Thursday, December 4, 2008
Interview with mystery author J.A. Jance by Vivian Zabel
I’ve had the honor and privilege of meeting author J.A. Jance, first through her books, through e-mails, and then in person at OWFI (Oklahoma Writers Federation, Inc.) Conference in 2008. Not only is she a talented mystery writer, but she is a lovely person.
She was kind enough to answer a few questions, and I feel as if I’m sitting across a table from her drinking a mug of tea as we visit.
How did/does your history and home background affect your writing?
An editor, a short-lived editor, once told me, “The problem with your books is that all your characters do things because of the way they were raised.” I kept waiting to hear what the problem was with that because it’s true for all of us. All of us, fictional characters or not, do what we do because of how we were raised. In some instances, we fight against it. In other instances we embrace it. I came from a loving family where reading was an important activity.
Tell us something about your educational background that has made you a better, or more caring, writer.
When I was a sophomore in high school, my Latin teacher, Mr. Guerra, wrote on the top of an essay I wrote about Servius Tullius, one of the five kings of Rome, “A+, Research worthy of a college student.” That was the first time I had any inkling that maybe I was smart enough to go on to college, and it’s no accident that one of my books is dedicated to Richard Guerra.
Please fill us in on your hobbies, interests, or activities you participate in during your leisure time. *laugh* If you have any.
I’m a bad but nonetheless enthusiastic golfer. Make that fair-weather golfer. And I still love to read.
Authors are often asked when they started writing or what triggered their interest in writing. I like to know that, also, but I would especially like to know what keeps you writing.
I wanted to be a writer from the time I read the Wizard of Oz books in Mrs. Spangler’s second grade classroom in Bisbee, Arizona. A lot of people who “want” to be writers aren’t so much interested in doing the “work” of being a writer—of meeting deadlines; of going on book tours; of sending out 7000 notices in advance of a book coming out. Writing is WORK. But what keeps me writing is knowing I have fans all over the world who use my books as a way to have fun and as a way to get through tough times
You have so many projects going all the time; how do you manage?
I’m usually writing one book, editing another, and promoting a third. Those are three very different tasks and that I can do. I don’t try to write more than one book at a time. That would drive me nuts.
What is your most recent book, and what inspired you to write it?
I think we all assume that what we do or say in the privacy of our computers is private. Just this week someone reached into my computer—without benefit of a download or permission and messed up my mail programs. Cruel Intent grows out of that same kind of thing. There are predators wandering around on the Internet, and they don’t have our best interests at heart.
How did you manage to come up with the ideas for your series, which now numbers three, correct? What would you care to share about any of your books? (By the way, I own almost every book you’ve written except the last two)
Four actually. Ali Reynolds, J. P. Beaumont, Joanna Brady, and the Walker Family. I started with Beaumont. After writing 9 books about him, I was getting ready to knock him off. My editor suggested that I give him a rest instead. That’s when I wrote the first Walker book and also my first hardback, Hour of the Hunter. When I went back to write about Beau again, it was also fun again. Then they suggested I have another series. Up popped Joanna.
The Beaumont books are police procedurals written in the first person through the eyes of a middle-aged homicide cop. The Joanna books are third person, female point of view. The Beau books are set in the Pacific Northwest where I live now. Joanna lives and works in southeastern Arizona where I grew up. For Beau’s background I used what I learned during my first marriage to a man who ultimately died of chronic alcoholism. For Joanna I used what I learned being a woman in a “man’s job” (insurance sales) and also being a single mother.
The thrillers are set on the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation where I taught school for a number of years. The Ali Reynolds books are about a middle-aged woman forced by circumstance to rethink her life and start over in a new direction. Been there, done that, too.
(Ooops, I forgot the Walker family, but I’ve read those books, too. *shiver* J.A. gets into her characters almost too well.)
Do you have a particular writing process or technique that you use, if so, what?
I start at the beginning and write to the end. Because I write murder mysteries, I usually start with the murder. Then I spend the rest of the book trying to figure out who did it and how come. I do NOT outline. I know lots of writers who do, but for me, personally, it doesn’t work. I count the words every day. My books are supposed to be around 100,000 words long. By counting the words, I know how many I’ve used and how many I have left before I need to finish telling the story—to me as much as to my readers.
(Knowing I’m not the only writer who does not outline makes me feel better.)
How do you feel when you complete a book?
I feel GREAT!! Starting a book? Not so much.
What are your writing achievements and goals?
My goal is to keep writing as long as I physically and mentally able. I want to be P.D. James when I grow up, and I hope, like her, I’m still writing at age 88.
Do you or have you participated in writing groups, and if so, what help have they been?
I was a single mother when I started writing. A single mother with two kids, no child support, and a full time job selling life insurance. My writing time was between 4 AM and 7 AM when I got the kids up to get ready for school. There were no writers groups that met during those hours, so I didn’t participate in any. I have, however, participated in numerous writers’ conferences. As a college junior, I wasn’t allowed in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Arizona because I was a “girl.” (It’s no accident that the crazed killer in my first thriller is a former professor of Creative Writing from the University of Arizona.) I participate in the conferences because they constitute a back door to the world of writing to many folks who had the front door of writing slammed shut in their faces.
Does writing help better you as a person? How?
It’s a self-starting job. I’m more focused and more motivated by doing this job, one I love, than I would be if I were doing anything else.
What advice would you have for a new author?
When I bought my first computer, the guy who installed my word processing program fixed it so that when I booted up, these were the words that flashed across the screen: A writer is someone who has written today. Those were encouraging words that kept me motivated when I was a beginning writer, and they do the same thing for me today. And today, by the way, I do qualify. Answering e-mail interviews is part of the “work” of being a writer.
Thank you, J.A., for answering my e-mail questions. I know that for you to take time to help another person, by answering questions you’ve probably answered dozens of times before, is a kindness.
J.A. Jance's newest book is Cruel Intent, a Ali Reynolds novel.
Interviewed by Vivian Zabel
Brain Cells & Bubble Wrap