An Interview with Jon Jefferson (Jefferson Bass)

Last May I had the great pleasure of reviewing Bones of Betrayal by Jefferson Bass, not just a fine forensic mystery but also a provocative and multi-layered exploration of the legacy of World War II — specifically the legacy of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the pivotal role played in the Manhattan Project by the small town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The Body Thief, the new book in the series, takes off on a new adventure involving poached graves, black marketing body and organ trafficking, and an FBI sting operation. But as we move ahead, so too do we look back: Just as main character Dr. Bill Brockton, head of the Body Farm, finds himself embroiled in (and maybe even flambéed by) these new investigations, he’s also still coming to terms with the personal losses from the last novel and then struggling to come to grips with new revelations about what actually happened there. And another series regular, Dr. Eddie Garcia, has ongoing troubles as well: with his hands severely damaged by radiation poisoning in the previous book, he’s looking toward new transplant possibilities to salvage his career and his sense of self — a quest with parallels to the new case.

Jon Jefferson, right, and Bill Bass are the writing team behind Jefferson Bass

Jon Jefferson, who joins Dr. Bill Bass to form the team behind Jefferson Bass, is thick in the middle of the new book tour, but took a few minutes to indulge some questions about the latest novel and about the pair’s approach to writing the series. Both men will be appearing at two North Carolina bookstores in the coming week: at Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books on Friday evening, April 9, and then at Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville on Saturday evening, April 10.

Art Taylor: Bones of Betrayal, focused intently — relentlessly, even — on the legacy of Oak Ridge and the Manhattan Project, with each layer of the plot exposing something more about that larger story. The Bone Thief takes a look at organ donation and allograft transplants, at the ethics of paying for organs and the trading of organs and tissue on the black market, and at the rise in synthetic possibilities in these areas. When you and Dr. Bass plan a new book, do you set out with a thematic focus in mind? And if so, what compelled you in this direction with the new book?

Jon Jefferson: One of the first things we do, in planning a new book, is to discuss what forensic techniques we can highlight, because we like to teach readers something new every time. In addition, I like to encourage people to ponder larger societal issues. And if we have threads hanging from the prior book — unresolved plot or character issues — we discuss what to do about those. In the case of The Bone Thief, we’d left our medical examiner, Dr. Eddie Garcia, still very much in the throes of a devastating hand injury. So as we talked about his problems, and considered whether it might be possible to give him back his hands in some way, it seemed only natural to consider hand transplants. And then one led, as one thing will do, to another.

When you approach controversial topics or themes in your fiction, is your ultimate goal to provide answers — either for yourself or for your readers — or just to ask the right questions?

Sometimes one, sometimes the other. In the second novel, Flesh and Bone, we brought in the evolution/creationism debate, and in that case, we came down unequivocally on the side of evolution. In The Bone Thief, there’s a debate about the bioethics of buying and sellings organs and tissues, and we don’t take a clear stance on that. Should a poor person in Pakistan have the right to sell one of his kidneys for $20,000 (twenty years’ worth of income there)? Is it really a free choice he’s making, if he’s constrained by terrible financial pressures, or is he being shamefully exploited in that deal? On the other hand, who are we, affluent Americans, to say that he shouldn’t have the right to choose?

Plot-wise, the new book seems a little less concentrated than the previous title in the series, and a good portion of the story here carries over from the major events of the last book, with less focus on the action itself — big plot points and a complete narrative arc — than on people and their ongoing relationships. Do you find plot or character to be the real driving force in constructing your books?

Writing a series with recurring characters, it turns out, is a lot like living life with a flesh-and-blood cast of family and friends: stones that got thrown into the water long ago keep rippling outward; actions happen in an ever-more complex context, within what Unitarians call “the interconnected web of being” (if I’m remembering the phrase a-right). That’s a fancier way of saying that I’m often surprised to look up, dripping paintbrush in hand, to find myself backed into a corner. In book two, I killed off a wonderful character; I’ve been mourning her and missing her ever since. So apparently characters and their relationships do often seem to carry more weight with me than big, rigorously outlined plot points.

One character here, Glen Faust, talks explicitly about “gallows humor,” and another, Raymond Sinclair, later says that “if we can’t find a little humor in our line of work, we’ll go nuts or slit our wrists, right?” Is gallows humor typical of real-life work in this field?

The gallows humor does seem to be a recurring theme — and a saving grace — for people who deal with terrible crimes on a long-term, daily basis. Real-life case in point: Dr. Bill Bass was slowly recovering multiple bodies from a serial killer’s dumping ground (a guy nicknamed “Zoo Man,” whose case we recount in our nonfiction book Death’s Acre); at one point, as fingerprint expert Art Bohanan (who’s both a character in our novels and also a real-life, nationally renowned fingerprint expert) realizes he can speed up the process of identifying one of the victims if he can get a head start on fingerprinting the corpse. So he leans over Bass’s shoulder and quips, “Hey, Bill, could you give me a hand?” There’s a photo of Bass slicing through the wrist in response. And by golly, by the time they were carrying the body bag out of the woods, Art called from the fingerprint lab with the victim’s identity.

I’m sure you get this next question a lot…. How exactly does your collaboration with Bill Bass work? Do you plot each book in a big brainstorming session together or back and forth over a longer period of time?

Unfortunately, a “big brainstorming session” requires big brains, so we do small brainstorming sessions instead! 😉

We generally have our initial plot discussions while driving around on book tour, and I start desperately writing once book tour’s over. As I get into the nuts and bolts of the forensics, I’ll ask Bill a zillion questions. (“If you found a body in thus-and-such a setting, and it’d been there for X days/weeks/years, what would it look like? what would you look for in terms of evidence?” etc., etc., etc.)

Finally: Forensic thrillers are big not only in publishing but also in film and television. What, in your opinion, sets a Jefferson Bass novel apart from other series, both in print and onscreen?

Unlike the flashiness and glitziness of, say, the CSI franchise – where even the corpses can be glamorous and gorgeous — the Body Farm and the University of Tennessee Anthropology Department are grungy, grimy, shoestring affairs. In our books, as in real life, the Anthro Department, the bone lab, and the skeletal collection are all housed in the bowels of the university’s football stadium. It’s dingy, dirty, and makeshift down there under the grandstands and the girders… and the stadium’s a lot more pleasant than the Body Farm itself! Our series is messy, smelly, and authentic.

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