The man who broke into J.A. Jance's home got more than he bargained for.
"This was last March 17," Jance says by telephone from her Seattle home. "He broke in while my husband and I were sleeping. We were alerted by my dog, who started barking, and we detained him until the police arrived." It wasn't clear if the intruder knew he was sneaking into the home of a best-selling mystery author. His motives remain fuzzy. But, if he wanted to break into literature, he found a most interesting way.
"Things happen to me in my life that I end up using," Jance explains. "I said, 'That's exactly the kind of experience I need to for my book.' I started writing immediately."
When life gives you break-ins, make lemonade.
"Damage Control" (William Morrow & Co., $25.95) is Jance's 39th novel, her 12th through the eyes of fictional Cochise County Sheriff Joanna Brady. In this latest installment, a flurry of suspicious deaths roars into southern Arizona with the summer monsoons. Brady must sift murder from tragedy and track two killers, even as she balances local politics, personal doubt and the challenge of a blended family.
Wonder how Brady does it all? Well, very frequently, Jance wonders, too. "I don't outline my books," the author says. "I'm petrified of Roman numerals." Other mystery writers can start with a dense plan of intersecting character arcs, penny drops and plot disclosures. That's fine for them. "I start with a dead body," Jance says. "Then I spend the rest of the time figuring out who did it and how come."
Kicking off with an unexplained body count may seem a little free-form, but Jance says it helps her to start exactly where her detective does. "If I methodically mapped out everything in a book, I wouldn't be motivated to write the book," she chuckles. So she writes to surprise herself. "I am my very first reader," she says. "(Improvising) keeps me interested and focused and fresh." So, Jance sits down and types herself and her main character (Brady, Seattle investigator J.P. Beaumont or newscaster-turned-sleuth Ali Reynolds) into tight corners with no knowledge of how to get out? "Every single time," she says.
Jance responds differently to the rigors of a novelist's life. Outlines bore her. Deadlines energize and motivate her. Touring does, too. "I enjoy promoting a book. It's wonderful to find out what those words you've keyed into a computer screen mean to someone else. Just recently, I was signing books in a grocery store when a lady came up and took my hand. She said, 'I had to come and thank you. When I was in the hospital for a bone marrow and stem cell transplant, my daughter brought in all your books, numbered, and they helped me through.' That kind of story leaves you breathless."
DEATH BY BUICK
"Breathless" aptly describes four people in the opening chapters of "Damage Control." Two die by Buick (a plunge into a ravine), one dies by fire and one is discovered in trash bags near a lonely river wash. As Jance guides Brady outward from these grisly discoveries, she often seeds the path with bits of her own life: the elderly couple echoes her own parents; a poignant memorial scene recalls her firefighter brother's funeral; and of course, her unwelcome houseguest, who introduces the story. "In the book, he gets shot full of holes," Jance says. "So, in real life, he got off easy."
She pauses the interview to bid goodbye to Daphne, the golden retriever whose timely barking gave "Damage Control" its opening and saved Jance from God-only-knows. Jance is leaving on the tour that will land her in two East Valley locations this week. After 39 novels, does the writing get easier or harder? "Actually, I've already finished the next one, and I'm working on the one after that. So, I've written ... ooh .... 40.856 novels," she laughs. "And you feel each one. I can't say it gets easier. But I am a much better typist than when I started."