PW: Your latest novel, Day of the Dead, is a suspense thriller, while your Joanna Brady and J.P. Beaumont books are mysteries. How do you differentiate between these two genres?
J.A. Jance: I think the mysteries are PG-13, and the thrillers, which also include The Hour of the Hunter and Kiss of the Bees, are rated R.
PW: When you change genres, is it a deliberate choice?
JAJ: Yes. I like to use a different style, a different mode. That way, I don't feel like I'm doing the same thing over and over.
PW: Though clearly you're fond of your series characters.
JAJ: Oh, yes, the book I'm working on now features J.P. Beaumont, who was in my very first book, Until Proven Guilty, published in 1985.
PW: In all your books, place seems to play a strong role.
JAJ: When I wrote Until Proven Guilty, which is set in Seattle, I had only been living there for a year and a half. I had to do a lot of research to be sure Beaumont sounded like a true native! On the other hand, when I started the Joanna Brady series, set in my home state of Arizona, I had been away for 15 years. Sometimes I think you can see a place more clearly when you're away from it and forced to remember. When I began to write about the reservation, for example, I remembered the smell of the desert when a rainstorm comes roaring up with the dust. So many things came back to me.
PW: In your three thrillers, you weave in stories from the Tohono O'odham, natives of the reservation where you taught years ago.
JAJ: The thing about legends is that they have applications in other places, so I feel they work in my books when they're "French braided" into the main plot. In 1910, the bestselling author Harold Bell Wright collected 24 legends from the Tohono O'odham and published them in a book called Long Ago Told. That's my source for the stories I use.
PW: Your first husband, years ago, was inadvertently involved in a murder case, and this obviously has influenced your choice of subject and the sensitivity you show in dealing with victims and victims' families.
JAJ: In 1970, my first husband got a ride home from a man who, although we didn't know it, had just murdered one of several [people]. My husband was able to help the police over the next several months pursue and finally arrest the killer. Although this experience plays a role in my work—Day of the Dead, for example, is about a murder case from 1970 being solved 30 years later—I've never been able to write specifically about the real killer from that time. I am too aware of the families of those victims. I can't give those families what I can offer others in my fiction. One of the wonderful things about mysteries is that the author makes a pact with the reader: the bad guy will have really bad things happen to him. Real life doesn't offer that same sense of satisfaction. I'm glad when my books can help people through difficult times.
PW: Your books have provided an escape for many people.
JAJ: Sometimes in the most surprising ways. For example, several years ago I received a note and a photograph from a juvenile detention center in Florida. The photograph showed a group of big, tough-looking kids, kids who had been sent to the center—all smiling and holding copies of my book Devil's Claw! They had all participated in a sort of book club as a reward for good behavior. They read the book, met and discussed it, then presented individual reports to a gathering. I've stayed in touch with them, and they've read a number of my books. When I tour for Day of the Dead, I'll be visiting the center. I'm really looking forward to it.