Interview with Visiting Author John David Bethel

Thanks again to Mr. Bethel for visiting this blog. He is welcome back any time, and I look forward to reading his next book.

-L

The following transcript of my interview with John David Bethel is constructed from recordings and notes made on the evening of 20 March 2017. It is presented as fully and accurately as possible, with edits made only for clarity and punctuation. 

L: So how are you doing today?

JDB: No complaints.

L: I am looking out the window. I’m in Boston and there are two feet of snow on the ground, so I hope the weather is lovely for you.

JDB: It is. I’m here in Miami, sitting out in the backyard on a chaise lounge. I just finished watering our palm tree, our papaya tree, our bananas, and our pineapples.

L: It’s actually fitting that I read Blood Moon this week because I had just been in Orlando for spring break. It was nice to be reminded of warm, sunny climates, even if it did involve extortion.

JDB: *laughs* I’m glad you enjoyed yourself in Orlando.

L: So tell me a little about yourself. You’ve had a very long and interesting career–how have you gotten to where you are today?

JDB: Well, if we go back to my start in politics–I’m assuming that’s where you want to start: spent a summer as an intern for Sen. Gurney from Florida. During that time I was asked to write a few things for the Congressional Record, which is a record of the daily activities in Congress. At the back if it, there’s an edition where a senator is allowed to expound on pieces of legislation or honor a person from the state, so on and so forth.

So they had me doing that and somewhere along the way I guess they realized I could put sentences together. So they had me doing more and more things and in the process of that…I always I knew I could write; I always did fairly well in the subjects in college when I had to turn in papers and stuff, but I discovered I might have a talent for the political end of writing.

So, after college I ended up back in Washington and–I’m trying to recreate this–my father was friends with Sen. Dodd from CT, and he had a friend who worked in the White H ouse who needed someone to work in the communications shop. He sent this man my resume, he called me up, and that’s pretty much how I ended up in Washington, working for the Executive Office of the President for a program that gave away unused or underutilized properties to state and local governments. They had me writing speeches for the surrogates that went around and presented these plots of land to the state officials, and that’s how I got started on that.

Again–I’m trying to recreate this, we’re talking like 30 years ago–someone from Capitol Hill, who worked for a congressman up there, called me up, by someone I mean she worked for a congressman by the name of Talcott of California who needed a speechwriter and a press secretary. So, she got a hold of me and I ended up working in [Talcott’s] office. Then I wanted to go back to the Senate where I started.

So, during the election period of ’74, I think it was, I sent my resume around to the new members of the Senate and a senator from the state of NV asked me to go to work as his press secretary and speechwriter. It so happened that the senator was Senator Laxalt from Nevada, who was also very friendly with Gov. Reagan and his staff because they worked at the same time as neighboring governors.

So in ’76 Laxalt became Reagan’s campaign chairman, and I started doing a lot of writing for them as well. –And I hope you don’t mind all this detail, you asked for it–

L: It’s fascinating–I’m a [political science] major at Boston College and I’ve been an intern many times. It’s the dream.

JDB: *laughs* Ok, I’ll expound.

My father, unfortunately, contracted cancer, so I had to spend a couple of years back home working for his–he had a in-flight magazine company, that did in-flight magazines for seven Latin American and Central American airlines. So there was an interim of about three years when I was writing for the company and editing for the company.

And then  (the first time I mentioned Reagan was ’76, and you may recall he ran for president but ended up losing to Ford who ended up losing to Carter) in 1980 Reagan ran against Carter and won, and Sen. Laxalt wanted me to go back to Washington to work in the Administration. In fact, the man I first worked for in Washington, in the Executive Office of the President, became Deputy Secretary of the Treasury. He found out I was back in Washington from Sen. Laxalt and asked me to come work for him as his executive assistant and speechwriter.

And the rest pretty much follows that path: once you kinda get into the flow and start making connections and people know who you are, yadda yadda yadda, I ended up working in both Bush Administrations, doing speech writing for the Secretary of Commerce, the Secretary of Education. Then I went over to the US General Service Administration as director of communications over there.

And that separated me from the speech-writing part; I ended up doing a lot of management, which I didn’t like at all–I’d rather be writing or doing something directly in communications. And then I retired and started writing novels.

And there you have it!

L: So if a young person were to ask you if going into politics is a good idea, what would you say?

JDB: Absolutely…especially now. And if I’m going–you can edit this if you don’t like what I’m about to say–

I have no brief that I’m trying to advance, but these are fairly trying times and I’m not a big fan of the current administration. I think that, and talking strictly as someone who worked with Republican administrations in the past, I think it’s very important that we get back to the Jeffersonian kind of Republican conservatism that I was associated with.

So yes, I would–and no matter what side of the aisle you’re on–Democrat, Republican, it doesn’t matter–we need young people, idealistic people, people who want to work within the system, I think it’s critically important that people get involved.

L: I voted for Bernie, but I can respect a Republican of Jeffersonian tendencies or anyone who wants to sit down and have a respectful conversation.

JDB: Thank you! *laughs*

L: Is that a change? *laughs* So, you knew you were good at writing, but you kind of fell into writing as a career. When did you know you wanted to write fiction?

JDB: All along, I suppose. Whenever I was working within a structured environment, that is, within communications or within speech writing–if you have an imagination (especially in a place like Washington) you can always pick out a story here and there from what’s going on. I did do some fiction writing while I was working in DC, short stories that I was fortunate enough to publish.So it kinda grew from that

So when I said I came back to Miami, Miami is where I graduated high school: my dad was actually in the foreign service, so I spent most of my early life traveling through various countries around the world, but I ended up here in Miami for high school.

So when I came back to Miami–my wife is a Cuban-American, and she wanted to come back to Miami–I then revisited the idea of writing fiction, discovered that I had a story that I’d been working on in Washington that I wanted to complete–and I did. That was my first novel, Evil Town.

L: So, that would appear to make your opinion of DC fairly clear, that title. Do you have anything redeeming to say about Washington? Is that just a little artistic bravado?

JDB: Yes, that’s the drama. If you read the book, you’ll see–again, there’s no brief, it’s a book about politics, not a political book, there’s no message there or anything else, it’s strictly written for entertainment.

But if someone put a gun to my head and said “What are you trying to say in Evil Town?” it’s that we have a very delicate system that depends on people voting and people caring what’s going on in our country, and if you don’t you’re going to end up with an “Evil Town.”

L: ¿Habla español?

JDB: ¡Sí, señor! Porque yo vivendo en Cuba por tres años. Did you get that?

L: You lived in Cuba for three years?

JDB: I did, when I was very young. I mentioned that my dad was in the foreign service.

L: Was this pre-Castro?

JDB: Both! Pre- and post-.

L: Very interesting. I notice you write a lot about places you’ve lived. Any plans for stories set abroad or in New Orleans? I see you went to Tulane.

JDB:I did. I am working on a novel now that’s set in the Midwest.

L: And what’s your connection there?

JDB: None!

*Both laugh*

JDB: Other than the setting made sense for what I thought was a decent plot line. It’s about a small town, a murder in a small town. In fact, it’s a series of murders in a small town, and I wanted to make it a rural area, so I kind of just stuck a pin in the map. I actually don’t identify it as the Midwest, but the reader will come to understand that it is on the basis of descriptions, and so on and so forth.

L: And what in particular brought you to crime fiction? I know that people sometimes give me a weird look when I tell them this is my side gig, reading crime novels.

JDB: Well, what brought me to Blood Moon in particular was that the private investigator who who was responsible, basically, for solving the crime and bringing these psychopaths to justice–small-world story–we went to the same high school. He’s a couple years older than I am; his sister was in the same class as I was. She or somebody in our class or someone we knew in common (we didn’t know each other at the time) gave him Evil Town and he read it. So when he was working as a consultant on a film called Pain and Gain [based on the crime] he was not happy with the direction they were going with this horrible story, which they were trying to turn into a black comedy.

So he came to me and said “I want to do something, this is not the way the story was at all, and the results were a lot different than they’re portraying in the movie. Would you be interested in writing a true crime book? I liked your style, I liked the way you wrote it, I think it would work with this story.”

So he told me this story about this Argentinian businessman who started dirt poor. His parents immigrated to the United States–no money, started from nothing, family makes some of itself, blue collar worker, so on and so forth. And he was a natural entrepreneur. In the course of his adult life, until the crime happened, he made a good bit of money

He was kidnapped and at the time he was kidnapped he didn’t know what the hell was going on, some people just grabbed him and threw him into a warehouse some place, wouldn’t feed him and were torturing him. Then their goal came out: they were going to extort his fortune, because one of the people who was involved in the kidnapping was his executive assistant at his office, who thought [the victim] had made some business decisions that cheated him out of some money.

So, originally they were just going to kidnap him and take $250,000, which is the amount of money which this guy set as the amount that he was cheated out of. Well, his partners-in-crime were not satisfied with that: they knew [the victim] had a lot of money, he was a multimillionaire, so they basically kept him for 30 days in this warehouse, this hot warehouse, in the middle of summer, in Miami, in a box.

L: I’m from Houston, so I can only imagine.

JDB: Oh,it was–well, you read the book, so you know the kind of circumstances he was in and what they were doing to him. I’ve heard it described as worse than a POW camp, in fact, the judge who tried the case said “You can’t imagine anything worse except being tortured in a POW camp.” So, anyway, [the private investigator] brought me this story; we were going to turn it into a true crime book; I actually prepared a treatment of it;but the problem was he brought it to me too late to get it out ahead of the movie, which is what he really wanted to do. So, he kind of just said “The hell with it.”

But I was so intrigued by this story that I actually asked him and the victim of the crime, who I’d been working with–I’d been working with both of them to write this true crime book–if they’d mind if I turned this into a novel. Because I could take my time, I could develop a plot line and so on, and they said “No, not at all.” Hence, Blood Moon. Long story of how Blood Moon came to pass.

L: Mr. Schiller, the Argentinian native you’re talking about, who was kidnapped and survived this horrible ordeal, he’s Recidio Suarez in Blood Moon. Is your private investigator friend, Ed Dubois, is he Stevens? Is he the Stevens character?

JDB: Yes.

L: And then Pedrajo is the evil business associate, for lack of a better way to describe him?

JDB: Right.

L: So, I enjoyed it a lot. I saw you read my review and I hope you agree with at least some of the things I say. I’m just a college student.

JDB: No, I agree with them all, and as a matter of fact I had thought you mentioned it might have been nice to know a little more about Recidio Suarez’s background. It might have added a bit more empathy for the reader as he was reading along–

L: It’s hard not to have empathy for someone who’s being…skinned alive…

JDB: Yeah, that’s right.

L: …and having fingers removed.

JDB: And the book was getting rather lengthy. This is an excuse or a rationalization for not doing that. I did have more in there about his background. I actually had it in the prologue, in the beginning where the man discovers something’s wrong next door, with him going back and remembering “Yeah, that’s the neighbor who lived next door” and all that, but it was just getting too tangled for me to go into it.

L: And I actually think that not knowing where the situation is happening in the prologue with Rainey [the neighbor]…When it came to the end of the book, I said “Wow, so that’s what that was really about.” I had thought that was about the double homicide, finding the victims of the double homicide–I don’t want to give anything away for people reading the transcript, but–

JDB: Also, I was very grateful that Marc [Schiller] and Ed agreed to write the foreword and the afterword to the book, because I think that adds, that adds a great deal, it brings the voice of the victim and the private investigator into the book and I think that’s very useful.

L: And I think that’s important. It’s a fine line, but at some point writing about other people’s suffering becomes voyeurism–and I don’t like that. I try to stay away from things that do that, so I thought you were extremely respectful.  I’m glad that Messrs. Schiller and Dubois liked what you did to the extortionists.

JDB: The reaction I get immediately is “This can’t possibly be true. This didn’t really happen” But then when they read his preface and Ed’s, especially the part about the police not being interested in it, it’s like unbelievable “How can that possibly happen?” And it did! I did not stretch the truth in either one of those instances.

L: Do you think the reason for the police’s disinterest–and you mention it in the book–was it racial profiling?

JDB: You know, Ed and Marc really don’t know…why…although they have surmised that it was because we were in the middle of the cocaine wars here and there was a huge drug influence. Marc was of Latin background. There was a lot of what I described as the mobsters trying to use the police to settle scores, that was going on down here. So there’s a number of different reasons.

But Ed remains flummoxed and frustrated by the fact that no one, no one would believe them and no one would come to their aid until these other two people were finally killed. You’ll notice there’s a line in the book, which is actually a direct quote from Ed, and I asked him if I could use it, where he says “You know, if you guys had taken our story seriously at the beginning, two people would be alive. So I hold you responsible for their deaths.” He actually sat down and said that to the head of the Miami-Dade Police Department.

L: I think I did mark that line in the Kindle copy. Another scene I really enjoyed is where Stevens, the Dubois character, goes to the notary and tells him “You know what I’m talking about” and things escalate very quickly.

JDB: Another small-world story: when Ed was getting first involved in this, and he noticed on the various documents that had been signed and notarized, that the name of the notary was a person that he knew very well, was a CPA who lived in Miami Shores, which is where Ed lives, and is a neighbor. [Ed] went to him, completely open, and said “This is very strange. Why is your name on this?” And the notary simply said “Oh, they’re clients of mine, so I sign whatever they bring to me.”

Well, it turns out, as in the book, the notary was intimately involved and was actually kind of a business partner to them. He ended up going to jail as well, as long as the people who perpetrated the crime.

L: It almost boggles the mind why someone would get involved in it at all.  Do you think it’s more surprising that someone would go out and do the dirty work or that someone supposedly respectable would feel comfortable watching and doing nothing, like the notary did?

JDB: I guess the answer to that is that he wasn’t really all that respectable. Ed was shocked and dismayed that this man was involved. Of course this man claimed to the day he died, he ended up dying in prison of cancer, that he was in the dark, that he didn’t know anything about anything.

But Ed knew better than that, because they had all of their meetings at the office of the CPA, who was obviously very close to these guys, and knew them well enough to get them to show up for these fiendish meetings. So, that’s a tough one, that’s a tough one to answer.

You would think that Jorge Delgado, the Pedrajo guy in the book…in real life, Schiller took him under his wing and mentored him; how in the world would he allow himself to get involved in something like this?

I was watching a show the other night, one of these kind of shows, at the end of which the policeman said “You have to accept the fact that there’s evil in the world, and unless you are evil, unless you are a psychopath, or a sociopath, you are not going to be able to understand it. I’ve stopped trying to understand it; I’m just trying to stop the crime.”

L: And that was my next question: do you think evil is real? Or is it all neurological, or is there something…or can people make the choice to do evil things, otherwise healthy people? I’m writing my thesis on this; that’s why I ask.

JDB: I suppose it’s kind of a mixture of both, of all of it. Although, from what I understand, from what I’ve read, and I have an interest in this as well, is that if you are a psychopath or a sociopath, you have no empathy, you have no qualms about doing whatever it is that you want to do because it’s you and you’re the most important person on the face of the earth. So, whether that’s a neurological thing, or whether it’s evil–it might be a moot point.

Does it really matter? If you have a psychopath, or a sociopath, who’s willing to do these things, he’s evil. And where it comes from almost, as the policeman said, really doesn’t matter. It just needs to be stopped.

L: And after that very difficult, very philosophical question, how about an easier one?

JDB: Sure!

L: Cats or dogs?

JDB: What do I like best?

L: There’s a cat theme to this blog.

JDB: *laughs* I have both. In fact, I am sitting here right now, with my big, black cat sitting on the lounge, looking at me, wondering what I’m doing. So obviously, I like cats, but we also have two dogs. So, I’m an animal person.

L: I don’t know if you saw the Twitter, but I also have a black cat, named Sassy. What’s yours called?

JDB: Oh, we call him Noah Blue. He was originally Noah, but he has a blue collar, so people in the neighborhood (he’s an outdoor cat) didn’t know his name and were calling him “Blue” , so we started calling him “Noah Blue.”

L: Lovely. So I want to thank you very much for your time, for giving up this half hour to talk with me.

JDB: Not at all.

L: This is my first interview ever. Like I said, I’d love to be a writer someday, I’m considering going into politics, but for now this is just something I love to do. So thank you for helping me pursue my dream.

JDB: Oh, not at all. And let me say one thing too about your background, or your desire to get into politics: please do, number one. And number two, although I am not of the same philosophical bent as Bernie Sanders, I think you had a good man there, and I think, had he run for president against Trump, we wouldn’t be saddled with this vulgarian right now, so it’s really a shame that that didn’t happen.

L: You sure you want me to put that “vulgarian” bit in the transcript?

JDB: Yes, I own to my opinions.

L: I know you do, but Twitter is like the Wild West these days–you never know how people might go off.

Further thank-yous and goodbyes are exchanged. 

Fin

 

 

 

 

 

 

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