Author J.A. Jance a sleuthing success
By Jody Ewing
July 24, 2003
Mystery writer J.A. Jance knew she wanted to be a writer before she finished second grade. After reading L. Frank Baum’s “Wizard of Oz” series, a bestselling author was born. Yet it would take more courage than destroying a wicked witch before the South Dakota native found publishing’s Emerald City.
During the 1960s at the University of Arizona, a professor refused Jance entry into the creative writing classes, citing that girls “ought to be teachers or nurses” rather than writers. Jance then married a man who was allowed into the program, went on to get her degree in English and Secondary Education, and in 1968 wrote her first book.
“It was sort of an ‘out there’ children’s book, and would have been edgy in 1968,” Jance said in a telephone interview from her home in Seattle. “I received a nice letter from an editor in New York, saying if I would make some changes she would consider publishing it.”
Jance showed the letter to her husband.
“He read it, handed it back to me and said, ‘there’s only going to be one writer in our family, and I’m it,'” Jance recalls. “So I put my writing away, and other than writing poetry under the dark of night I never tried writing again until I was a single parent, with two little kids, no child support, and a full-time job selling life insurance. I wrote from 4 o’clock to 7 o’clock every morning.”
While Jance’s dream of being a writer came true by believing in herself, her former husband’s didn’t. He died at age 42 of chronic alcoholism — a year and a half after Jance divorced him — without ever having published a thing.
Jance now has 30 published novels, including Seattle’s J.P. Beaumont series and Cochise County, Arizona’s Joanna Brady series. Her two sleuths finally met up in last year’s “Partner in Crime.”
“Over time, I’ve had two very distinct groups of readers; the ones who read Beaumont and the ones who read Brady,” says Jance, who alternates between her Seattle residence and one in Tucson, Ariz. “My publisher came up with the idea of trying to get both sets of readers to read the same book at the same time by me writing a book with both of them in it.”
Fans also had asked if the two would ever meet, though Jance’s initial reaction had been to dismiss the whole idea.
But when four prisoners later escaped in real life from Arizona’s Cochise County Justice Center with one captured years later in Tacoma, Wash., Jance suspended that disbelief and set her own crime in motion to bring her characters together.
The book was fun to write, says Jance, and indeed had the effect of merging her sets of readers. Fans of both series grabbed up “Partner in Crime,” and now are reading the others. It resulted in a tremendous bump to the backlist.
“Because I have stayed with the same publishing house all these years, all of the books are still in print and readily available in paperback form,” Jance says. “When I do get a new reader, they can go back and read all of them.”
In “Partner in Crime,” Beaumont teams up with Brady to investigate the murder of local artist Rochelle Baxter in Bisbee. The artist’s next of kin turns out to be the Washington State Attorney General’s Office, where Baxter, aka Latisha Wall, was an industrial whistler-blower in the federal witness protection program pending testimony at a trial.
Furthering the plot is the use of sodium azide, a fatal chemical used in car air bags. Though Jance doesn’t set out to write “issue” books, she says she uses issues as frameworks for her stories. It works; readers buy up her novels at the rate of 30,000 books per month.
“They’re sort of ‘stealth’ issues,” says the author. “I write about things I’m interested in and things I know about. Alcoholism is in my books because my first husband died of chronic alcoholism. When I read about [sodium azide] in my alumni magazine, I thought, ‘Whoa, this is dangerous stuff! How come I never heard about it before?’ So I put it in the book, and now a lot more people who never knew about it know about it.”
In “Exit Wounds,” Jance’s new thriller released on July 22, she tackles two other discomforting social concerns: “hoarders,” who take in large numbers of animals by convincing themselves they are saving them when in fact they are unable to feed or care for them, and “coyotes,” the people smugglers who take money to bring illegal aliens to the U.S. and who then abandon their charges to die of heat prostration or suffocation.
Jance — who first learned of hoarders through her sister, head of animal control for Pinal County, Ariz., — says that although she writes crime novels she steers clear of using real crime events.
“I learned early on that real murders affect real people,” says Jance. “It’s not just the person who is dead, it is all of the people connected to the person who is dead. I’m interested in how those people respond to this watershed occurrence in their lives, how they deal with the aftermath of a death, how they handle a funeral and how they handle the grieving process.”
The author met with family members from a serial homicide case in 1970 in Tucson, and says the people are still broken. “They never get over it, ever. It doesn’t go away. That’s one of the reasons I stay away from true cases,” she says.
Instead Jance focuses on characters she finds interesting, which usually include police officers. “It’s clear to me that police officers are people before they’re cops,” she says.
In “Exit Wounds,” she wants readers to remember that it is only a story, and it’s there for entertainment.
“Maybe they’ll learn something along the way,” says the longtime dog lover and owner, “but my real job is to entertain.”
For more information visit: www.jajance.com
This article first appeared in the Weekender on July 24, 2003.
Copyright © Jody Ewing