Sunday, August 02, 2009

Sunday Salon - An Afternoon with J.A. Jance

The Foothills Branch Library in Glendale advertised the program as "An Afternoon with J.A. Jance." It was a delightful way for over 100 appreciative people to spend the afternoon, with a gifted, funny, storyteller.

Before the program even started, Jance was asked who she likes to read. She said she was reading Lee Child right now. She also mentioned Michael Connelly and Alexander McCall-Smith. Although she signed a number of books ahead of time, she was promoting her new mystery, Fire and Ice, and her autobiographical book of poetry, After the Fire. She said if you read that book you would know who she is, and where her characters came from.

J.A. Jance (Judith Ann) looked at the large audience, and said people who live in New York don't understand that Phoenix isn't a one-horse town. Just because she does a signing in Scottsdale doesn't mean she shouldn't do them elsewhere. She said she appreciates the Glendale Library allowing her to appear there.

As she started singing, "Another opening, another show...", she said she's two weeks into doing two or three events a day, so we might have to give her a second to connect. She said her website is at On the site, readers will find the covers of her books, a schedule of all of her appearances. Her books are listed in order, because some people are Mr. Monk, and have to go back to the beginning and read everything. She also has a blog there. Jance said she loves writing books, and she's paid well to write them. But, she writes her blog because it's how writers process events in life. Her first blog entry was written three years ago when her son-in-law lost his nine year battle with melanoma. But, he was a light-skinned redhead who grew up in Tucson, had two terms in Iraq, and was Active Duty in the Coast Guard just prior to the disease. That entry was entitled, "Respect Must be Paid."

But, most of Jance's entries are lighthearted. She and her husband, Bill, have played a lot of golf this year. It's a miracle, because previous to golf, Jance's athletic endeavors were limited to jumping to conclusions. But, after her husband's knee problems were taken care of, they play golf three times a week. His golf scores are better. But, hers haven't improved.

She said she's used to writing around people, and can write anywhere. She was one of seven kids who did homework at the kitchen table. She usually sits in a chair in the living room with her laptop, and writes her books, and answers her email. She was sitting there one day, and heard a beep, beep, beep. She thought the smoke detector battery was going, but heard it again. Up above the bar, where her husband keeps his Rosenthal Lotus stemware, she found a trapped sparrow. She shooed it out of the bar to the living room. But, the living room has a high ceiling, and for the next forty-five minutes, she and her husband threw things at it, pillows, the dog's toys, noodles from the pool, trying to get it. Finally, when it tired out, and landed on an owl statue, she grabbed him, and took him outside and let him loose. She said he probably went back and told astonishing stories of people chasing him. But, her blog entry that day said, "I Got a Birdie!"

Jance said she doesn't discuss politics or economics on her blog. It's just a window an a writer's life. She's accessible via her website and email. People write to her. When Damage Control came out in paperback, there must have been a shipment to North Carolina Target stores that had the pages numbered wrong. Her readers didn't write to her publishers, because their email addresses aren't accessible. They wrote to her.

One woman who read the latest book, Fire and Ice, complained about the ending of the book, that she must have been missing something. Jance went back, and said, no, that's how it ends. The woman immediately wrote back and told her all the aspects of the book that she felt had been left dangling. Judy said she has a quota of 100,000 words, and she'd already used up her quota.

According to Jance, when she writes a book, she writes them, and, once finished, prints two copies, one for her husband, and one for her agent. Once she gets them back, she sends the corrected manuscript to New York, the place that thinks Phoenix is small. They also think everything in Arizona is close together. Then she gets the editorial letter, telling her what needs to be changed to make it work. She sends that back quickly, because that's when she gets a check. When it comes back, it's been copy-edited. Jance's books are 400 pages long. Think of your worst English teacher nightmare with red letters, and magnify that by 400 times. Then more people read it, and it goes into galleys. Once the galleys go out, you can't make a lot of changes. After reading the galleys for Damage Control, there was no resolution to one problem. Fire and Ice came from needing to resolve it.

Last week, Jance did an interview with a young man from a newspaper. She said she can tell when someone has never read murder mysteries and disapproves of them, one of those on a murder mysteries aren't literature kick. He said, "Isn't combining two characters in one book a gimmick?" She said, "No, it's a sales tool." He asked if there was pressure to get her male and female characters in bed, and she said, no. She said she hasn't read the article, but it was a small paper.

Fire and Ice is J.A. Jance's 39th published book, and it appears on the New York Times Bestsellers List at #8 on Sunday. In 1964, she wasn't allowed in the the creative writing program at the University of Arizona because she was a girl. She was married to a man who was allowed in, but all he did was imitate Faulkner and Hemingway by drinking. But, he said there would only be one writer in the family, and he was it.

Hour of the Hunter is the story of a teacher who couldn't get into a writing program, but her husband did. Her husband is dead at the beginning of the book, and the crazed killer is a former professor in the creative writing program. This is Jance's favorite story because of the storyline.

Jance said she started to write books in the middle of March 1982. She was a single parent with two little kids, no child support, and a job selling life insurance. Her fortieth and forty-first books are written, and due to come out. Her first book was 1200 pages, but never published. It should have counted as three. It was the size of The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, and then some.

Jance told us she uses real places in her books. She has spent half her life in Arizona, and half in Washington state. It's easier to remember real places, and it appeals to readers. The distances are real, and the books are plausible.

She uses her own life as background in the books. For instance, Ali Reynolds had a scholarship to attend NAU in journalism. In 1962, Jance had a scholarship, and was the first of seven children to go to college. She wouldn't have been standing at the library today without that scholarship. Ali has a loyalty to the people who gave her the scholarship, and that's how she gets involved. One reader wrote and complained about Ali and the scholarship business, that it was all filler. Jance replied that everything in books is filler; chapters are empty until the words get put there.

Then there was the email from a man in Tucson who said he liked the Joanna Brady books, but wouldn't read another until she got rid of the bitch who is her mother. That woman is patterned on Judy's own mother, who loved the character. She said she was the first woman in books who knows how the world really works. Jance told the man we have to deal with the relatives we have, rather than the ones we wish we had.

Here's another story of background to the books. Judy's second husband, Bill,the nice one, (He says her first husband was so bad, it made his life beautiful.) is a Formula One fan. So, she said, for his birthday, why don't we go to Monaco for the race at the end of May. He said, no. That made her mad. So, she called everyone, the children and grandchildren, and said, for Bill's birthday, I'm going to charter a jet, and we're all going to Disneyland. Then, she told him, this is what we're doing for your birthday. He could tell her no, but not the kids and grandkids. It was dreadful. Bill had been concealing how bad his knees were. He was in pain, and could go no further than 50 yards without having to sit down, or lean on something. So, her daughter had a two-year-old toddler with her, and she needed help. And, there was Bill, needing her help. He had both knees replaced last June, and went on tour with her last July. He said he wished he'd done it sooner.

So, in Fire and Ice, when J.P. Beaumont has his kids and grandkids at Disneyland, you know where that background came from. Jance has been writing about J.P. Beaumont since 1982. She enjoys writing about him because she doesn't write only about him; she writes about other characters. J.P. has an inner ear problem. Even the sight of a boat gives him sea sickness. So, when he goes to Disneyland and rides the Teacups, it's above and beyond.

J.A. Jance said she writes only one book at a time, but she's dealing with three at a time, creating one, editing one, and touring for a third. Before a book comes out, her daughter reads it, and talks about it with her so she can remember what's in the book. It was a little difficult this time, because with a daughter at 3 1/2, who is a "fire hose of conversation", the only time to talk was when her daughter was in the car on her way to or from work. Her daughter didn't like one of the stories used as background.

When Jance's son-in-law was sick, he watched a lot of Home & Garden TV. He knew he was dying, and wanted to make sure the little house was in good shape, so he was doing a kitchen/bathroom remodel when he was one step from hospice. But, he did get to see it before he died. He also wanted a working washer/dryer for the baby. So, they bought a top-of-the-line, front-loading, turquoise Kenmore. For two years it worked good. Then, they called the repairman, who must be much busier than the Maytag repairman. When he finally got there, and too it apart, he held up a bunch of baby socks, and said, these are supposed to go in a knit laundry bag, not washed alone. So, when Butch and Joanne's front-loading washer has problems, readers can now diagnose the problem - baby socks.

Jance said she used to be able to give her books titles, before she became a "Big Thing", such as debuting a book at #8 on the New York Times list. She's just a girl from Bisbee, Arizona. In publishing, the NYTimes is top of the heap. But, last night, at Changing Hands Bookstore, she met a woman who said she was reading the books to her mother, who has cancer and is undergoing chemo. The books mean a lot to them. Judy said talking to readers is the only way to find that out, the things that really count.

Now that she's a "Big Deal", she has a title committee, her editor and marketing staff. Since she has two publishers, she has two title committees, which is why she has two books in a row with "Fire" in the title. The funny thing is, the two editors who insisted on the titles are now gone. She would normally tell us the name of her next one, but not with the next one with the same word in the title. Instead, she'll just say the new Ali Reynolds book goes on sale on Dec. 2.

Queen of the Night is Jance's next thriller. The Tohono O'odham Tribe has a legend about the Night Blooming Cereus. It's the story of an old grandmother who retrieves her grandson to take him home to the desert people. She tires, but for her efforts, she's turned into a plant. And for one night a year, it's the most beautiful plant of the year, the Night Blooming Cereus. It grows on the Deerhorn cactus. The cactus has buds in the spring, and they bloom once a year. But, no one knows exactly when it will bloom, sometime in the middle of May to the middle of June. People can only predict within 48 hours when it will happen. At 6 PM, the buds open, all over the Sonoran Desert. By midnight, the flowers are as big as dinner plates, white with tinges of yellow. And, the scent is so beautiful it's called Ghost Scent. Only one moth knows when it will bloom, and it shows up to pollinate the flower. By 6 AM, it's gone.

Most of the time, Jance's books aren't based on real cases. Real people are affected by crime, and they date their lives before and after the crime. Queen of the Night deals with the legend of the old white-haired woman who brought back children. There's a whole group of brought back children in the book.

When Jance ended, and said she'd take questions, she warned the audience that she has hearing problems, and had dropped her hearing aid under a car recently, and hadn't put it back yet.

She was asked about not getting into the creative writing program at University of Arizona. She said the creative writing teacher, and her ex-husband were both dead by the time her first book came out. Her first husband died at 42 of chronic alcoholism the year after she divorced him. For a long time, she was really angry about not getting into the program. It's ironic that the publisher of her poetry book, After the Fire, is the University of Arizona. She received an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters a few years ago, but they never let her do the commencement speech.

Judy said, if she had managed to fight her way into that creative writing class, with a teacher that didn't want her there, he might have drummed that writing spark out of her. Instead, she stayed close to her storytelling roots.

Tony Hillerman once told her, "Literary fiction is where not much happens to people you don't like very much."

Why J. A. Jance? Her actual name is Judith Ann Jance, but, in 1983, Avon told her nobody would read police procedurals written by a woman. Her first six books had no biography or picture. The rumor in Seattle was that a retired Seattle cop wrote the books.

When asked if she keeps a chart of characters, Jance said she counted on her memory for a while. She now keeps a character file, but she didn't have one for the first couple Joanne Brady books. Desert Heat went all through the editorial process, and it took two readers to tell her she brought back a character she had killed in a previous book. She said it took her a few books to backtrack and explain that.

The final question was about what J. A. Jance reads. She said she reads murder mysteries, but she would tell us about three books she thinks are important.

The Madonnas of Leningrad - WWII, and the Allies headed to Leningrad. Museum workers lived in the museums. The paintings were gone, but they lived there, and even ate library paste to survive. The docents would look at empty frames, and describe what was in each picture. One of the docents was a woman who was responsible for the Madonnas.

Mr. Pip - There was a war of ethnic cleansing in a little island in the South Pacific. It was a war that really happened, but the world didn't really care because it was blacks killing blacks. The Anglos all left, except for one little man. He stayed on, and when the war was over, and the people realized there were no teachers for the school, he said he'd teach. He took over the job, and invited experts in as guest speakers, such as a fisherman to teach the children how to fish, and which fish were good. And, he would read to the kids from Great Expectations. And, when he finished, he would start over. So, there was the teacher reading to the kids about Dickens' England. When the revolutionaries found out, they took the book. So, the teacher and kids tried to reconstruct the story.

Last year, when Jance spoke at Changing Hands Bookstore, they offered her a book. She was too tired to say Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe was her favorite book, so they gave her one she hadn't heard of, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. It told how the island of Guernsey was abandoned by the British in World War II, and taken over by the Germans. The people formed a faux literary society to get around the German curfews.

All three of the books deal with how art sustains us in hard times. Jance said, perhaps that's why her book sales are up 20%. People need a place to go that doesn't deal with politics or the economy. So, it's no surprise.

Beguile the time is the ancient charge of the storyteller. J. A. Jance is honored to do that.

J. A. Jance's website is

Fire and Ice by J. A. Jance. HarperCollins, ©2009. ISBN 9780061239229 (hardcover), 352p.


Literary Feline said...

I've read most of J.A. Jance's books, although I admit to having fallen behind in recent years. I've enjoyed each of her books, but admit I'm partial to J.P. Beaumont with Joanna Brady coming in at a close second.

I very much enjoyed reading your post, Lesa. J.A. Jance has such a great sense of humor. Perhaps someday I'll get a chance to meet her.

Kay said...

You did a good job, Lesa! I've read the Joanna Brady books for years and have read a couple of the Ali Reynolds series. For some reason, I never picked up a J.P. Beaumont book. Maybe one day. I need to catch up on both series!

The Madonnas of Leningrad is a wonderful book, as is Guernsey. My book club has done both of them. I don't the Madonnas book is that well known. Just a lovely book.

Joe Barone said...

I've read several of Jance's books and enjoyed them. When I pick up a Jance book, I always know I will get a well-told story, and that's a strong compliment.

Lesa said...

Thanks, Wendy! She does have a great sense of humor. She could have been a stand-up comic with her sense of timing for the punchline. It doesn't come across properly in my blog, but she is definitely very good.

Lesa said...

Like you, Kay, I was interested to see what books J.A. Jance would pick out as memorable. I haven't read Madonnas, although I have heard of it. Loved Guernsey.

Lesa said...

Joe, that's probably the exact compliment a "storyteller" would want to hear, that you always know you'll get a well-told story.

bermudaonion said...

What a fun way to spend an afternoon! I love author events like that.

Ingrid King said...

Wonderful article, Lesa - thank you so much for sharing this with us! I've been reading J.A. Jance for a long time - I especially enjoy the Joanna Brady series. It was really nice to get a closer look at this wonderful author.

Kelly said...

I can't believe I've never read any JA Jance...I always mean to, but never quite get around to it. Its my favorite genre and everything! What is wrong with ME???? (Don't answer that....the list is too long.....)

Lesa said...


And, to think I had to be reminded about the event. The Foothills Library is only 5 minutes from my house, and I almost didn't go!

Lesa said...

Ingrid -

I'm sure you would have enjoyed the event since you're already a fan. Jance is a wonderful storyteller!

Lesa said...


I'd have to tell you what's wrong with me first because I've never read any of her books, either. They're going on my TBR pile, but I guess I'm one of those Mr. Monk's. I want to start at the beginning.

Inside A Book said...

Thanks for a great report on JA Jance's guest appearance. It was just like being there. (well, almost!!)I met Ms. Jance years back when I was managing a bookstore and she popped in to sign some books for us. What a funny lady! I've read loads of her books and really enjoy being able to envision the places she write about. Even better that she writes who she IS!
Thanks for keeping me current and reading!

Lesa said...

Inside A Book -

What a nice comment about the blog, "keeping me current and reading!" Thank you. Maybe that should be my tagline. (smile) I do try to get the flavor of the event. And, J.A. Jance was funny. I'm glad you found her that way as well. Thank you for your wonderful comment!