The Five Books That Inspired J.A. Jance to Become a Writer
By far the most influential book in my life—and the one that inspired my career path for the past forty years—was L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, which I read as a second grader in Mrs. Spangler’s classroom at Greenway School in Bisbee, Arizona. In her classroom, Mrs. Spangler had shelves loaded with books students could take to their desks to read if they finished their work early. Other kids reading that particular book might have been struck by glimpses of the Wizard, hiding behind his green curtain. Not me! I was struck by glimpses of L. Frank Baum hiding behind the words. From the moment I realized that a living, breathing person had put those words on the pages, that’s what I wanted to be and do—a writer putting words on pages. It took a lot of years for me to be able to live that second grader’s dream, but my career is proof positive that dreams can and do come true.
My parents came from South Dakota farming stock, and somewhere along the way, someone gave my father a copy of A Treasury of the Familiar. It was a Christmas gift. I don’t remember the exact year because, as I write this, the volume itself, which I inherited from my father, along with its inscription, is at our home in Tucson. In terms of inheritance, I’m the lucky one, because every one of my six brothers and sisters would have treasured that book as much as I do.
In the Fifties, before television made it over the Divide and came down Tombstone Canyon to our house in Warren, that’s how we spent our summer evenings—listening to our father read from A Treasury of the Familiar. Sitting here two thousand miles away from the actual book, my mind can go wandering through remembered lines from many of my favorites from back then—“Horatius at the Bridge.” What bravery!
In yon strait path a thousand
May well be stopped by three.
Now who will stand on either hand
And keep the bridge with me?
“The Blind Men and the Elephant”—a philosophical statement if ever there was one!
So oft in theologic wars
The disputants I wean
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other means
And prate about an elephant
Not one of them has seen.
“I Had But Fifty Cents”—what happens when your new girlfriend doesn’t understand your budgetary situation and orders everything on the menu:
When she called for pie
I thought I’d die
For I had but fifty cents.
A little later in the evening, when the waiter finally presents his bill, we kids would roll on the floor as our father read the last verse:
When I gave the man
My fifty cents,
This is what he done.
He took me where my
Pants hung loose
And threw me over the fence.
Take my advice
Don’t try it twice,
If you have but fifty cents!
And what did those evenings of listening to poetry do for me? They turned me into an English major because, when I encountered poetry, I was totally at home with it. Shakespeare? No problem. Poetry didn’t scare me the same way it did other kids. It was accessible to me because I had literally learned it at my father’s knee.
As a freshman at the University of Arizona, I worked as an usher for auditorium events. If there were empty seats and the program was something you wanted to see, ushers were welcome to stay on for free. Since I was an English major—a very poor English major—by then, when C. Day-Lewis, the poet laureate of the United Kingdom, came to Tucson to do a poetry reading, I stayed to listen and was enchanted. It’s no coincidence that the words from his retelling of the old Greek legend, “Baucis and Philemon,” are chiseled on hunks of granite scattered throughout my husband’s and my back garden.
You see those two trees on the hillside over the lake,
A lime tree and an oak with a stone circle around them?
A strange thing to see two trees wearing a wedding ring you say.
You would not if you knew their story.
It wasn’t easy to get C. Day-Lewis’s books here in the States back in the Sixties and Seventies, but I tracked them down and dragged them home with me whenever I visited the U.K. It wasn’t until decades later that I was able to buy a volume of his collected poetry. I browse through it often, and I think the tone and mood of my own poetry—in my memoir After the Fire—hearkens back to the poetry style of C. Day-Lewis. In an added bit of irony, I am a mystery writer who writes poetry on the side. C. Day-Lewis was a poet who supported his poetry habit by writing mysteries under the pen name of Nicholas Blake.
Early on in my writing career, I did a signing at a bookstore in a small Washington community called Gig Harbor. When the signing was over, the manager of the store gave me a copy of Agatha Christie’s autobiography. It probably sounds heretical to say this, but at the time I had yet to read a single one of Agatha’s mysteries, but in reading her life story, I discovered we had a good deal in common, including difficult first husbands and terrific second ones. I was also greatly encouraged by her saying that, whenever she finished a book, she would tell husband number two, “I shall never write another book. I have quite forgotten how to do it.” Then eventually, one day she would hear a door close somewhere in the background and a new book would gradually come into focus. Believe me, I have dealt with having “quite forgotten how to do it” on more than one occasion.
For number five, I’m not going to name a single book. Instead, I’ll mention the name of a person to whom generations of mystery writers owe a huge debt of gratitude—Carolyn Keene. That was the pen name for Mildred Wirt Benson, the woman hired by Edward Stratemeyer of the Syndicate to pen the Nancy Drew books: The Secret of the Old Clock, The Hidden Staircase, The Secret of Shadow Ranch. I read them all. Nancy Drew’s adventures whetted the reading appetites of countless grade-school-aged readers who, like me, have gone on to become writers themselves. And it is no coincidence that there’s a little red roadster—a Porsche Boxster S—tucked away in our garage.