An Interview with J.A. Jance
- By Janet A. Martin
- November 13, 2018
Defying ageism, the bestselling author is still penning suspenseful mysteries.
J.A. (Judith Ann) Jance has written 56 books, sold millions of murder mysteries, created distinctive heroes and heroines to solve crimes, and, at 74, is still going strong. Her publishing pace of two books per year is galloping, and she discounts the notion of aging with humor and disdain.
"Am I glad to be an old bat and still writing?” she says. “Yes. Ageism only works if we allow ourselves to be devalued. I'm not going there. I'm 74, writing on a daily basis, and proud to be [doing] so."
At home in Seattle and Tucson, Jance has an engaging, throaty laugh and a fluid way of speaking that tells stories as she trips along. Reached by telephone for an interview on her newest mystery, Field of Bones, she admitted, "My career didn't take off all at once. and that's a good thing. It's been a journey — for 30-plus years. I like to say it only takes 30 years to become an overnight success!”
Those years have been, and still are, filled with vignettes developed into suspenseful novels written in the age-old way reminiscent of “Dragnet,” a radio show that moved to TV in the 1950s and featured a crime, a lead detective, and a labyrinth of fact-finding and probing suspects to solve the case.
Jance's writing style is brief, punched, and carefully threaded, with alternating chapters told, in part, by an omniscient narrator who relates facts while painting a vivid landscape — often of the desert reminiscent of Bisbee, Arizona, the small town where the author grew up.
As her millions of readers attest, she is a suspenseful, descriptive writer, darting among characters’ perspectives to carry the mystery forward, rendering disparate scenes that may reflect the humorous intrigue of modern-day police work or the depraved mind of a serial killer who kidnaps young women and chains them in a basement. Either way — amused or horrified — the reader keeps turning pages, lured by suspense.
Do you have a daily writing schedule or specific habits to get your work done?
I work every day. I get up, make coffee, answer emails, read the newspapers, and then go to work. No days off. No sick leave. I don't have set hours or a specific number of pages.
Some people feel that entering the writers' market today is harder than ever; it requires an agent to attract a publisher, and the competition is immense. Were your early attempts to publish nurtured by less-pressured times?
I think breaking into writing is always difficult. I started out with a literary agent; she's been my agent ever since. Yes, beginning authors need literary agents. I don't have a way to judge if it’s more difficult now than it was back then. All I have is my own experience, but I disagree with the premise that fiction has been replaced by nonfiction. Human beings need stories.
Writing has become more of a business. The dominating aspects seem to be marketing, selling, building a social-media platform, and so forth. Are you pressured to do these things, or has your reputation as a bestselling author made them unnecessary?
In our household, I write the books. My husband writes the checks. He handles the business end of the business. My publisher handles the marketing. I've hired an IT person who handles the website part of the business, posts my blogs, and sends out newsletters. I respond personally to all emails. The people who write to me are added to my database. When I started, my list consisted of the people who had been my clients in the insurance business. There were probably 200 people. Today, my database and social-media outreach include tens of thousands of people. Are they the foundation of my success? Absolutely.
Where do you get your ideas?
Things come across my radar — sometimes from the news, but mostly out of my own head. I try to stay away from stories about real homicides because real murders affect real people, and they never get over it.
You've sold between 25-30 million books. Why do you continue to write?
When I bought my first computer in 1983, the guy who sold it to me fixed it so that every morning when I booted it up, these words showed up on the screen: A WRITER IS SOMEONE WHO HAS WRITTEN TODAY. And that's still true. Writers write — new writers and old writers included.
Janet A. Martin is a journalist with writing and production credits in newspapers, national news, and public television. She is the author of The Christmas Swap, a seasonal work of fiction, available online and through select booksellers. She and her husband live on a farm in Gordonsville, VA.