Sometimes you just need a laugh.
While I was immersed in the research for Desert Cut, the darkest of all my Lena Jones novels, I grew so gloomy that I stepped up my volunteer work at the Phoenix Zoo. At least the monkeys always made me smile. One day, while watching several irate female monkeys gang up on the misbehaving Alpha male, I remarked to a fellow volunteer, “Somebody should write a book about this.”
“But isn’t that the kind of thing you do?” she answered.
Later, while eating lunch by the Giant Anteater enclosure, I began toying with the idea. A mystery centered around monkeys? Maybe. But at that point, Jezebel, the zoo’s star Giant Anteater gave a squeak and began chasing Zeke, her baby. After she caught him, the two wrestled in the dirt until the exhausted tot climbed up on his mother’s back, dug his talons into her dense fur, and dozed off.
Hmmm, I thought, as I munched my quesidilla.
People who’ve read the writing tips on my blog know that I write from 4 a.m. to whenever, so in the case of Desert Cut, that meant starting the day with a whopping dose of noir. After several hours of writing dark-and-gloomy, I’m usually so emotionally exhausted that all I’m capable of doing is collapsing on the sofa to watch Jerry Springer reruns.
The afternoon after my multiple hmmms, I began fiddling around with a humorous short story titled, The Anteater of Death, my reward for sticking to the gruesome research that fueled Desert Cut. In that first inception, Anteater was meant to be nothing more than a diversion, a giggly little trifle to entertain myself with after I’d done my real work. But writers write. And sometimes they don’t know when to stop. In the following weeks, the short story became a novella and eventually evolved into a full-length novel about an innocent anteater named Jezebel who gets framed for murder. How can an anteater commit murder, you ask? Easily. When attacked, Giant Anteaters rise up on their hind legs to their full five-foot height, unfurl four-inch talons, and disembowel their unfortunate assailants.
My writing day shifted to accommodate two books. Mornings, I worked on Desert Cut, which details the human rights abuses inflicted on millions of women and girls throughout the world. In the afternoons I deserted Jerry Springer to tickle my funny bone with The Anteater of Death. This unplanned novel starred a spunky Phoenix zookeeper named Theodora “Teddy” Iona Esmeralda Bentley and her friend Jezebel, a possibly homicidal Giant Anteater. In the morning, tears; in the afternoon, chuckles.
One day at the zoo, while telling Jezebel how inspirational she’d been, I realized I was producing a possible series, and at that point, I saw a problem looming because of Anteater’s real-life location; call it the Jessica Fletcher/Cabot Cove Effect. After so many murders in Cabot Cove, who would be crazy enough to visit? Fearing that all the fictional dead bodies I was piling up at the Phoenix Zoo might scare away our own prospective visitors, I created a fictional zoo outside a fictional California coastal town and moved Teddy from her hot Phoenix apartment to the houseboat where I’d once spent an idyllic summer. Thus the tiny village of Gunn Landing was born, and with it, the Gunn Zoo and a Giant Anteater named Lucy. In contrast to the orphaned Lena Jones, I burdened Teddy with an embezzling father and socialite mother. I also gave her a three-legged dog and a one-eyed cat, let her houseboat develop a few leaks, and for spice, introduced her to handsome Sheriff Joe Rejas, of whom Teddy’s snobbish, ex-beauty queen mother mightily disapproved.
My Anteater problems weren’t over, though.
Aware of my reputation as a noir writer, I asked Poisoned Pen Press – which wanted to publish the series – if I should use a pen name. After batting the problem around for a while, editor Barbara Peters decided it was time to show readers my “softer side” and emerge (albeit only temporarily) from the noir closet.
“In person you’re a pretty amusing gal,” Barbara said. “Why hide it?”
So I won’t. Throughout the Gunn Zoo series, I promise to amuse. But that doesn’t mean Lena Jones and her many problems will disappear. Lena returns in Fall ’09 with Desert Lost, where she runs into more problems with Arizona polygamists (first covered in 2002’s best-selling Desert Wives). But because I am now free to be amusing, Lena will start sharing the bookshelves with the much less complicated Teddy Bentley.
Does Lena mind?
I doubt it. Last night, out there in the dark and gloomy Arizona desert, I’m pretty sure I heard Lena chuckling.
Seems Lena needed a laugh, too.