Don’t tell J.A. Jance she looks tired.
“What you’re really saying is that you look like hell,” Jance quipped at a reading for her latest book, “Moving Target,” last month at Mostly Books, 6208 E. Speedway.
“I am perfectly entitled to look tired,” said Judith Ann Jance, who has written 50 books in 30 years and averages two book-signing tours a year.
Jance lands in Tucson on Friday from her “Moving Target” tour just in time for the Tucson Festival of Books Author’s Table dinner and heads into a weekend packed with panel discussions and appearances at exhibitor booths.
You might hear Jance referred to as the “first lady of the book festival” or the “queen of the book festival.”
“Either title seems appropriate,” said Brenda Viner, one of the festival’s founders. “J.A. was one of the top authors that we wanted to attract to the festival when we began our work in 2008.
“That first year — 2009 — she was our keynote speaker at the Author’s Table dinner,” said Viner. “I will never forget her helping pick up signs at 6 p.m. on Sunday night after our first book festival, wearing her hat a little cockeyed telling us how much fun she had that weekend.”
Jance has helped attract other authors, has been a featured author at each festival and was the master of ceremonies at last year’s Author’s Table dinner, Viner said. “We don’t think she has ever turned down a request to help (if she is in town). You can always find her in the author hospitality room making the other authors feel at home.”
That work ethic typifies a woman who wrote her first three novels in the very early morning, before she woke her children at 7 a.m. to get them to school and to head to her full-time job.
Mysteries with strong female characters that reflect Jance’s life experiences and an authentic sense of place are among the qualities of Jance’s novels that fans enjoy, said members of the audience at Mostly Books before last month’s signing.
With an academic scholarship, She was first person in her family to attend a four-year college, but Jance was denied entry into the University of Arizona’s creative writing program in 1964 because she was a woman.She was shooed off into “more appropriate” field for women — education. The evil creative-writing professorin “Hour of the Hunter” and “Kiss of the Bees” in Jance’s Walker Family series is not a coincidence.
She graduated in 1966 with a degree in English and secondary education, received masters in library science in 1970, taught at Pueblo High School for two years and was a librarian at Indian Oasis School District in Sells for five years.
Jance put her writing ambitions on the back burner while married to her first husband, who died from chronic alcoholism at 42, two years after their divorce. He had told her there would be only one writer in their family — and he was it.
But Jance wrote poetry at night when husband slept. Her collection of poems and memoirlike comments was published in “After the Fire,” in 1984 a year before her first novel. The third edition of “After the Fire,” was released last year.
Marriage to an alcoholic helped shape her character J.P. Beaumont, a Seattle homicide detective. Likewise, her experiences as a divorced mom with two children and a full-time job selling life insurance are mirrored in her series featuring Joanna Brady, the Cochise County sheriff.
The protagonist in the series that includes her 50th release, “Moving Target,” is former L.A. TV news anchor Ali Reynolds, who returns home to Sedona. That character was inspired by the ousting of Tucson anchorwoman Patty Weiss.
Bill Schilb, Jance’s husband of nearly 29 years, said she works nonstop, writing at least 1,000 to 2,500 words a day.
A retired electronics engineer, Schilb said he handles the accounting and scheduling, and helps with research and some copy-editing. They split their time between homes in Tucson and Seattle.
Jance, who doesn’t have an office, usually writes in an armchair. She writes one book at a time while juggling the copy-editing of other books or touring. Her next Joanna Brady book is due out July 26.
“I get energy back from readers,” said Jance, who writes a blog filled with personal storiesthat allows “readers to have a window on my world.”
She’s written about the harrowing 24 hours that their beloved rescue long-haired dachshund, BellaBella was missing.
Early last month, she shared an intense, poignant open letter to Dylan Farrow Dylan Farrow in which Jance shared her story of abuse at the hands of her grandfather and the significance of her father believing her story and his support sustained her.
In a bit of poetic justice for someone rejected from the creative-writing program, Jance will offer a nine-day workshop in May at the UA on the art and business of writing. Jance said participants will write a novella during the hands-on workshop.
In addition, she and her stepson are collaborating on a Sugarloaf Cafe (from the Ali Reynolds series) cookbook.
“She doesn’t wind down,” said Schilb of Jance’s focus and stamina. “It would be a sad day if she couldn’t write.”