In 1964, J.A. Jance was rejected by the creative-writing program at the University of Arizona. She says she was told that women weren’t supposed to become writers. They were supposed to be elementary-school teachers, nurses, etc. People told her the same thing about selling life insurance when she began her 10-year stint in that business. Since then, Jance has published more than 50 books, mostly mystery thrillers, often in series, the kind you can pick up in any airport, any bookstore, any Costco. She splits her time between Arizona and Seattle, where she talked to me by phone.
“I’m sure that every time one of my books hits the New York Times best-seller list, that creative writing professor is spinning in his grave,” she said. Years later, she offered to serve as a writer-in-residence for the University of Arizona, but was told: “We don’t do anything with genre fiction here. We only do literary fiction.” At the time, she was shopping around for a villain to write about for her Walker Family series. Inspired by her interaction with the U of A, her villain suddenly had a new job: former professor of creative writing from the University of Arizona. Payback.
Her best-known series features the adventures of J.P. Beaumont, a Seattle homicide cop who struggles with alcoholism. Her latest effort, Dance of the Bones, brings Beaumont together with Detective Brandon Walker (of the aforementioned Walker Family series) to solve a cold case. Her publisher and her editor asked if it would be possible to write such a novel in order to bring readers from one series over to the other in order to expand the fan base. She said “of course” and got to work.
She was just as casual and open about her willingness to speak with The Stranger.
I’d never read any mass-market genre fiction before I read Dance of the Bones, and none of the writers I know write it, so I spoke to Jance in the spirit of genuine curiosity about why and how she writes. It was immediately clear that she was ready for battle, and it’s not hard to understand why. Commercially successful artists in all mediums are forever being condescended to by people who favor, and are favored by, a (shall we say) poetic view of the creative process. It’s not uncommon for the famous writer to condescend right back.
You’ve written more than 50 books. How do you do it?
You write 1.78 books a year.
I mean emotionally. It’s a lot of work.
One of the wonderful things is that I’m one of the few people who get to live my dream. On one hand, it’s hard work—and on the other hand, it doesn’t seem like work. When I sold life insurance, I didn’t feel the same way. That was work.
Do you consider yourself a writer of genre fiction?
Of course I consider myself a writer of genre fiction. I don’t think I have to apologize for that. There are several people in Seattle who’d sniff at that, but writing genre fiction allows me to say a lot of things that I want to say about issues that I think are important.
For instance, I wrote a book about animal hoarding called Exit Wounds. It starts with 17 dogs dying because the woman who took them in couldn’t afford to care for them. The power company turned off the power, someone murdered the woman, and so all the dogs died. These kinds of people have a history of childhood sexual abuse hiding in their backgrounds. And one day a reader called and said that after reading my book, she now knew why she has 12 dogs.
Tony Hillerman once said, “Literary fiction is where not much happens to people you don’t like very much.” People actually read genre fiction—they don’t just park those books on their bookshelf and never touch them.
Charles Baxter said, “Genre novels perform a useful service to the anxious air traveler by reducing his or her ability to speculate.” I get the sense that he means that characters in genre fiction exist to serve the plot, and that the tools of fiction are being used primarily for diversion and entertainment. Do you agree with that?
The sacred art of storytelling is to beguile the time. It doesn’t matter if that time happens in an airport or in a waiting room. So I have no patience for that critique. What they’re saying, to me, is “I'm such an important person that I can’t afford to waste my precious time reading something that might be for fun.”
Where do you think that critique comes from?
I think that it comes from a sense of arrogance. There are as many different ways to be a writer as there are people in the universe. My way of writing is not anybody else’s way of writing.
Isn’t there a prescribed structure for genre fiction?
Nobody has ever given me a recipe for writing books. There are a lot of people who use outlines, but I happen not to be an outliner. My editors never told me you have to do this first and then that next. That’s why the whole idea of calling it genre fiction or formula fiction raises my hackles. If there’s a formula, give it to me!
But your editors suggested that a crossover book would earn you more fans.
Exactly, this is a business. I’m in the business of having them.
Is having fans what drives you to write stories? I think a lot of people who write literary fiction would claim that their drive is to open up channels of empathy through the power of language and art, or something. Does writing for commercial purposes get in the way of that?
I am driven by being a storyteller. Fortunately, a lot of people like my stories. In Second Watch, the Beaumont book that proceeds this one, I had J.P. Beaumont meet up with a guy from my high school, a guy who left Bisbee High School as the valedictorian in his class, went to West Point, then to Vietnam, and then he died weeks before his 21st birthday. Through the miracle of fiction, I was able to tell Doug Davis’s story to hundreds of thousands of people. I was able to take this one guy whose name was among those 60,000 names on the wall and give him a face and a personality in the story.
But then I go back to the critique that the conventions of genre fiction actually prevent that kind of differentiation—that there’s not a lot of depth to these characters, or that they’re not distinct.
In Second Watch, I’m telling a story about how that war impacted one set of people, and by virtue of that I can reach many more. I wrote that story with the help of Bonnie Abney, who was engaged to marry Doug at the time he died. I’ve had people come up to me at signings and send me e-mails saying, “I’m another Bonnie Abney.” I was telling a story. I wasn’t contemplating the nature of loss in wartime. My purpose was to tell the story of a loss in war.
You use a lot of clichéd phrases in Dance of the Bones. [Typical lines: “She was a tiny blond bombshell type with just the right curves where they counted. Amos didn’t trust the bitch any further than he could throw her.” Other sample phrases: “into his cups,” “talking a blue streak,” “drowning in regret,” “least bit surprised,” etc.] What controls the kind of language that you use?
I’m writing for regular people. I don’t have to use esoteric language. I don’t have to use five-dollar words.
But that sort of language isn’t particular to genre fiction. Hemingway didn’t use five-dollar words, and he’s considered literary.
He’s considered a literary author because the literary establishment in New York said he was.
So you’d say he could be considered a genre writer if not for the New York establishment?
What keeps you coming back to writing this kind of fiction?
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
But, I mean, does it give you pleasure?
It’s my job. It’s what I do. It’s what I am. I am a writer. I am a storyteller. The pleasure of a job well done is the pleasure of a job well done.