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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Julia Spencer-Fleming: An Interview

We welcome author Julia Spencer-Fleming as a guest to our blog! Beginning with the award-winning In the Bleak Midwinter, Julia has had a string of books that are popular with our customers -- and us! She has graciously agreed to answer some of our questions:

mbtb: One Was a Soldier is your seventh book. Did you know from the beginning that you wanted to write a series and that Clare and Russ's evolving relationship would be a central plot point?

Julia: I didn’t know I was writing a series from the very beginning, no. When I started In the Bleak Midwinter, I didn’t know much more about the publishing industry than I could find in Writer’s Digest. (It was the end of the century, and there wasn’t the Internet treasure-trove of information on books and writing we have today.) I did want to write a book that would linger in the reader’s mind, whether that meant rushing out to buy the next novel or simply thinking about the characters wistfully.

I don’t know if Russ and Clare’s relationship is the central plot point. Their story question is a very simple one: will these two decent people find an ethical way to be together? Or will they be forced to part? They are at the heart of the novels, though, because we read for characters, not for plot.

mbtb: On your website, you describe your series as “novels of faith and murder.” How are your books received in the religious community?

Julia: Very well, thank God! I’ve had nothing but positive feedback from clergy and clerical families. That’s not to say I don’t make mistakes - the books are sprinkled with ecclesiastical errors. (The hardest part of researching, I have found, is knowing that you DON’T know something that you think you know. If that makes sense.) I think what the religious community responds to is the portrayal of a cleric who is authentically human. Lay people invest such a staggering amount of symbolism into the clerics around them: they’re better and more holy than anyone, or deluded, or dangerously hypocritical.

The Rev. Clare Fergusson in a thirty-something woman doing a difficult job, often with inadequate support from the folks around her. She makes mistakes, she has self-doubts, she tries very hard to love her neighbors, but she doesn’t always like them very much. In fact, the highest praise I get isn’t from the religious community - they already know the reality of their lives - but from readers who are areligious. It’s enormously gratifying to get an email from someone saying, “I’m not a believer, but knowing Clare helps me understand what it’s like from the inside.” Which ultimately is the job of fiction. To enable the reader to experience another person’s reality from the inside.

mbtb: Do you think small towns are as accepting in real life as the Millers Kill you portray in your series?

Julia: Is Millers Kill accepting? (You can’t see it on the page, but I’m laughing here.) Between the gossip, and the people saying, “But this is the way we’ve always done it!” and the feuding neighbors and the economic struggles - yes, I’d say small towns are as accepting as Millers Kill. I live in a very small town in Southern Maine, and some of my scenes - I’m thinking of the contentious town meeting in A Fountain Filled With Blood are ripped from the headlines, as it were.

mbtb: The supporting characters all play strong roles in your novels. How did you
create the community of Millers Kill from scratch?

Julia: Can I get away with saying I don’t know? There were certain roles to be filled once I had cast my protagonists as a new young priest and the home-town chief of police. Clare had to have a vestry, and parishioners, and of course, a church secretary. Russ needed officers and a dispatcher and old friends and family. I know the essential nature and some of the background of all the supporting cast, but I try to leave enough space to flesh them out and introduce new plot elements as necessary.

I tend to be thinking about one to two books ahead as I work, so I can weave in threads ready to be pulled in the next novel. For instance, in Out of the Deep I Cry, Russ broke his leg, necessitating a doctor’s care. The physician, George Stillman, turned out to be the third doctor of that name; his grandfather’s diaries provided important information in the cold case Russ was working. We meet him again briefly in I Shall Not Want, caring for an illegal migrant worker with a broken arm. He tells Clare he, like her, is in the Guard. Now in One Was A Soldier, he’s a major viewpoint character, returned from Iraq with a traumatic brain injury. Did I know where he would wind up when I was writing Out of the Deep I Cry? Nope. I just needed a doctor. The rest of it just grew like Topsy.

mbtb: Here in the Pacific Northwest, local crime writers often use our rainy weather to add atmosphere. What attracted you to the cold, snowy climate of Upstate New York as a setting?

Julia: Failure to appreciate that if I set a mystery series in Hawai’i, I could take a yearly tax-deductible trip there for “research.”

No, actually, that’s where I’m from. My family settled the area I write about in the 1720s, and we’ve been there ever since, too foolish or too stubborn to relocate to better weather and decent farmland. As a writer, I love the idea of extreme weather. Blizzards, ice storms, impassible roads, roaring spring floods; bring it on. In Millers Kill, NY, it’s not just the bad guys you have to worry about. The climate can kill you, as well.

With Clare¹s background as an Army helicopter pilot and her position as an Episcopalian priest, you must do a lot of background research. What¹s your process?

Julia: As I said, the hard part is realizing I don’t know as much as I think I do! I research like most other writers, I suppose. I get information at libraries and historical societies. I have people I can call up with questions: a priest and a police chief and a gun guy and a doctor. And of course, I use the Internet a great deal. The greatest gift Google has given writers is time. If I have a quick question: “What’s the nearest maximum security prison to Washington County?” “What time does the sun go down on this date?” Boom, it’s right there. I can check it and keep on writing.

I did a great deal more research on One Was A Soldier than I usually do, because I felt it was so important to get it right. So along with the usual research mix, I talked with several veterans at length, and I spent a long time reading books, articles and military blogs. With this war, you don’t have to wait for Walter Cronkite to update you. You can get the raw feed in soldiers’ own words, online and updated daily. It’s amazing.

mbtb: For books like "One Was a Soldier," which deals with returning veterans, and A Fountain Filled with Blood, which dealt with homophobia, are you drawn to a particular topic or timely current event or do the plots naturally leadthere?

Julia: I start with an issue or event that I’m interested in. Then, of course, it has to fit into the confines of Millers Kill. I’m fascinated by epidemics and epidemiology, for instance, but how would that translate into a small-town contemporary crime fiction setting? Everybody in the police department gets the flu? Not really a starting point for a riveting tale. However, I’ve been deeply interested in what happens to veterans returning home after one, two three tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan. So many of the men and women serving are in the Guard, and they don’t come back to Army bases, they come back to little home towns, just like Millers Kill. That’s a story I can tell.

Julia Spencer-Fleming is the Agatha and Anthony-award-winning author of the upcoming One Was A Soldier, the seventh Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mystery. You can find her on Facebook, on Twitter, and at her Reader Space.

1 comment:

  1. I was fortunate enough to read a friend's ARC of "One Was a Soldier." It's a beautifully written book with a storyline we should all be interested in as our seemingly never ending wars continue. It was a long wait for this book, Julia, but certainly "One Was a Soldier" was worth the wait. To prepare for the book, I listed to all of the earlier books. What wonderful stories and what great protagonists.