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Author Talk: August 23, 2018

BEYOND THE GRAVE is the fifth installment in Judy ClemensGrim Reaper mystery series, which revolves around the travels and travails of Casey Maldonado in the wake of the tragic deaths of her husband and young son. Her constant companion is Death and follows her everywhere she goes. This time, she escapes to the quiet village of Armstrong, but soon finds herself surrounded by all kinds of trouble. In this interview, Clemens discusses her very personal reason for creating a mystery series with a supernatural twist; reveals her literary inspirations for Casey, who is a master of the Eastern fighting arts; explains why she decided to use the character of the Grim Reaper as occasional comic relief; and talks about the differences in her approach to writing this series and her Stella Crown mysteries, the latter of which features no paranormal aspects.

Question: BEYOND THE GRAVE is the fifth entry in your Grim Reaper mystery series. What possessed you (so to speak) to create a mystery series with a supernatural twist?

Judy Clemens: I didn’t set out to write a paranormal mystery series; in fact, when some of the first reviews came out calling it such, I was surprised! Here’s how it came about. During the year prior to starting this series, my father was diagnosed with cancer. I spent his last 18 months, especially toward the end, feeling as if Death was hanging over me all the time. I woke up, Death was there. I went to bed, Death was there. Wherever I went during the day, I was accompanied by the idea, if not the actual figure, of the Grim Reaper. Meanwhile, I was coming up with the idea of Casey Maldonado, who would be the protagonist of the series. For this series, my editor Barbara Peters and I wanted a series that had “legs,” since my Stella Crown series was set on a very landlocked farm. So Casey was to be a traveler. Who, or what, would work as a partner for her? With what I was experiencing in my own life, it seemed only natural (so to speak, again!) for that partner to be Death. It was a way for Casey, and for me, to work through some of those emotions and issues that come with the illness and death of a loved one.

Q: Your protagonist, Casey Maldonado, has a rather unique skill set. Who were your literary inspirations in creating Casey, a master of the Eastern fighting arts?

JC: Since Casey would be on the road during these books, it felt right that she would be able to defend herself and feel comfortable being a woman traveling alone, and also have the mindset of a hapkido fighter. I had a friend who was a hapkido blackbelt, and she took me along to class, where I met her teacher and got to experience some of what they do. She and her teacher worked with me on several of the books in the series to block out fight scenes, talk through thought processes, and figure out where Casey’s mind would be in regard to her situations and the people with whom she interacted. The hapkido lifestyle is all about control and defense, rather than an aggressive offense, and this suited the world in which I wanted Casey to live.

As for literary inspirations, I enjoy some characters in thriller fiction who have fighting skills (such as Win in Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar series, and Jack Reacher in Lee Child’s), and of course there’s always Uma Thurman in the Kill Bill movies, although Casey is much less eager for violence! She avoids it whenever she can, but sometimes she just gets stuck in a bad situation. More than anything, I wanted Casey to be a defender --- both of herself and of those she came across who needed help. 

Q: The character of the Grim Reaper is by far the funniest element of your books. What in the world inspired you to use this foreboding figure as (at least part-time) comic relief?

JC: My dad got to read EMBRACE THE GRIM REAPER before he died, and Death was by far his favorite character. He enjoyed Death’s shenanigans and humor. I didn’t set out to have the Grim Reaper be the comic relief, but I believe it came partly from the fact that Casey is not at all a funny person, and the books needed some lightness. Also, I do not believe that Death (or death) is something to be afraid of, so perhaps some of Death's personality came from that. In the books, Death just wants to experience the things humans enjoy, and it seemed a natural segue into humor. Often authors talk about characters introducing themselves, coming with full personalities --- Death was one of those characters for me. Talking to readers, Death’s various interests and hobbies are favorite aspects of the books, so I am glad it worked out that way!

Q: When you were growing up, who were the authors who most often commanded your attention?

JC: As a girl, I was a huge BLACK STALLION fan (Walter Farley). I still have my collection displayed in my office. I also loved Madeleine L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, Janette Oke, Lloyd Alexander, Mary Calhoun (the Katie John books), Judy Blume and Dick Francis. As far as mysteries, Agatha Christie was pretty much where I went for those. You could almost always find me with a book in my hands, and I enjoyed quite a variety of genres.

Q: Have you ever received feedback about the series from a reader that led you to incorporate one of his or her suggestions?

JC: Interesting question. I can’t think of anything specifically that came from reader feedback, but in writing all of my books I am a big researcher, and so much of my research comes from interviewing people with the knowledge of and expertise in whatever the main subject of each book might be. These conversations are what bring life to my books, I believe, because the people I speak to have so many stories and little nuggets of gold that I never would know otherwise. It is through those people that my stories gain detail and substance. In the Grim Reaper books, this not only informs Casey’s hapkido skills, but also themes that deal with trucking, fitness, the scrap metal industry, emergency room medicine, law enforcement and many other subjects. I like learning about new things and tend to forego the “write what you know” idea for “write what you want to know about."

Q: Your other series is the Stella Crown mysteries. Do you approach your writing of the Stellas in any different manner than you utilize when writing the Grim Reaper series?

JC: It does have a different feel, definitely. Since the Grim Reaper books do have that paranormal aspect, it allows a kind of fluidity in Casey’s mind and relationships that Stella can’t have. Stella is extremely grounded, and while she does enjoy riding her Harley, that’s about as wild as she gets. Stella, along with her family and friends, is much more rooted in this world, while Casey often seems half here and half in the Other. So while my writing process doesn’t necessarily change between the two series, I do feel that my mindset is different in my approach.

I also write fiction for younger audiences (including the YA thriller TAG, YOU’RE DEAD under the name J.C. Lane, which came out from Poisoned Pen in the summer of 2016), and those also have a very different feel as I’m writing. It’s like each of my series and each of the age groups I write for has a different personality, and I have to work with it almost as a partner. Those differences are what keeps writing fun, and I enjoy diving into something new every once in a while.