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Author Fuses Own Life Into Her Novels

Sun., July 6, 1997, midnight

One of the first things that should be taught in any literature class is this: Never confuse a fiction writer’s real life with what he/she writes.

Still, there are exceptions.

That’s especially the case when it comes to the mystery novels of J.A. Jance. Judy Jance likes to write about what she knows, so she is intimate with worlds inhabited by the characters of her Joanna Brady and J.P. Beaumont series.

Brady, who is the protagonist of Jance’s most recent novel, “Skeleton Canyon” - from which she will read at Auntie’s Bookstore on Friday (see reader board below) - is the tough-but-sensitive sheriff of Cochise County, Ariz., whose biggest problem involves how to raise her young daughter and still be a professional law-enforcement officer.

Beaumont, the character who brought Jance her first fame, is a hard-boiled Seattle homicide detective whose biggest problem is his love affair with alcohol.

“I’ve spent half my life in Arizona and half my life in Washington State,” Jance said during a recent phone interview. “So I really do feel like I am a person with a foot in both worlds.”

In terms of Beaumont, Jance talks of her first husband who, she said, “died of alcoholism at age 42, a year and a half after I divorced him. That may tell you where some of Beau’s drinking problems come from.”

Her knowledge of Joanna is much more personal. For example, in her novel “Dead to Rights,” Jance includes a scene where Joanna smoothly handles a murder suspect and then, when the pressure is off, collapses in tears.

She likens that to a recent real-life experience where her second husband (“the nice man,” she said, “as opposed to my first one”) fell off the dock at their Lake Washington home.

“And there were five very tough minutes before the people who were on the boat actually knew that he had come up on the other side of the dock and was OK,” Jance said. “Now, I didn’t cry until the five minutes were over. But after that, I was a rag.”

Using experiences such as that, she says, is how she keeps her characters’ reactions “believable.”

She draws heavily on all aspects of her own personal experience, Jance says. She once sold life insurance in Bisbee, Ariz., just as Joanna did.

Sometimes she melds fact with fiction to rectify what she sees as real-life wrongs. The case that begins “Dead to Rights,” for example, is based on a real-life drunk-driving accident that resulted in the death of a good friend.

“Her killer, after two years received 16 months (in jail),” Jance said. “See, I’m the author. And in my universe, the drunk driver doesn’t live through the first chapter.”

“Skeleton Canyon,” is set in a section of southeastern Arizona, amid the Peloncillo Mountains that Jance knew as a girl.

“Skeleton Canyon is the place where Geronimo surrendered to Gen. Crook,” she said. “It’s a spot where the Mormon battalion came across southern Arizona. It’s where the Clanton gang ambushed a bunch of Mexican gold smugglers only to be ambushed themselves. And it’s a spot where we were on a picnic when I was a girl and we very nearly drowned in flash flood.”

She used, and continues to use, “echoes” of all these experiences.

“All of those pieces of regular and personal history ended up washing through my head as I was working on this book,” she said.

And only she knows what’s real and what’s fiction.

For poets who know it

Scribblers of doggerel might consider entering the poetry contest sponsored by Poetry Scribes of Spokane. Deadline for the Amy Woodward Fisher Contest in honor of Earth Day is Aug. 26.

The contest is open only to Washington state poets age 18 and older. For rules and further information, send an SASE to: Donna Hilsabeck, 7718 E. Glass, Spokane, WA 99212.

A title to die for

Here’s our nomination for the year’s best book title. Washington States University Press has published Monique Dykstra’s reminiscence of the summer she spent canoeing 2,000 miles down the Yukon River. Dykstra’s book is called “Too Thick to Drink, Too Thin to Plow: Portraits of People of the Yukon River.”

To order books from WSU Press by credit card, call (509) 335-7880 or (800) 354-7360.

The reader board

Ione Jensen and Julie Keene, co-authors of “Emerging Women: The Widening Stream,” will read from their book at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Auntie’s Bookstore, Main and Washington.

Frank R. Mace, author of “The Story of Wake Island - Book II,” will read from his book at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Auntie’s Bookstore.

J.A. Jance, author of the Joanna Brady and J. P. Beaumont mystery series, will read from her latest Brady novel, “Skeleton Canyon,” at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Auntie’s Bookstore.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo

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