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Jefferson Bass


e-interviewed by Hilary Williamson & Mary Ann Smyth, March 2009


Jefferson Bass is the writing team of Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson. Dr. Bass, a world-renowned forensic anthropologist, founded the University of Tennessee's Anthropology Research Facility - the Body Farm. He is the author or coauthor of more than two hundred scientific publications, as well as a critically acclaimed memoir about his career, Death's Acre.

Jefferson is a veteran journalist, writer, and documentary filmmaker. The coauthor of Death's Acre, he is also the writer and producer of two highly rated National Geographic documentaries about the Body Farm. Together, these two accomplished men have now written four Body Farm novels - Carved in Bone, Flesh and Bone, The Devil's Bones, and the just released Bones of Betrayal.

Q: Where did the idea for the series come from and how did you decide to team up to write it?

A: We had collaborated on a memoir, Death's Acre, which followed Bill's (Dr. Bass's) career, and very much enjoyed working together. After that project, Jon (Jefferson) thought it would be fun to model a fictional hero on Dr. Bass, so he proposed the idea. We wrote a few sample chapters and a brief synopsis of a novel - the novel that became Carved in Bone, the first installment in the series - and HarperCollins liked it enough to sign us up for the first three books in the series.

Q: There are many methods of writing as a duo how do you work?

A: We start by bouncing plot ideas back and forth; generally, while we're traveling together on book tour every February, we start trying out ideas for the next year's book. In addition to mapping out the plot, we also decide what specific forensic-anthropology techniques we want to feature in the book. (We try to introduce new concepts and techniques in each book.) Once we've settled on those things, Jon writes a draft of the story, in close consultation with Bill about the forensic details. Then we'll discuss the draft and tweak the scientific details.

Q: The ongoing witty banter between Bill Brockton and his colleagues in the books is great fun - does that reflect the authors' own interactions?

A: There is a lot of joking and banter in our collaboration and friendship; when we have lunch together, there's usually more laughter at our table than at any other table in the restaurant.

Q: Many modern mystery series (Patricia Cornwell's being perhaps the most well known) include the Body Farm in their plots. Do you often receive queries from fellow authors?

A: We receive queries, forensic questions, pleas for writerly advice, and manuscripts. An astonishing number of people dream of being writers!

Q: How many of your plots are inspired by, or take off from real-life Body Farm research - e.g. a crematorium taking serious shortcuts as in The Devil's Bones? Did that happen in real life?

A: The non-burning crematorium in The Devil's Bones was indeed inspired by a real-life case, the Tri-State Crematorium in Noble, GA, where hundreds of uncremated bodies were found hidden in the woods, in rusting vehicles, and in burial vaults on the property. Other cases in the novels tend to have less direct real-life inspirations - though often we'll take details from several similar cases (for example, multiple fire-related cases) and combine them into a single dramatic fictional case.

Q: Your latest, Bones of Betrayal, centers on the Manhattan Project were there any big surprises to either of you personally from your research for the book?

A: We were surprised to learn that there are thousands of intense radiation sources in the United States that are unprotected and virtually untracked by the government. These sources - medical and industrial radioisotopes - could be quite deadly in the wrong hands.

Q: The book describes a nuclear-terrorism disaster drill - how did it feel writing that, knowing that such a catastrophe is within the realms of possibility nowadays (a thought that certainly makes us very uncomfortable)?

A: It was very uncomfortable! We hesitated, in fact, to put that scenario out there, lest we put ideas in the wrong heads. In the end, we decided that terrorists have doubtless considered such scenarios already, and we thought there might be some value in raising the issue of whether there should be closer monitoring of highly radioactive materials.

Q: The likable old lady, Beatrice (who spent her young adulthood working at the Manhattan Project) is a key player in the resolution of Bones of Betrayal. Is she modeled on anyone real?

A: Beatrice has both historical and personal DNA, you might say. Historically, hundreds of young women - "calutron girls," they were called - were hired fresh out of high school during the Manhattan Project and put to work operating calutrons, huge cyclotrons that, atom by atom, separated the uranium used in the Hiroshima bomb. Personally, some of the difficult experiences Beatrice recounts were borrowed from the life of Jon's maternal grandmother, a remarkable, self-made woman.

Q: Bones of Betrayal includes a fair bit of technical detail - how long did the research take, and is making science accessible one of your objectives in the series?

A: The research for Bones of Betrayal was quite daunting, though fascinating. Understanding the scientific and medical details of radiation exposure - and translating that technical knowledge into a readable, interesting story - was quite a challenge. Set that science against a backdrop of epic history, and you've got a recipe for years of research. Luckily, Jon lived and worked in Oak Ridge (the city that was the cradle of the atomic bomb) for years, so he already knew much of the history and some of the science. And, of course, Bill has more than 50 years of forensic research under his belt. In a way, it's as if "Jefferson Bass" was born to write Bones of Betrayal.

Q: It's been fun to watch the relationship between Bill Brockton and his young graduate assistant, Miranda Lovelady, evolve do you plan to keep them on tenterhooks for the foreseeable future?

A: Probably so, since we ourselves are still on tenterhooks about them! It's interesting: some readers think it would be highly inappropriate for them to ever get romantically involved, while others are rooting for romance to blossom. Either way, it'll be interesting to see what happens between them.

Q: Can you tell us anything about what's next in the works for Bill Brockton and the Body Farm series?

A: Well, about all we can say at this stage is that at the end of Bones of Betrayal, the fate of two characters remained very much uncertain, so it's likely we'll want to take up those threads. Beyond that, we're keeping our secrets for now. As for the series itself, we've signed on to write another three novels, which will take us through the year 2012. And according to the Mayan calendar, the world ends in 2012, so at the moment we're not worrying too much about what we'll write for 2013!
Find out more about Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson and all their books, read excerpts, and tour the Body Farm in photos and video at JeffersonBass.com.
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