Our J.A. Jance interview spans 40 years, from the day she wasn’t allowed into a creative writing program to the 25th J.P. Beaumont release.
As someone who has been an entertainment journalist for 10 years and has been reviewing books in a professional setting for nearly as long, I get a lot of emails. Most of those emails are book pitches—beautifully worded messages about why I should take a chance on the latest and greatest novel to come out of insert publishing house here.
Unfortunately, I’m just one person, and nine times out of ten I have to say no. I still read and review dozens of books in a single year, but I’ve learned that I can’t do it all. I have to be selective about the projects I take on, so I can better focus on the books and authors that mean something to me.
In my line of work, a single line—a single description—of a book can be the difference between a yes and a no. Sometimes all a publicist has to say is this book is queer or this book is a deliciously grotesque Gothic horror novel, and I’m in. It really is that simple.
J.A. Jance’s Nothing to Lose doesn’t follow the same pattern. It was actually an email she wrote to her publicist that caught my attention. As soon as I read it, I knew I had to conduct this J.A. Jance interview. I was immediately brimming with questions and a desire to hear more of her story.
With permission, I’ve included the letter below:
Here’s a piece of ancient history for you. I always wanted to be a writer, but as a college junior I wasn’t allowed in the Creative Writing program at the University of Arizona because, as the professor told me, “You’re a girl.” I ended up marrying a man who was allowed in the same program that had been closed to me. He passed the course with no problem, however, he never published anything. Nonetheless, a year after we married he told me, “There’s only going to be one writer in our family and I’m it.”
Which goes a long way to explain why, during the years we were married, the only writing I did was late at night when he was passed out cold in his recliner. I divorced him in 1980 and moved to Seattle in 1981. In 1982, I gave myself permission to start living my dream. On a Sunday afternoon in the middle of March I sat down to write my first novel, a book called By Reason of Insanity which, because it wasn’t ready for prime time, was never published. One of the things wrong with it had to do with it’s being 1400 pages long! The good news about that, however, is that writing 1400 pages is the equivalent of writing three complete novels. In terms of on-the-job training, that gave me a lot of writing experience.
In the latter half of 1982, while I was waiting for editors to turn the manuscript down—which they uniformly did—my agent (my agent then and still my agent now) advised me to start on my next book, a completely fictional mystery set in Seattle. I worked on the first Beaumont book, one that would end up becoming Until Proven Guilty, for the better part of six months and it just wouldn’t jell.
Finally, in March of 1983, while my kids were off at spring break, I took a train to Portland to visit a friend from my days in the insurance business. I boarded the train with a stack of blue-lined notebook paper and a fistful of ball point pens. As the train pulled out of the King Street Station, I thought, “What would happen if I wrote this book from the detective’s point of view. I pulled out pen and paper and began to write: “She might have been a cute kid once. That was hard to tell now, she was dead.”
From the moment I wrote those words which remain the opening words in UPG I was at a crime scene on Seattle’s Magnolia Bluff, walking around in J.P. Beaumont’s shoes, seeing what he saw, and hearing what he heard and said while also hearing what he was thinking.
Beau and I have been author and character ever since. That means Nothing to Lose is being published almost on the 40th anniversary of his and my first meeting. I think that might be worthy of mentioning as we start doing publicity for this book.
As you can imagine, this letter hit me hard, both as a writer and a woman. A lot has changed since J.A. first tried to join that creative writing program, and yet the belief that we can’t be as good as our male counterparts still exists.
Change comes slowly, but is is inevitable. Not only did J.A. prove everyone wrong by becoming a published author, she has also maintained a 40-year career doing what she loves. She has dozens of books to her name, and a legacy to be proud of.
Having been so affected by her letter, I knew a J.A. Jance interview was in my future, talking about where she began, how she’s kept up her passion over the years, and what’s on the horizon for her.
I hope you find J.A.’s story as inspiring as I have.
J.A. Jance interview: ‘Nothing to Lose’
After so many years of being told you’d never be a writer, what was the proverbial straw that catapulted you into action? Do you remember a specific moment where it all clicked, or was it a culmination of everything that came before?
Shortly after I married my first husband, the one who was allowed in a creative writing program that was closed to me, told me there would only be one writer in our family, and he was it. So while we were married, other than writing poetry under the dark of night when he was passed out cold, I did nothing about my own writing. (By the way the poetry was published and is still in print—After the Fire. I suspect you might like it. Reading it will show you the origins of many of my storylines and characters.)
On May 22, 1970, while we were working on the reservation, my husband hitchhiked home with a guy who, thirty minutes before, had forced a woman off the highway, shot her in front of her two small children, raped her, and left her to die. Later that evening, at the local trading post, we overheard talk about the homicide and learned cops were looking for a man in a green car. “Hmmm,” my husband said, “a man in a green car. I wonder if that’s the guy who gave me a ride home?” We went straight to the cops or, rather, the cops came to us the very next day, and interviewed my husband for a solid ten hours.
Turns out it was. He was a guy who killed people at twenty minutes after two by shooting them off moving vehicles. The woman on the reservation was his third victim. Although they were able to use my husband’s information to identify the killer, it took almost two months for them to take him into custody. For much of that time, I was alone, living in a house that was thirty miles from town, two miles from the highway, and seven miles to the nearest neighbor or telephone. I wore a loaded weapon. I was fully prepared to use it.
Ten years later, I finally divorced my husband. He was a drunk who died of booze at age 42, eighteen months after I divorced him. After the divorce, worried I’d take him back (again) I packed our worldly goods into a U-Haul, loaded my two kids into the car, and moved to Seattle, but I was emotionally broken. Eventually, when my employer offered to pay for the Dale Carnegie course, I signed up for what turned out to be a course in public speaking. We were required to give talks on various subjects, and one of them was supposed to be about “something that changed your life.”
While I was wondering whatever happened to me, I suddenly remembered the event from the summer of 1970 and did my talk about that because that’s when I finally realized that living through that experience had changed me. We had a well with a rope-pull pump. While I was alone on the hill, I was able to start the pump myself. If you can get your own water in the desert—if you can take care of yourself in the face of a very real danger—you earn a measure of independence no amount of bra burning can ever duplicate. (By the way, I did burn a bra once. It was a nursing bra. I tossed it on a barbecue grill AFTER I cooked dinner! Mixed message, maybe?)
So on a Thursday night in March of 1982, I stood up in Dale Carnegie and did a ten-minute talk about those events. During the coffee break afterwards, one of my fellow students said to me, “Someone should write a book about that.” And the thought that went through my head was, “I’m divorced. What have I got to lose?”
That was on Thursday. Sunday afternoon after church, I sat down with a yellow tablet in hand and started writing. I had two little kids and a full time job selling insurance. The time I had to write was 4 AM to 7 AM when I got the kids up to go to school and got me ready to go to work. I also wrote on weekends while my sister took the kids to bargain matinees. On May 22, I finished writing the rough draft of what turned out to be a 1400 page manuscript. It was a thinly fictionalized version of that real story, and it never sold to anyone. But that moment on Thursday night was what caused me to set foot on this path.
After you learned your book would be published, when did it dawn on you that you’d have the chance to write a second (and possibly a third—a whole series, in fact)? Was this a daunting task, or were you ready to live the dream you’d always had of being a published author?
When I wrote the first Beaumont book, Until Proven Guilty, I thought I had written a stand-alone book. But then an editor at Avon Books offered to buy it as the first in a series. Naturally I said yes, of course, but then I had to figure out how to do it. Nothing to Lose is J. P. Beaumont #25, and the only one more surprised about that than I am, is J.P. himself. By the way, he gets around and has managed to sneak his way into two Joanna Brady books, one Walker Family, and one Ali Reynolds.
It’s been 40 years since your debut. Can you talk about how the landscape has changed for female writers? What about the inroads we still need to make to create a truly level playing field? Do you still find yourself coming up against obstacles that your male colleagues don’t face?
The marketing people at Avon suggested early on that I write under my initials, J.A. as opposed to under my name, “Judith Ann” because “readers (male readers of course) won’t accept police procedurals written by someone named Judy.” So there’s that.
And there remains a very real difference in the way female writers are reviewed. As you pointed out, I have literally dozens of books in print, and many of those have made the NY Times Bestsellers list, but in all that time, do you know how many times I’ve actually been reviewed in the NY Times? Once only! The reviewer said something to the effect that J.A. Jance had created a nice little cottage industry for herself writing her “funny little books.”
Nothing to Lose is the 25th book in the Beaumont series—and that’s not even touching the other books you’ve written! Where do you get your inspiration and how do you keep your stories fresh?
After writing nine Beaumont books in a row, I was tired of him and ready to knock him off. That’s when my editor suggested that I rework that first unfinished manuscript. I didn’t rework it. Instead I wrote a brand new, entirely fictional book—Hour of the Hunter, the first Walker Family book. After that, when it was time to go back to Beau, it was fun again. I think part of what keeps me fresh is not always writing about the same character.
As for inspiration? I try to stay away from real cases, because real homicides affect real people.
How has Beaumont changed over the years, both as a character and as a vehicle for the messages you want to put out into the world?
Beau started out as a divorced, middle-aged homicide cop with what my readers soon realized was a very real drinking problem. (You write what you know and I had eighteen years of experience at living with a drunk.) That part of his story was finally pointed out to me during signings for book number four. In book seven he had his first undeniable blackout. In book eight he’s in treatment. Now in book 25, he’s retired, remarried, still sober, and doing some volunteer PI cold case work. I think he’s gotten a lot older and wiser over the years, and so have I. Also technology, police procedures and forensics have all changed remarkably over the years. We’ve both had to keep up with all of that.
More importantly, what’s your system for remembering everything that came before? Do you ever find yourself struggling to keep all the facts straight?
Initially I kept everything in my head. Then, at a signing for the seventh Joanna Brady book I noticed there were two people who were grinning at me like they had a special secret. It turns out, the man had the same name as one of my characters. That seemed like quite a coincidence, but then he went on to say, “Did you know you knocked him off in book number one and now he’s back in this one?” I did not know that, and that’s when I started keeping an ongoing list of characters. By the way, eventually I painted my way out of the corner by making the second character the nephew and namesake of the dead guy.
Looking back, is there a book you’re particularly proud of—one that stands out from the rest? What about a moment that, in hindsight, feels like a tipping point into success?
That would be Second Watch. In that story I was able to honor a guy from Bisbee High School. Doug Davis was the valedictorian for the class on 1961. He went from BHS to West Point, West Point to Ranger School, and Ranger School to Vietnam. He died in Vietnam in 1966, months before his 23rd birthday. Over the years and through my books, I had become friends with Bonnie Abney, the young flight attendant who was engaged to Doug when he died. When I asked her if she would mind if I wove their story into the background of a Beau book, she thought about it for several days before telling me, “I think my Douglas would be safe in your hands.”
A few years ago, on the 50th anniversary of Doug’s death, she went to Bisbee and spent the day at his graveside. There she found that people who had read the book had found their way to Bisbee and to his grave in Evergeen Cemetery where they had left behind tokens of their esteem. Because of Second Watch, Doug and Bonnie’s story is NOT forgotten.
What’s next for you? What’s a future goal you hope to accomplish? Do you have any advice to writers just getting started?
I’m currently working on the next Ali Reynolds book, number 17. And soon I’ll be going on the first live book tour in two years. I’m really looking forward to that.
As for advice to writers? The best piece of advice I was ever given came from the guy who sold me my first computer in 1983. He fixed it so, every morning at 4 AM when I booted it up, these are the words that flashed across the screen: A WRITER IS SOMEONE WHO HAS WRITTEN TODAY. And today I qualify.
About ‘Nothing to Lose’ by J.A. Jance
Years ago, when he was a homicide detective with the Seattle PD, J. P. Beaumont’s partner, Sue Danielson, was murdered. Volatile and angry, Danielson’s ex-husband came after her in her home and, with nowhere else to turn, Jared, Sue’s teenage son, frantically called Beau for help. As Beau rushed to the scene, he urged Jared to grab his younger brother and flee the house. In the end, Beaumont’s plea and Jared’s quick action saved the two boys from their father’s murderous rage.
Now, almost twenty years later, Jared reappears in Beau’s life seeking his help once again—his younger brother Chris is missing. Still haunted by the events of that tragic night, Beau doesn’t hesitate to take on the case. Following a lead all the way to the wilds of wintertime Alaska, he encounters a tangled web of family secrets in which a killer with nothing to lose is waiting to take another life.
Buy Nothing to Lose by J.A. Jance from Harper Collins, Bookshop.org, Book Depository, or Amazon. You can also add it to your Goodreads list.
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