It took a while for Judy “JA” Jance to be able to fully pursue her ambition to become a writer, but boy when she did she made the most of it. Since publishing “Until Proven Guilty” in 1985 she has become one of the most successful and prolific authors in the world. She produces four – yes, four! – different mystery series featuring a collection of very different but equally engaging characters: J.P. Beaumont, Joanna Brady, Ali Reynolds and the husband and wife team of Brandon Walker and Dianna Ladd. Her newest book “Field of Bones,” is her 56th novel, and she already has one more in the can and another she is working on. Somehow she found time recently to share some insight with me about her work, the state of the publishing industry for women and how she handles rejection.
Open Mic: You just published your 56th novel, “Field of Bones.” Tell me a bit about it.
Jance: I’d say it’s a Joanna Brady novel once removed. The book starts on election night. She is running for her third term as sheriff of Cochise County in Southeastern Arizona and she and her family and campaign workers are at an election night gathering. Joanna is pregnant with her third child, and the baby decides to arrive prematurely. So for most of this book while the crime is being solved, Joanna is sidelined on maternity leave. But as sheriff she is also an administrator, so she has to bring her staff along and develop people and she’s taken a guy who was once her jail commander, Tom Hadlock, and turned him into her police deputy. So this is the first time Tom Hadlock has really had to stand on his own two feet, and he’s the one essentially in charge of the investigation into a serial homicide.
Open Mic: The new book is the 18th in the Joanna Brady series. You also write long running series featuring your characters Ali Reynolds and J.P Beaumont. How much do those characters reflect a portion of yourself, if at all?
Jance: A lot. Certainly when a mother speaks, as when Beaumont is referring to things his mother said or when Joanna is talking about her mother Eleonore Winfield. When I’m writing these characters I am often hearing my own mother’s voice. Joanna Brady is the last parent standing in her family, and Eleanor was the last parent standing in her family. Joanna was a teenager when her father died. I’m the last parent standing in my family, or at least I was for a very long time until I married my second husband, the good one. My first husband died when my children were very young and what often happens is the parent who is dead is instantly elevated to saint-like status while the parent left standing – the one who says you have to do the dishes, take out the garbage, clean your room, do your homework – that parent becomes the source of all evil. That is certainly reflected in Joanna’s life and in her relationship with her mother.
So there are things like that. My first husband died of chronic alcoholism at age 42, a year and a half after I divorced him. I wasn’t allowed in the creative writing program at the University of Arizona in 1964 because, as the professor told me, “you’re a girl.” However, I was smart enough to figure you need to write what you know so when I started writing the Beaumont stories he did the kind of drinking that I had lived with for 13 years of my life. Four books into the series a lady came to a book signing and she says “you know, Beau drinks every day and it’s starting to interfere with his work. Does J.P. Beaumont have a problem?” And I said, you know, six other people on the tour asked me the same question and I finally realized that I had written it in that way completely subconsciously. I was the last person to notice Beau had a problem. That’s how eventually he becomes sober several books later and he has now been sober for way more books than he was drinking. I still have some fans who tell me they liked him better when he was drunk. I worry about them but I’ve also heard from lots of people who have told me that Beau’s difficulties help them sort out their own difficulties with booze. That’s kind of amazing to me, but believe me it has happened more than once.
Open Mic: As I recall, that professor who kept you out of the writing program also said women should be nurses or teachers and not writers, correct?
Jance: Yes, and the thing about that is you should be careful about making mystery writers mad because in the first Walker Family book, “Hour of the Hunter,“ the crazed killer turned out to be a former professor of creative writing from the University of Arizona.
Open Mic: Literary revenge!
Jance: Don’t get mad, get even.
Open Mic: Of course we are now in the #MeToo era. How has the publishing environment changed over the last few decades for women? Clearly there are many extremely successful female authors, but I think anyone would tell you that maybe the playing field hasn’t always been level. What do you think about how it is now?
Jance: Well, it isn’t level now. I’m currently working on my 58th book, many of which have hit the New York Times best seller list. But do you know how many times I’ve been reviewed in the New York Times book review?
Open Mic: I’m going to guess not many.
Jance: Once, back when I was still writing original paperback mysteries. I can still remember the snarky review verbatim. “J.A. Jance has created a nice little cottage industry for herself writing her funny little mysteries.” So in that regard not much has changed. There are a lot more female editors at this point than there used to be and I enjoy working with them. I think there are a lot more women who are power brokers in publishing than there were then, but some things haven’t changed.
Open Mic: You’ve noted that you use your initials because your publisher thought it would be better if readers didn’t know you were a woman writing a male character. We’ve seen similar debates in recent years over men writing female characters or white people writing characters of color. I asked how much of your characters might reflect some of you personally. In contrast, how do you approach writing characters with whom you don’t share much in common?
Jance: Well, that’s certainly true for Latisha in “Field of Bones.” Latisha is a young black woman from St. Louis who is rebelling against her parents and ends up running away with her boyfriend, who turns out to be a pimp. She ends up being kidnapped by a sexual predator who has a collection of girls he keeps stowed in the basement of an abandoned jail in an Arizona ghost town. Working my way through Latisha’s background story was challenging, but I think I’ve done it in a believable way. She ends up going to school in a place where I’ve never been physically, a university in a suburb of St. Louis. I’ve heard from lots of people who live in the university who tell me I got it just right. In the Walker books I write about the Tohono O’odham people, where I worked on the reservation for a number of years. I’m not Tohono O’odham and I don’t pretend to be. I’m not African American and I don’t pretend to be. I’ve also never been a cop, but what I do when I sit down to write a book is try to place myself inside those people’s souls and write the story from that point of view. My cops are cops but they’re people first and foremost.
Open Mic: You’ve been very open about the hurdle your first marriage presented to your career. But while you got a relatively late start, you’ve been incredibly prolific since. What drives you to keep producing two books a year?
Jance: I happen to have two separate publishers. The Ali books come from Simon and Schuster and the other three sets of books come from Harper Collins. And both publishers want to have a book a year. So that’s the real answer to that question, but the answer I like to give to that question is in our family I write the books and my husband writes the checks, and he can write the checks at a rate of two books a year. But the reason I can write two books a year is he handles all the business end of the business. He’s the one who keeps all the bills paid, makes sure the taxes are paid on time and handles all the accounting stuff. If I had to do that and write books as well, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do. But the other thing about it is, from the moment I read the Wizard of Oz in second grade and realized that a living breathing person put those words on the pages I knew what I wanted to be what I wanted to do. And I was one of those incredibly lucky people in life who gets to live her dream and that really is what drives me. I’m still living my dream and I still love my dream.
Open Mic: You’re first book effort was a nonfiction story about a serial murderer of whom you almost became a victim, and then helped to send to prison. That book was not published, but what did you take away from that experience that has helped you in the years since?
Jance: For a long while I wore a loaded weapon. It was a revolver and I fired all six shots once at a rapidly retreating rattlesnake who was still laughing when he went up over the wall with fear. I figured a killer would present a larger target and I was fully motivated. I think that’s part of what makes it possible for me to write police procedurals, because once you make the decision that it’s going to be him or me and by god it’s going to be him, you have toggled a switch in your soul and you can’t un-ring that bell. I think that’s part of why I can write police procedurals the way I do.
Open Mic: I ask writers a lot about rejection because it is such a common thing for creative people to experience. How do you handle rejection now, and how has it changed for you over the years?
Jance: With that first manuscript I went to a woman in Seattle who taught writing and I hired her to read it. She said she wouldn’t read it or refer me to an agent or an editor unless she thought the manuscript had promise. Well, she referred me to both an agent and an editor. I sent the manuscript to the editor and he returned it by return mail – I don’t think he even opened the package. I took the manuscript to the women she recommended as an agent, who told me to cut the manuscript in half. She was also the one who submitted it from there. I never saw those rejection letters, she saw them. She did not sell that first book but she still is my agent and has sold every book since. If their agent doesn’t sell their first book, I think a lot of people fire the agent and keep the manuscript. I did the opposite, I fired the manuscript and kept the agent, and she is still my agent to this day.
My worst ever case of rejection happened when I wrote the second Walker book, “Kiss of the Bees.” My original publisher was interested but they didn’t want me to have three different series, so they took “Hour of the Hunter” as a standalone. They had first rights of refusal, and when they finished I sold it to someone else at another publishing house. I live in Seattle, I am pretty far removed from what’s going on in the insular world of publishing in New York. So I was unaware that there was a big shakeup coming and that my original publishing houses were about to go under. So what happened is this editor swooped in and said they would buy “Kiss of the Bees” and the second Walker book. So I wrote it and I submitted it. And only then that publishing house got gobbled up by Harper Collins. Well I submitted the manuscript and did the editorial requirements she said I needed to do and sent it back. We were in a situation where that delivery and the acceptance check was going to be what carried us over through the end of the year. So what happened instead was she called me up and said it was a terrible book, that I hadn’t done what she said I needed to do and they wanted their money back. Not only were they not going to pay me, they wanted their money back! Well, I called the publisher and I said clearly I have an editor who doesn’t like this book, could you give me a different editor? And he said to me on the phone, “My dear, you couldn’t write your way out of a paper bag. We’re cancelling that contract and we want our money back.”
My husband had gone out with his friends to play golf, and when he came home and I was in bed under the covers. What I didn’t know was that editor, who knew full well that Avon books was going to go bye-bye, came in thinking that if they bought that one book they would end up with my whole book business. When Harper bought that publishing house and saw they wouldn’t get everything, they wanted out of the contract. If they had just told me it was a business decision, if they had told me it was a bad deal for them then that would have been entirely understandable. But that publisher attacked me where I live. Those were the most insulting words I ever heard. That was my worst case of rejection ever and it took months to get over it. It also took $30,000 worth of attorney’s fees to get that book back, but I sold it to Harper Collins. It went to my editor and I thought, ‘okay this is a terrible book so I need to do whatever corrections they need so I can move on to the next book.’ And my editor kept saying “don’t worry about it, it’s fine.” It turns out that the corrections I had made had fixed that book and eventually my editor said they were going to send it directly to production. That happened to me again two weeks ago when my editor said the same thing about “The A List.” So I don’t have a lot of experience with rejection but that one experience was really devastating at the time.
Open Mic: You talk to writers a lot at conferences and other events. What is the question you get hit with the most often?
Jance: The most annoying question is “how do you get your ideas?” Which makes it sound like ideas are just little butterflies flitting around like things and if you just have a good enough butterfly net you can capture one and turn it into a book. No, it has to be an idea that is strong enough to hold up during the six months that you’re writing a book, the six months you’re editing the book, and the six months you’re promoting the book. So you can ask “where did you get the idea to write this book?” That is an answerable question. But in terms of encouraging writers, people say “I’ve always wanted to be a writer but I’m such and such an age now and I guess it’s too late.” And I ask if they’ve read “…And Ladies of the Club.” The author of that was 82 years old when her first book was published. How old will you be if you don’t start writing? It’s not too late. Use the experience you used throughout your life to create the stories you want to tell.
My grandson Cole will be 13 at the end of this month and he has started reading grandma’s books. He is just now reading the fifth Beaumont book. I grew up in a town where the dentist was a guy who didn’t believe in Novocain and also would have three martini lunches, and so by the time the kids would go to see him after school he was drunk as a skunk. We all grew up as white knuckled dental patients because he always drilled holes in our tongues before he was done with us. So that book starts with a dead dentist on the first page. Cole is well aware that you don’t discuss dentists and you don’t discuss pulled baby teeth in front of grandma – that’s just not my thing. But I was able to tell him how that little piece of my life ends up in the book he’s about to start reading today. When I bought my first computer in 1983 the guy who sold it to me fixed it so that every morning when I booted it up these are the words that would flash across the screen: A writer is someone who has written today, and today I qualify. Those words were a big gift to me when I thought I was a writer and nobody else believed it. I share those words with writers now because they were so important to me. I was writing when you called me.
Open Mic: What is the biggest mistake you’ve made in your writing career?
Jance: I can tell you the biggest mistake I didn’t make in my writing career. I started out writing original paperbacks for Avon books. I was on a two book contract, $2,000 on signing and a thousand dollars each on delivery so $4,000 for two books. Those books sold for $2.63 apiece. My royalty amount was a quarter a book and at a quarter a book it took years to pay off that original $4,000 advance, but now those books pay me about $4,000 each month in royalties because they’re still selling. So a few years down the line some of the guys in Seattle – the people who had been published before I came along – sort of took me to the woodshed and said you need to get away from those small two-book contracts and go to somebody who will pay you some real advance money. So I went back to my husband and to Alice [her agent] and we talked it over and decided that we would stay with the same publishing house and we would gradually increase the amount of the advances. What did those other guys do? They went to other houses and they got a big advance, but their backlist went completely went out of print. My backlist has never been out of print. Every single book I’ve written is still in print and those early Beaumont’s and Brady’s are paying royalties now every six months. And for those other guys they’re out of writing or they’re self-publishing with Amazon. That was a mistake I didn’t make.
Open Mic: We are in such a fractured political environment these days. Some writers avoid political storylines or commentary at all costs out of concern it will automatically alienate half their audience. Others embrace politics in their storytelling. Are there areas you won’t venture into? How much do you consider the business side of writing when thinking about a new story?
Jance: It’s a tightrope, but what cracks me up is when I get blasted for being both a left winger and a right winger for the same book. That actually happened with “Field of Bones.” So obviously I try to be evenhanded, I try to have as many female bad guys as I have male bad guys. When I moved to Seattle in my previous life I had had very little contact with people who were gay and open about it. I moved into a condo in downtown Seattle where our next door neighbors were a gay couple, two men who had been together since they were 19. They’re in their 80’s now, they’re still together living in Palm Springs and when my former husband was in the hospital dying of liver and kidney failure they were the first people I went to and they listened to what I said and the advice they gave me was what they thought would be best for me to do with my kids. And I created Leland Brooks, who was Ali’s majordomo for a number of books in the Ali Reynolds series, as a thank you to Jon and Ed. But one guy wrote to me and said “I won’t read your books anymore because you’re clearly promoting the gay lifestyle.” Another women wrote to me and said Joanna Brady’s parenting style in “Field of Bones” is completely inappropriate, she should never leave her child in the house with a baby monitor while she is outside doing chores. Another women wrote to me and said Joanna Brady should not be having yet another child at her age, that she should either stay home and be a mother or be a sheriff but she shouldn’t be both. Well okay, I’m just going to go ahead and write my stories the way I write my stories and let the chips fall where they may and if people decide they don’t want to read my books anymore I say bye-bye.
Open Mic: In that regard, we’ve see huge changes in the publishing industry over the last twenty years. Writers have a lot more options now for publication than they once did, but the legacy publishing industry has shrunk a lot. Overall, do you think things are better now or worse for established and aspiring writers?
Jance: I think a lot of the people who self-publish do so because they can’t find a regular publisher that will accept their manuscript. And the reason a regular publisher won’t accept it is because it’s not ready for prime time. It wasn’t ready to be published and so they go ahead and publish it without realizing that they have to do everything. They have to do the writing, the have to do the editing, they have to do the marketing, they have to do the promoting and they have to get out and do the sales, and I think a lot of them would be better off to keep on writing until they’re better at it instead of squandering their efforts on something that wasn’t ready for prime time to begin with.
Open Mic: Do you experience writer’s block? If so, how do you break through it?
Jance: When I was writing the last Ali book, my husband fell outside and he needed help getting up and I was the only one who could help him get up and in the process of helping him up I injured my shoulder. I thought I probably had a torn rotator cuff, but I didn’t want to go see the doctor about it until I finished writing that book because if I had to have surgery that was going to screw up finishing the book and so I soldiered on. But I couldn’t get dressed without crying, I couldn’t put on my clothing, I couldn’t put up my hair, I couldn’t brush my teeth without crying, I couldn’t lift my own freaking coffee cup. It was debilitating. Having never had any type of chronic pain before, I found that it absolutely zapped the creativity process. The other thing that happened is I killed off a character and the book stopped absolutely dead in the water. So I went back to the beginning, which is something I hardly ever do, and rewrote from the beginning. But I got up to that point and it still wouldn’t move forward, so I finally decided okay I have to bring her back. And so once I brought that character back to life I was able to finish the book, and as it happens at the same time my shoulder healed itself.
I had another serious case of writers’ block in the late 90’s. I had Beaumont, I had Brady, I had the Walkers but I was kind of over all the characters and my editor said go ahead and write something different, just have it here by the first of January. That was in May. It was going to publish as an original paperback. Well, original paperbacks don’t scare me and anyway it was due in January and this was May. I could have a book written by then. But then June and July passed. August and September passed. Suddenly it was the middle of October and I still had no idea who was going to be in that book, which needed to be in New York by the first of January. When I have writers block, I compulsively watch the news. We were in Tucson, and so one Thursday afternoon I watched the noon news and my favorite newscaster, Patty Weiss, was on the air. Patty Weiss went to work for Channel 4 KVOA when she was still a student at the University of Arizona, and by this time she was in her early 50’s. Then I turned the 5:00 news on and Patty Weiss was nowhere to be found. Over the weekend the other news outlets in town reported that on Thursday afternoon after the noon news that Patty’s 30something news director came to her desk, told her she was too old to be TV and escorted her from the building. Well I already told you it’s a bad idea to make mystery writers mad, and I was mad. Within minutes I was writing about Ali Reynolds being booted off her news anchor desk in L.A. for the same reason and being escorted from the building. So for that case of writers’ block what fixed me was being mad as hell.
Open Mic: I like to end with what I hope is a fun question for you. If I could put your together for a conversation with any one of the following three people, which one would you choose and why? Your options are temperance movement firebrand Carrie Nation, singer Linda Ronstadt or the late Pat Tillman.
Jance: Couldn’t I say my real one? The person I would really like to have a conversation with is Agatha Christie.
Open Mic: I almost chose her, I always try to think about who might this person be interested in and I almost choose her but I had the thought that you might have been asked that before!
Jance: Well, she would have been my first choice but the truth is, Linda Ronstadt grew up in an adjacent neighborhood to the one where we have our Tucson home so I suppose she’s the one with whom I would have been more likely to have a conversation with, although it never happened.