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Interview: June 13, 2008

June 13, 2008

In this interview conducted by's Norah Piehl, Julia Spencer-Fleming --- the award-winning author of six mystery and romantic suspense novels --- describes what sparked her interest in the timely subject of undocumented foreign workers, upon which her latest effort, I SHALL NOT WANT, is centered, and reveals which characters gave her the most difficulty to write about.

She also elaborates on the book's structural elements, explains why she chose to focus her Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series on an Episcopal priest, and discusses where she sees the series going in future installments. The action of I SHALL NOT WANT centers on a very contemporary issue --- undocumented foreign workers. How do you get the ideas for the crimes and controversies that form the mystery plots of your novels --- in particular this one?

Julia Spencer-Fleming: The genesis of the migrant laborers plot was an article in a local paper two or three years ago about Vermont dairy farms. Increasingly, it reported, the farm labor was being done by workers from Central and South America. I was immediately struck by the contrast between the traditional Norman Rockwell image of the New England family farm and the reality. Then I started wondering what it must be like for the guest workers, stuck up there in the Northern Kingdom, completely surrounded by this very homogeneous white Anglo culture; and, what it was like for the small-town residents, dealing with the perception and the reality of foreigners in their midst.

I write about issues that puzzle me, or inspire me, or that drive me crazy in order to keep my interest honed. It takes me a year to write a book --- I need as many reasons as possible to make me sit down in front of the computer every morning.

BRC: In previous books about Russ Van Alstyne and Clare Fergusson, Russ's wife Linda --- and both Russ’s and Clare's consciences --- were the main impediments keeping them from their love affair. Now that Linda is no longer in the picture, do you feel like the dynamic of writing the novels has changed?

JSF: Surprisingly, no. In part because I never set out to write an emotional strip-tease, with big feathery fans flashing, "Will They? Won't They?" I wanted to write about a difficult, real, complicated, grown-up relationship, in all its pains and pleasures. The circumstances of their lives continue to evolve, but I think --- I hope! --- Russ and Clare will always have a difficult, real, complicated, grown-up relationship. Okay, maybe a little less difficult. But not much.

BRC: Your novels shift points of view, often getting into the minds of both Clare and Russ. As a female author, do you find it difficult or exciting to portray the thoughts and feelings of a male protagonist like this?

JSF: I love writing men. I do find I have to stop and think about words and actions a little more than I do when writing from a woman's point of view. In I SHALL NOT WANT, I write from three different male points of view: the fifty-something police chief, an old-for-his-years migrant worker, and a 24-year-old cop. He was the one I struggled with, and it wasn't his gender --- it was his age. I kept imagining my godson, who's 24, and his 19-year-old brother, and asked myself, what would they do? How would they think?

BRC: Those who have read all the Clare/Russ mysteries have also gotten to know the town of Millers Kill through its many residents, who have become more familiar and more developed over the course of the series. Do you have a favorite secondary or recurring character, either on the police force, in the St. Alban's parish, or in the town in general?

JSF: I have so many favorite secondary characters, I've considered writing a book of short stories featuring them! I have to confess a special soft spot for the two women who keep the MKPD and St. Alban's running: Harlene, the dispatcher, and Lois, the church secretary. They're both sharp and funny, and when I write them, I get to be funny. Both were borrowed, more or less, from real life. Harlene was a wonderfully sarcastic legal secretary who worked with my husband when he was a baby lawyer. And Lois is my mother. Really.

BRC: I really enjoyed the new character, Hadley Knox, and her dynamic with Kevin Flynn. Will readers see more of these characters in future installments?

JSF: Yes. I've been saying for years now that the Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne books will be a limited series, ending after a certain number of books. The story question (unlike the writing dynamic itself) has been, "will they? or won't they?" Once you answer the story question, that story is over.

But I love Millers Kill; its history and its people and its hard winters and hot summers. So I started thinking, what if I introduce another central character? Someone with her own story question that has to be worked out over the course of several books? Someone who is very different from Clare, but who --- like Clare --- will have to deal with an unfamiliar, demanding job, living in a small town and romantic complications. Thus, Hadley Knox was born.

BRC: You have used hymn lyrics as titles for your novels and structured them around seasons of the church year. What attracted you to this liturgical structure?

JSF: I like playing around with the organization of fiction --- the way an author structures the passage of time in a novel helps shape the story itself. In my third book, OUT OF THE DEEP I CRY, all the action takes place during the 40 days of Lent, and that season's themes of denial, repentance and redemption play out in the story. When I was planning I SHALL NOT WANT, I knew I wanted the story to cover a whole year, and for the Rev. Fergusson, that year isn't marked by a calendar, but by the seasons of the church. I love the way the old words lightly echo what's happening in that part of the tale: Epiphany: the revealing; Pentecost: the receiving of wisdom. Transfiguration --- that speaks for itself.

BRC: Can you tell me a little bit about your background? Why did you choose to write mysteries centered on a female Episcopal priest?

JSF: It was a little bit write what you know, a little bit write what you want to know. I'm what we call a cradle Episcopalian --- born and reared in the church. So, I felt that was a milieu I could get right, in the same way that I can get the setting right because my family has lived in Washington County, NY for almost 300 years. (Let me make it clear that I have not been an Episcopalian for that long.) When I started thinking about writing a book, I was also an attorney and (non-practicing at the time because I was a) stay-at-mother of two.

My husband was a lawyer, many of our friends were lawyers, and the last thing I wanted to do was hang out with fictional lawyers as well. Writing about Clare gave me a chance to explore a completely different life, and to find out what it was like to be out on a limb in a strange new place, doing a difficult job, ringed in by peoples' perceptions of the collar.

Also, the cleric-as-sleuth is a venerable mystery tradition, in part because we expect priests, ministers, rabbis, etc. to be involved in the community, to be there during life's big crisis points, and to know things about individuals and families that others don't. It makes it a bit easier for the reader to suspend disbelief and go along with the story.

BRC: What kinds of research have you done, either into police procedures or church governance, or both? Does your research start over from scratch with each new book? Do you have real-life rectors and police officers whom you rely on for advice and guidance?

JSF: For police procedure, I use a combination of reference books, some real people I can ask questions of, and --- I have to confess --- those great reality shows. (Although my friend James O. Born, a writer and FDLE agent, says "Reno 911" is the most realistic cop show on TV.) I have several priest friends willing to help out with ecclesiastical stuff.

Each book has unique research needs on top of getting the police and church business right. For I SHALL NOT WANT, I delved into migrant farm labor, the drug trade in upstate New York, National Guard training, gunshot wounds, Revolutionary War reenactment groups, gang tattoos and big band music. Some subjects are reduced to a line or two by the time they appear in print; others shifted the course of the storyline.

The hardest part of getting things right isn't the stuff you don't know. It's what you think you know that trips you up.

BRC: How do you go about structuring the mysteries in your novels? Do you have the main action plotted out before you even start writing?

JSF: In six novels (and counting), I've done everything from a 34-page scene-by-scene outline to flying completely by the seat of my pants. The sweet spot, for me, is somewhere in between, where I know the major plot points and whodunit (although that might change), but discover the rest of the story as I write it.

BRC: The romance gets pretty hot and heavy in I SHALL NOT WANT. Did you find it difficult to write steamy but well-written love scenes?

JSF: Once I got over the "Oh, my God, my mother is going to see this!!" factor, it went pretty well. The series has been known, up to this point, for its sexual restraint, and I know many of my readers value that. One woman wrote that I was one of the few authors she and her 70-year-old father could both enjoy. But throughout the books, there has always been a strong current of erotic tension. What I tried to do, when writing the love scenes, was to swim in that current, and create intensely erotic feelings without getting into tab-A-into-slot-B explicitness.

BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

JSF: I leave the readers with another bottom-falling-out-of-the-world event at the end of I SHALL NOT WANT, so right now, I'm exploring the results of that plot twist in the seventh Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mystery. My working title is NO LOGER, DEATH (although after the marketing department gets hold of it, it could be something entirely different) and it will be out, God willing and the creek don't rise, in June 2009.