Paying Homage to Sue Grafton with Bevan Atkinson

Bevan Atkinson is a mystery author who has made a huge, and exciting, commitment to the mystery genre.

57 Bevan AtkinsonListen to my interview with Bevan to find out how she was inspired by the great Sue Grafton and how she’s come to model her Tarot mysteries after Grafton’s Alphabet series. Bevan has put an interesting twist on the idea of using an alphabetical structure to guide the process of writing a mystery series.

During our conversation, we even touch on the subject of cults (something I’ve written a memoir about) because Bevan’s third book in this series involves a cult.

You can find out more about today’s guest, Bevan Atkinson, and all her books on her website TheTarotMysteries.com. You can also find her on Facebook.

Links and resources mentioned in this episode

  • Click on any of the book covers to go to Bevan’s books on Amazon

Press play (above) to listen to the show, or read the transcript below. Remember you can also subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts. And listen on Stitcher.

You can also click here to watch the interview on YouTube.

Transcription of Interview with Bevan Atkinson

Alexandra Amor: Hi, mystery readers. I’m Alexandra Amor, and I’m here today with Bevan Atkinson. Hi, Bevan.

Bevan Atkinson: Hi.

Alexandra: How are you today?

Bevan: I’m very well, thank you. How are you doing?

Alexandra: I’m doing well, as well. I mentioned, before we got on the call, I’m just loving your background. For anybody who’s watching on YouTube, they should check that out. And you mentioned it was just sort of put together quickly.

Bevan: I had an old Japanese screen, and I buy silk remnants down at Britex, which is an incredible fabric store here in San Francisco. And I normally make them into scarves, but because the Japanese screen is cat-clawed, I thought I should probably make it a little more scenic.

Alexandra: Well, it’s gorgeous. That’s possibly the most beautiful background we’ve ever had on the show.

Bevan: Well, now I’m thrilled.

Alexandra: Oh, good. Good. So, let me introduce you to our audience.

Bevan AtkinsonBevan Atkinson has been a writer since receiving the Prose Award at Winchester Thurston School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She wrote business documents of all kinds in corporate environments, and was the director of retail training for Apple Computer, designing and developing the training for the most successful retail launch in history.

Ms. Atkinson is a longtime Tarot reader, and after venturing briefly into fiction, writing a children’s book and then an original screenplay, she began the Tarot mystery series in 2006, with “The Fool Card.” And that’s what we’re gonna talk about today.

Her aim is to complete a 22-book series, based on the major arcana of the Tarot, doing for the Tarot what Sue Grafton has done for the alphabet. As an homage to Ms. Grafton, in the first book, one of Xana Bard’s dogs is named Kinsey. Xana is, of course, your protagonist.

You have a really interesting origin story for how this series came to you. I wonder if you could tell our listeners about that. You were driving past Earl Warren Showgrounds in Santa Barbara.

Bevan Atkinson FoolBevan: I had gone to college in Santa Barbara, and a friend of mine married a professor there. And we were close friends, and Hubert passed away. He was significantly older than my friend.

I drove down for the funeral. And I had written this screenplay, and I’d realized after writing this screenplay that I could write fiction, as long as it had an architecture. All the materials I’d written in a business environment had a specific architecture. And screenplays, that architecture is really, really specific. And I read mysteries all the time. I read voraciously. I read everything, but mysteries are a particular favorite.

And when I went past the showgrounds, I was thinking of Sue Grafton and how she writes about Santa Teresa, which is a fictionalized Santa Barbara. At that point, she was about at the letter S. And I thought, you know, she’s going to do it. She’s going to finish the alphabet, and that’s an amazing thing. But it’s kind of self-limiting. What’s she gonna do then?

I thought, you know, I read the Tarot. And there are 78 cards in the Tarot, and if I just do the Major Arcana, there are 22 of those, that’s a great series, and I could do it.

And so all the way home on the drive, this seven-hour drive, I’m thinking, how do I want these books to be? How do I wanna structure them? And so I took as my point of departure that every card would be a book title, and that each card’s meaning would drive and underscore the plot, whether or not that became readily apparent to the reader.

I named the one dog Kinsey, because that’s Sue Grafton’s detective’s name, and I named the other dog Hawk, because, come on. Robert Parker, it’s Hawk. And I dedicated the first book to Hubert.

Alexandra: I noticed that, yeah.

When you’re starting a new book, how do you decide which card to do next?

Bevan: I’m just going in order. The cards are numbered from zero to 21.

Alexandra: Oh, okay.

Bevan: So I’ve done the zero card, one, two, three, four. And I’m writing now the Hierophant card, which is the five card.

Now, you have to understand, among Tarot readers and among Tarot historians, if you wanna call them that, there are widely varying points of view about how the cards are numbered, which Hebrew letter they’re attributable to. Because the Hebrew alphabet has 22 characters, and each character is associated with one of the Major Arcana.

I just plunked myself down and said, these are the ones that make sense to me. And as a reader, that’s what you do. You go through and study, if you are someone who wants to approach the cards that way. But ultimately, you have to make your own decisions about how much of the lore, how much of the esoteric knowledge about them you wanna know.

In my case, I studied quite a bit. And so, you know, by the time I’m done, each spine of the book will have the roman numeral plus zero that’s assigned to a card, and it will also have a Hebrew letter of the alphabet assigned to the card. So, theoretically, you should line my books up right to left, in order, instead of left to right.

Alexandra: Oh, okay. Yeah. How, interesting.

Bevan: Anyway, to start a book, I pull down all of my Tarot books and I go online as well, and I just start capturing information about what a card means.

So the Fool card, he is the zero card. He’s everything, he’s nothing. He’s the God card in that he’s the great ineffable and the unknowable. And when you look at the most commonly-seen image that’s on the Rider-Waite pack, you see this young man with a stick and a scarf wrapped with all of his belongings. He’s a bindlestiff, and he’s about to walk off the edge of a cliff.

And there’s a little dog barking at him, saying, no no no, look where you’re going. And he’s not looking where he’s going. He’s just going to take that step.

In the first book, Xana, whose nickname comes because her little sister couldn’t say Alexandra, she’s Xana, she’s leading a very tucked-in, isolated life. She’s had some hard knocks. And she’s okay with that. She’s just taking a time-out.

Until, literally, the universe rams into her house and says, okay, you’re gonna start something new. And that’s what the Fool card is about. He’s new enterprises that can be a triumph or a debacle. And he’s just that willingness to fling yourself out onto the universe and say, okay, there’s a net here somewhere, and I’m going to believe it’s there.

So the first book is a really fast thing. You’re looking at somebody falling through space, gathering speed. And she just says, okay go. She’s a Tarot reader and she’s learned to trust her intuition and when it says, do it, she does it. She has faith in that. And it’s proven, to her satisfaction, that she made the right decision. Not to anybody else’s particularly. Particularly her mother. Her mother’s not buying it.

Alexandra: Wow. As mothers usually don’t.

Bevan: Well, some mothers are great, but Xana’s is not. Hers is a challenge.

Alexandra: And I noticed in the first chapter of “The Fool Card,” as you say, the universe runs into her house and she really does just embrace the adventure. Like, there’s no real hesitation.

In fact, at the end of the first chapter, I felt like she was really excited. Like, this is gonna be awesome.

Bevan Atkinson MagicianBevan: And she hadn’t been for a while, and she knew it. You know, I’ve had the experience in my own life of saying, okay, whatever’s next, I’m ready. And I’ll know it when I see it. So thank you for being patient, and send it on. Life does that anyway, you don’t have to ask.

I put a Shakespeare quote in every book. Her last name is Bard. And in this first book, the Shakespeare quote is from Hamlet. “The readiness is all.” And to look at Hamlet, and the famous quote, “To be or not to be,” she’s in that state. Am I going to be something, or am I just going to sit? And she says, ok, let’s go. That’s the Fool jumping off the edge of the cliff, saying, I’m in.

Alexandra: I loved that sense of adventure I felt at the very end of the first chapter. And I noticed she must be a mystery fan too. She’s reading Nero Wolfe.

Bevan: Yes.

Alexandra: And you’ve mentioned Robert B. Parker, and Sue Grafton.

Do you think there are any other authors who have influenced these books for you?

Bevan: Oh, countless. Sure. Because there are standard tropes in mysteries. You have the sidekick who’s off. You know, you look at Myron Bolitar and Win. You look at Spenser and Hawk. You look at Bryant and May in the Peculiar Crimes Unit. You look at Poirot and Hastings.

It’s a pretty standard thing to have somebody alongside you who is some form of not necessarily terribly intelligent or a capable reflection. But in this case, the reflection is terribly capable and terribly intelligent. Because she starts out, she’s a little frail. And she’s game, but she’s not necessarily aware of just how much wing power she’s got to lift herself out of where she’s been.

Alexandra: Then do tell us about her sidekick, Thorne Ardall.

Bevan: Well, Thorne Ardall, you know, there’s a joke there in that name. He’s a thorn in everybody’s side, pretty much. He’s off the grid entirely. He’s basically left his background behind to the extent that he’s got no ID. He’s got no mailing address. He’s got no Social Security number anymore that he refers to.

He gets paid in cash, thank you. He transfers that cash into gold, and keeps his gold like Scrooge McDuck in a little bin in a rental unit that he pays cash for. And if you wanna hire this guy, he’s a bodyguard. He’s a very large person, he’s six foot eightish, and 260 or 70 pounds.

My image of him is that he looks like Howie Long with Dennis the Menace’s hair. And he’s just big and quiet and lethal. At one point, he says to Xana, “Everybody’s afraid of me,” and she says, “As they should be.” And he says, “Except you,” and she says, “Yeah.” And she’s not. She just gets him, right away.

And that level of intuitive connection remains through the rest of the books. He’s just steadfast. And she’s not used to that. She’s had a very chequered romantic history. And she’s aware of it and leery. She’s a wounded bird rescuer, and as soon as she gets them up on their feet, they’re gone. And they’re barely grateful. They don’t think that she really did anything for it.

So when she encounters Thorne, it’s so different. You know, she says, “He’s literally wounded.” As opposed to psychologically wounded. He’s been shot by the person who killed his previous boss, and so now she’s got somebody who she has to physically mend, and that just turns out to be the difference that makes all the difference.

Alexandra: Nice. Oh, I love hearing that. And you’re working on a new novel in the series now.

Bevan: That’s right.

Alexandra: I read a blog post from you recently. I wanted to talk about book number three, which is the High Priestess card.

Bevan: Yes.

Alexandra: And that involves someone who comes to Xana and says that her child has been kidnapped by a cult. And some of our listeners may know that I was in a cult for 10 years in the 1990s, and I wrote a book about that experience.

I was just curious about what sort of research you did about cults, and how you wove that into the High Priestess card book.

Bevan: Ah, okay. So, you know, once again, I’m doing research on this. And so when I look at the High Priestess, the progression of the cards…The Fool card is the impetus for action. The Magician is the assembling and mastering of tools to accomplish what you wanna do.

Bevan Atkinson High PriestessBut the High Priestess is the unconscious commitment to doing it. And it’s the mask between our conscious and unconscious selves. So, to seed our unconscious with a desire of some kind…We have to fall in love with an idea in order to be able to pursue it. And the High Priestess is this prelove area, where you’re assessing it at an unconscious level and sifting through things. So there’s that.

But it also speaks to our own sense of connection to…and you know, people think of the Tarot as the gypsies wearing scarves, taking your money and telling you you’re going to take a long voyage on a ship and meet a dark stranger. And in fact, the Tarot is called the Royal Road. It’s your pathway to your own personal spiritual journey.

And to the extent that you use it properly, what you find is your own, unique and utterly valuable to you, connection to that which is indescribable. The ineffable. It hooks you up to whoever or whatever you think of as God. You are forever connected. And you don’t doubt it, and you don’t look to formal religion to figure it out.

So it’s one of the reasons, there are many reasons, but that’s one of the reasons why formal religion has kind of cast the Tarot in an unfavorable light. Because you don’t have to tithe to get a connection to God through something like the Tarot. It’s just a tool to help you get there. We all have the means to do it, with or without the Tarot. But the Tarot offers a specific training ground in order to take you there.

Well, the High Priestess is this subversion, if you invert her. She’s the subversion of that form of exploration. She’s going the wrong way. She’s tied into dogma. She’s tied into credos that are enforced. She’s tied into overruling your better angels that tell you what you should do or should not do, that are moral and immoral. If inverted.

Right side up, she’s the screen you have to pass through to get to that point where you’re connected. But if she’s inverted, she’s blocking you from getting to the true nature of spirituality and connectedness to all the things that exist in the universe. To make you feel part of everything, She makes you feel separate.

And so, what struck me at the same time, was that within my own family, I have a relative who was involved with a church that was not specifically a cult, but it was borderline. And the dogma is exclusionary and unloving. And there’d been a tremendous family upheaval over a death that had occurred because of that church. And I just thought I’m gonna go deal with cults. And it’s the High Priestess card, so it’s gotta be a female-led cult. And so I went out. You know, I was stunned, if there are any female-led cults, I don’t know about them. And so I had to go out and get books.

Alexandra: Mine was.

Bevan: Was yours?

Alexandra: Yeah.

Bevan: Well, so there you go. There’s another one. I’ll have to read your book. It’s a little after the fact but I’ll read it. Maybe your book is one of the ones I read. But in any case, I found a couple.

And there were some major distinctions between male-led cults and female-led cults in terms of what their operating rules were. But the basic one that I saw in the books that I read was that in the male cults, sex is a huge deal, and in the female-led cults, no, no, no. No sex, thank you very much. So, that became a part of the plot in the book.

DeLeon Davies is a recurring character. He’s a friend of Xana’s, of longstanding. And he’s the one who finds Thorne and Xana and says that his daughters been kidnapped by this cult. And that he’s just learned where she is and that she wants to leave but she can’t, because she’ll be found and maybe hurt. And so they head off to get her back.

They do get her back, but there are ramifications after that. DeLeon is one of the favorite characters people name over and over. They all like DeLeon a lot. And he’s based on a real person that I know, who is absolutely the coolest human alive. So it’s fun to write about DeLeon.

Alexandra: That’s amazing. Thank you so much for sharing that about the card and the inversion. That makes so much sense to me. Everything you said. Just based on my own personal experience. I just think that’s such a clever way to approach crafting, then what becomes your story around that theme. I love that.

Why don’t you tell us, then a little bit about the book you’re working on now, and where it falls in the series.

Bevan: So, the series is The Fool card, The Magician card, who assembles his tools. The High Priestess card gets your unconscious connected to the conscious and the two are now integrated. The Empress, which is someone coming to fruition about a desire.

Bevan Atkinson EmperorThe Emperor is the most recent book, and he’s boundaries and masculinity and mastery, and putting perimeters around what you’re going to do so that you can control it. And he’s patriarchy, and he’s foundations, and he’s solidity.

And so of course I threw an earthquake in and cracked the foundation of her house. And in The Emperor, she comes home and finds her long-lost father, whom she thought was already dead, she finds him dead in her backyard. And so we threw paternity and foundation and everything in there. So that’s the fourth book.

The fifth book is the Hierophant, also known as the pope. And this book, the Hebrew letter, again there are arguments about which Hebrew letter it really should be, but my accepted letter for that is the Hebrew letter vav, V-A-V. All Hebrew letters have an actual meaning, like a word meaning. So they’re not just A-B-C. But in English, bee, you know, that’s actually a word, too. That’s a little insect that flies around.

And so, in Hebrew, all the letters have a secondary meaning that’s a word, and vav means the nail. And it stands for the connecting resource. And so the Hierophant’s about your willingness to interconnect with things around you and listen properly. In his headdress he wears these long earflaps to indicate his ears, and he’s listening. And this you listening to your higher self. The pope is a symbol of the higher power within a spiritual pursuit. And so, that willingness to listen and understand your connection to everything around you, that’s huge.

So in this book, I’ve got a character and she’s just put all of her connections into a state of shambles. And she has no idea she’s done it. She’s not listening to herself. She’s not listening to anybody else who might care about her. She has just made a wreck of everything. And she doesn’t think she’s responsible for any of it. So, I’m gonna have fun with her.

Because, I think in each of these books I try to put an underlying source of meaning, and it needs to progress the way the cards progress. Without being belabored. You know, these books are very fast reads. And that’s intentional. They’re intended to go very fast. I don’t want to bog people down with a lot of information about a topic that they’re not really interested in.

But there’s a little bit about the Tarot in every one. There’s a Tarot reading in every one. And I think it’s important to capture some essence of what that card’s about so that Xana learns from it. Because as she says in this book, she learns something from every card reading she does.

And so at the end of the book, typically, she and Thorne are out on their patio, out on their deck looking over at the Pacific Ocean, and they’re talking things over. And you actually hear Thorne talk. Not a huge talker but he actually does speak. And she gets it. So in this book, she’s gonna have to figure out how she can reconnect to more of her life than she’s done so far. Because so far, she’s just got Thorne. And in The Emperor Card she picked up her family, her sisters and her brothers.

Alexandra: Right, okay. And then just one last question before we go. My mom and I are both big mystery readers, and we were talking about Sue Grafton recently because my mom bought the “Y” audiobook.

Bevan: She’s at “Y.” She’s going to do it.

Alexandra: Yeah, exactly. And I was wondering, as a writer, if she ever felt sort of constrained or trapped by that sequence, and staying with that character all through the alphabet. And I’m hoping that you’re going to answer that you still feel interested in Xana and you can imagine that as the books continue and you do these 22, it’ll continue to inspire. And you’ll be excited about writing each one.

Do you hope that’s the case as well?

Bevan Atkinson EmpressBevan: Well I’m pretty confident that’s the case, because each book takes me into a whole new type of research, and I get to add facets to the story that are new. I mean, and they’re so hilarious. You know, my middle name’s Alexandra, so Xana is Alexandra. And in The Emperor Card, I’m telling you, it’s just hilarious to me how this happens, and I’m not unaware of how delightful it is, I called my brother, who’s a gold nut. Because I thought, I’m gonna introduce the subject of gold in “The Emperor Card”.

I asked him for some information, I thought I’d lanced a boil. I mean, he just went off. And I said, “Hang on, I don’t have my keyboard, I can’t type what you’re saying. I just need to understand a little bit about the history of gold mining and gold.” And he gave me some referrals, and then he said, “Well, you wanna go to a gold mine?” And I said, “Well, how would that work?” He said, “Well, I have shares in a gold mine up in Mariposa, you wanna go?” And I said, “When would it be?” He said, “Thursday.”I said, “Yeah. Sure, I wanna go.”

So we went to Mariposa on Thursday, went to this gold mine. And I meet the chief geologist, and her name is Alexandria. And I meet the site manager, and his name is Brian Alexander.

Alexandra: That’s amazing.

Bevan: And you just say, yeah okay, good. I’m glad I showed up for this. So that idea every book has these wonderful surprises for me, and when I introduce a new character into them, because it’s always a new person who wants a card reading, that’s what keeps things interesting. And what is this person’s issue? Why did they show up for a card reading?

Because typically they show up and they’re afraid. They haven’t had a reading before. They don’t know what’s in store for them. They don’t know if they really want this card reader invited into their lives. They’re afraid of what they’re gonna be told, and they’re afraid they won’t hear anything useful.

And they’re asking about matters of some importance. You know, family, and health, and friends, and love, and their job. And they’re so stuck, or they wouldn’t be doing this desperate thing. They really don’t know what to expect or who to trust. That’s always gonna be a factor in every one of the books. Why doesn’t this person trust her yet? And what is it about the cards that’s got them intrigued, but intimidated. You know. That’s always going to be interesting.

Alexandra: Yes. Oh, I think that’s an amazing avenue into a mystery, every time. That’s fantastic.

Bevan: Every time. And you know, the architecture, there I was worried about writing fiction to an architecture, and a mystery architecture, even I can handle that. Somebody dies, else somebody has to figure it out. Yeah.

Alexandra: Yeah. Exactly. Exactly.

Bevan: That’s doable.

Alexandra: Well, this has been amazing, Bevan. Thank you so much for chatting with me. So, why don’t you let our listeners know where they can find out more about you and your books?

Bevan: Well really it has been an honor and a privilege to spend time with you. Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.

Alexandra: My pleasure.

Bevan: And so, the website is thetarotmysteries.com, and there is a Tarot Times blog that people can subscribe for. And if they sign up for that, they get the first e-book free. So they get ‘The Fool Card” for free, if they sign up for the Tarot Times blog. Bevan Atkinson has a Facebook page and a Twitter account. And you can buys the books at your local bookstore, and you can buy them on Amazon, and Barnes & Noble online if you like, in e-book or in trade paperback format.

Alexandra: Fabulous.

Bevan: And… What else do you need?

Alexandra: That’s it. No, that’s fantastic. I’m so happy to hear that. I’ll put links in the show notes to some of the things you’ve mentioned, including your website and your Twitter account and all that kind of stuff.

Bevan: Thank you so much.

Alexandra: You’re welcome. Well, thanks again, Bevan. It’s been great chatting with you.

Bevan: My pleasure.

Alexandra: Take care. Bye bye.

Bevan: You too. Bye.

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