Julia Spencer-Fleming Combining Romance and Mystery in Wonderful Ways
"I play around a lot with form, chronology, and points of view. It's endlessly fascinating to me, the way the framework of fiction effects the plot and the reading experience."
(January 13, 2009)
One of the highlights of my 2008 reading year was discovering Julia Spencer-Fleming's Rev. Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mystery series. It was probably the longest, most sustained glom I'd gone on in years. I introduced my sister, Vanessa Walstra, to these books, and, after she'd read them, we had a number of interesting discussions about the characters, the plots, the writing, and the slowly developing romance in this series. The following questions emerged from these discussions, and Julia Spencer-Fleming graciously agreed to to answer them for us and for you, the reader. Enjoy!
You take a lot of risks stylistically, structuring the books so differently throughout the series. Was this intentional? Or did you feel the plot dictated the writing style?
One of my goals as a writer is, “same, only different.” In other words, when a reader picks up a book with my name on it, she can expect a certain type of read mystery, romance, a fast-paced plot, action, social issues. But at the same time, I never want her to read the same book twice. So I play around a lot with form, chronology, and points of view. It's endlessly fascinating to me, the way the framework of fiction affects the plot and the reading experience.
Some structures revealed themselves to me right away in To Darkness and To Death, I knew I was going to write a mystery that took place in 24 hours. The big challenge in that book was layering the multiple points of viewlike piecing together a collage that makes one complete picture when you step back to look at it. Others took more time to uncover I was beating my head against Out of the Deep I Cry until I realized that I had to uncover the past archaeologically, from the most recent to the most distant. So one portion of the story moves forward in time along the 40 days of Lent, and the other part of the story scoops backwards through the 70s, the 50s, the 30s, and into the 1920s.
The seasons and the topography of Miller's Kill play an almost character-like role in the books. Did you set out to do this?
Absolutely. My writing has been heavily influenced by two masters of the genre, Margaret Maron and Archer Mayor. In their books, the locations become inescapable parts of the story. The crimes, the characters, the dangers all arise out of the history, climate, culture, and economies of, respectively, North Carolina and Vermont. You can't transplant the stories into, say, California and Illinois. They simply won't work. That's what I wanted for my own books that, and to create such a vivid environment that you have to put on a sweater when reading about how cold Clare gets.
Many of the books tackle particular societal issues (adoption, homophobia/hate crimes, vaccinations, environmentalism); how did you choose the issues? Are these issues of particular importance to you?
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Yes. Weaving the plot around social issues helps to keep me interested in the book it takes me a year (or more!) to write one of my novels, and I need something that sparks my curiosity or outrage or passion to help keep me chained to my chair. From the mystery side, let's face it there are only a few basic motives for people to kill. Most of then fall under the heading of either Money or Love Gone Wrong. When I can insert one of these motives into a more complicated issue, it helps bring some complexity and gravitas to the crime itself.
One thing I try to do is present different facets of the issue, as it's experienced by different individuals. I don't want you to reading a treatise on homophobia, I want you to feel what it's like to be a small-town, semi-closeted guy, and a gung-ho liberal pastor, and a middle-aged cop who's uncomfortable around openly gay men.
The other thing I try to do is play with expectations. So the couple that desperately wants to adopt in In the Bleak Midwinter isn't some Hallmark-card family-in-waiting, but hard-driving, sometimes unpleasant lawyers. Russ Van Alstyne's perfectly nice sister turns out to be someone willing to exploit immigrant labor in order to keep her dairy profitable. A practical, feckless young man is willing to die for someone he just met. Reversed expectations are necessary in mysteries otherwise, we'd know who the killer is right off the bat! - but I like to make it a part of the fabric of the stories, with characters who will never be suspects. In Millers Kill, your best friend might betray you, and the unsympathetic old coot who arrives to set you straight might become your counselor and guide.
Clare is, in many ways, the kind of priest I would want: compassionate, passionate, energetic. But she is also impulsive and somewhat self-destructive. Are there more roots to this that will be revealed? Or is this just her?
Before I ever started the first book, I wrote biographies of the town, Russ Van Alstyne, and Clare Fergusson. Her recklessness stems from her role in her family she was an oldest child raised by an exceedingly proper grandmother and a Southern belle mother. Her younger sister was a girly girl. Her adored father was physically absent for a large chunk of her childhood. (In To Darkness and To Death, Russ jokingly says, “You're working out some serious father issues, aren't you?” Really, she is.)
Her way of carving out an identity for herself was to be the daring one, the tomboy, the one who continually rejected the expectations of her mother and grandmother. Not that her impulsiveness isn't an innate quality as is, say, her deep compassion and empathy but those were the circumstances that allowed it to root and flourish within her. Then, in the Army, she became an aviator, a career that attracts people who have an odd combination of insane recklessness and methodical responsibility.
Occasionally, I'll read a review criticizing Clare for doing something stupid, or not thinking things through. I always want to ask, “Haven't you ever acted without parsing all the consequences? Haven't you ever impulsively taken the off-ramp and then five minutes later said, “Uh-oh. Wrong way.”? There's an expectation, among mystery readers especially, that the sleuth will always detect in the most efficient, logical way. That's not so interesting to me. I want to read about someone who screws things up and acts irrationally once in a while because that person, I can identify with.
You do a great deal of subtle paralleling of Russ's character with Clare's character. The readers sees, very early on, that these two characters recognize the other in fundamental ways. I love this about the stories. The one area of Russ's character I found hard to reconcile is his alcoholism. He is so concerned with the well-being of others that this seemed a little discordant. Is Russ's alcoholism a parallel to Clare's self-destructiveness?
In In the Bleak Midwinter, Russ has a conversation with Clare where he describes how he used alcohol to numb himself to all the bad things he saw as an MP. The fact that he was a recovering alcoholic was another way for me to isolate him at the beginning of the series he can't bring his crap to his wife, or to his family, and he doesn't have any close friends not even the bottle.
Later, I developed his backstory a little more in Out of the Deep I Cry, we learn his father was an alcoholic (which I think explains a lot of Russ's hyper vigilant sense of responsibility) and in All Mortal Flesh we learn Walter Van Alstyne, in fact, died as a result of his drinking.
Originally I had thought to develop a storyline that involved Russ falling away from sobriety; as I came to know him better, I just couldn't reconcile that with who is is today. I think his real parallel to Clare's impulsiveness and recklessness is that sense of responsibility and protectiveness. It drives him forward without much conscious control, and eventually, it almost kills him.
Did you create the age difference between Russ and Clare for a reason? What did you set out to accomplish with this?
Their age difference she's 14 years younger than he is is one of the many ways Russ and Clare are opposites of one another. In addition to older/younger, there is married/single, agnostic/theistic, northern/southerneven, I suppose, male/female!
I wanted Russ to be long-married, which necessitated him being older, and I wanted him to - at least in his own eyes - have reached that place where he thinks he has his life all figured out. Part of his journey, through the books, is discovering that he's wrong about this. At the start of In the Bleak Midwinter, he could have told you how the entire rest of his life was going to play out, week by week and year by year. And then he walks into the Washington County Hospital and meets his anam cara, the friend of his soul. He is, to use C.S. Lewis's phrase, “surprised by joy.” I don't think that's an experience that's happens to anyone who hasn't got a few years under his belt.
Linda, Russ's wife, is a sticky character to portray. Did you have a particular vision for how you wanted readers to perceive her? Did you feel you accomplished this vision? What feedback have you gotten about Linda?
My goal first and foremost was to avoid the typical trap that you see in fiction: when a married man is attracted to a woman who isn't his wife, either he's a low-down, dirty dog or his wife is a loathsome harpy. I wanted to frame the Van Alstyne's marriage in a much more realistic way: a basically contented couple living on parallel tracks. Neither of the Van Alstynes has had to look at the cracks that are starting to appear in the relationship. For the first two books, we never meet Linda, we only experience her through Russ's thoughts and emotions. She's loving, she's generous; she's loyal and faithful and beautiful. But the reader can tell, I hope, that he's something of an unreliable narrator when it comes to his marriage, because we can see the small strains that Russ overlooks.
When we meet Linda in Out of the Deep I Cry, low and behold, she really is charming and kind and gorgeous, and she makes Clare feel like the Wicked Witch of the West. I had all sorts of readers complaining, “But she's nice!” Well, yes. That's the point. Russ isn't just fighting his attraction to Clare because he's honorable. He's doing it because he has something to fight for.
Once I brought Linda on to the scene, I was able to make good use of her in the next two books. She becomes more fleshed out, more fallibly human, and the readers, as well as Russ, start to discover the flaws that have been there all along.
Despite the fact that she's a basically good person, the primary feedback I've gotten from readers has been, “Linda must die!” Some are more soft-hearted than others and have suggested she should run off with another man (one reader suggested she run off with another woman) but most have demanded that she have a fatal curtain-hanging accident.
You seem to have two goals in the series: to tell the individual stories/mysteries, and to develop the relationship between Russ and Clare. Was there ever a time when you had to choose between what was good for the momentum of the story and what was good for the development of Russ/Clare's relationship?
It's a balancing act, that's for sure. I want the books to work both as mysteries and as the unfolding story of the relationship. In some ways, I have more freedom with the latter, because I'm not working within the genre expectations of Romance, whereas I am trying to hit all the marks for Mystery: murder, motive, clues, deduction, logical conclusion. I've never shorted the development of the relationship, but there have been scenes that I've cut because they fail to maintain the overall momentum of the story. Once I start writing Russ and Clare talking with each other, I could hum along all day, being funny and honest and emotional and never getting a step farther toward solving the crime.
It's become easier as I've gotten further into the series, in part because I've become more commercially successful - proof positive that readers like what I've been doing - and in part because I'm coming to accept that I'm bushwhacking my way into Cross-genre Country. When I began writing the series, I was unsure how much police procedure and amateur sleuthing I could combine. Now I'm blending police procedure, romance, small-town life and I don't know what-all maybe Women's Fiction? - into each novel, which in turn, becomes part of an overall story I'm telling over many volumes.
Flynn and Knox play a significant role in the latest book, I Shall Not Want. Do you have a particular vision for these two characters in future books?
I'm very fond of Flynn and Knox, and I really do want a chance to flesh them out more. They're kind of the anti-Russ and Clare: a sweet 24-year-old boy who has never been out of New York State and a seen-it-all 32-year-old single mother. He's wanted to be a cop since he was seven, and she took the job solely for the pay and benefits. Hadley Knox has a LOT of history she left behind in California - I think letting it catch up with her will make an interesting story. And we've already seen Kevin Flynn growing up as the series progresses he's only 21 in the first book, spasming with excitement over his first major crime - but he has a lot more innocence to lose. I have no idea where things are headed for them, although when my agent cheerfully suggested Flynn's death would make an interesting plot line, I said, “No!” without having to consider it. So I guess that's off the table for now.
What's next for Clare and Russ? Do you have other projects on the horizon?
I'm neck deep into the next book, One Was A Soldier, which tells the story of a group of Iraq War vets who come back to their small town and discover picking up the pieces of their lives and relationships is much, much harder than anyone expected. When Russ rules the death of one of the group a suicide, Clare sets herself against him and the MKPD to prove the soldier was murdered.
I'm also prepping for a stand-alone, a non-series book, based on a fictionalized version of the closing of the old Maine State prison. A few years back, after a series of inmate law suits, the state built a new Super Max and shut down the 170-year-old prison in Thomaston. I got to tour the facility after the transfer was complete, and let me tell you, the modern parts of the building were straight out of a Jimmy Cagney film. They had an emergency generator that was so old it could and did blow when attempting to take on the electrical load during a power outage. Now, in real life, the DOC moved every single maximum-security prisoner in the state of Maine by bus, along two-lane country highways, during a 24-hour period in February, when we get some of the worst winter weather. I started thinking: what if one of our terrible ice storms blew in during the transfer? What if the roads iced over and tree limbs and power lines came down, and the electricity went off all over the state and no one could move
anywhere? And what if there was one last busload ready to go when the power went out and the old prison's generator blew? What if those prisoners were loose inside those dark, cold, echoing stone walls with a handful of civilian employees and lawyers and social workers and reporters who had been covering the transfer?
I was pitching this to my agent, and she said, “I love it, but you're known for the love stories inside your crime fiction now. Is this one going to have a relationship?”
I said, “Oh yes. It will tell the tender love story of Big Al, and his special friend, Bubba.” She screamed like a little girl. Now she refers to this project as Don't Bend Over, which is funnier when you know she agented Jenny Crusie and Bob Mayer's Don't Look Down.
Then... despite having sworn the Russ and Clare mysteries would be a limited series, going no more than fivesix seven books, I'm already coming up with ideas and story lines for an eighth book. So you can expect to see more of Millers Kill in the future.
Do you read fiction for pleasure? Do you read romance?
I don't think you can be a writer and not read for pleasure. I read a lot of romance, a lot of YA keeping up with my 16 and 14 year old and I adore reading aloud with my 8 year old. We've done the Little House books and the Chronicles of Narnia together, and now I'm trying to tempt her into the Freddy the Pig books. Come to think of it, Freddy the Detective was probably my introduction to crime fiction. I read a lot of crime fiction, of course, to keep up with the field and for blurbing, and I have a particular soft spot of historical mysteries.
What authors, if any, have influenced your writing or style? Who do you like to read?
Margaret Maron and Archer Mayor, mentioned above, have influenced me. I try to emulate Steven Hamilton's spare prose and Lee Child's twisted plots and Elizabeth George's unflinching look at life's hardships.
The romance writers I love, love, love write BIG emotions and are technically very adept. Head-hopping and purple prose and plot manipulations throw me right out of a book (and tend to get the book thrown against the wall). Also? No Highland dialect!! I will read anything by Laura Kinsale, Suzanne Brockmann, Jo Beverly, Deborah Smith, Jenny Cruise, Mary Balogh and LaVyrle Spencer. For a while, Spencer's somewhat florid prose turned me off, but lately, I've been rereading her and rediscovering how brilliant she was with characterization.
Out of print, but still wonderful: Roberta Gellis's historicals. I once met her at the Malice Domestic conference and I made a complete barking fool of myself raving about the Roselynde Chronicles.
All time favorite author? Lois McMaster Bujold. Someone once wrote me that Clare Fergusson reminded them of Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan and I just about died from pleasure. I own every single book LMB has ever written and I reread them every year. If I ever meet her at a conference I'll probably pass out on the spot. I hope I don't drool on the rug.