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Author Jance’s life inspires strong female characters

Don’t tell J.A. Jance she looks tired.

“What you’re really saying is that you look like hell,” Jance quipped at a reading for her “Moving Target” earlier this year in Tucson, Arizona.

Judith Ann Jance, who will be in Spokane next week in support of her newest Joanna Brady novel, “Remains of Innocence,” told the Tucson crowd, “I am perfectly entitled to look tired.” As she’s written 50 books in 30 years and averages two book-signing tours a year, few doubt her.

That work ethic typifies a woman who wrote her first three novels in the very early morning, before she woke her children at 7 a.m. to get them to school and to head to her full-time job.

Mysteries with strong female characters that reflect Jance’s life experiences and an authentic sense of place are among the qualities of Jance’s novels that fans enjoy.

With an academic scholarship, she was first person in her family to attend a four-year college, but Jance was denied entry into the University of Arizona’s creative writing program in 1964 because she was a woman. She was shooed off into “more appropriate” field for women – education. The evil creative-writing professor in “Hour of the Hunter” and “Kiss of the Bees” in Jance’s Walker Family series is not a coincidence.

She graduated in 1966 with a degree in English and secondary education, received masters in library science in 1970, taught at Pueblo High School for two years and was a librarian at Indian Oasis School District in Sells, Arizona, for five years.

Jance put her writing ambitions on the back burner while married to her first husband, who died from chronic alcoholism at 42, two years after their divorce. He had told her there would be only one writer in their family – and he was it.

But Jance wrote poetry at night when her husband slept. Her collection of poems and memoirlike comments was published in “After the Fire,” in 1984 a year before her first novel. The third edition of “After the Fire,” was released last year.

Marriage to an alcoholic helped shape her character J.P. Beaumont, a Seattle homicide detective. Likewise, her experiences as a divorced mom with two children and a full-time job selling life insurance are mirrored in her series featuring Joanna Brady, the Cochise County sheriff.

The protagonist in the series that includes her 50th release, “Moving Target,” is former L.A. TV news anchor Ali Reynolds, who returns home to Sedona. That character was inspired by the ousting of Tucson anchorwoman Patty Weiss.

Bill Schilb, Jance’s husband of nearly 29 years, said she works nonstop, writing at least 1,000 to 2,500 words a day.

A retired electronics engineer, Schilb said he handles the accounting and scheduling, and helps with research and some copy-editing. They split their time between homes in Tucson and Seattle.

Jance, who doesn’t have an office, usually writes in an armchair. She writes one book at a time while juggling the copy-editing of other books or touring. Her next Brady book, “Remains of Innocence,” is due out Tuesday.

“I get energy back from readers,” said Jance, who writes a blog filled with personal stories that allows “readers to have a window on my world.”

She’s written about the harrowing 24 hours that their beloved rescue long-haired dachshund, Bella was missing.

Earlier this year, she shared an intense, poignant open letter to Dylan Farrow in which Jance shared her story of abuse at the hands of her grandfather and the significance of her father believing her story and his support sustaining her.

In a bit of poetic justice for someone rejected from the creative-writing program, Jance will offered a nine-day workshop in May at the University of Arizona on the art and business of writing. Jance said participants will write a novella during the hands-on workshop.

In addition, she and her stepson are collaborating on a Sugarloaf Cafe (from the Ali Reynolds series) cookbook.

“She doesn’t wind down,” said Schilb of Jance’s focus and stamina. “It would be a sad day if she couldn’t write.”