Kate Flora interviews Julia Spencer-Fleming

Kate, Julia (back when she still had red hair) and New England author Leslie Wheeler.

KATE FLORA: Like me, you started out as a lawyer and then moved into writing. Did you always want to be a writer? Were you writing all along, or did something happen to trigger, or retrigger that desire?

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Well, to start with, I wasn’t one of those people who knew she was destined to be a writer from the moment she got a crayon in her chubby little hand. What I was was a crazy mad reader. I was the kid who took two hours to walk home from school because I never lifted my eyes from The Bobbsey Twins and the La-Z Bar Burglery. In fifth grade, when we had a “hobbies fair,” I brought in boxes and boxes of books and a sign reading, “I am a Bookworm!” Every year I won the library’s summer reading contest. I had the sort of social life you might expect, under those circumstances.

As a teen, I wrote bad poetry and bad short stories, but it never occurred to me that I could be a writer. I didn’t know any writers. I figured that having stories running through my head constantly was a sign of some barely-held-at-bay mental illness (as indeed it may be, although a very handy one to have) and went on to get degrees in theater, museum studies, and law. I really became a lawyer because my other career choices weren’t earning me any money, and I wanted to be able to buy a car someday.

It wasn’t until I was a stay-at-home mother of two that I got into writing again. I joined an online SF writer’s group—yes, I said SF—and discovered that thirty years of non-stop reading had turned me into a good writer. The only trouble was, I had no world building skills. None. Instead, these dead bodies kept popping up. I decided it was a sign. I dropped the SF and started In the Bleak Midwinter, which became the first in my series about Clare Ferguson and Russ Van Alstyne.

KATE: Why continue with mystery? Why not spin off into science fiction, now you’re more experienced? Or something literary?

JULIA: Crime fiction is a place where true storytelling still flourishes. I think we as human beings are hardwired to want stories with real characters, good language, and plot. It’s what I want to read, and it’s what I am driven to write. It’s almost a cliche to say that mysteries offer the reader the experience of bringing order out of chaos, but I think it’s true. At the beginning of every mystery the social fabric is been torn, and by the end, it has, however imperfectly, been mended. Especially in the post 9-11 world, readers crave this sense of wrong being put to right.

KATE: Who came first, Russ or Claire? From book one, did you already envision the complicated and tense relationship between Rev. Claire Ferguson and Russ Van Alstyne, or did that evolve over the course of the books? Do you have a plan or are they showing you what they, and it, are about as their stories evolve?

JULIA: When I started the series, Clare came first. I wasn’t interested in writing a character whose primary motivation was grabbing the bad guy and slinging his butt in jail. I wanted someone who was looking to accomplish other things: to serve justice, and mercy, and to make broken things whole. A priest. Which also helped with the “Nancy Drew question”: why is this person poking around in murder to begin with? Okay, we expect priests and ministers and rabbis to be involved with the community, to know things about individuals that others might not, to be there during times of crisis. So her profession gave Clare an opening. But I didn’t want to have a bumbling or nonexistent police department, so that the amateur solved each and every crime single handed. She needed a cop on her side. Thus, Russ Van Alstyne was born.

They balance each other, the way a good couple should. She’s religious, obviously, and he’s agnostic. She’s idealistic, he’s hard-bitten. She’s younger, he’s older. She’s an outsider—in the first book, she’s experiencing her first snowy winter ever. He’s a home town boy who returned after a quarter century away. But they also have commonalities that bring them together and drive the story forward: they’re both army vets, both principled, both have a sense of humor and a passionate curiosity.

I work carefully to balance them in terms of “time on stage.” I sketch out chapters and decide who will be the viewpoint character. Who turns up which clue when. I get asked how I write such a convincing guy (I use a close thrid person point of view, so when you read a scene with Russ, you’re in his head.) The truth is, I didn’t know it was supposed to be difficult. An advantage of never getting a degree in creative writing, I suppose.

KATE: At what point did you stop practicing law, and do you ever miss it? Has your legal training played a role in writing your books?

JULIA: I was laid off from my firm right after In the Bleak Midwinter was published. I had spent all summer looking (unsuccessfully) for another legal job and was starting to worry when St. Martin’s offered me a two-book contract for the third and fourth books in the series. Ross and I looked at the budget and figured we could float me being a full-time writer for two years. I figured if things didn’t work put financially, I could always go back to the law. I’m still here, writing full-time.

My legal training is most useful, I think, in creating the sort of chain-of-events that must take place to bring a mystery to a satisfying conclusion. Lawyers are taught to be rigorous, logical, and detail-oriented when making a case, and those are excellent traits for a crime fiction writer to have as well.

KATE: Following up on that, can you talk a little bit about process? How do you go about developing the story for each book? Have you ever had one of those dark times when a book was under contract and you didn’t have a story yet?

JULIA: One of my goals as a writer is, “same, only different.” In other words, when a reader picks up a book with my name on it, she can expect a certain type of read—mystery, romance, a fast-paced plot, action, social issues. But at the same time, I never want her to read the same book twice. So I play around a lot with form, chronology, and points of view. It’s endlessly fascinating to me, the way the framework of fiction effects the plot and the reading experience.

I start with characters, then with a dramatic situation, which usually becomes the precipitating event of the book. A baby is abandoned. A timber heiress goes missing. I feel my way through the plot, and frequently have no idea of what’s going on behind the mystery until I’m more than half-way through the book. Which makes the first half a breeze and the last half a painful slog.

I don’t think I’ve ever been in a place where I didn’t have a story, but in every book I reach a spot where I’m sure the story is crap, no one will ever buy it, I’ll have to go back to being a lawyer, etc., etc. By now at least I recognize it as part of the process, not actual confirmation that I’m a talentless hack.

KATE: You incorporate some important “real world” issues in your plots. In One Was A Soldier, it’s PTSD. As real world events keep showing us, PTSD is a significant issue for returning soldiers, and for many public safety personnel. How did you research the subject? Do you think that fiction can be a useful vehicle for raising public awareness of issues like that?

JULIA: I did a lot of research. I did interviews, formal and informal; I read books, magazine series, newspaper articles, military blogs… one thing that’s come out of the sadly extraordinary length of our war in Iraq is a vast amount of good, informative writing about the people fighting the conflict, and what happens when they come home. I think fiction can be incredibly useful in raising awareness reader-by-reader. When it’s done well, the reader knows what it’s like to live inside another human being’s skin for a time. What could be more eye-opening and empathetic than that?

KATE: So many successful mystery writers go from writing the series to writing stand-alones. Is that a direction you’ve considered?

JULIA: I have, but right now I’m committed to the Russ/Clare series. I’d love to work on other projects, but I’m a slow writer at the best of times, and when life gets in the way…

KATE: It can be very difficult to produce a book a year, especially when you want to produce a quality story and take the time to craft characters in depth. There was a gap between I Shall Not Want and One Was A Soldier. Was that by choice? Did you need some time off?

JULIA: Health issues, (mine and my husband’s) one child’s college search, another one starting high school, driving kids and research – lots and lots of research. Also, I was tackling a big story, with many, many strands to it. I had to weave in the returning vets’ issues, Russ and Claire’s relationship, Hadley Knox and Kevin Flynn’s growing maybe-romance, and, of course, a mystery. It took a long time just for the first draft, and then I took four months for the first rewrite and and another month of so for the second. On the upside, I think all the time and excellent editorial attention I got from Minotaur has made One Was A Soldier my best book yet.

KATE: What are you working on right now?

JULIA: I’ve signed a contract for another three book in the series, and I’m working on the eighth, tentatively titled Seven Whole Days. Tentatively, because the booksellers I tried the title out with were all decidedly lukewarm.

KATE: And my last, and favorite, question: What is the interview question you’ve always wanted to be asked, and no one ever does?

JULIA: “Is your lovely silver hair natural?” (Answer: Yes, it is.)

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6 Responses to Kate Flora interviews Julia Spencer-Fleming

  1. What a wonderful interview! I felt as if I was sitting right next to you and we were chatting. Thank you!

    Of course, now I have one more terrific author to add to my TBR list. Can’t wait to get started!

  2. A great conversation between two of my favorite writers! Thanks for sharing, Julia. Great questions, Kate.

  3. Paul Doiron says:

    Julia, I like the way you explain the same, only different” concept. I’ve thought a lot about the idea but have never been able to articulate it with such clarity. When you’re working on a series, that issue is always hanging over your desk. How do I satisfy my readers, who look forward to reconnecting with favorite characters in familiar settings and situations, without writing novels that feel like clones of each other? In your books you’ve done an excellent job of answering this question with elegance, and I think it’s one of the secrets to your success.

  4. I have ONE WAS A SOLDIER on top of my Pile and am so looking forward! Thanks for this interview.

  5. lil Gluckstern says:

    I find your books incredibly inspiring because Clare is so human The struggles that she and Russ go through are so moving, “One Was a Soldier” brought tears to my eyes. You are one of my must read authors, and I’m looking forward to the next. One side effect of reeading your books is an interest in the Book of Common Prayer. It is very beautiful, and quieting.

  6. VIcki Doudera says:

    Aren’t we all lucky that you didn’t find another legal job? The world has loads of lawyers, but not enough JS-Fs!

    Your explanation about writing from Russ’ perspective rings true with me. Sometimes not knowing what is supposed to be daunting is such a gift. Thanks, Kate and Julia, for a thought provoking interview.

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