Evolution of a Character
By P. J. Bodnar
Even after 40 years together, New York Times bestselling author J. A. Jance says that her first character—J. P. Beaumont—continues to surprise her.
“Beau can still make me laugh and, surprisingly enough, he can still make me cry, as well,” she admits. “I think of him as an enduring and endearing character both for me and for my readers.”
In their latest adventure, SINS OF THE FATHERS, Beau finds himself in the unenviable position of being an unemployed househusband and pet dad to a very large Irish Wolfhound named Lucy. For a homicide detective, this could be considered cruel and unusual punishment, so Beau decides to get back in the game as a private investigator. But when a witness to one of his old homicide cases asks him for help, Beau’s past comes calling too.
Jance took time from her busy schedule as she is hard at work writing the latest Ali Reynolds novel to answer a few questions for The Big Thrill.
You wrote your first novel as a single mother selling life insurance by day. What research did you do to understand the cop psyche so well?
For the cop psyche, I came to the table believing that cops were people first. The one homicide cop I’d met years earlier who was involved in a serial killer case was so caught up in his job that his marriage came to grief. I wrote Until Proven Guilty having never been a police officer. When I got stumped and needed to know whether or not visitors at Seattle PD were required to wear visitor badges, I picked up a phone book (yes, those still existed back then!) and looked under Seattle PD. There I found a number for a Public Information Officer. Since I was “public,” I called and spoke to a guy named Gary Flynn. When I asked my question he said, “Well, we don’t require badges, but we probably should.” That was in 1982. I’m sure visitor’s badges are now required, but Gary was my go-to guy for insider information right up until he retired. He put me in touch with homicide cops, gang unit guys, crime lab guys. And I stayed friends with him until he passed away a few years ago.
The J.P. Beaumont series is always written in the first person, even in the crossovers. Why did you decide to write the Joanna Brady and Ali Reynolds series in the third person?
Writing in the first person requires real discipline. The reader can only learn what the protagonist hears, sees, smells, or touches. In addition, since I’m female, it took effort to put myself in Beau’s shoes and try to see the world through his eyes.
The funny thing is, it works. More than 30 years later, when it’s time to write a Beau book, I find that within a matter of pages, I’m back in his world, hearing his voice and chuckling at his curmudgeonly attitude toward the world around him. His stories are almost always told in a straight-line time frame. When I wrote my first non-Beaumont book, Hour of the Hunter, I may have overreacted. It was told through seven different points of view with an elastic timeline that swung back and forth over 70 years. Writing that book was like going on vacation!
So when I was given the chance to create another series or two, I decided to use female protagonists as well as third-person points of view. I find those appropriate for both Joanna and Ali, but for J. P.? Nope, it’s first person all the way. That’s the way I know him, and it’s the way my readers know him as well.
In researching SINS OF THE FATHERS, you reread previous J. P. Beaumont novels. Were you surprised by his transformation over the years?
I was absolutely astonished by how politically incorrect things were back then. And when Beau hopped into bed with someone who was essentially a complete stranger, I was downright shocked. We’ve all come a long way since—not always, I might add, in a good way.
Addiction is a major theme in this book, as it is in many of the J. P. Beaumont novels. How has that battle changed for him over the years?
My first husband died of chronic alcoholism at age 42, a year and a half after I divorced him. So I have a living, breathing understanding of what alcohol addiction is all about. I wasn’t allowed in a college creative writing program on account of being a “girl,” so I didn’t get the “write what you know” lesson, but I was smart enough to figure it out. When I started writing about Beau, his story was written in the first person. I needed something for him to do when he wasn’t at work, and since I knew a lot about drinking, that’s what I had him do in his spare time—drink. I didn’t create him in my first husband’s image, but the drinking part was all too true.
The funny thing is that at first, I didn’t really notice. I was writing a story—fiction. When the fourth book came out, someone came to me at a signing and said, “Beau drinks every day. He has a drink of choice. It’s starting to interfere with his work. Does J. P. Beaumont have a problem?” I looked her like she was nuts and said, “But these are books.”
The problem is, in the course of that set of signings, six other people asked me what was more or less the same question. I finally realized that Beau did have a problem, and the writer was the last person to figure it out. That’s how he ended up having his first undeniable blackout in book number seven and wound up in treatment in book eight.
The gratifying thing is that readers have written to me over the years telling me that reading about Beau’s struggles with booze helped them recognize and get a handle on their own problems with booze.
Beau has had to move from cop to private investigator. How hard is it for someone dedicated to helping others to slow down?
It’s not easy for anyone to make that transition from working to mostly not working, and Lucy turns out to be a big help in giving Beau a necessary distraction, to say nothing of forcing him to learn how to throw a frisbee.
Lucy is a major character in SINS OF THE FATHERS. She became part of the family in the last book. Who was the inspiration for this character, and how do dogs as characters change books?
Our first pound puppy, Bony, was a tiny little thing when we got him. While I was housebreaking him, I carried him up and down the stairs in one hand. Since pound puppies don’t come with papers, there was no way to tell that he was part Irish Wolfhound. We figured that out only as he grew. Because he was so young when he came to us, he was a skittish dog. After undergoing boot camp at the Academy for Canine Behavior, he became a wonderful dog, and we had him for 11 years. He was the dog who loved riding in the backseat with his chin resting on my husband’s shoulder.
Stormy Girl, also a pound puppy, came into my daughter’s and grandson’s lives six years ago. She was 20 pounds at the outset, but grew like crazy. She was the real inspiration for Lucy. Stormy terrified passersby by standing on her hind legs and peering at them over a six-foot-tall fence. She also had that very disturbing black-eyed stare. Unfortunately, she passed away from canine melanoma, an affliction common to black dogs, just as I was finishing the manuscript for SINS OF THE FATHERS, hence her mention on the dedication page.
As for how do animal characters change books? Somebody needs to look after them, day in and day out. In Beau’s case, that somebody turns out to be him. After dodging most of the childcare issues when his children were young, those kinds of duties come to him as a big shock.
You and Beau share a birthday. Are there any other similarities, and does that help in the writing?
I came from a family of seven kids, so there were always plenty of birthdays to remember. Now I have a husband, five kids, ten grandkids, and one-going-on-three great grandkids. That’s a lot more birthdays. If you start adding in characters’ birthdays as well? Trying to remember all of them is just nuts, so with Beau, I gave him mine. That way, at least I can keep those two birthdays straight.
With 60 books published, what advice would you give to someone just beginning their career?
I bought my first computer in 1983. It was a dual floppy Eagle with 128K of memory. Not steam driven, but close. If I wrote a chapter that was longer than 10 pages the cursor froze, so I learned to write short chapters. But the guy who sold it to me fixed it so that every morning when I booted up, these were the words that flashed across the screen: A WRITER IS SOMEONE WHO HAS WRITTEN TODAY!
As a beginning writer those words were a real gift and inspiration, and I’m happy to share them with writers who are just starting out. By the way, I am a writer because I was at work on my next book all day until I started working on this interview. Answering emails doesn’t count as being a writer.
You personally respond to all your emails. How important is communicating directly with your fans?
My readers are the foundation of my business. They are literally my bread and butter. If someone sends me a snarky email—as sometimes happens—I try to respond politely. If I didn’t, my mother would rise up out of her grave and slap me. But if they follow up with another snarky email, that one is ignored.
As a result of an email from a fan, your son created recipes based on creations from your characters. How did they compare with their fictional inspiration?
My son’s Sugar Loaf Café Sweet Rolls are pretty much on the money!
What can we look forward to from you next?
I’m almost finished with the first draft on Credible Threat, Ali Reynolds #15. And last night, I think I figured out a name for my next Joanna book, but I haven’t mentioned it to my editor yet.