Author J.A.Jance ~ Interviewed

About J.A. Jance

J.A. Jance is the top 10 New York Times bestselling author of the J.P. Beaumont series, the Joanna Brady series, the Ali Reynolds series, three inter-related thrillers featuring the Walker family, and a book of poetry. Her books have more than 10 million copies in print.

In her latest series, Jance introduces Ali Reynolds, a 45-year-old television anchorwoman who’s just been fired for being too old in Edge of Evil. She’s mad as hell and, at the suggestion of her college senior son, starts a blog called She leaves LA for her hometown of Sedona, Arizona and before she knows it there’s a murderer in her sights. The third Ali Reynolds hardcover, Cruel Intent, will published by Touchstone in December 2008.

Jance is an avid crusader for many causes including the American Cancer Society, Gilda’s Club, the Humane Society, the YMCA and the Girl Scouts. A lover of animals, she has a golden retriever, Daphne, named for Daphne du Maurier.

Born in South Dakota and raised in Bisbee, Arizona, Jance and her husband now split their time between Seattle, Washington and Tucson, Arizona.

What is your current project? Tell us about it.

I’m currently on tour with Cruel Intent, the new Ali Reynolds book which is the fourth book in my fourth series. I have a joint Beaumont/ Brady book coming out next summer–a book that features two of my major characters. I’m working on Ali Reynolds number five for next winter. I also blog regularly at my website. That’s sort of a window on the writer’s life and times.

Tell us about your journey to publication. How long had you been writing before you got the call you had a contract, how you heard and what went through your head?

I always wanted to be a writer but I wasn’t allowed in the Creative Writing program at the University of Arizona in 1964 because I was a girl. And my first husband told me that there was going to be only one writer in our family. (He was allowed in the class that was closed to me but never published anything.) So I didn’t start writing until the middle of March of 1982 when I was a divorced single parent with two little kids, no child support, and a full time job selling life insurance. I wrote every morning from four to seven AM before I got the kids up to go to school. The first book never sold to anyone. It was 1200 pages wrong. The second book I wrote was bought by the second editor who saw it. When I got the call from my agent, I called the school my children were attending and had the principal have them brought to the office so I could tell them on the phone. (The principal is still a friend of mine, by the way.)

Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writers block or angst driven head-banging against walls? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you’ve discovered.

Of course I experience self-doubt. Starting writing a book is hell. Somewhere in the middle the story will fall off the rails. What that usually means is that I have a problem with motivation as far as the actions of my characters are concerned. So I lie in bed, trying to sort it out. Night after night. I call that stage of writing “wrestling with the devil.” Things usually get moving again when I finally change the most difficult thing there is for a writer to change–his or her mind.

What mistakes have you made while seeking publication? Or to narrow it down further what’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?

I tried to send an unagented manuscript. As far as I’m concerned, over the transom doesn’t work.

What’s the best or worst advice (or both) you’ve heard on writing/publication?

The guy who sold me my first computer, in 1983, 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. And today I qualify. I spent last night wrestling with the devil and today I’ve added a thousand words to chapter 9. While I’m sitting in a hotel room in Houston. On a book tour. What can I tell you? I’m a woman, so I can do more than one thing at a time.

What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?

I’ve often found story material in my University of Arizona alumni magazine. That’s not a real compliment, however. It’s only when I’m deep in writer’s block that I read the whole thing from cover to cover.

Have you ever had one of those awkward writer moments you’d like to share with us, the ones wherein you get “the look” from the normals? Example, you stand at a knife display at the sporting goods store and ask the clerk which would be the best to use to disembowel a six foot man…please do tell.

When the kids lived at home, we would often have dinner time discussions about the book I was writing, including a good deal of murder and mayhem. One day I went to a restaurant we frequented, and the waiter greeted me with a friendly smile. “I saw you on TV,” he said. “You’re a writer. I always thought you and your family ran something like Murder Incorporated.”

Is there a particularly difficult set back that you’ve gone through in your writing career you are willing to share? Or have you ever been at the point where considered quitting writing altogether?

I went through one very tough time. Someone in publishing out and out lied to me. Someone at another publishing house pulled my feet out of the fire. I never considered quitting even when that first person told me that I couldn’t write my way out of a paper bag. By the way, he’s NOT in publishing any more.

With the clarity of experience what advice would you offer up to the wet-behind-the-ears you if beginning this writing journey today?

Learn to be a public speaker. Plan on being on the road promoting your books. Who is going to be a better advocate for your book than you are? If people don’t come to signings, don’t be a baby. Bookstores can’t REQUIRE their customers to show up. Be nice to the people who work in the stores. They sell your books when you’re NOT there.

What event/person has most changed you as a writer? How?

I would say that Alice Volpe of Northwest Literary Agency, my agent, has been a constant presence in my writing career. Didn’t change it. Helped create it. She’s been my agent from the time she didn’t sell my first book. (For good reason.) When an agent doesn’t sell a manuscript, a lot of wannabe writers, fire the agent and send the manuscript to someone else. I fired the manuscript and kept the agent. She sold my second book, not my first one. An all the books since then.

What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why?

My book of poetry, After the Fire, is something I wrote while I was going through some tough times. It was published in 1984. In 1985 I did a poetry read of that at an event where I met the man who would become my second husband. We just celebrated our 23rd anniversary. I’ve had several people tell me that reading that book changed their lives.

Dean Koontz recently shared his take on the concept on “the writer’s sacred duty.” What comes to your mind at the mention of “the writer’s sacred duty?”

As far as I’m concerned, the ancient sacred charge of the storyteller is to beguile the time. I’m honored when people tell me they’ve used my books to get through tough times in hospital waiting rooms or through deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those are times in need of beguiling.

Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?

Yes, people who tell me they don’t “read fiction.” What they’re really saying is that their so self-important that they couldn’t possibly waste their valuable time reading for fun. Their loss.

Do you have a dream for the future of your writing, something you would love to accomplish?

I want to be PD James when I grow up and still be actively writing and creating when I’m 88 years old.

What is your favorite and least favorite part of being a writer?

My least favorite part is starting a book. My favorite is finishing it.

How has your unique life journey prepared you to be an author? What is one of the more unique or strange life experiences that has really given you an extra oomph in your writing?

Spending 60 days being stalked by a serial killer in my later twenties changed my view of the world. Once I strapped a weapon to my hip and was fully prepared to use it, my mindset changed. I was a different person when that time in my life was over.

My parents worked hard and taught their children to work hard. I didn’t much appreciate those lessons back then, but I do now.

Describe your special or favorite writing spot.

I write in an easy chair in the living room. Or the family room. Or wherever. I was one of seven children and learned to do my homework at the kitchen table in the midst of a certain amount of chaos. That experience has served me in good stead. If it’s too quiet, I can’t write.

What aspect of writing was the most difficult for you to grasp/conquer? How did you overcome it?

Writing dialogue. Starting out I read what I wrote aloud to make sure it sounded like people talking rather than like people delivering speeches.

What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?

I open the name file, bringing in the continuous name file I’ve used for that series of book. Having that file available helps me maintain continuity as far as characters and their various personal foibles are concerned. That file also maintains a time line for the new book so I know what day of the month and week it is and what time of day even if I don’t do into detail about the year.

Writing rituals. Do you have to sit somewhere specific, complete a certain number of words, leave something undone to trigger creativity for the next session? Some other quirk you’d like to share?

I’m a founding member of the pajamas media. I work in my robe until what I’m writing stops working. That’s when I shower and dress. I work on a laptop in my lap. Wherever I am. Today I happen to be in a hotel room in Houston. But I am in my robe–which I brought along.

I don’t have a goal for number of words per day. What I do have is a deadline assigned by my publisher. I think not having a deadline makes wannabe writers think they have all the time in the world to finish that first manuscript. The truth is, they don’t. Life is uncertain. Some day they will be dead. If they have spent their entire writing career rewriting the first few chapters of their first book, they will definitely have missed their DEADline. If new writers don’t have deadlines from a publisher, they need to give themselves one and then meet it.

Plot, seat of pants or combination?

I hate outlining. I start with someone dead and I spend the rest of the book trying to find out who did it and how come.

What is the most difficult part of pulling together a book? Ex. Do you have saggy middles, soggy characters, soupy plots during your first drafts…if so, how do you shape it up?

All parts of books are difficult. In a series, the beginnings are always the most difficult because you need to capture new readers and give them enough information that they don’t feel lost while, at the same time, not giving away too much of the plots of previous books–so they’ll go out and buy those, too. This is further complicated by not including so much detail from previous books that your regular readers will be bored to tears. It’s like walking a tightrope–without a net.

Have you received a particularly memorable reader response? Please share.

My books are written in the kind of everyday language that is straight-forward and relatively easy to read. One of my most memorable reader comments came from someone for whom the English language was not her friend. “I have read every book you have wrote. I have loved every book you have wrote.”

So not only was she able to read my books, she thought enough of them to pass along her opinion. And didn’t feel self-conscious about doing so.

Have you had a particularly memorable peer honor? Please share.

I am notoriously low on awards. I’m never nominated so I never win. Actually, I was nominated once, but I didn’t win that time, either. So what? I just keep writing my books and people keep buying them. I don’t have a problem with that.

How much marketing/publicity do you do? Any advice in this area?

Two books a year. Two book tours a year. I’ve done a minimum of 30 signings per book. This is my 37th book. You do the math. I work hard. That’s how I’ve become an overnight success in twenty-five short years.

I work hard, and I’m a believer in that old saw, “If it is to be it is up to me.” Oh, and I answer all my own e-mail, too. Readers write to me in order to write to ME, and I owe them the courtesy of a response. Unless they really really torque me, that is. Oh, well, the one who did that ended up in a book, and not as a nice person, either.

Parting words? Anything you wish we would’ve asked because you’ve got the perfect answer?

Of all my books, which is my favorite? That would be Hour of the Hunter. It’s the story of a woman who’s a teacher on an Indian reservation but she really wants to be a writer. Like me, she had a first husband who told her there would only be one writer in their family. He’s dead at the beginning of the book. As for the crazed killer? He turns out to be a former professor of Creative Writing from the University of Arizona.

That’s the magic part of being a writer. Everything is usable. Even the bad stuff. Sometimes especially the bad stuff.