Thursday, May 05, 2011

Julia Spencer-Fleming at The Poisoned Pen

As usual, with so many discussions at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore, the conversation was wide-ranging when Julia Spencer-Fleming got together with Barbara Peters, owner of the store. Topics covered everything from British hymns to the royal wedding to the science fiction of author John Scalzi. But, they also discussed Spencer-Fleming's latest book, One Was a Soldier, the seventh book in the Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series.

Julia and Barbara agreed it had been four or five years since the last time Spencer-Fleming had been there. Julia joked that she had to let the color of her hair grow out before she could tour. It had been three years since the last book in the series. She said there were reasons for the gap. She and her husband both had health issues. They did the college search, and their oldest daughter is going to Smith. Spencer-Fleming also spent six months doing research for One Was a Soldier, which is unusual for her. She admitted she usually does enough research to get by. But she wanted to be accurate and respectful in her portrayal of the veterans returning from war.

She said this was a big story, with a lot to wrestle into place. It has been called a novel with mystery in it by some reviewers. It's a book about veterans returning to a small Adirondack town, and relationships. 

Peters told her, though, that it's been sheer torture waiting to find out what happened to Clare. Julia answered that the war in Iraq has been a long arc for many of the veterans. She said the U.S. entered the war the same week her third book came out, and this is her seventh.

Clare Fergusson was an army vet and a helicopter pilot, a highly valued combination. Spencer-Fleming had to decide how to deal with this, because many pilots were called up. She wanted to write about the reaction to the war. When she wrote the fifth book, All Mortal Flesh, she knew she was going to have Clare re-up. She wanted to write about people coming back to a small town. These veterans are citizen-soldiers, not professional soldiers, but they've had deployment after deployment. In Bangor, Maine, there is an engineering group that has been deployed three times, twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan. Then, they return to small town, but the vets often need medical and psychological help getting back into their lives.

Clare, although she's an Episcopal priest who helps others, is in need of help herself after returning. When Peters commented on that, Julia said she likes to imagine the worst thing that can happen to her characters, and then do it to them. Clare is outward oriented, focused on other people. She never saw herself falling in love with a married man in the first book, In the Bleak Midwinter, until it slapped her in the face. She's not self-aware. So, Spencer-Fleming decided to stress her a lot. Clare's addictions are based on an interview Julia did with a young naval petty officer who told her about the heavy medication in the war zones, where medication is handed out in baggies.

When Barbara said, so Clare is sucked into a support group, Julia said she opens the book with the support group, a framing device. It gives her a different viewpoint. Her characters are seen from the point of view of outsider characters. So, the first view of Clare is from a therapist who doesn't know her.

Asked if she was going to swing back to Russ as the focus of the next book, Julia said yes, he's going to be back on the rack. Peters told her she leaves all her books hanging with a situation, as in the "Perils of Pauline." Spencer-Fleming got that from Dickens, whose books usually came out in serial form. He was the king of leaving people with cliffhanger endings. She said she'll always play fair with readers and solve the mystery, but as to the personal story, who knows?

Originally, Spencer-Fleming wanted the series to be just five books, but she keeps coming up with stories she wants to tell. Her original contract with St. Martin's was for two Clare/Russ books and then a third book that didn't have to be in the series. But, this winter she signed another contract for another three books. She's working on book eight. She likes the title, "Seven Whole Days," based on a hymn, but her agent doesn't like it. It's going to take place over a week, and everyone in it has a deadline they have to meet that week.

All of Julia's books have had titles that came from hymns. Sometimes she starts with the title. When she came up with the idea, she knew she'd never run out of titles based on hymns. The problem is, no one can tell the order of the series by looking at the titles, unlike titles that are in alphabetical or numerical order. Ideally, readers would follow along in the series, and read from the beginning. And, all of Spenser-Fleming's books are still in print, so readers could do that. Barbara Peters said that is important, and mentioned that she was discussing that with Sue Grafton as she approaches the end of the alphabet. All of her books are still in print in hardcover, with the exception of O.

Spencer-Fleming said she's working on the eighth book, and she's already thinking about the ninth. She's vowed to her publisher and her husband that book eight will be published sometime next year. Was she kidding when she said the following one will be a straightforward thriller, with Russ and Clare trapped in a cabin with killers?  She doesn't want to do research. And, she's not a fast writer. The fastest time she wrote a book in was nine months.

Someone in the audience mentioned that Julia is all over the social media, Twitter, Facebook, and her own blog, and even gets feedback from readers on her blog. Julia said she is a voracious reader, and she likes to talk about books. When authors get together, they talk about books. Social media does take a lot of time. Her publisher pushed her into it in order to promote her book. But, when this tour is over, she'll be back on her full-time writing schedule. So, if anyone sees her on one of those sites between 9 and 3, they're supposed to tell her to get back to work. She needs to turn off the Internet while she writes. She went on to say author John Scalzi said the Internet to authors is like cat vacuuming. It's stuff that authors think is work, but it's not really.

When Spencer-Fleming mentioned John Scalzi, Barbara Peters said she had read his latest book, Fuzzy Nation, a tribute to H. Beam Piper's 1962 book, Little Fuzzy. It's a legal thriller on a planet far away with little helpless creatures. She loved it, and said Scalzi will be at the Poisoned Pen on May 28th.

Barbara commented that Julia is a great supporter of other authors, and often reads and recommends books by other authors. Spencer-Fleming responded that the mystery community is tight-knit and generous in helping each other. She just thinks it's the right thing to do, to pass that on. And, she said she's been writing so long, she started out young with red hair, and now, she's on her seventh book, and her hair's white.

Author Donis Casey, who was in the audience, commented that she liked a secondary character, Hadley Knox, and her relationship with a young deputy. Julia said that was calculated. She wanted another lead, a secondary couple to pull the story forward. She wanted additional romantic tension. She said she knows that's why people are reading her books. They don't care about the mystery. Readers want to know what happens between Russ and Clare.

Hadley Knox is a deputy who took the job because it was the best-paying job she could get, with the best benefits. Spencer-Fleming said her friend, author Jim Born, who has been in law enforcement in Florida for over twenty-five years, said he noticed that trend. Now, many people are going into law enforcement as a career move, not to bring justice to the streets.

In small towns, many join the military and National Guard because there aren't many economic opportunities, and it's a way to make extra money. Julia's husband did that, joining the Air Force, serving there for four years, and then four years in the Guard.

There was a time when everyone knew someone in the service, but, now, without the draft, lots of people don't know anyone in the military. It makes it easy for them to support decisions to send forces off to war, and they don't have to look too closely. Spencer-Fleming said she hopes they feel as if they know her characters, and see them as real people. Maybe at least for a short while, they will feel as if they know veterans who went through war.

In the professional military, there is still a stigma attached to mental treatment. Julia said it was important to her to make her veterans right and real, and that Clare was portrayed as a real person. In response to a comment from that audience that Clare appeared as real clergy, she said so often the clergy are portrayed either as very holy or the opposite, someone who stole money. It's a real difficult job, and in portraying her and other clergy, she's shown that they are real people, and not everyone who devotes themselves to religion is nice. And, in talking about Clare as someone whose decisions are based on her faith, Julia said she was interested in looking at how someone dealt with crime when their foundation was faith. That's why her main character is a priest.

Before signing books, Julia Spencer-Fleming ended by saying she knew she was preaching to the choir, but she wanted to give the Poisoned Pen Bookstore a plug. She said she appreciates sales on Amazon and other other sites, but she wanted to remind us all that Amazon won't bring her and other authors to the community to sign books, so she encouraged us to buy from our local bookstores.

Julia Spencer-Fleming's website is

One Was a Soldier by Julia Spencer-Fleming.  St. Martin's Minotaur. ©2011. ISBN 9780312334895 (hardcover), 336p.


donna said...

Can't wait to read this one. I am on the wait list at the library. I love the way she writes - her pace - the whole thing. You are so lucky being able to meet all of these great people "live".
Donna from CT

Lesa said...

You're right, Donna. I know how lucky I am to have the Poisoned Pen close by. And, I wouldn't get to host all the authors at Velma Teague if it wasn't for the Poisoned Pen.

You're going to enjoy this book. And, neither Julia nor I gave away any spoilers for this book, so you won't find anything ruined for you.

Ingrid King said...

What a great write up - I would have loved to have met Julia Spencer Fleming. And that's a wonderful photo of the two of you.

Kay said...

Ah, I wish I could have been at that event last night. A great regret.

Lovely picture of the two of you. One of the copies she signed yesterday is mine and I'm looking forward to reading it soon. Or as soon as it gets here!

Great write up. :-)

Judith said...

What a wonderful post, Lesa. I picked up Julia's book at the library last week and skimmed through it. I'm about the start an "in depth" reading.

Problem is, knowing the ending I'm anxiously awaiting the next.... (I know how authors hate to hear that.) but appreciating the current one a great deal. I have loved Julia's books from the first one.


Lesa said...

Thank you, Ingrid. You can actually tell how much fun it was to meet Julia from that picture. Everyone enjoyed the program & the chance to talk with her.

Lesa said...

Thanks, Kay! I wish you could have been here, too. It was a fun program. Nice to know she signed a book for you, though.

Lesa said...

Oh, I don't know that authors really hate to hear you're anxiously waiting for their next book. Julia shouldn't leave cliffhanger endings if she doesn't want readers to tell her that. At least you know she's working on it!

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Love the picture of you both!

Looks like it was another fantastic program at the Poisoned Pen (I'm so envious you're so close!) Looking forward to reading Julia's newest. :)

Lesa said...

Thank you, Elizabeth. Terrific photographer, just the woman ahead of me in line who offered to take a picture of us together. She did a great job, didn't she?

I love being this close to the Poisoned Pen. It certainly works out for me, and for the library.

Beth Hoffman said...

What a fantastic photo! I so enjoyed reading this post, Lesa. You made me feel like I was right there with you!

Lesa said...

Ah, Beth, you don't know how "right there" with me you've been in the last few days. Kaye Barley, Jen Forbus and I are working on a special round robin conversation for our blogs, and Kaye and I were talking about you!

That picture turned out nice, didn't it. I'm glad people felt as if they were there.

Donis Casey said...

I was so glad to get to see her again after six years! I've never seen her speak. She's really an entertaining speaker.

Lesa said...

I had only seen her speak as part of a large conference that Barbara had soon after I moved to AZ, Donis. Whole different program, so this was great.

Donna Fletcher Crow said...

Oh, Julia, I love the new hair colour! As the mother of 2 sons in the military i appreciate your accuracy and respect! Can't wait to read the book.
And I hope you get to keep the next title. I love the hymn. George herbert is one of my favorite poets.