arms in triumph. “I’m one hundred years old, and going strong!”

DOWNSTREAM cover

Dr. Craige’s website: http://www.bettyjeancraige.com/

Downstream can be purchased on Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Downstream-Witherston-Murder-Mystery-Mysteries-ebook/dp/B00OSXPV4A/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1425093905&sr=1-1&keywords=Downstream+by+Betty+Jean+Craige

I’m sure Dr. Craige would love to hear from you, so please feel free to leave a comment.

About Evelyn Cullet

I write mystery romance and romantic suspense novels. I’m an avid organic gardener, and I play the piano. I have a spoiled Black Lab mix., Bailey, whom I adore. Visit my blog every Monday to discover new authors and their novels at: http://evelyncullet.com/blog/

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One Response to Dr. Betty Jean Craige – Downstream

  1. Thanks for being a guest author on my blog this week, Dr. Craige. Your novel has a fascinating concept.

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