J.A. Jance, a prolific, award winning mystery author, grew up in South Dakota and now lives in Washington and Arizona. The story of her writing path is found in her poignant memoir, after the fire. Her latest book, Proof of Life, brings back Beau Beaumont, an old favorite for many of us. In it, she says: "I learned on the reservation that the ancient, sacred charge of the storyteller is to beguile the time. I’m thrilled when I hear that someone has used my books to get through some particularly difficult illness either as a patient or as they sit on the sidelines while someone they love is terribly ill. It gratifies me to know that by immersing themselves in my stories, people are able to set their own lives aside and live and walk in someone else’s shoes. It tells me I’m doing a good job at the best job in the world."
According to your Web site, when you began writing you were a single, divorced mother with two children, no child support, and a full-time job selling life insurance. You wrote your first three books from four a.m. to seven a.m. At seven, you would wake your children and send them off to school. How many have you written and how do you accomplish so much?
More than fifty books. 2017 saw the publication of two books and three novellas. As for how do I accomplish so much? I had a burning desire to write and a whole lot of pent-up steam when I started writing in 1982. And I’ve been writing ever since—one word at a time, one page at a time, one book at a time. It’s not until I see that whole list of books that I realize I’ve created a “body of work."
You cover so much territory in your books, from entertaining suspense to touching on important social issues. For example, you’ve portrayed a typical older adult with typical physical limitations (prostrate issues.) Are you breaking new ground using active, older adults as prominent characters? Why do you think we don’t see more people in their sixties and seventies as protagonists? Do you think there is an audience?
I’ve allowed my characters to age in a realistic way. This week I got a divorce notification from a woman who is no longer a fan of the Joanna Brady books because Joanna is such a self-centered career woman who has no business having more children “at her age!” Okay, so if a character decides she doesn’t want to raise a second only child, who am I to argue with her?
Really, all kidding aside, my characters have aged and changed over time. I’ve been writing about many of them for decades, and if they were stuck in some kind of historical time warp, they wouldn’t have access to any of the modern day forensic tools. Or communication tools. Some relatively new reader wrote to ask, “Why’s Beau always walking down the street looking for a phone booth and a quarter?” I told him, “Look at the publication date.” Cell phones had been invented in the early eighties, but they hadn’t yet gone on sale.
And yes, I know there’s an audience. Some of my most loyal print readers—DTRs for Dead Tree Readers, as I like to call them—live in retirement communities. They are vital, interested, and interesting people, and they like reading about characters whose reality is similar to their own.
You are so industrious and prolific. What makes writing fun for you? Does it get easier?
It does not get easier. Stitching together a story is challenging—a lot like being a pointillist painter, one dot of color at a time. It helps that I can move from character to character and locale to locale, rather than always writing about the same people and places. What’s fun? Finishing a book. What’s not fun? Starting one.
What do you think would surprise an aspiring author about getting/having an agent or a traditional publisher?
I’ve had only one agent throughout my career—someone who didn’t sell my first book but who has sold all of them since. Having a traditional publisher means I have quality editing; I have help with promotion; I have distribution channels. If you’re self-published, you have to do the writing AND EVERYTHING ELSE! I think a lot of would-be authors believe that once the book is finished, their work is over. NOT! I’ve published more than fifty books, and I’ve done a minimum of 30 public presentations for each and every one of them. That’s a lot of book signings. That’s a lot of public interaction. Most authors can’t be writers and hermits. They need to be able to go out and advocate for their book. Between the time my first book was sold and the time it went on sale, I spent a year in Toastmaster’s learning how to do public speaking.
Why does one switch publishers and/or agents?
Beats me. As far as publishers are concerned, here’s what happened. Early on in my career, some of my fellow writers suggested that I should get away from those two-book, low-advance contracts with Avon Books and go to someone who would pay me some “real” advance money. My agent, husband, and I discussed that possibility and decided that we would stay with the original publisher and gradually up the advances. The authors who made that suggestion, jumped ship. They went to new publishing houses, but their backlist titles all disappeared. All of my books, including those original paperbacks, are still in print in both e-book and paper-and-ink editions. That means that, when I pick up new readers, they can read them all. And they do.
As for changing agents? If a wannabe author is fortunate enough to obtain an agent who is then unable to sell that first manuscript, what do you suppose happens? The wannabe usually fires the agent and keeps the manuscript. I did the opposite. I kept the agent and fired the manuscript which, more than thirty years later, remains unpublished. It was my on-the-job training as a writer, and it wasn’t ready for prime time. Will NEVER be ready for prime time.
Do you have tips for aspiring writers?
When I bought my first computer in 1983, the guy who installed my word processing program (Spellbinder, by the way!) fixed it so that, each morning when I booted up my computer, these were the words that flashed across the screen: A WRITER IS SOMEONE WHO HAS WRITTEN TODAY! Those words were a gift to me back then in my pre-published days, and one I’m happy to share with others.
Thanks so much.