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