Claire Hamner Matturro interviews Sarah Bewley, author of “Burning Eden”

Claire Matturro

Claire Hamner Matturro: Thank you, Sarah, for taking some time out from your busy and creative time to chat a bit with Southern Literary Review about your debut novel, Burning Eden, and other things too. It’s been a long time since you and I met in Gainesville, FL at a writing conference in which you were both a program coordinator and member of the faculty. At that time, you were a playwright and freelance writer. But now you’ve switched literary hats and have just seen your first police procedural novel published. In Burning Eden, while a wildfire rages, bodies turn up with twisted broken necks and strange Old Testament quotes, and a respected minister goes missing as an overwhelmed sheriff races against smoke and flames to find answers before someone else dies.

What a grand debut you have written! Your setting—North Florida—and your characters are so vividly described, the plot has its nuances and twists, and then it concludes with a big, edge-of-your-seat climax. There are so many things I enjoyed—and respected—in the story, including the well-paced plot, but especially the strong sense of place and the characters. Eden is fictional, yet as a former North Florida resident myself, I swear I recognize it. You live in Gainesville, so might you take a moment to discuss Eden, what inspired you to create this place, in what ways you drew from existing landscapes and perhaps from your own experiences as a Florida resident.

Sarah Bewley: Thank you for the kind words about Burning Eden, Claire.

I knew I wanted to place the book in North Florida. I’ve lived in Gainesville since the Seventies. I am a born and bred Southerner, and North Florida is very Southern. I knew when I started the book I wanted to capture a lot of things about the South that I grew up with and love. This part of Florida is beautiful – rivers, cold springs, forests and wildlife, and not heavily populated. I took qualities from several counties and created my own county – Eden. In 1883 there was a book written by Carl Webber about Alachua County called Eden of the South, so it seemed natural to use Eden, and also have it play against the reality of a very Southern, poverty-stricken area as well. Creating a fictional county allowed me to play with all the various facets of the North Florida landscape, anchoring it into place with Alachua County so it seemed very real.

 CHM: And, now, of course, the obvious question. Why the change from writing plays to writing a novel? And why a mystery/police procedural?

SB: I’d always thought about writing a book. There were stories I wanted to tell that I didn’t think would work as a play. I read all kinds of books, and I love mysteries and mostly read police procedurals. They’re my favorites. So it seemed a natural way to go in terms of writing a book.

Plus you can have a lot more characters in a book than you can in a play. The costs have to be considered when you’re talking about theater—hiring actors, and sets, and sound, all the technical aspects.

In a book I can take a reader to places that I can’t go on stage. At least not as effectively as I can in a book.

 CHM: Why set this story in the 1990s?

 SB: There were actual wildfires in 1998 in North Florida. This region, and areas of central Florida, were just blanketed in smoke. Small towns were evacuated. Homes and farms were lost to the flames. When I started writing the book, I didn’t even think about changing the time period. I had lived through those fires here in Alachua County, and gone for weeks where you could not see the sun. It was just a hazy red ball behind the smoke. So I think I didn’t consciously consider changing the time period.

Then as I was writing, I realized that the 1990s were the last time that cell phones weren’t common. We were just beginning to experience the internet, and computers in our homes. I still had dial-up access in the mid-1990s!

I liked the feel of that time, and it would allow me to move the stories through a period of great change in terms of our connection to the wider world. I liked the idea of working with that and this rural county setting. So I stayed there.

 CHM: While I am no police or sheriff authority of any kind, my brother has a long, distinguished career in law enforcement, and when I decided to write a police procedural, he was there with me, step by step. While that experience, and my claim to have read nearly every Harry Bosch novel Michael Connelly wrote, does not make me an expert, your police procedural seems very authentic—especially for an overwhelmed, understaffed sheriff’s department in a mostly rural county. Do you have a background in law enforcement? Or did you have experts who helped you with the step-by-step portions of the investigation?

Sarah Bewley

SB: My “unofficially adopted” daughter’s boyfriend is a former Gainesville Police Officer. He sat down with me and walked me through the structure of a County Sheriff’s office as it would be in Florida. He also talked about procedures for investigations, and how rural areas have to use state resources because they can’t afford their own laboratories or forensic staffs. I was incredibly fortunate to have him as a resource.

I think that and a lifetime of watching police shows and reading police procedurals pretty well informed me of the differences between fact and fiction. I was able to be pretty factual, but fudge a little without being entirely wrong.

 CHM: Sheriff Jim Sheppard is a jewel of a character, a man of principle, strength, and compassion, with the occasional tinge of self-pity and doubt which totally humanizes him. A widower raising a teenage son, he is best described by another character as “kind.” He is also quickly overwhelmed by what appears to be a serial killer in his county, and readers learn he is really a rather reluctant sheriff. Congratulations on avoiding all the Southern rural sheriff cliches! No pot belly and nothing approaching “You’re in a heap of trouble, son.” Instead, you have created a sympathetic, and compelling character with Sheriff Jim Sheppard. Is he inspired by an actual person or made-up out of whole cloth, or a bit of both?

SB: Jim Sheppard isn’t based on anyone. Because I always wrote plays, I cast my characters in my head so I have a voice I can hear. So yes, he has a particular voice – but that’s the only “real” part of Jim. Otherwise he’s created out of my head. I loved the idea of someone who never really wanted to be Sheriff being the Sheriff. I wanted him to be someone who finds himself in a situation where he feels overwhelmed and under-qualified, and the best way to make that true was to have him be someone who’d never really wanted the job.

Being a fourth generation Sheriff certainly gives him an understanding of what the job is, and he’s an intelligent man. It’s because of his intelligence that he feels under-qualified. He’s faced with a complicated crime, and no real experience at solving something involving a series of murders.

So many times the protagonist of a mystery only has weaknesses that relate to his personal life. I enjoyed turning that on its head. Jim is a great father and a good man—he’s just not sure he’s that good at law enforcement.

 CHM: Your second main character, Dr. Ryan Edwards, is a doctor who suffers from aphasia because of a brain injury. While he was once a well-respected ER physician in a big city, the aphasia leads him to seek a quieter professional life and he ends up working with an Eden County doctor in a small town/rural private practice. The friendship that develops naturally between Dr. Edwards and Sheriff Sheppard is a rewarding part of the story. Both men are widowers. Both are good, solid, ethical men. Both are around the same age. And Dr. Edwards is learning the kind of soul—deep empathy that Sheppard seems to have been born with. Where does Dr. Edwards come from as a character?

SB: I like the “fish out of water” character. Coming into an area that is alien, and trying to figure out how to be a part of it is intriguing. Ryan Edwards previously existed in a world that he was born to – elite, highly educated, and he starred in his role as an ER physician. It was fast-paced, demanding, and critical. Then suddenly he could no longer perform.

The offer of the job in a rural physician’s office allows him to practice medicine. It will use the skills he has, but also provide the assistance he needs to see patients and communicate with them.

So he finds himself going from living in Washington, D.C. to living in Warren, Florida. Absolutely everything is different. The patients are farmers and day laborers, and he can rent an apartment for $200 a month, utilities included. To top it all off, the county is literally on fire all around him.

Plus he’s gone through a terrible trauma. His wife has died. He’s lost his ability to speak fluently, and he’s been left with a dog who doesn’t really seem to like him very much. He’s having to rebuild himself, and his goals in that rebuilding are making him a different man than he was before.

CHM: The third main character is Sergeant Dee Jackson, a no-nonsense, ambitious Black female officer. The sheriff—and other deputies—respect her and even fear her a bit. She joined the Marines after being a track star in high school and served in the military police in Desert Storm. Tall, thin, and strong, a woman who does not take guff off anyone, she also shows her tender side in rescuing an abused dog. She steadfastly rejects the sheriff’s offer to promote her to captain as she plans to finish her Master’s Degree, with the long-range plan of being the first Black female sheriff in Florida. Is she inspired by a particular person, or a composite, or wholly created from your imagination?

SB: I love Dee Jackson. She’s smart, competent, and self-assured.

I met a Deputy Sheriff at the Writer’s Police Academy, a workshop that brought in actual law enforcement, fire, EMTs, DEA, and other officers to teach writers what they do and how they do it.

This Black woman deputy just blew me away with her strength and self-assurance. There was no doubt in my mind that she was an equal to anyone in the Sheriff’s Department. I took a self-defense class with her and had the opportunity to get to know her philosophy to some degree. When talking to us about self-defense, she spoke about being abducted by someone with a gun. She said that in those cases, “You must choose where you want to die.” If you get in a vehicle with a man with a gun, your body might never be found. Your family would never know what had happened to you. But if you refused to cooperate, you might be shot right there and then. But if you choose to die there—your body will be found and your family will have the opportunity to bury you.

That idea had never occurred to me, but it defined something about her that I wanted to make a part of my book. So Dee Jackson was born out of that experience. She really is the only character who has any basis in a real person.

CHM: Where Sheriff Sheppard has a teenage son to raise, Dr. Edwards has a big dog named Bonehead. The dog is a delight and steals a few scenes. On your Facebook page, you have a photo of a large dog. I can’t help but wonder if that dog is the inspiration for Bonehead. Might you tell us a bit about your dog and how she or he compares with Bonehead?

SB: The big dog on my Facebook page is Rosie. Rosie was pure mutt, but she was the perfect dog for me. She never barked. She did talk to you sometimes. She could stare you awake. She loved long walks, wasabi peas, and hated rain or standing water. Bonehead is to some degree based on Rosie. Bonehead is red and large, only barks when there’s danger, and has very expressive eyes. Where they differ is Bonehead is a purebred Golden Retriever, not always well behaved, and has a passion for tennis balls.

Apparently I can’t write a book without having a dog in it. Besides, he gave Ryan someone to talk to before he got to know Jim.

CHM: Sarah, you are a busy woman. I am going to quote from your website: “In early 2022, I realized that working full-time and writing a book was not in my best interest, so I am in semi-retirement, working half-time at a city job and also doing HR work at The Knot Climbing Gym in Gainesville, and writing.” From Facebook, I know you do some rock climbing and boxing. Can you tell your readers how you make time to write and what your writing routine is—if you have one, that is. Morning writer? Evening writer? Write when you can writer? Do you outline?

SB: My writing routine is probably unusual. I don’t write at a particular time, nor do I have a word “limit” I want to hit each day or each week. Because I worked full-time for decades when I was writing plays, I learned to work on stories in my head. I listen to the characters talking to each other while I was running (I used to run marathons before I took up rock climbing and boxing). I would mull over plot points in the shower. I wrote at night and on weekends.

Now that I work half-time, I generally write in the afternoon. I love having the time to sit down at my computer for several hours and just write. That’s a luxury! I still write on weekends, but usually only on Saturday. Sunday is my climbing day.

I am a committed pantser. I have never outlined anything in my life. In school I would write my papers and then write the required outline. I start at the beginning and I write until I hit the end. Sometimes this means I sit and stare at the page for the thirty minutes or more. Then I just start writing. When things are going well, things just happen that work. I will find my characters doing something or saying something that leads to the next, and the next, and the next. Everything falls into place. When things aren’t going well, I write a chapter and then the next day delete it and start over.

Once I have a full draft, then I just keep reading it and refining it. Often things change dramatically in the refining process. I’ll read something that doesn’t work and have to rework all the chapters after that to make it into something that feels right.

I plan the start in my head, but I don’t plan the endings. I let the ending come out of what is happening on the page. I am convinced that most of my writing is subconscious…that things are going on in my head all the time, and when I do sit down to write, when it’s ready to be written, it is there.

CHM: You have a three-book contract with Level Best Books to write a mystery series set in a fictional North Florida county. Burning Eden is the first book of the series with Frozen Eden due in Spring of 2024. Can you give us a peek inside Frozen Eden? Will we see Sheriff Sheppard, Sergeant Dee Jackson, and Dr. Edwards—and Bonehead—again? And what, if anything, might you share about the third proposed book?

SB: I am really enjoying the process of writing Frozen Eden. Jim, Ryan, and Dee are very much involved in this story. There’s also more of Michael, Jim’s son.

Jim Sheppard and Dee Jackson find Bailey Braden in a Department of Transportation shed off Highway 27. He’s kneeling with the body of a dead black woman lying on the concrete. He’s hypothermic because of the freeze that has closed the interstates at the Georgia state line. The young woman has been shot in the head.

Jim takes Bailey into Warren to get treatment from Ryan Edwards. Dee takes on the investigation because Bailey Braden is Michael’s childhood best friend. Jim’s personal connection to Bailey makes it improper for him to investigate the murder.

The third book is Drowning Eden and takes place during a hurricane. I don’t honestly know a whole lot more than that right now.

 CHM: Back to Dee Jackson. She’s Black. And a White deputy from an adjoining county expresses a romantic interest in her. He begins to woo her with a black dog that he rescues from a shelter. The scene where Sgt. Jackson and the dog quickly bond is one of the sweetest moments in the book. Gossip immediately flames through the town about the potential Black/White romantic relationship. You leave it all unresolved even as Sgt. Jackson plays a pivotal role in the climax. But will your readers see these characters and their potential romance again in Frozen Eden? I certainly hope so.

SB: Oh yes. Timothy Mackey is still wooing Dee Jackson. They have a relationship in Frozen Eden. It takes place in 2001.

 CHM: Sarah, thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions and to share your thoughts and insights. I can’t wait to read Frozen Eden, and I hope to see some familiar characters in that next book of the series.

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