A Conversation With Jan Burke

by Claire E. White

Jan Burke is an award-winning novelist and short story writer. Her mystery series features Southern California newspaper reporter Irene Kelly and currently includes Goodnight, Irene; Sweet Dreams, Irene; Dear Irene; Remember Me, Irene; Hocus; and the newest book in the series, Liar.
Photo of Jan Burke
Her story "Unharmed" won a Macavity Award and the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Readers Award -- this marked the first time in the history of the EQMM award that a woman writer won first place. Her most recent short stories are "Mea Culpa," which appears in Malice Domestic 6, an anthology edited by Anne Perry; "Two Bits," in the May, 1998 issue of Ellery Queen; and "A Man of My Stature," forthcoming in Crimes Through Time II, to be published in August, 1998.

Burke was born in Texas, but moved to Southern California when she was seven years old and has spent most of her life there, often in coastal cities -- several of which combine to make up the fictional Las Piernas where Irene Kelly works and lives. She and her husband, Tim, share their house with two dogs, Cappy and Britches. She attended California State University, Long Beach and graduated with a degree in history. Following college, she spent a number of years managing a manufacturing plant. Goodnight, Irene was written during long evenings after work. The completed manuscript was sold unsolicited to Simon and Schuster. She now writes full-time. She is a former Sunday columnist for the Long Beach Press-Telegram. She also served as the editor of Sisters in Crime's guide to getting published, Breaking and Entering.

Jan spoke with us about how she got her start as an author, how she creates her popular characters and gives advice to aspiring mystery novelists.

What did you like to read as a child?

I'm still enjoying my childhood, especially when it comes to books -- my husband and I have a large collection of children's books. (If a house guest seems too shocked by this, we say that Tim uses the books in his tutoring business. But most people just ask if they can borrow Freddy the Pig.) In the younger part of my childhood, I was blessed with parents who encouraged reading, had books in our home, and made going to the local public library a family treat. We might not be given money for a toy, but if we asked for a book, it usually left the store in our hands. My parents were also generous with the daily newspaper -- this was not something that only adults read. By the time I was nine, in between reading news stories and the funny pages, I was also growing familiar with Los Angeles Times columnists Jack Smith, Matt Weinstock and Jim Murray. We were encouraged to try to read material that was above our reading level. My father subscribed to Scientific American. I was interested in science, and loved the photographs and illustrations, but the magazine was usually way over my head. Still, if I made an effort to understand what I could of an article, my father would take the time to "fill in the blanks" for me. Except for The Ghost Rock Mystery and a few others tales of suspense, I didn't read much mystery as a child. I think I read one Nancy Drew mystery -- I know this will disappoint some people. There seems to be a belief that all women mystery writers grew up reading lots of Nancy Drew. My introduction to adult mystery fiction began with Agatha Christie in high school. I liked them, and eventually my affection from mysteries grew into a real love of the genre by the time I was in college, reading Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer?

After my second grade teacher put one of my poems up on the bulletin board. I fooled around with a lot of other occupations before working up the nerve to make a serious attempt at writing a book. I reached a point in life when I decided that I didn't want to die wondering if I had a book in me.

What led up to the publication of your first book, Goodnight, Irene?

I finished writing the manuscript. You may think I'm being facetious with that response, but I'm not. I don't know how many times I meet people who are very wrapped up in learning how to get published, but not very concerned with writing. You can't sell blank paper unless you're working for a stationer. What happened after I finished writing it? At the time I didn't have an agent or any connection to other writers. A mystery writer spoke at a nearby public library, and I went to his lecture hoping to hear about getting published and finding an agent. He gave a rather depressing lecture about how little he was paid, and told us that he received more money than respect. When, after he spoke, I asked if he had any suggestions on how to find an agent, he basically told me to get lost.
"The mystery short story market is alive and well, and healthier than many other short story markets. But does publishing a short story give you a big advantage when you want to sell a novel? No."
I had been reading writing books and they made it fairly clear that sending in unsolicited manuscripts to major publishers would do little more than allow postal workers to get some extra exercise, lugging your manuscript back and forth across the country. And as far as agents were concerned, it seemed that in literary heaven, Satan had not yet been expelled. There were good angels and bad angels, but they were all able to call themselves angels. You could very easily end up damned by the efforts of the very person you thought might introduce you to God. In more than one of these writing books, I read that a writer should try to make use of any connection he/she had to anyone in publishing. The daughter of some friends of my husband's parents worked in advertising at Simon and Schuster. I had never met this woman, and she did not work in the editorial part of the house. But I thought she might work in the same building as the editors, and perhaps she could land Goodnight, Irene on top of the slush pile for me. Maybe one day someone would be looking for a place to sit, start to move a stack of manuscripts, and - voilà! - I'd be discovered. Through a phone tree of friends and relatives, I got her address at work and I sent the manuscript to her. Before it arrived, she cautiously stated that she might not be able to do more than convince an editor to supply the names of some reputable agents. When she received it, she started reading the first few pages, got hooked, took it home and finished reading it in one night. She brought it in to work the next day and gave it to the publisher with a glowing recommendation. He was kind of busy. But eventually, he read it and liked it, and passed it along to an editor, who called me and offered me a three-book deal.

While the publisher had it, I was frantically looking through writing books for advice on what to do if someone said "yes" to your unsolicited, unagented manuscript. Most of the advice was on how to cope with rejection. I finally found what I was looking for in one of Lawrence Block's books. If you wanted an agent, and the house was reputable, ask them for a list of agents. I spoke with several of these agents and their clients, as well as editors who worked with them, and I found my agent in this way. I strongly urge anyone who is not an expert on negotiating literary contracts to work with an agent.

How did you create the town of Las Piernas that is featured in the Irene Kelly series?

I wanted to write about life in coastal cities south of Los Angeles. Los Angeles itself is legendary as a setting for mysteries. Among today's writers, I think Michael Connelly writes about it best. If you live near L.A., though, you soon realize that the rest of the world lumps everything within a five hundred-mile radius of the place into that one city. Las Piernas resembles, but is not, one of the places that falls
"And as far as agents were concerned, it seemed that in literary heaven, Satan had not yet been expelled. There were good angels and bad angels, but they were all able to call themselves angels. You could very easily end up damned by the efforts of the very person you thought might introduce you to God."
within that circle--Long Beach. I compare living in Long Beach to living in Canada--if you didn't have this behemoth next to you, grabbing all the attention, folks might notice what you had to offer. I picture Las Piernas being about the size of Long Beach (about 500,000 folks live in the area) and placed roughly where Long Beach is on the map. I didn't want to write about Long Beach per se, though. I wanted to be able to add features of Venice Beach (actually part of L.A.) and the South Bay, as well as Seal Beach, Newport Beach, and Laguna Beach. And everything in between. People who know these cities will recognize pieces of them in Las Piernas. Working with a fictional city, I can also add features that aren't in any of these places--Las Piernas has a zoo. I can build and abandon and refurbish buildings that don't exist--like the Angelus Hotel in Remember Me, Irene. (If I ever make a zillion bucks at this, I may build the Angelus--I've had lots of people ask me where it is. ) And I don't get letters that say, "Everybody knows the gas station you mention is on southwest corner, not the northeast corner of Sixth and Main, so if your character made a lefthand turn out of that station, she was probably killed in a head on collison, because she was going the wrong way on a one-way street."

Who or what was your inspiration for Irene?

Irene isn't based on any particular person, and wasn't created with any particular criteria in mind. Once I had the first line of Goodnight, Irene in mind, I had her voice. She more or less created herself from there.

Hocus recently came out in paperback. How did you get the idea for the criminal gang known as Hocus?

First, I'll say that all characters and plots come out of some jumble of whatever it is that becomes known as imagination. I just sit and imagine things. I daydream. I hear of things that interest me, that cause me to ask questions, especially ones that begin with "Why does a person ...?" and "What if...?"and "What would it be like to ...?" Any attempt to explain how I write is almost guaranteed to sound ludcrious to me at some future date. That said . . . For me, beneath every novel there is a theme that readers may or may not recognize. It isn't so important to me that, when a reader finishes the book, he puts it down on the night stand with a sigh and says, "Oh, that was a terrific book about x!" However, it is crucial to me that in the early stages of writing of the book, I find out what a book is about. Sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? But by "what the book is about," I don't mean the plot or whodunit or who triumphs in the end. It is more basic, and ideally more subtle, than any of those things. Hocus is primarily about how we overcome, or do not overcome, the damage in our lives. I was more interested in this as it relates to trauma, rather than long-term abuse. So, how did that work in this case? I had decided to write a book in which Frank Harriman is taken hostage. This was one of the worst things that could happen - not just to Frank, but to Irene. Well, we can talk about being mean to your characters another time . . . I could have had a band of lunatics take him by chance. No real reason to act the way they did, no real reason to choose him over anyone else. What's so interesting about that? I'm not saying that you couldn't crank up some tension just by making a reader wonder how the hell he was going to get out of the situation, but I thought it would be a better book if he was specifically targeted, and for a reason, by people whose motives we understood, even if we ourselves would have chosen a different way to address our grievences. And that brings up the question, why would we take a different path from the villains? What makes us different from them? One answer is that human beings respond differently to the damage done to them during their lives. Why is that? And so the question of damage and overcoming damage led to, " What if?" and "Why?" and "What would it be like?" And from there it led to the creation of two young men who are the center of the group known as Hocus.

Hocus has been praised for a number of elements, including its complex and intriguing plot. What is your approach to plotting a novel of this type - do you outline the plot first?

No, I just make it up as I go along. I get on that half-broken horse and ride. It's a thrill and scarier than hell. It means that I end up rewriting, but I've come to feel better about rewriting than I used to. In fact, one of the great things about being a writer is that you can rewrite. If you're a commercial airline pilot, an emergency room surgeon or a short-order cook, you don't get as many chances to fix what you've screwed up. And somebody else suffers as a result.

Hocus was also interesting for the story of the kidnappers which actually made them somewhat sympathetic, in spite of their bad deeds. How did you create those characters?

As I said before, when I talked about the theme of damage in Hocus. These two young men have been damaged; we've seen what hurt them, we understand that anyone would be changed forever by such an experience. The result of this damage is that they do not trust others, and while we wish they would, we understand why they don't. We hope that they will change -- it seems possible that at least one of them will.
Cover of
Hocus by Jan Burke
This story would not have been served by a single-minded, evil creep. The evil creep has his place, but not in Hocus. I learn most of what I know about a character by meeting him on the page, in the story as I write it. I sometimes ask myself questions about a character when I encounter him in this imaginary world - What does he want? What is he willing to do to get it? What has hurt him? What makes him strong? It is best if I can learn this by observing him and listening to him, by putting him into a room with other characters and letting the other characters find the answers. "Show don't tell" is an essential rule about revealing character. For mystery writers, there is a triangle between victim, antagonist and protagonist. Each acts on and because of the other two. Sometimes fledgling writers focus entirely on the hero, the sleuth - and even then, you can practically see this character answering some market-driven want ad. (Wanted: single, well-meaning but misunderstood character with fascinating occupation, slightly marred good looks, semi-manicial sidekick, and witty repartee. Exotic locale and paramilitary training a plus. Must like cats.) Sometimes the hero seems to be a perfectly likeable individual, but the book is a dud. Why? Often because she/he hasn't been given anything to do. Who gives the hero something to do? The victim and the villain.

All three characters in the triangle need to be interesting to the reader. Even if the villain is "crazy"--we should be able to understand what he wants, where his particular "craziness" is leading him, and why it leads him to his victim. The victim brings the hero into the story. If we don't give a damn about the victim, what's all the fuss about?

Your newest Irene Kelly mystery is Liar. What was your inspiration for Liar?

Several ideas came together. This often happens--I'll be considering a topic or idea or set of characters I'd like to write about, and some of them will fit together and some won't. I wanted to write about Irene and Rachel, to let them get away from Frank and Pete and interact with one another. I wanted to write about Irene's family history - Liar is her most personal story. And--here comes that theme business again--I wanted to look at the topic of estrangement. I wanted to look at why we separate ourselves from people we love--sometimes with good reason, sometimes over very small matters. I wanted to talk at the personal gospels we create to justify this estrangement--we are storytellers first and foremost to ourselves. Irene's family has for decades justified their estrangement from her mother's sister, Briana. Briana married a bigamist; in addition to being duped into a bogus marriage, Irene's aunt also provided the man with an alibi when he was suspected of murdering his first wife. But now, many years these events, Irene must re-examine these events, and her own ideas about her ersatz uncle. She's also looking for Briana's only child--she hasn't seen Travis, her missing cousin, since he was an infant. It's urgent that she find him--Briana has been killed, and her will leaves everything she owns to Irene--making Irene the chief suspect in her aunt's murder.

Why do you think Irene has struck such a nerve and become so popular with readers?

I think this is a question for my readers to answer; I feel a little presumptuous trying to speak for them. I'll just say that in their letters to me, fans tell me that Irene seems real to them. I don't think this means that they imagine that reporters solve a lot of crimes. What I hope they are telling me is that placed in difficult situations, this character responds in a believable way, that they can relate to her hopes and fears, that they admire her best traits and accept her weaknesses. Often readers comment that they like her sense of humor, which is flattering, since the books are not comedic mysteries - she relies on her humor to help her to keep hold of her courage, or in times of stress. Readers tell me they are glad Irene is not a loner; she's a loyal person whose relationships complicate her life, but also provide strength and support. And of course, some readers lust after her husband.

The romance between Irene and her husband Frank is quite compellingly portrayed. How do you go about integrating the relationship element of the story with the mystery/suspense elements? Is it difficult?

Thanks. I don't find it difficult, mainly because Irene doesn't find it difficult. I'm ashamed to say that my original plan was to make Frank what I now refer to as the "file drawer character." This is the police character in mysteries who is pulled into the story when the amateur sleuth needs information that only the police can give him or her. If not simply called on the phone and reminded that the sleuth saved his life in Vietnam (if called by a female sleuth, reminded that he used to be married to her--apparently comparable duty), the cop is lured into indiscretion after a couple of beers and a plate of enchiladas. The police character reluctantly but unfailingly supplies the information and then is immediately shoved right back out of the story. These characters exist almost solely to supply information.
Cover of
Liar by Jan Burke
Thank God I listened to Frank and Irene. I didn't want Frank and Irene to get together romantically. She's a reporter, he's a cop--this is not something either of their employers would countenance. I thought she'd be a crime reporter. No way on earth would a newspaper allow a cop's wife to cover the activities of the police. But they insisted on getting together. This will sound strange to some people, but it's true. Every time I had the two of them on the page together, the sparks were flying. Gradually, it dawned on me that I should give them their way. There was lots of conflict built into their situation, which is always a plus in fiction writing. But that wasn't the only benefit to the stories. It forced me to develop both characters differently, more fully. Frank wasn't painted in the flat colors of the file drawer; I had to learn more about him, how he'd react to all sorts of situations that had little or nothing to do with being a cop. Being with Frank changed Irene, forced her to grow, to struggle--as many women struggle--with balancing the demands of work and home. They don't have a "Mr. and Mrs. Lollipop" relationship. They argue. They get mad at one another.

But they also anchor one another, support one another, respect one another. They are friends. They care for one another in the way that only the most intimate and committed partners do. There is also passion, which is much more than sex. For the most part, I allow them their privacy - still, I don't think any of my readers doubt that Frank and Irene have a good time in bed.

Since I'm talking to writers here, allow me to make one other comment. Every now and then, at mystery conventions or on Internet lists, readers will grumble about the number of women sleuths who are married to homicide detectives. They seem to forget the "buddy on the force" and other clichés - all those guys who will spill the beans for a plate of enchiladas. But I definitely believe something can be learned from this complaint. A cop husband can become file drawer character, too - and who wants a filing cabinet next to her in bed? I think a writer does any character a disservice by placing him or her in an arranged marriage. There needs to be much more holding the relationship together than your own convenience. And pillow talk will never, ever substitute for resourcefulness on the part of the sleuth.

Can you give us a sneak peek into Irene's next adventure?

Irene joins an expedition into the mountains - in the company of a heavily guarded serial killer, several law enforcement officers, a team of forensic anthropologists, and a cadaver dog - a dog trained to find human remains. The killer has promised he'll take police to the grave of a woman who disappeared from Las Piernas four years ago. He'll also plead guilty to her murder and to the murder that led to his arrest - provided the district attorney will not seek the death penalty in either case. Irene has been writing stories about the older case since not long after the woman disappeared; the victim's family members are among those who pressured her into joining this expedition. From the beginning, though, most of those making the hike have made it clear that they don't welcome her presence--the exceptions being the dog and the killer. The latter seems to have an unsettling fascination with her--and has taken steps to ensure that he'll have a chance to pursue his interest in her.

How do you approach the research needed for each book?

With excitement. The research is one of my favorite parts of writing books. Part of why I love research is that I get to look into all sort of strange and wonderful subjects, and tell myself that it's work. I talk to fascinating people from many different walks of life, most of whom are generous with their time. I've found that most people are perfectly willing to talk about their work with someone who respects them and their time. Perhaps it's the history major in me--historians are investigators. I find myself thinking kind thoughts about my history professors during the writing of each book. History professors and librarians.
"I suspect that if a person is as cautious about choosing one as he or she would be about choosing a doctor for a child, a critique group could be invaluable. As I once heard Nancy Pickard say, if someone says something to you that makes you feel as if you should stop writing, turn 180 degrees and run."
I often hear plaintive cries from new writers about not being able to get experts to talk to them. What amazes me is that they've often passed up credentialed experts who've already spoken--they don't go to the library! My research almost always begins at the library--sometimes virtually at the library - online catalogs, computers and modems have made this easier. Another group of willing experts can be found at colleges and universities--people who are teaching forensic science and law enforcement information courses designed specifically for writers. There are more and more of these classes being offered throughout the U.S. I know that most of my research will not end up on the page. Part of it will be preventative - if I pay attention, it will prevent me from saying that there was a safety on a revolver, or that an officer worked in the Hollywood Precinct of the LAPD. (Revolvers don't have safeties, LAPD doesn't have precincts--there's a Hollywood Division.) Part of it will be background only - it will help me to better know the world my characters are operating in, to create details that create that world. Part of it will provide plot--in my current work, or perhaps a later short story, or another book. I try to stay open-minded while researching. One of the things I love about research is that I never know where or to whom it will lead me. Soon, it will take me to talk to a 90-year old man who is the resident expert at a wildflower preserve. A few months ago, it led to a hike through some Virginia red clay and mud with a marvelous team of cadaver dogs--watching them train, meeting their handlers. It has led to anatomy labs and homeless shelters, skid row alleys and sailboats. It's easy to become too enmeshed in research. At some point, you have to write. And there is much more to good storytelling than mere accuracy.

Do you use the Internet for research?

Yes, I use both the Web and email for research. On the Web, some sites, of course, are more reliable than others; I never rely entirely on information I find on the Internet. I usually use the Web to contact people whose credentials and expertise can be verified, or to find my way to other resources, such as books and articles. I'm picky. Email is a great boon when it comes to researching. Not only am I able to stay in touch experts I've met or to whom I've been referred, but I can send them passages of the book to ask if I've got it right. And everyone gets to do this on their own time, when it's convenient. We aren't interrupting one another with phone calls or hassling with time zones. One of many stories I could tell you about using email is in connection with the accident investigation information in Liar. Several Australian readers have noticed that I acknowledge the help of a gentleman in New South Wales. I met Ken Lyons when he visited the U.S. with a friend (a librarian I had only previously known through email). We had lunch together. Over a year later, remembering that he was an accident investigator, I asked for his help. I had the help of a person who lived halfway across the world, and without the cost of long distance calls or faxes, without the delays I would have faced with snail mail.

You are also known for your short stories. Do you prefer writing short stories or novels and why?

Each has its pleasures. I enjoy the time a novel allows to develop plot and character. I enjoy the challenge of revealing character in a few brief strokes in a short story, of bringing an idea home in a few pages. Perhaps I can give an example. Do you prefer to spend an evening reminiscing about your youth with a childhood friend, or to hear someone you love say, "I missed you" when you come home after a long trip? You enjoy both. If your childhood friend only said, "I missed you" all evening, or your spouse recounted every detail of everything he did while you were gone, it might not be so pleasant. Ideas for stories are the same - is this an idea that sustains a novel? Or better kept short and sweet? Irene has developed into who she is over six novels now - I know her voice, her world. On the other hand, I'm free to write about the late nineteenth century in a short story, or from the point of view of a turtle. I can try to stretch as a writer in either form.

Do you advise aspiring mystery writers to start with short stories rather than with a novel?

Not at all. The forms are different. A short story is not just an amateur's practice for novel-writing. Not all writers can write both novels and short stories. Write what you are inspired to write. The mystery short story market is alive and well, and healthier than many other short story markets. But does publishing a short story give you a big advantage when you want to sell a novel? No. All publishing credits are helpful, especially when looking for an agent, but an editor isn't going to offer you a book contract just because you've published a short story.

How do you feel about critique groups?

I have never been in a critique group, but I'm not against them. I hear varying reports about them. Some are supportive and helpful, others are destructive. I suspect that if a person is as cautious about choosing one as he or she would be about choosing a doctor for a child, a critique group could be invaluable. As I once heard Nancy Pickard say, if someone says something to you that makes you feel as if you should stop writing, turn 180 degrees and run. If your group inspires you to keep writing, or to be more disciplined about writing, or to strive to be a better writer, you've found something worth embracing.

What is the most surprising thing that has happened to you since the publication of Goodnight, Irene?

In terms of single events, it has to be having the President of the United States hold up my first book on national television. Surprising doesn't begin to describe it. But when I first thought of answering this question, what came to mind was not a single event, but something ongoing. I didn't expect it at all, and it has been wonderful: having the opportunity to meet and form friendships with other writers whose work I admire. The mystery writing community has some excellent folks in it, and from the very beginning, many of them have been kind and generous.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

There isn't a great deal of it anymore. When I have it, I spend time with my husband and my dogs, and with people I love. I talk to friends. I read for pleasure. I walk in the big park near my house, or along the beach. I work in the garden. Simple pleasures.

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