Bestselling mystery novelist J.A. Jance came to Tucson earlier this month to sign copies of "Proof of Life," the newest book in her J.P. Beaumont series.
Jance graduated from the University of Arizona in 1966 with a degree in English and Secondary Education, having been denied entrance to the school's creative writing program because of her gender. She married a man who was accepted into the program, and, though he never succeeded in publishing anything—he was too busy drinking—he told Jance in 1968 that the family could only have one writer, and it was him.
After 18 years of marriage, Jance divorced her husband, and started writing in 1982. Today, she's a New York Times bestselling author who has written over 50 books.
You've said that your first three books you wrote between 4 and 7 in the morning before you had to go to your day job selling insurance. What's your writing process like today?
Well, at that point, I was also a single mother. So I had to get my kids up to go to school before I got ready to go to work. It was a complicated time in my life. But now I'm an empty nester, so my writing schedule is a little more civilized than that.
I met outlining in sixth-grade geography. I hated it then, I hate it now. So, no, I do not plan out in advance. Because I write murder mysteries, I generally start with somebody dead, and I spend the rest of the book trying to figure out who did it and how come.
Do you think the wait to become a writer has made you enjoy and appreciate the experience more?
Oh, I'm sure of that. I think if I had been allowed in the creative writing program, where they specialized in literary fiction as opposed to genre fiction, I would have had my ambition to write murder mysteries rubbed out of my soul.
In your Joanna Brady series, Joanna is sometimes underestimated because of her gender, something it looks like you, unfortunately, have had experience with as well. What's the most difficult thing about writing from a male perspective for characters like J.P. Beaumont?
Well, it turns out it's not that difficult. I spent 18 years of my life trying to figure out what made the guys in the bars so much more interesting to my first husband, so I went to the bars with him, and I listened to how those guys talked, and I tried to understand what made them tick. So when I'm trying to write a Beaumont book, I just send my head back to those bars and start writing.
I had all of those years of really complex life to learn stuff that I could put in the background of the books. Living and collecting experiences along the road is invaluable, because as a writer, everything is usable. Sometimes especially the bad stuff.
Can you tell me a little bit about your upcoming book "Proof of Life"? What should readers be looking forward to?
What's unusual about this book is Beaumont is retired, but he's drawn into a current homicide investigation because the victim—who has been his longtime nemesis, Maxwell Cole—knew he was in trouble, and he asked someone to be sure that, if anything bad happened to him, ask J.P. to investigate. So he's pulled into the investigation at the express wishes of the victim.
Who and what are some of your favorite authors and books?
Well, I read thrillers. I like Lee Child and Michael Connelly and Jo Nesbø and Jussi Adler-Olsen. [But] probably the most important book, in terms of my career, was reading L. Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz series.
In reading those books, I wasn't drawn so much to the wizard hiding behind the green curtain as I was to Frank hiding behind the words. From the moment in second grade that I realized that a living, breathing person put those words on the pages, that's what I wanted to be, and that's what I wanted to do.
Has it been everything you imagined it would be?
It's been way better than I imagined! I get to go on the road and meet people who have read my books. Last weekend, I met a woman who said when she lost her job was homeless and living in her car in a highway rest area, my books were what helped keep her sane. People send me emails and tell me how much my books have helped them, and it's part of the psychological income from being a writer.
Tucson is a town full of artists and aspiring artists. What advice would you give to aspiring writers, and is it the same advice you would give to your younger self?
When I bought my first computer in 1983, the man who installed my word processing program fixed it so that whenever I booted the computer up first thing in the morning, the words that flashed across the screen were "A writer is someone who has written today." And right this minute, I don't qualify, because I haven't written a word today. ■