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Online At-Home

Jan Burke, interviewed by T. Jefferson Parker
February 2003


Over the years, the NorCal East Bay chapter of Mystery Readers International has had many "At Homes" -- intimate evenings with favorite mystery writers. We've hosted Anne Perry, Lawrence Block, Sue Grafton, Elizabeth George, Janet LaPierre, Sharan Newman, Laurie King, Rochelle Krich, Carolyn Hart, James Ellroy, Steven Saylor, Janet Evanovich, Eddie Muller, Taffy Cannon, and many others.

These events are held in private homes, and they're similar to Literary Salons. Since so many of our cyber members and friends aren't able to attend these intimate evenings, I thought it would be fun to have a "visiting" author each month interviewed by another "visiting" author. This month we feature Jan Burke interviewed by T. Jefferson Parker.

[Jan]Jan Burke was born in Texas, but has lived in Southern California most of her life, often in coastal cities -- several of which combine to make up the fictional Las Piernas, where Irene Kelly works and lives. She and her husband, Tim, share their home with two dogs, Cappy and Britches.

Jan attended California State University, Long Beach, and graduated with a degree in history. Following college, she spent a number of years managing a manufacturing plant. Goodnight, Irene was written during long evenings after work. The completed manuscript was sold unsolicited to Simon and Schuster. She now writes full-time, and has nine novels to her credit, including her latest, Nine, as well as a book of short stories, 18. Her short stories have won multiple awards, including the Macavity in 2001 and 1994 and the Agatha in 2000. Her novel Bones won the Edgar for Best Novel in 2000.

Jan served as the editor of Sisters in Crime's guide to getting published, Breaking And Entering. She is a past president of the Southern California Chapter of Mystery Writers of America and has served on MWA's National Board.

--Janet Rudolph


T. Jefferson Parker: First of all, let me just say that I'm a big fan of your writing. What I like most is the depth of characterization, the variety, and the attention you pay to the right details. Let's start with a broad stroke. What are your writing roots? Hardboiled stuff, thrillers, literature?

Jan Burke: Thanks -- I'm truly flattered. And tempted to get the mutual admiration society into full swing here.

Writing roots. I suppose most writing is rooted in reading. I'm the ultimate omnivore when it comes to reading. Always have been. Everything from classics to so-called trashy novels. If it can keep my attention for one reason or another, great. If it offers something more than distraction, lovely. The variety itself is stimulating.

Within the genre? I read Christie in high school and Conan Doyle and Chandler in college. Chandler and Hammett are without a doubt the writers who made me fall in love with crime fiction. Sayers, Woolrich, Allingham, Tey, Cain, and Macdonald soon made me realize something more about the range of the genre, and deepened my attachment to it. Eventually, I started catching up on more contemporary writers' works.

I'm not sorry that I began with those early masters.

TJP: I read an interview with Jakob Dylan once, where he said that originality is overrated. What he meant was that he was happy to create within the tradition of music he sees himself a part of. Do you see yourself working within a tradition or genre, or combining elements from more than one? How important is it to you to break new ground?

JB: I'm part of a continuum.

The traditions are valuable to me, and are not to be discarded, but I firmly believe that the best work in this genre has always changed it to some degree as well. On a much smaller scale, as an individual writer, it is essential to me that I try to write a book that is in some way better than the last. It can only be better if I bring something fresh to my readers without alienating them from the story I want to tell.

I've never wanted my readers to feel as if they were kids in the school cafeteria, saying, "Friday. Fish sticks again." On the other hand, I've never wanted them to find the next story so oddball that they couldn't connect with it.

I suppose I should also admit that I don't want writing to become drudgery. There is a huge difference between hard work and boring work. Staying challenged may make writing difficult, but I prefer that to being bored. If I'm bored, the reader will be bored.

As for the genre itself -- I'm proud to be called a writer of crime fiction. I'm in excellent company, and part of a tradition I love.

TJP: Don't think about this too long. Name five of your favorite novels, and give us a sentence or two why.

JB: If people think about this type question too long, I notice that it is sort of like asking them what they watch on T.V., and you just know that no one watches that much C-SPAN and PBS. So not guaranteeing these are the top five, off the top of my head:

Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammett, mostly because of Dinah Brand, but also because of the feel Hammett gives to the town, and the power and economy of his writing.

Brat Farrar, by Josephine Tey, because I can read it again and again, knowing the twists, the outcome, and where I'll come across the sentences that make me hold my breath and then let in out in a sigh of admiration -- and still love just it as much each time. She draws these characters and the tensions between them with such a fine hand.

Midshipman Easy, by Captain Marrayat, because I love the adventure, the humor, the history, and the ability of Marryat to bring a na´ve character along in a story without making you tire of him by chapter three.

The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett, standing in for all the volumes of historical fiction that make up the amazing Lymond Chronicles. Lymond is a complex and fascinating character. I also like these books because Dunnett made me pull out my maps and history texts.

Owen Wister's The Virginian -- no, not for the famous, "Smile when you say that, polecat," line, but because I can't resist a man who would call a horse a "pie eater," and oh, for a dozen other reasons.

Okay, I'm cheating, going over the limit. I want to add that I love Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise books, because long before I saw anyone else even hinting at this possibility for a female character, Modesty could do anything. And for the unique relationship between Modesty and Willie Garvin.

Stop me now. I've left so many off my list!

TJP: Go back to the days you spent writing what would become your first published novel. Did you think it was good? Did you think it would be published? In daydreaming moments, did you cast the movie?

JB: I wanted it to be good. I wasn't so sure it was. After I wrote the first chapter or two, I stashed it away in a drawer for about six months, because it wasn't as good as the works of Hammett and Chandler and all my other heroes.

Irene wouldn't leave me alone, though, and I had to find out what was going to happen and who killed O'Connor. So I decided I would just do my best. Armed with a bunch of Larry Block's books on writing, I went back to it.

I loved the process while being terrified of it. (That hasn't changed.) When it wasn't going well, I just tried to keep writing. When it did seem to be going well, it brought an incredible high along with it. I found I couldn't always trust those blissful moments to produce the best writing, but I was grateful for them all the same because they helped me to stick with it in the more tortuous moments.

I wanted to be published, but at that point, I tried to concentrate on simply finishing a manuscript. I tried not to think about anything beyond reaching that goal. I wanted to be able to say, "I wrote a book." I had already encountered so many people who started one but never finished more than a few chapters.

Once it was finished, I had a lot of faith in it. I wasn't certain it would be published, but I had written a book I liked -- that probably sounds immodest, but I can't understand why someone would write a book he or she wouldn't want to read.

I never cast the movie, but I "saw" the book as I wrote it -- visualized it, I suppose -- it was this very long film on the screen of my imagination.

TJP: Can you give us a little biography? Favorite Beatle? High school mascot? Did you have any nicknames? What kind of 18-year old were you? I'm particularly interested in work you had before becoming a professional writer.

JB: I was born in Texas. My family moved to Southern California when I was six-and-a-half. You know how it is at that age -- you always add the "and-a-half." We lived in Long Beach for about half a year, then moved to Orange County. Most of my school years were spent in Orange County.

I started the BLA at Skylark Elementary School. Beatle Lovers of America. It was an underground society, not recognized by the school, completely informal. I think it lasted for a few weeks of fifth grade and mostly involved walking around at recess with a few other girls and planning a trip to see "A Hard Day's Night." I was torn between John and Paul.

This next set of events changed my life in immeasurable ways, but I won't take up all the space on the Mystery Readers International Web site telling you about them. So, getting over rough ground quickly:

In the summer between sixth grade and my first year of junior high, my mother, with whom I was very close, died of cancer. My grandmother -- my father's mother -- came to live with us. My father remarried when I was in eighth grade. My stepmother is a wonderful woman. That's not to say there wasn't a period of adjustment. My oldest sister was away from home by then, but my stepmother moved into a house with three children (13, 11, and 10) and a mother-in-law. Talk about courage.

We moved to Los Alamitos, on the western edge of Orange County. The Griffin was the Los Alamitos High School mascot. Most of us did not know what a griffin was until we were at that high school. A formidable, mongrel mythological beast was an appropriate symbol for that unusual public high school -- it used experimental methods of teaching and flexible scheduling of classes. I adored it, but it probably contributed to a small degree to the amount of goofing around I did in high school. (Other factors played a bigger role.)

Still, I learned the consequences of goofing around, and a number of other invaluable lessons that had little to do with the curriculum. The faculty was terrific. I fell in love with history in high school, largely because the faculty there taught it so well.

I received a history degree at California State University, Long Beach. I did some graduate work as well, and conducted oral histories with "Rosie the Riveters" as a part of that. I worked on a short film, wrote and performed a lot of music.

I went to work for my father, mostly because I was broke, and ended up working for the corporation which bought his company -- so when I was writing Goodnight, Irene, I was managing a manufacturing plant for a big corporation.

TJP: You've won many awards, most notably the Edgar for best novel. If you could map out your next ten years of writing, what would you most like to happen to your writing and your career?

JB: I'd write books and stories I want to write, and write better ones. I hope to continue to gain a larger readership. I'd want the president of Simon & Schuster to look at my sales figures and feel the company is being rewarded for its years of faith.

TJP: I've chided you (affectionately) for working too much. You're the only writer I know who can serve on three boards of directors, tour the world and write a novel all at the same time. Is this energy, or fantastic organizational skills or what?

JB: I grew up in a household where service to one's community was important. My mother was President of the Skylark PTA. She started the school library when there was absolutely no budget for one, mostly by making everyone believe they should and could have one. She was politically active. She painted.

She was a wife in the 1950s and early 1960s, which meant, in suburban America, that she was supposed to live up to the expectations that ultimately led to the women's movement. (This is something I will ask God about at some point, because I think she was about twenty-five years ahead of her time.)

She had primary responsibility for caring for four kids, including two who had major health problems. I think I simply grew up in a home where something was always happening, and the norm was to live life to the fullest, to be actively involved in the world, rather than passive.

TJP: Have you ever fantasized about being a reclusive, respected writer who never does promotion, is impossible to locate, and maybe is even reputed to have a bad temper?

JB: Daily.

Not because I dislike meeting readers. It's just that there is an aspect of the public life of an author that bears a striking resemblance to the movie "Groundhog Day."

TJP: One thing that most mystery readers have in common is they love your character Irene Kelly. She's bright, dedicated, big-hearted and brave. Can you tell us how you created her?

JB: I honestly don't know. I suppose saying "she created herself" sounds hokey, but it's the truest thing I can say about her. I'm not sure why my imagination took the particular paths that led to Irene being Irene.

For the most part, she began with the first line of Goodnight, Irene. "He loved to watch fat women dance." I had to ask myself, what sort of person begins her eulogy of a close friend by saying this? The rest followed.

TJP: Do you find it difficult being Jan Burke? What I mean is, do the expectations that publishers and readers bring to you ever feel limiting? Or have you arranged your career in such a way that you can pretty much try the books you want to try?

JB: I'm fortunate. I have a brave editor -- Marysue Rucci. That sort of champion makes a huge difference.

Like many writers, I have ideas hovering on the horizon -- ideas for books that don't fit into the general description of what I'm doing now -- but whether I will decide I want to commit to them is another matter.

One thing I've learned over the time I've been published is that the bond between a writer and a book is stronger than almost any other. People can and do break ties -- they run away from home, put children up for adoption, divorce, or escape one another in a number of ways. They take family pets to the pound, they sell property that has been in the family for generation, give up citizenship and move to other countries.

You can't do that with a book you've written. It's yours, tied to you forever. New writers quail at the commitment of time to write a manuscript. That's nothing compared to the time you'll have with that book after you write it. So, I try to be careful about picking which of those ideas for books I'll work with.

TJP: Okay, you wake up regular time, you have a full work day in front of you. Just you and the pages. On a scale of one to ten, how happy are you about this? Would you rather be doing something else?

JB: Eleven, with moments of three, even a one now and then. There isn't anything on earth I'd rather being doing with my life. I love writing. I feel incredibly lucky that I am paid to do work I love.

Still, the individual day-to-day of it can be awful. There are more than a few days when I am completely convinced that the book is falling apart, that the basic plot was a terrible idea, that it is less appealing that things I have found on the bottom of my shoe after crossing the lawn in the dark. My husband deserves to be canonized for putting up with me on these days.

A friend of mine once said that we shouldn't complain about being writers, because it isn't as if someone held a gun to our heads and told us to do it. I told her that I thought it would often be much easier if someone would.

These are the times when I embrace the power of revision -- I know that if I just write and write and get a manuscript to revise, the real work can begin, and with luck, I can take the stink off it.

All that said, the worst day is one when I wanted to write and didn't get a chance to do so.

TJP: How about a tiny sneak preview of the next novel?

JB: The working title is Paperboy. It's an Irene Kelly novel, a missing persons story. The first section follows O'Connor, Irene's mentor (who is killed on page 2 of Goodnight, Irene), as a young reporter in the late 1950s. The second takes place about twenty years later, as Irene, in her early twenties, begins working with him. The final section takes place after another twenty years or so have passed, and Irene is a veteran reporter.

The book looks at how newspaper work, forensic science, and Southern California itself have changed over those years.

TJP: What would you like to see more of, and less of, in crime writing these days?

JB: I'd like to see more of the kind of writing you do -- well-written, tense, high stakes stories, with believable characters the reader cares about, realistic dialogue, settings you can feel, and something to say about life. This last evolves naturally out of the story -- the reader never feels as if the author is delivering sermons.

Less? I don't like writing that is too proud of itself, or which causes the reader to feel the strain that went into producing it. I keep coming across books with poor pacing, characters who do things for no particular reason we can understand, totally unlikable characters, or characters who don't seem to be up to the job of solving the mystery, and endings that are supposed to be twists but which are really rabbits pulled out of hats.

I'm so often disappointed lately by someone bringing in a "last minute villain" who may have been in the book in a peripheral way, but whose motives are all explained in the last ten pages. I hate that.

These are quibbles about a few books, nothing more. I think there is some truly fine and exciting work being done in crime writing. This is a wonderful time to be writing in this genre.

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