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Interview with Julia Spencer-Fleming

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Julia Spencer-Fleming

Meet Julia Spencer-Fleming, a military brat who grew up in places as diverse as Mobile, Rome, Stuttgart and Syracuse. Her debut novel of faith and murder, In the Bleak Midwinter, introduced readers to former Army helicopter pilot-turned-Episcopal priest Clare Fergusson who has recently come to a parish in upstate New York--a town with a higher than usual body count. In this wonderfully-written series, Clare must reconcile her faith with her pursuit of justice, and her feelings for the (very married) local police chief, Russ Van Alstyne.

In the Bleak Midwinter won the St. Martin's/Malice Domestic, the Dilys, the Agatha, the Anthony, the Macavity and the Barry Awards.

Join Sharon and B.K. as they talk shop with Julia about mysteries, writing, and "realistic" female clergy who have their hands full saving the day outside of office hours.

Julia's latest Clare Fergusson novel, All Mortal Flesh, is a 2007 Agatha Award nominee for Best Mystery.
 
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CHARACTERS

Did you have a person or persons on whom you originally based the character of Clare? Russ?

I think basing a character--at least a major character--on a real person tends to limit the writer. You get stuck trying to force the character into the parameters that you “know,” rather than discovering who they are through the work. That being said, Clare has bits and pieces of many of the female clergy I’ve met, who to a woman seem to be intelligent, occasionally irreverent, and strong enough to work within what is still a male-dominated profession.

Russ comes out of a less specific sense of the male for me. He’s a hero, if you will. One trait I took from a real-life person is the way he fixes things to demonstrate his love. I lifted that from my Dad, who still checks my fluids and gasses up my car before I leave from a visit.

The Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne Mysteries feature crimes, including murder, in situations where you get to know the characters to a degree that both the character and the reader feels the emotional and spiritual fallout of the events. Did you purposely set out to portray this kind of realism?

Absolutely. I enjoy traditional, or “cozy,” mysteries, but I feel their strength is in making the reader look at the things happening in real life and to experience some of the impact of those events. That’s one of the reasons I set this series in a very small town--it’s easy to believe we can escape the woes of the world if we’re not in the big bad city, or the gritty streets, or what have you. One of the recurring themes in my work is that there is no safe place, because humans carry evil with them everywhere.

Your main protagonist, Clare, is an Episcopal priest with a background as an Army helicopter pilot. Does Clare ever regret having left active duty?

Yes, she does, usually after yet another frustrating vestry meeting or boring stewardship report. As the series has progressed, Clare has continued to question whether she’s in the right place, whether being a parish priest is truly what God is calling her to do. I didn’t plan that as part of her journey--it was one of those unexpected developments that happen when you allow the character to develop organically.

At one point, when she’s first considering re-enlisting, someone suggests she could become a chaplain and it’s clear she would never consider it. Why?

In part, because she loves flying so. I suspect she’s reached the stage where she’s started to romanticize her former life a bit--we all do it, when we move onto something radically new. Being a minister is hard, unglamorous work that requires enormous patience, tact and diplomacy. Who wouldn’t think longingly of the days when she could simply order someone to do something and it got done?

Both Clare and Russ work in professions where people usually interact with the “uniform” or image rather than the person behind it. Was that a purposeful choice? Do you enjoy exploring the area between the perception of, and the reality of, these people?

This was a very purposeful choice. One of the things that first brings Russ and Clare together is their shared insider/outsider status. Both of them are in positions that afford them a lot of insight into how peoples’ lives are really working, and both of them are set at a distance by the people they interact with. Millers Kill is his home town, but at the start of the series, Russ has no real friends. Coworkers, family, old acquaintances, but no one he can open up to. He’s trapped in his role as a leader, a source of strength, an enforcer. Clare starts out boxed in not only by her congregations’ response to her collar, but by her own--she struggles to be what she thinks a priest ought to be, and constantly falls short in her own eyes. When they meet, each one is able to look past the uniform and see the naked human inside--that’s their first and deepest connection.

A lot of people have ‘normal’ jobs that don’t necessarily define who they are, while both Russ and Clare have chosen professions that shape how they’ve agreed to live their lives. How and why is that important to you as you develop them?

Obviously, it provided the foundation of their relationship, but I think it also makes them more interesting as characters. Passionate characters bring a driving energy to the story. Interestingly enough, I’ve turned that on its head in my upcoming book, I SHALL NOT WANT. I have a new character, the first female officer at the Millers Kill Police Department, and the only reason she takes the position is because she has two kids and needs a job with decent pay and benefits. It’s been refreshing to write about someone who’s dragged reluctantly into a life-changing situation.

Clare sometimes makes decisions that aren’t the most logical—such as when she lets Russ in to use her computer when they’re both being hunted and the price of being found together would be steep. Are these kind of impulsive decisions an important part of her character?

This is the part of Clare that’s the most like me! I confess to being a jump-first, think-about-it-after kind of woman (although having three children has definitely put the brakes on). Clare is impulsive. She trusts her gut and sometimes that works out for her. Sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve had readers--and a few critics--question out her illogical actions, but to me, that’s part of her humanity. We all know someone who doesn’t always stop to think things through. Who except Sherlock Holmes is always rational?

You do a great job of leavening tough situations with humor. Is that also on purpose?

(and a follow-up: how long had you seen Russ’ classic line, “Are you any good at that celibacy thing?”)

I do love that line. It just popped in there as I wrote the scene, the way almost everything funny does. Most of my characters have a good sense of humor, and that comes out in their thoughts and reactions and dialogue. You know how you can spot the villains in my books? They’re humorless.

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ABOUT SPECIFIC BOOKS

Your most recent book, All Mortal Flesh, had an ending that was very painful for the main characters. How do you feel when you finish writing something like that?  (i.e. how emotionally involved do you get with your characters?)

I was wrung out after that book. I had no idea if it was great, or crap. No idea. I knew the ending--which I didn’t see coming until I’d finished over half the book--hit me like a punch in the chest. I wanted that. One of the things I read for is high emotion. When I dive into a story, I want to thrill, to mourn, to laugh, to have my heart beat faster. That’s what I hope to give to my readers. There have been times when I’ve cried writing a scene--most recently for the upcoming book, I SHALL NOT WANT. I figure if it makes me weep (or laugh, or get scared) while I’m writing it, it ought to elicit the same response from readers.

Did you get any different reader response to the ending of All Mortal Flesh?

Oh, my Lord. I received well over a thousand emails, asking if that was the end, demanding to know what was going to happen next, ordering me to By God get Russ and Clare together Or Else! One lady told me she didn‘t like my ending and had written one of her own. She shared it with me. It was pretty good. (By the way, if you’re reading this, and you sent me one of those emails, I apologize for not responding. It became obvious very quickly that I would have to chose between my correspondence or the next book!) I feel honored that these characters have come to life for so many readers.

Did you feel the ending (or some version thereof) of that story has been inevitable since you started the series?

There were only ever two outcomes. Russ and Clare would be together, or they would be apart. Either way, there was a lot of pain in store. At the end of OUT OF THE DEEP I CRY, Clare says, “We’re going to break our hearts.” She was right.

Did you have any idea of where you wanted the series to go while you were writing the first one, In the Bleak Midwinter?

No. I knew I had a lot of story potential, that I was planting seeds that could sprout down the line, but I didn’t know where my characters would end up. Even after I got a sense of how I wanted the story to go, I continued to change and  develop the story arc. Real life had a big influence--I started writing IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER in 1999, and a lot of things have happened since then. The question of Clare re-upping would never have occurred if not for the Iraq War. And my readers influenced me--they write me, they talk to me in bookstores and libraries, and they tell me what they like and what they don’t like. I believe considering reader expectations is important, especially in a series. We’ve made a contract, of a sort. They’ve invested emotional energy in these characters, and they want to see their investment returned.

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WRITING

Which comes first...the book plot or the hymn phrase for the title??

Usually the story, although IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER and OUT OF THE DEEP I CRY arrived in a perfect confluence of hymn and plot. During Sunday Eucharist, you’ll often find me leafing thorough the Hymnal index looking for ideas. Never during the sermon, of course.

In each book you explore a topic (gay bashing, the possible link between childhood vaccines and autism, etc. ) and use a different literary device (the story all happens in one day; or goes back and forth between past and present, etc.). How did you decide to do this? How does it evolve for you?

The topic is something that catches my interest and sticks in my head. For instance, two years ago, I read an article about the growing use of Hispanic migrant workers in New England dairy farms. The contrast between the all-American image of dairy farms and the reality struck me, and I wondered what life was like for those men, dark-skinned Spanish speakers in one of the whitest, most Yankee parts of the country. That led me to the plot of I SHALL NOT WANT.

Usually when a writer has a background in law, her (or his) books have a legal flavor, whereas the Clare and Russ stories can go for miles without a lawyer in stone-throwing distance. (And, when lawyers do turn up, they aren’t always portrayed favorably!) Any thoughts on why that is?

I went to law school because I hoped to someday be able to afford to buy a car, and I can’t do math or science. Seriously, I enjoyed law school very much--logic, rhetoric and history, what’s not to like? The practice of law? Not so much. Also, when I began writing, there were already dozens of well-written legal mysteries and thrillers out there. I wanted to do something unique. (I later discovered clerical mysteries were somewhat less unique than I, in my ignorance, thought they were...)

Have you ever served on a church board? (Which one of those board members is you?)

To hear my readers tell, the board members of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church are everywhere, in every denomination. I’ve been on the Education Committee of my own parish, the Cathedral Church of St. Luke, Portland, and have variously been a choir member, fair worker, Sunday school teacher and soup kitchen volunteer.

I get my insights into the board info from my mother, Lois Fleming, who has served as a vestry member, Junior Warden, Senior Warden and co-chair of the capital campaign.

What are your own personal writing habits? What time of day do you write best?

I write while my children are in school, usually 8:00 until late afternoon. I write on a laptop, though, so I often fit in a little work while waiting, say, for my son to get out of basketball practice.

How many drafts do you do?

I do my first don’t-look-back draft, tweak it some, then send it to my first readers. They get back to me, I make changes, then it goes to my editor. I make changes based on her suggestions, send it to the copy editor, and then make changes based on her suggestions. By that time I’m so sick of the thing I never want to see it again. Then the type set pages arrive for word-by-word proofing...

Any specific kinds of music you listen to while you write?

I started listening to music while working just a short while ago. I created my own “soundtrack” for I SHALL NOT WANT which was enormously helpful in getting me into the scenes. I’m going to post the song list on my website (aha! A chance to plug my website!) www.juliaspencerfleming.com.

While it’s all stuff I like, I tend to pick  songs that appeal to the characters. Clare listens to alternative music, while Russ likes country.

What kinds of writing do you teach at the University of Maine?

U Maine’s Stonecoast Writing Program is one of the few in the country that offers an MFA in popular, or genre, fiction, as well as in the more traditional literary endeavors. It’s a fabulous chance to think and talk about serious craft issues in genre with some very talented new writers.

What do you believe are the most important topics that you discuss with your students?

Be specific. Specificity creates a believable world in readers’ minds. Don’t let yourself become enamored of beautiful language that gets in the way of the story. Everything--action, description, dialogue--must either move the plot forward or reveal character. Move past your literary influences and write something that only you can create.

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FICTION AND FAITH

Your books feature a priest who lives in a world that is not sweet or quaint, where truly bad things happen and characters don’t always use the best language—yet she remains true to her faith and to her calling. Do you think there’s a reason stories like this are appearing now? Do you think they would have found a mainstream publisher and a popular following a decade ago?

I certainly hope they would have! It’s true, however, that stories that celebrate life’s virtues--love, fidelity, faith, justice--seem to have an even broader appeal than usual during trying times. I’ve heard it reported that the sale of mysteries went up after 9-11, from people needing to escape into a world where order came out of chaos and where justice is served. I also think now, more than ever, when Christianity is described as an intolerant faith by a majority of unchurched people, it’s important to show someone like Clare, whose faith is a bedrock of her identity but who struggles in the real world with how to manifest that faith.

Clare’s theology does not reflect that of conservative Christian publishers—and the books are not what you’d term conventional “Christian fiction,” yet Clare seems to have been embraced by readers of faith as well as those without specific faith. Can you talk about how readers have responded to Clare’s faith, and liberal leanings?

I’ve received a lot of emails thanking me for portraying Clare as a normal, fallible human being doing an impossible job. That was one of my big goals--to show a cleric who was neither a secret hypocrite or too holy to believe.

Though I am an observant Christian (in the old, big-tent sense, not Christian ™ ) my goal when writing Clare is not to proselytize, but to portray. I want to create a character who is real and human, so that a reader of any faith or no faith can understand her; her belief, her struggles, how it enriches her life and how it makes it more difficult, too. That’s the writer’s job: to enable the reader to slip into the skin of someone who might be utterly different, and understand that person from the inside out.

Interestingly, I’ve only gotten a few criticisms for Clare’s liberal leanings. That may be because books featuring a woman priest running around solving crimes with a married police chief are “unfit matter” for conservative reading!

Do you think you could be a priest?

God, no. And that’s a prayer, not an exhortation.

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AND, FINALLY,

If Clare were offered an opportunity to enter Eden, would she go?

Oh, yes--it is a mystery, after all. But she wouldn’t stay. She believes the only hands God has in this world are ours, you know.

 

Thank-you, Julia, for sharing a bit of yourself with us!

Sharon and B.K.  
Jaime's World 

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