INTERVIEW OF JOY FIELDING

by Cherie Jung


Joy Fielding is a popular psychological suspense writer from Canada. Her novels include TELL ME NO SECRETS, GOOD INTENTIONS, THE BEST OF FRIENDS, TRANCE, THE TRANSFORMATION, LIFE PENALTY, THE DEEP END, THE OTHER WOMAN, KISS MOMMY GOODBYE, SEE JANE RUN, and DON'T CRY NOW.

CJ: I have the publicity information from William Morrow. They seem to have covered a lot of material but I wanted to check with you and see how you like the term "the maven of domestic thrillers?" (as they've described you in the publicity flyer). Is that a tag you like?

JF: I'm not sure because I'm never quite sure what maven means? I mean I know what it's supposed to mean, but it...it has such a middle-aged connotation to me that I'm not crazy about it. I much prefer, what do I much prefer? Uh -- I guess, "the queen" or something. [Laughing] I'd like to be queen.

CJ: The only person I know that is referred to as a maven, and we're not being very kind, is someone we don't particularly like.

JF: Well, maybe that's what I -- I mean I think it is always meant in the best sense, but it does have kind of, oh, it has a very middle aged feel to me and I guess that's the onenegative of it. I prefer somebody, I guess I'd rather somebody said I was, "an expert," or "one of the best in the field," or something like that. Maven doesn't thrill me.

CJ: I wasn't sure if they meant it nicely or not.

[Laughing]

JF: I think they did, actually, as I remember the context, it was nice. But, my reaction to it was less than thrilled.

CJ: I know for Judy Jance, -- J. A. Jance -- one of her first reviews from the Seattle local paper, hated her writing. They weren't at all nice. But, they made the mistake of putting all these words together that she could take out of context --

JF: Oh, that's okay --

CJ: All of her book covers have this phrase that they didn't mean as nice --

JF: But she took it --

CJ: But she took it out of context and it looks great. It makes her look like she was the greatest thing since buttered toast.

They later changed their mind about her writing abilities, especially since she's a bestselling local author. [Laughing] I was just wondering if that's what had happened with you? That someone had sort of started it, in an unkind manner. I had never heard of a "domestic thriller" although I've been reading your books for a long time.

JF: I find people have a need to categorize. I have always shied away from that. I've not leant myself easily to categorizing because I've moved around a bit. I'll do a thriller, then I'll do a--say a suspense novel. Then I'll do more a relationship novel, then I'll go into more of a thriller aspect. I think people always like to pigeon-hole writers. Whenever I concentrate on the relationship aspect of the book, as I did with THE OTHER WOMAN or GOOD INTENTIONS, I'm immediately labeled a romance novelist. I'm anything but a romance novelist. I don't think there is anything romantic about either me or the way I write. I --

CJ: Romantic suspense with a kick? Or hard-edge? --

JF: So then when I do something where there is any kind of a suspense aspect, it's right away that "suspense writer." Which is fine. I think certainly I'm more in the suspense vein and I like to think that, if nothing else, you're always wanting to keep reading, to keep turning the pages.

CJ: I wasn't sure why, on the flyer that I got from Morrow, it says "Women in jeopardy." Personally, I don't like that phrase either.

JF: Well these are actually just Morrow's phrases. They've used them, I think, because they tend to sell and --

CJ: Curious. I have two reviewers that fight me for your books when they come in and they both hate the women in jeopardy-type books. We always considered you more psychological suspense.

JF: Thank you. That's actually what I consider myself. Psychological suspense.

CJ: When we got this flyer I thought, well, I guess they've changed the marketing or something. But it was sort of scary because most of the people that we know, who are readers and subscribers don't like the kind of book that they're calling DON'T CRY NOW. When the book first came out I thought, well, if this is women in jeopardy, boy she must have run out of things to write. My husband kept saying, "Don't you have to interview her tomorrow?" And I'd say, "I know, but I don't like women in jeopardy books." [Laughing]

JF: Oh, so did you read it?

CJ: Yeah, this morning. I'm like, oh, this is just as good as SEE JANE RUN.

JF: Oh, good. Oh, I'm glad.

CJ: I hope this marketing campaign thing doesn't backfire.

JF: I'll have to call Morrow and tell them what your fears are because I think they are very legitimate. I think I am writing psychological suspense. I guess you would say that Bonnie is obviously in jeopardy. But I think that tends to -- what --minimize isn't the right word, but it shrinks the book. You know, it really narrows its scope and I think that there is a lot more to the book than that. Than just saying it's a woman in jeopardy story -- I mean, we're all in jeopardy.

CJ: Yes, nowadays. This could be my next door neighbor. This could be me.

JF: That's right. It is. I mean I like to think that it, that maybe the situations are somewhat extreme but I think the emotions and what the people are going through are very common.

CJ: Yes.

JF: I mean, we're all afraid of our teenagers.

CJ: Yes, that's why I don't have any.

JF: I think that's probably a very good point to make, which I will to them. Maybe they should target more the psychological suspense end than the women in jeopardy. Because there is something condescending to the term "women in jeopardy."

CJ: Yes. And a lot of the women who subscribe to our magazine very much avoid books that have kids in them, or too much humor, sort of like the Jill Churchill series. Where it's the suburban housewife and every week she has a new murder to solve. The "women in jeopardy" has a negative connotation to many readers.

JF: Yeah.

CJ: I'm afraid that people might not read the book or buy the book just because the tag phrase would turn them off.

JF: I think one of the terms Morrow has used that I find kind of intriguing is "domestic noir."

CJ: Now that's an interesting term.

JF: Yes. And that I like. Because they are domestic in that they are, I suppose, dealing with women and children and the home, but that there is a real edge to them and there is this noir aspect. It's much more intriguing.

CJ: Well, your writing really has, as you said, an edge. I mean,if you pick this book up thinking you're going to get a housewife baking cookies and solving the murder of the week...It's not Jessica Fletcher. I was glad to see that.

JF: I'm delighted too. I don't think I could ever do just a straight detective story -- I'm not interested in that. In fact, the least interesting aspects to me of the book are the detective aspects. I'm not really interested in who done it at all. I'm interested much more in the character and the whys and the personal revelations and the woman's self-discovery. That is always much more interesting to me than the mystery aspect.

CJ: I like that the female isn't real young -- she has a past that can come back to haunt her. We all have pasts that could come back --

JF: That's right.

CJ: The publicity information mentions that a lot of your books have been made into movies. I'm aware of SEE JANE RUN.

JF: They have all been optioned for movies.

CJ: Optioned?

JF: There is a big difference between an option and a movie actually getting made, as I've discovered many times.

CJ: Yes. You can get rich on options and never see the movie--

JF: Well, you don't get rich, but, it'll keep you in sweaters, which, of course, is my prime concern. Basically, all my books have, at various points, been optioned. The only one, so far, to make it to the screen was SEE JANE RUN.

CJ: I didn't think I'd seen any of the others.

JF: The others are still all under option, or most of them are under option and hopefully, now that SEE JANE RUN was made and was a very successful TV movie, the others will be made into movies or TV movies.

CJ: Did you like the way SEE JANE RUN turned out?

JF: Overall, I was very pleased because I thought they treated the material with respect. I thought they did the beginning of the book and the end of the book and they left out the middle. If I had been writing it, I think I would have placed more emphasis on Jane -- like her growing realization of who she is, and that things are not what they seem. I would have devoted much less time to the ending. But, I still felt, in watching the film, that they were really very respectful of the material. I thought it was fine. Overall, as I say, I was happy. I was very pleased with Joanna Kerns. I thought she did a terrific job. The husband I was less thrilled with because I felt he needed to be a much more sympathetic figure. I don't know. What did you think?

CJ: Well, this is one of the movies that has had the most comments on our computer bulletin board. Everyone was furious.

JF: Isn't that interesting. Now why were they angry?

CJ: They liked the first fifteen minutes. They didn't like knowing who did it. And they thought that it missed -- it didn't have enough of the book in it.

JF: That's right. Well, I think that is basically what I am saying.

CJ: They wanted it to be more like a mini-series. Or much longer and cover much more information because they enjoyed your writing so much that they felt cheated. I remember one of the comments was, "Since she wrote the book and she was an actress, why couldn't she write the script and star in it?"

JF: Oh, isn't that nice? They didn't ask me to write it. They certainly had no interest in my starring in it. It was a huge hit for them. And I was, as I say, overall pleased because I've seen what they can do to other books.

CJ: Yes.

JF: Because they were so respectful. I thought, okay, you only have a certain amount of time, they had to pick and choose the elements they felt were important. I would have put less stress on the end, and really developed the suspense part of her growing realization. But, overall, I was not unhappy.

CJ: Do you have any plans to write scripts for any of your books?

JF: Well, so far, no. I'm just completing a TV movie script, in fact, but it's an original. It's not based on a book that I've done. It is very hard to adapt your own work from one medium to the other. It's very hard to know what to leave out, what's important. You're very attached. As an author, as a novelist, it is such a different medium. People really don't realize how, of course, that screenwriting is primarily visual.

One shrug can accomplish twenty pages of dialogue. Even if you rely a lot on dialogue in your novels, in fact, in TV and movies, they don't necessarily need to talk a lot. You're much more concerned with moving the pictures and so it's really not easy to reorient your thinking from primarily a narrative way of looking at things to a visual way.

Because I'm so personally involved and I know everybody and I'm attached to all my characters and to every, you know, to every little page, I wince when a comma is missing --

CJ: I'm trying to translate a novel I did into a screen play and I want to put all my favorite scenes in --

JF: Of course.

CJ: My husband says, "You don't need that...They already know" and all I can think is "but it's the best thing I've ever written. I've got to keep it."

JF: I know. It's hard to tell yourself not to leave it. That's the stuff that has to go first. So it's very hard and it's much easier to be ruthless with somebody else's novel.

CJ: Yes.

JF: Than to use your own.

CJ: I can cut chapters out of other people's.

JF: Absolutely. Take that.

CJ: That's why my husband and I don't write together anymore. I have no qualms about editing his work.

JF: Oh, of course not.

CJ: But we don't need to change commas in mine.

JF: That's right. Just leave everything as is.

CJ: Yeah.

JF: No, I understand completely. So that's why, at the moment I have no such plans. I mean if somebody were to offer, make me a very nice offer, I'm not saying that I might not be persuaded, but I really have to concentrate at this moment, I think, on what I do best. Which is the novels.

CJ: Everyone always asks the question, "Where do you get your ideas?"

JF: Yes, they do.

CJ: Don't you just hate that?

JF: Well, of course, if you had an answer, it might be easier.

CJ: I never can decide if I should give a flip answer or really tell them where they come from.

JF: God only knows, is the truth. I mean, I think, you know, as a writer, that it's almost impossible to say where you got your ideas. I think it has to do with the way writers look at the world. I remember once being in a restaurant with a friend of mine who is a social worker. A couple at the next table got into a ferocious argument. We talked about it after this couple left. She was sitting there, thinking, "Oh my God, what can I say that will help these people?" And I was sitting there saying, "Oh, this is wonderful. Eat this up. This would make a great scene in a book."

I view it as, everything is an opportunity. I hear a snatch of dialogue and I think, "Oh now, wouldn't that make an interesting scene?" Or I see something and I think, "Oh, gee, what if X,Y, and Z factored into that. Wouldn't that be interesting?"

Now who knows why I think that way? That's just the way I think.

CJ: I think it's something in the genes.

JF: That's right. I think so. I mean really, if you want to get religious, you can say it's a gift from God --

CJ: Yes.

JF: How do artists -- any artists -- a painter or a composer, know where the notes come from or the strokes come from? You are obviously influenced by what's around you. You see things in a certain way, but why I choose to view what I'm witnessing around me as fodder for a novel whereas somebody else will view it as a cry for help or, however else they see it... Somebody else might be totally bored by it.

An accountant may overhear a snatch of conversation and just think nothing of it at all, or be embarrassed by it and want to run from it. Whereas I will sit there and think, oh, now this is an interesting scene, how can I use it?

I think, obviously, we're influenced by what is happening in our own lives, by what is happening in the lives of our friends, by what we read in the newspaper, by -- you know, by daily life. I think we use all of it and not necessarily the way it's presented to us.

CJ: I had an idea when we were being driven home from the airport by a shuttle driver. The guy was obnoxious and I said, "I know how to commit the perfect murder." It involved airport shuttle drivers and the guy is going, "Oh good." My husband said, "Shh, don't talk about it now."

JF: That's right. That's exactly, that's how writer's think and why we think that way I really don't think anybody can answer other than that's the way our minds work. Obviously, we're influenced by those around us and what's happening. And I think that influences the kind of work that we do -- the kind of fiction we write, or what we choose to write about. I'm not interested at all in historical romances because I have very limited interest in history. I'm very much also a product of my time and my setting. So that I'm very comfortable writing about modern big city women. I would be much less comfortable writing about a woman in the 18th century and things I'm not as familiar with.

CJ: Right. But you don't actually base your books on a newspaper clipping...

JF: No, very rarely. I might take something from a newspaper clipping, but it would rarely be the whole idea.

LIFE PENALTY is the closest I came, where I had read about a woman in Germany who had shot her daughter's molester. And I remember thinking, how did she get to that point where she actually took the gun out and fired? And then I made up a story. But generally, no. Again, I might be intrigued by something that I see in the paper but it will only be a small part...

Generally what I try to do and they may have mentioned this in the publicity with the book, is that because I have a background in acting, I do tend to work almost as a method actress. I tend to look at a situation and think, okay, suppose I were in this situation? How would I react? How can I make this character me? Which is why a lot of my characters tend to -- they are me and they're not me.

CJ: Right.

JF: I'm sort of assuming this is how I would react if I were in this situation. This is what I think I might say. This is what I might do.

CJ: I think that probably is a strong point of the books, too.

JF: Yes. They are very much into the minds of these women. Because then they're in my mind. That's when the books become more.

I find that, sometimes when I start a book, I don't want to do that. You know, there is only so much about yourself you want to know. So, sometimes, these characters, they start and they are sort of born as adults and they have no history whatsoever. I'm sitting there thinking to myself well, why doesn't this character work? And then I suddenly realize, well, it's because she's sprung full grown out of nowhere. And I have to go back and create a history for her. Which is what, of course, I had to do with Bonnie in DON'T CRY NOW. Because she started out as this character who was "born" 30 years old and had no past. And it wasn't until I started figuring out, "Okay, where did this woman come from?" that I knew who she was. I did it very reluctantly because there were certain things I just thought, oh, I don't want to get into all that. But that's when she came alive and that's when she started to make sense. That's when the suspense became character-driven as opposed to plot-driven.

CJ: It's so well orchestrated. I mean, I read a lot of these books. And I did not figure out who did it.

JF: Oh, good.

CJ: The killer was not on my list. I had many people on my list of suspects but missed the killer. I can't believe it but it's all there. I don't feel cheated. I'm very picky when I feel cheated.

JF: Oh, I hate that.

CJ: I know exactly where I went wrong in my thinking and I'm, saying to myself, "Now this was better than I expected. Any of the people on my list would have been fine murderers but this one slipped right past me."

JF: Oh, good. Good. I'm really glad because you're never sure when you're plotting something like this, how much, you know, if you're giving away too much. So good, I'm glad to hear it.

CJ: And I think that it's one of the things that happens with some of the other books that are supposedly in the same category. That it's just way to easy to figure out. You can see where the plotting came from and that the characters are -- well, there's really not a lot of characterization. It's too stereotypical.

JF: Well, that's right. Or that there were so many--

CJ: Bonnie's past was painful. Bonnie's past was really painful.

JF: Yes, yes it was.

CJ: There were all of these bits and pieces... It was very interesting to see how you had woven everything together. Excellent writing.

JF: Oh, thank you. I was very pleased with it because I felt it was so tight. That there was nothing extraneous there. Everything really was part of something else. So I was quite happy with the way it all worked out.

Normally when I write, I have the outline all carefully done andI know exactly where I'm going but because I had a few false starts on this one, I got fed up with doing outlines. I basically knew -- I mean I did know who the villain was and I did know roughly how it was going to end. In the first chapter there was a problem -- Bonnie didn't have a past. Suddenly I created all these other characters. I created the family, the brother, the father, all these other people. And I had no idea where I was going to go with them or what I was going to do with them.

At one point my editor called and said, "Oh, these characters are wonderful, do you want to sort of let me know what, what's happening with them?" And I said, no, I think I'll let you be surprised. But meanwhile, inside, I'm thinking, "I have no idea what's going to happen. I haven't figured it out yet." So I was really quite pleased when everything really kind of just came together.

Obviously my subconscious knew what I was doing.

CJ: Yeah. I'm glad.

JF: It's always nice when somebody does it.

CJ: Yeah. Somebody has to stay in charge.

JF: That's right.

CJ: Are you already working on a new book, then? Or do you take some time off?

JF: I take some time off because I need to regroup and just to let ideas percolate. I have a bunch of ideas at the moment and one of them seems to really be kind of fighting its way to the top of the heap. So I've been plotting an idea in my head. Now I think it's getting to the point where it's going to be ready -- I think I'll probably start work in the fall.

CJ: Does each book take about the same length of time to process?

JF: They do. Yeah. I should have it finished by, next summer.

CJ: I didn't know if sometimes you get one book that takes a lot longer to --

JF: Well, you know they all take about a year. And it all depends -- sometimes the time is in the novel itself. Sometimes the time is spent in the outline.

With SEE JANE RUN it was months and months and months...a good six months trying to figure out what I was doing. I had the opening line and the first chapter and then I didn't know what I was doing. I had to figure out what had happened to Jane to make her lose her memory. It took me months and months. When I finally figured that out, the whole outline just came into place and the book wrote itself in four months. But it was really a whole year trying to figure out the various problems.

The actual writing of the book only took four months. With DON'TCRY NOW it was probably oh, six, seven months of actual writing because I had a few false starts. And I don't know about you, if you're like this. But I always think with each book, oh, this time it's going to be much easier. This time I know everywhere I went wrong last time and I'm going to do it just right. [Laughing]

And not only do I make mistakes when I start again, I make the same mistakes. This absolutely amazes me. How every single book out, I do the same thing wrong.

CJ: Do you get pressure from your publisher to write faster?

JF: No, they're actually quite wonderful. I've never been pressured by any of the publishers I've had, actually, to write faster. I mean, at the moment now, you know, my editor is saying, "Are you busy writing?" and I say, "I'm busy thinking."

And that's it. I can't be rushed. I find when I try to do something before it's ready, it never works. And the best thing for me is to take time off. To let the ideas settle. To let my subconscious work, and then do it.

CJ: It's nice to have a publisher that will work that way. Several of the authors we've interviewed recently were having trouble with their publishers who wanted a book every six to eight months.

JF: Oh, no. I couldn't do that.

CJ: They're turning their books in, but their writing has just gone downhill.

JF: Yeah. No, I think they sort of figure a book every two years is about the speed, I work -- I mean every so often I think, well try for a book a year, but I don't want to write that much. Unless I have a whole bunch of ideas, and I may at some point, that are really ready to go, one after the other, I just need a little time in between. I like my leisure time. And I need it. I really do need it to let the ideas cook. If I were to rush it, then what you might get is a much more superficial book. And probably one that is a lot heavier on plot and not as character driven. Because it is easier just to get plot ideas than it is to really get into your character. But if you want to get a little bit of depth, then I think it needs time.

CJ: Do you go to any of the mystery fan conventions or any of the romantic conventions?

JF: I have been to one. I'm just in the process of joining the Mystery Writers' Guild or whatever the term is. I was at Bouchercon one year when it was here in Toronto. I'd like to do a little bit more. I think it is interesting and it's always nice to meet other writers. So, I haven't done much in the past, but I think I might do a little bit more.

CJ: Some of the authors we've been talking to were going the opposite direction. They've been doing --

JF: They've done too much and they want to do -- ? Well, see I haven't done really, because I've only done the one. I don't know that I would go out of my way. But certainly if there are more held around, in my vicinity or somewhere where I'm going to be then I would certainly do that.

CJ: For some of the authors it gets to be they're spending all their time doing public appearances at conventions and it doesn't leave any time to write.

JF: To write. Yeah. I think that there has to be a balance. If I'm not working on something, of course, my time is much easier so I --

CJ: Well it seems conventions are always scheduled the same months that the book is due.

JF: Of course.

CJ: I think that they must call the publishers and get a consensus of when the books are due and then they schedule for that weekend.

JF: Right. It's coming out, off we go. So far it hasn't been a problem for me. But I guess, partly, it hasn't been a problem because I never go.

CJ: Authors are usually asked the same questions over and over and I've managed to ask those same questions, but are there things that you would like to talk about the book that no one ever gets around to asking you?

JF: I can't think of anything off hand. Let me see, a question that I'd like to be asked that nobody ever does. No, I guess not, because I've been asked so many different questions, it is hard to think of one that somebody hasn't asked. I guess I'm happy with any question that treats again, both me and the material, with respect.

I have trouble with questions that are condescending or snarky. And I think with popular fiction, some people tend to get a little snarky. So I'm usually quite happy with any question that shows they take the book seriously.

CJ: It's not just genre fiction.

JF: Yeah.

CJ: As if genre fiction isn't what gets the literary stuff published.

JF: Of course. I know. I remember hearing an interview once on the radio. I just about drove the car -- I was in the car, at the time -- I just about drove the car into a tree. I remember there were a number of agents talking and one said, "Oh, I could never handle a book unless I really liked the book. For example, if Danielle Steele were to walk into my office and offer me herstuff, I would have to turn her down." That's when I almost drove off the road. I thought, you idiot. You're turning down millions and millions of dollars in commissions, you know and you're forgetting the fact that that would allow you to represent ten other writers whose books, maybe make $10,000 a year for you.

You know, it is the popular fiction writers that allow the more literary writers to survive.

I mean, if he has such a short-sighted, elitist point-of-view and I think you really have to remember, also, what is wrong with books that appeal to huge numbers of people? I mean, what is so bad about writing books that --

CJ: That are entertaining.

JF: That a lot of people want to read?

CJ: It's entertainment and it's...

JF: That's right. I like to think that I am writing intelligent commercial fiction. I don't think there is, actually, a lot of that. I think there is a lot of bad commercial fiction.

And, then I think there is a lot of high -- well, not a lot, but there is a certain amount of highbrow stuff. And I like to think that I'm sort of somewhere in the middle there. I mean, yes it's definitely commercial fiction, but it has an intelligence to it. It's well-written and it is definitely worth while.

CJ: And when someone finishes reading your book, they don't put it down and say well, that was a waste of time.

JF: Yeah. That's right.

CJ: It's more like, well, that was two hours well spent today.

JF: Yeah. I like to think that primarily I'm writing to entertain. There is usually a message in the books as well. Something that I am trying to get across or a point I was trying to make. But I figure, if people get it, good. If they don't, it's not the end of the world.

CJ: Right. You'll get them next time.

JF: That's right.

Copyright (c) 1995 Over My Dead Body! The Mystery Magazine.

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