Interview: April 22, 2011
Bestselling author Julia Spencer-Fleming's novels involve faith, murder and plenty of suspense. Her seventh in a series about Clare Fergusson, Russ Van Alstyne and other inhabitants of a small Adirondack town, ONE WAS A SOLDIER also explores the problems veterans of the current Iraq war face when they reenter society. In this interview with Bookreporter.com's Norah Piehl, Spencer-Fleming discusses the evolution of her risk-taking protagonists and how they continue to surprise her. She also reveals the hefty research she conducted for her latest mystery and the dynamics of tension and passion at work in her books.
Bookreporter.com: ONE WAS A SOLDIER is the seventh novel about Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne. By now, you probably feel like you know these characters pretty well. Did your protagonists surprise you or take you in directions you did not plan as you were writing this latest mystery?
Julia Spencer-Fleming: If characters are allowed to grow and change, they always surprise their author. In this book, I wasn't initially planning for Clare to be drug-dependent. That came out of research and interviews I had done, and led to a level of vulnerability and fear that I don't think Clare has ever experienced before. The most surprising thing I found about Russ this time around was how very much his late wife was still on his mind. Which makes sense, as he's gearing up to get married again.
I write organically, starting with the characters and my research into whatever the subject of the book is –-- in this case, returning vets and the financial irregularities that have plagued the conduct of the war --– and then I dig out the plot, page by page. So where my characters wind up often surprises me, and leads to more questions for the next book.
BRC: Millers Kill, New York, is the kind of small town that might seem familiar to readers (but with a significantly higher crime rate, of course!). Is this setting based on any real-life places?
JSF: It's physically modeled after Hudson Falls, NY, with forays into the surrounding area of the southern Adirondacks. It stretches to encompass a lot more area than any one real town could, however --- all the way from the mountains behind the Adirondack park's Blue Line to the rolling dairy farms in eastern Washington county. One thing I've discovered from my readers --- small towns everywhere are alike. I suspect that's one of the reasons so many people who have never set foot in upstate NY like the series.
BRC: It's been quite a long time since the publication of the previous novel in the series, I SHALL NOT WANT. What was the delay?
JSF: Health issues (mine and my husband's), college search, starting high school, driving kids and research --- lots and lots of research.
BRC: One of the common threads in ONE WAS A SOLDIER is the scars --- both visible and hidden --- that veterans of the current Iraq war carry with them. Did you talk with any real-life veterans to learn their stories? If so, is there a particular story that stayed with you?
JSF: The story that lingers with me is one of the least dramatic. I met a vivacious, smart, well-balanced language specialist who had been deployed multiple times because of her specialty. And she told me each and every time she came home, she locked herself in her apartment and drank until she passed out. Day after day after day, until she had dulled her edge enough to go back out and deal with the “real world” stateside. This is someone with a great support system, and loads of people in her life. Whatever happens over there, it's gouging deep into the souls of the men and women we're sending on our behalf.
BRC: The novel also focuses on business dealings related to military contractors, branches of the military, etc. What kinds of research did you conduct as you prepared to write?
JSF: I did interviews, formal and informal; I read books, magazine series, newspaper articles, military blogs. One thing that's come out of the sadly extraordinary length of our war in Iraq is a vast amount of good, informative writing about the people fighting the conflict, and what happens when they come home.
BRC: Clare comes back from the war fighting a lot of her own demons. Was it hard for you to write about these struggles for her?
JSF: Not really. That sounds callous, but the truth is, unalloyed happiness is boring to read about and boring to write. Clare's struggle with her memories and with the drugs and alcohol she's using to numb them has been a challenge --- and I like writing challenges. One of my favorite techniques is to have a character be an unreliable narrator of his or her own life, so in the first book, we see Clare unaware of her feelings toward Russ until she's sandbagged at the end, and we see Russ maintaining he's happily married when everyone else can see the cracks in the relationship. Here, Clare is in denial, which means writing the behavior from the viewpoint of someone who doesn't see what she's actually doing to herself.
She'll continue to struggle in the next book, with her addictions, with the results of having abused drugs and alcohol, and with the fact that she lied to Russ (at least by omission) about what was going on.
BRC: One ongoing challenge for series novelists who incorporate a lot of romantic tension in their novels is: What happens when the romantic leads finally get together? Have you thought about how Russ and Clare's impending nuptials will affect the future course of the series?
JSF: Yes, I have. One of the things I promise readers is to stop the series if it ever gets to be same-old-same-old. It's true, we're losing the lovely angsty unfulfilled longing that makes for such satisfying reading. (At least on their part. There is another couple stepping up to prove that the course of true love never did run smoothly.) However, what we still have, and what I find fascinating as a writer, are two very strong people who have to find a way to mesh their lives despite the striking differences between their work, their beliefs, their ages and their goals for one another. There's plenty of adventure and conflict in store for the pair, starting with the cliffhanger ending of ONE WAS A SOLDIER.
BRC: What advice would you give Russ and Clare as they prepare to start married life together?
JSF: Be kind to one another. Acting in a considerate, caring manner at all times keeps love alive despite the vicissitudes of life. And Russ might want to consider a prescription for an acid inhibitor. I suspect Clare's going to give him an ulcer sooner or later.
BRC: Your novels continue to broaden to explore not only the town of Millers Kill but also the dynamics of the Millers Kill Police Department. If you were going to write a spin-off about any of the members of the police force, who would it be? Why?
JSF: Hadley Knox and Kevin Flynn, the two young officers whose on-again-off-again romance is shaping up to be the next spotlight relationship in the series. I love them --- he's young, naive, idealistic, passionate; she's a bit older, vastly more experienced, cynical and wary of relationships. (You can tell I enjoy putting opposites together and seeing what sparks fly.) They have fewer underlying issues in common, unlike Russ and Clare, who are very much alike beneath the surface. Hadley and Kevin are going to have to figure out what --- besides sex --- brings them together. Plus there's the pleasure of seeing them develop as officers alongside their personal story --- he has wanted to be a cop since he was a kid, and Hadley only took the job because of the pay and benefits. There's definitely enough there to fuel a spin-off series --- if I only had the time!
BRC: There has been a tension at times in your novels between issues of faith and issues of moral behavior, particularly with regard to Russ and Clare's relationship while Russ's wife Linda was still alive. Some readers have labeled Linda's death as a narrative cop-out, as a way to avoid confronting these potentially problematic ethical issues. How would you respond to those criticisms?
JSF: To a certain extent, they're right. It would have been more realistic to have Russ and Linda in marriage therapy, hashing out their differences, forcing Russ to finally decide which way to jump. And in fact, I envisioned the story going that way early on, when I was writing the first two books.
Then I came to realize a few things. One, readers really, REALLY wanted Linda out and the way cleared for Clare. Two, marriage therapy had very little of the drama and energy I use to fuel my books. And third, Russ wouldn't divorce his wife. He wouldn't. He'd carry on keeping his vows no matter the cost to his own happiness. Well, that wasn't going to work. So Linda died, and I got to explore the cost in grief and guilt both Russ and Clare paid --- and continue to pay --- for their right to be together.
BRC: Your novels treat religious faith and church life very matter-of-factly and without sensationalism. Do you consider yourself religious? Why do you think many novelists (mystery writers or otherwise) don't engage with religious issues in a serious, realistic manner?
JSF: I am religious myself --- I'm what we call a “cradle” Episcopalian, born and raised in the church. My faith is hugely important to me. Luckily, it's also very broad and non-dogmatic, which I think is necessary to be able to fully enter into the minds and hearts of characters who are different. I suspect religion isn't often grappled with in commercial fiction because 1) “Christianity” in contemporary America is defined as a very narrow slice of evangelical right-wing beliefs, and 2) the people who hold those beliefs --- and there are many of them --- have a hard time writing empathetically about those who are different. I sometimes get questions as to whether the atheist police chief will ever find religion. No, he won't. He doesn't need it and he gets along fine without it. And that's fine with me. It might be a lot harder for another Christian writer to realistically portray.
BRC: What writers' work was most influential to you as you were becoming a writer? What other mystery authors' works do you read today?
JSF: Margaret Maron and Archer Mayor were two significant influences on me as I was developing. Both of them feature vivid ensemble casts of characters, real-life issues and strong protagonists. And both of them use their settings --- environment, weather, culture, economy --- as a linchpin for their stories. Today, my reading changes from day-to-day, depending on whether I want comfort (something cozy like EJ Copperman), escape (historical, like Rhys Bowen) or an elegiac (like Vicki Lane). I love reading my peers in the snowy-small-town genre: Steve Hamilton, Louise Penny, Craig Johnson, William Kent Krueger. And I'm a big, big Lee Child fan.
BRC: What are you working on now, and when can readers expect to see it?
JSF: I'm working on the eighth Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mystery. This one is going to be a more stripped-down thriller than the last two books --- think Russ and Clare trapped in an ice-bound cabin by a killer. I will boldly step out and say SEVEN WHOLE DAYS will be available in bookstores in 2012.
Julia Spencer-Fleming is the Agatha and Anthony Award-winning author of ONE WAS A SOLDIER, the seventh Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mystery. You can find her on Facebook and onTwitter.
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