Dr. Betty Jean Craige is University Professor Emerita of Comparative Literature and Director Emerita of the Willson Center for Humanities and Arts at UGA. She has published more than twenty books, including, most recently, Conversations with Cosmo: At Home with an African Grey Parrot, three Witherston Murder Mysteries, and a crime fiction novel titled Aldo. When we spoke, Betty Jean had just been recognized for Fairfield’s Auction with a First Place in “Mystery and Mayhem” at the 2018 Chanticleer International Book Awards. Betty Jean grew up in El Paso, Texas, and went to Pomona College and the University of Washington. She has lived in Athens since 1973. She likes to travel, cook, and write. She recently served as president of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UGA. Betty Jean lives on the Eastside with her 16 year-old African Gray parrot Cosmo.
What inspired you or led you to your career in Comparative Literature?
I liked to read when I was young, and I liked to write. Having grown up in El Paso I don’t remember a time when I didn’t speak some Spanish. I majored in Spanish literature at Pomona College and then went to graduate school at the University of Washington to get a PhD in Spanish literature. But I found comparative literature there much more interesting, so I got a Phd in Comparative Literature instead. I have translated Spanish poetry, but I haven’t really written a lot about literature. I have written more about history of ideas, politics, and art. I wrote a biography of the ecologist Gene Odum, a memoir about life with my African Grey Parrot called Conversations with Cosmo, and now fiction, because somewhere along the line I realized that life was short and I couldn’t just wait until retirement to write what I wanted to write. Being in the discipline of comparative literature allowed me the freedom to write all kinds of books. So I did.
If you could travel anywhere in the world right now, where would it be and why?
The Mediterranean countries—Spain, France, and Italy, which I visit often. I have a dear friend, Alvar Suñol, who is an artist in Catalonia [Spain]. A friend of mine and I will visit him in the fall. My living room is full of his paintings, lithographs and sculptures.
What advice do you like to give?
Well, I actually don’t like to give advice, but I would say to young people: Life is short, so figure out what you want to do with the time that you have, and do it as well as you can. The other little piece of advice that I would give young people is: Develop a life-long wholesome obsession. For instance, start collecting something–because then you will always be on the hunt.
What is your favorite thing to do in Athens?
Cook, entertain, have dinner parties for friends. And, when alone, write novels.
What is something interesting that most people don’t know about you?
I have been writing mysteries since I retired. I retired in 2011, after which I wrote a column called “Cosmo Talks” in the Athens Banner-Herald. When the Banner-Herald discontinued the column, my friend Terry Kay, who is a marvelous novelist, told me to write fiction. I had always read mysteries, so I started writing a series called the Witherston Murder Mysteries. They are set in north Georgia above Dahlonega. I try to embed the fictitious stories in history so that in solving the mystery the reader learns about north Georgia’s past, moonshiners, the Cherokees who occupied the land for a thousand years, and other characteristics of life in the southern Appalachian mountains. I have published four novels. Three are in the Witherston series, and the fourth is an academic suspense thriller titled Aldo. I have just finished a fourth Witherston murder mystery, which will come out in a year or so.
Tell us more about Cosmo!
Cosmo is a Congo African Grey Parrot who lives with me. I consider her a feathery little person, for she is highly intelligent, talkative, intentionally funny, and full of thoughts and feelings like mine. I got her in May of 2002 when she was six months old and ready to learn language. In Africa, Grey Parrot babies stay with their families for a year learning their particular chirp, the family chirp. With digital recording equipment scientists have discovered that different African Grey families have different accents, as do different flocks of Greys. From the day Cosmo arrived I spoke with her as if she could understand me. I said “Cosmo is a good bird,” “I love you,” “Cosmo wanna peanut?,” “Cosmo wanna shower?,” “Telephone for Betty Jean,” “We’ve got company,” and so forth. Cosmo began speaking intelligently when she was a year old. Her first word was “bird.” Her first joke was, “Telephone for bird!” Cosmo says “I love you” to me, but not to anybody else. And she often says: “Cosmo wanna cuddle.” Cosmo likes to cuddle a lot. One evening she asked me, “Where Betty Jean gonna go?” I answered, “Betty Jean gonna go in a car.” When I got home she said, “Cosmo wanna go in a car!” The next day I got a parakeet cage for her to use in the car, and she loved it. Now she gets to have dinner regularly with Margaret and Wyatt Anderson, who always invite her.
How many words do you think she has in her vocabulary?
More than 165. A graduate student in the Psychology Department who did her Master’s thesis and part of her PhD dissertation on Cosmo recorded a 165 distinct words.
What three words or phrases come to mind when you think of the word home?
Cosmo, woods and Athens.