Thursday, March 3, 2011

Interview with Julia Spencer-Fleming

Interviewer: Elizabeth Zelvin

Liz: One Was A Soldier, the seventh mystery in your series featuring Episcopal priest Clare Fergusson and small-town police chief Russ Van Alstyne, is about to hit the shelves in bookstores, and I’m one of many readers who can’t wait to find out not only what murder and mayhem these two intelligent and lovable people will have to disentangle, but what will happen next in their star-crossed relationship. What can you tell us about the new book without committing any spoilers?

Julia: You had to start with a hard question! Can I quote from the flap copy that will be on the finished books? I wrote it myself, so it’s not cheating...much.

On a warm September evening in the Millers Kill community center, five veterans sit down in rickety chairs to try to make sense of their experiences in Iraq. What they will find is murder, conspiracy, and the unbreakable ties that bind them to one other and their small Adirondack town.

The Rev. Clare Fergusson wants to forget the things she saw as a combat helicopter pilot and concentrate on her relationship with Chief of Police Russ Van Alstyne. MP Eric McCrea needs to control the explosive anger threatening his job as a police officer. Will Ellis, high school track star, faces the reality of life as a double amputee. Orthopedist Trip Stillman is denying the extent of his traumatic brain injury. And bookkeeper Tally McNabb wrestles with guilt over the in-country affair that may derail her marriage.

But coming home is harder than it looks. One vet will struggle with drugs and alcohol. One will lose his family and friends. One will die.

Since their first meeting, Russ and Clare's bond has been tried, torn, and forged by adversity. But when he rules the veteran's death a suicide, she violently rejects his verdict, drawing the surviving vets into an unorthodox investigation that threatens jobs, relationships, and her own future with Russ.

As the days cool and the nights grow longer, they will uncover a trail of deceit that runs from their tiny town to the upper ranks of the U.S. Army, and from the waters of the Millers Kill to the unforgiving streets of Baghdad.

Liz: Your website bio tells us that you were an Army brat. That life might provide an exciting, even glamorous childhood for one kid and a miserably dysfunctional one for another. What kind of experience was it for you?

Julia: It was all of those things, I suspect. It taught me to make friends quickly and let go easily, to adapt to new climate and customs readily, and to realize the stuff I carry in my head is the only stuff that can’t be lost or left behind or given away in the next move. I think it made me into a bookworm--moving from post to post and country to country, the books in the libraries stayed constant. I might be in Alabama, or Germany, or New York, but Narnia and River Heights and the Mushroom Planet were always right there with me.

Sometimes it catches me by surprise when I realize how many years I’ve been living in the same state, in the same house. My kids, whose childhoods have been as settled as mine was roaming, can’t imagine leaving, but I know if I had to, I could pack up our things tomorrow and decamp. “There’s always something to like, wherever you are,” my mother used to say. I agree with that.

Liz: How much research have you had to do for the military aspect of Clare’s life and the law enforcement aspect of Russ’s? What does “doing research” entail for you? Is it a pleasurable part of writing a new book?

Julia: I enjoy research a little too much, which is why I try to do the minimum to get into the book. Usually, I do the research necessary to understand, say, logging in the Adirondacks or bootlegging in the 1930s. Then, as issues arise while I’m writing the book, I write down notes for myself and add them to my Questions File. Later on, I’ll go back and look up whatever it is I didn’t know at the time--the type of gun or the name of a state agency, for instance.

Writing about returning vets, I felt I had to do a great deal more research to get into the situation and to do justice to the experiences of the men and women I was portraying. I probably spent a good six months reading books, newspapers, blogs and interviewing people. (One of the reasons the book was turned in so late!) I normally use all those resources when prepping a novel--this was just a lot bigger in scale and deeper.

Of course, the book I’m writing now is basically Russ and Clare trapped by a killer in a cabin in the frozen woods. My goal is to not have to research anything for this one!

Liz: What about Clare’s role as a priest? You give readers a lot about the daily tasks of being responsible for a church and congregation as well as her role as a leader in the community. How about Clare’s spiritual life? Beyond her ethical concerns, social conscience, and pastoral counseling role, how interested are you in how she gets along with God and whether she struggles to maintain her faith?

Julia: When I started the series, I purposely cheated a bit in order to emphasise Clare’s isolation. Under normal circumstances, a priest would have a spiritual advisor to meet with, probably on a weekly basis. She didn’t get that until I introduced Deacon Willard Aberforth in the fourth book. I figured I could get away with it because Clare’s issue isn’t maintaining her faith so much as it is trying to decide of she’s the right person for the job she’s doing. The goad she lashes herself with--repeatedly--is that she’s a “bad priest.”

One Was A Soldier comes closest to Clare struggling with her own faith. She’s not doing well after returning from her tour of duty. She’s drinking and dosing herself with pills and eventually winds up in therapy with several other vets. Intellectually, she knows she needs help, but emotionally, on a level she’s not really quite aware of, she feels God ought to be enough.

To me, the most important thing to get across is that religious faith doesn’t mean the end of doubt or fear or sadness. Clare, and others in the books, are genuinely faithful--and also sarcastic, self-centered and stupid at times. Contrary to the popular portrayal of religion, believing in God doesn’t make life an endless Candyland Game. And conversely, as we see in Clare, experiencing pain and darkness isn’t necessarily a reason to stop believing.

Liz: At what point did you realize that Russ had to become a co-protagonist in the series, not just Clare’s love interest and law enforcement buddy? You’ve taken a traditional-mystery formula­the team of amateur sleuth and small-town cop or sheriff­ and ratcheted it way up in complexity and emotional intensity (and frustration for the reader). I think it’s an extraordinary love story: two decent people trying to connect with each other in spite of a host of both internal and external obstacles. Did you mean it to turn out so achingly romantic? Can you see a conclusion to their story somewhere down the line?

Julia: Russ became the co-protagonist early on, while I was writing my first book. I realized I didn’t want the cops of Millers Kill to look foolish or lazy--you know how sometimes you read amateur sleuths and find yourself thinking, wait a minute! Where are the police? I wanted to give each of them control over a different area--Russ, the professional investigation and Clare, the social/emotional insights that come to her via her job.

I wanted their relationship to have romantic tension--a lot of romantic tension--as a way to keep the reader’s attention. When the investigation slacks off, as it invariably does in a mystery, the personal story steps to the fore. In one scene, a reader is (hopefully) biting her nails over an important clue. In the next scene, she is (hopefully) chewing her lip over a shared, meaningful glance between two almost-but-never-quite lovers. I did mean it to be painfully, achingly romantic, the sort of relationship that elicits big emotions from the readers, because that’s what I like to experience when I read. I like my heart to pound and my hands to sweat, and I hope that happens when people read my books.

I used to think the conclusion to their story would be in the fifth book. Then the sixth. Now...I just say as long as I have a story about Russ and Clare I really want to tell, I keep on writing them.

Liz: Like quite a few writers, you started out as a lawyer. What got you into the law, what got you out, and do you have any regrets? Do you bring any of the skills or mindset of being an attorney into the writer’s life and/or the stories you tell?

Julia: The best lawyer-related skill set for writing mysteries is the ability to think logically about a chain of events. Law school trains one to look for the primary cause, the proximate cause, the intervening cause--all useful when planning and covering up several murders per book.

What got me in? I was working as a non-profit fund-raiser. I loved my job, did well at it, and earned enough money to live with four other people in a house outside of DC and eat canned soup for dinner. I decided I wanted to earn enough money to buy a car someday. I wasn’t good at chemistry, so no med school. I wasn’t good at math, so no business school. Law school was the default. I loved law school, and have no regrets about going--but I also have no regrets about leaving the field as soon as I was making a little money writing.

Liz: You’ve won an impressive number of awards as well as getting your start by winning the Malice Domestic Best First Novel competition. How important is that aspect of success, and is there any one honor that was particularly meaningful to you?

Julia: It’s nice to win awards, I won’t lie. It is extremely gratifying to have groups of people say, “You’re book is so good, we’re going to give you this teapot/plaque/bust of Nero Wolfe to let everybody know.”

Having said that, I’m pretty relaxed about the whole process. Winning awards didn’t make me write better, or make my children magically start picking up their bedrooms without nagging.

The honor that was particularly meaningful? Probably, oddly enough, one I didn’t win. My third book, Out of the Deep I Cry, was nominated for an Edgar for Best Novel. (Jeff Parker won with his amazing California Girl.) Having served on an Edgars committee, I realized the sort of work my peers did to select those five nominees--and how very many books they had under consideration. It really, truly was an honor to be nominated.

Liz: Can you tell us something about your creative process? What is your schedule like? In what kind of environment do you write best? How much planning do you do before writing the first draft? Do you ever get stuck, and if so, what do you do about it? Do you show your work to anyone before you hand it in?

Julia: Schedule: none. Environment: upstairs, downstairs, in public libraries, in university libraries, at friend’s vacation homes. Planning: not enough, because I always get stuck after the mid-way point, convinced I’m never going to solve the crime and that the book stinks and I’ll have to go back to being a lawyer. I deal with this by complaining bitterly to my husband until he says, “Just write the damn book already. You can always change it later.” (His solution to any sticky plot point is to have a meteor fall on the characters, or a volcano erupt in Millers Kill or something along those lines. I’m always so outraged at his suggestions, they wind up jump-starting me.)

And no, I don’t show the work to anyone until after I’ve typed “The End.” Which doesn’t appear in the book, but which is SO satisfying to write.

Liz: Clare and Russ are the kind of characters that feel very real to the reader. How real are they to you? Do they talk to you in your head? Do they ever say or do things you don’t expect them to? Do you love them?

Julia: I don’t think anyone’s ever asked if I love my characters before. I guess I do, in the way you love someone you’ve known well the whole of your life. I know their flaws and their blind spots and I can tell when they’re going to make mistakes. I can’t protect them or glamorize them. They do feel very real to me, as if they have their lives apart from my imagination. As a result, they do and say things I don’t expect. If you, the author, really know a character, you don’t move him around and make him say things. You set the scene and then sit back and watch how the characters act and react and interact.

Liz: The late great Ruth Cavin was your editor, so not only have you experienced a recent loss, but you’re having the new experience of working with an editor who hasn’t been with you from the beginning. Can you say something about the process of working with editors? What did you learn from Ruth? Is switching a big deal ­or not? Also, how much input does your agent have into what you write, and has your path with agents been smooth or bumpy?

Julia: I’ve had the great good fortune to work with several wonderful editors at St. Martin’s--which of course is different than switching over and being a part of someone’s stable of authors. Ruth cut a broad swath with her editorial notes-I’d get three paragraphs that would result in cutting 40,000 words and a major recasting of roles. My current editors, Pete Wolverton and Katie Gilligan, are a lot more detailed oriented--I almost cried when I got something like ten pages of notes from Pete on the first go-round! Then I realized he was working at a sentence-and-language level Ruth usually didn’t tackle until much later in he process.

A lot of switching editors is like that--getting to know one another’s quirks. Fortunately, I share two passions with my new editors: Pete and I are both huge University of Alabama fans (Roll Tide!) and Katie is an alumna of Smith, where my oldest daughter is going to college.

I’ve been very fortunate with agents. I was ably represented by Jimmy Vines, and when he retired, I signed with the fabulous Meg Ruley of the Jane Rotrosen Agency. She’s less of a critical reader and more the sort to call me up weeping and laughing over the phone to tell me how much she loves the latest book. Which isn’t to say she doesn’t express strong opinions at times! I feel lucky to have so many smart, story-loving people looking at what I write and spending so much time making it better.


Cassy Pickard said...

Julia: What fun to read your post. Liz, thanks for inviting her!! Would you mind commenting on how you plan the character arcs and the plot arcs over so many books? Did you decide in book one that Clare was going to grow, solve, whatever by book three? And so on with Russ? Or, is it more organic than that?

I'm a big fan! I'd vote to keep them coming.

MaxWriter said...

Thanks for this great interview, Liz and Julia. What a treat. And it was a real kick (a nice one) to hear that someone else used to read the Mushroom Planet books!


Sandra Parshall said...

Great interview! Thanks for being with us today, Julia. I'm one of the many fans looking forward to reading the new book.

Julia Spencer-Fleming said...


Much of the series-long plot arcs grew organically out of what I was writing in each book. I can't plan in advance--I uncover the plot as I write. In contrast, I knew where the major characters were going by the time I was working on Book 2. Sometimes I'm surprised--I had no idea one of Russ's officers was going to leave the police force, for instance; but when that opened up the story to allow a new officer in, there was Hadley Knox, with a complete character arc spanning several books.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks for taking the time to respond in depth to all these questions, Julia. I'm lucky enough to have read Once Was A Solder already, and it's moving and satisfying.

Ellis Vidler said...

That was a terrific interview, Liz and Julia. I can't wait for the book to get here.

jenny milchman said...

Julia, I'm so glad to get to learn more about your work from this interview, and hear about your process as well (40,000 words cut! Oy).

I don't know if my email to you ever came through, but in case it got caught in some spam filter, I wrote you a while back about this literary series I host--and an upcoming panel on religious mysteries.

I hope you don't mind my mentioning this on your post, Liz, but I'd love to be in touch if Julia has any interest in possibly appearing--it's a popular series!

June Shaw said...

Great interview! Julia, thanks for sharing so much of how you manage to write your incredible stories.

Julia Spencer-Fleming said...


I did get your email! I'm dashing out to pick up/drop-off/pick up kids, but I'll follow up with you later this evening.

The thanks go to Liz--she's a wonderfully thoughtful interviewer!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

My pleasure, Julia. :)

Tracy Haben said...

Liz, thanks for asking really great questions so that we could learn about Julia even more!

wavybrains said...

Great interview!! Clare and Russ in a cabin? With a serial killer? Oh wow, I think I can't wait for 2012 now too! Great in-depth interview!