Bestselling, much beloved crime fiction author JA Jance has more than 60 books to her name, in three different series, and she’s still going strong. She’s made feisty independent female leads like Arizona County Sheriff Joanna Brady, and news anchor turned investigator Ali Reynolds, into international reader favorites.
Hi there, I’m your host Jenny Wheeler, and on the show today JA explains why she uses that penname, JA, rather than her given name Judith, and she talks about the day her first husband hitchhiked home with a serial killer, 20 minutes after he’d committed his last crime, and how, in a roundabout way, it helped to launch her writing career
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Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode:
- How JA’s husband’s encounter with a serial killer changed her life
- Why women weren’t taken seriously when she started out
- How 1400 pages became her training for a new career
- The remarkable drive which keeps her going
- Her process as a best selling mystery writer
- How Covid might have changed things forever
Where to find J A Jance:
What follows is a “near as” transcript of our conversation, not word for word but pretty close to it, with links to important mentions.
But now here’s JA.
Introducing NY Times best selling author JA Jance
Jenny Wheeler: Hello there JA, and welcome to the show. It’s good to have you with us.
JA Jance: I am really happy to be here. I am delighted to know that I have fans in your neck of the woods, and I would like to have more fans in your neck of the woods, so let’s hope this little chat helps that happen.
Jenny Wheeler: Surely. You have got an amazing back list. You have 60 books or more published in three series, all in crime fiction, two focused on officers of the law and one a news anchor turned mystery solver.
The officers of the law are Detective JP Beaumont, and there was a huge Beaumont series. Then we’ve got Arizona County Sheriff Joanna Brady and a big series involving her, and now Ali Reynolds, the news anchor.
Tell me what keeps your creative fires burning, because obviously this has been a life’s work and you’re still fully engaged in it.
JA Jance: What keeps me fresh is the fact that I don’t just have one character. I wrote nine Beaumont books in a row, and I was tired of him and threatened to knock him off. My editor said, write something else, so I wrote the first Walker family book Hour of the Hunter. When I went back to Beaumont, it was fun again.
At that point, my editor said, come up with another series. The Beaumont books are written in the first person, through JP Beaumont’s point of view. I know this sounds like Agatha Christie, but I met him on a train. I had written a first novel that never sold to anybody primarily because it was 1400 pages long.
‘Write something in Seattle, JA was told by her agent
When my agent suggested I write something set in Seattle, I tried, and I couldn’t get that story to move. It just wouldn’t go forward. I worked on it for about six months. My kids were little then and finally I sent them off to camp for Spring Break and got on a train to go visit with a friend who lived in Portland.
I got on the train armed with a stack of blue lined notebooks and a whole fistful of ballpoint pens, and as the train pulled out of the King Street station, I thought, what would happen if I wrote this book through the detective’s point of view? So, I got out my notebook and I got out a pen and I wrote, “She might have been a cute kid once. That was hard to tell now. She was dead.”
As soon as I wrote that, I was there at the crime scene on the far side of Magnolia Bluff. I was walking around the crime scene in Beau’s shoes. I was seeing the crime scene through his eyes. I was hearing what he heard. I heard what people said to him. I heard what he said to others, but I also heard what was going on in his head. Beau and I have been author and character in that fashion from 1983 on.
When I needed to put a cold case detective into the new Ali book, Unfinished Business, Beau has aged over those years. He started out as a middle-aged male homicide cop, and I gave him my birthday so I wouldn’t forget how old he is. In retirement now he’s working cold cases, and I thought, I’ll just use him in this Ali Reynolds book, but guess what?
Being in a relationship with the Montagues and the Capulets
The Beaumonts, the Bradys and the Walkers all belong to Harper Collins, and the Alis belong to Simon and Schuster. They are big publishing houses, but they’re sort of like the Capulets and the Montagues from Romeo and Juliet. They know each other, but they don’t really get along, so I negotiated a peace treaty to let Beau make a guest appearance in this Simon and Schuster book.
When my editor suggested that I write something else, when I wrote the Joanna Brady series, I wrote that in third person because it’s not nearly as demanding as writing in the first person. The same thing happened later when I added Ali into the mix.
When I was writing Unfinished Business, I assumed that since Beau was going to be in the book, he would be in the third person along with everybody else. I was wrong about that because when it was time for JP Beaumont to show up, he turned up first person or nothing. He wasn’t even the first person. He wasn’t doing a thing in that book. So, he’s in his first-person voice in an otherwise third-person book.
But that’s what keeps me fresh, having different locales to use and different sets of characters. What I like about a series is that you have time to watch the characters develop and change over time. When we first met Jenny in Desert Heat, (Joanna Brady #1) she was nine years old and quite precocious because she figured out that there weren’t quite enough months between her parents’ anniversary and her birthday, and she asked her mom if she was a premmy, which of course she was not.
Joanna Brady is JA Jance’s third successful mystery series
In the most recent Joanna Brady book, we see her as a sophomore at Northern Arizona University and she’s developed into this capable, responsible, caring young woman. I’ve seen her develop as a writer, but my readers have seen her grow up from the other side of the page.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s right. It fascinates me that you say this detective came into your head in the first person. Did you have any family who were detectives or any connection with the police at all when this happened?
JA Jance: My only connection with police occurred in 1970 when my husband was given a ride home. We were working on an Indian reservation.
We lived 30 miles from where we worked and another 30 miles from where we lived in Tucson. I had to stay late after school and we were having company that night, so my husband went out and hitchhiked to get home, to be there to greet our company.
On the reservation there is no such thing as mass transit. Everybody hitchhiked, including the nuns from Topawa. But it happened that the guy who gave him a ride home that day was a serial killer who murdered people at 20 minutes after 2 on the 22nd day of the month.
He gave my husband a ride home about 45 minutes after forcing his third victim off the highway at gunpoint, shooting her, raping her in front of her two small children, and leaving her to die.
A terrible incident discovered by chance
We discovered that incident when we were going into town for dinner and were stopped at a roadblock. We heard someone talking about a man in a green car and my husband said, a green car, I wonder if that’s the guy who gave me a ride home today. It turned out it was, so we were part of that investigation from the very beginning.
We didn’t have a phone. We lived seven miles to the nearest neighbor or telephone. We told the deputy who we were and where we lived, and we went into town with our company and had dinner. But the next morning, at six o’clock in the morning, Jack Lyons, who was Pima County’s chief homicide investigator, came to our house and interviewed my husband from six o’clock in the morning until 3.30 in the afternoon.
I listened to that whole interview, and when I went to write that first book, the one that was never published, I could recall that interview almost verbatim. That’s one of the reasons the book was so long, it’s one of the reasons the book never sold.
Jenny Wheeler: How extraordinary. That little thing, 20 minutes after 2 on the 22nd, that is something you couldn’t make up, or if you made it up people might think how extreme that is.
JA Jance: I thinly fictionalized the story, but the editors who turned it down said the stuff that was fiction was fine, and the stuff that was real would never happen, even though it already had.
Her first 1400 pages was JA Jance’s “job on training’ for her career
But in the process of writing 1400 pages, I wasn’t allowed in the creative writing program at the University of Arizona in 1964 because, as the professor told me, I was a girl, so writing those 1400 pages was my on-the-job training in writing. Writing 1400 pages is the same as writing three full length novels, and in doing that, I learned how to do pacing, I learned how to do plotting, I learned how to do scene setting, I learned how to do dialogue. I learned all of those skills that you have to have to become a writer.
I got to Portland on the train after starting with those two sentences, and if you read Until Proven Guilty, which is still in print today – it’s so old it’s historical fiction now –those are the sentences that still start that book. “She might have been a cute kid once. It was hard to tell now. She was dead.” In the course of the next five days, I wrote 30,000 words by hand. I had blisters on my writing fingers because I had constructed the book in my head, but I had to find the point of view from which to tell the story.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s wonderful. Backing up a bit – explain to listeners why you are using this pen name JA, because that also has something to do with the way women authors were viewed when you started out. Tell us that story.
A mystery with a female name as the author? Not credible way back….
JA Jance: When I gave my agent the manuscript for Until Proven Guilty, the title page said Until Proven Guilty by Judith Ann Jance. My agent had worked in New York publishing, and she understood the dynamics of how female authors were viewed, so before she sent the manuscript to New York, she changed the title page to read Until Proven Guilty by JA Jance.
The second editor who saw that manuscript called her up and said, the guy who wrote Until Proven Guilty is a good writer, and she said, what would you say if I told you the guy who wrote Until Proven Guilty is a woman? He said, I’d say she was a hell of a good writer.
He bought Until Proven Guilty as the first book in a series. I thought I had written a standalone, I had no idea it was a series.
So they bought it. Time passed. Marketing got hold of it and said, wait a minute. Male readers are not going to accept a police procedural written by somebody named Judy. We are going to use your initials. Well, I’m from a small mining town in Arizona.
I was being published by a New York publishing house. I didn’t care if they used my initials, so I said fine. That is how JA Jance came into existence.
For the first nine Beaumont books, there was no author bio, there was no author photo, and that gave rise to the rumor that a retired Seattle homicide cop writes these books. When they started putting my picture on the books, I thought that rumor would change. It did, but only slightly. They said JA Jance is a retired homicide cop and she’s just up front for him.
A silver lining to the decision NOT to be Judith Ann Jance
But the wonderful thing about JA Jance is, I always sign my books in red ink – I’ve been doing that from book 3 on – and it’s a lot easier to write JA Jance than it would be to write Judith Ann Jance. By having only my initials, it has saved me miles of red ink over the years.
Jenny Wheeler: Over this very extensive career, have you noticed a change in attitudes, both towards having female police officers as the central character, and female authors? Has there been a change in that?
JA Jance: I can tell you that as of about five years ago, of the 1800 sheriffs in the United States of America, 14 of them were women and 5 of them were fans of my books.
I want to say one more thing that strikes me as interesting about my initials. From 1985 on, when my first book was published, on the bookshelves in both bookstores and libraries, who is my next-door neighbor? PD James, Phyllis Dorothy James, who had to use her initials for many of the same reasons I did, only a whole generation and a half earlier.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s right, and there are still people who are just launching today and who are using their initials. It still is there.
JA Jance: Once the cover photo was there, that took away the mystery. But I have fans who had husbands who didn’t read books by women authors, and so they took the cover off and gave them to them and they read them anyway.
Feeding fascinating technology and crime research into the stories
Jenny Wheeler: In both series, you have a fascinating amount of true-life detail. I love books like yours, where you have information about the latest developments in DNA technology, and you get insights into how unscrupulous people can hack innocent girls and cause them a huge amount of grief. All these things are there in the stories I read, these two latest books.
I wonder if this is a passion of yours and if perhaps also your background as a librarian has helped you with this very in-depth research.
JA Jance: My background as a librarian has certainly helped me, but one thing that is really important in my becoming a writer is my birth order. I’m from a family of seven children. My two older sisters, Janice and Jeanie, were two years apart, and then there was a four-year gap, and I came along. After me there was another four-year gap before my three brothers and my baby sister came along.
What that meant is, in this family of seven kids I was sort of an only child, because I was too young to play with the older kids and too old to play with the younger ones. That turned me into an observer as opposed to a participant, and being an observer is another important skill for someone who wants to be a writer, because I’ve gone through life observing details that I’ve been able to put into my books.
Being an observer of life comes naturally to JA
One brother, Jim, died 20 years ago this month. He was a firefighter in my hometown, Bisbee, Arizona. He was Fireman of the Year two years in a row. He rescued any number of people who would have died without him, and yet he was swimming in the ocean on vacation, he suffered a heart attack from an undiagnosed heart ailment and died.
The City of Bisbee gave him fallen officer treatment. That was my first experience with Fallen Officer memorials. That was in June, and of course 9/11 happened a few months later, and then we all went to Fallen Officer memorials.
I used what I learned from that in the book Damage Control, when Joanna Brady, my Cochise County sheriff, loses an officer.
Being an observer and picking up on people and understanding them. My first husband was pretty much useless as husband material. He died of chronic alcoholism at age 42, a year and a half after I divorced him. But for the 18 years I was with him,
I kept trying to figure out what made the guys in the bar so much more interesting to him than I was, so I went to the bars with him, and I listened to how those people talked and tried to understand what made those guys tick.
When it came time to write Beaumont’s point of view, I sent my head back to those bars and wrote away. You have to work really hard to die of booze that early, but when I started writing Beaumont, I knew a lot about drinking, and you are supposed to write what you know, so I put that bit of knowledge into the books.
A ‘whirring blender’ in her head that comes out through her fingers…
I wrote it so true to life that by the fourth book, my readers were pointing out that JP Beaumont had a drinking problem, and I hadn’t noticed.
It was my being an observer and standing on the sidelines gathering information. My second husband claims I have a whirring blender in my head and stuff goes into my head one way and it comes out through my fingers another way. That first husband, although he was useless as husband material, from the point of view of a mystery writer, the man was a goldmine.
Jenny Wheeler: Why did you choose crime as your genre in the first place?
JA Jance: Because that is what I always read. I started out with Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys and never got over it. One of my favorites for many years was John D. MacDonald. However, eventually I started objecting to the fact that John D. MacDonald never seemed to get any older. He never seemed to get any smarter. He would meet one pretty girl and she causes him all kinds of trouble, and the next thing you’d know, he would be involved with another pretty girl who would cause him all kinds of trouble.
That’s why, when I started writing these series, I made the decision to let my characters age and grow and change instead of always being the same. When I first brought in the Joanna Brady books, I expected she would turn out to be an amateur detective, but I had written police procedurals for so long that when she started asking questions about the investigation into her first husband’s death, I kept telling her, you can’t do that. You’re not a cop, you can’t ask that. I finally gave up and by the end of that first book, she’s running for the office of Sheriff in her husband’s stead.
JA met her second husband at a retreat for widows with coincidences
When Ali Reynolds came along, she was a former news broadcaster and she’s actually my only amateur sleuth. She and her people solve crimes and they do it with technology. You asked about AI. I’m a liberal arts major and my second husband of 35 years is a retired electronics engineer. We met the week before my first book was published, at a widowed retreat where we discovered our first spouses had died on the same day of the year, two years apart. They both died on New Year’s Eve.
We struck up a conversation based on that coincidence, on the 21st of June, and we got married on the 21st of December. I think people thought we were in such a rush because maybe we were in the family way, but we were in such a rush because we both had are our plans and dreams for the future blow up in our faces. We didn’t know how much time we had, and we didn’t want to waste a moment of it.
He is a retired electronics engineer. He built the first grey brick cell phone for Motorola in 1968, and a few years ago, he said, AI is kind of interesting. You should maybe write a book about that. I said, AI? Me? I’m a liberal arts major. I don’t know anything about AI. But he started giving me dribs and drabs of information, and those dribs and drabs went into my head, through the whirring blender, and they came out through my fingertips as Frigg, the pet AI, in the Ali Reynolds books.
How Frigg, the pet AI in the Ali Reynolds books, came to life
Jenny Wheeler: For people who haven’t yet read any of the books, this is a remarkable search engine at the private agency that Ali is one of the principles of. They can put anything in there. They can get the standard view, or they can get the view where they access all sorts of information they probably shouldn’t, but it really helps them privately with solving crimes.
JA Jance: That search engine was trained to be the partner of a wannabe serial killer, so they are having a hard time teaching Frigg to learn to color inside the lines.
Jenny Wheeler: That takes me right back to the beginning. I did mean to ask you – that serial killer your husband hitched a ride with. Did they catch him straight away? How soon was he apprehended?
JA Jance: My husband provided information about things that were in the car. There was a shredded personal check, and he recognized the bank stock because it was the same bank we used. There was only one bank in Tucson that was open on Saturdays, and if you lived out of town, that was the bank you used.
During that remarkable 8-hour interview from 6 o’clock until 3 o’clock – actually that’s more like 10 hours – Jack Lyons got my husband to remember all kinds of details, including the first name on the signature line of that check. It was Carol. That was Saturday. On Sunday, we met Jack in town, and we went around to car dealerships until my husband was able to say he had been given a ride home in a green maverick.
How the serial killer was finally tracked down
On Monday, we went back to the sheriff’s office, and he did a composite drawing. As soon as the little four-year-old boy who had been with his mother when that happened saw the composite drawing, he said, that’s the man who killed my mommy. By early the following week, Jack Lyons went to the bank. He got a list of all the joint accounts with that first name, then he went to the Department of Licensing, got a list of all the green mavericks and he found the one that was on both lists.
He knew within a matter of days who the killer was, but he figured out at that point that he was dealing with a serial killer. The guy had shot a 16-year-old girl off a bicycle, he had shot a 40-something year old man off a bulldozer, and a 28-year-old woman going to Mexico for the weekend with her kids.
But Jack wanted to get all of his ducks in a row before he took the guy into custody, so he suggested maybe we should go live someplace else. Well, we were young, we were stupid. We said, this is where we live. What if you never catch him?
My husband worked construction during the summers, and I had a 12-month teaching contract on the reservation, so while he was out of town I lived on the hill by myself. I wore a loaded weapon. I was fully prepared to use it. I actually did use it one day. It was a revolver. I fired all six shots at a rapidly retreating rattle snake. He was still laughing when he went over the wall and got away.
A close shave with death – JA Jance thriller author
I didn’t kill the rattlesnake, but rattlesnakes are hard to shoot. I figured the killer would present a larger target, and I was motivated. Once I made the decision – if it’s him or me, by God it’s going to be him – I think that was the beginning of my understanding of what police officers do every single day. Once you’ve made that decision, you can’t un-ring the bell. You have switched a toggle switch in your soul and you’re a different person.
They picked him up on the 20th of July. Jack Lyons was concerned that the incidents were getting closer together. He took my husband to San Manuel, another mining town. He identified the killer as he came off shift.
The killer rode in the back of the car with my husband and Jack back into Tucson, and on the way he admitted to having been to our house on three separate occasions in the intervening 60 days, and we had been scheduled to be July 22nd.
Jenny Wheeler: My goodness. Had he killed anyone between your husband’s ride and when they arrested him?
JA Jance: No. The other two events were earlier. That happened in May 1970. In April 2000 I was at a town in Northern Arizona doing a library event and there was this woman standing at the back of the room. When you do in-person signings, you have to be aware of the people around you, because some of them can be kooks, like the guy who came up to me at a signing and said, are you the lady who writes the murder ministries? I said, yes. He said, I’ve just been acquitted of murdering seven people. Do you want to write my book? No, thank you.
Another remarkable synchronicity in a life marked by them
I’ve developed situational awareness, and this woman who standing with her arms crossed at the back of the room never smiled, never nodded when she recognized something I talked about in one of the books. I saw her and I thought, she’s the problem. Sure enough, when I finished signing books, she was the last person standing in line and the troublesome person will do that, so they can have the author’s undivided attention.
She sat up to the table and looked at me and said, was your husband involved as a witness in a series of homicides that happened in Tucson in 1970? I said, yes, he was. And with no further introduction, as though we had been having that conversation for 30 years, she said, my father was the man on the bulldozer. My mother was pregnant with me when that happened, and she would never talk to me about it. What can you tell me?
That’s the reason I never put real cases in my books because real cases affect real people, and their lives are forever changed as a result.
Jenny Wheeler: This is fascinating. We are going to have to move on though, because we are starting to run out of time, and I don’t want to miss out on asking you about your current reading. Turning to JA as reader – this is binge reading and you have a body of work that is ideal for binge reading, because when people get into one of these books, they want to read the whole series.
Do you read in that way yourself, and if so, who are your absolute favorite authors that you would always want to read?
What JA is enjoying reading now
JA Jance: I like the Miss Julia series by Ann B. Ross. I like the Dan Silva books. I like the Jack Reacher books. I read thrillers. It is hard for me to read someone else’s book when I’m busy writing mine, because I need to stay inside my characters’ heads and scenes. As a writer, I don’t do nearly as much reading as I used to.
Have you ever heard of Fritos? They’re corn chips.
Jenny Wheeler: Oh, yes. I’ve heard of them.
JA Jance: People have told me that reading my books is like eating Fritos, because you can’t read just one. During the pandemic, it has been really rewarding to hear from people who have read through my entire body of work while they’ve been under lockdown.
The ancient, sacred church of the storyteller is to beguile all the time, and this time we’ve all lived through in the pandemic has been time greatly in need of beguiling. That is how I regard myself – more as a storyteller than a novelist.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s lovely. What is happening for JA in the next 12 months? What projects have you got underway at the moment?
JA Jance: I’ve just finished writing the next Beaumont book. It’s called Nothing to Lose, and it will be out in March. This morning I heard from my editor at Simon and Schuster saying, we are getting ready to design a cover for the next Ali book. Do you have an idea about a title or what’s going to be in it?
What JA is working on over the next 12 months
Fortunately, I couldn’t sleep last night and in the process of tossing and turning I met up with the first scene in that upcoming book. It’s going to start with a wedding. I told my editor, the beginning scene will be at a wedding. I don’t know what’s going to happen after that, so why don’t you design the book to have a wedding on the cover?
Jenny Wheeler: That is a key phrase – I don’t know what’s going to happen after that. I must ask, do you not plan ahead what’s going to happen with the story?
JA Jance: Here’s the thing. I met outlining in Mrs. Watkins’ sixth grade Geography class at Greenway School. I hated outlining then. Nothing that has happened to me in the intervening decades has changed my mind about outlining.
I write murder mysteries. I start with somebody dead, and I spend the rest of the book trying to figure out who killed them and how come. If I happen to know who the killer is, I spend the rest of the book trying to find out how people will figure it out and bring him to justice. So, no, I never know what’s going to happen inside my books when I start.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s amazing. I have spoken to other crime writers who do this too. It keeps it fresh for you all the way through, doesn’t it?
JA Jance: Well, I write for the same reason that readers read – to find out what happens.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s great. Do you like to meet with your readers, and do you interact with them online? Where can they find you if they want to be in touch?
Where to find JA Jance online
JA Jance: I publish a blog every Friday. It’s sort of a window on what’s happening in my life. This past week my sister-in-law passed away after being married to my brother for 52 years, so last week’s blog was about losing Dede.
When I was in college, I was a hundred miles from home and every week my mother would send me a letter telling me what was going on at home, and I regard my weekly blogs as a way to stay in touch with my readers.
My email address is listed under the Contact Me portion of my website, which is www.jajance.com. I answer all my own email. Emails from my readers are important because my readers are my bread-and-butter business, and so no one else touches my email list. I’m the one who reads them. I’m the one who answers them.
I have loved being on tour and having a chance to interact in person with readers, and I have a feeling that the pandemic has taken away the idea of in-person book tours forever. I think that’s probably a dinosaur of the past. I’ve learned to do things virtually with a camera as opposed to a live audience, but I really enjoy interacting with my readers and hearing what they think about what I’ve written.
In Unfinished Business there is a storyline that has to do with a character developing dementia, and one of my readers wrote to me saying how much she objected to how I handled that part of the story. I regarded it as telling that part of the story, and I gave her what I’m afraid was sort of a flip response – different strokes for different folks.
The sensitivity of some reader interactions important to JA Jance
Then she wrote again and said that she had just received a very similar devastating diagnosis. That broke my heart, because no wonder she took that aspect of the book so very personally.
Jenny Wheeler: To clarify, Unfinished Business is the latest Ali Reynolds book and Missing and Endangered is the latest Joanna Brady. We will feature both of those books prominently in the show notes we are going to be publishing with this episode.
It has been fantastic talking today, JA, and I feel as if we have had a real window into your life and into your creative process. It has been a privilege.
If you liked JA Jance you might also like: Margaret Mizushima’s K-9 Police Procedurals
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