Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Interview with Julia Spencer-Fleming

Sandra Parshall

Julia Spencer-Fleming began her career with In the Bleak Midwinter, which was published after winning the St. Martin’s Press contest for best first mystery novel and went on to win a string of major awards. Julia’s series about the Rev. Clare Fergusson and Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne, who solve mysteries together in Millers Kill, NY, while struggling with their forbidden love for one another, has grown in popularity with each entry. Her fifth book, All Mortal Flesh, is a current Agatha Award nominee for Best Novel.

Congratulations on your latest award nomination. You've had so many nominations and wins -- does it ever get old? Are you blase about it now?

Trust me, having readers, critics or fellow writers say they like your work never gets old. Nor does it make me blase--I assure you, I'll be as nervous as anyone else at the Agathas Banquet at Malice Domestic. What those past nominations or wins do give me is perspective--I know if I win, I'm not going to wake up the next day any richer, wiser or more beloved, and I know if I lose, I haven't lost any of the support of my readers, my friends, and my publishing company. And I know that either way, I'll be in the bar afterwards!

What changes have you seen in your writing over the years, and what aspects of craft have you consciously worked to improve?

With each book, I find I'm more and more letting go of rules and trusting in my own voice, my own choices about language and structure. In In the Bleak Midwinter, for example, I bent over backwards to ensure no adverb ever got past my keyboard, because I knew the rule is to convey everything through the dialogue and through active verbs. I've loosened up on that. I trust myself now to use adverbs for color and clarification, not as a crutch for lazy writing.

When I started, I worked very hard to improve my scene setting. Members of my writer's group told me my characters seemed to be talking in a gray fog somewhere! Consciously addressing that weakness obviously helped--critics have frequently commented on my vivid sense of place. Now, I'm working on paring my descriptions down, while still giving readers a clear image of the setting. I've been rereading Lee Child's work to help me with this--Lee is a master at giving you just enough to make the setting come to life,without throwing in a single extraneous detail. I'm trying to figure out how he does it. I suspect, like most of writing, it's practice, practice, practice.

What writers have influenced you most?

Margaret Maron, Archer Mayor and Sharyn McCrumb for their regional settings. Lawrence Block, Steve Hamilton, and Elmore Leonard for language and dialogue (although I'll never manage to be as spare as they are). Outside the genre, Lois McMaster Bujold, Joanna Trollope, Jodi Picoult--women who create the perfect reading experience for me.

Everyone who has read All Mortal Flesh is dying to know how you'll get Clare and Russ through the situation you set up at the end of the book. Can you give us even a tiny hint of what's to come for these two?

Boy, do I wish St. Martin's had put a burst on the cover of All Mortal Flesh: NOT THE LAST BOOK! It came out last October and I'm still getting four or five emails a day asking me if this is the end of Russ and Clare. No. It's not. I'm finishing up the sixth book, (very) tentatively titled When A Stranger. (Or maybe A Stranger Wandering. Or Now the Silence. Or In Mercy Broken.) It opens a few weeks after the end of All Mortal Flesh and takes us through a whole year in Millers Kill, NY. We get to see the Van Alstyne family expanding their dairy farm (with the help of illegal migrant workers), how Clare's life and ministry are affected by her decision to join the National Guard, and we're introduced to the MKPD's first-ever female officer. And of course, there's lots more Russ and Clare, as they struggle to come back from the terrible events of All Mortal Flesh.

You've reached the stage where a lot of writers try stand-alone novels. Do you have plans for one (or more)?

Definitely. I'm committed to a seventh Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne book, and then I'd like to turn my hand to a project I've been researching on and off for a few years. In 2002, Maine closed its 178-year-old state prison in Thomaston. Secretly, over the course of a few nights, every maximum security prisoner in the state was transferred by bus to the new SuperMax facility in the neighboring town of Warren. In February. When Maine gets some of its worst winter weather. I started thinking: what if one of the terrible ice storms we sometimes see blew in suddenly? What if the roads iced over, the power lines came down, the state troopers' cars and the busses went skidding off the narrow county highway? What if the last load of men and a handful of civilian observers were trapped together in an unlit, unheated, unsecured antiquity of a prison?

I can't wait to dive into that and see what happens. I also have other ideas, including a possible series featuring a sort of "anti-Clare Fergusson"--an Episcopal priest who's so burned out by 20+ years of ministering that she retires to what she hopes will be a hermit-like existence on a Maine island. And I'd love to do something lighter and more romantic, set in Alabama, where my father's side of the family is from.

Visit Julia's web site at

1 comment:

Lonnie Cruse said...

I can not remember another ending of a book that affected me like ALL MORTAL FLESH. First I was mad, then I wondered if this was the last in the series, (whew, it isn't) then I determined I HAVE to read the next one to see what happens. POWERFUL writing.

Great interview!