Monday, May 14, 2012

My First Time: Jefferson Bass

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today's guest is Jefferson Bass, New York Times best-selling author whose seventh novel, The Inquisitor's Key, has just been released.  Jon Jefferson, the “writer” half of the pseudonymous Jefferson Bass, is a veteran journalist, science writer, and documentary filmmaker.  His journalism credits include work for The New York Times, National Public Radio, Newsweek, and USA Today.  Jefferson learned the art of combining scientific material with compelling human stories during a decade as a science writer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.  In the 1990s he began writing and producing television documentaries, mainly for the History Channel and the Arts and Entertainment network.  His collaboration with Dr. Bill Bass began in 2001, when Jefferson wrote and produced two National Geographic documentaries about the Body Farm—films that earned high rating around the world.  For more, visit the authors’ website, find them on Facebook, and follow on Twitter.

My First Rhyme

I might be the only murder-mystery writer who gives primary credit (or chief blame) to Dr. Seuss, but there—I’ve said it, and I feel better, even if Theodore Geisel is turning over in his proverbial grave.

I grew up in a tiny town in Alabama.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but our public library was microscopic—one room at the top of a steep flight of stairs in an old brick building on Main Street.  All I knew was magic lived at the top of those stairs.  And the chief magician in my early years was Dr. Seuss.  I loved his outlandish illustrations—those tall, teetering buildings! those alien-looking plants!  I marveled at the inventive plots—a boy who can’t take off his hat without finding another, fancier one underneath! an elephant who devotes his life to defending a dust-speck world on a dandelion!

But most of all, I loved the words.  The wordy words.  The sturdy words.  The nerdy and absurdy words.  There was something simultaneously silly and sacred—giddy and incantatory—in those lines of rhyme, the words looping and repeating and reverberating like litany.  Consider this thoroughgoing rejection of green eggs and ham:
I do not like them in a box.
I do not like them with a fox
I do not like them in a house
I do not like them with a mouse
I do not like them here or there
I do not like them anywhere.
I do not like green eggs and ham.
I do not like them, Sam-I-am.
Years later, I came across another writer who loved litany as much as Dr. Seuss did.  He wrote:
To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing.
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
“Incremental repetition,” one of my college poetry classes taught me to call this.  By whatever name—doggerel or scripture, chant or incremental repetition—I loved it as a kid, and I love it still.  I sometimes do battle with copy editors, who tend to regard repetition as one of the seven deadly sins.  Often they’re right: often it’s unintentional and sloppy.  But sometimes—sometimes—it’s inspired.

Thank God some hidebound, ruthlessly efficient copy editor didn’t strike the repetition from the Book of Ecclesiastes.  Or from Green Eggs and Ham.


  1. Ah, I have to admit I have avoided Dr. Seuss like the plague since I was a little girl. His writing set my teeth (and nerves) on edge. Your comparison of “incremental repetition,” almost, almost has me willing to give the good Dr. another try. Maybe there is "a time" for Dr. Seuss for me, but as an adult and not a child.

    1. Then there are the "thou shalts" and "thou shalt nots" - repetition, but not half so lovely as Ecclesiastes, and not a fraction so fun as Seuss (IMHO)!

  2. It is amazing where our inspirations derive from! No matter the origin, I am so glad inspirations are gifted to us in even the most surprising of moments! Dr. Seuss is very fun to read and I grew up on scripture. I see that a writer at their best has to be well read and Jon Jefferson fits that description! He is one of my most favorite writers!

    A Seuss favorite:

    “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You're on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who'll decide where to go...” Dr. Seuss, 'Oh,the places you will go!'

    I am so happy that Jon Jefferson got inspired, couldn't imagine not having his books to inspire me!

  3. I have been a devote follower of you and Dr. Bass. I had wanted to go into forensics but alas, I have 4 children and I home school them so I live vicariously through your writings (and drive past the body farm often)! I can quote most of Dr. Seuss' work by memory and do often to my children. My oldest (age 10)loves forensics and eats up your novels... perhaps I will get that chance to see the body farm as a guest of my son, not as a cadaver. :) Thank you for my dream world and for inspiring me son and please pass this thank you along to Dr. Bass.