The scenario seems straight out a J.A. Jance mystery novel. A twenty-something wife waits at home for her oppressive, alcoholic husband, who eventually is dropped off at their home after a drinking binge. "Don't you worry about your wife being at home alone at night?" the driver, a stranger the husband meets at a bar, asks as the wayward spouse exits his car. "No," says the husband, "we have dogs." Days later, the police contacts the couple. That night's driver was a serial killer suspected in the murder of several women.
The scenes never made their way into one of the author's best-selling novels. However, they did find their way into Jance's real life; it happened in 1970, when Jance was a 26-year-old housewife struggling to survive a bad marriage and dealing with the rejection of being denied a spot in a college writing class because she was a woman.
The experience changed her life on many levels.
"A detective suggested we move out of town (until the killer was caught). Instead I strapped a loaded weapon on my hip and stayed," says Jance, who will visit Tucson this week on a book-signing tour. "When you make a conscience decision that if it comes down to me or him, that it's him, you can't take back that decision. And having made that decision and living with that decision makes it possible for me to write police procedurals."
Such procedurals make Jance's mystery novels popular with her millions of readers. A long-time Arizonan who splits her time between Tucson and Bellevue, Wash., the writer, whose first name is Judy, has built her career on strong female characters. While Jance herself is a role model for many, her life didn't start off that way.
It wasn't until the early 1980s that her life began to take a positive direction. Then a divorced parent with two small children living in Seattle, she turned to her friend Estelle DuBose for support. DuBose told her, "You pray for the stuff to get you through every day, and I'll pray to get you through the big stuff."
To bolster her self-confidence, she paid $600 in 1982 to attend a Dale Carnegie course only to discover the class was for public speaking. During one speech, she shared her story about the serial killer. Afterward, a classmate told her someone needed to write about it. And with that, Jance gave herself permission to write, something her college professor had denied her more than a decade before.
"That was a Thursday. I started writing that Sunday, and I wrote 1,200 pages in three months," Jance recalls.
The book was never published but her second novel, the first Detective Beaumont book, "Until Proven Guilty," was sold to the second editor who read it. Since 1985 when that was published, there have been 14 more Beau books. Her work also includes eight Joanna Brady books set in southeastern Arizona, where she grew up. In addition there are two thrillers, "Hour of the Hunter" and "Kiss of the Bees" that reflect what she learned during the years when she was teaching on the Tohono O'odham reservation west of Tucson.
Today, Jance is a happily remarried and content with her life and career. She hopes her down-to-earth characters can inspire her female readers to pursue their dreams.
"When I was younger and reading Nancy Drew novels, seeing the name ‘Carolyn Keene' on the cover made me believe women could be writers," says Jance, who acknowledges that Keene was the pen name for a series of writers who cranked out the children's detective books. "There are 1,400 sheriffs in this country and of those, 35 are female. I'm hoping somewhere there's a little girl reading about Joanna Brady and thinking, ‘I can do that.'
If you go
What: J.A. Jance book-signing tour for "Fatal Error"
When: 9:30 a.m., Feb. 7
Where: Nanini Branch Library, 7300 N. Shannon Road
For more information about other stops on the Arizona tour, visit www.jajance.com.