Interview with J. A. Jance
J. A. Jance interviewed by Charles J. Rzepka, June 4, 2017
Judith A. Jance is the best-selling author of fifty-five crime novels comprising four separate series as of the date of the following interview, which took place at her home in the Bridle Trails section of Bellevue, Washington on the morning of June 4, 2017. Her series of books set in Seattle features the SPD homicide detective J. P. Beaumont, who was the main focus of our discussion.
Jance is also the author of After the Fire, a book of poems that grew out of the break-up of her marriage to her first husband, an alcoholic. The poems are interspersed with comments and reflections on her life at that time. As I discovered when I read them following our interview, they provide important biographical information for understanding the shape and development of Jance’s body of work over the last three decades or more.
Readers may note the frequency of laughter in the course of this two-hour conversation. After excising the first few references to it in the transcript, I decided to leave the rest untouched, along with a few tears at one point, because I think they reflect something of my interviewee’s frank, self-aware, and generous character.
We began our talk standing on the patio at the back of Jance’s tree-secluded, modern stucco home, and looking out at the garden.
CJR: I really appreciate your making the time for this interview. What a lovely place.
JAJ: Actually, I need to tell you—does the name C. Day-Lewis ring a bell with you?
JAJ: Well, I was—we’ll go down and walk in the garden for a minute.
As a freshman at the University of Arizona, I was an English major but our dorm was a co-op dorm and we ushered at all the auditorium events. Then, if there were seats available, we could stay. When C. Day-Lewis came to do a poetry reading, I stayed for it and heard him read “Sheepdog Trials in Hyde Park” and “Baucis and Philemon.” Are you familiar with that poem?
CJR: I don’t know that poem.
JAJ: [Quotes the poem] “You see those two trees on the hillside over the lake . . . a lime tree and an oak/ With a stone circle around them? A strange thing/ To find two trees wearing a marriage ring,/ You say? You would not, if you knew their story.” I heard him read that and I loved that poem. I had a new boyfriend and I was in love and I was sure that our lives would be just like that and someday we would grow old together. Of course, that didn’t happen. He was a guy who was allowed in the creative writing program that was closed to me, on the basis of —the professor said, “You’re a girl. Girls become teachers or nurses; boys become writers.”
CJR: Who was this teacher? Some famous author?
JAJ: No, he wasn’t. Actually, he never had anything published. He died before my first book was published, as did my first husband. My first husband imitated Faulkner and Hemingway, primarily by drinking too much and writing too little. He died of booze at the age of 42, which takes a lot of hard work. When I first heard C. Day-Lewis’s poem, I thought that was going to be our lives. I loved that poem. Then, my life turned to hell and I hated that poem. And then, in 1985, five years after my first husband died, I did a reading of my book of poetry, After the Fire, at a widowed retreat and I met Bill, whose first wife, Lynn, died of breast cancer two years to the day after my husband died. They both died on New Year’s Eve. We met on the 21st of June. We got married on the 21st of December and I read that poem to Bill. And he loved it.
So come down and look at the garden. When we bought this house the only greenery around the back were yucca. This wasn’t here. That wasn’t here. Those trees weren’t here.
CJR: It was sort of desert landscaping?
JAJ: It was desert landscaping. Down here, there was a go-cart track and an Astro Turf putting green and a fish pond that didn’t hold water. All of those were built over the septic field, so come down—
CJR: What’s the thematic connection between the go-cart track and the fish pond?
JAJ: Well, the guy who built the house fancied himself a race car driver.
CJR: I see.
JAJ: Okay, do not look at the garden until you get down 11 steps. Don’t ask me how I know looking at the garden before you get to the bottom is a bad idea.
CJR: Can I look, now?
JAJ: You can look, now.
JAJ: But if you look up here, you will see throughout the garden, there are little pieces of that poem.
CJR: And I noticed something when I drove up to the house. Is that from the poem, too?
JAJ: Yes, all of it [quoting]: “all was amenity here—a calm sunshine of the heart.” Yes.
JAJ: When we hired the landscape gardener to come, he came for an appointment and we were just talking at the dining room table and he said, “Well, I like to do theme gardens and you’re a writer. Don’t you want to have your words in your garden?” I said, “Are you kidding? I write murder mysteries.” [Laughter] I got up, went and found my copy of the poem, read it to him. He got it, completely.
CJR: Well, your designer did a terrific job.
JAJ: Here we are, the lime tree and the oak with the stone circle. Is that fun?
CJR: That is fun.
JAJ: I do a lot of walking in this garden.
CJR: Do you garden yourself? Do you tend any of this?
JAJ No. We have a gardener who comes in every week. We also have a rabbit who has been eating the white coral bells this year.
CJR: They like our tulips at home, too.
JAJ: We also had a heron who has devastated our fish pond.
CJR: A heron? Really, a great blue?
JAJ: A great blue heron, yes. [We return to the patio and sit down.] My armaments are there behind the table. Last Mother’s Day, my daughter and grandson went to Target and were shopping in the Nerf gun aisle and discussing the relative firepower of Nerf guns. A woman asked Colt, “Who are you shopping for?” He said, “Oh, my grandma. She wants to use it to shoot birds.” If you aim it over the arch, it can land in the pond with whistling bullets. I can assure you the heron does not like whistling bullets.
CJR: You can see the heron from here and—?
JAJ: Yeah. He flies in right over here and goes straight to the fish pond.
CJR: He must—or she must—think that’s the food dish.
JAJ: I’m attached to my fish. That’s a surprise to all. [laughter]. That’s as much a surprise as having a garden. [Laughter]
CJR: It’s a lovely garden. Are these carp or what are the species that do best in this—?
JAJ: The species that do best for me are the 25-cent feeder fish from PetSmart, which we keep and name. [laughter]
CJR: [Laughter] Well, I see why you care so much about whether the heron gets them, if you’ve named them.
JAJ: Yes, we had one koi that mixed in with the 25-cent fish and he got to be this big. We called him, “Big Guy,” but he’s gone, now. That really pissed me off with the heron. Now, it’s a grudge match.
CJR: May I ask you some questions about your work and tax your memory with your books from your early career?
JAJ: Well, but books from my early career are still books from my late career because two days before we left on our cruise a month ago, I finished Beaumont Number 22, Proof of Life. So he and I have been together, author and character, for more than three decades.
CJR: Lifelong companions.
JAJ: Well, I’ve known Beau longer than I’ve known Bill. [laughter] We call it our ménage à trois.
CJR: May I ask how that character was conceived? Did you make any deliberate choices about his personality or his character development, his attitudes towards women? How did he come about? Did you just wake up one morning with him on your mind?
JAJ: [pause] Okay. On the 22nd of May of 1970, while we were—my first husband and I—were teaching on the Reservation at Sells, Arizona, and living near Three Points, which was 30 miles in either direction from a town–seven miles to the nearest neighbor with a telephone–we crossed paths with this serial killer. A guy who murdered people at 20 minutes after 2 on the 22nd day of the month. And on that day in 1970, half an hour after he shot and raped his third victim in front of her two small children and left her to die, he gave my husband a ride to our house. I had to stay after school that day and we had company coming and someone needed to be at the house to meet the company. My husband said, “Well, I’ll just hitchhike home.” On the Reservation, that was mass transit [laughter] back in those days. Even the nuns from Topawa hitchhiked, occasionally. The guy gave my husband a ride, not just to our turnoff but down the two-mile dirt track to our house, and said, “You leave your wife out here by herself much?” My husband said “Well, she’s got the dogs.”
When we went into town for dinner with our company, we were stopped at a roadblock and found out there’d been a homicide on the Reservation. We stopped at the trading post to get gas and I overhead a deputy say something about a man in a green car. And when I got back into the car, I mentioned it to my husband. He said, “A guy in a green car? I wonder if that’s the guy who gave me a ride home?” We went back to the trading post.
We told the deputy who we were and where we lived. In 1970, there were no cell phones. The was no phone service to our house. At 6:00 the next morning, Tucson’s chief—well, Pima County’s chief homicide detective, Jack Lyons—showed up and interviewed my husband from 6:00 in the morning until 3:00 in the afternoon and elicited really telling details about items that were in the car. Things about the car and things that the guy said that Detective Lyons was later able to use to identify him.
CJR: This was for nine hours?
JAJ: From six in the morning until 3:30 in the afternoon. It was an amazing interview. I wore contacts then, but Jack showed up so early, I didn’t have my contacts in, so I internalized that whole conversation in a way that, when I tried to write about it later, it was all there. Jack realized very early on that he was dealing with a serial killer. He did not tell us that. This guy shot people off moving vehicles. A 16-year-old girl off a bicycle. A 40-something-year-old man off a bulldozer and a 28-year-old woman who was taking her kids to Mexico for the weekend. Jack advised us to move into town but we were young and stupid and we said, “No. What if you never catch him?” So for a good part of that summer, while my husband was working construction, I was on the hill by myself. I wore a loaded weapon. I was fully prepared to use it.
CJR: Had you been trained in using a gun, at that time?
JAJ: No. Well, I’d done some target shooting but as far as official training, no. I did shoot that weapon once. It was a .22. I shot all six bullets at a rapidly retreating rattlesnake who was still laughing as he went up over the wall and disappeared.
But I figured the killer would present a larger target and I was motivated. Making that internal decision–if it’s him or me, it’s by God going to be him–I think is part of what makes it possible for me to write a bunch of police procedurals, because I understand what that’s all about. When I created JP Beaumont and started writing about him in the early ‘80s, physically, he bore a very strong resemblance to Jack Lyons from Tucson in the 1970s.
They picked the serial killer up on the 20th of July. Jack was concerned that the incidents were getting closer together and my husband rode with him to San Manuel and identified the guy as he came off work, and was in the car with him when he admitted to having been to our house on three separate occasions in the intervening 60 days.
CJR: Wow. You weren’t aware of his being around?
JAJ: We were aware that someone had been around because of the dirt-road tracks. When you live on a dirt road, you pay attention. You know when the gas guys have been there and when the electric guys have been there. When the Seventh-Day Adventist missionaries have been there. You recognize the various signs. We knew that someone had been around the house but we didn’t know who—so that’s my background into crime writing [laughter].
CJR: That’s the model for JP Beaumont. Jack Lyons.
JAJ: The first book I wrote was a very thinly fictionalized version of that those events. Because I wasn’t allowed in the creative writing program at Arizona, I didn’t know there were some things I should leave out, so it was 1,400 pages long [laughter].
CJR: You could probably get away with that, now.
JAJ: I found an agent, Alice Volpe. She advised me to cut it in half, which I did. She still couldn’t sell it. The editors who turned it down said that the stuff that was fictional was fine; the stuff that was real was unbelievable and would never happen even though it had already happened. Eventually, she suggested that I try writing something that was entirely fiction. I spent six months trying to write this story, Until Proven Guilty, from another character’s point of view. Then, in the spring of 1983, I sent my kids to Camp Orkila—it’s a camp over in the San Juans—for a week.
And I sent myself to Portland for a week to stay with a friend from my days in the insurance business. As I got on the train, as it was pulling out of the King Street Station, I thought, “What would happen if I wrote this book through the detective’s point of view?” I started writing. I wrote longhand. “She might’ve been a cute kid, once. That was hard to tell, now. She was dead.” As soon as I wrote those words, I was at the crime scene, in JP Beaumont’s head, seeing this little kid’s body, walking around. Over the next 5 days, I wrote 35,000 words by hand. The book was constructed in my head, but I needed to find the right point of view. The first nine Beaumont books were all that first-person narrative. The marketing people objected to the author’s name. When I gave the manuscript for Until Proven Guilty to Alice, it said, Until Proven Guilty, by Judith A. Jance, but you know I was writing a male protagonist, first-person narrative, so she changed it to “J.A.”
The second editor that saw it, John Douglas from Avon, called her up and said, “Boy, do you know the guy who wrote Until Proven Guilty is a good writer.” She said, “Well, what would you say if I told you the guy who wrote Until Proven Guilty was a woman?” He said, “I’d say she’s a helluva good writer.” [Laughter]
So he bought the first two books in the series, even though I had only written the one and even though I had no idea it was going to be a series.
CJR: He knew that he was onto something.
JAJ: The marketing people were the ones that insisted on maintaining the “J.A.” As a consequence, the first nine books had no author bio, no author photo, and that gave rise to the rumor in Seattle that a retired Seattle homicide cop writes these books.
CJR: That must have been flattering.
JAJ: Well, it became less flattering when they started putting my picture on the books and then they said, “A retired Seattle homicide cop writes these books and she’s just a front for him.”
CJR: Oh, no! [Laughter]
JAJ: [Laughter] Yes!
CJR: This is like the rumors that surrounded Arthur Conan Doyle when people began to assume that Sherlock Holmes was a real character and that Conan Doyle had plagiarized John Watson’s narratives.
JAJ: Yes, I know.
CJR: That’s funny.
JAJ: But there are still people who are sure they knew “Big Al” Lindstrom from the police academy. I made “Big Al” Lindstrom up, completely.
CJR: That’s great.
CJR: Well, it must have been very gratifying to have struck pay dirt so quickly and also to feel that your gift was there from the beginning. The writing was just coming out and it wasn’t a struggle for you.
JAJ: Well, I wrote probably 12 or 13 Beaumont books; the first Walker Family book; and five Joanna Brady books, and Bill and I were on a 21-day trip in France. We got to our hotel on the Dordogne and the people at the desk said, “You have a phone call from The States.” We were afraid it was something going on with the kids back home, but it turned out it was my editor telling me that I’d made the New York Times list for the first time. So, it took a while to become an overnight success. [Laughter]
CJR: It always does, but it didn’t take you long to become a well-known author, it sounds like.
CJR: You were recognized right out of the chute.
CJR: Elmore Leonard started out writing westerns and his first crime book was rejected 84 times before he got anyone interested in publishing it.
JAJ: Alice, who is still my agent, by the way, we’ve operated on a handshake since 1982, she grew up in Brooklyn. Is married to a retired halibut fisherman here in Seattle. You meet him as a character in Lying in Wait, “Champagne Al.”
CJR: This is a Beaumont story?
JAJ: This is a Beaumont story. Now, does the name Thomas Blatt ring a bell with you?
CJR: No, sorry.
JAJ: Thomas Blatt was one of the eight or so teenagers who escaped from Sobibor. He spent his life devoted to making sure that Sobibor wasn’t forgotten because that wasn’t a concentration camp; that was a killing camp. I met him and Lying in Wait has to do with the gold that was removed from the corpses’ teeth. It’s an appalling story but I thought that by writing a book about it, I might help him bring awareness to people who wouldn’t know about it otherwise. Until I met Thomas Blatt, I had never heard of Sobibor. That was book Number 12. This is a Beaumont story. And you meet my agent’s husband as a halibut fisherman named “Champagne Al.”
Book Number 13 is called Name Withheld. Bill says, “That’s not really a very good name for a title.” I said, “Oh, it’ll be just fine—‘name withheld pending identification.’” The very first event I did for that book, there was a newspaper article written that said, “J. A. Jance will be here on such-and-such a day, at such-and-such a time to sign her new book. The name of the book is being withheld, pending publication.”
JAJ: I just wrote book Number 55, set between 1983 or 1982 and now.
CJR: That’s an amazing rate of production.
JAJ: Would you like to know how many times I’ve been reviewed in the New York Times?
CJR: How many times?
CJR: No. Just once?
JAJ: Once. That was back when I was still doing original paperback Beaumonts and the review is chiseled in my heart. “J. A. Jance has created a nice, little cottage industry for herself, writing her funny little books.”
CJR: You’re kidding.
JAJ: I am not kidding. And I do carry grudges. I think it’s really—well, I’m out here in the wild west.
CJR: I wanted to ask for more details about JP Beaumont because I don’t imagine that Jack Lyons could’ve told you that he likes doing crossword puzzles or—
JAJ: Oh, no.
CJR: – that he’s got a whole family tree going back three generations, or these particular details of this personality—I’m wondering where some of those came from?
JAJ: Well, they just sort of evolved over the years. I am not an outliner. I met outlining in Mrs. Watkins’ sixth-grade geography class. I hated outlining, then. Nothing that has happened to me in the intervening decades has changed my mind about outlining. So I sort of walked up to JP Beaumont and the one thing I knew about Jack Lyons was during those weeks we were involved in that case, he was 100 percent on that case. I know he smoked too much; he drank too much; and he got a divorce shortly thereafter.
CJR: Right after this case?
JAJ: Right after that case, so those were the few things I knew about Jack Lyons, going in. So of course, when JP Beaumont—when I started writing about him, first-person narrative, he couldn’t work all the time. So I had him do the kind of drinking I had lived with for 18 years. And as I was doing it, it was sort of—
CJR: You mean with your first husband?
JAJ: Yes. It was just stage business. It was something for him to do, you know? So, I am down in Portland at a B. Dalton’s—
CJR: May I ask, did your husband drink McNaughton’s, too?
JAJ: No. He did not. He drank Tequila and vodka. Anybody who tells you vodka doesn’t stink is wrong. I drank McNaughton’s because I was up here and it was very cheap [laughter].
CJR: [Laughter] I don’t know anything about Mcnaughton’s, but it’s cheap?
JAJ: It’s very cheap, yes. So I was down in Portland at a book signing for the fourth book, Taking the Fifth–it would’ve been smarter to name the fifth book, Taking the Fifth.
CJR: [Laughter] Yeah. It would have.
JAJ: Just in terms of making it easier to remember. But a woman came up to the table and she said, “You know Beau drinks every day? He has a drink of choice and it’s starting to interfere with his work. Does JP Beaumont have a problem?” I said, “You know, these are books?” [Laughter] “These are books.”
CJR: Well, I’ve wondered about that myself from the beginning.
JAJ: In the course of that set of signings, six other people asked me the same question and I thought, “You know, maybe the author is the last one to figure it out.” So, three books later, Beau has his first, legitimate blackout where he loses his car and he doesn’t remember where he left it. In book Number 8, he’s in treatment down in Arizona. I’ve just finished writing Beaumont Number 22, so there are now more books with him sober than there were with him drinking, but I still have people who tell me they liked him better when he was drunk [laughter].
CJR: Well, it conforms more to the stereotype; the guy who’s so burdened by the anxieties of his job that he has to drink to stay on the job. With Birds of Prey, he’s already in A.A. right?
JAJ: Correct. In Birds of Prey.
CJR: His step grandfather is his sponsor in A.A.
JAJ: The thing is, I was writing about Beau’s drinking without having any knowledge about Lawrence Block writing his books that dealt with sobriety. In general, I wasn’t reading crime books, either. I was writing my Walker Family books without having any knowledge of what Tony Hillerman was doing because, initially, I was so concerned about finding my own voice that I didn’t read other people’s books.
I have read one Sue Grafton, I don’t remember which. I remember thinking that Kinsey Millhone seemed isolated and lonely, but that could have had something to do with where I was in my life at the time. I also could see that Sue Grafton was a star and I wasn’t. Once I embarked on writing of my own, I stopped reading almost completely because I was worried about creative cross-pollination. It was only after I became more confident in my own voice that I was able to start reading other people’s books again. When I met Sue Grafton for the first time years later at a writer’s conference, I was and still am struck by her kindness and graciousness.
CJR: Grafton is well-known for refusing to let Kinsey Millhone appear in movies or on TV. She doesn’t want to give up an iota of artistic control. How about you?
JAJ: There’s been some talk, but no money. Someone from the “Spike Lee school of filmmaking” wanted to turn Beau into an African American. That didn’t fly. Someone else wanted to move Joanna Brady to North Carolina. Nope. That didn’t work, either.
CJR: Besides Grafton, you hadn’t read any police procedurals or Ed McBain?
JAJ: I read John D. McDonald.
CJR: What did you take away from him?
JAJ: It was The Tan and Sandy Silence, I believe. As someone from the desert, I was surprised to learn that roads in Florida were sometimes paved with sea shells. I loved the Busted Flush, but I was frustrated by the fact that Travis Magee never seemed to grow or change. I think that was my big takeaway there—and that’s why Beau really has grown and changed over the years.
And no, I hadn’t read Ed McBain. I hadn’t read any of those guys. I was just off in my little bubble.
CJR: Did you read any Mickey Spillane? It strikes me that there’s a bit of Dr. Charlotte Manning, the femme fatale of Spillane’s first book, I, the Jury, in Anne Corley.
JAJ: If that’s the case, it happened in a fashion that was entirely invisible to me, but then I spent several books not realizing that JP Beaumont had a drinking problem. I read Mickey Spillane and John D. McDonald a long time before I started writing, and both stuck in my memory. In fact, one of the exchanges Bill and I had early on, when we first started dating, was a piece of conversation from the end of I, the Jury, in which he said to me, “How could you?” and I replied, “It was easy.” The fact that we both knew that bit of dialogue helped tell us we were meant for each other.
CJR: Any TV detectives or—I mean, any other source at all? Because Beaumont is so tone perfect, I think, and so much in the tradition, that it’s surprising to me.
JAJ: For years—the first two years after I divorced my husband, I couldn’t sleep without having the TV set on because he was always watching Police Woman. [Laughter] He loved it.
CJR: Maybe it seeped into your awareness, somewhere.
JAJ: But when I started writing, I was a single parent with a full-time job selling life insurance, two little kids, no child support, and the time I had to write was 4:00 in the morning until 7:00 in the morning when I got the kids up to go to school, got myself dressed to go to work. I did not watch TV. The kids were in bed at 8:00; so was I, so no, I didn’t pay much attention to other crime writers. It was the storytelling bone that was in my head, rather than reading someone else. The first Agatha Christie I ever read was her autobiography, which a bookstore gave me as a gift for having done an appearance at their store. I read Daphne du Maurier. I loved Daphne du Maurier.
CJR: But even if you had that bone, it had to learn how to sing.
JAJ: Yeah [laughter].
CJR: It had to have some lessons, some models, somewhere.
JAJ: I think the storytelling bone is what a lot of creative writing programs don’t understand. You can’t graft the storytelling bone onto an intellect. Either it’s there or it’s not. You can hone it; you can point it in a good direction. Actually, I wrote nine Beaumont books in a row up to Payment in Kind. When I finished writing Payment in Kind, I told John Douglas, “I am really tired of JP Beaumont. I’m going to knock him off in the next book. John said, “Oh, no. Please don’t do that. Don’t do that. You remember that first book you wrote that nobody ever bought?” I said, “Yeah, I remember that book.” John Douglas was one of the people who turned that down. And he said, “Why don’t you rework that story and we’ll turn that into your first hardback?”
Well, I had a couple of problems with that. My first unpublished book, you may remember, was about that serial killer on the reservation. My husband was a witness in that case; it never went to trial because the guy did a plea agreement.
CJR: Really? Interesting.
JAJ: They charged him with two of the cases. The third case is still open in case he gets out. During the mid-to-late ‘80s, I had some relatives in Arizona working in the prison system and that guy was an exemplary prisoner and they were thinking about releasing him. I did not want to write a book that would cause him to look at me, so I agreed to write a different book. They gave me a check. They gave me a deadline, but I had no bad guy to go in this book. If I didn’t have a bad guy, how could I write this story? Well, my case of writer’s block was so bad that that year, when my University of Arizona alumni magazine came, I read the whole thing from cover to cover. That’s true desperation.
JAJ: So right there at the back, just before the obituaries was this article that said the newly reconstituted creative writing program at the University of Arizona was just going swimmingly. And I turned to Bill and I said, “You know, I graduated from there. I’ve got all of these books. It’s raining in Seattle. Maybe they’d like me to come to Arizona and be writer in residence for a semester in the sun.”
He said, “Call them up and ask them.”
I sold life insurance for ten years. I’m not afraid of a cold call, so I got the number and I called them up. Spoke to the director. Told them who I was, what I did. I even gave them my matriculation number at the U of A. 123199. I could still remember it.
He said—and this is a direct quote—“Oh. We don’t do anything with genre fiction, here. We only do literary fiction.” You know, it was a miracle. I was healed of writer’s block on the spot and the crazed killer in Hour of the Hunter is a former professor of creative writing from the University of Arizona.
CJR: [Laughter] “I’ve got my villain.”
CJR: They should know better than to say things like that to a “genre writer.”
JAJ: They should. They should.
CJR: But, to get back to influences, if it wasn’t crime fiction and it wasn’t Sue Grafton or Sara Paretsky or Marsha Muller—
JAJ: I never read a Marsha Muller.
CJR: If they weren’t the ones who influenced you,then you must have gotten your ideas about writing or—again, the storytelling gift is innate, to a certain extent, but you’ve got to have—
JAJ: John D. McDonald was the only one that I read with any regularity.
CJR: When you were young, when you were a girl, what did you read?
JAJ: I read Zane Grey. I read The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew.
CJR: The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. There you go.
JAJ: Cherry Ames. I thought for a while I wanted to be a nurse. That was a mistake [laughter].
CJR: But you were reading from an early age, obviously. You were getting the bug for storytelling.
JAJ: The bug for storytelling hit me in second grade.
JAJ: Because in second grade—in Bisbee, Arizona—at Greenway School, you had two choices of second-grade teachers: Mrs. Barker and Mrs. Spangler. I ended up in Mrs. Spangler’s room and that’s why we’re here today. Because, in her classroom, under the shelf, under the windows were bookshelves stacked with books. If you finished your work early, you could leave your desk and go over there. It was among Mrs. Spangler’s books that I discovered the world of Frank Baum.
Not just Dorothy and the ruby slippers but all of those other Oz books, as well. A lot of second-grade kids or little kids encountering those stories would be fascinated by the wizard behind the curtain. I glimpsed Frank Baum hiding behind the words. And from second grade on, I wanted to be the person putting the words on the pages.
CJR: There’s the hidden influence, then, Frank Baum.
JAJ: Yes. When I married my first husband in 1968, I had written a children’s book and the letter I got back from the editor in New York, I realized, later, was an acceptance: “If you’ll agree to make some changes, we’ll take this book.” My husband looked at that letter and said, “There’s only going to be one writer in our family and I’m it.”
CJR: This is the Faulkner guy.
JAJ: The Faulkner guy. For the 13 years we were married, I did nothing about my writing other than writing poetry under the dark of night. Have you seen my book of poetry, After the Fire?
CJR: I have not. Sorry. I only know you as a crime writer.
JAJ: Because it’s my most important book. I was doing a poetry reading of that book at that widowed retreat in 1985, which is where I met Bill.
The title poem goes like this: “I have touched the fire. It burned me, but I knew I lived. It seared me, but it made me whole. He called me. I went gladly, though I saw the rocks. Fell, laughing through the singeing air. I have known the fire. I’ll live with nothing rather than with less. The flame is out. There’s nothing left but ash.”
As husband material my first husband was a real loser but as the husband of a natural writer, the guy was a gold mine [laughter].
CJR: So, there’s a silver lining there?
CJR: So, Frank Baum. You like the movie version of Wizard of Oz at all?
JAJ: I went to see The Wizard of Oz at the Lyric Theatre in Bisbee, Arizona. I was growing up in Bisbee in the ‘50s. I remember being so appalled by the racism in the south, without having any inkling that at the Lyric Theatre in Bisbee, Arizona, the Mexicans had to sit up in the balcony. I went to see The Wizard of Oz with my mother at the Lyric Theatre. I remember being so disappointed at first when we got there and it was black and white, the Kansas part, before it switched to technicolor in Oz. But I loved it. I was enchanted. Enchanted.
CJR: Okay, I see this is going to open up all kinds of new vistas on JP Beaumont.
JAJ: [Laughter] Beau has—okay. I think we have to start with Until Proven Guilty. I realize, now, that him being absolutely captivated by Anne Corley, who was such a dangerous woman in a red dress, was really unbelievable. But Anne Corley was a compelling character.
CJR: She was.
JAJ: Here’s where she came from. For my 45th birthday, I decided I was going to give myself a gift. Redmond High School had a reading-for-pleasure thing and every day, for 20 minutes, the whole school shut down. The office—people in the office, the teachers, the kids, the janitors, the people in the cafeteria—everybody read for pleasure for 20 minutes. I thought, “You know, I write for pleasure. I should support this.” So I called the principal and I said, “On my 45th birthday, I would like to come and do a presentation at your school.” They had 1,600 kids.
I said, “I’d like to do an assembly. I’d like to speak to all of the kids and I’d like to speak to them for about 45 minutes.” He said, “You know, we have this lovely little auditorium that holds 400 kids at a time.” I said, “No. I don’t want to come and do four presentations. I’m not going to charge you for this. I’m going to do it for free but I want to do one presentation to all the kids.” He says, “Okay. Let me get back to you.” And he called me up and he said, “The day you wanted to come is the day our shop teachers have their pumpkin-carving contest.”
CJR: [Laughter] “Oh, no!”
JAJ: I said, “Well, that’s really the only day I can do it.” Then, he called me back and he said, “I didn’t know it but some of the shop teachers really like your books.”
JAJ: The day before I was supposed to go, my daughter, who was in high school, and who knew friends at that school, said, “Mom, can I give you a word of advice about tomorrow?” I said, “Okay.” She said, “Wear a long skirt,” so I did. Well, what I didn’t know is that one of the reasons the shop teachers were so enamored of my books is Anne Corley drove a Porsche. I was smart enough to pluck “Porsche” out of the ether. I had never ridden in one and there’s a Porsche hiding in that garage right now.
The shop teachers really thought it was slick. When I got to the school the next day, one of the shop teachers had actually borrowed a Porsche and I was driven into the gym in a Porsche, handed out of the car by the shop teacher, given flowers—listen. I was six feet tall in seventh grade. It was very nice to be a late-bloomer [laughter]—
CJR: [Laughter] So that was the reason for the long skirt?
JAJ: That was why the long skirt, to get out of the Porsche in front of all of those kids. 1,600 kids. I did my talk. It’s really hard to talk to two banks of kids on either side. Then, I opened it up for questions. This one kid says, “Where did Anne Corley come from?” This was 1990.
CJR: A future English professor, obviously
JAJ: This was a book I wrote in 1983. Came out in 1985 and it was standing there in front of those 1,600 kids when I figured out where Anne Corley came from.
JAJ: From me, because my grandfather—my father’s father—was a pedophile. When I was seven, he molested me. I didn’t tell and it turned out that because I didn’t tell, he molested my younger sister, and because my older sisters didn’t tell, he had molested me.
CJR: Is this the first time you’ve shared this outside of your immediate—?
JAJ: In front of 1,600 kids.
CJR: You realized it at that point it and it just came out?
JAJ: At that point, I realized Anne Corley came from me. That was who she was avenging. I told that story and during the book signing later, this little freshman girl came up to me and she said, “The same thing happened to me. What should I do?” I said, “There is a counselor. You need to talk to her.” I was 30 years old when my grandfather died. My father came up to visit where we were living on the Reservation. He said, “I don’t understand why none of my daughters came to my father’s funeral.” Holy crap, I thought. I guess somebody better tell him, and so I did.
CJR: He had no idea?
JAJ: When I finished telling him, he stood up. He walked across the living room and stood—he stood there for a minute or so staring out at Kitt Peak, and then he turned back to me and he said, “If I had known, I would’ve taken a gun and shot that sonofabitch.” It’s the only time I ever heard my father say a bad word.
That instant acceptance from him—the instant belief—was really an important part of my healing process, but so was writing Anne Corley.
CJR: Yeah, and she comes up again, too, in Partners in Crime. Well, she comes back over and over. JP doesn’t get over her, right? Until he meets Joanna Brady, when he goes to Bisbee to see what he can find out about Anne’s childhood, while he works on that case with Brady?
JAJ: Well, and now he’s married to Melissa Soames. The thing that’s interesting about Beau is he’s willing to learn and he learns from his mistakes but Anne Corley was in his life for such a brief time. She didn’t hang around long enough to become annoying. [Laughter]
CJR: Well, except for shooting him in the shoulder.
CJR: Just aside from trying to kill him.
JAJ: [Laughter] Aside from that. He only has the idea of Anne Corley because he never really had long enough to learn the reality and that’s part of why it takes so long for him to get over her.
CJR: This is one reason I find him so interesting, compared to the standard, hard-boiled male detectives, because Sam Spade falls for Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon but he’s too tough. He knows that she’s the femme fatale. He knows he better not get involved with her or he’ll play the sap. She’d turn on him the way she turned on everybody else. Beau just falls head over heels. I mean, he is so completely smitten. He’s a soft-boiled detective in a lot of ways. He constantly falls in love.
CJR: Ginger Watkins in the second book—
CJR: – and then Mona, the husband of Sig.
CJR: And Naomi Peppers, right? The woman he meets on board the cruise ship to Alaska?
JAJ: Yes. The cruise ship lady.
CJR: Joanna Brady, for that matter.
JAJ: I’ve had people who have—one lady said, “I’m not gonna read any more of your books. How could you have JP Beaumont and Joanna Brady have an affair?” [Laughter] I wrote back and I said, “What book did you read?” [Laughter]
He and Joanna have a moment. Cops have told me that in the aftermath of some big event, that if there’s a temptation to go off the rails, that’s when they can go off the rails.
CJR: This near-brush they have with death—yes, it makes sense. I mean, it didn’t seem out of character for either of them. Even though she’s devoted to Butch Dixon and her daughter Jenny and—
JAJ: You haven’t reached the point in Beaumont’s history where he’s working for S.H.I.T., have you?
CJR: Oh, yeah. He is, in the Joanna Brady book.
JAJ: Oh, on the Special Homicide Investigations Team?
CJR: Yeah. You make a big deal of that.
JAJ: Well, it was a running joke. Of course, his boss—
CJR: Does this really exist?
JAJ: No, it doesn’t [laughter]. It’s just a great concept. I have a friend who works for the attorney general in Utah. He said if his boss had a sense of humor, his agency would be called S.H.I.T., too. [Laughter] Beau’s boss at S.H.I.T., Harry Ignatius Ball—Harry I. Ball—is actually named after one of Bill’s uncles.
CJR: Oh, yeah? [Laughter] Really? His name is—
CJR: – Harold I. Ball?
CJR: Is he flattered to be—?
JAJ: He’s dead.
JAJ: Fortunately, for me. [Laughter]
CJR: [Laughter] I think that one of the most interesting things about Partners in Crime is the way you repeatedly shift the point of view between Beau and Brady. Was that difficult? Was it something you were experimenting with?
JAJ: Well, what happened is, it was Christmas. We were in Palm Springs. My editor called and she said, “Judy, you have two sets of readers. You have Beaumont readers and then you have the Brady readers. Could you write a book that could bring both of those readers to the same book?”
CJR: This was not your original idea, then? It was something suggested to you? A marketing idea originally?
JAJ: Yes. It was a marketing idea and my readers had been suggesting it, but my problem was if I couldn’t believe it, I couldn’t write it. Well, then Bisbee—the real Bisbee—built a new jail. Cochise County built a new jail. They built it with drug forfeiture money. They had a lot of that. They’d built it with the cheapest contractor and the contractor and architect had never built a jail before. It’s a bad idea to have hanging ceilings in jails!
One day, four inmates from the Cochise County jail broke out, walked up the road two miles to Saginaw, broke into a house, murdered an old man, tied up the woman, stole their goods and their pickup truck. Two of them were captured the next day in New Mexico. One of them was captured a year or so later in Panama City, Florida. The fourth one was captured in Tacoma four years later.
Suddenly, I could believe that could happen, so I decided to write it. I had these two sets of readers. Well, the Beaumont readers only know Beaumont in the first person. The Joanna Brady readers only know Joanna in the third person, so it was important that each set of readers feel comfortable in the book and that’s why I wrote it that way.
CJR: It shifts really well. The pace was good
CJR: Is it a technique you’ve used in other books?
JAJ: The first book in which I used that multiple points of view, multiple timeframe was Hour of the Hunter, the first Walker Family book.
CJR: I don’t know that series.
JAJ: If you haven’t read that, Hour of the Hunter, of all of my books—periodically, I’ll have to look up a detail from one of those early books–Hour of the Hunter is the only one where, if I pick it up to find a single detail, I end up reading the whole book because it’s sucked me in.
CJR: Would you say it’s the favorite book you’ve ever written? Your favorite?
JAJ: It’s close to my favorite book. Between Hour of the Hunter and Second Watch it’s a very close race. I spent five years as a K-through-12 librarian on the Tohono O’Odham Reservation. I told 26 stories a week in K-through-six classrooms. The Desert People have lived in that part of the southwest for 5,000 years. Some of the stories I told were the regular fairytales and stories that we all grew up with. Hans Christen Anderson and Cinderella and The Little Engine That Could, but I also learned and told the stories of the Tohono O’Odham people. Those stories and legends are woven into the background of all five of the Walker books.
They were the real legends, but the thing is, I didn’t have to change the legends because that’s the magic of folklore; it applies across all barriers of time and ethnicity and writing. Hour of the Hunter is told through six or seven points of view over an elastic timeframe that goes back over 70 years.
CJR: It’s different points of view but it’s still in third person as you shift point of view, or is it moving from one first person to another first person?
JAJ: No. It’s all third person.
CJR: Is there free indirect discourse where you’re following the thoughts of the characters as you go along?
JAJ: Yeah. One of my favorite characters in that book is this guy named Gabe Ortiz but everybody calls him “Fat Crack.” Some guy wrote to me and he says, “Why did you name that guy ‘Fat Crack’ in your book?” I wrote back and I said, “Think of any plumber you’ve ever met.”
JAJ: He wrote back and said, “Too much information.” Where do you think nicknames come from? Fat Crack starts out in that book as a perfectly happy Christian Scientist because there are a lot of missions and you have Indians who are Catholic and Indians who are Methodist and Indians who are Presbyterians. Presbyterians had a good thing going because they had the only swimming pool on the Reservation [laughter]—
JAJ: – so their summer programs were very popular. He starts out as a Christian Scientist and then is introduced to a blind medicine man named Looks at Nothing, and Looks at Nothing says, “I’m out of here. You’re the next medicine man,” so he—Gabe “Fat Crack” Ortiz–becomes a reluctant medicine man. That was the first book I wrote that wasn’t first-person narrative. It was like going on vacation. I’d write along and one piece of the story would stop and I’d say, “Well, I’ll write about this one for a while,” so it was like French braiding a book. It was more like weaving a book than it was writing it.
CJR: Could I ask about your relationship to American Indian culture? You said that you worked on a reservation.
JAJ: I went to work on a reservation because my first husband’s job—his grades in student teaching were so bad that that was the only place he could get a job. They hired me to come be the librarian, even though I only had six credits of library science when they hired me.
CJR: You had some.
JAJ: I had some.
CJR: You were the children’s librarian?
JAJ: I was a K-through-12 librarian in the school district. My parents, living in Bisbee then, were mystified that I was out there on the Reservation. They were from South Dakota and South Dakota’s attitude towards Indians is the only good Indian is a dead Indian.
CJR: Your family had moved from South Dakota?
JAJ: We moved from South Dakota in 1949 for my dad’s health. He had been six months bedridden with rheumatoid arthritis in South Dakota. He went to Bisbee and recovered his health completely in the high, dry climate. In his 80s on a cruise to Australia he climbed Ayers Rock. So they were in Bisbee.
Bisbee is about 100 miles from Tucson and where my husband and I lived was 30 miles beyond Tucson and where we taught was 30 miles beyond that. We had a 60-mile-a-day commute. 30 miles in each direction. It was a traffic jam if there were cattle on the highway—
CJR: [Laughter] Of course.
JAJ: – or if we got caught behind a school bus [laughter].
CJR: The Walker Family refers to what in the books?
JAJ: Well, the main character in Hour of the Hunter is a lady named Diana Ladd, who’s a teacher on the Reservation but she always wanted to be a writer. Like me, she had a husband who was allowed in the creative writing program that was closed to her. Her husband is dead at the beginning of the book.
CJR: I see why it’s your favorite.
JAJ: Brandon Walker is the detective who, when the professor of creative writing gets out of prison and comes back looking for the two women who put him away—that’s Diana Ladd and the lady who is Diana’s friend and nanny to her son—Brandon Walker is the guy who’s assigned to fix it. He and Diana become an item. There is a scene where her son is injured and Brandon Walker takes him to the E.R. It’s a real character-building scene. It’s an important scene. In the second book, Brandon Walker and Diana Ladd have been married.
That book is called Kiss of the Bees. Diana’s written a book and she knows the story of the killer—the serial killer—from her point of view, from being married to the guy, her first husband, that the killer sucked in to his whole plot. Andrew Carlyle (that’s the professor’s name) writes to her from prison and says, “Wouldn’t you like to hear the other side of the story? Wouldn’t you like to hear my side of the story?” Brandon Walker tells her, “Don’t do this. Don’t go there. Don’t touch this.”
CJR: “He’ll suck you in”—
JAJ: – and he does. By the time I wrote Kiss of the Bees, Diana and Brandon had been married for a long time and were adopting an Indian child. I called the series The Walker Family books because now we’re seeing in book Number 5 the daughter that they adopted is a physician on the reservation. Those books cover a lot of time. They stretch from the 1800s to now. I’m sort of the John Jakes of the Reservation. [Laughter]
CJR: [Laughter] You mentioned Tony Hillerman, whose work you really admire, apparently.
CJR: What kinds of research did you have to do for the Walker Family books? It sounds like you needed to learn more about Native American culture even though you had been teaching the legends.
JAJ: I had been teaching the legends but I wrote that book when I had been away from the Reservation for 20 years. I did 70 inter-library loans and all of these books came through our house here in Bellevue and I read through them. One of them was Indian Oasis and I taught at Indian Oasis School District, so that book was the source for the “outing matron.”
Every Reservation had an “outing matron” and her job was to gather up the kids from the reservation, from all the villages, and take them into Tucson and get them on a train and send them to Phoenix Indian or to the Indian School in Albuquerque. Well, the word for “train” in Tohono O’Odham translates as “iron monster.” I could imagine these kids—it would take three days for them to gather up all the kids and trek by wagon into Tucson to put the kids on the train.
I knew how frightened some of those little kids were just coming into Sells to school in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s because it was such a foreign world to them. I could imagine these kids waiting on the platform to get inside this iron monster. Then, I read another book, The Autobiography of the Papago, written by one of those little kids who knew that outing matron. Guess what? Because they were Indians, they didn’t get to ride inside the train. They had to ride up on the roof.
CJR: No. Really?
JAJ: When I wrote that into the book, people thought that it was made up. But the parents would buy their kids Stetsons—new Stetsons to take away to school–and the train track from Tucson to Phoenix would be littered with—
CJR: Of course. They’d just blow right off.
JAJ: But to get back to your question about knowing the culture. You know Saguaro? Saguaro cactus?
JAJ: Okay, so the fruit of the cactus grows on the very tops of those branches and they use sticks—ribs from other, dead saguaros—to knock down the fruit. Then, they cook it and mash it up and make it into this really powerful liquor. It’s sort of the consistency and color of tomato juice but with the punch of Tequila. Then, they have the wine dance—everybody goes and you sit in a circle and you sit around a fire. It’s the dead of summer. What people don’t understand, in the summer, once the sun goes away, it gets desperately cold. Even in the summer, you’ll need a fire to sit around. Everybody sits in a circle and they pass around a cup filled with this juice and everybody takes a drink and passes it. The idea is that you drink enough that you barf. That takes the fruit from the cactus and returns it to the Earth, thus completing the circle. Our Anglo sensibility is just sort of, “Ew!”
CJR: Yeah, right.
JAJ: Among the Tohono O’odham that’s a sacred tradition. In 1972, we had a baby and when it came time for the wine dance, my husband Jerry Jance went and I stayed home with the baby. By the way, his name was Jerry Jance but it was spelled J-A-N-C so it was mostly mispronounced “Jank.” After he died and went to his reward, I bought a vowel for 400 bucks.
JAJ: [Laughter] So people would say it properly.
JAJ: For as long as he lived, he really rubbed my nose in the fact that he got to sit in the circle and I did not. A number of years ago, after the fourth Walker Family book came out, Queen of the Night, the guy who runs the tribal museum in Topawa asked me if I would come down and do a book signing there. Well, it had been 40 years since I had been on the Reservation and I was really nervous about it. It was posted on the internet as a public signing. We got there on this very cold, blustery Saturday morning and Bill and I pulled into the parking lot and it was full of all these cars from Montana and South Dakota and Wisconsin and Illinois. My goal in writing those books was to make that world come alive for people who would never go to the Reservation. These were all my fans and they would have seen it posted on the calendar so they all came—drove 60 miles one way—to see what this was all about.
I was very nervous. We went in and the master of ceremonies introduced the medicine man and the medicine man did the prayer in Tohono O’Odham. I know he was talking about me part of the time because, every once in a while, he would say the word “librarian” and there’s evidently no word for “librarian” in Tohono O’Odham.
JAJ: The master of ceremonies said, “Okay. We’re gonna have the young people come out and dance a circle dance. This is a sacred dance. Please, do not take photos during the sacred dance. When we open it up for social dancing, you’re welcome to take pictures then and to join the circle.” They opened it for social dancing and I thought, “You know, Judy, isn’t it about time you put your money where your mouth is? Why don’t you go down and join the circle?” I stood up and went down to dance in the circle and they gave me a standing ovation. I’m down there dancing in the circle and my heart is just overflowing with joy. Then, those other Anglo ladies from Illinois and Wisconsin—they came down and danced in the circle, too. It’s one of the very high points of my whole career.
CJR: Fantastic. Wonderful.
JAJ: I think I’ve had a pretty damned interesting life. [Laughter]
CJR: [Laughter] You have. You really have. The sort of life where you come back to where you were before and revise what happened.
JAJ: Now, I must tell you about Second Watch. A number of years ago, we’re sitting at Thanksgiving dinner and my one stepson, Tom, says at Thanksgiving, “You know, Mom,” as only a 40-something can say, “You know, Mom, Beaumont’s getting pretty long in the tooth. Have you ever thought of writing a Beaumont prequel?”
I gave him my icy, glacier, blue-eyed stare, and said, “No, Tom. I’ve never thought about writing a prequel.” Then, suddenly, it was August and the only idea I had for the next Beaumont book was to write a prequel. It starts with Beaumont having bilateral knee-replacement surgery, which my husband had nine years ago this week.
Years ago, I was doing a book signing for the second Brady book and a woman came up to the table and said, “Have you ever been to Bisbee, Arizona?” I said, “I grew up in Bisbee, Arizona.” She said, “Did you ever know somebody named Doug Davis?” I said, “Of course, I knew Doug Davis.”
Doug Davis was a local hero. He was a year ahead of me in school. He was the class valedictorian in 1961. Went from Bisbee High to West Point. West Point to Ranger school. Ranger School to Vietnam. Died in Vietnam on the 2nd of August 1966, weeks before his 23rd birthday. I didn’t attend his funeral because I didn’t hear about it until after it had already happened. I always felt guilty about that. I felt as though I had let Doug down. Well, it turns out the woman at the book signing was the sister of the woman, Bonnie, who was engaged to marry Doug when he died. Bonnie was working in Florida.
Her sisters were living in Seattle and they got her started reading the Beaumont books. She flew often and was used to getting a Beaumont book at the airport, getting on a plane and going to Miami and reading about Beau. She got on her plane and started reading and suddenly in her mind she was in Bisbee, Arizona in Evergreen Cemetery where Doug is buried. She called her sister and said, “I just read this book. J.A. Jance must have lived in Bisbee and she must have known Douglas.” So, Bonnie’s sister went home from the book signing, called her up, and said, “Yes, J.A. Jance—Judy Jance—is from Bisbee, Arizona. She did know Doug and she’s calling you in the morning.”
I called her up and we talked on the phone for an hour and a half and we became friends. Now, it’s August and I’m getting ready to start this book. I thought, “You know, Beau is my age. He would’ve been a year younger than Doug. What if Doug turned out to be Beau’s commanding officer in Vietnam?” I called Bonnie up because, by now, we’d been friends for years. I asked Bonnie, “What would you think if I wove Doug’s story into the background of the next JP Beaumont book?”
She said, “Well, let me think about it.” She thought about it for a couple of days and she called me back and she said, “Doug’s mother is gone. His brother is gone. There is no one but me left to say ‘Yay’ or ‘Nay’ but I think my Douglas would be safe in your hands.”
When Bill had his knee replacement surgery, he was very happy and very funny when he was under the influence of drugs and he had very vivid dreams. Under the influence of drugs, Beau has this encounter with a vision of Doug, who shows up in his hospital room and looks out the wrong window at the Space Needle. You know, you can tell [laughter] right off. That that’s—
CJR: Yeah, a giveaway.
JAJ: In the course of the book, Beau realizes that when he came back from Vietnam, he never reached out to Bonnie. He never told her what he should have. By the end of the book, he has found Bonnie. In real life, Bonnie went to Bisbee. She was 26 years old. She had just lost the love of her life but the flag went to Doug’s mother. It didn’t go to Bonnie. She was the fiancé. She wasn’t the wife. She wasn’t the widow.
CJR: She had no real—so-called real—relationship.
JAJ: So in the book, Beau and his wife, Mel, take Bonnie to Bisbee for a Veterans Day ceremony. They go to the Vietnam Memorial at Bisbee High School, where Doug’s name is the first name of the seven listed there. At the end of the ceremony, when the Boy Scouts fold up the flag, they give it to Bonnie, so she ended up with a flag in fiction. I thought, “You know, fiction isn’t really good enough,” so Bill and I went to Bisbee High School. We retired their flag. We gave them a new one and we gave Bonnie that flag.
I finished writing the book and usually I finish writing a book and I leave that one and I walk away and I start working on the next one but that book would not—it would not be put down. I wrote an essay called “The Story Behind Second Watch,” and appended it at the end of the book. I told about Doug and growing up in Bisbee, seeing him at the Latin Club party wearing a toga. I sent that piece to Bonnie. Bonnie sent it to one of Doug’s classmates from West Point.
He sent it to another classmate from West Point, who went down into his basement, went through his box from Vietnam, and came up with a photo that he took of Doug in the Pleiku Highlands on the 30th of July, two days before Doug died. On a January morning, I was sitting here. Bonnie was sitting over on Whitbey Island, and gradually, this image appears on our both our screens because it was a huge file. It took forever to download. There’s Doug Davis, looking just like I imagined him when I wrote that scene in the hospital.
Bonnie went on tour with me with that book and she told about having to wait on a railroad siding out in the middle of the desert where this freight train had to stop because they didn’t want the body to be delivered to a train depot in town for fear there would be protesters.
CJR: Even in Bisbee, there was an anti-war—?
JAJ: Oh, of course. Of course.
CJR: What a terrible time for everybody.
JAJ: Bonnie remembered being in line at the post office to send Doug a care package and having people tell her she shouldn’t be sending something to a baby killer. Bill and I were on our way home from our European cruise yesterday, and I remembered, Vera Lynn has a song: [Sings] “We’ll meet again. Don’t know where, don’t know when but I know we’ll meet again on some sunny day. Tell the people I know that when you saw me go, I was singing this song, ‘We’ll Meet Again,’” and I was thinking about Bonnie and Doug. [Sniffs] [Crying] They never had that sunny day.
JAJ: In London, waiting for the plane, we were in the lounge—the BA lounge and there was a woman who had just started reading Second Watch. I went up to her and I autographed the book and I told her, “There’s a big piece of my heart in this book.”
CJR: I see why it means so much to you. Did you know that when you started writing it?
JAJ: No. I had no idea that Bonnie would end up in the book [laughter].
CJR: You have so much of yourself in your work. In your writing.
JAJ: I do. When people say, “You’re prolific,” that sort of pisses me off because that sounds like I just pop the books out like popcorn.
CJR: –without thinking of them.
JAJ: There are pieces of me in every single one of those books. They’re real pieces. I haven’t phoned it in.
CJR: This sort of leads to my next question. Obviously, so much of you is invested in your books and also in the places you describe.
CJR: You grew up in Bisbee. Why should Seattle loom so large? Why begin in Seattle? Why not a Beaumont character in Bisbee? That seems to be, from what you say, so much more a part of or more impactful on your life than Seattle.
JAJ: Arizona will always be my home. It’s wonderful that people who have just read Downfall can talk about Geronimo peak in a knowledgeable fashion. [Laughter]
Arizona will always be my home but Seattle will always be my creative home because this is where I was living when I started writing. This is where I finally gave myself permission to live my dream.
CJR: Very interesting.
JAJ: I use real places because I’m lazy. If I wanted to invent a universe, my name would be Frank Herbert and I would write Dune. I use real places so I know about the birds; I know about the weather; I know about the distances; I know about the traffic. I can report on those things in the background while keeping my eye on what the characters are doing in the foreground.
CJR: It looks as though you also like to stage scenes at well-known locales—it’s a little bit like Alfred Hitchcock, in North by Northwest, with Mount Rushmore—at least, in the Beaumont books I’ve read. You like to end at some well known tourist place or public monument or, I’m thinking of the second book, in the civic center with all the escalators and Darrell falls through the skylight, or Snoqualmie Falls, in the first Beaumont book?
JAJ: Snoqualmie Falls, yes. Well, I like to use things people regard as touchstones. The Doghouse was this scuzzy, awful restaurant in downtown Seattle. I went there because I was poor and for five bucks I could have a grilled tuna, a cup of coffee, a dish of ice cream and a tip. I took Bill there. He’s an electronics engineer. I took him to the Doghouse and all he could see was all the wiring [laughter]—it was totally out of compliance [laughter].
JAJ: He knew that place was a fire trap. It turned out that the Doghouse, which I stumbled into, accidentally, was this touchstone for people from all over Seattle—people who were proposed to in the Doghouse. People who did this; people who did that. I just lucked into it but people like encountering familiar places in books.
CJR: On this note, I need to convey the admiration of my sister-in-law and her husband, who are fans of yours. They live on the lower part of the Queen Anne district and they can look out over the downtown area and they pointed towards where the Doghouse was. They remembered it. It’s too bad it’s not there, now. They pointed to the Darth Vader building and—
CJR: – so they were very helpful identifying your landmarks. They probably represent a good portion of your fan base, who also respond immediately to the factual details.
JAJ: You can tell them from me that Beau’s building is Bay Vista in disguise.
CJR: This is the Belltown Terrace? The condo that he buys?
JAJ: Belltown Terrace, yes. Where he lived. I was living there and what happened is the developers went broke and they only sold like seven or eight units and then they had to make the rest into rentals. They came to us and had us sign a piece of paper saying we wouldn’t do anything in public to denigrate the building. Well, I had two little kids. I could’ve had my kids out protesting in a minute—
JAJ: – and then KIRO would’ve been there, covering it. I named the building “Belltown Terrace” rather than Bay Vista. Years later, the developer came to me and he said, “Judy, why don’t you use Bay Vista’s real name in your books?” I said, “Don’t you remember that piece of paper you made me sign?”
CJR: Do you have readers who will correct you? Will they try to tell you, “Oh, no. This isn’t right,” or—?
JAJ: Oh, no. I have readers who will only read the Seattle books or who will only read the Arizona books. I actually had a woman—when Hour of the Hunter came out, I was doing a book signing up at the top of Queen Anne Hill. She said, “Is this a Seattle book?” I said, “No. It’s set in Arizona.” She said, “I only read books set on Queen Anne.” She must have read at least three or four books [laughter].
CJR: How would she know ahead of time? She’d have to read a review of it somewhere and find out whether it corresponds to her neighborhood.
JAJ: I am amused by the strictly geographical readers who will only read one or the other series and won’t cross over.
CJR: That’s not me. I love reading exactly that kind of locale-oriented crime and detective fiction because it’s—
JAJ: You can learn so much.
CJR: – yes, such a slice of life—it’s like traveling in your mind without having to actually be there.
JAJ: Well, those early Beaumont books are now legitimately historical fiction.
CJR: Right. I like the way you constantly weave in contemporary events like the gentrification of the neighborhood and the construction going on downtown and how it displaced—which book is it? The Jasmine Day one where the homeless get displaced—
JAJ: Yes, yes.
CJR: – and they’re mixing with these upscale people moving in and it’s a real demographic study.
JAJ: Well, one guy wrote to me and he said, “Why is Beaumont always going through Seattle looking for a quarter and a payphone? Why doesn’t he just use his cell?” I said, “You need to look at the publication date.” Hello?
CJR: Besides, Beau wouldn’t want to use a cell phone. You’re making him this kind of technological Neanderthal, right? He’s not even going to get an answering machine until Ames shoves it down his throat.
JAJ: But he’s coming along. He’s learned. He’s now working his crossword puzzles on his iPad.
CJR: He’s open to change but he drags his feet.
JAJ: He does drag his feet but he’s gotten a lot smarter about women and he understands that when Mel tells him, “Fine,” it probably isn’t.
CJR: [Laughter] Decoding. The decoding is getting better, right?
JAJ: Birds of Prey. You just read Birds of Prey.
CJR: Sure. Oh, he’s a softy in Birds of Prey.
JAJ: Bill and I were on a cruise ship—it was formal night.
CJR: This was one of those Alaskan—?
JAJ: This was one of those Alaskan cruises. I made an appointment in the beauty shop, came back to the room with my hair in an upsweep. Bill says, “Looks just like the fenders on a ’58 Cadillac.”
CJR: [Laughter] Which I think is in the book, right?
JAJ: Where it lives in infamy, yes. [Laughter]
CJR: That’s great. One more question, about Beau. Was it a deliberate decision to make him come into money? I mean, he’s got a lot of maneuverability once he becomes wealthy, at the end of the very first book, right? He can help Ron Peters get his kids out of the clutches of that religious cult that his estranged wife joined, and—
JAJ: You have to understand that I had no idea I was writing a series. I thought I was writing a standalone book. They bought it as a series and then I had to figure out what to do with the guy who had all that money.
CJR: Right. He’s not your standard, hardboiled detective guy living in a—
JAJ: A hovel.
CJR: Yeah. Some little walkup in a down-at-the-heels part of town.
JAJ: Yeah. He’s doing okay. I had a real struggle with that because why would he keep working? That’s the interesting thing about a lot of American men and American women; we keep on working because we love what we do.
CJR: Sure. I noticed Joanna Brady came into some money, too.
JAJ: She did. She did but her husband is also coming along as a writer.
CJR: Yes. He has to change his name because they don’t want a male writer of cozies. You had to change yours for the opposite reason.
JAJ: Yes [laughter].
CJR: Yeah. And he wants his model trains to be on display in their new house. Joanna comes around, eventually.
JAJ: I answer all my email. All of it. It’s my job because my readers are my bread and butter business. One woman wrote to me—okay, in the most recent Joanna Brady book, Downfall, she’s had a problem with her mother all along and her mother was the last parent standing and Joanna is the last parent standing. And Joanna is gradually figuring out that her father wasn’t perfect and her mother wasn’t the source of all evil. George and Eleanor, her stepfather and mother die just before the beginning of Downfall.
JAJ: Yes. They’re shot by a highway shooter. A freeway shooter on I-17. North of Phoenix. That happens in a novella called Random Acts and that was something special. I did something really slick, because I had two publishers: Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins. I got them to agree to let me write two novellas with characters from the two different series that each of them publishes.
CJR: That’s a coup, isn’t it?
JAJ: It was sort of like Romeo & Juliet, I thought.
JAJ: Random Acts has both Ali Reynolds and Joanna Brady in it. The action in that novella takes place just before the action in Downfall, so you really need to read Random Acts before you read Downfall.
Anyway, so through the whole book you’re building up to the funeral at the end of Downfall. The memorial for George and Eleanor. They have this little kid, Denny Dixon, who is five years old, and he says, “If we’re having a party for grandpa and grandma, are there going to be balloons?” Butch makes sure that every balloon available in Bisbee, Arizona is there.
At the end of the memorial BBQ, because George was a fan of Roy Rogers, and because his RV had a sign, “Happy Trails,” everybody sings “Happy Trails” and they let those balloons go up. This woman wrote to me, “I should have thought that someone of your intellectual capability would understand how harmful to the environment it is to release all those helium balloons into the air.” You know, I thought, “They were fictional balloons released into a fictional environment.” [Laughter]
CJR: She’s thinking, it’s the example. You don’t want people imitating it.
JAJ: When someone writes me an email where I’m tempted to respond in a very snarky fashion, I do have a preset email response, “Thank you for writing. Your input is appreciated.” It’s not worth—
CJR: There’s no point in engaging.
JAJ: No. Time’s too short.
CJR: As it is now. I’m afraid I really have to head back. This has been a real pleasure. I appreciate it. Thanks so much for making the time.
JAJ: You’re welcome. You’re welcome.