Are you breathlessly anticipating the next book in Julia Spencer-Fleming’s series? Curious to see how Clare and Russ survive her deployment? Well, over the past few months, Julia and I have been working on an interview (really, this email has been going back and forth for AWHILE) and she’s got
8 ARCs to give away this weekend. She’ll ship them out anywhere so you’ll get a copy zippy fast.
Just leave a comment below to enter – and add to the Julia Spencer-Fleming Series Drinking Game (or, if you’re not so inclined, just leave a comment and tell us what you’d do for a copy of the book). Drinking Games make a little fun of things that appear frequently in a series or movie. Here’s some sample items for the JSFS Drinking Game:
Any mention of Clare’s haircolor: 2 sips
Any mention of Clare’s haircolor by Russ: 1 sip
Any mention of Clare’s haircolor in terms of alcoholic beverages: CHUG.
Russ cleans his glasses: 1 sip
Russ pinches the bridge of his nose: 1 sip
Russ asks where the facilities are: 2 sips
Someone tells Russ to see a doctor because the poor man might have a prostate problem, what with using the bathroom all the freaking time: CHUG!
Regardless of how you enter, I’ll pick 5 winners and announce them Sunday night. Comments close ~9PM Eastern time Sunday night.
Standard disclaimers apply: I’m not being compensated. Void where prohibited. Make love not war. Rock your casbah. Please drive responsibly.
So, ready for the interview?
Let’s start with the big one: OMG happy ending I can hasplz? kthxbye. Seriously, can you at least tell me (I promise not to tell if you don’t want me to) if there’s a HEA in store for the dynamic duo?
Julia: I guess what I would say to this is: Trust me. I could see myself writing a bittersweet, heartbreaking ending if I were doing a stand-alone—obviously, I have a deep appreciation for angst and self-sacrifice—but I’m not going to cheat readers who have been following this story through six books (and counting.) One of the things I find interesting is that because I’m not writing in the romance genre, readers can experience a kind of tension and suspense about Russ and Clare’s outcome that is almost impossible to get in a straight romance.
It’s true I like to play around with readers’ expectations when it comes to characters—I spoke about this a bit in my interview with AAR Rachel. And I’ve killed off nice people, characters who were kind and innocent and absolutely didn’t deserve to die. In real life, bad things happen to good people, and I’m trying to portray real life here—dramatic, event-filled, and with an unusually high homicide rate, but real. That being said, I’m not going to dick around with core reader expectations. I write mystery, so you’re always going to get a solution to the crime. And I’m writing close enough to the bones of romance, so you’re going to get—well, probably more like a Messily Ever After.
When you started pondering the original story, and the series, what was your point of access? Was there something specific that inspired you, like the gravestones that led to “Out of the Deep I Cry?” With book 1, did you start with the puzzle or did you start with the characters? Both? One?
Julia: These two questions are interrelated. First off, I didn’t start to write a series. I wanted to write one book, and if Russ and Clare’s story hadn’t gone any further than In the Bleak Midwinter, I think it would have had a lovely, elegiac feel to the ending, q.v. my comment on a bittersweet stand-alone. If I had planned a series in advance, I wouldn’t have made so many continuity mistakes: for instance, in the first mystery, Russ mentions he’s been married 16 years, but later, I realized he had gotten married at a much younger age, so in the other books, he talks about being married for 25 years. A couple characters’ names shift around, ages get tweaked, highways proliferate like kudzu because when I wrote In the Bleak Midwinter, I wasn’t thinking I was going to be stuck with anything for a whole bunch of books.
My point of access, my start for the first novel, were the characters of Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne, and the town of Millers Kill. I didn’t have a plot, I didn’t know how things would turn out, but I had several single-spaced pages of a legal pad filled with her biography, his, and the town’s history and current economy (which is a central and ongoing issue in my stories.) And I had the title, from the hymn.
Most of my crime plots start from one or more seed ideas—in Out of the Deep, as you mention, I was sparked by seeing the real-life gravestones I later fictionalized in that novel. In In the Bleak Midwinter, I was inspired by two late-90’s news stories; one about the military academy couple in Texas that killed a high-school classmate to “restore the purity of their love” (the victim had slept with the guy) and another about a college girl who successfully hid her pregnancy and then gave birth secretly in the ladies room at Logan Airport (the baby was saved by an alert cleaning lady.) If you read my book, you’ll see there’s not a lot of one-to-one correspondence with these two events. Instead, I treated them like comic strips on Silly Putty, stretching them this way and that by asking, “What if..?” and “What then..?”
You have set up a tough task for yourself: inviting the reader to root for a couple whose relationship, though based on genuine regard, slips over moral and ethical lines. Who do you think struggles more: Russ, Clare or, perhaps, the reader?
Julia: From the start, I wanted to show a very complicated, very adult (in the grown-up sense of the term) relationship, where there were no good guys or bad guys. I wanted to set the wild flowering of the heart against the walls of commitment and duty, and see what happened. I honestly didn’t know won things would turn out for them until, I think, the third novel, which is why the fourth, fifth and sixth are almost like a continuous narrative, broken up into book-sized bites.
As a reader, I love experiencing big emotions, and that’s what we get with Russ and Clare; they take great joy in one another, experience guilt and sorrow and change and self-knowledge through this relationship which can’t be, but is. If a writer’s job is to write his or her small piece of The Truth, I’m putting down the truth about people who are broken by love. And they will be broken. As Leonard Cohen writes, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
I know there are readers who take a look at the back of the book, see Russ is married, and put it back on the shelf. And that’s okay. Your kink is not my kink, as the old saying goes. But I have also had readers who stop me, as I’m leaving the bookstore or library where I’ve been speaking, and if nobody else is around, they say real quiet, “That was me. That happened to me.” That is a very moving thing to hear.
What was some of the more poignant or painful information about returning servicemen and -women you learned in the process of writing this book?
Julia: One single enlisted woman who’s done several tours of duty told me her homecoming consisted of locking herself in her apartment for four or five days and drinking. Get drunk, pass out, wake up and do it again. This is a grown-up, responsible woman – the responsible part shows because she kept herself home, unlike the young men she knew who would do the same thing but out in bars, picking fights, wrecking cars and motorcycles, etc. She said she couldn’t face the normal, everyday American world until she had decompressed.
Another woman, an officer in the guard, talked to me right after she learned her unit was being called up again. Due to her specialty, she had the option to stay at home. “I don’t want to go,” she said. “God, I don’t want to go.” But she would, because the rest of her people were going.
Then there was the army guy who hated being thanked for his service. “What does that mean?” he said. “Nobody has any idea of what my service was.”
There’s a lot of heartbreaking stuff out there. And ultimately, we, the American people, are responsible for it.
You mentioned in the AAR interview that folks get cranky about Clare’s impetuous decisions to go with her gut and think later, which she exhibits time and again. Do readers get cranky about Russ? I confess, I have a greater ability to empathize with Clare, and get frustrated with Russ for wanting his bread buttered on both sides and not stepping too far away from his own emotional inertia.
Julia: Oh, yes. First, of course, are the readers (or people who refuse to read) who are up in arms over his emotional adultery. He’s married, he assumes he’s happily married, and he still falls in love with another woman. Worse, instead of coming clean to his wife about it, or avoiding Clare like the plague, he risks everything by keeping the relationship going. Then, when bad things happen (I’m trying not to spoil for those who haven’t read the series) he can’t move past his guilt and grief to step into the next phase of his life. Russ is in many ways Clare’s opposite; her on-going problem is impetuousness and a tendency to rush in like a fool, therefore his is conservatism, and a deep reluctance to change his circumstances. Emotional inertia is an excellent description of it.
In book two, Clare ruminates on the divine aspects of chance in couples meeting, and the miracle that is inherent in circumstances bringing two like-minded well-matched people together. That devotion to fate seems to be played out in the fact that despite their best intentions, Clare and Russ can’t stay away from one another, and are drawn to their mutual happiness. So despite knowing better, fate evolves into a sort of selfishness. Do you think it is or ever was possible for them to deny fate, or reject their attraction? Would they have been so attracted if they’d met, say, 10 years prior?
Julia: I don’t think they would have felt that soul-deep connection 10 years before we meet them in In the Bleak Midwinter. Russ would have been a 38-year-old hard-drinking workaholic and Clare was a 24 year old lieutenant. He was in a very different place in his marriage at that point – I suspect he still needed the escape from reality that Linda brought to their relationship. And Clare, for her part, would have thought him way too old for her, not to mention their career-killing difference in rank. They come from different classes, and I doubt Clare in her early 20s would have been mature enough to overlook that.
In other words, this is fate as we meet it in real life, not OMG we are irrevocably DESTINED to be MATES as in paranormal romance.
And because their story is meant to be a part of the real world, yes, they could have denied fate. For the first three books, I wasn’t sure where they would wind up. It could have ended in heartbreak and loneliness (and of course, each of them did wind up heartbroken and alone, at least for a season.)
Who is stronger in your opinion? Clare? Russ? Margy Van Alstyne? I bet it’s Margy. Girlfriend could probably bench press a tractor through sheer force of will.
Julia: Margy Van Alstyne is awesome, isn’t she? She’s kind of my reaction against all the grandmotherly types you see in fiction puttering around with their garden clubs and bridge groups. Margy is spending her golden years travelling around New York, getting arrested at protests. Which is really an extension of the kind of stuff I see in my own community: older women in the post-work, post-childrearing phase of their lives are the ones who make the community run. They’re the one’s volunteering at schools and hospitals and running the Friends-of-the-library groups and raising money for recycling centers.
I’m thinking of getting her a gentleman friend in the book-after-next. I’d love to see how she (and her family) handles that.
You wrote, “My point of access, my start for the first novel, were the characters of Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne, and the town of Millers Kill. I didn’t have a plot, I didn’t know how things would turn out, but I had several single-spaced pages of a legal pad filled with her biography, his, and the town’s history and current economy (which is a central and ongoing issue in my stories.) And I had the title, from the hymn.”
Question,then: what led you to those characters? If your method, if I’m reading correctly, is to start “what if” and “what then,” where did you start with creating Russ and Clare? The conflict, the attraction, the collar and the handcuffs (KINKY! RWOR!)?
Julia: Sadly, once I had Russ and Clare, they wouldn’t play collar-and-handcuffs, because part of their attraction to one another is the fact that they see straight through the stereotypes. You can’t do roleplaying if you don’t see the role.
Gosh, where did I start? Clare came first. She was a priest because I wanted to look at crime from the perspective of someone whose life is about healing divisions and creating wholeness. Then she became an Army vet because I wanted her to have the skill and training to be able to rescue herself – I hate books where the heroine is saved time and again by the hero. (TWILIGHT, I’m looking at you with a gimlet eye.) She was a southerner because I wanted her to be a fish out of water in the first book, and she was at odds with her mother’s and grandmother’s expectations of what a proper southern lady is like because… I can’t really remember why. Because it was who she was. Eventually, the choices I consciously made as an author creating a character were overtaken by the character herself.
I hate to phrase it like that, because I don’t want to come across as one of those people who says, “I just do what my characters tell me.” There’s a name for people who are bossed around by their imaginary friends. But the fact is, I can assemble facts and characteristics, but the spark that makes a character seem like a real, live human being comes from a deep creative well that no one, I think, can consciously describe.
Aren’t you glad you asked that question?
One part I’m very curious about that I haven’t seen to many people address is Clare’s mentions of her decision to remain celibate. She talks about it, and mentions it to various people as not a vow but a choice and commitment to herself. Clare is very passionate yet doesn’t much talk about sex except sparingly. Wherefore comes the adherence to celibacy and the allusion to virginity? Aside from father issues (oy vey does she) does she have sexual hangups as well?
Julia: In a strictly legalistic sense, as a priest, she’s expected to remain celibate outside of marriage. In a practical sense, women clergy tend to have much higher expectations heaped on their shoulders than even their male counterparts. Or in other words, BE GOOD WE’RE ALL WATCHING YOU.
In Clare’s case, celibacy was an easy choice because no one was knocking at her door, so to speak. She arrives in Millers Kill pretty much straight from the seminary, and by the accounts of every priest I’ve ever talked to, seminary is death to dating, unless you’re already in a relationship. Before that, she was in the Army, in a field where she would have spent most of her time working with warrant officers and other enlisted men. She couldn’t date there, and she had too much invested in her career as a pilot to risk appearing either girly or slutty to her peers. (The double standard is very much alive and well in the military.)
Plus, Lt. Fergusson was always the sort of gal-buddy the other guys could go to for a listening ear and some sympathetic advice. An early sign of her calling. At one point Clare says, “I figured my spectacular lack of a love life just dovetailed with my vocation.” And she’s okay with that, especially when we first meet her, all wet behind the ears and eager for the challenges of her first parish. She’s sublimated her sexual passion into her passion for ministry. No wonder she’s oblivious to what’s actually going on in her own heart when she falls into a relationship with Russ.
Now that we’ve seen her, as it were, post-celibacy, I can say she doesn’t seem to have any hang-ups. Far from it. At one point in One Was A Soldier Russ says, “I had no idea you were such a sex fiend.”
Now her father issues…boy, that’s a whole ‘nother essay.
Certainly your books were clearly inspired by Harlequin Presents. I mean, come on! There’s a secret baby in book 1! When comes the sheihk!?
Julia: No, no, no, you’ve miscued. I’m transitioning to paranormal next. Russ becomes a vamp, changes his name to Rhuss, and starts wearing tight-fitting leather pants around town. Can Clare save him by the judicious application of communion wafers? And will anyone in upstate New York be able to understand him when he starts talking “homey?”
Julia Spencer-Fleming is the Agatha and Anthony-award-winning author of the upcoming One Was A Soldier, the seventh Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mystery. You can find her on Facebook and on Twitter. One Was A Soldier is available for preorder at:Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, Borders. Powell’s Books and your locally owned independent bookstore.
Start at the beginning of the story withIn the Bleak Midwinter, now only $2.99 as an ebook. And don’t miss Letters to a Soldier, a free ebooklet with exclusive content and an excerpt from One Was A Soldier.