Message From The Author
Irene Kelly, the intrepid newspaper reporter heroine of Jan Burke?s popular mystery series, is definitely someone you?d want on your side if you were in trouble. Her intelligence, tenacity, and deep sense of loyalty make her not only an excellent reporter, but an admirable amateur sleuth.
In Burke?s seventh novel of the series, BONES, Irene must match wits with a cunning serial killer, Nicholas Parrish, to save herself and those she loves. Parrish has made a deal with the authorities: in exchange for a life sentence (as opposed to execution), he will show them where the bodies of his victims are buried. Irene is the reporter chosen to accompany the cops and forensic people?and Parrish?to a remote mountain site for the
exhumations. Then everything goes horribly wrong, and Irene is alone in the middle of nowhere with a man who wants to tear her to pieces?literally.
Jan credits her fascination with journalism to a newspaper tour she took when she was nine, a favorite uncle who?s a reporter, and, she admits, a lingering idealism. As she explains, ?I went to college during the Watergate era?when journalists were heroes, not the people who killed Princess Di.? Irene Kelly is accordingly an ?old-school journalist,?one with a sense of honor (and luckily, of humor).
Always a mystery fan, when Jan was ready to write her own, she knew that she wanted a female sleuth, but she didn?t want to be ?cozy.? She wasn?t crazy about the male, hard-boiled model?the ?lone wolf? detective?either. Instead, she wrote the kind of book she wanted to read, about someone more like the women she knew, ?women who were trying to cope with the pull and strain of others? on their lives,?balancing relationships and work.?
Jan points out that Irene usually becomes involved in cases because of some loyalty to another person. Her first case, in Goodnight, Irene, involves the murder of her mentor, O?Connor, whom Irene sees as a father figure as well as a friend and ?the best reporter she could become.?
When she wrote her first book, Jan felt that one element missing in the mysteries she read was ?a sense of grief??even when people are dying,
the hero ?just goes on like it didn?t happen.? In contrast, even though O?Connor has died by page two, he?s still there, in a sense, throughout the book, in Irene?s heart and thoughts?she misses him, thinks of him often, longs for him to be alive?which is a much more realistic representation of loss.
In Sweet Dreams, Irene, Jan?s second book, she wanted to explore the aftermath of violence. Jan kept reading mysteries where people got the stuffing knocked out of them and then by the next page were on their feet and running. One of Burke?s friends was raped, and she didn?t want the woman to think that feeling traumatized was ?cowardly.? As Jan points out, ?the reality is, just being yelled at on the street is bad enough. After a violent encounter, most people are afraid to go out the front door.?
After Irene?s experience with violence, she eventually finds her courage again, but Burke shows us the process?how she deals with her fear with the help of a support system of loving friends. Irene?s loyalty, her deep bonds with other people, is what saves her, as well as what sometimes gets her into trouble.
In BONES, it is Irene?s empathy toward others that gets her entangled with a killer. Burke admits that the theme of her latest book is compassion?compassion for a girl whose mother has disappeared makes Irene pursue a case that?s all but forgotten, and a lack of human compassion is what makes serial killers like Nicholas Parrish so baffling.
While researching BONES, Burke interviewed many forensic anthropologists and learned that most of them work on a volunteer basis, teaching anthropology during the week and then spending their weekends searching for remains. Whenever there?s a disaster?either natural, like floods and fires, or man-made, like plane crashes or the Oklahoma City bombing?teams of volunteer forensic anthropologists will fly to the disaster site to help local law enforcement and emergency personnel handle and identify remains. ?Even with the most horrible remains,? Burke explains, ?they still ask, who is this person? They still see them as a human being?and they?re usually the victim?s last hope of being identified.?
Anyone who doubts the importance of this work, Burke suggests, ?should ask the people of Kosovo,? when out of a mass grave containing 700 bodies, the forensic anthropologists can tell them which is their son?s or daughter?s, and give them, if not hope, at least closure. These are really, as Jan points out, ?the heroes, the best kind of people dealing with the worst that people can do.?
Burke jokingly credits her second-grade teacher?who put her poem up in front of the class?with inspiring her to write. Her husband, Tim, a musician, urged her to try for years, but it was something she learned at a freelance research job that finally made her take the plunge into authorship.
Jan, a history major in college, interviewed women who had worked in aircraft plants during WWII, and she noticed that the women who were still lively, strong and energetic were the ones who had struggled, taken risks and were proud of their accomplishments. She also met other women?in many cases younger and more well-off financially?whose lives were bitter and unhappy, and all of them said something along the lines of, ?I always wanted to?? or ?I wish I had??; they all carried the weight of unpursued dreams, the baggage of regret. Jan decided she wanted to look back on her life the way the former group did, believing it?s ?the effort, not the outcome, that?s the important thing.?
Then Jan was with her husband in a club in West L.A.?this was in the early ?90s, when, as she says, ?the health club was the new singles bar??and a group of women, each of them weighing about 300 pounds, got up to dance. A line came into her head: ?He loved to watch fat women dance.? Jan said to her husband, ?I?ve got a first line for my novel, and if I don?t use it now, I?ll stop saying I?m going to write.?
She wrote the first chapter that night, but then got stalled again, thinking, as so many new writers have, ?How do I dare try to do this? I?m not Agatha Christie or Raymond Chandler or Ernest Hemingway. I?ll never write anything worthwhile.?
Temporarily defeated by her inner voices, she put the chapter away for six months, but it kept nagging at her, and finally, ?It didn?t matter if I wasn?t Hemingway?I needed the creative part of my life back.?
Jan had heard that novice writers should pursue any publishing contact they can, so when her novel was finally finished, she sent it to the daughter of her parents? friends, who worked at Simon & Schuster?not even in the editorial department, but as Jan says, she was at least ?inside the building.? After staying up all night to read it, this early fan gave it to an editor the next morning, who promptly offered her a three-book contract, and Jan?s been with Simon & Schuster ever since.
Now, after her seventh book, Jan still feels terror when facing
the blank page at the beginning of each new novel, but she?s developed techniques?that she also uses to lead writing workshops?to deal with it.
One of these is to ?fish with stink bait.? As she tells it: ?One portrait in my Dating Hall of Shame is of an ex-boyfriend who liked to fish. I don?t look back on that man with any real fondness, but I
do cherish a story he told me. He went fishing at a lake, where he met an old man, who was using the most foul-smelling bait he had ever encountered. It was difficult to be anywhere near this old man when he was baiting his hook. Intrigued, my friend asked what it was, and the old man said, ?Stink bait.? ?Does it work?? my friend asked. ?Son,? the old man said solemnly, ?they bites it just to get it out of the water.??
Jan continues, ?As writers, sometimes we need to fish with stink bait?toss that lousy idea out there, and see if something better rises to the surface. If we give ourselves permission to write down some of those terrible plots, unworthy sentences, silly characters and awful dialogue, we may find that other ideas come along to move that ?stink bait? out of the water!? However, she says, ?You always pray you don?t die and someone finds it before you?ve had a chance to revise it!?
Jan doesn?t use outlines, she just ?gets on the back of the horse and rides.? At a certain point, she enters the fictional world with her characters, and then writing goes ?from being terrifying to thrilling.? Her characters definitely rule this fictional world. Frank Harriman, a homicide detective, was originally supposed to be just Irene?s police contact, ?a file-drawer police character,? who would give her information but not be involved in the story. However, Jan admits, ?Frank and Irene insisted on having a romance?I couldn?t keep them apart,? and now they?re married.
As a fan of romances as well as mysteries??I couldn?t read about serial killers without also reading Georgette Heyer??Jan is obviously not of the school of mystery writers that believes romance has no place in the genre. She recalls one female mystery writer telling her that she would never let her sleuth have a boyfriend or get married because that sort of thing was ?so boring.? Jan laughs, ?Of all the words I can think of to describe my marriage, ?boring? isn?t one of them!? We hope that Jan Burke continues to write mysteries that actually reflect women?s lives?romance included?until Irene and Frank have grandchildren!
Write to Jan c/o Simon & Schuster, 1230 Sixth Ave., 13th Floor, New York, NY 10020. Readers can also check out her website at www.janburke.com.
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