Those Who Win the Game

Tucson's J.A. Jance turns past pain into literary gain

I learned the truth at 17 ...

Actually, Judith Ann Jance learned a lot of hard truths before that age. Like, it's tough growing up in a mining town in Arizona where just about everybody's dad goes to work at a job in a giant hole in the ground, one from which he might not return one day. Where the women tended the company houses in which the families lived and the men, many of whom had survived the horrors of war, worked hard and drank hard and pretty much mortgaged their lives so that maybe their kids could go off to college and not have to end up working in that damned hole.

It's hard enjoying an Arizona sunset when you live in a place surrounded by ever-growing mountains of slag created from the mining process. And sometimes, it's hard dreaming the big dream when you live in a place where the Event of the Year is the high school football game against the hated Douglas Bulldogs from the border town some 20 miles away, down in the valley where they can see the sunset if it's not obscured by the smoke from the smelting operation around which that town's economy is built.

But those were universal truths, shared and understood by prom queens and nerd boys alike. What Judith Jance learned--the long, hard way, and with no one with whom to share the experience--is that it's damn hard and no fun to be different. It's no fun at all to be 6 feet tall in the seventh grade. (It's not all that great for a boy to be 6 feet tall at that age; for a girl, it's gotta be hell.) And in that 6-foot-tall corpus were joints and limbs and digits that had to be cajoled into working together. No, it wasn't enough to be 6 feet tall; she had to be that tall and (her words) "totally uncoordinated."

And those whose names were never called when choosing sides for basketball ...

Oh, she might have been called at first, but after word spread quickly about the gracelessness with which she moved, she was quickly relegated to the unofficial position of bystander. That was fine with her, for atop that frame perched a head with a brain in it, an active brain, full of ideas and notions, silly and otherwise. Alas, there, too, she was stymied, for her brain's windows to the world were somewhat (or a whole lot) defective, necessitating The Glasses.

Had Judith Jance grown up today, at least she would benefit from the fact that Coke no longer comes in bottles. The mean kids (meaning just about everybody else in the school) would have to come up with some other phrase with which to ridicule her eyewear.

She needed those glasses because she loved to read--no, she loved to devour--books. It had started when Mrs. Spangler, her second-grade teacher at Greenway School, turned her on to L. Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz series. (Yes, there's a book; actually, several. It's like that episode of Cheers where Sam Malone reads War and Peace in a week just to impress Diane Chambers. At the end of the show, Diane romantically suggests that they retire to a darkened theater where they can watch the movie that was made from the book, to which Sam grits his teeth and grunts, "There's a movie?!")

The middle child in the family by several years--both four years older and four years younger than her two closest siblings--she was a loner at home and at school. She found solace and vicarious adventure in the written word, and it helped her become a top student.

"I was smart; still, my teenage years were bad," Jance says. "But being turned into an observer rather than being an active participant was good training for being a writer."

Upon her graduation in 1962 from Bisbee High, she earned an academic scholarship and became the first person in her family to attend a four-year college.

She plowed her way through the University of Arizona in four years (Remember when people used to be able to do that?) and earned a secondary-education degree in English. She would later earn a master's of education degree in library science. She taught English at Pueblo High on Tucson's westside for a couple of years and then became the K-12 librarian for the Indian Oasis School District in Sells, on the Tohono O'odham reservation.

"During the years on the reservation, I was in sponge mode, gathering information, and experiences," Jance recalls. "I was also writing poetry at night."

All along, she had the fire, the passion to write. It had been frustrated at every turn, mostly by teachers and professors who went beyond indifference into scorn. The man who taught creative writing at the UA went so far as to tell her that women should become "teachers or nurses," and not writers.

That call and say, "Come dance with me ..."

According to Jance, when she was unable to get into the creative-writing program, she did "the next best thing": She married a man who was allowed in the program that was off limits to her. This guy was straight out of central casting: big talker, big drinker, small writer. Unpublished writer and, therefore, nonexistent writer.

Oh, but he let Judith know where her place was. He echoed the creative-writing prof's sentiments; he was the writer, and she was there to lend support to his futile efforts. His admission into the creative-writing program at the UA didn't help much; he never had a word published during his life, nor since his death at the ghastly early age of 42 from chronic alcoholism.

"I was married to a man who wanted to be a writer, but couldn't handle the competition. He told me in 1968 that there was only going to be one writer in the family, and he was it."

Jance and her husband worked together for a time, not as writers, but as educators out on the rez. It's either a written rule or an unwritten one that people of the Caucasian persuasion are not allowed to live on Indian land. That's why today, non-native teachers who work in Sells gather at a parking lot at Ajo Way and Mission Road at some ungodly early hour and climb onto a bus that takes them west out of town, past the Kitt Peak Observatory, onto the reservation. In the old days, you had to drive for freakin' ever until you got to Sells, and the schools were right there on the main drag of State Highway 86. They've since built a new high school, so now you have to go for freakin' ever, then turn left and go a few more miles to get to the school.

Desperately remained at home ...

When they were teaching in the Indian Oasis schools, Jance and her husband lived in the garden spot that is Three Points, adjacent to the reservation. "We wore out several cars making that drive into Sells every day," she says.

She wrote surreptitiously, pounding out poetry after her husband was asleep. She even received an encouraging letter from an editor who was interested in one of her children's stories, but her husband slammed the door on that notion. Being a newlywed, she went along for a time, but the fire smoldered in her belly and slowly began to eat away at her from the inside out.

The couple stayed together for a time and had two children, but the marriage eventually fell apart. She had the kids and, shock of shocks, he provided no child support. By then, she was selling insurance, which on the Yuck! scale, comes ahead of only being a part of the Malaki government and death, the two of which are generally interchangeable.

It was a full 20 years from when she had graduated high school that she began writing in earnest. "When I started writing my first novel in 1982, I wrote from 4 to 7 every morning before I got my kids up to go to school. I also wrote on weekends. I didn't write at night; by the time I finished up with Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts and soccer, I was in bed every night by 8."

Her routine was similar to another popular--and prolific--writer, Elmore Leonard (Get Shorty, among many others). Leonard also sold insurance and longed to be a writer. He began getting up extra early every day so he could write, but more often than not, he'd put on a pot of coffee and start reading the morning paper. Pretty soon, it was time to go to work, and he hadn't written a word. It was only after he imposed a No-Coffee-Until-Some-Writing-Has-Happened rule upon himself that he pounded out some short stories, and his career took off.

Jance's first serious work was a lumbering 1,200-page fictionalized account of some grisly murders that took place in Tucson in 1970. Not having been allowed in those writing classes back at the UA, she hadn't learned the lesson about not trying to shove every single fact that you've uncovered into the story. (People who have done term papers know that feeling: I took the time to learn this stuff, so now you're going to learn it, too.)

To this day, despite her wild success, that book has still never been published, although the Air Force was considering using the original manuscript as a bunker-buster bomb.

Oddly enough, the editors told her that the factual parts seemed unbelievable while the fictionalized parts rang true. Her agent (and how she managed to get an agent would probably make for a great book) told her that she should try her hand at fiction.

In 1985, she produced Until Proven Guilty featuring the Seattle-based homicide detective J.P. Beaumont. Physically, she based Beaumont on a Tucson homicide detective she had met while researching the bunker-buster book. To add the grit of realism, she made Beaumont a drunk. In her few years of marriage, she had acquired a lifetime's worth of experiences concerning out-of-control drunken men. (Somewhat oddly, as the Beaumont series has progressed during the last 20 years, he has chosen sobriety, although the bottle still sings its siren song in his direction.)

A week before the first book was published, Jance did a poetry reading for a group of widowed people. Her former husband had been dead for two years, but she didn't feel that she belonged there. These people had lost spouses; she had been divorced three years when he passed. She struck up a conversation with a man whose wife had died two years to the day from when her husband had died. A few months later, they were married.

Her new husband supported the combined families, and she was able to write full-time. It would be a while before she made any real money off it. She'd take the family to Disney World with one book's proceeds and build a hot tub with another's.

Their small-town eyes will gape at you ...

She continued to tap into her experiences and created her most popular character, Joanna Brady, the widowed (and now remarried) sheriff of Cochise County, Arizona (the county seat of which just happens to be Bisbee). Brady, who (ahem) sold insurance before losing her deputy-sheriff husband to a drug-war murder in Desert Heat (1993), ran for sheriff as an emotional response. Her husband had been running for the office before his death, and the powers that be decided to paint him as a dirty cop who was caught up in the drug trade and who had eventually chosen the suicide solution.

Joanna Brady is a single mom, dealing with a sometimes-defiant daughter and a mother who's straight out of Gilmore Girls. (Jance's books precede the TV series.) "I'm a mother and a daughter," she explains, "and I write from those experiences. Those are universal themes."

Soon, Brady is caught up in the minutiae of the job--the constant budget battles with the county Board of Supervisors, requests for speaking engagements by groups wanting to see up close the woman sheriff, and the occasional homicide that provides the backbone of each book.

As the Brady series has continued, Joanna has since remarried and had a kid with her new hubby, Jake. This guy stays at home with the infant and, in his "spare time," writes a mystery novel that is well-received.

(This, I must assert, is where her fiction turns to fantasy. I know intimately of a writer who decided to stay at home when the kids were born and vowed to write in his spare time. Twenty years later, there still isn't any spare time. And I only sleep five hours a night.)

A quarter-century after her divorce and two decades after her remarriage, J.A. Jance is an industry unto herself. She has nearly three dozen books in print, and her fans can't wait for the next installment of the Brady and/or Beaumont series. She has also launched a new series featuring Ali Reynolds, a 40-something TV anchor who's been put out to pasture by a slave-to-youth industry. She leaves Los Angeles for her hometown of Sedona. (I didn't know anybody actually lived there.)

The Reynolds character was first introduced in the book Edge of Evil. She'll be making a return appearance in the upcoming Web of Evil, which will be published Jan. 9, 2007. (She'll be doing a signing of the book at Clues Unlimited on Feb. 10 as a benefit for the Tohono O'odham Friends of the Library.)

One must assume that moving from the edge of evil into the web of evil will make things worse for Ms. Reynolds. Actually, in the new book, Reynolds learns that her ex-husband, on the day before their divorce decree becomes final, is found murdered in Palm Springs, Calif., leaving behind a huge estate and a pregnant fiancée. Since Reynolds is the sole heir to the estate, she is also the prime suspect in his murder.

Jance says that she enjoys jumping from one series to the next. "If I had to write about just one character, I think I'd give up writing. Being able to move from character to character is what makes writing interesting."

With all those murders piling up in the various series, this Jance woman obviously has some dark places and some unlikely inspirations. Among them, she admits that the Reynolds character crystallized in her head "after watching former Tucson anchor Patty Weiss get pushed out the door by KVOA Channel 4."

In addition to the Beaumont, Brady and Reynolds series, she also has three books featuring the Walker family that are based in Tucson and out on the Tohono O'odham reservation. In two of those books--Hour of the Hunter and Kiss of the Bees--the villain is an evil creative-writing professor.

Revenge couldn't be any sweeter if it were dipped in honey and sprinkled with powdered sugar.

Jance splits her time between homes in Seattle and Tucson and admits she writes about Sedona because, "I love Sedona!" She writes at an astonishing pace, putting out a couple of books a year. She lists as her influences the aforementioned Oz series and the gritty crime novels of John D. MacDonald. "(His) Travis McGee books showed me that it's possible to write series books for adults."

At the top of her list of favorite writers is J.K. Rowling, the woman who, when she wrote the first Harry Potter book, had to type a second copy, because she couldn't afford to photocopy the original.

"J.K. Rowling has hooked millions of young readers back into the magic of reading books. I love the way all of the loose ends are tied up in her books. And the battles between good and evil are very clear in her books."

Jance also lists Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets among her favorite movies. In fact, when asked what movies she's seen in theaters recently, she replied, "In the past few years, I've seen (at the theater) Harry Potter, Harry Potter, Harry Potter and Harry Potter."

When asked if there was a popular writer whose work she won't read, she responded, "I read lots of folks. There is someone whose books I won't read, but he/she will remain nameless."

I'm guessing Voldemort.

I once accompanied my wife to a Jance signing at an eastside bookstore. Jance gave a nice talk about writing and meeting her fans. She then spoke of her past and ended the signing by singing, a cappella, the Janis Ian teen-angst classic, "At Seventeen."

It was a completely surreal scene, watching this towering woman, hugely successful in her chosen field, choking out lyrics that could make a statue cry. Ever the smart-ass, I wanted to ask her to do an encore, maybe "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction."

She obviously carries a lot of that pain around with her, and it has helped make her what she is today. But one hopes that she realizes that she has brought enjoyment and escape for millions of loyal readers, and that someday, somehow, when she ponders her past, she can think:

It was long ago and far away ...

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