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J.A. Jance and My Weekend With the Literati

April 5th, 2007

A couple of months ago I got an e-mail from my editor informing me that I had been invited to appear at an event to be held at the University of Arizona Library down in Tucson. Interestingly, the U of A Library has established a special Women of Mystery Collection, and a regular yearly benefit event is held to honor its supporters. This unusual collection of works by women mystery authors is only a few years old, and is made possible largely through the good offices of private donors. So once a year these good people are thanked with a Sunday luncheon at the Tucson home of best-selling author and collection patron J.A. Jance, followed on Monday by an invitation-only author panel and Q&A held in the Special Collections room of the University Library. Each year, two or three women mystery writers are invited to participate by mixing and meeting with the Sunday luncheon attendees and by sitting in on the Monday author panel. Even though several very well-known authors such as Carolyn Hart have attended in previous years, fortunately for me J.A. Jance makes a point of always inviting at least one mystery writing newcomer.

This year I lucked out. The three women J.A. Jance invited to attend were Sue Henry from Alaska, author of fourteen mysteries, Betty Webb, Scottsdale author of four mysteries, and your humble servant. When Barbara, my editor, e-mailed me with the news, she told me that the authors were all invited to stay with Jance in her home for the duration, where we would be wined and dined and chauffered to and fro. She forwarded the address for the RSVP and added, “I urge you to attend”.

Imagine, Dear Reader, that you were a bit-playing actor who was invited to spend three nights in the home of George Clooney. Would you need to be urged to attend?

I live about 100 miles from Tucson, so I drove myself down on the evening of March 31 and arrived at Judy Jance’s house at about 4:30. I was greeted at the door by her delightful husband Bill Schilb, and he ushered me through to the back patio and entertained me until Judy appeared a few minutes later. The first thing she said to me as she shook my hand was, “Did anybody warn you that I was enormously tall?”

Judy Jance is six feet tall in her bare feet, with shoulder-length white hair, as formidible a presence as she is an author. She has written thirty-six books since 1984, including the Detective J.P Beaumont series set in Seattle, the Joanna Brady series in Bisbee, AZ, and the three Walker books in Tucson. Her thirty-seventh book will be the third in the Ally Reynolds series, which is set in Sedona, AZ. Jance is an enormous success and one of the biggest names in the business, and one of my goals for the weekend was simply to bask a little in her glow.

The Jance home was spectacular, as you might guess. The three guests were each given her own bedroom with its own private bath. I was put in the “Beaumont room”, which was adorned with a full sized quilt on one wall which depicted scenes from each of the J.P. Beaumont titles. Betty Webb was not able to come down until Sunday, but Judy and Bill took Sue Henry and me to dinner at a beautiful restaurant called Curvee. Sue Henry is no slouch of an author herself. Her first novel, Murder on the Iditerod Trail, won both the Anthony Award and the MacCavity Award. Her latest book, The Refuge, is her fourteenth.

The next morning, Judy Jance set us all to work preparing for the luncheon. She drove Sue and me to Safeway, where we schlepped bags of ice and a dozen potted flower centerpieces to the car. Her desert-landscaped back patio was set with six or eight tables, each decorated with a bright tablecloths and a pot of flowers.

While Sue and I were prettying ourselves up, Betty Webb arrived, and the whole cast of characters was in place by the time that the forty guest honorees began to arrive. The event was catered by Friends of the Tohono O’odam Nation Library, who created an intreguing buffet of popovers (often called fry-bread), chili, beans, cole slaw, and a berry salad. We all ate and circulated and schmoozed with the guests while Chris Acevedo, owner of Clues Unlimited Bookstore in Tucson, sold our books from Judy’s giant dining table. After lunch, Judy asked the authors to speak to the crowd about our work for a few minutes, which was unexpected, but we rose to the occasion without any trouble. The only thing was that I used my best jokes when I gave my remarks, which left me a little worried about what I was going to say at the Monday event.

It was a gorgeous day to be outside, and everyone seemed to enjoy the afternoon very much. After all the guests left, we all changed back into our grubbies and sat around on the back patio for hours, drinking wine. Our conversation started out to be about our work, then about ourselves, then by the end of the evening, we were all spilling our deepest darkest thoughts. Maybe it was the wine, but I think it was the company.

It’s growing very late, Dear Reader, and this post is growing very long, so I’ll fill you in on the Monday Author Panel and Discussion at the U of A in my next entry. And now I shall pause in my narrative and go to bed.

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